She decided to return to the makeshift hospital but not before getting a drink of water from a water barrel.  The excitement of the day worked up her thirst.  She noted that the guards must have been thirsty as well, spotting the half dozen or so empty barrels.  After getting her fill, she turned to find Gabrielle coming from the labyrinth.

Xena thought of Lila's advice and decided it best to take it.  After all, what could she do for Gabrielle?

"Not so bad when you know its secrets." Gabrielle pointed to behind her having gotten through the death traps alive. 

"I think I should get back to Sarah and Meleager," Xena quickly mentioned.   Gabrielle knew that was an excuse to get away from her.

"Oh." Gabrielle responded, hiding a deep hurt.  She must have no respect for me, Gabrielle thought.  It doesn't matter how many labyrinths I get through, Gabrielle thought, the bottom line was that she was a burden that Xena was tired of bearing.

That evening, while tending to others, Xena watched Gabrielle with Sarah and Meleager.   Gabrielle had picked up so many skills in their time together, including medical skills. This made Xena both proud and sad - the result of this was the disintegration of their friendship. 

Meleager awoke from his herb aided sleep.  "Gods I hate archers," he grumbled evoking a smile from Gabrielle.

"I know what you mean." Sarah spoke as well, now up.

"This may not be the time for this but....I am in need for a Captain of the Guard and I understand from a VERY good source that you would be perfect." Sarah smiled.   Meleager looked over to Gabrielle with a raised eyebrow.

"Great idea - but don't look at me!" Gabrielle denied any involvement.   Sarah laughed then coughed.

"It was my other spy, ah, sister.  And Gabrielle, I have the perfect job for you," Sarah's eyes twinkled. "Minister of Cultural Development!" Gabrielle smiled recalling the origin of that job many years ago in Poteidaia.

"Yes! I accept!" Gabrielle jumped at the offer, laughing.

Xena couldn't believe her ears.  Gabrielle had decided to stay.  She was staying.  The bard was not going to be by her side.  A dejected Warrior Princess left.

Chapter 8 - She's Gone?

Xena, as usual, prepared her pack for her morning departure. There wasn't much to pack and Xena had packed for travel thousands of times.  She could easily do that chore in the morning but Xena needed something to do. Purposeful and loud footsteps coming towards her room drew Xena's attention away from her packing.  Part of her hoped it was Gabrielle, to tell her she changed her mind about staying.  Yet another part of her hoped it wasn't, because Xena was convinced Gabrielle was staying.

Exhaling, Xena prepared to face Gabrielle. "All right, what's the idea of planning to travel tomorrow and not telling me? Thanks to Lila, I found out. You don't really give me a lot of time to prepare." Gabrielle complained as she barged in the room without knocking.

"You knew this time was coming." Xena said solemnly.

"Yes, but you know I hate good byes. You must be really anxious to get back on the road," Gabrielle remarked trying to understand her friend's sudden desire to leave.   The comment surprised Xena.  Gabrielle can't possibly think this is easy for her.

"You didn't even mention leaving tomorrow until, come to think of it - you haven't even told me yet!" Gabrielle was annoyed again. 

Xena raised her eyebrow. "And when were you going to tell me of your new position?" Xena was hurt that Gabrielle didn't discuss that with her.

"What?" Gabrielle remembered the "position" but did not understand what that had to do with anything. "My position?" Gabrielle asked, confused. Xena didn't want to fight. Not on the last night.

"Look, I want you to know I understand why you took the position and I fully support your decision." Xena was trying to be big about this.

"Thanks" Gabrielle said flatly, still confused.

"Thanks?" Xena repeated. "Thanks?" She repeated again, not believing how cold Gabrielle was.

"What do you want me to say?"  Gabrielle shrugged. 

Xena stood there amazed.  As she did when she was a warlord, Xena put on her warrior's mask, burying her emotions deep.  She quietly looked at Gabrielle. 

Gabrielle was not in the mood for guessing games with Xena. She was tired and would talk to her in the morning. "Good night Xena," Gabrielle sighed and rolled her eyes as she left.

In the morning, Gabrielle rose later than she expected.  Her late night goodbyes and the plush castle bedding made it impossible to get up.

"Boy, if Xena was in a bad mood last night, she'll really be annoyed that I'm so late." Gabrielle reflected with mild panic as she rushed ungracefully around the room getting dressed and gathering her things.  She almost tripped as she sprinted to the garden.

Lila waited for her in the garden.  The look on her face made Gabrielle apologize.

"OK, OK, I know I'm late. I couldn't ..." Gabrielle didn't see Xena. "Where's Xena? She's really mad isn't she?"

Lila smirked. "I'll say. Xena left Gabrielle. The stablemen said she took Argo at dawn."  The words were heard but didn't register.  Gabrielle looked around.

"She's gone?" Gabrielle repeated, her fears realized.  Lila nodded.

"Why would she leave without you?" Lila asked.  Gabrielle wasn't going to discuss it.

The next day, Gabrielle went to say her second goodbye to Sarah, who was regaining her strength quickly.  Lila gave them some time alone.

"Oh Gabrielle. You don't need to go." Sarah said brushing her sisters hair from her face in a familiar, motherly way.

"I do." Gabrielle looked at her sister with great love. Sarah nodded.   Gabrielle would somehow prove to Xena she could do better and would not be a burden.  Maybe there was hope.  Gabrielle started to tear up but stopped. Sarah accepted her decision.

"I am anxious to hear what you find out there on the great ..dangerous road my Minister of Cultural Development. You wouldn't want one of my guards to," Sarah offered then added quickly. "...of course not...Sorry."

