The Promise
Written by: Maureen McGowan

Chapter One

It was well past midday as Xena and Gabrielle made their way towards Thebes. An uncharacteristically worried Xena kept glancing back over her shoulder at her traveling companion, who had strangely volunteered to ride on Argo after lunch.

"Look, Gabrielle, are you *sure* you're okay? I mean, you didn't eat much when we stopped for lunch, and you look a little flushed." Before the bard could respond Xena continued, "...and I won't even go into the fact that you haven't said five words in the past hour OR that you actually suggested riding on Argo."

"Xena, I'm fine...just a little tired, that's all."

"Why don't I believe you?"

Gabrielle gave Xena one of her patented "I'm not a child" looks, then quickly replaced it with a smile and gently squeezed the warrior's waist. "I'm fine...stop being such a worrier."

Not one for alot of words, Xena turned back around and patted Argo's neck. She had already made up her mind to stop at the next village and let her friend rest. Hours later, Xena halted Argo in front of a small village inn, and quickly dismounted, helping Gabrielle down. Her young friend looked even worse than before; flushed and a little shaky.

"Why don't we go in and get you some food? Maybe it'll make you feel better."


"Don't argue with me Gabrielle. You're not well and stop trying to tell me otherwise!"

Gabrielle knew that sometimes it just didn't pay to argue with the Warrior Princess, and this seemed to be one of them. So, the subdued bard allowed Xena to guide her into the small inn. Taking a seat in the far corner of the establishment, Gabrielle watched as Xena ordered them some soup and wine. The innkeeper gave two goblets to the warrior and went back into the kitchen to get their food. Xena turned and walked over to the table, sat down, and placed one of the wine goblets in front of Gabrielle.

"Here, drink this, it may help you feel better." Looking directly at her friend, Xena inquired, "How *do* you feel...HONESTLY Gabrielle?"

"It's nothing, really. My stomach is just a bit queasy, that's all." She looked up at Xena and seeing the worried look on her face, the bard gently put her hand on top of her friend's reassuring her again, "Really, I'm fine..."

Xena began to say something, but the innkeeper interrupted the conversation bringing over their soup and a freshly baked loaf of bread. As he left, Xena deeply inhaled the aroma and commented, "Smells good, huh?"

As she looked up to get a response from Gabrielle, the warrior saw her friend quickly turn away from the table and put her hand over her mouth as she ran out the back of the inn. Xena ran after her friend and gently held her as the young bard lost whatever contents had made it to her stomach that day. After a short while, when Gabrielle seemingly had nothing left in her to lose, Xena reached around her waist and helped her get on her feet.

"Come on...let's go back inside."

Xena led Gabrielle back into the inn, where she sat her down gently at their table. The warrior then walked up the innkeeper to get a room for the night. As she talked with him, Xena kept a close eye on Gabrielle, who at this point could barely hold up her head. Walking back over to her friend, Xena again helped Gabrielle stand up.

"Let's get you to bed...come on."

As the innkeeper led the way, Xena practically carried her friend into the lodging area of the inn. At the far end of the hallway, the owner opened the doorway leading into the private room. "This is the only single room I have. It's small, but clean."

Xena deposited Gabrielle on the side of the bed and turned to the owner. "This is fine...thank you. Could you stay with my friend for a moment while I go out and get some things from my horse?" Xena then ran out of the room, returning a short time later with Gabrielle's traveling bag and her own herbal pouch. Turning to the innkeeper, Xena inquired,

"Can you bring me a pitcher of water and some clean towels please?'

The owner complied quickly with the concerned warrior's request, and once he had given her the items, left the two women alone. As Gabrielle watched, Xena stirred some herbs together in a small mug of water, and brought the mixture to her.

"Here, I want you to drink all of this. It'll help settle your stomach."

Though the thought of putting anything in her mouth was less than appealing, Gabrielle was too weak to argue, and took the mixture in her shaky hands. She slowly drank the concoction, handing the mug back to Xena when she was finished.

"Okay, let's get you into bed," Xena commented kneeling down to remove her friend's boots.

"Xena...come on...I'm...Okay, I feel terrible, but I can still get undressed by myself you know..."

"Uh huh..." Xena seemingly ignored Gabrielle's plea and continued working on her boots until she had both of them off. Reaching around into Gabrielle's bag, the warrior pulled out a loose smock that her friend sometimes wore to bed and handed her the garment. As Gabrielle stood to take off her top, she became very lightheaded and nearly keeled over. Xena grabbed her before she fell flat on her face.

