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Reunion (revised)

by karenk (aka karguo)

Note: This is a revised version of my long running tale. I've also revised the way I'm writing this to smaller (and more) chapters rather than my previous lengthy parts.

Disclaimers: Xena, Gabrielle, etc all belong to Renaissance Pictures, Universal etc. This is a not for profit, only for enjoyment story. It starts mild enough, but later to kinda becomes something that even I didn't expect it to become, so hang on. It's a Xena story, do the math, there's gonna be violence. And I'm also a firm supporter of subtext...

Author's note: I grew up watching Hongkong period/kung fu action movies, the same type of movies that 'inspired' Rob Tapert to do Xena, movies like Asia the Invincible, Bride With White Hair and its sequel, etc. Hope this kinda explains how I come up with some of my ideas. I DO see the ending, unfortunately, it just doesn't seem to be in sight. Yet.

Fade in:

Chapter 1

A woman wearing dark green clothes that seemed to blend her into her surroundings stumbled forward. The dark clothing almost succeeding in hiding an ugly arrow that was still stuck to her left side, her right arm hung limply on her other side and her left was limply holding onto a sword.

Suddenly, the sword fell as she collapsed to the ground, her left hand instinctively reaching out to clutch her wound. "No... got to keep awake... got to get help..." she struggled to get to her feet but failed. She decided then to remain lying against the tree stump, silently hoping that someone stumble across her soon...

In another part of the forest, two women were travelling. One was riding on a horse of great size and the other trotting along beside her, chatting every step of the way, "...that's what the bard at that village said. See, Xena, there's someone out there who isn't afraid to help others like us!"

Xena looked at her companion with a slightly bemused expression, "Well, Gabrielle, I'm glad more people are helping others in need, but this Kiko person sounds just like another bandit."

"Oh Xena! How can you say that? Kiko steals from the rich merchants and gives to the poor! He's a hero!" Xena just shrugged her shoulders and rode ahead. Gabrielle followed, but feeling a little miffed, she maintained her silence.

A short while later, the sun was about to set. Gabrielle had remained silent all that time, Xena, knowing that Gabrielle was still angry with her, decided to make camp. "Um, say, Gabrielle, um ... there's a lake up there ... what do you think about making camp there?"

Gabrielle looked up at her towering friend, giving her a big smile and "Sure! Whatever you say. Hey, do you think there might be fish there? I could use some fishing practice..." her eyes twinkled with anticipation.

"Well, Gabrielle, we'll just have to wait and see, don't we? C'mon, let's hurry!" and with the last statement, Xena galloped away on Argo.

"Wait for me, Xena! Hey!" Gabrielle shouted after Xena but the warrior princess was already gone. 'Meanie.' thought Gabrielle as she ran after Xena and Argo. Suddenly, she stopped at her tracks.

'Someone's groaning! She must be hurt! Now, where can the sound be from?' Gabrielle tried desperately to remember what Xena had taught her about concentrating to find the source of any sound. Closing her eyes, she moved slowly towards the direction where she hoped she had heard the groans from.

'Please Gods, let me be right...' as she moved slowly but purposefully. 'If only Xena were here, she'd find out where the groans came from with no problem at all... Xena! She'd be wondering what's taking me so long, but I have to find out... I'm sure she'll understand.'

As the groans got louder, Gabrielle, finally opened her eyes and found herself at a small clearing, where her eyes settled on a slender woman lying against a tree stump, her right arm hanging limply from her body and her left clutching her side, where an arrow still protrudes. The stranger groaned again, softer than before as Gabrielle rushed to her aid.

"You're going to be okay. My name is Gabrielle. I'm not going to hurt you. I'm just going to have a look at this. Wow, this looks kinda bad ... I think I better go get some help. My friend, Xena will look at those wounds of yours. Just hang in there for a minute, I'll go get her, okay?" Gabrielle blurted out in a rush as she tried to comfort the woman in pain.

The woman opened her eyes and mouth and looked to say something, but since nothing came out, so she just nodded her head and closed her eyes. Gabrielle took a final look at the fallen figure and tried to figure out who this stranger was and who had done this to her.

'Xena? Oh, Xena! Am I finally going to see you again? After all these years? Will you still remember me? Would you still care...' as the woman slipped into unconsciousness.

Chapter 2

"Well, you sure took your own sweet time coming here..." was the first thing Gabrielle heard when she finally arrived at the spot that Xena had picked out for them earlier.

Out of breath, Gabrielle picked up Xena's sword, which Xena had already taken off, handing it to her, and explaining, "Found... woman... injured... shot... arrow... come quick... Xena..."

Xena grabbed hold of her sword and trusty chakram and finally her healing pouches, looking at Gabrielle, "Quick, show me the way." Gabrielle nodded her head and ran back in the direction where she had came.

The woman had lost consciousness while Gabrielle was gone. Her breathing had slowed right down. Gabrielle looked stunned. 'She seems so much worse now, maybe I shouldn't have left her alone.' thought Gabrielle miserably.

But as Xena quickly got ready to set the woman's broken right arm, Gabrielle snapped out of her thoughts and quickly moved to help Xena. Xena reached forward to pinch the nerve so that the woman wouldn't feel anymore pain than she already was in. But Xena pulled back, surprised.

"What's wrong?" Gabrielle whispered.

"The nerve has already been immobilised," Xena replied, surprise written on her face and the tone of her voice, "well, it does make this easier..." as Xena expertly set the bones back in their place.

"That about does it for the right arm, hmm, lots of other cuts and bruises, but the arrow... can't push it through, that's going to be tricky..." Xena did a quick expert assessment of the stranger's injuries. She held the arrow with her two hands and in one quick motion, broke the arrow in two.

The woman grimaced and let out a slight groan. Gabrielle's kind heart almost broke at the sound of this. "Damn," Xena swore, Gabrielle looked at her in slight alarm, "It's nothing. I forgot to bring any of my daggers with me, that's all. I can't remove the arrowhead without my dagger." Xena stood up purposefully, "I'm going to have to carry her back to the camp site."

Gabrielle nodded and was about to brace herself to help when Xena stopped her, "Gabrielle, I'm going to carry her alone, I have to make sure the arrow doesn't do anymore damage. Just carry my stuff and that looks like it might be hers." Xena pointed at a strange-looking double-edged sword, a few feet away from the woman. Gabrielle did not argue for once and silently followed Xena's instructions.

As Xena lifted the woman up, "You know Gabrielle, you did the right thing coming to me for help, you wouldn't have been able to do anything..."

"I know, but it's just..." Gabrielle's voice trailed off as she sighed.

Later that night, with the fire burning brightly and the injured woman resting, her wounds cleaned out and the arrowhead removed. Xena and Gabrielle were bathing in the lake nearby, Xena constantly keeping an eye on the prone, pale figure on the ground as Gabrielle related to her how she found the woman while lovingly scrubbing Xena's back.

As Gabrielle prepared to get out of the lake and cook the fish that they had caught earlier, "Do you think I should cook two or three?" she asked Xena.

Xena shook her head, "I don't think she'll be in any position to eat anything solid for a while".

Gabrielle nodded in understanding and angrily added, "I sure would like to know who did this to her."

'So would I, Gabrielle, so would I ... why do you look so familiar? Your scars tell me a story... who are you? Who could have inflicted that kind of damage onto you?' Xena thought as she swum slowly towards the shore. She had not shown Gabrielle the mysterious woman's numerous scars, especially the ones on her back.

Three days later. "When do you think she'll wake up, Xena?" Gabrielle asked her partner while preparing to take their regular dip before dinner. They hadn't been doing much these few days, just relaxing a little, playing and enjoying each others' company a lot. And of course taking care of their patient.

"She's getting better everyday, Gabrielle. She got a hell of a beating, it's sort of a miracle that she's still alive. She'll come round, Gabrielle. I wouldn't worry about that if I were you," Xena reassured her still soft-hearted bard. "You've been telling her stories, haven't you?" Xena said in a teasing tone.

"Well, she doesn't complain and she never asks me to keep quiet, unlike someone I know." Gabrielle quipped back squealing when Xena picked her up lovingly, and then throwing her gently down into the water. There the two of them started a noisy water fight, splashing water on one another, laughing all the time.

Laughing so loud, in fact that they didn't realise that their patient had awakened and had raised herself with much difficulty and was staring hard at the pond where Xena and Gabrielle were. 'Oh, Xena, you still look so good,' she thought to herself, knowing that Xena would soon sense her stare and turn her way.

True to her thoughts, Xena soon looked her way and smiled. 'Xena, your smile is still so beautiful, and those blue eyes. Haunted but beautiful nonetheless. You still have nightmares, Xena, why can't you forget the past? It's hard letting go... I have tried so hard...' her thoughts trailed off as first Xena then Gabrielle descended upon her.

"Hey, you're awake, sleepy head!" Gabrielle exclaimed happily.

"Yes, yes I am. How long have I been sleeping anyway?" she replied with a big smile on her face.

"Three whole days, um, what's your name by the way?" Gabrielle asked.

"Kiko" was the surprising reply. Both Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another in astonishment.

Chapter 3

"I was leading a raiding party on the merchant Exxis, a wool merchant from Rome. As usual, there was hardly any resistance and we commandeered his entire cargo, well actually, we left him a few bales so he still have something left for his voyage home. I sent part of my companions to sell some of the wool and to buy other essentials for our camp in Athens. They left and I still had about 5 companions with me." Kiko took a deep breath as she continued her story on how she came to be injured.

"I was still restless, I mean Exxis was such a disappointment! He didn't even hire any armed guards, unlike most of the other filthy rich merchants do nowadays. So I went off alone in the woods, sending the rest of my companions back to the camp,"

"Um, sorry, didn't mean to interrupt, but why do you call them 'companions'?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well, what else would I call them? My soldiers? My troops? My army? Makes me sound like some kind of a warlord. I'm NOT a warlord. Well, where was I? Oh, yes, I sent them back to our camp and then I wandered off. Big mistake, especially since there are so many contracts out for me. To make a long story short," at this Xena gave Gabrielle a LOOK and whispered, "You have much to learn from her". Gabrielle just growled back.

"I fought off most of the attackers, unfortunately the arrow got me but not before I gave them the slip and later, you found me." Kiko finished looking intently at Gabrielle, "Thank you for saving my life. You'll always have my gratitude."

Gabrielle looked away, surprised to feel herself blushing, 'must be those brown eyes.' Gabrielle thought, 'strikingly beautiful, just like Xena's, except Xena's blue...'

"So, what do you plan to do next, Kiko?" asked Xena.

"Get back to my companions, as soon as possible." came the immediate reply. "Or they'll get worried, in fact, they might just break into every jail of every town and city in the vicinity until they find me," she paused for a second, "where they found me the previous time... I have to leave as soon as I can."

"Then allow us to accompany you." Xena said to the surprise of Gabrielle, Xena just shot off a LOOK at Gabrielle.

Kiko caught sight of the Look and a small smile formed on her face, 'Poor Gabrielle, how many times have I seen this LOOK of Xena's.'

Gabrielle recovered quickly from the Look and catching sight of the smile on Kiko's face, she gently poked Kiko's ribs, "Just what are you smiling at?"

Kiko grimaced slightly, alarming Gabrielle, "I'm sorry, what ... what was I thinking? I'm really, really sorry."

"Hey, hey, I'm fine." Kay reassured the bard, "I was just smiling at your exchange. And Xena, thank you, I'll take you up on your offer."

"Good, we'll leave as soon as your arm gets better, but for now, rest, Gabrielle and I are going to catch some fish. We'll wake you for dinner. C'mon, Gabrielle."


Another three days passed slowly. Kiko got better and stronger. Her right arm's almost fully back to normal. She had even started swinging her sword around. The days went by peacefully, without incident, well almost without incidents.

Gabrielle had begun to notice that Kiko was always the last one in the lake for their bath and the last one out. She would politely decline Gabrielle's kind offer to scrub or dry her back. She would never join in any of the seemingly endless 'water fights' that she and Xena got into.

If Xena noticed anything, she kept quiet but Gabrielle just wondered endlessly but not really feeling comfortable enough to ask Kiko outright. Kiko was very patient with Gabrielle and would listen to her stories for endless hours on the end, never asking Gabrielle to leave her alone or to be quiet, like Xena does sometimes.

In fact, Xena began to almost miss Gabrielle's tales, but she remained happy that Kiko seemed not to mind Gabrielle's constant chattering.

Once, with Gabrielle out of the earshot, Xena asked Kiko how she could stand Gabrielle's constant torrent of stories and Kiko's reply was, "Well, I have one bard in the camp and she is always out spreading our fame to the surrounding villages and towns, so it gets a little quiet sometimes. Besides, it's much nicer to listen to stories that are not about your own exploits, isn't it?"

After almost a week at the lake, it was decided that the time had come for Xena and Gabrielle to accompany Kiko back to her camp. Gabrielle slowly packed up from the place that she had grown to love so much, but more because she hated having to leave her new-found friend, who had been so good to her.

Kiko seemed to be able to understand Gabrielle's thoughts because she gave Gabrielle a tight hug before telling Xena, "Northwest. We should reach in about three days, at a leisurely pace. If we hurry, we might make it in less than two, if you want to hurry..." Kiko quietly informed as she glanced shyly at Xena.

Xena felt at once that she somehow know Kiko, her mannerisms remind Xena of someone from another time, a time she would much rather forget now. She tried to shrug it off.

"There's no hurry, right Xena?" Gabrielle looked towards Xena, snapping the latter out of her thoughts.

"Right, Gabrielle, right." Xena then got on Argo and slowly led the way out of the clearing that had been their home for the past week. With one last look round the camp, Gabrielle followed behind and lastly, Kiko.

"Kiko, how are you feeling today?" Gabrielle asked looking up at Kiko, who stood taller than she but still slightly shorter than Xena.

"I'm fine, Gabrielle. Why don't you tell me again about the time when you and Xena faced the Horde?" Gabrielle brightened up visibly and started off on her story.

Xena, a little ahead of them, turned her head back to look at them, shaking her head and she wondered yet again on how Kiko can encourage Gabrielle to tell her anymore stories then she already was.

'It is getting close to dusk, we've certainly have travelled very slowly today. Maybe it's time to set camp for the night. Hmm, Gabrielle is still chattering to Kiko and Kiko actually looks interested in Gabrielle's every word. Gabrielle deserves someone like her more than me, someone who is more patient with her than I ever will be.' Xena thought ruefully.

Sounds of Gabrielle and Kiko laughing broke her train of thoughts. Xena turned round saying, "When you guys are done, shall we break camp?"

"Right, right, we should." Kiko barely managed to say.

"What was so funny?" Xena asked Kiko while unsaddling Argo.

"Nothing much and don't worry, it wasn't about you..." she smiled, giving Xena a knowing look.

After dinner but before Gabrielle can start on her regular storytelling, Xena glanced yet again at Kiko's strange-looking sword, Kiko noticed and nodded as Xena picked the sword up carefully and took a couple of swings. Surprised at the lightness of the sword, she examined it further.

Kiko, seeing Xena's curiosity and sensing her question, "I got the sword from a country out in the east. The Middle Kingdom, some call it. Others call it... Chin. I should think you've heard of it?"

At both Xena and Gabrielle's tentative nods, Kay continued, "Nothing much to say except this sword was a present from my Master. She made me promise that I'll always use it for the 'greater good'." Kiko shook her head, "But I think that's quite enough about me, so Gabrielle, what do you have for us tonight?"

"How long were you in Chin?" Gabrielle tried to persuade Kiko to tell her story, but a firm shake of Kiko's head showed her reluctance and Gabrielle had to start with her story, looking at Kiko a little sadly.

Meanwhile, Xena had looked a little surprised at this titbit of Kiko's past. 'There's more to Kiko than I thought... have to try and find out more.' She thought, more determined than ever to find out more about Kiko's past.

Chapter 4

"It's just another half day's walk," Kiko stated matter-of-factly, her steady voice not betraying her deep emotions. "I think you guys should join us for the inevitable celebrations and maybe stay for a couple of days before going on your way..." She looked hopefully at Xena, while Xena looked at Gabrielle who seemed preoccupied somewhat.

"Wait, Kiko. Are we near Amazon territory?" she asked.

"Yeah, another day and a half north will get you to their main village. Why?"

"Maybe we can visit Ephiny later huh, Xena?" Gabrielle looked up at Xena, who glanced back at Gabrielle, love fully evident in her eyes, "Sure, whatever you want." Xena placed an arm around Gabrielle's shoulders, pulling Gabrielle closer to her.

"Wait a minute, you guys know Ephiny? Oh yeah! What am I saying, you're the Amazon Queen! But don't you want to come to my camp first? There's something I want to tell you, Xena..." But before Xena could reply, the by now familiar screams of a woman could be heard all around them.

"Callisto." both Xena and Gabrielle mumbled under their breaths.

"I take it she's not a friend of yours?" Kiko asked mildly.

"Nope, I killed her family years ago, I'll ask Gabrielle to tell you the history at another time, take care of yourself and oh, she's kinda like a goddess now." Xena told Kiko as fast as she could while getting an incredulous look in return from Kiko.

"Thanks for warning me." Kiko replied as a bunch of soldiers descended from the trees and started to attack them from all sides.

Slowly they were separated from one another and Xena found herself cornered as Callisto jumped down from a tree, confronting her. "So, Xena, we meet again. I've changed my mind, I DO want to kill you now." She grinned maniacally as the real fight began.

Elsewhere in the battlefield, Gabrielle and Kiko were fast becoming out-numbered. 'Time to even things out a little.' Kiko thought grimly as she placed two fingers into her mouth and whistled, almost immediately two women, both dressed in green similar to Kiko's, jumped down from above the trees, "Kiko, need help?" one of them asked.

"Yes, and Theresa, go get reinforcements!"

"Right away, chief!" as one of them slipped away, while the other stayed to help out. Gabrielle's attention was diverted by this exchange for a vital moment and she was struck on the head from behind by one of the soldiers.

"Gabrielle!" Kiko shouted, trying desperately to fight her way to the fallen Gabrielle.

Xena's attention was also diverted for a split second by the shout enabling Callisto to disarm her easily.

But before Kiko could get to Gabrielle, a couple of Amazons appeared seemingly out of nowhere. "Quick get Gabrielle to your village! Hurry! Get her out of here!" She then turned her attention back to the enemy soldiers, satisfied that Gabrielle was in safe hands. More of her companions have arrived by now and the battle turned in their favour.

By now, Kiko was now enjoying herself thoroughly, "What took you guys so long?" she asked the fighter closest to her.

"You didn't ask for help, we didn't dare to..." one of her companions replied. Kiko just smiled and looked for Xena for the first time and what she saw chilled her to the bone.

Callisto had Xena on the back track and was slowly 'poking' Xena with the tip of her sword, torturing her. "So, are you ready to die this time? Hmm, how should I kill you? One stab at a time? Or a quick slash? Hmm, I can't decide. Help me out here will you?" She raised her sword, although she managed to slash Xena hard across her head, the main blow was deflected by Kiko's sword.