Gabrielle responded with a restrained hug due to Sara's injuries.  "Don't ever apologize for caring." Gabrielle added.

"I hope you can reconcile your differences with your friend." Sarah changed the subject.  Although only having observed the two In a short time, Sarah knew they were too close to give up on their friendship so easily. There was a reason for Xena's departure but Sarah knew it wasn't her place to pursue the details.

Gabrielle picked up her staff. "I'm not so sure it will happen." Gabrielle exhaled, very depressed.

"They say time heals all wounds Gabrielle." Sarah gently touched her sad sister's cheek.  Gabrielle hoped she was right.

After her goodbyes, Gabrielle started off into the world alone, unsure of where she was going.

There was a time when she would never have actually gone out on her own, despite her youthful fantasies of being a Minister of Cultural Development. She had told her family that she would one day be the Minister of Cultural Development for a powerful and just ruler, sent on a mission to learn about other cultures and bring back enlightenment to her kingdom. Now, while preferring to be along side of Xena, she could go it alone if she had to, she was pretty sure.  At least she wasn't being a burden to anyone, Gabrielle reflected. The roads were dangerous though, and she had lost her share of fights only to have Xena come to her rescue.  Pushing the insidious doubts from her mind, Gabrielle looked down the fork in the road.  Right would take her to Athens, Left to her sister Amazons.

"Hmm" Gabrielle pondered the significance of being given that choice just when she was contemplating the need for more education in fighting and self defense.

Chapter 9 - More Sisters

"It's Gabrielle!" one Amazon lookout called out enthusiastically as their princess was spotted arriving.  Queen Melosa came from her tent with a big smile. The smile faded as she observed she was alone.

"Where is Xena?" Melosa asked.

"I wish I knew." Gabrielle responded shaking her head. Melosa sensing trouble, immediately offered help.

"We will help you find her."  Melosa started to gather up a scouting party.

"Wait." Gabrielle stopped the Queen. "Xena left to be on her own."   Gabrielle offered further explanation. Melosa eyed her, deciding it was best to discuss this delicate matter in private.

"I have a request Queen Melosa, I wish to train."

Melosa smiled broadly. "Be careful of what you wish for around here PRINCESS Gabrielle, you'll get it." Melosa enjoyed toying with Gabrielle.

"I need to be trained," Gabrielle's tone now sounded more like a plea which caught Melosa off guard. Gabrielle's request was rooted in her problems with Xena, Melosa guessed, nodding to Gabrielle.

"We will have a feast tonight to celebrate your return to us." The Amazons cheered.  "But first," Melosa was quick to follow up. "To help you work up your appetite, you will start your training - immediately." 

Gabrielle got what she wished for.

Melosa entrusted Gabrielle with her two finest teachers, Trayla and Sustra. Trayla had helped Gabrielle with the staff before.  After starting with the staff to see how much Gabrielle retained from her previous training, Trayla's backside was introduced to the hard ground with a thump. Sustra's laughing didn't help Trayla's bruised ego.

As Trayla brushed herself off, Gabrielle saw the irritation build up and performed some innate casualty control.

"If it were not for your training in the basics, I could have never improved.   I still have so much more to learn from you." Gabrielle's words were sincere and respectful. Trayla nodded taking some solace in Gabrielle's words and skill.

"I think you have less to learn about the staff than you say." Gabrielle shook her head no but Trayla continued. "There are other skills you need to learn, isn't that right Sustra?"

It was Sustra's turn. "Sword? Crossbow? Wrestling?" Gabrielle thought a moment.

"I would like to know how to defend myself if I loose my staff in a fight. Not that that has or would ever happen." Gabrielle's humor was welcome to Sustra who liked to laugh.  Trayla was much more serious.

"Very wise my princess. Sustra is the best in-close fighter," Trayla spoke fact.

Gabrielle could believe it, looking at the woman's tall and muscular body.   Immediately, Gabrielle found Sustra's  explanations of the principles behind the techniques wonderful.  Also, she relayed interesting battle stories where each technique was useful.  This helped Gabrielle learn more than Sustra realized.

"OK, you've learned enough to throw me - do it," Sustra challenged.

"How can I possibly throw someone as large...ah.. muscular as you? I'm too small, I just want to learn how to get out of a bind." Gabrielle's comments made Sustra disappointed.

"Haven't you been ...whoa!" Sustra was caught off guard by her student but quickly countered.

"Ack!" Gabrielle was caught in a choke hold.

"Good attempt with your diversion, what next?" Sustra coached her captive. Gabrielle's response was muffled by Sustra's strong arm around her neck. "What?" Sustra asked then relaxed the grip somewhat to hear her response.

"Offer money?" Gabrielle spurted.

On Trayla's normally stoic face, a slight smile appeared.

"Think!" Sustra ordered. Gabrielle applied her fingers to the pressure points of Sustra's hand and pulled it away from her neck.  The next move was more of a roll vice a throw but the result was that Gabrielle successfully got Sustra on her back with a thud. Trayla was grinning wider now.

"You still need to work on speed." A dusty Sustra spoke from the ground.

The next hours were the most fatiguing few hours Gabrielle could recall in her life.   Melosa came to the practice field to see about Gabrielle's progress. Trayla and Gabrielle were back with the staff to teach her about fighting on unstable surfaces.   This time however, Trayla did not underestimate her opponent.

"My Queen." Sustra came over as the two continued.

"How goes the training." Melosa saw a more confident Gabrielle than the last time she trained with the Amazons.

"Better than I had hoped. She is a quick study and has grown much stronger since her last visit."  Melosa was pleased. "Good."