"Just let me help you more arguments!" With no strength to fight her, Gabrielle allowed Xena to help her get out of her clothes and into the smock. Her friend then pulled down the covers of the bed and lifted the young bard up onto the soft pallet, covering her with blankets before she got chilled.

"Xena...look, this is just one of those stupid stomach sicknesses. I'll be okay in a day or two. Just don't mention food...uuuhhhgggg...." Xena ran to the small table that held the water pitcher and grabbed the washing bowl underneath, getting it to Gabrielle just as she got sick again. This time, since there was practically nothing left in her stomach, her heaving brought little up. Finally, with her stomach somewhat settled again, Xena carefully laid her friend's head back down on the pillows. Then, pouring some water on a towel, the warrior sat down on the bed's edge and gently wiped Gabrielle's face.

"Try to go to sleep Gabrielle...I'll be here with you..."

"Xena, you need to get to Thebes..."

"We'll talk about it" Xena saw her sick friend drifting off to sleep and bent down gently kissing her forehead. "...just sleep."

Chapter Two

Gabrielle woke up early the next morning to the sight of Xena sitting on the bed next to her dozing. When the bard moved a bit to get more comfortable, she realized that Xena had hold of her hand. The movement woke up the warrior.

"I'm sorry Xena..."

"'re do you feel?" Xena pressed her palm to Gabrielle's face and forehead. "You seem a bit cooler and your color is definitely better."

"Why are you still here? You need to get to Thebes. Look...I think you should..."

"Don't worry about Thebes, Gabrielle. It'll be there in a few days."

"But Hercules won't be. I know you were looking forward to seeing him. I want you to go...really. This is just a stupid upset stomach that will be totally gone in a day or two. I just need to rest." Seeing that her friend was not budging one bit, the bard resumed her argument. "Xena, I want you to go! I'll feel terrible if you don't see Hercules, and I'm going to be fine. Just go and when you get back I'll be as good as new!"

Seeing a slight crack in Xena's resolve, the tired bard continued her plea. "Look, there really isn't anything you can do for me except hang around and watch me sleep...and make me feel guilty. And the innkeeper seemed nice, from what I can remember. I'm sure he would look in on me from time to time...and I'm going to spend most of my time sleeping...and you haven't seen Hercules in so long...and you need to get out and have some fun...and I..."

"ALL RIGHT!!!!! You know Gabrielle, sometimes you are"

"What I am right now is very tired. But I'm also right and you know it. I want you to go and have a good time...please?"

"Are you sure? Because I don't want to leave if you're..."

"I'm sure...just ask the innkeeper to check on me now and again if that'll make you feel better." A smile then creeped onto Gabrielle's face as she realized she had won the argument.

"Okay, I'll go...under protest! But I *am* going to talk with the innkeeper about keeping an eye on you." Xena got off the bed and began packing the few things she had brought into the room after Gabrielle had fallen asleep. Once finished, she turned and walked back to the bed, sitting on the edge and taking Gabrielle's hand.

"Are you sure about this? I mean you know I'm going to worry about you the whole time..."

"No you're not - and that's an order! Once you see Hercules, you'll have a good time. And I'm really going to be fine've seen this kind of thing before. I'll be okay in a couple of days." Gabrielle lifted up Xena's hand and gently kissed it. "Thank you for taking care of me, now go and have a good time!"

Xena stood up, and picked up her belongings. "You had *better* take care of yourself while I am gone if you know what's good for you! Stay in bed. And I'll make sure that the innkeeper takes good care of you. Um...I should be back in a few days."

The exhausted bard smiled at her friend, then closed her eyes, drifting back to sleep. Xena quietly left the room, pausing one last time to see her friend sleeping.

Chapter 3

Gabrielle slowly sat down at the same back table she and Xena had occupied just over two days ago. This was her first real foray out of the back room she had been occupying - well mostly sleeping in - for all that time. The bard felt much better and was happy to finally be up and about. Although still a little weak, she had just taken a hot bath and was looking forward to her first real meal in three days.

She glanced over and smiled at Darius, the innkeeper who was fast preparing her food. He had been so sweet to her while she was sick, making sure she had water, clean towels, and a bit of company. It was clear to Gabrielle that Xena had put the fear of the gods into this poor man in tasking him with her well-being. A smile crossed Gabrielle's face knowing that Xena could be so intimidating that way, and could only imagine what the Warrior Princess had threatened poor Darius with had he not taken good care of her.