"Sure, why don't I help Xena out?" Kiko enquired.

"Pesky busybody. Get lost!" Callisto fury was unparalleled.

"Why? Can't you take as well as you give?" The two fighters squared off each other and Callisto tried hard to size up her unexpected opponent. Fighting furiously, Callisto was surprised by the skills of her opponent.

Callisto was contemplating using her godly powers when their swords locked up and they stared down at one another. Suddenly, Kiko used her free left hand and delivered a stunning blow to Callisto's head, which knocked the maniac back. She screamed in frustration and disappeared.

"Kiko, are you all right? Who was that?" a woman asked Kiko as she ran to Kiko, winding an arm round Kiko's waist.

"I'm fine, Tarsi. A goddess. Recognise those soldiers?" Kiko asked grimly.

"Yeah, Portian. We haven't attacked anything from or going to Portia for weeks, Kiko." Tarsi didn't understand.

"I've a feeling their mercenaries were behind my ambush a week ago. In any case, we'll worry about them later." she knelt down and tore off a piece of her shirt and pressed it firmly against Xena's wound. "This is Xena, we'll have to bring Xena back to the camp. Send Nantra to my tent to wait for me and hurry Tarsi." The woman nodded in understanding and ran ahead.

"The rest of you help me with Xena. Be careful, okay? And get her horse, her name's Argo" she carefully lifted Xena off the ground, helped by the rest of her companions. Two of her companions left to look for Argo.

While carrying Xena, Kiko whispered in Xena's ears, "You're going to be okay, Xena. You can't die on me, I have so much I need to tell you."

Chapter 5

As they neared the camp, more of her companions rushed out to greet her happily, only to be greeted by a stoic-faced Kiko, eyes brimming with unshed tears and focused only on the muscular woman she was struggling to carry. Her companions made way for their leader, forming two lines right to her tent. The healer was already waiting inside.

Kiko tenderly lowered the unconscious Xena on her own bed. The healer took a quick look at Xena's terrible injuries, especially the big gash across her head. "Leader, it would be better if you waited outside..." but even before the healer could finish, Kiko was already shaking her head.

"No, I will not leave her, Nantra, I will not leave her." Kiko stated firmly.

"Does the great leader not trust her Nantra?" was the gentle reply,

"No. I mean, yes, I... but I..." Kiko faltered.

"Kiko, you have been away long. Go, go to your companions. Reassure them that all is well. Clean yourself, I shall look at your wounds in a while. Send Janis in to help me. Now, say no more, just go." and Nantra proceeded to shoo Kiko out of the tent.

Kiko took in a deep breath before stepping out of the tent to the fresh evening air and the concerned faces of her many companions. Theresa stepped forward and took hold of her leader, "Kiko, are you okay? We're all so..."

"Don't worry about me. I'm fine. Pray for Xena."

"That's Xena? The great Warrior Princess? How did you meet her, Kiko?" a voice rang out.

"I'll tell you all the story later. But first... Janis, Nantra wants you to help her. Theresa and Tarsi, help me get cleaned up. I'm so tired, I don't know if I can do it by myself."

Janis (who looks exactly like Tarsi) stepped into the tent as Kiko walked away, flanked by Theresa and Tarsi, then she remembered, "Oh, damn, I almost forgot. Melanis, pay our dear neighbours the Amazons a visit. Tell Ephiny, Xena is safe with me and tell her also to let Gabrielle know that I'll personally pay her a visit tomorrow with news about Xena. Okay? She'll understand." Kiko smiled as she accepted Melanis' salute and headed off to the bath tent at the side.

Meanwhile in the Amazon village, Gabrielle had already been tended to by Ephiny. "Xena, Xena..." Gabrielle mumbled and Ephiny was struck for the first time.

"Send me Aden, immediately." She ordered the guard at the door. When Aden entered, "Aden, where's Xena? The Warrior Princess? How can you leave her alone in the battlefield? Where is she? We have to go and help her. I only hope we are too late."

"My Queen, Kiko was the one who told us to bring Gabrielle to you and I also saw some of her companions going to her aid. Kiko's a great fighter, even better than Xena in my opinion. I'm sure they're alright." The young Amazon warrior replied.

"You're probably... " Ephiny is interrupted in mid-sentence by one of the Amazon warriors, "Ephiny, Kiko's messenger is here." Ephiny blotted out of the door and straight to the centre of the village where Melanis stood.

"Melanis, how are you? How's Kiko? How's Xena? You guys do have Xena, right?" Ephiny enquired in a rush.

After giving the Amazon Queen a deep bow, "I'm well, Kiko's a little tired which is why she isn't here herself. And she has sent me to bring you news for Queen Gabrielle. Xena's with us, the healer's with her now and frankly, it doesn't look too good. But if anyone can heal Xena, it's Nantra." Melanis replied with confidence.

"You're right, Nantra is the best healer in this known world..." Ephiny trailed off thoughtfully.

"By your grace, I have to leave now. Please inform Queen Gabrielle too that Kiko will be paying her a visit tomorrow. Thank you." With that, Melanis and her companions turned and got back on their horses and soon they were no more than a cloud of dust and dirt.

Ephiny just stood there watching the departing figures sadly, wondering to herself just why Xena and Gabrielle could not have just some peaceful time together. 'The Fates can be so cruel.' The Amazon regent shook her head and went back to the hut to be with Gabrielle.

A now cleaned-up and leather-clad Kiko sat at a chair by Xena's side, clutching Xena's right hand. Xena's head was heavily bandaged as Nantra washed her hands in a basin of water on the table.

"I've never lied to you, Kiko and I'm not about to start now. Xena's very seriously injured. Your block saved her life, no doubt about that. If you hadn't just managed to blocked that ... your warrior princess would already be dead," Nantra now stood over Kiko, hand on Kiko's right shoulder, "you saved her life, Kiko. Now, it would be for the best that both of you sleep now... I go make you some tea?"

"No, Nantra, I want to watch over her. Like she used to watch over me whenever I got hurt..." Kiko started to protest but Nantra would hear none of it.

"Nonsense, you need your rest. You will have many more long nights ahead of you, leader. Tonight, you MUST rest. I will instruct Janis to bring you the tea and she will make sure you drink it." Kiko just shrugged, not feeling up to arguing with her healer.

Janis entered shortly after with a cup of warm tea and a few blankets, quietly she handed the tea to Kiko and placed the blankets on the ground. Kiko sipped the tea without a word then she stood up slowly.

Kiko continued looking at Xena while Janis helped her slip off her clothes, Janis shivering involuntarily, as always, when she caught sight of her beloved leader's back, covered with numerous thick ugly pelts that could only have been made by a whip.

Kiko sensed Janis' discomfort immediately. She gently reached out to Janis, at once comforting her and pulling Janis closer to herself. Kissing her on the lips, she whispered in Janis' ear, "Don't look at that. Janis, I've missed you and Tarsi so much..." She kissed Janis again, more passionately this time.

It was sometime before dawn when Janis woke up knowing in an instant that she was alone on the ground. Kiko was back by Xena's side, holding Xena's hand. She whispered to the unconscious warrior princess, "Please, wake up soon. I need to talk to you. I need to tell you to stop blaming yourself for all that has happened. Maybe now you would listen to me."

Janis stirred from the blanket Kiko had covered her with as she opened her eyes. "Kiko?" she ventured softly.

"Yes, my love?" came the reply but Kiko's eyes did not leave Xena. Janis got up from the floor, putting on her clothes that Kiko had neatly placed just beside her, and walked slowly to her leader's side.

"I'll go get breakfast ready for you and ask Tarsi to draw a warm bath for you. Remember that you have to ride to the Amazon village to see Gabrielle. That's gonna take you the whole day," she hesitated for a moment before continuing, "Kiko... maybe you should send either me or Tarsi in your place. You just came back, you were injured and..." she trailed off.

Kiko looked up, "No, Janis. I have to go personally. For one, I gave my word. For two, I need to see for myself that Gabrielle is okay. She took quite a hit on the head. Maybe you should go with me, I'll not have Nantra be away from Xena for the whole day. We'll see about it later. Tell me if breakfast is ready, if it is, call me, I'll have it with everyone else. Now leave me alone for a while." Janis nodded her head, understanding Kiko's every word.

"Xena, I have to leave you for a while, I have to go to the Amazon village and check up on Gabrielle," at the mention of Gabrielle's name, Kiko could have sworn that she noticed Xena drew a deeper breath, "I'll be back as soon as I can. Don't worry, I won't have Gabrielle see you like this. I'll think of something." She sat back on her chair, thinking deeply.

Chapter 6

"Xena! Xena!" Gabrielle awoke screaming. Ephiny who had been dozing at a nearby chair, rushed to her side, "It's okay, Gabrielle. It's me, Ephiny. You're going to be okay." She used as calm of a voice as she could muster.

"Ephiny, where's Xena? Why isn't she here? Where is she?" Gabrielle cried softly.

Ephiny rocked the sobbing Gabrielle slowly, signalling the guard, who had rushed in, to leave them alone, she spoke slowly, "Gabrielle. Xena's not here, she got hurt. She's at Kiko's camp. She'll be fine in a while."

She looked deep into Gabrielle's wild and confused eyes, "She's not dead again, is she Ephiny? Now, don't lie to me! What has Callisto done to her?"

Gabrielle tried to free herself from Ephiny and stand up, Ephiny resisted, holding onto Gabrielle even tighter. "She's not dead!" 'I hope to Artemis she isn't.' Ephiny thought to herself grimly. "Gabrielle, don't you trust me? Maybe you would trust Kiko. She left word that she'll be coming today to see you. I'm not sure if she would want to see you like this!" Gabrielle looked at Ephiny, her wild eyes slowly regaining focus, as she nodded her head sadly.

It had been decided that neither of the twins, Janis or Tarsi, would accompany Kiko for this trip. Instead, it would be Theresa, Melanis, Gerias (the bard, back in the camp for once) and Joanias (Nantra's other pupil). The best and fastest horses were chosen for this trip and the party would leave for their destination immediately after breakfast and would not be back before dinner.

The camp grew quiet before Tarsi's voice rang out, "Well, you heard Kiko's instructions. She wants us to be training. Now, are we going to disappoint our leader?"

"NO!" the voices band together and soon, they paired off and started sparring with one another.

Janis slipped away to what used to be Kiko's tent, which now housed the unconscious Xena. Nantra was not in. "Just what is it between you and Kiko? I will find out soon, if Kiko wants to let..." she sighed as she took a closer look at Xena's bandages. 'They're getting to be quite bloody, have to let Nantra know immediately...'

Ephiny was trying to coax Gabrielle into eating some food. "When is Kiko coming? You said she would be here."

"Yes, Gabrielle, but she would need to take some time to come, wouldn't she? I know you're impatient for news about Xena, but you're not helping yourself by not eating."

"I guess you're right, Ephiny. It's just, I had this horrible dream that Xena..." she shivered uncontrollably again and as previously, Ephiny hugged her tightly.

It seemed like they're in this state forever when all of a sudden, a shout, "Queen Gabrielle! Kiko arrives!" Both the Amazon queen and her regent greeted the announcement with a start.

Ephiny helped the still wobbly Gabrielle to her feet and out of the hut to greet the bearer (hopefully) of good news. Gabrielle gasped audibly when she first caught sight of Kiko.

This was such a different Kiko from the one she had travelled with. This Kiko was dressed in a light leather and armour suit with many intricate patterns, her green-coloured cape and her dark hair trailing behind her in the wind, sheathed sword at her side, she rode confidently and smartly into the Amazon village.

She was followed closely behind by her more simply dressed companions. But Gabrielle's eyes seem stuck on Kiko and Kiko alone. Some of the Amazons standing behind her started to nudge one another.

"Ephiny," Kiko who although addressed Ephiny had her eyes firmly fixed on Gabrielle, taking a fast and complete look all over Gabrielle.

Kiko's voice broke Gabrielle fascination over the change. "Gabrielle, you don't look so bad considering... and my friends, how have you been?" she bowed deeply at the assembled crowd.

Her companions followed suit behind her. Kiko smiled widely as she kissed Ephiny's right hand and moved to hug Gabrielle tightly. "Which one is the Queen's hut?" she asked, finally letting go of Gabrielle.

"That one, over there." Gabrielle pointed in the direction.

"Well, let's go, shall we? We need to talk, privately, with your Regent Ephiny, of course. It wouldn't be right for me to leave you out now, would I?" Gabrielle was stunned to hear the usually serious Ephiny chuckle, "Cut the smooth talk, Kiko." Kiko turned towards Ephiny with an innocent look.

But once inside Gabrielle's hut, the mood turned deadly serious. Kiko took Gabrielle hands and led her to her bed, making her lie on it. She looked deeply into Gabrielle's eyes, "Gabrielle... Gabrielle, Callisto..." at the mention of the maniac's name Gabrielle shuddered involuntarily but she still managed to look at Kiko with hopeful eyes.

Kiko evaded her eyes for the first time. Gabrielle tried to make Kiko look at her, but Kiko stood up suddenly, "She hurt Xena pretty bad. But I managed to get Xena out of the situation in time."

"I want to go back to your camp with you, I want to see Xena."

"You're hurt. You shouldn't be moved and you're not going anywhere." Was the firm reply.

"But," Gabrielle started to cry, "I NEED to see her. You don't own me..."

Kiko hugged her tightly, not letting go as she tried to explain again, "I know I don't but... Xena, she... I think you would be better off staying here with Ephiny. She'll take great care of you, I'll come as often as I can and if I can't, I'll send a messenger every day. I promise. By the time Xena recovers sufficiently, you'll be better, then we'll have that big celebration thing that I promised you. With all your favourite foodstuffs, okay?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to protest but Kiko placed two fingers on her lips, saying quietly, "Please?" with that quiet plead, Gabrielle nodded reluctantly.

Kiko smiled and wiped away Gabrielle's tears. She then removed a small box from a bag hanging from her belt, opening it, she revealed to Gabrielle the contents, "They are called 'dee-lites', they're the sweetest sweets in the known world. I know you'll enjoy it. Here try one now." She picked one up and gently placed it into Gabrielle's mouth, who upon tasting it could not help but smile slightly.

Kiko touched the tip of Gabrielle's nose lightly and arose from the bed, "Well, I got another long ride ahead of me, so I better make a move. Ephiny, if you would be so kind to see me out? Gabrielle, you just stay here and rest up, okay?" Kiko leaned down and kissed Gabrielle on her forehead before leaving with Ephiny who had remained quiet all this time.

"Take good care of her, my friend. I'll never forget it." Kiko looked intently at Ephiny.

"She's my Queen, Kiko. You don't have to repay me for that... as if you and your companions aren't doing enough for us already. Food, cloth, jewellery..."

"Hey, just being neighbourly. I've to warn you though, the sweets I've just given Gabrielle, they're laced with a very mild sleeping drug. It should keep Gabrielle sleeping peacefully for sometime." Kiko paused for a moment, looking into the questioning eyes of Ephiny looking back at her, "I'll tell you about my connection with Xena another time... soon. That's a promise, my friend."

Looking around for her companions who were chatting away merrily with their Amazon friends, actually just one of them was doing all the talking, "Shall we make a move? Gerias, surely I have given you enough time for at least three stories. That's the quota, remember? Besides, save your stories, you're coming back real soon, Gerias. Real soon." With that she placed her arm around her bard's shoulders and gently but firmly led her away from her 'fans'.

After the goodbyes were said, Ephiny returned to Gabrielle only to find her already sound asleep. She settled herself down beside her Queen for another night of watching.

Chapter 7

Dinner was just about to be served when the exhausted riders returned from their trip. Thankfully the trip was uneventful. Her companions had found their leader too preoccupied and left her alone to her thoughts/demons as they followed at a respectful distance but not totally out of sight.

Kiko climbed down from her horse and after handing over the reins to a stable boy, she kissed the waiting Tarsi on the lips and did the same with Janis.

Leaving them by the campfire, though she entered her tent alone. Only to find Nantra bathing Xena with a damp cloth, "Oh, Kiko! You must announce yourself next time. How can you barge in like that? You've caught your warrior princess..."

"Relax, Nantra, Xena hasn't got anything I haven't seen before. Okay, maybe a couple more scars... Here, Nantra, you must be tired, go have dinner, I'll finish up here. Go on." She urged Nantra, who refused to budge. "Nantra, I CAN do this. Really. Remember, I've done it for her many times before?"

"Well, just don't you forget..."

"Nantra, I don't ever forget. Doesn't mean I never forgive." Kiko looked at Nantra who looked a little puzzled, "Oh! You mean Janis and Tarsi! I thought you meant... Nantra, how long have you known me? I'm more than happy with Janis and Tarsi. My love for Xena is different, very different. Trust me, Nantra, I'll never do anything to hurt the loves of my life." Nantra, finally satisfied, left Kiko alone with her warrior princess.

"I wonder if you still remember the many times I washed you. Those were the days, huh? Sometimes, I do wish back for those days, but only if they were the ones without the battles," as Kiko whispered softly into Xena's ears, while cleaning Xena's body with a hot, wet towel. "Remember also the time when..."


"YOU BROKE MY CODE!!! How dare you break my code as my lieutenant?!?" Xena screamed at her warrior while tying the warrior against a tree with the warrior's naked back exposed.

The warrior said softly, "Yes, Xena, I broke your code. I deserve the full punishment."

Xena screamed again, "Yes! You are going to get the full punishment!" Xena and the warrior tied to the tree both braced themselves for the first whip...


"Aaargh! No! No!" The merriment outside by the campfire stopped immediately as both Kiko and Nantra stood up and ran in with Kiko getting to Xena first.

Xena was shaking and shivering, and Kiko quickly moved to hold her warrior princess tightly, trying to calm her down. "Xena, Xena, it's okay. It's me, Kiko." She looked up, almost helplessly at Nantra, but Nantra just shook her head.

"Must be a bad dream, leader. Nothing I can do to stop it. Maybe you should just try to hold her and talk to her, or maybe not..."

Nantra's voice trailed off, as Kiko understood perfectly, "She could be dreaming about me..." Nantra's face spoke a thousand words.

It happened again, many times, over the next few days. The merriment of the camp shattered by Xena's screams and Kiko running in to comfort her at these times. Tarsi and Janis were getting uncomfortable, but both know better than to question their beloved leader.

As Janis, the older by 5 minutes, said, "Kiko will tell us when she thinks the time is right. We've to trust her until then." Tarsi as always agreed with her big sister.

Meanwhile, Gerias and Melanis were alternating leading trips to the Amazon camp with the unchanging news about Xena. Of course they didn't mention about Xena's nightmares.

Kiko could not bring herself to leave Xena but she never neglected her duties as the leader. She still organised raiding parties on the rich merchants passing by, organised the distribution of money and food for the needy of the nearby villages.