"What's wrong," Melosa asked Sustra, seeing the worried look on her face.

"Gabrielle would do just as well with a sword yet she has no interest in it," Sustra informed her Queen.

"Gabrielle considers the sword a symbol of death,"  Melosa explained.

Sustra shrugged. "So?"

Melosa looked over to Gabrielle with an understanding. "She hasn't killed anyone and has vowed never to do so.  I respect that vow and so should you.  Do not push the sword. If she wants to learn those skills, she will ask...our princess is not shy you know," the usually stern queen then quipped.

The feast was huge and very festive, one of their best, Melosa remarked.  This time, Gabrielle was able to sit out the dancing as rank has its privileges.  After telling the story of finding her long lost sister to the appreciative group, she sat next to Melosa at the royal table and ate like two Amazons.

"I see your story telling skills and appetite are in good shape.  How is your training going?" Melosa asked, sitting comfortably in the Queen's spot at the royal table.

"Sustra and Trayla are teaching me so much, but I am afraid I am not quick enough." Gabrielle sighed then yawned and quickly apologized. Melosa nodded.

"Speed will come with practice. You know that from your staff work, which I am very pleased with." Gabrielle shrugged.

"I have improved, but I have lost so many fights and had to be saved by Xena..." The mention of her name saddens Gabrielle.

"Probably due to a lack confidence Gabrielle - not skill." Melosa remarked sipping her wine.

Considering they have sufficient privacy, Melosa asks what happened. "You said Xena left you at your sister's castle?" Gabrielle nodded, not ready to admit why Xena left. Gabrielle's perception was still affected by the drug.  Interpreting the silence incorrectly, Melosa offered solace.

"There must be a reason Gabrielle. Xena cares deeply for you.  When you do see her, remember that.  Go get some rest now.  Tomorrow will come early and Sustra and Trayla will not handle you so gingerly as they did today" Melosa noted as Sustra and Trayla looked at each other with wide grins.

"And I'm supposed to have a good night's sleep now?" Gabrielle remarked to an amused Melosa.

Gabrielle had no trouble sleeping and the morning did come early.  Sustra and Trayla came in her tent.  With a soft, melodic voice, Sustra called for Gabrielle.

"Princess, wake up." Gabrielle stirred very little. Then, Sustra's tone and volume changed. "It is time for TRAINING" Sustra boomed.  Trayla turned over the bed of the disoriented bard.

"I am so glad you two enjoy your jobs." Gabrielle looks up from the ground.

For the next few days, Gabrielle was put through many tests and drills and sported many bruises. The most annoying training was in the beginning of the day, which came earlier and earlier each morning to keep Gabrielle off balance, which worked well.

Gabrielle found herself in the forest alone. Trayla and Sustra were hiding. The hair on the back of Gabrielle's neck rose. They were close.  While never having so many bruises in her life, Gabrielle never felt so clear minded and alive. 

A noise in the bushes made Gabrielle smile with recognition.  The sound was a stone, a diversion.  Gabrielle turned towards where she anticipated the attacker to be. Unfortunately, she was wrong. Sustra leaped out of the trees and tackled Gabrielle.

"Ooofph" The wind was knocked out of the bard.

"Remember UP Gabrielle." Sustra picked up the crumpled bard.

"UP" Gabrielle repeated, still gasping for air with great effort.

She silently scolded herself for missing that attack position.  Xena commonly used the trees.  The two walked a while with no sign of Trayla.  While crossing a stream on a felled tree, Gabrielle had the feeling an attack was pending. 

Gabrielle uttered "Down.." As Trayla came out of the water and grabbed for Gabrielle's leg.  Gabrielle avoided the grab with a flip, but landed in the water with a stupendous splash. 

The Amazon trainers look at each other. "Better." They spoke in unison.

"I'll miss this," Trayla said quietly to her partner in chaos prior to the morning exercise.

Sustra and Trayla stealthily entered the tent from underneath. Trayla and Sustra looked at each other amused with the fact Gabrielle didn't stir yet. They stood up ready to attack. Trayla gave a war scream and jabbed the blob in the bed which evoked no movement.

Sustra uttered an "ugh oh". The tent collapsed on the two attackers.   Laughter erupted in the Amazon camp as the two teachers scrambled to get out from the tent. They quickly joined in the laughter, realizing their Princess had learned very well.

At a private dinner, Queen Melosa had relayed her experience with Grickas to an attentive Gabrielle. "He was a weak man. Not a true warrior." Melosa despised him and was happy he met his end.

"Why not a true warrior, he was very successful in battle wasn't he?" Gabrielle asked. 

Melosa shook her head no. "He wasn't. Only his tricks and drugs made him win. As I said, not a true warrior." Gabrielle was still confused.

"Drugs? What kind of drugs?" Gabrielle asked. Melosa spoke with incredible disgust.

"Forgus, a drug whose effects can be insidious. It amplifies a persons fears and doubts. If taken in its purest form, the transformation is permanent but too quick and obvious to ensure a victorious takeover.  However, Grickas dilutes this drug and slowly conquers his unsuspecting enemy.  Victims never find out that the reason for their defeat was themselves." Melosa sighs.

"Themselves?" Gabrielle questions.

"Yes.  Normally rational people struggling with those doubts and fears act irrationally.  Yet they don't even realize how irrational they have become. The affected are unable to adequately defend themselves from the likes of Grickas.  A small band of Grickas' men could overtake a seemingly unconquerable army - with the help of forgus. It sounds like that was the cause of King Enerall's defeat." 