Gabrielle looked up as Darius brought her some stew and fresh bread. Sitting down for a second, he noted that she looked much better. Gabrielle smiled at the man and responded,

"Well, nothing like a warm bath and good food to make someone feel better. And I do want to thank you for all your help Darius. I really appreciate all you've done. I promise to make sure Xena knows how wonderful you've been." Seeing a relieved look on the poor innkeeper's face, Gabrielle attacked her food.

After eating two helpings of stew, Gabrielle sat back and took in all the goings on in the tavern. She'd been cooped up for so long, it was nice to get out around people again. "Face it Gabrielle," she muttered to herself, "you miss Xena." A grin crept on her face as she pictured her best friend actually smiling, and enjoying herself with her good friend Hercules. The young bard always said Xena never smiled enough...demons from the past normally left the warrior fairly somber. But every once in a while, a younger, funny, softer side of Xena did come out. Gabrielle lived to see those moments. Her friend deserved any happiness she could get from life. She was just glad she was able to talk Xena into leaving for Thebes.

Gabrielle was forced out of her thoughts when the inn door burst open and a number of warrior-type men sauntered into the establishment. Her abstract interest changed when the last soldier walked casually through the door. "Draco..."

Scanning the room, the Warlord Draco walked in and sat at a corner table facing the door, while his men went immediately to the bar and ordered large portions of port. The men did not seem to be causing any problems, so the room, which had gone deathly silent, slowly began to buzz again.

Gabrielle had slumped down in her chair in a meager attempt to make herself invisible. "He won't remember me...will he?" ...the bard thought..."I've got to get out of here and get to Xena before she walks into this."

Xena's friend slowly rose from her seat and made her way towards her room. Once out of eyesight from Draco, Gabrielle ran and quickly started gathering up her things, stuffing them into her travel pouch. Just as she finished this task, her door crashed open. Spinning around, Gabrielle saw Draco leaning against the doorframe casually looking at her with a dangerous glint in his eyes.

"I don't think we were properly introduced the last time we met. Gabrielle...right?"

At a total loss for words, Gabrielle quickly looked around for a means of escape. Her staff was already packed in her travel pouch, not that it would be too smart to try anything with Draco. As she continued to go through her limited options, Draco spoke again.

"Where's Xena?"

"Um...I'm afraid you have me confused with someone else. I...uh...I'm a traveling bard you know...uh...Xena...don't know a Xena. Now if you'll excuse me, I was just leaving." Gathering all the resources she had, Gabrielle quickly walked towards the door. Once past Draco, she began to relax a little, only to feel Draco grab her arm and stop her dead in her tracks.

"Why don't you join me outside? I'm a little thirsty." Without ceremony, Draco led Gabrielle out into the tavern and forcefully sat her down at his table. "Innkeeper, two ports and be quick about it."

A mortified Darius hurriedly brought two goblets to Draco's table and could only glance at Gabrielle as he set the drinks down on the table and quickly turned away.

Pushing one of the goblets towards Gabrielle, Draco ordered, "DRINK!"

"Uh, I'm not really thirsty, and I've been a little sick lately. Thank you for the offer, but I really do have to be on my way." Smiling at Draco, Gabrielle continued, " know, places to go, people to meet... things to do..." The bard then stood up and turned to leave.


The entire room fell silent again as Gabrielle saw a few of Draco's men advance towards her. She quickly sat back down, realizing that she wasn't going anywhere soon. Draco spoke again, "Now, you never answered my question...where is Xena?"

"I really don't know..."

A cold smile appeared on Draco's face. "Would you tell me if you did?"

Gabrielle opened her mouth to respond, but looking at the deadly glare in Draco's eyes, thought twice about it and remained silent. Her gaze lowered to the table top. They sat this way in silence as Draco finished both his and Gabrielle's port. Every once in a while Gabrielle would look up and see Draco staring at her. He seemed to relish the thought that she was so uncomfortable under his gaze.

Suddenly, just as quickly as he entered the inn, Draco stood up and ordered his men outside. Grabbing Gabrielle's arm, he lifted her out of her chair and pushed her towards two of his men. Barely able to keep her balance, Gabrielle's momentum was stopped as the two soldiers grabbed her arms.

"Put her on my horse. I'll be there in a minute."

As the men led Gabrielle out of the inn, Draco approached the frightened tavern owner Darius. The innkeeper was helpless as the warlord grabbed his collar and lifted him up halfway over the bar.

"When the Warrior Princess comes to pick up her friend, tell her Draco sends his regards." He then tossed Darius down and purposefully walked out of the inn as the stunned townspeople looked on. Once outside, Draco saw that Gabrielle was on his horse with her hands tied securely to the large saddlehorn. He quickly mounted the animal and led his men out of town.