Then on one night, about a week after. Kiko and her companions were seated by the fire, now situated nearer to her tent, laughing and joking as always. She heard reports of the day's 'harvest', pleased with the results.

She indulged in a long look at her companions sitting around her, of course the ones sitting beside her are her section heads, like Tarsi, Theresa, Brutus, Antonio, Melanis and Ping. They each head a squad of around 30 women and men (there are more women and men in this camp). Not all would be away at the same time. Many remained to guard the camp and the goods they have liberated from their owners.


Later, both warriors are hurt, one physically, the other mentally. Xena loosened the bonds tying her closest warrior, the warrior collapsed into Xena's aching arms, her back totally covered by blood. "What have I done? What have I done to you, Kay?" She lifted her wounded warrior's head up and saw only the mournful look in the young woman's brown eyes...


Xena awoke with a start. 'The face! Those eyes! How could I not have remembered?' She staggered out of bed, hastily wrapping a blanket around her, she stumbled out of the tent. The noises she heard quickly stop as she neared them. She knelt down behind Kiko, shaking Nantra off.

Kiko waved Nantra away and allowed Xena to remove first her cape then helped her remove her own clothes. At the sight of Kiko's back, Xena silently broke into tears, "How could I have done this to you? Why? Why?"

Kiko turned to face Xena and, many of her companions saw what had chilled Janis and Tarsi for so long, the thick ugly scars criss-crossing her back. Hugging Xena tightly, "Xena, you did what you had to do. You did right. I was wrong. Don't blame yourself for this."

Janis, quickly moved to wrap Kiko's cape over Kiko's back. Kiko slowly lifted Xena off her knees and helped her (practically carried her) back into the tent where she came from. Nantra followed slowly, she waved for Janis and Tarsi who had also stood up, not to follow. They complied, quietly, though Tarsi's eyes were flashing in quiet anger.

"I was wondering how to tell you. When Gabrielle first told me that she was going to ask you for help, I couldn't believe it. The Fates have finally decreed that we should meet again, after all this time. Xena, please believe me when I say I don't blame you. You did what you had to do. If I were in your place, I would have done the same thing. I would have shown no mercy. I was wrong. Please Xena, don't blame yourself." Kiko spoke softly into Xena's ears as she tenderly lay the shaken, wounded warrior back down on the bed again. "Please rest, when you're better tomorrow, we'll have a long talk. Okay?"

"I don't know how could I not have recognised you." Xena said softly.

"Oh, Xena, I've changed a lot since I left more than 7 years ago. I've grown up for starters!" Kiko chuckled.

"Yes, you have Kay, um... Kiko. You've grown up."

"I've missed you so much and you can call me Kay if you want to." Kiko/Kay's brown eyes looked deeply into her Xena/Warrior Princess' blue.

After Xena had fallen asleep, Kiko quietly slipped out of the tent. Both Janis and Tarsi were waiting for her outside. Tarsi's eyes had an enraged look in them, "She FLOGGED you like some kind of an animal! And you're still..." she was quickly silenced by a kiss. As always, Kiko did the same with Janis.

"Xena did what she had to do. I broke her code... 'sides she was not the only one to have whipped me. Others have done it with lesser cause." she looked around her camp, all questioning eyes on her.

She sighed, "I'm too tired now to tell you guys the whole story. Tomorrow, I will. That's a promise. Okay? I'm sure everyone's tired. Those not doing night duty, go to bed. Melanis, when you go to the Amazon camp tomorrow, please bring Gabrielle back with you and ask Ephiny if she would care to join us for dinner. If she would, escort her back as well.'

With that Kiko walked purposefully back to the tent. Walking past Janis, "I'm sorry, my love. Not tonight, I'm afraid." Janis nodded in understanding.

Kiko spent the whole night just staring at Xena's sleeping form, worrying about just how much to tell her companions about her ugly past as one of the lieutenants of the once most-feared army in this known world. She slowly nodded off by Xena's side.

Xena slowly stroking her hair awakened her. The moon had long given way to the sun and Kiko realised that this was the first time in almost a week that she had slept through most of the night. She glanced up at Xena and was pleasantly surprised to see that much of Xena's colour had returned.

"Slept well?" she asked Xena.

"I did, though I'm sure you didn't."

"Oh, you'll be surprised." as she rose from the chair to do some stretching.

"Kay," Xena's voice was quiet, "where's Gabrielle? I don't think I saw her last night. Where is she?" as she looked at Kiko beseechingly.

"Gabrielle's safe. She's with her 'subjects'. I thought she'd be better off there then to see you with your head, twice the normal size, and then freaking out on me. Looking after you was more than enough for my poor Nantra."

A smile slowly formed on Xena's face, "You're right. You've always thought of the big picture... I take it that you never told your companions about your past?"

"Xena, what was I suppose to say? Oh, you guys know Xena? Yeah, I'm sure you do. I used to be in her army. As one of her lieutenants, I was always in the thick of the action. Killing people, sacking villages and towns, doing generally very bad things. I was a bad, bad girl. Never could have told them that, could I?"

Xena shook her head slowly. She continued, "But I have to. And I intend to do it tonight. I hope you are up to listening to the story..."

"I am, I'm going to go through this with you. But Gabrielle?"

"I've sent someone to pick her up from the Amazon village. I think she should listen in on this, don't you think?"

"I agree, she has to know..." her voice trailed off and she turned and stared moodily at another place.

"Xena, want to see the sunlight for a change?" Kiko prodded.


"And this is the stables. And here is Argo," Kiko was showing Xena around her camp. They were greeted with questioning eyes and salutes for their leader. "As you can see, Argo is very well-taken care of." She left Xena alone with her horse for a few minutes before slowly pulling the reluctant Xena away from the stables.

"You have quite some camp here, Kay. Very well-organised, very well-guarded as well. I'm impressed." Xena commented to Kiko.

Kiko shrugged, "That's because you taught me so well, Xena. You were the one who taught me the importance of an well-organised camp. I learnt a lot with you."

The day went by quite idly, Xena spent most of her time just observing the discipline in the camp and noticed how devoted these 'companions' of her one-time lieutenant are to her. 'They never disagree with anything she says. And she's so friendly with them, so encouraging, sparring with them. I was never like this with my army, but I think I was like this with her.' She thought.

"A dinar for your thoughts, Xena." Xena turned and found Nantra.

"I want to say thank you, Nantra, for saving my life..." Xena started but was stopped by Nantra.

"The one who really saved your life is Kiko. She was the one who deflected the major blow," Xena looked a little surprised as Nantra continued, "you are going to have quite a night later. Maybe you should take a rest first."

"That's right, Xena. I think you should take a rest now. I'll walk with you back to the tent." Kiko had appeared behind both of them and had heard Nantra's last advice to Xena.

Xena followed Kiko without saying a word, after they entered the tent, Xena pulled Kiko closer to her, "Thank you for saving my life. You know I'm not of many words but I really appreciate it. After what I did to you... I don't know how I can..."

"Xena, say no more. Can you please stop thinking about the single thing that you did that hurt me physically and start to think about the things you taught me? And the side of you, you only let me see, until Gabrielle came along... do you love her?"

The last question caught Xena completely by surprise, she opened her mouth but before she could answer, Kiko said, "No, Xena. On second thoughts, I don't think I really want to know." Kiko left Xena to her own thoughts soon after.

Chapter 8

"Xena! Xena!" The excited shouts of Gabrielle awakened Xena who raised herself up, "How much have I missed that voice..." she thought with a grin before Gabrielle burst into the tent and enveloped her in a bear hug. "Hey, be careful. I still need to breathe you know."

"Sorry, it's just that I missed you so much."

"Is dinner ready?"

"I'll go check. Are you hungry? Well, that's a first."

Gabrielle stood up but before she could even take a step, Tarsi entered the tent, "Xena, Gabrielle, dinner is about to be served. Kiko asks if you are ready?"

"Yes, thank you Janis, we'll be out in a minute." Xena replied as Gabrielle helped her out of the bed.

"Um, Xena, I'm Tarsi. Janis is my twin sister." Tarsi answered and with that she turned round and left. Xena shrugged and proceeded to lavish upon Gabrielle's lips some much-needed attention.

"Ah, our guest-of-honours have decided to join us after all." Kiko used her slightly teasing tone upon finally seeing Xena and Gabrielle walking hand-in-hand towards the big fire.

"Xena, I'm so glad to see that you're feeling better." Ephiny spoke up from her comfortable seat by the fire.

"Ephiny? How have you been? How's everything?"

"Fine, everything's fine. Kiko invited me for the celebrations, couldn't refuse."

The celebrations had already begun. And as promised, there were many of Gabrielle's favourite food and she ate as if she hadn't eaten anything in weeks. Both Xena and Kiko could not help but smile at her.

Throughout dinner, Xena glanced towards Kiko who was seated to her right many times, noticing that Kiko was flanked by the twins Janis and Tarsi and was being hand-fed in turn by the both of them. 'Boy, she doesn't even need to lift a finger. But who's Janis and who's Tarsi? How can she tell?' Xena wondered to herself.

Taking a quick glance around the camp, Xena immediately noticed that there were still sentries at the watch towers at the four corners of the camp as well as heavily armed guards at the gates. They did not flinch at the sounds of merriment. They did not even look. 'Obviously very well trained by Kay. This bunch would be more than a match for any army of any size, especially with someone like Kay leading them.' Xena continued with her internal musings.

"What are you thinking about, oh mighty warrior princess?" Gabrielle had stopped eating long enough to notice Xena slowing taking in the whole camp. Xena reply was a gentle poke of Gabrielle's ribs and a tickle, their exchange was noted by Kiko and also by both Janis and Tarsi.

Kiko could not help but look away sadly as she emptied her wine goblet, which was instantly refilled by Tarsi. She downed it again immediately in another gulp.

"Kay, um, sorry, Kiko, just how many companions do you have?" Xena was curious.

Kiko looked first at Xena then at Tarsi for the answer, "Xena, we have about 150 fighters, 120 women and 30 men, then we also have about 50 non-fighters. Some of these people heal us, cook for us, tend to our other needs and the needs of our animals. Some are a little too young to be sent out fighting, so they are undergoing training."

"Really? How young is young?" came the question.

"Around 16 to 18 years old. Our youngest fighter is 19."

"I'm surprised. Considering your leader started fighting when she was just, what, 15?"

"No, Xena, I was 14 when I fought in my first battle for you." An awkward pause followed before Kiko cleared her throat and glanced at the visibly shocked Gabrielle. "Gabrielle, how would you like to tell my companions about how you and Xena saved my life and our little adventure on the way here?" Gabrielle quickly recovered and as usual, did not need any further prompting to tell a story.

After a while, Gabrielle finally wrapped up. Kiko had drunk about four goblets of wine during this time, much to Xena's surprise. "And that's the last thing I remember." She looked expectantly at Kiko who picked it up.

Kiko started her narration, "I turned round and saw you fall, I just shouted your name instinctively, I know I shouldn't have now and I tried to rush to your side. Fortunately, a couple of Amazon warriors found you before I could reach you. I left them in their care and concentrated on fighting off the attackers.

"When more reinforcements came, I turned and looked for Xena. She was on the ground, Callisto was over her. I ran as fast as I could but I could only manage to deflect her final blow. We fought for a while and I knocked back a little and she disappeared with a scream. And I carried Xena back to camp."

She took a deep breath and looked around her, expectant eyes all around.

"Okay, okay. I'm a person of my word. I promised that I would tell you all the nature of my relationship with Xena, I will. I was 12 when the warlord Cortese..."

"Him again?" Gabrielle interrupted.

"Yes, Gabrielle, him again. The same man who attacked Amphipolis. He attacked and sacked my village too. My adopted parents were killed. In fact, I was the only survivor. Not unlike Callisto in this sense, I vowed blood vengeance. But since I was only 12, with not a dinar to my name, I was reduced to begging in nearby villages.

"Fortunately for me, there soon arrived another threat. That brought about by a most feared army, the only one then led by a woman. And that woman's Xena. I managed to sneak into her camp but I didn't go far before Xena caught hold of me.

"I think she liked the way I had managed to slip into her camp unnoticed and took me in. Especially after I told her that Cortese had killed my adopted parents and I had no place else to go.

"For the first few months or so, I was at Xena's beck and call. If she wanted a bath, I prepared it and sometimes, I helped her wash as well. If she wanted wine, I got it for her. Even at nights, I would sleep on the floor of her tent." Kiko grinned sheepishly, "Well, for MOST nights anyway..."

"I was also there when the nightmares came and wouldn't go. I would get cold towels ready, but if she was shivering, I would hold her until she stopped. Many times I woke up on her bed but she would have had already awakened.

"But as it went on, she started sleeping only when absolutely necessary and not anymore. But when she didn't sleep, I couldn't either, so she started teaching me how to use the sword."

Xena added, "Yes, but I taught you how to use a sword to kill. Not how to use the sword for self-defence. That's why Gabrielle, I didn't want to teach you how to use a sword, or even how to fight unless for self-defence."

Kiko continued, "Xena, even if you hadn't taught me, I would still have learnt how to kill. And finally at the age of 14, I entered my first battle. And I killed for the first time."

"I remember now, how emotionless you were about your first kill. I was so worried about you becoming even worse then me. I needn't have worried, right?" Xena smiled at the memory.

"No, because I puked the minute I was alone with you. And for the first time, you had to wash me! I just didn't want the men to see me puking. Well, anyway, to fast forward, I soon became one of Xena's lieutenants. Together with Borias, Draco and Dagnine.

"I could have had my own tent, but still I slept on the floor of Xena's tent. I couldn't sleep anywhere else! Xena still taught me her fighting moves, which also included pressure points and also battle plans and other strategic moves.

"Okay, fast forward again. About half a year later, we were gearing up for the inevitable battle with the centaurs. We needed supplies, more than ever. I led most of the front parties. You know, the ones that demand the supplies. The dirtiest job around and of course neither Draco or Dagnine wanted to do it.

"Borias wanted to but I always thought he should be with Xena, analysing battle plans. Xena did it sometimes, but I never wanted to allow it. I thought it was beneath the Warrior Princess to be demanding for supplies."

Xena concurred, "Yeah, you never willingly let me. It was the single thing we always disagreed on. The role of the demanding party is the most dangerous. If the village or town decides to rebel or to fight, then, that small party has to defend and fight immediately. Most of the times, there were no trouble but sometimes..."

Kiko continued ruefully, "...sometimes trouble come looking for you. But before I tell you all about this fight, I should say first that though I was young, very young, I was falling in love with another warrior in Xena's army. Her name was Cilia. I was almost ready to share a tent with her, I adored her. Almost as much as I adored Xena." She smiled wistfully and when Xena reached out for her hand and Kiko quietly accepted it.

"Well, we entered this village. We never had any problems with them before. As usual, Xena and the main army readied themselves about an hour's ride away from the village while I led a squad of 25, including Cilia, down into the village. And as agreed, if I hadn't returned in three hours she would lead the army to attack.

"This village, Mantion just had a great harvest... I didn't think this would have been anything but a routine 'essentials asking' job. Boy, was I ever so wrong. Immediately after I entered the village, I could sense the tenseness. I signalled for the last rider to slip back and warn Xena that trouble might be looming.

"I entered the village square where the elders were waiting for us. One of them said, 'The supplies you want are in there.' as he pointed at two huts near us. Cilia and another soldier immediately rode over to check, when suddenly an arrow struck Cilia down from behind. I think she was dead even before she hit the ground.

"I was enraged. I became so mad, I ordered the attack on the villagers. And I started killing like a mad woman. (she turned to look at Tarsi and Janis) Tarsi, Janis, now do you understand why I never want you two to go with me on my raids? I would become crazy if anything happened to the two of you. (pause)

"I heard the main army enter the village, I heard the war cry and I fought even harder. I wasn't even looking at where I struck my sword. I just swung it wildly, then before I even knew it, I had struck a woman. Not just any woman... a woman with a child. She died before she even hit the ground." Kiko trailed off.

Xena picked up the narration, "I caught sight of that. I didn't think clearly. All I knew was that my most trusted lieutenant had broken my code. I was so angry, I rode forward and caught hold of you and got you out of the village. We razed the village to the ground. I didn't listen to what some of your men told me, that the villagers started the fight and that Cilia was killed by a cowardly arrow to her back. I didn't listen to their pleas... I didn't show any mercy... I..." Xena too could not go on.

Gabrielle quietly asked, "What happened? What did you do to Kiko, Xena?"

Kiko was equally quiet when she finally continued, "She did what she had to do, Gabrielle. I broke her warrior's code. She whipped me. She whipped me in front of all the men."

Gabrielle was stunned and speechless as Kiko went on, "Gabrielle, Xena did what she had to do! I mean, if I was leading an army, and someone broke my code. I would whip that person too. I would have to answer to the rest of the men."

"No. I should have listened to my brain. You, you of all people would never do anything without a reason or without provocation. I didn't listen to any of them. I only stopped when Borias carried Cilia's body to me and showed me where the arrow was. That was only when I stopped and I knew... I knew too late..." Xena stated.

Kiko started in shock, "Borias? He did what? Why?"

"What are you talking about? Borias had heard the story one of your men told me, I didn't believe the man but Borias went back to the village and found Cilia's dead body. With the arrow still sticking out of her back."

"Then I have a confession to make later. (pause) Well, Xena nursed me back to health. It took a long time though. But Xena, believe me when I say, I never, ever hated you for doing it. You had to. Because no matter what the provocation, the bottom line was, I killed a woman and her unborn child. I broke both your codes. I was surprised you didn't throw me out of your army." Kiko looked straight at Xena.

"You would have no place to go if I had thrown you out. And if people knew you were one of my lieutenants... in your state then, you wouldn't have survived for long." Xena said softly.

Kiko sighed, "I know. You cared for me. I would not have wanted to leave you too."

Xena raised her voice a little, "But you did, didn't you? In a way, you did. You slept in your own tent as soon as you could. Why?"

Kiko chuckled, "Xena! Would you expect me to let YOU, my Warrior Princess, to sleep on the GROUND? You must be kidding! And besides, I thought I had intruded upon you and Borias long enough as it was."

"You always knew when to be out of my tent, you didn't have to..." Xena started.

"Yeah, discretion is my middle name," Kiko said self-depreciatingly. She took a deep breath, "Xena, I..."

"What is it?" Xena asked fondly.

"Remember the war against the centaurs? You could not lead the army like you usually do because of Solon? I still wasn't in the best of shape, so you refused to allow me to be heavily involved in the war."

"I remember..."

Kiko continued, "Even when you heard that Borias was headed for the centaur camp, you still refused to send me to capture him... you sent Dagnine instead."

Xena shook her head, "BIG mistake, I should have sent you."

Kiko diverted her eyes from Xena's intense gaze, and readied herself, "I followed Dagnine..."

Xena was shocked, "You did what!?"