Gabrielle then asked a question that spoke volumes to Melosa.  "Does this Forgus happen to taste sweet?"

With this information, it was time for Gabrielle to leave her Amazon sisters and go back to Walsas.  So many good-byes in such a short time was draining on Gabrielle.   She was so close to her family and had so many good friends, it was always hard to leave.  Melosa expressed concern for Gabrielle's intended trip.

"If Grickas is still loose, he will try to regroup to conquer Walsas.  If you want my help, Gabrielle, just say the word."  The significance of Melosa's offer was not lost on Gabrielle.

"Your training is not done yet Gabrielle," Melosa remarked with authority.

"Training never really stops, does it?" Gabrielle asked.

"If it does, your dead." Melosa answered. "We still have a few things to teach you," Melosa added, her stare relayed no emotion.

Gabrielle rubbed her bruised arm. "I think my training is best done in short sprits - so I can recover.  Besides, I am looking forward to a good night's sleep." Gabrielle's joke about the morning exercises concerned Melosa, who's expression turned grave.

"Gabrielle, sleep will be a necessity not a luxury.  You must always sleep lightly, and at the ready.  Attackers will not be as kind as Trayla and Sustra."   Gabrielle nodded, a little disturbed, yet understood Melosa's warning.

"Don't worry, you have learned much." Melosa added.  Gabrielle wondered how true that was. "Remember, you most powerful weapon is your mind and... of course your gift of Gab, Gabrielle."  Melosa smiled.

"Thanks..." Gabrielle blurted with mock annoyance. 

Gabrielle started down the path, once again - alone.

Chapter 10 - The Return

Approaching Walsas, Gabrielle felt it wise to not use the main road - just in case. "I'm probably being paranoid", she thought to herself. "Paranoid is good," she concluded, finding the kingdom reoccupied by Grickas' soldiers.

Her mind raced with thoughts of what fate befell her sisters.  "Focus and calm down." She told herself. She needed to find out what was going on.  The tavern was closest.

The soldiers paid no attention to the cloaked woman who limped into the Tavern.   Farr the barkeep was hopeful for a paying customer finally.

"May I.." his eyes widened as he recognized the face of the woman under the hood.  He nervously backed away into the storeroom. Gabrielle followed.   "You shouldn't be here!" He whispered loudly.  The incredible difference in the man before her now and the same man days ago confirmed her suspicions that Grickas once again drugged the people of Walsas with Forgus. "They will kill me for talking to you!"  He looked around nervously. "You must go now." He shook.

"I will go...just tell me...are Sarah and Lila OK?" She braced herself for the worse.

"I don't know, I don't know" He backed up, knocking over a jug of wine which crashed on the floor.

"Hey!" A soldier enters the store room to see what caused the commotion. Seeing the wine spilled on the floor, he sneers. "Be more careful of this stuff."  Farr's nervousness made the filthy soldier feel dominant. He walked around inspecting the area to increase the barkeep's panic and his enjoyment.  It worked.  Farr cringed at every corner and space the soldier would inspect. "You've got thirsty soldiers out there to serve. Go on!" Farr left the storeroom wondering what happened to the young woman.

Gathering information was not easy task, Gabrielle thought as she approached the Inn. There were guards close to the front door so she tried the back door.  She could have tried to pick the lock to the back door but saw that there was a window open on the second floor.  The path of least resistance worked for her.

"I gave you all the money I have" Cumae spoke to a young soldier she could have physically taken on in her younger days.  Cumae's eyes glanced over to the stairs where she saw Gabrielle poking her head out from the stairwell.  Gabrielle motioned to Cumae she was going to the hidden basement.  Their silent communication went unnoticed by the greedy boy.

Making her way to the room, Gabrielle thought of her experiences with the Amazons. All things being equal, Gabrielle preferred infiltrating the kingdom to head-on confrontations.  While she recognized the value of being proficient with fighting skills, she considered it took more skill to avoid conflict and obtain her objective.   It was also more satisfying to win a mental contest than a physical one.

Gabrielle easily entered the sanctuary of the hidden room, undetected by soldiers. A single candle burned with insufficient light for Gabrielle's adjusting eyes to see anything. However, she felt a quiet presence in the room. The presence was a familiar one.

"Xena" She called out softly, 99% sure her feelings were correct.

"Good eyes." Xena commented without correction from Gabrielle.

"I'm glad you're here. I was afraid I'd have to save the kingdom alone." Gabrielle remarked with a smile that eased Xena's apprehension about facing Gabrielle.

"I'm thinking clearer now." Xena stared at her awkwardly, wanting to say more.

"But the kingdom isn't. Grickas is at it again.  Did you know Grickas always uses Forgas on his enemies?" Gabrielle relayed.

"Not until the drug wore off," Xena answered with regret.

"Xena, there was no way you could have known you...we... were affected."   Gabrielle casually commented as she lit more candles. "There, much better." The room was much brighter to Gabrielle's satisfaction.

"What happened to you ?" Xena asked with concern. With the added light, Xena now saw the large number bruises Gabrielle sported.

"A few ...educational experiences" Gabrielle rubbed a bruised elbow.

"Gabrielle..." Xena started to say something when Cumae, finally finished with the young soldier, came in the room. She was also affected by the water but not as afraid as Farr about helping them.

"They are still alive." Cumae spoke immediately to Gabrielle upon entering the room.

Gabrielle's armor of good humor revealed a sizable dent as she closed her eyes and thanked the gods upon that news.  This experience was draining on Gabrielle, Xena observed, now grateful for Cumae's interruption. There was only so much Gabrielle should have to deal with at one time.  Collecting herself, Gabrielle quickly recovered her good humor.