Chapter 4

Gabrielle had lost all track of time. She was sure she had even dozed off a few times. But she could still feel Draco's cold stare on her back, which chilled her to the bones. She also realized that she was extremely thirsty. Having been as sick as she had been these past few days, Gabrielle knew she needed to drink some water. She was already too dehydrated.

Taking a chance, Gabrielle spoke up, "Um...I really don't feel very well. Do you think we could maybe stop for a few minutes?" When Draco did not respond, the bard tried another tactic. "Okay, well then do you think I could have some water?"

She saw Draco consider this for a few minutes, then reach back and grab his water pouch. Opening it up, he held the bag above Gabrielle's head and poured some water into her open mouth.

"Thank don't be angry or anything if I throw up on your horse, okay?"

Draco put the water pouch back and continued Gabrielle's conversation line. "I'd advise against that Gabrielle. You wouldn't want to make me angry would you?"

The bard could not help but think back to the time that Xena had said the same thing to her...back in Poteidaia. Xena had not wanted the young inexperienced farm girl to follow her, making it clear that she would be upset if Gabrielle tried. Thinking that the farm didn't sound all that bad right now...Gabrielle was brought back to the present by Draco.

"By the way, how is Xena these days? I've heard some pretty strange rumors...even that she somehow came back from the dead." When Gabrielle did not respond, Draco added, "Well, we'll soon see for ourselves won't we? Another few hours and we'll stop. Got alot of work to do to prepare for the Warrior Princess - right?"

Gabrielle was totally exhausted by the time they reached their final destination. The bard had no idea what village they were in, but it was obvious from the destruction that Draco's army had only recently conquered it. Men were still moving dead bodies away and putting out fires as the warlord let his horse to the village center.

Dismounting his horse, Draco began talking with Gar, one of his lieutenants. Gabrielle could only pick up pieces of the conversation due to her physical state and the noise around her. She soon lost interest in even trying. All she really wanted to do is drink some water and lay down for a while. She was brought back to reality when Draco returned to his horse and began issuing orders.

"I want the lookouts doubled. I'm expecting a visit from the Warrior Princess herself!" Seeing his men give him a look of surprise and maybe fear, he continued, "I want roving guards in addition to the extra sentries. The minute she's anywhere near here, I want to know. DO IT! Oh, and Gar," Draco said as he turned and nodded towards Gabrielle, "make sure our bait is very safe and secure - got it?"

"Yes sir!"

Draco watched with a smirk on his face as Gar untied Gabrielle's hands and pulled her off the horse. As Draco walked away, Gar forcefully took Gabrielle to a small stone structure not far away. Opening the door, she was led down earthen stairs and thrown unceremoniously into one of the cells. The heavy wooden door shut and locked behind her, leaving the unlit room in total darkness. Eventually, Gabrielle was able to make out shapes as a bit of moonlight was filtering through the one small barred window of the cell. Seeing no water, Gabrielle found a dry corner and laid down, falling into an exhausted sleep.

Chapter 5

Xena had Argo trot faster as they approached the village square. As much as she enjoyed seeing Hercules, the warrior had been worried about Gabrielle and had actually cut her visit short by a day just to get back to her sick friend.

It constantly amazed Xena that the bond she had developed with Gabrielle was so strong. The Warrior Princess didn't like to admit that she needed anything or anyone, but Gabrielle had somehow taken up permanent residence in her heart and soul. When she really thought about it, Xena realized that she had never been this close to anyone in her life, including her brother Lyceus. Xena missed her presence when she was not there; almost feeling she was not whole unless her other half was there. Gabrielle was more than a friend, she was a soul mate. It was Gabrielle, after all, who gave her the inner strength to carry on. She would have given up long ago had the young bard from Poteidaia not been there for her. She couldn't wait to see her friend and give her the beautiful scrolls that she and Hercules had purchased for her in Thebes.

Xena slowed Argo down as they approached the inn. The warrior had noticed people looking and pointing at her as she went by. This happened alot when she and Gabrielle came to a town for the first time. Normally it meant that people were either scared that the murderer Xena had come to their village, or they were happy to see her, thinking that they had some insurmountable problem she could solve. But Xena had already been here, and the reaction of the townspeople made her nervous. Jumping down from Argo, the Warrior Princess hurried into the tavern to see her friend.

Almost immediately Xena knew something was wrong. All the people in the tavern stopped talking the minute she walked in. As she made her way towards the lodging area, Darius ran out of the kitchen, practically crashing into Xena. The look on his face confirmed her worst fears.