Kiko took another deep breath, "I followed Dagnine. I saw what happened. But I didn't... I didn't even TRY to stop him, Xena! I couldn't, I didn't stop him from killing Borias. I'm the one who let you down. I let Dagnine kill Borias. I'm so sorry..."

"I can't believe you would allow that to happen! You knew what he meant to me, to my unborn child..." Xena couldn't go on.

"Xena, I was angry and jealous." Kiko confessed quietly.

"JEALOUS?? Why?"

"I thought he had taken you away from me forever. We never had the same kind of relationship we had before Mantion. I felt your coldness. I felt that I let you down. I couldn't make myself stop Dagnine there and then. I could have killed Dagnine, but I didn't. I was jealous of Borias. And I thought he deserved to die because he betrayed you." Kiko looked down at her boots, picking at her bootlaces and found herself being enveloped in an oddly familiar bear hug.

Xena spoke into Kiko's head, "I withdrew from you only because I hated myself for hurting you. And I thought that you had to hate me as well. I... Borias could never take your place in my heart. And for a long time, no one could."

Kiko smiled wistfully, "Until Gabrielle..."

"Yes, until Gabrielle." Xena confirmed, "After you left, I never heard another word from you. Everywhere I went, I tried to get information about you. The last I heard was that you mentioned about going east. What I didn't know and didn't expect was that you meant that far east! I was so worried, then one day, I came across your epitaph."

Kiko shook her head, "You went all that way for me?"

"I was worried sick. I had lost every one I had ever loved. Had ever even cared about. I didn't want to lose you, but I did. At least, I thought I did. I was so angry... I vowed to find your killer. Then I thought that maybe I had killed you, and you have been part of my dreams ever since..."

Kiko was shocked and dismayed, "Oh, Xena! I'm so sorry! I never wanted to become part of your nightmares! That's why I left. The night after you gave Solan away, I heard you screaming my name in one of your nightmares. I couldn't stand it... that's why I left. I thought that if you didn't have to see me and my scars every single day, you would be better off."

"Well, I wasn't. But I'm so glad to see you now. I hope I can forget what I did to you."

"No, Xena, I KNOW we all can put the past behind us." Kiko reafirmed.

"I'm sorry but Kiko, if you weren't dead, why write your own epitaph?" Gabrielle was curious.

"I guess in a way, the blood-thirsty Kay IS dead. Kiko was born. I made a fresh start. A start I never thought I would have... but of course, the Fates had more in store for me than I thought possible..." Kiko trailed off and there was an uncomfortable silence in the camp as everyone tried to let all that has been revealed so far sink in.

"Um, Kiko, don't mind me asking, but how does that blonde, maniac sort-of goddess fit in all this?" Tarsi piped up the unspoken question for many present.

"Gabrielle, are you ready for another story?" Xena asked her partner before noticing Kiko's stare, "What is it, Kay?"

"Xena, don't you remember Cirra?" Kiko asked cautiously.

"Of course I do. The village burned and Callisto was the sole survivor."

"Remember who led the leading party?" Kiko prompted. Xena was stunned as she remembered.

"Well, seems like Callisto's gotten another person to attack, huh Xena?" Kiko twitched into a grin. Xena just shook her head in disbelief.

Chapter 9

"Just what do the two of you mean?" asked Gabrielle.

"Kay was..." Xena started but Kiko interrupted her, "Gabrielle, I headed the leading party into Cirra. It was my first time leading such a party so I guess I was a little too over-zealous. I... When we arrived, as required, the elders were in the village square with the supplies. We didn't see any one else around. Later we found out that they were all hiding in their huts.

"Draco came with me that night, even though Xena made sure every soldier in the party knew who they had to listen to ultimately, that was me. The elders were very rude, which was fine. Can't expect them to be polite with us. A few of them even threw some insults at me and I was fuming inside.

"But I remembered what Xena had taught me, to keep my cool at all times and be emotionless in front of your enemies. Unfortunately, one of the younger ones started to insult Xena. Horrible, unwarranted insults. I almost lost my cool and then Draco, obviously seeing me seething with anger, fanned the flames by telling me that I should protect some semblance of Xena's honour. Was I going to stand by doing nothing while listening to these insults thrown at our absent leader? He had asked, no he demanded, loudly and towards the men.

"Some of the men agreed with him and many moved threateningly towards the elders who moved backwards involuntarily, all except for that idiot who had insulted Xena. At this, I asked where he lived. He defiantly and stupidly told me where.

"I rode towards the hut that he had pointed out and climbed down from my horse. I signalled for a few other men and for a torch. I entered the hut and pulled out the man's wife and 3 children. I threw them to the ground and torched the hut. Unfortunately, just at that time, a strong wind blew and the fire quickly got out of control.

"Some of the villagers ran out of their huts and tried to control the fire, but most of them didn't or couldn't. I shouted for my men to help them, but they couldn't hear me very well because of all the screaming.

"A short while later, Xena stormed into the village with the main army and when she saw the confusion and noise resulting from the fire she thought that I was under attack, so she and the main army attacked the village. They didn't stop until there was no one left, or so we thought. That's how the sacking of Cirra happened. Never in a million years would I imagine..." Kiko looked at the all-too quiet Xena.

"Callisto will never find out..." Xena swore, "I won't let her do anything to you or your camp. Especially you, now that I have found you again..."

"Xena, listen to me. Take a good look at yourself and then at me..." Xena did and so did many around the campfire. Xena still had a light bandage around her head and the remnants of various cuts and bruises resulting from her last encounter with Callisto. Kiko, well, she looked great. And healthy.

"...I forced Callisto to leave, Xena. She knows all about you and your particular style of fighting, but she knows none of mine. Heck, even you wouldn't be able to recognise most of my moves now. Therefore, I have an element of surprise here and above all, I won't let you take the blame for Callisto anymore. Not anymore. She is MY creation, not yours. I won't have you blame yourself for Callisto and something that my stupidity and over-blown ego started." Kiko said firmly.

Xena was about to argue back when Janis stepped in, "It's getting late, why don't we continue this line of conversation in Kiko's tent? As for the rest of you... story time's over. Slowly digest all of this and go to sleep. You'll need it, especially for the groups that are heading out tomorrow."

"Janis, as usual, you're right. And Ephiny, if you would spend the night with us, I'll arrange for someone to escort you back to your camp tomorrow." Kiko added. Ephiny nodded her consent and Ping stood up to show Ephiny the way to the guest tent.

Ephiny gave Gabrielle and Xena a quick hug each, whispering to Gabrielle's ear, "I'll see you tomorrow. What a night!" Gabrielle nodded empathetically in agreement. Ephiny then followed Ping to the tent.

A little while later, in Kiko's spacious tent. Xena, Gabrielle, Kiko, Janis, Tarsi and Nantra were all seated around the table. Xena and Kiko, still arguing about who was responsible for Cirra and Callisto and with each insisting that the other not take any of the responsibility.

Gabrielle, Janis and Tarsi all decided, wisely, not to involve themselves in their respective loved ones' argument, so instead chose to sit around looking mighty amused by it all. Nantra, though, seemed not to take any notice of them, instead just touching her right fingertips with her thumb several times over and over again, softly mumbling to herself.

This action did not go unnoticed by Kiko. Concerned, she asked, "Nantra, what's going to happen?" Xena and Gabrielle looked at each other, surprise with Xena giving Gabrielle her patented arch eyebrow.

Janis noticed the quick exchange between the two, suppressing a smile, she explained to both of them, "Nantra can predict the future..."

Tarsi giggled and added, "She too has MANY skills." Xena could only roll her eyes while Gabrielle laughed softly with Tarsi and Janis.

Chapter 10

Throughout the laughter, Kiko had remained deadly serious, looking intently at Nantra who seemed not to have heard anything. Suddenly Nantra looked up from her contemplation and straight at Xena. "Warrior Princess, how long would you be staying?"

Xena was slightly taken aback, she glanced at Gabrielle's reassuring face before replying, "Until I fully recover, of course. Kay, um I mean, Kiko and I have so much to talk about..." she smiled at Kiko who returned the warm smile but then Kiko turned back to look worriedly back at Nantra who was also smiling slightly.

"Good, that's very good. My leader, you are about to face a big test. Very, very soon. you will need your Warrior Princess to help you through this, even I may not be of much help to you here. But, remember, ultimately, this IS going to be your test. More will be revealed at a later time..." with that she arose from her seat and addressed Janis, "Janis, will you be available tonight?"

Janis shyly answered, looking at Kiko, "No, Nantra. I'll not be..." Kiko face broke into a wide smile as she shook her head vigorously.

"Speaking of which ... Xena, Gabrielle, would you mind if I bunk on the floor of this tent with you?" Tarsi asked. Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another, Xena shrugged and Gabrielle answered, "Sure, why not?"

"Thank you, Gabrielle. I want to experience for myself what it is like sleeping on the floor of Xena's tent." Tarsi grinned.

Kiko gently poked Tarsi in her ribs, "Well, now that the sleeping arrangements are settled, let's turn in. Xena, you and I are going to have a long, long talk tomorrow." She slowly turned to leave then suddenly looked back at Gabrielle, "One more thing I just remembered. Gabrielle, Gerias, our bard, is going to Athens tomorrow, she'd be gone for about 4 days. Would you like to join her? You can visit your friends at the Academy and make a deposit of your scrolls. In any case, Xena will not be able to travel anywhere for at the very least a whole week. So, what say you?"

She looked expectantly at Gabrielle, who initially could hardly keep still at Kiko's suggestion but she visibly controlled herself when she heard that Xena wouldl not be able to go with her, "Maybe I should stay here with Xena..."

"Nonsense, Gabrielle. I saw how excited you were with Kay's suggestion. As much as I'm going to miss you, think of your friends down at the Academy, and the scrolls you can leave in the Library... I really think you should go, after all, it's only 4 days."

"Well, if you really think so, Xena..." Xena firmly nodded her head.

"Great, it's settled then. C'mon, Janis. Let us inform Gerias on our way to your tent. I'll have someone send over a couple of extra blankets for you two, Gabrielle and Tarsi. Tarsi, be good and don't you annoy Xena. I can't guarantee that she won't kill you when and if she was annoyed. Sweet dreams..." she gently kissed Tarsi and purposely avoided Xena's mock icy stare.

And finally before leaving the tent, she addressed Nantra again, "Nantra, do I need to know anything else?" Nantra shook her head, "More will be revealed soon..." was all she would say mysteriously.

Later, Xena and Gabrielle were discussing their own sleeping arrangements, with Xena insisting that she was well enough to sleep on the floor and Gabrielle refusing to allow her to sleep on the floor. The argument had gone on for quite a while with Tarsi patiently trying to sleep, without any success.

"No, Xena, I really, really think you should let me sleep on the floor. You've not totally recovered yet. Don't try to be a hero here, okay. I'll sleep on the floor, it's only going to be for one night..."

Xena interrupted with, "No, Gabrielle. You should sleep on the bed. It's better. I'll feel better..."

Finally, Tarsi could take it no more. "Okay, tell you what. Now this may seem a little radical at first, but... why don't the two of you share the bed? It's definitely big enough for two, trust me I know that for a fact, I have some first hand knowledge..." she then smiled wickedly, "...and you know, I'm a very heavy sleeper, so you two can... if you want..." Gabrielle blushed visibly while Xena looked away rather uncomfortably.

Tarsi giggled and continued on a more sober note, "But seriously, Xena, what was Kiko really like in the past? Was she really that bloodthirsty as she seemed to make herself out to be?"

Xena sat herself by the side of the bed as she tried to think back on a past that she had kept so tightly shut for so long a time, "No. She only killed or even hurt when she absolutely had to, or when she had to put up a show for the rest of the men. She's brave, courageous and wise, which is why I don't really understand why or how she can stand by and watch Dagnine kill Borias and then rush to my side to let me know before anyone else could. And to comfort me.

"(pause) Gabrielle, Kay helped me deliver Solon and she was the one who protected him from the view of the rest of the men while I was recovering. She was the only one who knew the whole truth and she fully supported my decision to leave Solon. That made my decision so much easier to make at that time. She even had her unit discreetly follow us into the Centaur camp when I decided to leave him there. Yes, us, she was hidden in the bushes while I was talking with Kalepius. As I stumbled away, she was the one who held me tightly in comfort. Her unit never breathed a word about it or maybe that was because they didn't know the real truth or perhaps the whole truth.

"She had always managed to extract absolute and unquestioning loyalty from her unit. They were always the best-organised unit I ever had and always in the thick of all the action. They never questioned her, just like you guys here don't. Maybe that also had to do with the fact that she never, ever questioned my decisions publicly but many times, only when alone in my tent at nights, would she object to whatever I had earlier ordered her to do.

"She managed to keep me out of catastrophe more times than I can remember, she advised me so much better and wiser than Borias ever could. She just never thought of herself as such and I guess... I never really told her. I really felt that she was such a kid, which in truth, she was. She hung around for a few more years riding with me until one day, she just left. Without any prior warning.

"She's one of a kind, for all that she has been through, I had expected her to be more bitter and angry. She just mentioned the particularly bad things that had happened, Cirra, Mantion, she really isn't that evil. I was the one who was evil and after I thought she 'died' I became infinitely worse.

"If she was around, she would have told me that going up against Hercules was going to be a BIG mistake and I would have listened. But then, I didn't have her wise counsel and I paid for it. And one of her parting words to me just showed how insightful she is. (pause) She warned me against Darphus and his ambitions, long before I even really knew who he was. Stupid. I should have remembered her words, but it had hurt too much to try..."

"She left you a letter?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah, I still keep it with me everywhere I go. Hoping against all hope that she really wasn't dead."

"What did she say in the letter?" Gabrielle and Tarsi asked at the same time.

Xena smiled woefully and cleared her throat. She had never said so much before in her life, except when with Kay, "I will forever remember her words:

'Xena, I feel that the time has come for me to leave you. I am truly sorry for what happened to Borias. I need to be away from you to discover my true self. I refuse to believe any longer that I can be a ruthless killer, I hope one day you too will feel the same. I remember your stories of the east so that's where I'll be heading that way, maybe if I get lucky, I'll find my Lao Ma. I just hope that the day will come when we shall meet again. Let's hope it would be under much different circumstances than when we met for the first time. Life is full of hope if only you would try to find it.

PS: Xena, please be careful. Especially with a soldier named Darphus. Don't give him too much power. I fear with his ambitions, he will misuse and abuse it. I don't ever want to hear about you getting hurt.

Love forever and ever, Kay'

"I followed her east. I just didn't know she would really go that FAR eastwards, it's amazing (shaking her head). One day, many months later, one of my scouts ran to me, giving me a report that chilled me to the bone. He had stumbled across Kay's tombstone.

"I refused to believe him and rushed to the place he found and true enough, there it was. I was devastated. Completely and utterly. I couldn't find her body, I guess I now know why... in any case, I ordered my men to dig and search the surrounding areas but to no avail. I thought someone had killed her because of me and that hurt so much.

"I vowed to avenge her 'death', I shuddered to think what a rival would do with her body. My army marched to the nearest town but when the villagers there couldn't, or as I thought at that time, wouldn't, tell me what had happened, I sacked the town. And I never stopped after that, not until Hercules."

Xena was on a roll and as she continued, "But Tarsi, Kay is now Kiko. She has changed so much. Like she said, she's grown up for starters! All thanks to Nantra. Remind me to ask her about the epitaph, did she carve it out herself? I wonder..." she drifted off and grabbed hold of her head.

Gabrielle rushed to her side anxiously, while Tarsi was already half way out of the tent, looking for Nantra. When Nantra entered a short time later, Gabrielle had already coaxed Xena into lying on the bed, even with Xena protesting weakly that she had recovered, Gabrielle would have none of it.

Nantra examined Xena for a while. Xena worriedly asked Tarsi, "You didn't wake Kay up, did you? She doesn't have to know about this, you know..."

Tarsi shook her head, "No, Xena. I didn't wake Kiko up. Though, quite frankly, I do not think that she's asleep right now, Janis wouldn't let her off so easily..."

"Well, good. She doesn't need to know about this. It'll just cause her unnecessary worry... it's not that she doesn't have enough to worry about as it is, with her big test coming up and all. You wouldn't tell her, would you?" Xena directed her last few statements to Nantra, who looked back, very thoughtful.

She replied slowly and deliberately, "I have never lied to my leader, Warrior Princess. You can't ask me to..." Xena looked extremely worried and was about to protest when Nantra continued, "...but that doesn't mean that I report every single thing that happens in this camp to her."

"Thank you, Nantra. For everything, especially for helping save Kay's soul. It must have been so difficult. I just hope by the time her big test comes, I'll be able to help her like you say." Xena breathed a sigh of relief.

"You're welcome, Warrior Princess. But trust me, it wasn't always this easy, not especially when she was leading her enormous army. It was so hard to get to her sometimes, literally... not like now..."

"Whatever do you mean by that? Do you mean to tell me that Kay led an army? How BIG of an army? Where?" incredulous, Xena found herself almost yelling at Nantra.

"What? Oh my, I have said too much again. My leader will let you all know when she thinks the time is right. For her own sake, I do hope that is soon..."

"Does that part of her past have to do with her big test?" Xena was almost afraid to ask, she more than anyone else knew the tremendous feeling of leading an army.

"Yes, Warrior Princess. Her past will be back to haunt her. All of her ugly past, including that blonde goddess. She cannot know all this, the information that I have given you cannot leave this tent. Swear upon I..." Nantra looked fiercely at the three of them in the room, "It is her destiny. She will have to prove herself that she is worthy of them. Swear upon it..." Xena, Gabrielle and Tarsi all swore never to let Kiko know about it.

"She'll need all the help that she can get. Don't leave her or here before that happens." Nantra's tone softened.

"I promise you, I won't leave Kay." Xena promised quietly.

"Good. Now, rest up. This dizzy spell of yours has got to do with your head injury. I think you're going to have more of such spells. Just be careful and take good care of yourself. Tarsi, I'm placing you in charge of the Warrior Princess until tomorrow morning. Don't make me have to call for Janis, understood?"

Tarsi nodded her head vigorously and so too did Gabrielle, who added, "Xena, I think I better not go to Athens with Gerias tomorrow. I should here and help look after you..."

"Nonsense. Nantra is here and so are Janis and Tarsi. Don't you worry about me. C'mon, climb in the bed. That way, you and I can both make sure that we're both fine." Gabrielle gratefully climbed in between the blankets and snuggling up comfortably beside Xena, Tarsi laid back on her blankets while Nantra quietly slipped away.

She walked quietly past the tent Kiko and Janis are spending the night together. Muffled sounds of moaning could be heard and Nantra smiled wistfully, "Oh, my little Janis. You deserve so much more than what your fate has in store for you. Why did the Fates place you with your leader only to tear..." Nantra sighed deeply, "Be brave my child. I pray to the Gods, that this test will prove finally that you, Kiko is worthy of their regard and mine. Don't let anyone down, my leader. You will have to pick your own destiny."