"But?" Gabrielle asked. "There's always a but," she added, looking at Xena.

"Grickas plans another execution for Sarah when she recovers enough from her wounds," Cumae informed them.

"How considerate," Xena blurted.

Cumae left to tend to the Inn not wanting to be found missing from the front desk too long.

"It's always something isn't it?" Gabrielle sighed, sitting down at the table. Reaching for a water skin, she stopped herself before drinking.

"I brought that, it's OK." Xena remarked. Gabrielle looked at her.

"Good, don't want to go through THAT again." She took a sip. The comment made Xena wonder what she went through, what doubts and fears had plagued her.  Xena stared at Gabrielle, wanting to apologize for leaving, wanting to say how much she missed her.  Yet she didn't.

Noting Xena was trying to tell her something then stopped when Cumae entered the room, Gabrielle thought of a way to help.

"Did you know that the Yersians were a people that had very few wars or even disputes?" Gabrielle's comment surprised Xena, who wondered where Gabrielle was going to go with this.

"No." Xena answered cautiously sitting across from Gabrielle at the table and taking a sip of water herself.

"If two families ...or people...had a problem that seemed insurmountable they would gather the troubled parties in a sacred room, the Great Room of Truths." Gabrielle nibbled on some bread.

"Oh?" Xena responded wondering how much of this story Gabrielle was making up.

"Yes. In this Great Room, the troubled people were sworn to abide by the Rules of Questions. Once agreed to, each party was allowed to ask one question of each other. The person asking the question was not allowed to speak until the person answering was finished. The person answering was required to be direct and truthful, even if the truth was painful. After the first questions were asked, they went home to think about what they heard and consider their next questions. The next day they would gather in the same place and ask a second set of questions. Then after that, a third set of questions, asked on the third day, would be asked. By the end of the third day the problem was solved."

"How did they know if the answers given were the truth?" Xena asked a practical question.

"They knew." Gabrielle answered looking her in the eye.  Xena could believe that Gabrielle would be able to. Cumae returned, having put in her appearance at the front desk.  Annoyed and disappointed by Cumae's poor timing, Gabrielle muttered under her breath.

"If it isn't Cumae, the interrupter." The comment was heard by Xena who refrained from grinning.  She owed Cumae another one.

Chapter 11 - Another rescue

"So much for being considerate," Gabrielle remarked.

Grickas was too impatient for Sara's full recovery so he decided to push up the execution to the next day. Xena lead the way to the Castle.

"They probably have the entrances we used before guarded." Gabrielle remarked trying to figure out what her friend had in mind as they walked through the trees.

"Well, I agree your underwater passage is out." Xena remarked coming to a boulder.

"Good. I've had enough swimming." Gabrielle sat on the boulder, rechecking her bag to make sure everything was there. "And the side entrance?" Gabrielle asked.

"Out." Xena remarked.

"Ok" Gabrielle accepted that. Xena kept standing in front of her as if she was waiting for something. "I give up...How will we get in? What entrance will we use?" Xena smiled getting what she wanted out of Gabrielle.

"You're sitting on it."

Gabrielle got up looking at the boulder and pointed at it. "This?"

Xena nodded then leaned over and started to move the boulder. To Gabrielle's amazement, Xena exposed a passage with a staircase.

"How did you know about this?" Gabrielle peered down the entrance.

"I stumbled across it when I had to find another way into the castle. That was after I ran into that dead end you never told me about." Xena explained passing by Gabrielle to descended the steps.

"What dead end?" Gabrielle followed, remembering Xena mentioned that before but not remembering the dead end.

"Never mind." Xena answered.

They came upon the soldier's dining hall which they had to cross to get to access to the holding cell. The dining hall was bustling with feeding soldiers. "It would be probably be impolite to disturb their dinner." Xena remarked as they retreated unnoticed to the next room.  They needed to remain undetected for the plan to succeed.

Gabrielle observed a much more relaxed Xena before her than when they met at the Inn. The room they were now in was a sitting room with beautiful woven tapestries hanging from the walls. Gabrielle took a moment to admire them.

"Look at the detail." She remarked with amazement.

The noise of soldiers moving towards their position caused Xena and Gabrielle to look to each other. After scanning the room for hiding options, Xena found Gabrielle had already found a place to hide as she was gone.

Xena found the ledge outside the window the closest place to hide, although she would have preferred the rafters.  A soldier came in, having a little too much to drink, Xena observed.  He stumbled around and was getting close to the tapestry where Gabrielle was last seen standing.  Xena's heart jumped when she thought Gabrielle's hiding place would be exposed. 

Xena's hand clenched her Chakrum as the soldier stumbled into that tapestry.   However, Gabrielle was not there as Xena expected.  Easing her grip on her Chakrum, she smiled to herself.  Her eyes found where the nervous bard was hiding, in the rafters. Other soldiers came in and found their comrade in bad shape.

"Come on. You don't want King Grickas to find you like this." One soldier spoke.  The title of King made Gabrielle angry.  Sarah had stated that justice would be served another day.  Today was that day, Gabrielle thought.

After the soldiers left, Gabrielle lowered herself from the rafters on to a table as Xena emerged from the window. "I'm glad you didn't choose the tapestry." Xena remarked quietly.

"Me too. Whoa." Gabrielle lost her balance and kicks one large candle holder off the table while heading for a noisy fall.  Xena caught the candle in one hand and grabbed Gabrielle's arm with the other, steadying her.  A relieved Gabrielle makes it down to the floor. Xena stares at the candle then Gabrielle.