"Where's Gabrielle?"

Darius began to shake and tried to talk, "Princess, please, there was nothing anyone could do...we..."

Xena grabbed Darius, lifting him off the floor and throwing him against the wall in back of him. In a voice that would scare the bravest of men, Xena implored the innkeeper, "What has happened to Gabrielle?"

Barely able to respond, Darius seemingly babbled, " came...please let me down...please..."

The Warrior Princess regained a bit of composure and loosened her grip on the innkeeper, allowing him to stand on his own feet. After he recovered his voice, Darius continued, "Your friend was feeling much better and had started eating again. She was sitting right over there, " Darius said pointing to the table in the far corner, " but soldiers came in. Gabrielle seemed to recognize one of them and tried to leave. He...he...he took her."

"Who took her? TELL ME!"

"When he was leaving, he told me to give you a message. He said, 'Tell the Warrior Princess that Draco sends his regards'."

Xena felt an overwhelming anguish take control of her mind and body. She had only felt this way twice before...when her brother Lyceus died, and in the Thessalian temple, where she had briefly lost Gabrielle. The warrior somehow found a chair and sat back, shaking and in shock.

"I still have her bag. Do you want me to get it?"

"What? Oh, yeah, right...yes, give me her things."

When Darius returned, Xena had more than regained her composure. "Which way did they go with her?"

A village elder stepped forward and spoke, "They headed due west. We've heard that Draco's army is lodged at the village of Tiberon."

Xena turned to leave. Darius watched as Xena picked up Gabrielle's things and stalked out of the inn. The look on her face sent chills down his spine.

Chapter 6

Xena slowly approached the outskirts of Tiberon on foot after having left Argo a few hundred meters down the path. Suddenly she stopped cold in her tracks as she heard men approaching her. Looking up, Xena spotted an overhanging tree limb and nimbly jumped up, swinging her body into the trees. As the two warriors walked below her, she quickly jumped down on one of the guard's shoulders, rendering him unconscious. The other guard reached for his sword, only to see it fly out of his hand as Xena delivered a swift roundhouse kick to his wrist. Before he had a chance to react, the Warrior Princess quickly delivered a nerve pinch to the man's neck. As he fell to his knees, he heard the warrior woman speak,

"Just so you know, I've blocked off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in 30 seconds if I don't release you." Seeing that he understood her words, Xena continued. "Where is the girl that Draco brought here?"

The man responded in a low voice, "In a cell at the village jail."

"Did he hurt her?"

"No...please, help..."

Xena saw the guard losing consciousness and bent down, releasing the nerve pinch with a quick move of her hands. She then knocked him out with a forceful roundhouse kick. Looking up, Xena slowly continued her way towards Tiberon.

Chapter 7

Draco stood casually in the village stable, brushing down his horse. Although he had plenty of men under him who could easily take care of this job, the warlord normally groomed his own horse before any battle. Draco smiled as he noted that it was Xena, the Warrior Princess herself, who had taught him to do this simple task, and to use the time constructively to meditate. He turned from his horse as his lieutenant Gar ran into the stable.

"We've just gotten word that the Warrior Princess was spotted headed this way hours ago." As Gar explained how his men ran into a traveling healer who had seen a warrior woman, Draco threw down the brush in his hand and stalked out of the stable. Looking up into the countryside, Draco knew Xena was near...

"Bring the girl to my quarters NOW!...and get the men ready!"

Gabrielle was finishing up her meager meal thinking that she'd never complain about Xena's cooking again. Thankfully, the soldiers had only come in twice, both times to give her some water and a bit of food. She was just thankful that her captors had given her anything at all. She ate, even though she wasn't hungry, knowing she had to keep up her strength.

She was not even sure how long she had been in the cell, but assumed it was just over a day or so. After collapsing into an exhausted sleep, Gabrielle had woken up to daylight. She had tried pulling on the bars of the small cell window with no luck and had even tried to loosen the door jam. She quickly realized that she wasn't going to just walk out of the cell on her own. Dejected and sitting on the hard earthen ground, Gabrielle could not remember when she'd ever been so afraid. Well, there were a few times with Callisto, but for the most part, those incidents occurred so quickly, that the fear, although strong, was short lived. The bard noted that she had been in a state of abject terror since Draco had walked into the village tavern...whenever *that* was. It was a debilitating, frustrating feeling, knowing for a fact that her best friend would certainly try to rescue her...even if it meant going up against Draco's entire army.