Chapter 11

Dawn broke. After the excitement of the previous night, all in the camp was certain that things would never be the same again. Unfortunately, they would be proven right in more ways than one. Slowly the camp stirred awake.

Before long, the hustle and bustle of the cooks preparing for breakfast together with the sweet aroma of nutbread found their daily way into each tent, effectively sending everyone to their feet and heading towards the meal tent.

Even Gabrielle - food would always be more important to her than sleep - stirred awake and for one very rare time, she found herself awake before Xena. Gabrielle opened her eyes, taking a deep breath and letting the aroma envelope her for a moment. Then she glanced over to the Warrior Princess sleeping peacefully by her side.

As always, Gabrielle could not help but notice how peaceful Xena looked when she was asleep, 'so unguarded, so beautiful', Gabrielle thought to herself as she took a quick look down on the floor, Tarsi was no longer on the floor. Finding herself unable to resist, she leaned down and gently kissed Xena full on the lips, surprised again at the fullness of Xena's lips but more the fact that Xena did not even stir from her slumber.

'Wow! She must really be tired out...' Gabrielle thought impishly as she reached for Xena's lips again, however this time before she could reach her destination, she noticed the striking blue eyes gazing deep into her own. She gulped and pulled away slightly.

The two of them looked at one another, with desire written all over their faces and in their eyes, Xena slowly pulled Gabrielle towards her and kissed her passionately everywhere on Gabrielle's face except her lips. Slowly, Xena moved to be on top of her love and slowly spreaded Gabrielle's legs apart. Kissing her on the lips, she allowed her tongue do some exploring as her hands did the same with Gabrielle's body.

They hadn't done this in a while, too long in fact for the both of them. Just as they were reaching their climax, Kiko entered the tent. Her jaws dropped at the sight of her Warrior Princess astride the bard on HER bed. The three of them just looked at one another, surprise and astonishment on every one of those red faces.

"Sorry. I should have announced myself, I forgot that this isn't my tent right now. My apologies... um, I'll leave you two alone to... finish up... um, breakfast is ready and Ephiny would like to leave immediately after breakfast... just thought you might want to know..." Kiko awkwardly stammered, the usual confidence in her voice missing completely. She bowed her head and hurriedly walked out of the tent.

Kiko walked blindly straight ahead, fortunately for her that way was the right way to the meal tent where some of her companions were already having their hearty breakfasts. Janis and Tarsi were already there, chatting softly to one another at the head of the enormous table, an empty seat between them.

Tarsi giggled as Janis recounted the night she had just shared with their leader, "I'm getting jealous..." she grinned, not meaning it at all. "Oh don't worry, it's gonna be your turn tonight..." Janis reassured her and then they shared a laugh.

They noticed their lover/leader entering the tent and heading their way almost immediately. They both also noticed the stunned expression on her face. Looking at one another they silently agree not to ask what was wrong, for they weren't sure if they truly wanted to know. Things had been so different since Xena arrived... their thoughts trail off as Kiko seated herself at the empty seat. The two of them proceeded to fuss around Kiko.

Soon Kiko found herself relaxing, slowly, but more and more she got angry. Angry at herself, for almost losing control, but most of all for wanting Xena more than she should. "Fool! You already have Janis AND Tarsi! How can you also want Xena?? Stupid fool!" she scolded herself bitterly. "Especially when you know that her heart already belongs to another. Another so much worthier than yourself..."

She stopped scolding herself when she noticed Xena and Gabrielle entering the meal tent. They had dressed hastily after Kiko left. And since they did not know the way to the meal tent, they had to depend on Gabrielle's nose to find their way. Kiko carefully avoided Xena's eyes, knowing that she would not be able to bear the intensity of Xena's blue and that her own eyes would betray her very confused feelings right now.

Tarsi waved Xena and Gabrielle to the empty reserved seats just beside her and Gabrielle waved excitedly at Ephiny who was seated beside Janis. Kiko's eyes continued to avoid both Xena's and Gabrielle's.

"Kay..." Xena started but Kiko raised her hand up and rose from her seat, addressing everyone in the tent,

"Listen up, everybody! Unfortunately Ephiny has to leave us after breakfast. Theresa, you'll escort Ephiny back home... I will not be able to send you off personally, Ephiny. I do beg your pardon but Tarnis and I have not exercised for some time, she probably hates me right now. I'll not be surprised if she throws me off..." laughter erupted in the tent.

Only Xena and Gabrielle look a little uncomfortable, Tarsi leaned towards them and explained in a low voice, "Tarnis is Kiko's horse... she can be very temperamental."

Gabrielle nodded vigorously in agreement, "Horses can be very temperamental..." and for that she got an elbow at her ribs from Xena.

", if you'd excuse me, Ephiny." Kiko walked over to Ephiny and kissed Ephiny's hand and headed outside. Xena would have loved to follow Kiko but when a plateful of delicious warm food was placed in front of her, she suddenly found herself feeling like Gabrielle and so she decided to eat first and then follow Kiko.

A hearty round of goodbyes were exchanged between Ephiny and the rest of Kiko's companions. After Ephiny managed to extract a promise of a visit from Xena and Gabrielle, she finally left, escorted by Theresa and her squad of 5, satisfied.

"Gabrielle! Great! There you are..." Gerias shouted as she walked closer, "...are you ready for Athens? I heard that there might be a small competition there, if we hurry, we might be able to join or at least listen to the participants."

"That's great! I'll go get my stuff. Um, Xena, you sure you're gonna be okay?"

"Yes, Gabrielle, I'm very sure and now with this competition... you've got to go." Xena pauses for a moment, "Why don't I go get Argo? I'll see you off at the fork, that would give me a chance to exercise Argo as well." Gabrielle nodded her agreement and ran off towards the tent as Xena made her way to the stables.

She found Tarsi there quietly grooming her horse, "Where can I find Kiko?" Tarsi looked up, "Well, there are several places you can try... did the two of you quarrel or something? That was so unlike Kiko..."

"No, I think she just saw something she didn't want to see. Tell me where the places are..." Tarsi nodded and told Xena, all the while brushing her horse, never missing a beat. Xena finished saddling up Argo.

"Don't worry about Gabrielle, Xena. Kiko has instructed five of my most skilful companions to follow them discreetly from the trees. They will be safe." It was as if Tarsi knew of Xena's secret fear.

"Kay... Kiko, I mean, is deliberately sending Gabrielle away, isn't she?"

Tarsi nodded, "She doesn't want Gabrielle hurt. Nantra never said for Gabrielle not to leave, only you. Gabrielle will be placed in unnecessary danger here and you won't be able to concentrate fully with any problems that might arise..."

"She's right. As always... like always." Xena left the stables with Argo.

"Bye, Gabrielle. Try not to get into trouble, okay?" Xena teased Gabrielle. Gabrielle just gave a snort as Gerias pushed the horses pulling their wagon forward. Xena could sense Kiko's companions following the two bards from the trees, smiling again, "Keep her safe..." she whispered. She then spurred Argo towards an area Tarsi thought Kiko might have headed for.

Finally, after several attempts, Xena located Kiko. Kiko was practising with her sword while Tarnis was contentedly grazing the grass nearby. Her swordplay was as beautiful as Xena's and even more deadly, as if that were possible.

Xena watched silently, deeply fascinated and enthralled, mixed within a deep sense of pride. "So, this is how Gabrielle must feel every time I do this..." she mused. Suddenly Kiko stopped and Xena knew Kiko knew she was here.

She walked out of the shadows, greeting Kiko with a warm smile. Kiko smiled ruefully, "I know I will not be able to hide from you."

"Oh, you probably could... you just didn't really want to, did you?"

"No. We do need to talk... first, I'm sorry for my indescribable behaviour at the tent... my feelings for you will never change. I just don't know how to describe them. I don't *love* love you the way I love Janis or Tarsi. But I do *love* you and I can't help but feel jealous every single time I see you intimate with someone else. Be it Borias or Gabrielle. I'm sorry. That's awfully selfish of me (sighing deeply) but I really can't help it."

She looked desperately at Xena, "I thought that with the passage of time, that feeling will slowly change. But it hasn't. I guess it never will... It has already caused you one loved one, I don't want it to cause another..." she said regretfully.

"Don't fight it. Don't stop giving me your *love*. I feel the same way about you too. You were just a girl when you were with me, now you have TWO lovers and a camp full of faithful and loyal companions. At difficult times, your *love* was all that I had to remember when you were gone. It was all I had for a long time. It was all I needed for a long time. But I don't want to *love* love you, like I want to with Gabrielle. But I promise you, I won't do it here. And I won't try to do it on your bed again..." Xena smiled at her own last statement, which also drew a chuckle from Kiko, "You two better behave on my bed. I have to sleep in there for a long time to come you know!" they laughed together.

"Remember also the time when you tried to bring Cilia to MY bed? Your face when I caught the two of you was priceless..." Xena reminisced laughingly.

Time passed. The whole morning was almost over by the time they finished reminiscing their third story together. Kiko stomach growled a loud protest which drew a laugh from Xena.

"C'mon. We better go before you starve to death... serves you right for storming out of breakfast..." She pulled Kiko up and together they walked towards their horses.

"For your information, oh mighty Warrior Princess, I didn't STORM out, okay? I walked out, graciously and with fair explanation." Kiko defended herself.

Xena, smiled and casts her eyes at the white-coloured Tarnis, almost as magnificent of a beast as Argo, Xena thought. Almost. Tarnis... hmm... "Kay, Tarnis. Isn't that ..." Kiko looked at Xena and grinned, "Yeah, that's Tarsi and Janis combined."

"That's so sweet of you." Xena cooed. Kiko could not decipher the tone of Xena's voice. Was that for real or just a tease? She couldn't tell and Xena face was emotionless, much like always.

Lunch was a much better affair than breakfast. Most of the tension in the camp's gone. So was Tarsi, who was off heading yet another raiding party. Xena was feeling more relaxed than ever before, her head still bothered her a little, but other than that, she felt really, really good. And knowing the fact that Gabrielle was somewhere safe gave her great comfort.

Then Nantra entered the tent. Kiko immediately noticed Nantra's stern countenance. She sensed a wave of unease passing over her entire body. She tried to shrug it off, 'What is Nantra hiding from me about this test?' Then it struck her, 'By the Gods, don't tell me it's them. I haven't told anyone about them yet.' She panicked and grabbed hold of the table to try and steady herself.

Xena saw the look of dread on Kiko's and automatically reached out for her dear friend. Kiko gratefully accepted Xena's hand and gripped it tightly. "I think I have to tell you of another story soon..." Xena raised her eyebrows, looked slowly at Nantra who was walking towards them.

"It's almost time, my leader. I'm sorry, but I can't tell you more. Cancel all raids for tomorrow. Send the non-fighters away tonight and not a moment later." With that and not a word more, Nantra left the tent. Janis, who had heard it all, followed behind.

Kiko did not rise, neither did Xena. Their hands still tightly in each other's grasp. "Aren't you glad I sent Gabrielle away, Xena?" Xena gave her a Look and then nodded reluctantly. "Janis is a healer, not a warrior. Tarsi is the warrior. Gabrielle is a bard who shall not become a warrior." Kiko mumbled to no one in particular.

Everyone else in the tent tried to finish their food as soon as possible so that they could start the preparations. All the earlier tension returned, only now twice as great as before.

All through the rest of the day, the camp was filled with nervous tension and a hub of activity as everyone tried to ready themselves for the challenge of the next day. The raiding parties slowly returned and they were all soon told of Nantra's warning.

The picture of Xena and Kiko in the tent, seated side by side on the bed, sharpening their swords with uncanny precision and timing was the first thing that greeted Tarsi when she returned. Janis was seated quietly at the table and risen her head when Tarsi entered, while both Xena and Kiko did not look up from their sharpening.

Tarsi smiled weakly at Janis as Janis silently pointed to a seat next to her at the table. Tarsi glanced at Kiko and then at Xena before finally settling on Janis. Janis shook her head, "They've been sharpening their swords here since lunch, speaking of that. Had lunch yet?" Tarsi nodded.

"How were the raids today?" Kiko asked much to Tarsi and Janis' surprise.

"Um, it was great, as always. My squad despatched our target without much difficulties." Tarsi reported, "I'm sure the rest of the squads met their objectives. I'll go and check." With that, she stood up and prepared to go out.

"Nah, not necessary. Don't worry about it. I have to go and make sure that there's enough food supplies to last us a while." She placed her sword down beside her and stood up.

Xena followed suit. "Let me go with you." Kiko was surprised, but she did not refuse the offer.

"Sure, why not? Janis, Tarsi, you know what you have to do. I'll meet you two back here in a while. I don't know who's coming tomorrow, but just in case it's not Callisto, I have to let all of you know something else before it's too late."

Later, in a similar scene as the previous night's. Camp fire, dinner, everyone in the camp (except those on guard duty) sitting around it, waiting for yet another story to unfold from their leader, yet another aspect of their leader that they never knew of. The only difference tonight is the tension that is thickly evident in the air and the absence of Gabrielle and Ephiny. And the utter silence surrounding the camp.

The only other time Nantra had warned them of an impending disaster, Kiko had been captured in a trap set by King Minis of Portia, on whom Kiko had launched several devastating and effective raids. No one in the camp had forgotten that time. Kiko had been captured and tortured until Tarsi led half the camp to break Kiko out of jail. The sight of their bloodied leader hanging by chains was a sight that none who went would ever forget.

"When I was in the Middle Kingdom, I led an army for a King there. He was an ambitious King who was just starting his conquest for the entire Middle Kingdom, even though he was brave, he hadn't had much military experience and he was so, so ruthless. No, that's a gross understatement.

"Xena, you say you were ruthless, you should have seen him. I've never, ever seen anyone as bloodthirsty as him, so demanding of complete and blind loyalty and so... I mean, he knew what he wanted and he was prepared to steamroll over all opposition in order to get to what he want. I... I... helped him conquer the rest of the Middle Kingdom with an army of 100,000. I almost became as bloodthirsty as him.

"The first few conquests was hard, because I didn't know why the enemy soldiers would stand their ground. Even to their deaths. They find it a disgrace to flee a battlefield. So many people had to die needlessly. I tried to drill it into the soldiers of my army that it's not a disgrace to run when the need arose... but I failed.

"So many fell that way, but it was another reason why I was so successful, in fact, I never lost a battle. And I didn't stop until I unified the whole Middle Kingdom. As a reward I was made the Supreme Grand Marshal. The army under my command swelled to 200,000.

"The King crowded himself the First Emperor. I was showered with glory. I was the only one outside the Emperor who was allowed to wear the royal colour of yellow. When people greeted the Emperor, they had to wish him long life for ten thousand years. When people greeted me, they had to wish me long life for a thousand years (laughed). Not that I ever wanted to live that long.

"But I should have guessed, no, I should have known he was going to get jealous of my success and popularity with not only the soldiers but with the common people as well. To think that I trusted someone like him. I paid a very heavy price for it and unfortunately so did many of my men. They paid the ultimate price for staying loyal to me.

"To make a long story short, I was sent to the border to oversee the joining of the walls that already existed there and make them into a 'Great Wall' of sorts. I was betrayed by some of my generals and the Emperor seized the opportunity and sent me back to the capital in chains.

"Nantra engineered my escape and many of my soldiers helped while many of the prison guards turned a blind eye. Many would have lost their lives for that, together with their entire families. That's how ruthless he is.

"I have known for a while now that the Emperor is looking for me. I'm not at all interested but he is a ruthless and cunning man. I don't want to see anyone getting hurt in the process. I would ask all of you to trust me in all that I might do to counter him. I have had much time to think about how to counter attack anything he might throw at me and if I can have anything to do with it, no one would get hurt. Do you all trust me?"

"YES!!" her companions shout in unison. They felt prepared for anyone and anything that might come their way. "Do you trust me, Xena?" Kiko asked softly.

Xena had been very quiet through Kiko's telling. She had remained silent when the rest had shouted. Her silence unnerved Kiko, "Please, Xena, say something. Anything. Please... Oh no! Not on your life! You didn't MAKE me into anything. Okay? Stop blaming yourself for everything will you? I made my choices, like l made the choice to leave you. Like I made the choice to lead that army. It was MY choice! My choice! You heard that?"

Xena shook her head, "If I hadn't..."

"Xena! Will you please stop that! Stop it, stop it!" Kiko grabbed Xena and gave her a thorough shake. "I need you, Xena. Please don't let me down. Please." Kiko pleaded. Xena finally nodded and Kiko released her.

"Thank you. Now, non-fighters, are you ready to leave for Amazon territory? As usual, Tarsi, you and your squad will guard them with your lives. No camp is complete without its cooks and healers. Don't let me down."

"We won't, Kiko." Tarsi swore. The non-fighters gathered to say goodbye to the rest of the camp.

Kiko hugged and kissed both Janis and Tarsi, "Sorry, Tarsi. I'll make it up to you on your return. Keep them safe."

Kiko watched her two loves leave with a heavy heart. She knew instinctively that her life would never be the same again, she only hoped that she doesn't change... 'no, I'll not change, not with Xena around. If I change, she's going to blame herself, as if she doesn't do that enough already.' She felt Xena standing behind her.

She turned and looked into Xena's intense gaze. "Kay, we have to sleep. Big day tomorrow."

"Sure, okay everyone. Go and rest up. We'll need all the energy we have tomorrow." She walked away with Xena and placed her hand on Xena's arm, "Xena, can I sleep on the floor?" she asked sheepishly.

Xena just gave her a wide smile, "Why not? This is your camp."

As they were heading for Kiko's tent, Kiko caught sight of Nantra. "Nantra! What are you doing here still?"

"I'm staying. I have to stay." Nantra looked strangely at Kiko.

"Okay, if you say so..." Kiko was uneasy all over again, 'there's something Nantra is hiding from me, but just what is it?' She brooded over it while getting ready for bed. She found herself helping Xena off her armour, never saying a word, she didn't even notice Xena smiling at her.

"When was the last time you did this?" This snapped Kiko out of her thoughts and she smiled back at Xena,

"Must have been more than 6 years back, I think." They shared a laugh, knowing that it might be their last for a while.


Morning came too soon for the two of them. They had hardly slept at all, spending the entire night talking. Talking about everything and nothing, trying to get what might come the next day out of their minds. Suddenly, alarms were sounded. Both Xena and Kiko hurriedly put on their armour and drawing their weapons, they rushed as one out of the tent.

Only to be greeted by the sight of Janis' dead body at the centre of the camp.

"NO!!!!" went the anguished cry.

Chapter 12

"NO!!!!" Kiko was about to run towards her love's mutilated body when Xena held her back strongly. Sure enough, Callisto jumped down from a tree and was followed shortly by many other soldiers, all wearing the same armour. Still another group of soldiers riding horses attack the entrance to the camp. Kiko's companions soon regained their composure, many of them incensed over seeing Janis' body.