"I know, improve." Gabrielle relayed.

"I didn't say anything." Xena remarked, with a smirk.

"Maybe not, but you wanted to." Gabrielle countered.

"So you've learned to read minds?" Xena put the candle down.

"You'd be surprised." Gabrielle looked at her.

"Really? What am I thinking now." Xena challenged her with a sly grin.

"That we shouldn't waste any more time in getting to the holding cell." Gabrielle responded and headed towards the soldier's dining room.

The smile on Xena's face faded after that correct answer.

"Xena" Gabrielle quietly called back to her realizing she wasn't moving.

"Nah..." Xena thought to herself.

They arrived at the holding cell which boasted better accommodations than the dungeon cells.  Grickas wanted to ensure his injured prisoner didn't rob him of the execution he looked forward to by dying on her own. As they expected, Sarah was alone. Gabrielle hoped they were right about Lila and Meleager being held in the main dungeon. Xena distracted a guard further and further away from the cell with a string of noises, allowing Gabrielle to approach her sister.

"Sara" Gabrielle spoke waking her sister.

"Gabrielle!" She was shocked and concerned.

"Grickas has won." Sara's head fell in defeat. Gabrielle knew it had to be the Forgus talking.

"Not yet Sara. Justice will be served." Sarah embraced her sister with a need to believe that.

"Where are Lila and Meleager?" Gabrielle asked.

"They are below in the dungeon." Gabrielle nodded. "Are you strong enough to leave?"

Sarah nodded.

As Xena took Sarah down to the dungeon, Sarah protested the plan.

"Xena, I can't leave her there." She started.

"It's Gabrielle's choice." Xena coolly responded.  Sarah made many similar comments of concern along the way which Xena chose to ignore. Xena tried not to get too irritated as she knew the forgus was making Sarah more fearful. They made it to the soldier's post at the entrance of the Labyrinth which they had to go through. Sarah kept pushing Xena about Gabrielle.

"She could be killed. Why didn't you try to talk her out of this? Don't you care?" Surprising Sarah with her speed, Xena put her hand on the Queen's mouth and shoved her into the shadows.

"Stay quiet or you will be killed." Xena spoke deliberately. Sarah wasn't sure if Xena meant by the soldiers or her own hands. The soldiers didn't know what hit them as Xena jumped from the darkness and attacked with her sword swiftly and accurately.

She killed all four of them, regretting the necessity. If they woke at an inopportune time, they would foil the rescue and further endanger Gabrielle's life. She was grateful though that Gabrielle did not have to witness her killing again. Gabrielle knew there were times when it could be justified, Xena thought to herself as she pulled the bodies out of view. However, Xena knew it still disturbed Gabrielle even if she never spoke of it. Finished covering up signs of the attack, Xena looked up at Sarah who was silently staring at her. There was a familiar look of sadness in Xena's eyes which Sarah remembered seeing in Enerall when he killed in front of her.

Gabrielle laid on the cot with her face to the wall.  She wore a white dress like Sara's to complete the deception. The guard came by to confirm his red headed prisoner was where she should be. Satisfied, he left to patrol the area. This was the difficult part, Gabrielle thought as she waited. Her nervous energy was used for pacing around the cell . She wondered how far along Xena was in the rescue of Sara, Lila and Meleager. She then reconsidered that her task of waiting was much easier than Xena's task of rescuing two injured and one green young Potedian all probably heavily affected by forgus.

Hearing more footsteps, she jumped onto the cot and faced the wall.  Why was he back so soon, Gabrielle wondered. The steps were of a different man.

"My Queen Sarah. It is almost time. You will soon meet the same fate as your husband Enerall." Gabrielle moved slightly. "Ah, you are still fighting fate." Grickas observed. The noise of a key entering the cell door lock made Gabrielle's heart race. He would find out soon. Now she had to deal with an opponent without her staff. He entered and Gabrielle spoke softly.


Grickas laughed. "Why not?" He sat down on the cot next to her touching the familiar red hair.  Her urge to punch him was overcome by a calm.  Not yet, she thought.  Gabrielle could hear and feel he only had on a dagger. Appropriate for a man who was not a true warrior.

"I guess I could blame it on a difficult childhood but I actually enjoyed my childhood," he mused. "Why?" He repeated. "Because I can." He answered truthfully.

"What!?!" He gasped, realizing the red hair belonged to someone other than Sarah. 

Gabrielle turned pushing him onto the ground and bolted for the cell door.  He grabbed her foot causing her to fall. She kicked free of his grip and the two were quickly on their feet facing each other in the small cell.

"I should know your name at least, before I kill you" He asked pulling his dagger out.

"Does that mean you won't kill me if I don't tell you?" Gabrielle remarked making Grickas smile.

"No, it's just more ... polite." He lunged towards her unsuccessfully. "You have to be her sister, but I didn't know she had any." Grickas was still more amused than worried, believing the forgus would prevent Sarah from getting far. Gabrielle was grateful for that advantage.

"Gee, how'd you figure that out?" Gabrielle commented as she looked for an opportunity to escape the small confines of the cell. He lunges again getting close enough to lightly cut her arm but allowing her to hit the him solidly in the face, breaking his nose.

"Ahhh" He held his face and fell to his knees. Gabrielle once again tried to escape but Grickas would not allow that as he overcame his pain and tackled her into the bars.

Somehow she broke herself free from this man and escaped the cell.  Scanning her surroundings in the empty dining hall, she found the guard running towards her with his sword drawn.  Hard to keep a fight quiet, she realized.  One in front and one closing in at her back, Gabrielle assessed her situation.