Suddenly, Gabrielle turned her head towards the entrance to the cell as the heavy wooden door was unlocked. Gar, Draco's lieutenant, walked purposefully into the cell grabbing Gabrielle up by the arm, and pushed her towards the doorway where two of his men were waiting. Gar led the group out into the daylight, with the bard secured between his two soldiers. They walked a short distance and stopped in front of a small hut, where five more of Draco's men were waiting. Gabrielle squinted up, her eyes not used to the bright sunlight, as the Warlord Draco came out of the building and walked down the stairs towards her.

"It seems our mutual friend is nearby. Let's see if we can't get her to join our party - shall we?"

Draco's tone chilled Gabrielle, who watched as the warlord strode in front of her, hands on his hips, surveying the woods surrounding Tiberon. Turning back to her, Gabrielle saw a smirk on Draco's face...knowing for certain that he sensed Xena's presence.

"Xena!" Draco yelled out, "I know you're out there. I'll make this simple for you! You have one minute to show yourself." Draco then grabbed Gabrielle by the neck and pulled her towards him. "If you don't come out, I'll kill your little friend here, and trust me, it won't be quick or painless!" To prove his point, the warlord pulled a small dagger from his belt with his free hand and placed its tip none-to-gently against the top of Gabrielle's right breast...drawing blood and a yelp from his captive. "We're waiting!!"

Xena had been surveying the surrounding woods behind the stables when she heard Draco call out. Her reflexes took over and the warrior crouched down lower in the bush. From her vantage point on a hill above the village, she quickly spotted Draco and his men holding Gabrielle in the village square. Watching as he removed his knife, Xena almost yelled out with her friend as he cut her. The Warrior Princess had never felt so enraged...or so helpless in her life. She also knew that she had no choice...

"Draco! I'm here..." Xena stood up and walked out of the woods into the cleared grounds around the stables. Keeping an eye out for an attack from Draco's men, Xena slowly walked towards the village square. "Let her's me you want!" Xena continued walking, as she saw more of Draco's men surrounding her from the side.

Gabrielle, whose fears for herself were suddenly replaced and focused on the most important person in her life, found the strength to call out, "NO Xena!!! Go back! Don't..." Draco rewarded her outburst by tightening his grip on her neck. Talking or yelling was now out of the question...she could barely breathe.

When Xena got within a few meters of Draco, she stopped and quickly looked at Gabrielle. Knowing she needed to keep her composure, the Warrior Princess turned her full attention to Draco. "Here I let her go. She's no threat to you."

Smiling, Draco responded, "No, but you are. She's my insurance that you'll behave yourself for just a bit longer." Draco turned and nodded towards his men, who quickly advanced on Xena, grabbing her arms and roughly forcing her towards the village jail. Draco followed at a distance, still holding Gabrielle by the neck.

Once inside the jail, Xena was led down the earthen stairs and taken to the same cell that had held Gabrielle. There she was unceremoniously pushed into the far corner of the room. Draco stayed with the young bard near the entrance, his hand still firmly placed around Gabrielle's neck.

"It's probably best if you take off your weapons and armor. Of course my men would love to help you if you'd prefer..."

Xena's cold stare into Draco's eyes frightened Gabrielle, but she watched with a sickening feeling as her friend slowly complied with Draco's demand. Xena removed her sword, breast dagger, and chakram, tossing them to the side, then reached around and unhooked her metal breastplate, allowing it to fall to the floor at her feet.

"The leather too Xena. Call me silly, but I just don't trust you..."

Xena's eyebrows arched and her mouth defiantly smiled at Draco as she stripped down to the lightweight shift she wore under her leathers. "Draco, if this was what you had in mind, why didn't you just say so. Although I thought I'd already made it clear, " Xena motioned to her cheek, drawing a line on her face with her finger...imitating the scar she had given Draco long ago, "that you weren't my type."

"Funny...Gar, the rope."

Moving quickly, Gar and one of the soldiers grabbed a rope that was sitting in the opposite corner of the cell. Xena stood silently, never taking her eyes off Draco, as his lieutenant roughly tied her hands in together. He then threw the rope over one of the ceiling beams and pulled Xena's arms up over her head, stopping only when the warrior's feet were barely touching the ground.

Once Xena was secured, Draco released Gabrielle's neck, but reached out catching her arm, not letting her go near the Warrior Princess. Draco watched Xena's reaction as he released his hold on her friend. Although she tried to hide it, the warlord saw a look of relief pass on his former comrade's face. She quickly covered her feelings, but it was obvious to Draco that this young woman meant more to Xena than he imagined.