Kiko gave the signal and they started the attack. Xena was immediately surrounded by Callisto, "See, Xena! I will destroy everyone who helps you. EVERY SINGLE ONE!" and Kiko herself had to deal with several soldiers at once.

Kiko then noticed the regally dressed man leading the horsemen, "Prince Manis of Portia, I should have known..." She easily defeated all the soldiers surrounding her with little problem. She then turned her attention onto Callisto, who was concentrating on her attacks on Xena.

Xena was parrying Callisto's attacks rather well when Kiko decided to take over. "Xena! Let me fight her. Go see if you can find the rest..." Xena looked worriedly and then turned to leave.

Callisto was about to follow when Kiko stopped her, "Do you know who you just killed? My love! You killed her. I WILL DESTROY YOU!" and the fight began. Callisto was thrown back again and again against the brute strength of Kiko's thrusts. Kiko found herself surrounded with rage and fell into her deadly swordplay dance.

Meanwhile, the rest of the battle was not going well for Prince Manis and his soldiers. Kiko's companions were defeating them easily, even those on horseback were no match for the dual expertise of Kiko's companions.

As Prince Manis was trying to reorganise his army, Tarsi dropped down in front of him. Prince Manis thought he had seen a ghost, "No, I just killed you. You're dead! You're dead..." as he panicked and tried to run from Tarsi.

"I'm no ghost. See, you killed my sister and you're gonna pay for it with your life!" she lunged but other soldiers in the Prince's army defended him. The cowardly Prince fled for his life. Tarsi screamed in frustration and rushed towards the centre of the camp where her sister's true murderer was.

Kiko heard the familiar scream but retained her concentration, instead she smiled, thinking to herself, 'At least Tarsi's all right...' She continued attacking Callisto and actually managed to knock the goddess back several times. But Callisto only sneered at Kiko's attempts to hurt her more permanently.

"You can't hurt me, I'm a goddess..." Callisto laughed but she was stunned when Kiko's sword finally made contact with her skin and she found herself unable to heal the wound instantly. She staggered back uncertainly while Kiko sensing an opening, upped her attack.

"Going somewhere?" Prince Manis looked up and Xena's fist was the only thing he saw before it connected with his head. Xena looked at him, "Not so tough without your army, huh? Boy, I don't want to be you when I bring you back to Kiko..." She lifted the slim built man over her shoulders and carried him back towards the camp.


Callisto was down but not out, just then, Tarsi made her appearance into the camp, wild and screaming, "You killed Janis! You killed my sister!" she rushed towards Callisto, swinging her sword. Without much thought, Callisto lifted a finger and with a blast of fire, incinerated Tarsi till there was nothing left.

Kiko saw it all and went berserk, she threw herself right at Callisto and despite Callisto's best efforts, the goddess was unable to fire another round of flames at Kiko. Kiko lifted her sword and aimed it at Callisto's chest but at the last moment, Callisto broke from Kiko and with an evil laugh, she disappeared, leaving behind a highly frustrated Kiko.

"You'll pay for this, Callisto! You'll pay for this! I swear I will destroy you!" Kiko shouted to the skies. Then she refocused her eyes and met the mournful gaze of Xena who was standing in the middle of the camp, holding the Prince up for all to see.

"I have your precious Prince! Lay down your arms now! Or I'll slit his throat!" Xena shouted. Sounds of weapons being thrown down could be heard.

"Secure them all!" Kiko ordered, "Portia will have to pay for this until I find Callisto..." Kiko quivered and Xena hurried to her side, trying to offer Kiko comfort. "Kay..." she tried.

"No, Xena. I want to feel this pain. I want to remember this agony. I want to remember this so that I can make the responsible parties pay. And Xena, they will pay for this dearly. My sword, Xena, my sword can hurt Callisto." Kiko lifted her sword up, tracing a line across the blade, "This sword was given to me by my Master in Chin. Master must have done something with the blade to enable it to hurt gods. Since Master isn't here, this sword will be my instrument for revenge. Who needs Hind's blood..." Kiko's eyes glinted.

It was like a whole different person Xena was facing. "No, Kay. No." Xena swung Kiko to face her. She stared into those soulless brown and shuddered to herself, "Kay, please. Don't let the bloodlust win. Don't let it taint your soul as it did mine."

"It already has, Xena. It already has." Kiko shrugged Xena's hands off her shoulders and stood up. She glanced across her camp, not a dry eye left amongst the conscious. Most of them had also witnessed Tarsi's demise at the hands of Callisto. It was painful for all of them. They were all feeling and sharing the pain that Kiko was in.

"Casualty report." Kiko calmly called for. Theresa walked up to her leader, "17 dead, 20 others wounded. I've still not heard from the non-fighters and from Tarsi's..."

"I think we can assume that they're all dead." Kiko stated in a monotone. She looked towards the group of prisoners. Theresa spoke up, "Kiko, shall we kill them all?"

"No." Was the flat answer.

"But, Kiko are you just gonna let them get away with it?" a voice rang out from amongst her companions.

"Who says I'm going to let them get away with it?" she growled, "Just be patient. You'll see that revenge will be so much sweeter then... Portia will not get away with this. That bastard and his father will pay for this. I can promise you this."

Xena could not help but feel uneasy over Kiko's promise. Kiko always kept her promises. "Kay, don't be foolish. Next time, Callisto is liable to just shoot you with her fire thing. She's not going to let you get close to her at all..."

Kiko turned around and looked straight into Xena's blue eyes, "Xena, I'LL handle Callisto. She's no longer your problem. She's MINE!" she continued to her tent, Xena just looked back at her with wide open mouth and eyes.

Kiko stopped just before entering her tent and issued her instructions, "Hold Prince Manis for ransom. As the heir to the throne of Portia, his life will be worth a fortune. And I'll have a little fun with him before that. Let 10 soldiers leave with this message for their king. 'King Minis, you have messed with the wrong person this time. It's okay if you hurt me, but it's not the same when you kill people I love. You will send me as much as you think your son's life is worth. I'll decide then if he is worth killing or not. You have 5 days to decide.' Understood that? Good.

"As for the remaining soldiers, construct some cages and throw them inside like the worthless animals that they are. I'll decide what to do to them later. I do not wish to be disturbed, not even by you, Xena." with that she entered her tent and collapsed on the ground sobbing bitterly. "What am I going to do without your calming influences, Janis and Tarsi? What am I going to do? Focus... I have to focus..." as her mind start to churn out the foundations of a plan for revenge.

Chapter 13

Slowly, the survivors from Tarsi's groups and the non-fighters found their way back into camp. They were greeted with much relief and the survivors recounted their ordeal.

All had been as normal as they headed towards Amazon lands when suddenly all hell broke loose as soldiers, Portian soldiers, surrounded them and attacked. They held their ground until the appearance of Callisto and within a short space of time, many of Tarsi's fighters were reduced to ashes. The rest of them ran for their lives but somehow during their flight for survival, Janis was captured. No one knew how Janis had died.

Xena looked helplessly on as the camp went about fulfilling their leader's instructions. She knew she should be with Kay and try to comfort her but she was afraid that she would say something wrong.

'If only Gabrielle were here,' Xena thought with a sigh, 'she'd know what to say to comfort Kay... Gabrielle!' Xena panicked for a moment. 'I hope she's safe. She should be at least halfway to Athens by now.'

"Xena!" Nantra called out, breaking Xena's thoughts, "We sure could use some help here. That is if you feel up to it..."

Xena felt the dull throbbing pain in her head, but decided that it would be best to keep herself busy. "Sure! Where do you need help?" as she walked to join Nantra in treating the injured. Theresa, Melanis and the rest of the squad leaders divided up the numerous tasks among themselves and set about getting the job done.

Several hours later, the final cages were about done. Xena had worked steadily. Kay was still in her tent. Nantra was now no where to be seen, actually she had left soon after Xena started to help. Xena stood up and suddenly found her surroundings spinning wildly as she doubled over in pain and passed out.

"Xena? Xena? Wake up. Please... wake up. I... I... just lost Janis and Tarsi. I can't lose you too. I won't be able to bear it. Please..." Kiko pleaded, tears streaming freely down her already swollen eyes.

Finally Xena opened her eyes. Refocusing, she instantly found the brown, concerned and misty eyes of Kay. She smiled weakly and squeezed Kay's hand. Kay brought Xena's hand up for a kiss.

"I've sent for Gabrielle. You need her by your side. Why didn't you tell me you were hurt in the fight? I would have asked Nantra to have a look at you, I mean you just recovered from that injury. You needn't have fought today..."

"Ssssh..." Xena placed two fingers on Kay's lips, effectively silencing her. "You need me here. I'm not going to leave..." Xena started to say, still feeling very tired with the pain in her head not totally gone, she closed her eyes wearily.

Kay started a fresh round of worry, "Xena. I... I don't know where Nantra is and... and Janis is... I don't really know what I have to do for you. What should I do?"

"There's nothing much you can do, Kay. Don't worry about it. I'll be fine in a while." Xena tried her best to reassure Kay.

"Are you sure? Maybe I should get Joanis to check... or Steffi..."

"No. There's no need to. They're needed outside, so are you." Xena said slightly reproachfully. "You need to overcome this, you need to be strong. Go to your companions and let me rest alone."

Kiko nodded in agreement and rose from her seat, pulling the blankets to cover Xena up to her shoulders, finally satisfied that Xena was as comfortable as possible, she turned round and left the tent.

"Kiko, are you all right?" Theresa asked worriedly as soon as she spotted her leader.

"I'm as okay as I can be, under the circumstances... how's everything else?"

"The cages have been constructed, the prisoners placed in them. The prince is alone in one cage. And I've sent scouts out to recall Gabrielle and Gerias as instructed, they should return by tomorrow afternoon. Lunch is ready and... the bodies are being prepared for their last rites..."

Kiko nodded her head curtly, "Theresa, go ask the cooks to make something light for Xena. She's resting in my tent." Theresa nodded and walked away.

Kiko walked slowly run her camp, numbly nodding at the greetings thrown towards her as she made her way towards the healers' tent. But just as she reached the tent, she hesitated just outside and dropping her head and shutting her eyes, she turned back instead and returned to her own tent.

Entering, she noticed that Xena was now asleep, and that there was a big bowl of warm broth on the table. Kiko looked around her tent, sadly remembering that barely two nights ago... that seemed like ages ago... she thought back to the good memories that this tent stirred within her soul when she noticed Xena awakening and she was by her side in a flash.

"Are you all right? Are you thirsty? Do you think you can eat something? Are you..."

Xena couldn't help but laugh, "You sound just like Gabrielle ... let's see. Yes, yes, I think I'll be able to keep it down."

Kiko gave Xena a tiny grin while helping her to get up, she walked to the table and brought the broth to Xena, "Speaking of Gabrielle, I've sent scouts to recall her. She should be back by tomorrow afternoon."

"Thanks, I'm missing her very much already."

She reached for the broth but Kiko gently slapped her hand away, "Let me help you and yes, I thought you would."

"Kay, I don't need you to feed me..."

"Xena, humour me? I think I deserve some humouring, don't you?" Xena thought about it for a while and then decided not to stop Kiko.

Kiko blew gently into the spoon and brought it to Xena's mouth. Xena took it hungrily and exclaimed, "That tastes great!"

"Good, I guess that means my best cooks are still alive..." Xena glanced at Kiko but Kiko's face was devoid of any emotions.

"Kay, what are you planning to do? And who is he?"

"He is the prince of the lands of Portia. His name's Manis, his father, the king, is Minis. He once captured and whipped me (Xena flinches at the mention of whipping), so you see, you're not the only one to have whipped me. But I'll make him pay dearly for helping Callisto. And for my loves' deaths."

Xena knew that there was nothing she could do right now to persuade her otherwise. But she's starting to become concerned about what Kiko had in mind. 'Whatever she's planning, it's not going to be pretty... for them and for us to see. Wish Gabrielle was here, I bet she'd be able to persuade Kay not to do anything silly...' Xena thought as she accepted spoonful after spoonful of broth fed to her by Kiko.

"Remember the last time you fed me?" Xena asked, looking into Kiko's eyes.

Kiko allowed herself another small smile, "Yeah. Too many arrows to pluck out of the air, huh?" Xena laughed and allowed herself to relax slightly, especially when Kiko finally laughed with her.

That night, the camp was calm. The various squad leaders were doing their daily reporting to Kiko around the fire. Xena was seated beside Kiko. Nantra still hadn't returned and Kiko had already sent scouts out to locate her.

Looking around her, Kiko mused, "Look at us, depleted but not broken. Together, we will persevere and we will avenge those who died for us." All around her, her companions nodded their heads in solemn agreement.

"We will not rest until we have our revenge, Kiko. For those who died." Melanis said. Everyone raised their swords and brought it down, slashing themselves slightly on their arms, "For those who died!"

The significance of their vow was not missed on Xena. She worriedly looks up at Kiko, she shuddered when she saw Kiko smiling evilly. "Blood vengeance..."

"Starting tomorrow, every single person in the camp will learn at least one weapon. If not for anything, for self-defence. All the cooks, healers, stable hands, etc. EVERY one in the camp will learn to defend themselves. Every warrior in the camp will now train in THREE weapons instead of two. Never will we be caught out again. NEVER!" Kiko instructed.

As she was about to continue, Brutus rushed up to Kiko. "Kiko, there's a huge army approaching. But they are approaching with no visible weapons."

"And..." Kiko prompted when he trailed off.

"They are dressed very differently. They look different, shorter, dark and I think, long-haired as well. I mean, they wear their hair in a roll or something like that. All soldiers as far as I can see, marching in four columns, there must be at least 3,000 of them. In the middle of the pack..."

"In the middle of the pack..." Kiko prompted again after Brutus trailed off.

"Some soldiers are carrying a portable chair of sorts and a big wagon."

"No visible weapons?"

"None, Kiko. What should we do?" Brutus asked.

'Could it be them?' Kiko wondered as she addressed Brutus, "Brutus. Order them to lay down their weapons, tell them your leader Kay would like to see them. Remember to say my name, Kay, clearly. Escort them here and be careful. If they are who I think they might be, they will lay their weapons down at the mention of my name, if they do not, attack them."

Brutus saluted Kiko and went to follow his orders. "Melanis, Ping, go and help him out. Just in case, they're not here in peace..." Both Melanis and Ping nodded and soon were headed out with their respective squads.

Silence enveloped the camp while the rest awaited for Brutus to return with their not totally unexpected guests anxiously. "They're here!" the guard at the watch tower shouted.

Kiko stood up and braced herself at the first sight of what was once a familiar sight, her elite army. "It IS them... Janis, Tarsi... my loves. Hear my thoughts, soon I will be able avenge you. Vengeance will be yours and mine to savour..." Kiko thought at the sight of her former soldiers marching smartly in columns of four into her camp as her plan slowly unfolded in her mind.

Xena stared at her, getting increasingly worried by the minute at the bloodlust so evident in Kiko's eyes...

Chapter 14

The seemingly weaponless soldiers soon entered the camp, smartly marching in their four columns and true enough to Brutus' observations, there was a wagon in the middle of the pack. And 2 sedan chairs as well. The soldiers carrying the chairs set them down carefully.

A closer look at the army right now, revealed that it was fewer than the 3,000 that Brutus had previously reported. Kiko smiled almost to herself, 'I see they still remember the trick I taught them...'

A man dressed in a very elaborate robe and a funny looking headgear stepped out from one of the sedan chair, he walked purposefully out to the front, he knelt down immediately. The rest of the soldiers swiftly followed suit.

They addressed Kiko in a strange language and in complete unison. Kiko walked up to one of the soldiers at the front, who was kneeling beside the regally dressed man. This soldier's armour was a little more elaborate than the others, "Ming, what are you doing here?"

Her companions and Xena looked at her in surprise and they were positively shocked when the soldier Kiko had addressed answered in halting, but passable Greek, "Minister Li has an Imperial Edict for you, Grand Marshal." He said without looking or rising up. All of the soldiers remained on the ground, none daring to look at Kiko.

"Do I have to receive it?" Kiko asked as she turned to face her companions again.

Another soldier, dressed even more elaborately than Ming and who had been kneeling on the other side of the first man, answered, "Of course, Grand Marshal! You HAVE to receive it." He rose from the ground, hearing this, Kiko swung back and glared at him. He immediately sank back to the ground again.

"Did I give you permission to rise?" Kiko said with a raised eyebrow.

"No. No, Grand Marshal. You did not. I do beg your forgiveness. I just thought you might want to see a few people we met on our way here..." he signalled to some soldiers behind him.

A few of the soldiers crawled towards the wagon and pulled out Nantra, Gabrielle, Gerias and several other companions of Kiko's! All of them were securely tied up and Gabrielle was spotting an ugly bruise on the right side of her face, her eye almost swollen shut. Several others also spotted bruises on various different parts of their bodies, but nothing really serious that anyone could see.

Xena stepped forward angrily once she caught sight of Gabrielle but Kiko stopped her, "Xena, let me handle this..." she urged her quietly. Xena, although still flushing with anger, nodded her head but she did not step aside.

Ming looked distressed, he knew his Grand Marshal well enough to know that they were all in big trouble.

"All right then, General Jing." Kiko coldly addressed the rude soldier who suddenly looked worried, "Since you force my hand... first, you may all rise," the soldiers rose from the ground in unison saying something in the same foreign language that they had greeted Kiko in the beginning.

"Minister Li," Kiko continued, "Let's get this over and done with, shall we? And oh, read the edict in Greek so that my companions here can understand. You do remember the Greek I taught you, don't you?"

"Of course, Grand Marshal. I have never forgotten anything that you have taught me..." replied the Minister, his head bowed low.

He took a step forward while Kiko went down on one knee saying, "Kay receives the edict."

"By the order of the Imperial Son of the Heavens: The Supreme Grand Marshal is hereby pardoned of all crimes against the Emperor and the empire. The Supreme Grand Marshal is required back to the empire as soon as possible to resume command of the Royal Imperial Army, numbering 400 banners.

'As an act of my faith in the Supreme Grand Marshal, she is hereby conferred upon the Imperial Sword of Heaven and the Seal of Authority (at this two soldiers brought out two boxes, one long and the other cube, and opened them to show Kiko the contents - the long box contained a sword, the other a jade seal in the shape of a lion). Um ..."

He stumbled, Kiko looked up and smiled at him. "Yes, that last word is a little tricky to translate, isn't it?" Minister Li smiled shyly at the Supreme Grand Marshal. Kiko rose to her feet without a word.

He looked surprised and slightly alarmed, "Do you accept the edict, Supreme Grand Marshal?"

Kiko looked at him, "Can I refuse?" she asked quietly.

He shook his head, "No... I'm afraid not..." he replied softly.

"I thought as much..." and she took the edict that Minister Li had held out towards her. The soldiers knelt down again, this time they spoke in Greek, "Our deepest respects to the Supreme Grand Marshal, may you live a thousand years!"