She spied a staff on the other side of the room. The only obstacle was the bigger, meaner looking guard.  She dove on top of the long table towards her objective, missing a deadly blow by the guard.  She jumped with more energy than she realized, unable to stop herself from sliding completely across the table and onto the floor with a thud. She quickly recovered, adjusting her dress that was ill-suited for fighting and grabbed the staff.

With the familiar feel of the staff in her hand, Gabrielle breathed deeply feeling more comfortable.  That was until three more soldiers rushed in to inform Grickas of their news.

"The prisoners have escaped from the dungeon. And we are missing many soldiers," one blurted to Grickas, who lost control.

"NO! NO! NO!" He screamed, realizing all his mistakes.

Gabrielle was relieved at the soldier's news. All she had to worry about was herself. As the soldiers that surrounded her closed in, she thought that was still enough to worry about. She successfully prevented them from getting too close with swift and accurate staff work. However, she knew she would tire soon which would be the end.

"Some warrior you are Grickas." Gabrielle taunted him.

He looked at her angrily.

"Using drugs to conquer your enemy.  When you can't rely on the drugs, you loose to a mere woman in hand to hand combat."

The soldiers slowed their attacks listening to this woman's accusations. Grickas pushes a soldier aside, grabbing his sword. Gabrielle smiled. "And by the way, my name is Gabrielle, the woman who defeated you."

The soldiers froze as they watched Grickas lung towards the woman. Gabrielle easily avoided his angry and sloppy moves. Yep, she was more comfortable with the staff than hand-to-hand. She hit him in the chest with great force causing him to land on his back. The vile on his neck broke open.  He gasped, pulling his pendant off him throwing it to the floor. The vapors of the pure forgus were strong.

Gabrielle stepped back realizing what had happened. She watched with the soldiers as Grickas huddles over shaking and sobbing uncontrollably.

"Here is your GREAT warrior Grickas." She speaks to the soldiers, tired of fighting. "Leave now and never bother this kingdom again."  She looked each of them in the eyes. The soldiers debated what to do.

Xena rushed in the room not quiet sure of what to do, seeing the standoff before her.   Gabrielle looked at her and motioned her to not attack, and returned her attention back at the soldiers. "It's your choice."

They quickly leave the two woman and their leader huddled on the floor. Xena looks over at Grickas.

"Careful Xena, he splashed pure forgus on himself." Gabrielle looked down at the sorry sight. "I wonder if this will be permanent,"  she added with some feeling of remorse.  Xena put a comforting hand on Gabrielle's shoulder.

"I don't know." Xena saw Gabrielle was disturbed by the outcome of her fight. "It's not like you killed him Gabrielle."

"I know. But I wonder if this isn't worse."  Gabrielle stared down at Grickas not sure what to feel.

Xena, greatly disturbed by Gabrielle's comment, reached out her hand, gently turned Gabrielle's head away from Grickas.  Looking directly in her friend's sad eyes, Xena spoke from the heart.

"If there is any blame Gabrielle, it lies with Grickas. He didn't just kill people - he abused people with that drug. Now he is suffering for that abuse.  I hope you can see that."  Xena waited for a response.

Gabrielle nodded and embraced her friend tightly. "Thank you," she spoke softly.

"There you are!" Cumae came in.  Gabrielle stepped back and looked over to the woman than back at Xena.

"Cumae..of course." Gabrielle spoke under her breath.

Chapter 12 - A promise is a promise is a promise

After the celebration dinner, Gabrielle sat in the garden alone,  saddened that she would be leaving soon.

"I thought you would be asleep by now." Xena sat next to her, enjoying the peaceful evening air.

There were so many sides to her friend, Gabrielle noted, now seeing the relaxed and happy Xena. Gabrielle was pleased Xena really enjoyed herself the past couple of days around her family and even during the celebration this evening.

"What?" Xena asked uncomfortably noticing Gabrielle's stare.

"Just counting the minutes before Cumae shows up," Gabrielle said with a slight grin.

"She just left...I think." Xena responded quickly looking around, making Gabrielle cuckle.  Xena never tired of hearing Gabrielle laugh.

Gabrielle looked up at the night sky and sighed.  "So where are we going next?" 

Xena thought a moment. "We could visit the Amazons," the warrior suggested.

Gabrielle cringed. "Perhaps after I fully recover from my last visit."

Xena was surprised, but that did explain all her bruises. "So that is where you went after I ...left."  Xena still regretted her actions even though Gabrielle knew they were forgus induced.

"Yes. I was convinced, or rather the forgus convinced me, that you left because you were tire of me being such a burden.  I thought if I trained and learned more I would prove ....well, you get the picture." Gabrielle shrugged.

"You did that for me?" Xena asked, once again deeply touched by this bard's actions.

"Nope," Gabrielle's answer surprised her.  "I did it for entirely selfish reasons," Gabrielle responded. "I wasn't going to give up our friendship without a fight. It means too much to me." Knowing how uncomfortable Xena gets when they discuss their feelings, Gabrielle tried to lighten things up. "Although, had I known what Trayla and Sustra would put me through...I might have reconsidered." Gabrielle smiled at the memories of the experience.

Gabrielle's confession bothered Xena.

"I'm kidding" Gabrielle responded seeing her change in moods, then realized it was not the sarcasm.

"I didn't fight, I just left." Xena said hollowly, looking at the ground. Gabrielle realized how much guilt Xena still carried around.

"Why did you?" Gabrielle asked softly.  Xena glanced uncomfortably at her friend then back down to the ground. When Gabrielle thought Xena was having too much difficulty to respond, she let her off the hook.