His thoughts were broken by Xena's voice, "Well, what now?"

"I thought for starters we'd take a little of that defiance out of you." Draco then turned to his men and nodded his head. They advanced on the warrior woman and began beating her. Unable to defend herself, it did not take long before the blows from the five soldiers began to take their toll.

Gabrielle struggled helplessly as she was made to watch her best friend being brutally beaten. Tears streamed down her face as she tried unsuccessfully to break free of Draco's hold and go to Xena. The pain in her throat not withstanding, Gabrielle cried out...

"NO!!! Stop're killing the gods please...!!!" She looked into Draco's eyes and implored again, "Please...stop it...I'll do anything...just stop it!!!"

"Would you take her place?"

"Yes!" Gabrielle cried out, "yes...anything...just stop them..."

Xena, who was barely conscious at this point, heard her friend's pleas, and Draco's offer. With what little reserves she had left, the Warrior Princess weakly called out, "" Her head then fell to her chest as she lost consciousness.

"Interesting proposition..." Draco thought aloud, as he looked at the young bard in his grasp. Nodding towards Xena, the warlord started issuing orders. "Cut her down and chain her to the wall over there."

Complying with Draco's command, Gar quickly took out a knife and cut the rope holding Xena's body upright. As her body fell to the ground, a few of the soldiers grabbed her arms and dragged her to the opposite corner of the cell, securing her arms above her head with metal chains imbedded in the wall. They then chained her legs to the ground.

"Prop her up boys, and try to wake her. I don't want her missing any of this."

As his men positioned Xena and tried to revive her, Draco pulled Gabrielle over to the spot where her friend had just been beaten. One of his men threw him a long piece of the rope that had held Xena, and the warlord quickly secured the frightened bard's hands in the same fashion as Xena's had been tied. He then threw the rope over the ceiling beam and pulled Gabrielle's arms over her head, stopping only when her feet began to lift off the ground.

Xena began to come around. Her mind and body had shut down to deal with the pain, but something or someone was forcing her awake. Slowly her mind and vision cleared enough to take in the scene in front of her. " Draco...don't...don't do this..."

"Ah, I see you're awake. Seems your friend here was worried about you...rightfully so. Anyway, I think you'll enjoy this show...I know I will." Draco stalked over to Gar, removing the whip that was wrapped around his belt, then slowly advancing back to Xena's frightened friend. "Remember Xena, she's doing this for you." Without a second's hesitation, Draco pulled back on the whip and cracked it towards Gabrielle's exposed lower back.

Gabrielle was at first shocked, then sickened, as the whip struck her exposed flesh. How could anything hurt so much? The surreal situation suddenly became very real as the whip hit her again. She heard herself cry out, but could barely keep her mind or thoughts straight through the pain. In somewhat of a haze, she looked over at Xena, trying to focus on her friend, as the pain came again. She could hear herself crying out, but the pain continued to come again and again. Eventually, she began to lose whatever focus she had and thankfully slipped into darkness.

Chapter 8

Once Gabrielle passed out, Draco stopped the flogging. He moved over to Xena and smiled as he saw her stare at her unconscious friend. Nothing could hide the emotions going through the Warrior Princess, and Draco noted that he finally had a weapon to use against his enemy. Xena continued to watch as the soldiers lowered Gabrielle onto the ground near her, taking a manacle from the cell wall and securing it to the bard's left wrist. The Warrior Princess had to close her eyes at the sight of the ugly welts forming on the back of her best friend. Rage; angry, ugly rage of a kind she had kept buried for so long now came rushing up to the surface. She turned and looked back up at Draco, who watched with fascination as Xena's whole appearance seemed to change. Even beaten and chained, the look she drilled into his eyes was enough to frighten him.

In an icy clear voice, Xena coldly stated, "You're a dead man Draco."

Not betraying his fears, Draco smiled down at his captive. "You finally have a fatal flaw Xena. Back in your better days - you know, before all this goody goody act - you were invincible. Why? You were more ruthless, more cunning, and more devious than anyone else. You didn't care about anything or anybody. That gave you a strength and an advantage over all your opponents...they couldn't *get* to you." Looking over at Gabrielle, Draco continued. "But that's all changed now hasn't it?" Turning back towards Xena the warlord acknowledged, "You can take anything my men can throw at you here...the pain, and I both know that. But can you watch us slowly kill your little friend here? Will the great Xena, Warrior Princess beg for her friend's life? Just how low will you go for this woman? It definitely will be something to see...Oh, and Xena," Draco bent down closer, "I owe you something..." With that Draco took his hand and cracked it sharply against Xena's cheek, knocking her whole upper body back against the wall. As her head dropped back to her chest, Draco smiled and walked out of the cell. For the first time in many years, he felt good about himself. Xena was always in the back of his mind...the one person in the world he had never beaten. Now he held all the cards...and was going to take his time slowly destroying the woman he had grown to hate more than any other.