Kiko laughed loudly as she glanced back at Xena and the rest of her companions. She saw Xena and many of her companions standing by, watching the entire spectacle unfold with their mouths wide open in shock.

"You may all rise..." Kiko said regally.

The soldiers started to rise saying, "Thank you, Supreme Grand Marshal." Then one of the soldiers started to chant, "Kay! Kay!" and he was quickly joined by the rest of the soldiers until Kiko raised her right hand slightly and they all fall silent instantly.

"General Jing, if you would be so kind to release Nantra and the others..." General Jing signalled a few of the soldiers standing by Nantra, Gabrielle, Gerias and the others, "NO!! I said YOU release them." General Jing looked at Kiko in surprise, "You dare defy MY direct order?" Kiko's eyes started to gleam dangerously.

"No! Of course not, I would never dare..." as he walked swiftly towards the bound women and started to cut them free. 'Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all...' he thought to himself as he released his captives as quickly as he possibly could.

Nantra was the first to be released, she immediately walked towards Kiko and looked at her sadly, "Don't start down this road...". But Kiko mouthed the words, 'I know what I am doing', to her. Nantra still looked worried but walked off to the side. Gerias was the next one to be freed and then followed by Gabrielle.

Kiko gently lifted Gabrielle's face up as Gabrielle walked by her and examined her bruise. "Who hurt you?" she asked.

"The man you called general..."

"Ah, I see..." she walked with Gabrielle towards Xena, "Xena, please take Gabrielle to my tent for a well-deserved rest. Nantra, I really think you should take a good look at this bruise..."

Xena nodded and started to lead Gabrielle away followed by Nantra. Gabrielle looked back at Kiko but she had already turned her back against her.

Kiko walked purposefully back towards the soldiers, an air of command surrounding her. She strode up to General Jing who looked down at his boots uncomfortably, she slapped him tightly and he fell to his knees in an instant.

Gabrielle heard the commotion and tried to go back, but Xena gently and insistently pulled her away in the opposite direction, "C'mon, Gabrielle. She's disciplining her soldier, that's not interesting. I can think of some things that are more interesting to do than that..." she had a mischievous twinkle in her eye and then almost as immediately she turned serious again, "What happened? How did you and Gerias get captured?"

"Overnumbered..." Gabrielle shrugged, "...and we were sound asleep." Xena shook her head, "Can't leave you alone for a few days, can I?"

"I'm sorry, Grand Marshal..." General Jing tried to explain. "I..."

"Say no more... you will be punished. All of you will be punished for this indiscretion. Slap yourselves. And do not stop until I say so. DO IT NOW!!" The soldiers knelt down again and started to slap themselves.

She turned and walked to her group of stunned companions standing numbly behind. "Hey, guys! Go to bed. All of you. You need it. These fellas will guard the camp for the rest of tonight. They will not be going anywhere."

"The whole night, Kiko? You're going to make them slap themselves the whole night?" Melanis asked in complete astonishment.

"Don't worry about them, they've been through this form of punishment many times before. Go on now, go to sleep. Tiring day today, isn't it?" she pointed out in a light tone.

The rest of her companions soon started to slowly troop back to their tents still astonished at the sight before them. Kiko tried to give them all a quick and hopefully reassuring hug.

Much later, and only when all of her companions had gone back to their tents. Kiko slowly picked her newly conferred upon sword up from the ornate box. She examined the intricate cravings on the sheath for a while and then walked in front of the still-slapping-himself General Jing,

She threw the sword on the ground, "Kill yourself..." she ordered simply. General Jing was momentarily stunned. "You wanted the Grand Marshal again, didn't you? Well, you got your wish. The Grand Marshal you know will not let this go unpunished, would she?"

General Jing nodded in agreement, "Yes, Grand Marshal, she wouldn't. It has been a honour to serve under you and I'm truly sorry for what I had done..." and with one stroke he sliced his throat from left to right.

Kiko watched his suicide without batting an eyelid, she waited a little longer and then addressed the rest of the soldiers, "Okay, the rest of you can stop now." The slapping stopped.

"Get his body out of my sight and clean the place up. All of you are on guard duty tonight. Extra guards for the prisoners in the cages at the north-eastern part of the camp. If anyone escapes..." she did not need to continue with her threat.

"Ming, come with me..." and with that she walked towards her tent, immediately noticing the flap of the tent being hastily closed, "Xena! Gods, please let it be Xena..." she thought, a slight panic building up inside her.

"Wait here." she commanded to Ming as she ran the rest of the way to the tent.

Chapter 15

It was Xena. Gabrielle's already asleep and Nantra's already gone. Xena looked at Kiko coldly, "I hope you have a better reason than the fact that he hit Gabrielle. You know she wouldn't have wanted that."

"Actually, I do, Xena. I do have a better reason than that. I thought you know me better than that..." Kiko started.

"Well, I'm not sure if I know who you are anymore..."

"He was one of those who betrayed me..." Xena stared at Kiko who stared equally hard back. "He was a trusted lieutenant of mine. He did far worse to me than what Darphus did to you, Xena. He betrayed me and was promoted to General for 'services to the empire'."

"Is there anything else you haven't told me yet?" Xena asked, her anger rising slightly but now understanding Kiko's violent reaction, but still not completely. She calmed herself down, "What are you going to do now? When do you have to go back to the Middle Kingdom?"

"It wasn't as if I had a choice, did I? I HAD to accept the edict. Once I accepted the edict, I'm the Grand Marshal again and those soldiers out there would now follow me again. They won't dare question me and I can promise you this, I will NEVER serve under that... that... tyrant, for the want of a better word, ever again, EVER!" Kiko is practically shouting now.

Gabrielle moaned and stirred a little, Xena and Kiko both looked at her. "Sorry. I forgot..." Kiko apologised.

"That's okay. Let's go outside..." Xena said as she turned and walked out of the tent. Kiko followed without another sound.

"Guard this tent with your lives. Allow no one to enter without my permission." Kiko barked out the order to a small group of soldiers who have gathered outside.

"As you command, Grand Marshal." one of the soldiers replied, bowing deeply at Kiko. Kiko turned her attention to Ming, "Ming, I'm placing you in charge of the security of the camp for tonight. Don't let anything happen..."

"I'll not let you down, Grand Marshal... not again..."

"I know you wouldn't, Ming." Kiko paused as she stared hard at Ming, "How did you escape his wrath anyway?"

Ming looked up with great sadness in his eyes, "My brother and his family took the blame. I survived by the skin on my teeth. But I lost the rest of my family, though..."

"Tremendous price to pay, isn't it?" Kiko mused.

"You are more than worth it, Grand Marshal. For all that you had done for me and my family... and the fact that I let you down so badly... I'm sorry."

"All is forgiven, Ming. All is forgiven."

"And forgotten?" he asked with a hopeful voice, even though he knew in his heart that it was too much to ask for.

"Forgiven, not forgotten, Ming. How can I ever forget? I never forget, but it doesn't mean I never forgive. Don't be so hard on yourself though, Ming." She placed a kind hand on his right shoulder and squeezed tightly.

Ming looked back gratefully, "You know you can count on me and all the men that I have specially hand-picked for you here. We are yours, willingly. I have more information for you..."

Kiko stopped Ming's barrage of words, "I am counting on all your loyalties, Ming. And everything else can wait till tomorrow morning when all my companions have rested." She turned to leave the camp, "I'll be counting on your loyalties..." she said, her voice softer, almost to herself.

Xena had looked on the exchange with no visible emotions, but her head was just spinning round and round, trying to absorb all the information. 'So much has happened... so many things... do I know this woman anymore?' She thought to herself as she and Kiko headed out for the forest.

Xena couldn't help but notice all the soldiers standing at absolute attention at various points surrounding the entire camp. "How does she do that?" as she panned the entire camp, she noticed Nantra observing from the side. Nantra raised her finger to her lips and Xena nodded in understanding.

"If you're not going back to the Middle Kingdom, then how are you going to explain that to your 'army' back at the camp?" Xena asked Kiko as they headed for the same clearing they had been only the previous morning.

"I don't have to explain anything to this bunch. Especially now that their General is gone..."

"Care to explain further?"

Kiko eased herself to the ground and patted the spot beside her, urging Xena to take a seat as well. Xena looked at her blankly. Kiko explained, "This might take a while..."

Xena settled down immediately and glanced at Kiko with expectation.

"What do you want to know?"

"Everything, Kay. Everything. And don't leave anything out this time."

"After I left you, I headed east. I had heard many stories about the Far East from you and others so I decided to go there. However, along the way, I met Nantra. Actually, I saved Nantra from a group of bandits. But I was injured in the process and Nantra ended up saving me instead."

"But how did you come to serve under that Emperor."

"Patience, Xena. Well, okay, but you should know this, Nantra's originally from an island country beyond the Middle Kingdom. She wanted me to go with her back home, and since I had no where specific to go... Well, anyway, on our way there, we passed the Kingdom of Qing and, oh by the way, one more thing, Nantra had taught me how to speak their language.

"While we were there, we saw some men attacking a defenceless young woman. I stopped them. Later, I would learn that she was the sister to the King of Qing and she had sneaked out of the palace to have some fun when she ran into those men, whom I also learned were assassins sent by a rival state. She insisted that her brother 'hire' me as her personal bodyguard. I was hardly given any choice...

"But slowly, as with you, I worked my way up to the top of the army hierarchy. A year after I entered the state, I voluntarily led an army of 3,000 against a rival army twice the size of mine. I annihilated the rival army when I wasn't even expected to survive, let alone win. But win, I did. And so I returned victorious, busking all in glory and I was made Commander of an army of 10,000.

"I had 10 lieutenants, two of them were Ming and Jing. The junior minister who was appointed to be our official record keeper was Li."

"Why am I not really that surprised?" Xena said softly.

Kiko would only grin sheepishly, "They followed me right to the end. So did many of the soldiers you see in the camp right now. I led them all at one time or another... which actually isn't saying a lot. I mean, I eventually led the entire Imperial army of 200,000 or 200 banners."

"The edict..." Xena tries to remember what the edict had said exactly.

"He's tempting me back with 400 banners, Xena. 400 banners. Like I would care. I never cared much for the number of soldiers that I had. In fact, most of the times, I would leave a large part of the army back at the main camp. Too much trouble leading so many soldiers. I can't always be sure that they were following my specific orders.

"(pause) It was very, very hard. But the Emperor liked the facade surrounding my mystique. He felt that it reflected upon him an air of invincibility, as long as I was serving him. Of course, it didn't hurt my reputation that I never lost a battle or a duel."

"The duel's fought most of the times, in the beginning of any battle, between the leaders or champions of the two opposing armies. If the leader falls, his army would be demoralised and hence easier to crush.

"Many of my battles were won that way. Defeating the army's Commanding Officer and then the wiping out the rest of his army. Though sometimes the army left behind would in fact put up an even tougher resistance, but what matter most was that I never lost.

"It was what happens after my victory that never fails to sicken me. The depth of depravation that man would get into... ... he... he would always insist that I capture alive all the members of the enemy royal families.

"He would behead the other king in the centre of his capital, the rest of the male members would be set free in a large cage one by one for his lions. The rest have to watch until it was their turn. Often, he would insist that I watch with him."

"What happened to the women and children?" Xena just shuddered at the thought of what fate could have installed for them. She's finally seeing the nightmare that Kiko and the inevitable darkness that she was in. Why had she stayed?

"Slaves. The older ones were forced into a nunnery. In fact, almost all the slaves in my palace were all captured from my military campaigns. They..."

"Palace?" Xena was astonished.

"Yeah, the Emperor 'rewarded' me with his old palace. He had a new one built for himself. But I hardly stayed there much. I was always away fighting one state or another."

"How about when after you unified the country?"

"I was betrayed shortly after that."

"Oh." A tension-filled pause followed, "What to talk about it?" she asked softly.

"Why not? Like I said before, I should never have trusted someone like the Emperor. I didn't really count on his jealously factor. I thought that since I had done so much for him, I mean, I virtually created the man's entire empire for him, still that wasn't enough for him.

"I was never really blindly loyal to him and I questioned his decisions a lot. I forgot the basic rule, never question a leader in front of everyone. Makes him feel embarrassed, especially since I have always been proven right.

"I should have guessed something was up when he sent me to the border to 'supervise' the joining of the walls. He accused me of some crap charge and sent me back to the capital in chains. I never thought he would do that and Nantra tried many times to warn me of the danger, but I refused to listen.

"I was whipped and tortured. He wanted me to 'confess' to my crimes, but I knew that once I did, there would be nothing to stop him from beheading me. I waited. I delayed. I knew Nantra and the soldiers loyal to me would think of something.

"Do you want to know something that surprised me? Many of my 'torturers' would refuse to whip me until their superiors would threaten to punish them or their families instead. I would always tell them that it was okay. Have you ever seen big-sized, grown men cry?

"(pause) They would cry after every time they were forced to whip me, they would just kneel down in front of me or my unconscious body and cry and beg for forgiveness. I never knew the depth of loyalty I instilled in the army. (pause) Well, obviously not in EVERY single one. A handful of them did betray me..."

"How did you ever find out who betrayed you?" Xena attention was captured.

"Ming headed the rescue team. Actually, there wasn't much of an attempt made to stop them from rescuing me. Many of my 'captives' in fact wished me well. I knew the wrath of the Emperor would be terrifying. I was not wrong. But I was easily secreted out.

"I tried to persuade Ming to go with me but he refused. I thought I would never see him alive again. I still don't know exactly how many thousands of people would have been sacrificed for my well-being. I will never forget the people who openly helped me and the many more who helped me secretly.

"Sorry, you were asking how I found out who betrayed me. Ming told Nantra and Nantra told me. How would Ming know? Because he was an unwitting party to it. He's a simple man, unlike his brother. His twin is the scholar of the family, one of my personal scribes.

"The people who betrayed me were all rewarded handsomely. Jing, for one, was promoted to General. My third-in-command, Juan was made a Marshal, given the hand of the Princess and control of the Imperial army. The others were made Commanders or higher.

"My second-in-command, Zhao, refused to betray me and was beheaded together with 4 generations of his family. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. I think if I wanted to, I could have easily led a revolution. But I just didn't have the heart for blood anymore, maybe I should have. It would have saved so many lives. But I couldn't make myself. And since I had no place else to go, I came back here..."

"How could you have known about all this executions? I would have thought that you would be long gone by the time of his..." Xena was confused.

"Well, I wasn't. We figured out that the safest place for me was the most dangerous. Ming was with me throughout it all. He received constant update regarding the going-ons in the capital. That's why when he left me at the border, I never thought I would see him alive again."

"What made you stay so long in the first place? I mean, you KNEW how bloodthirsty he was. How could you have been so..."

"Xena, love can blind one to many things. You of all people, should know that..."

"Who were you... the Princess?" it finally dawned on Xena.

"Yeah, the one and only. But she didn't even try to help me. She just abandoned me. I never thought I could ever love again."

"But you did ... how did you meet Janis and Tarsi?"

"Another adventure along the way back." She shrugged, "I think I've done enough story telling for the day, don't you think? Let's keep this for another night, okay?"

Xena smiled widely, "Sure. I'll just let Gabrielle loose on you and then you'll have to tell one way or another..." Xena had that twinkle in her eye and arched her eyebrow for added effect. Kiko just bellowed in laughter, Xena joined in the laughter.

After a long while, they both stopped and looked at one another, deep affection for one another. Wiping the tears from their eyes, they slowly broke their intense gaze and stared quietly into the night. But slowly their fingers found their way to one another and they remained at that same position until day break.

Chapter 16

"What do you plan to do now?" asked Xena while they were walking slowly, hand in hand, back to the camp.

"What do you mean?" Kiko replied innocently.

"You know what I'm talking about. Your army. What are you going to do about your army? And Portia?" the last was said softer.

"Revenge, Xena. I do hope you understand... Janis and Tarsi were the half of my life that kept me sane. I don't know what I'm going to do now without them... ..." she trailed off, eyes watering.

"I'm sure you're gonna manage fine." She hugged Kiko tightly, trying her best to comfort her, "I'm here for you and I want you to know this, I DO understand. But I don't know if Gabrielle will..."

Kiko looked up into Xena's beautiful blue eyes but said nothing. They walked the rest of the way in companionable silence and Xena did not take her arm off Kiko's shoulders until they were within 10 minutes of the camp.

The sweet smell of breakfast was the first thing that greeted them as they walked into the camp. Xena looked on in amusement because every time they met with a soldier from Kiko's army, he would drop down on his knees and greet Kiko, not rising until Kiko gave him specific permission to.

Xena tried to bottle up her ever-increasing urge to laugh, especially when she saw that Kiko wasn't particularly comfortable about all the kneeling. She also noticed that she was not alone, all of Kiko's companions seemed to be just as highly amused by all this. Or maybe they were just happy that none of them had to be on guard duty.

Because of the size of the breakfast crowd, the cooks decided to move the eating area outside. "Xena!" Gabrielle had spotted Xena easily through the crowd. Who wouldn't be able to? "Where have you been all night? I was so worried about you." She asked Xena while giving Xena a quick hug.

Xena looked uncomfortable, "Talking to Kay and you don't have to worry about me. How about you? How are you feeling?"

"I'm okay. It's just a slight bruise ... say, Xena, where's that general person?"

Xena looked back at Kiko with questioningly eyes. And Kiko answered for her flippantly, "He killed himself, Gabrielle. Don't worry about him..." and with that she left Xena and Gabrielle and strode up confidently to the head of the long table.

"She didn't..." Gabrielle looked at Xena with accusing eyes.

"No. Gabrielle, the man killed himself. Now, how about a nice breakfast?"

They walked towards Kiko at the head of the table, Kiko and Ming were already deep in conversation and Kiko seemed to be purposely ignoring both Xena and Gabrielle.

This was not noticed by Gabrielle who did not believe for a moment that 'the general person' would kill himself and was hence angry with Kiko. Xena though, noticed it. And she wondered what might have caused the sudden change in Kiko's attitude. She was still thinking about it when Kiko stood up to speak.

"Everyone!" Everyone stopped eating and looked up at Kiko. "I think everyone should know this man seating beside me by now, but in case any of you don't, his name is Ming. He's my most trusted lieutenant. If he approaches any of you saying that I had asked him to relay a message or order, please believe him. All squad leaders, please meet with me after breakfast at my tent. As for the rest of you, please make the soldiers feel at home, they'll be here for a while. They'll help us in our quest for revenge against Portia!"

Cheers of approval immediately followed Kiko's announcement. Kiko raised her hand and the cheers quieted down, "We will need more tents, one near my own so that Xena and Gabrielle can have their privacy. And the rest, surrounding the outskirts of the entire camp. Ming, I think my companions should know about the..." she was unable to go on.