"You don't have to say anything Xena. I know we both weren't acting like ourselves." Gabrielle patted her hand. "It's getting late...We should both get some sleep." Gabrielle starts getting up but Xena, not yet done, gently grabs and pulls on her arm, sitting her back down. "Or we could talk." Gabrielle responded.

Xena exhaled heavily, then looked the bard in the eyes.  "You have become a skilled fighter have two sisters that are very close to you." Gabrielle listened quietly.  Xena still stared at the ground.  "When you didn't confide in me about your dreams I kept wondering why."

Gabrielle sucessfully fought the urge to interrupt, knowing this wasn't easy for Xena.

"Then you agreed to take that position from your sister - I thought you were staying without discussing it with me. All those things - with the forgus - added up. I thought there was no room in your life for me."  Xena finally looked up at Gabrielle who smiled warmly, happy to finally hear Xena confide her in her.

"You are not my friend because you can protect me Xena." Gabrielle smiled looking into her eyes. "And you are not my best friend because I NEED anymore sisters." Gabrielle responded with a grin.

"I know" Xena softly laughed.

Gabrielle took a breath, ready to admit something. Xena noted, with some apprehension, the subtle shift in Gabrielle's mood. "I guess I owe you an apology for not telling you about those dreams sooner."  Gabrielle felt a little embarrassed. "There was this woman in Poteidaia, who said she had vivid dreams of prophecy all the time. None of her warnings came true.  She was "crazy Sybi."    She drove away her family and all her friends." Gabrielle laughed nervously.

"You can always talk to me Gabrielle" Xena responded with great feeling. Gabrielle nodded, thanking the gods for having such a good friend. "And you can start by telling me about this job of Minister of Cultural Development..." Xena still had a few questions for the bard.

After finishing with her explanation of the Minister of Cultural Development, Gabrielle yawned.  The excitement and emotion of the evening was catching up to her. "It really is getting late. We both should get some sleep." She repeated her good-night to Xena.  As she starts to get up, Xena, with a playful grin this time, pulls on her arm sitting her back down.

"Or we could ... keep talking." Xena remarked this time.

Gabrielle laughed and shook her head. "Melosa said be careful of what you wish for."

The next morning came too early for Gabrielle, but she was determined not to be late for the planned early morning departure.  To her surprise, she was in the garden before Xena. She didn't realize how early it was until Cumae came by before she opened the Inn.

"Gabrielle, I just wanted to wish you good traveling before you and Xena go. Where is she?" Cumae looked around.

"She's probably taking advantage of the last few minutes in a comfortable bed before we head out.  She kept us up pretty late last night talking," Gabrielle remarked yawning. Cumae eyed her.

"Right - talking." Cumae remarked as reached in her bag. "There IS something I wanted to ask of you and Xena." Cumae smiled.

Gabrielle had already brought Argo from the stables and packed her up with everything. She continued to wait for Xena when Lila, Sarah and Meleager emerged from the castle.

"By the Gods it is early, why does anyone start traveling at this time of day?" Lila rubbed her eyes and yawned.

"Lila, I've explained that to you already." Meleager remarked.

"I know but..." Lila's reply was interrupted by Gabrielle's hug.

"Thank you Lila." Gabrielle's eyes watered up.

"Hey, stop that. It's contagious." Lila wiped Gabrielle eye, then her own.

Gabrielle hugged Meleager next, who felt a little embarrassed at the affection in public. "We always seem to have an interesting time together" Meleager joked.

"I'm glad you will be here for my sister - Meleager the Mighty." She looked at him with affection and respect. That meant the world to him.

Xena finally emerged from the castle unapologetic for being late. She wasn't much for long good-byes. She did look particularly well rested, Gabrielle noted.

"I owe you all so much." Sarah spoke to the group. "It's a shame I can't convince you two to stay here with us." Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other.

"There are places to go and people to help." Gabrielle responded for the both of them. Xena nodded.

"I somehow expected that answer." Sarah looked at the two. "Take care of her." Sarah yelled to them as they started their journey.

"I will." They both responded.

Gabrielle and Xena, with Argo in tow, walked through the front gate of the Castle that had seen so much fighting days before.  Gabrielle appreciated the calm and prayed it would last.

"Gabrielle?" Xena stops Argo.

"Yes?" Gabrielle responded, still walking and looking around the beautiful landscape, enjoying the sun and air.

"What's this?" Xena asks, looking in Argo's saddle bag. Gabrielle stops and returns to Xena's side seeing what she is talking about.

"A package." Gabrielle answers innocently.

"A package?" Xena repeated. "Just something I promised Cumae we would ...deliver ...." Gabrielle realized she did it again.

"Gabrielle" Xena spoke sternly.

"It's a BIRTHDAY present Xena"

Xena started walking with Argo silently. 

Gabrielle, attempted to justify the reasons for her promise. It was the right thing to do even if Xena didn't agree yet, Gabrielle thought. "It's for her nephew and after all that she's done for us, I thought it was a...." Gabrielle explanation was interrupted.

"Stop." Xena spoke in a commanding tone. "It's ok" Xena added, her tone softer.

"It's ok?" Gabrielle repeated, surprised.

"Yes." Xena answered.

"Yes?" Gabrielle repeated.

"Gabrielle - don't push it." Xena replied sternly. Gabrielle looked at her and stayed quiet.

After a few minutes, Xena broke the silence. "So where is this nephew we need to deliver this GIFT to..." Xena asked a very good question. 

Gabrielle gulped wondering just how understanding Xena would be.



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