Ming nodded and rose from his seat while Kiko seated back down glad that Ming had understood what she wanted, as always. "After Grand Marshal's escape, the Emperor's fury was beyond description. My twin brother took the blame for my role in Grand Marshal's escape and was executed along with his wife and his children. I can be considered as lucky, as the rest of the soldiers who had helped Grand Marshal, even the prison guards, had up to 4 generations of their entire family executed..."

At this Kiko visibly cringed, Xena's observant eyes did not miss the look of pure hatred and even self-loathing in those brown eyes.

"How many lost their lives, Ming? I have to know exactly..." Kiko looked up at Ming,

he looks down at his boots, "13,466 died, Grand Marshal."

"Thirteen thousand..." Kiko buried her head in her hands, "... and he expects me to go back?!! Has he gone mad?"

"Yes. But no one dare oppose him. You could have stayed and..."

"And what, Ming? And what? Lead a revolution?"

"Yes. And you would have succeeded. You had the loyalty of almost all of the Imperial Army. You still do... Prime Minister Li Si has grown so powerful with your absence. He fears no one now, except for the Emperor himself."

"Everyone fears the Emperor..."

"Not you, Grand Marshal." Minister Li spoke up.

"I thought I had nothing to fear, after all I gave him his empire. But I guess I was wrong, Li. I was so wrong..."

"You can right that wrong. The empire is facing a severe challenge from the barbarians from the north. Marshal Juan is utterly incompetent, if it were not the fact that he is also the Royal Princess' Consort, I'm sure His Majesty would have gotten rid of him long ago."

"That's why he wants me back, isn't it? He needs me to defeat the northern barbarians... why? Don't the walls work?"

"Of course the walls work. None of your ideas ever go wrong, Grand Marshal. It's just His Majesty wants to be rid of the northern tribes..."

"Even though they have done nothing?" Gabrielle couldn't help but ask.

Kiko answered without looking at Gabrielle, "He wants to conquer the world. He feels that that is his destiny. (pause) Doesn't he sound like someone you know, Xena?"

Xena raised her eyebrow and nodded in agreement, "Yes. Sounds just like someone I know... his destiny to rule the world..." she trailed off thinking about the distant past.

"I'm sorry, Grand Marshal. I... I..."

"What is it, Ming? Speak up."

"There is another army, about three day's ride from here."

"How big? Who's leading it?"

"Head General Yang, Marshal Juan's younger brother, leads the army of 8,000. We have here 2,000 soldiers. And..."

"And?" Kiko prompted.

"The Royal Princess is with them..."

"WHAT?" Kiko stood up in a start. She grabbed hold of Ming's armour, "What is she doing here?" The rest of the soldiers fell on their knees in an instant while Kiko's companions looked on in much surprise.

"Grand Marshal, Her Highness..." Ming started to say when Minister Li interrupted from his kneel position, "Grand Marshal, Her Highness, sneaked out of the palace again. We couldn't make her return, we couldn't leave her be ... she had to come with us. We had no choice."

"How did the spoilt brat fare in the wilds?" Kiko released Ming and shook her head.

"Love, Grand Marshal, can steel even the wildest of hearts..."

"She doesn't care about me anymore, Ming. She's even married."

"I'm sorry, Grand Marshal. But Her Highness says she still loves you. Her Highness..."

"Enough! I will hear no more. She's not welcome here in my camp. I don't ever want to see her again. (angry pause) How loyal are the rest of the army here?"

"Very loyal, Grand Marshal. Very loyal. Not Head General Yang, though, I think..."

"That's okay. A small shrimp like him... Send out a squad to invite the Head General here. Send the Princess away with the proper escort. Tell her I have no desire to ever see her in this lifetime again."

"I'm sure the Head General is going to commit suicide here, isn't he?" Gabrielle said to Xena in a very sarcastic tone. The soldiers nearby, who heard it all, turned to look at Gabrielle angrily.

Kiko, who had also heard Gabrielle's remarks, waved her right hand and said something in the foreign tongue that made the soldiers look up, slightly defiant. Kiko repeated something again, louder and this time the soldiers near Gabrielle stopped looking menacingly at her, bowing deeply to Kiko and started to walk away.

Not Ming though. He too had heard what Gabrielle had said and seemed to open his mouth to say something when Kiko turned her attention to him.

"No," Kiko said firmly and loudly, "she is the companion of the dearest person left in my heart. No harm will come to her. Understood?"

Ming nodded reluctantly. "No matter what she says." Kiko added in a whisper. Xena's heart had sunk when she heard Gabrielle's harsh words but warmed again at Kiko's mention of her in such terms.

"You are right, Grand Marshal. She must be forgiven for her ignorance of such matters..."

"Ignorant? Me!?" Gabrielle retorted angrily.

"Gabrielle... Gabrielle..." Xena tried to get Gabrielle attention unsuccessfully.

"Look! All I know is, NO ONE kills himself for no reason, okay? YOU! (pointing at Kiko accusingly) You, MADE him kill himself, didn't you?" Gabrielle felt herself losing her temper, especially when Kiko remained so calm.

"Yes. I commanded him to kill himself." Kiko seemingly flippantly admited to the audible gasp of several of her companions.

"What? Why? How can you do such a thing? How can you be so cold-hearted? How can the person I thought I knew and liked be like this?" Xena was by now restraining Gabrielle,

"No, Gabrielle. You don't understand..." Xena tried.

"You are so right. I don't understand. I don't understand how YOU can stand by and watch her do something like that?" Gabrielle shook herself free from Xena's strong grib. "Or do you condone what she has done?"

Xena was stunned. "Well? Do you?" Gabrielle asked again.

"I... I..."

"Don't blame Xena for anything, Gabrielle. I was the one who ordered him to kill himself. And don't think that it was because he hurt you, though that did account for something. But more importantly... he was one of the soldiers who betrayed me and greatly benefited from it. Now, would that be reason enough for you, my dear Queen Gabrielle?" Kiko said caustically.

Gabrielle was speechless, as for the rest of her companions who had silently agreed with Gabrielle, their red faces showed it all. Ashamed that they have doubted their leader once again.

"And, by the way, I DON'T need to explain my actions to anyone. Especially to you. You are but a guest here, don't EVER try this again. Squad leaders! I'll see you all in my tent in half an hour. Ming, come with them. Until then, I do not wish to see anyone."

With that Kiko stormed purposefully back to her tent without another word, or even a backward glance at anyone. Xena was torn between following Kiko out or to stay behind and comfort the obviously distressed Gabrielle.

She decided to stay. Grabbing hold of Gabrielle's right hand Xena tried, "Hey... you okay?"

"Yeah, I guess... I'm sorry, I didn't know..."

"It's okay. I'm sure, Kay will forgive you..." 'Yeah, but will she forget this?' Xena thought to herself even while consoling Gabrielle. "The best thing right now would be to leave her alone. Let her cool down, she'd be alright after that." Xena explained further to her young bard. Gabrielle just nodded and continued with her breakfast.

Breakfast resumed quietly and just before the meeting time the squad leaders, Theresa, Brutus, Antonio, Melanis, Ping rose from their seats at the same time, nodding at the also getting on his feet Ming.

Theresa then noticed, "Tami, you're Tarsi's second, you'll come with us too."

Tami quickly finished the last of her breakfast and arose to join the other squad leaders and Ming, Theresa added, "As for the rest of you, spar with each other. Like old times, except this time, get the rest of the soldiers involved, okay? Lesi, will you make sure no one is left out?" Lesi nodded eagerly excited to be given a chance to prove herself. Theresa nodded her encouragement to Lesi and led the way to Kiko's tent.


"I don't know where Nantra has gone to... again. I just hope she hasn't gotten herself caught by... I don't know." Kiko said once her squad leaders were assembled in her tent, "I feel like I don't know what to do about Nantra. But I do know that we need to have the funeral pyre by tomorrow latest. And we need to send a squad out to Portia and see what the 'good' king's answer will be."

"Grand Marshal, may I have the honour of being your messenger again?"

"Ming, it's very risky. That wily king will take advantage of anything..."

"I DO know what I'm placing myself into, Grand Marshal. Please grant me that honour."

"I was thinking about sending the Head General but..."

"I'm sorry, Kiko, but I have to disagree. I mean, the king is not going to know who the hell Ming or the Head General is. But he's going to know who I am or Threez is..."

"Are you volunteering, Melanis?"

"Yes, I am, Kiko."

"Why don't I send you and the Head General. That way, you can help me keep an eye on that man. See if he's on our side or not, can you do that, Mel?"

"Yes, Kiko. I can. Thank you, I won't let you down."

"Good, I know you won't... so that's settled. You won't have to go until three days later. The Head General should be here by then," she turned to look at Ming questioningly, he nodded in agreement, "so, relax until then. Now, Ping, I want you to bring a squad out and find Nantra. Pick out about 15 additional soldiers with Ming's help. Spread out and find her."

"Understood, Kiko." Ping replied.

"Brutus, Antonio, since the two of you are men, I want you both to mingle with the rest of the soldiers. Make them feel at home. Tell them some of our rules, actually you can just tell the section chiefs, Ming will identify them for you. That should keep the two of you busy enough.

"Tami, you're in charge of Tarsi's squad from now on. I know Tarsi's squad suffered the biggest loss in our recent battle, so pick out about 50 men and start to earn their respect. Threez, you will help me handle the funeral arrangements..." and the meeting went on with Kiko giving more instructions.

Chapter 17

Meanwhile, Xena and Gabrielle had entered their newly erected tent, just a few metres from Kiko's. Gabrielle was still upset that she had jumped to the wrong conclusion about Kiko and the accusing looks that she was still receiving from many of Kiko's soldiers. Xena was more than painfully aware of Gabrielle's state of mind, but found herself unable to do anything to relieve her young lover's agony.

Xena hated the feeling of being helpless and found thoughts drifting to Kiko and what instructions she might be giving out about now, scantly 10 metres from her. Probably the funeral arrangements, or maybe, no hopefully, about finding Nantra.

Xena was just glad that Kay had not fallen into a blank-face look. It was the look of someone who was still in a state of shock and unacceptance. She had seen it once in her Kay... her Kay, Xena smiled at that thought.

'Well, she's not mine anymore... she used to be... not anymore. I wish I can tell her just exactly how much she means to me and how...' Xena sighed deeply, 'no. I cannot let Gabrielle down.' She glanced at her all too quiet little bard. 'I WILL not let Gabrielle down,' she thought to herself fiercely, 'but Kay...' she shook her head hard, trying to shake the not so uncommon feelings away from her once again.

A kind of feeling that she had kept tightly locked after she thought that Kay was dead. She had vowed never to let anyone else so near to her again, that was until Gabrielle came along to her life and made her feel all over again. 'And love again... no, I cannot let Gabrielle down. Gods! Why is it so hard? Why now? Kay...'

"Warrior Princess?" Ming's voice broke through Xena's subconscious. She walked to the tent flap and raised it up, sending a ray of sunshine into the otherwise dark tent (not that either Xena or Gabrielle had noticed the darkness earlier) right to where Gabrielle had been sitting with her own thoughts.

Gabrielle squirmed at the sudden illumination and stood up in a start, joining Xena at the opening. She placed a shy hand into Xena's bigger one, only for Xena to shake it off and crossing her arms across her chest. Gabrielle was disappointed but tried not to show it.

"Warrior Princess, sorry for interrupting but the Grand Marshal would like to have a word with you," he looked at Gabrielle at Xena's side and continued, "alone."

"I'll be right there." With that Ming walked away and Xena turned to Gabrielle, "Stay here. I'll go and see what Kay wants to talk to me about, okay?"

Gabrielle nodded sadly, "Xena, please tell her I'm sorry for shouting at her like that. I didn't mean to..."

"Shssh, I'm sure she knows. She probably wants to discuss strategy with me or something military, that will be boring to you." Xena reached down and planted a quick kiss on Gabrielle's forehead and left.

Xena took a deep breath before entering Kiko's tent. Kiko was seated, deeply engrossed with one of the parchments that littered her table, frowning deeply at one of the parchments that held her attention right now.

Xena smiled, she remembered all too well that frown, after all, she had seen it often enough in the past. "You summoned me, oh mighty Supreme Grand Marshal?" Xena teased.

Kiko looked up, exasperated at Xena's teasing tone of voice, "Not now, Xena. I'm in no mood to be teased..."

Xena sobered up with some difficulty, "Well, then why did you call for me?"

"Nantra. I can't find her anywhere. I've sent Ping out to search for her but I was just wondering about last night... did she happen to mention to you if she were going anywhere, you know, when she was looking at Gabrielle's bruise?"

"No, she was all business, then she left. She didn't say anything out of place. Do you want me to help Ping in her search?"

"Nah, not necessary. Ping's my best tracker. Why did Nantra just disappear like this? That's what I can't figure out... just when I needed her most..."

"What's wrong?" Xena asked gently.

"I dunno. It's all so confusing for me... I've never been alone for long. Someone has always been there to guide me, I NEED that." Kiko covered her face with her hands.

Xena walked over next to her Kay and sat down, placing an arm on Kiko's back, "What to tell me all about it?"

"You applying for the job of unwilling ear?"

"Yeah, after all you were mine for a while..." Xena grinned.

"It's just all this guilt that I'm feeling right now..." Kiko started.


"That I had loved Janis and Tarsi unequally. I loved Janis and her sweet and healing disposition. Tarsi was the wild one, kinda like me. I don't... I mean, even when I sleep with her, I almost have to make myself think that it's Janis that I'm sleeping with and not Tarsi. Sometimes I'll slip and call her Janis when we were, you know..."

"You never loved Tarsi?" Xena was incredulous, "Not even a bit?"

"I loved Janis. That I am certain. Tarsi just never measured up to..."

"You're telling me that Tarsi never measured up to Janis? How can that be? They were twins, for Gaia's sake!"

"No, Tarsi never measured up to another warrior I had always wanted and loved. Tarsi couldn't measure up to you."

Chapter 18

The last was said softer than the earlier but the impact shook Xena through and through.

Xena found herself stumbling out of her place beside Kiko and turning towards the seat opposite Kiko, all the time staring at the brown eyes of her Kay. 'Her Kay,' Xena shook her head. 'Her Kay had wanted her as much as she wanted her. But it is still the same, even now?'

The two of them just stared at each other, each not knowing what to say to the other. "For a long time, no one could measure up to you in my heart too." Xena finally said quietly.

"Until Gabrielle..."

"Yes, Kay, until Gabrielle." Xena reaffirmed. "Gabrielle came to me at a time when I was lost and alone. I had lost Borias and Solon and then I had suffered my most heart-breaking loss, you. That was when I decided to end it all and join you. Wherever you may have been sent to after life. That's why I went after Hercules.

"I knew from the start that that was almost suicidal, but I couldn't care anymore. I just couldn't. I wanted to die under the hands of the great Hercules. There was no one else that I know who would have mourned my passing, you were the last one who would have cared."

Xena took a deep breath, taking hold of the trembling hands of Kiko, she continued, "Then after I thought I had lost it all, Gabrielle came into my life and shone right through my heart. She slowly broke down the walls that I had placed after your leaving.

"I never thought anyone could, but she did. She's the light in my room of darkness, forever showing me the right path and keeping me there. Trusting me, believing in me and finally loving me, she filled your gap.

"I had you and your image carefully locked away, I guess that's why I didn't recognise you when I first saw you in that clearing. Now, I don't know how I could not have recognised you... you've been through a lot in these years."

"Yes, I've been through a lot," Kiko still held on tightly to Xena's hands, "I should never have left you. Then, so much would never have happened. And I wouldn't have lost you... but I really didn't want to add to your nightmares. I love you too much to put you through it. I always tell myself and others, no, I don't 'love' Xena that way. But, it's all a lie. I DO want to 'love' you that way, but you always thought of me as a child."

Xena was stunned, "I never knew..."

"Of course you didn't. I never told anyone."

"But Cilia? How about her?" Xena had to ask.

"Have you forgotten how Cilia looked like, Xena? Or how Janis and Tarsi looked? Has it ever occurred to you as to the reasons why I picked my lovers the way they are? Slightly taller than me, long raven-black hair, beautiful blue eyes... picked up the thread here yet?"

"They were just..."

"Substitutes. For you. And all except Janis have the same major personality traits as you. Strong, warrior, stubborn... but they all pale in comparison, obviously."

"You never said anything..." Xena had to say again, if only more to herself.

"I'm sorry. I never intended to let you know. Not when Janis was around. She's my Gabrielle, Xena. Sorry, she WAS my Gabrielle. She was the light at the end of MY dark tunnel. She was the one waiting there for me. Patient and giving, always knowing and understanding that Tarsi provided me with a side that she couldn't give me. I feel like I lost my soulmate. I've never asked you for anything, but I'm going to now..."

Xena swallowed the lump in her throat and finally managed to squeak out, "Name it. It's yours, if it's within my power."

"Don't leave me now. I need you. Please, no matter what happens, please don't leave me alone. I know I left you alone to face your demons once, but... I can't do this. I... I need your presence. And your reassurances. And most of all, your support. I can't do this without you. Don't go." Kiko pleaded with all her heart.

"I won't leave you." Xena swore, looking deeply into her Kay's eyes she said, "I'll always love you, Kay."

"I love you too Xena." Kiko replied solemnly.

A tiny gasp broke their spell, they turned towards the tent entrance and Gabrielle was there. "Gabrielle, let me explain..." Xena started but Gabrielle had already turned her heels and ran.

Both Xena and Kiko look at the departing form then at each other. "Go after her, Xena! I'm so sorry! Go!" but when Xena still hesitated, "Xena! She's your guiding light. I'm not. And I can't be. You need her. I'm sorry..."

Kiko walked over to Xena and pulled at her arm to the opening, "Go... before she leaves and you find yourself regretting."

Xena looked right into the sad brown eyes of Kiko and then with a quiet "I'm sorry too" she turned and ran into the direction that Gabrielle had fled.

'Love be with you, Xena. Gabrielle, I hope you know just how lucky you are. Xena's not the one who's lucky here. What I have lost, I can never hope to replace...' Kiko thought to herself as she returned back to her table and her damn parchments.

She caught herself in mid-stride, 'I don't have to be alone...' she thought as and she turned back to the entrance, "Soldier!" and within 5 seconds, one appeared right in front of her, "Summon the Royal Princess. I wish to see her..." the soldier looked up at his Grand Marshal in surprise and then, "At once, Grand Marshal." he rose from his kneel position and rushed off to the stables, glad his Grand Marshal had entrusted him with such a matter of importance.

Kiko watched his running form for a moment before turning back once again to her table with a deep sigh, "Forgive me, Janis. Forgive me, Tarsi. I know you know what's going on, I'm sorry. I need Xena... now that the two of you are gone. Forgive me, Gabrielle. Kay is coming alive and... and you won't like her one bit. I thought I would never need Kay again... Master? Where are you? I... I could do with your protection now. Please. I need your guidance... I need..." she broke into silent tears.

Continued - Chapters 19 - 38

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