Chapter 9

Xena slowly regained consciousness. It was a struggle to keep awake, and with the pain she felt, it was a battle she lost more than once. It was just easier to stay under instead of dealing with all the agony. But slowly...the warrior was able to open her eyes with clarity. At first, her thoughts were jumbled, but she then remembered where she was and immediately looked over to see Gabrielle still unconscious not far away. In that brief moment, Xena allowed herself to show her feelings, as tears freely flowed down her face. The guilt she felt was all consuming, and the thoughts of what Draco was going to do were like daggers in her heart.

As Xena continued to stared at her friend, she saw a bit of movement. Gabrielle, although still unconscious, was beginning to wake up. Xena saw a grimace on the bard's face as she slowly twisted and turned...knowing her friend's body must be in torment. Xena wanted so much to take the pain away...

"'s all right...wake up. Gabrielle..."

As the young bard drifted towards consciousness, tears flowed from her eyes and she began to moan softly. Hearing the one voice in the world that she knew she could trust, Gabrielle shifted her head and slowly opened her eyes to meet Xena's concerned stare. Knowing she had to be strong for her friend, Gabrielle fought back the tears and tried to brave the pain.

"Xena...I...." Gabrielle assessed Xena, whose bruised and battered body looked horrific. Blood had caked around her mouth, nose and along the side of her face. Bruising was evident on most of her exposed flesh, which, due to the state of her clothing, was almost her entire body. "You look like Hades Xena..."

"This isn't funny. By the gods, what were you thinking? He could have killed you!"

"Yeah, well, I *almost* wish he had. I know this is going to sound stupid...but I didn't think it would hurt this much." Gabrielle grimaced as she tried to give a small smile to her friend.

"Why Gabrielle? It was a stupid thing to do!"

"Like you giving yourself up wasn't? What were *you* thinking?"

"I...well, I didn't...that's different!"

"No, you wanted to protect me. I know that Xena and I love you for it, but we've been through this before. Why is it so difficult for you to think that I don't feel the same way you do...that I want to protect you? It works both ways you know...Besides, the only way either of us is getting out of here is if *you* are strong enough to pull something off. Hopefully I bought us or *you* a little time. How are you...I mean, how badly are you hurt?"

"I'm fine..." Seeing Gabrielle's expression, Xena amended her answer. "Okay, I'm pretty messed up...I know I have a few broken ribs...nothing life threatening. I've been worse and can function just fine...well, almost fine anyway."

"Well then," Gabrielle said slowly moving her body trying to find any position that was less painful, "what's the plan? Tell me you have one...please..."

Xena looked at her friend. She knew that Gabrielle was trying so hard to be brave, and that made Xena's resolve that much stronger. "Actually, how far can you reach towards me? I have a small stiletto in my right boot. I know it's going to hurt to move around, but let's see if you can get to it."

Gabrielle slowly started shifting her body towards Xena. With every move she made, Xena saw Gabrielle grimace. But she continued to scoot along the ground, stretching out her body as the chain on her left arm limited her reach. Seemingly to keep her mind off the pain, Gabrielle started talking.

"Since when did you carry a knife in your boot Xena?"

"Since have to be flexible in this business. I figured if I did end up in something of a bind, Draco would take everything else. So, I improvised." Xena, ignoring her own pain, moved her legs as much as the chains would allow, forcing her right side towards Gabrielle. "Can you reach it?"

"Yeah, I think so...give me a second here." By this time, Gabrielle was totally stretched out on the ground as her fingertips grabbed onto the top of Xena's boot. Stretching more, she moved her hand up and tried to get into Xena's boot. "Where exactly is it? I can barely reach and I don't feel it!"

"Okay, let's see if you can pick that lock of yours."

Gabrielle slowly scooted herself back and painfully sat up near the wall where her chain was imbedded. As Xena looked on, her friend's shaky hand worked steadily on the lock holding her arm captive. Finally, Xena saw the lock give way, freeing Gabrielle from the wall.

Xena had a smile on her face. "Autolycus would be proud..."

Gabrielle smiled back and crawled over to Xena. She then began working on the locks holding her friend down. The chains holding Xena's legs went first, then finally her arms were released. The women looked at each other then embraced carefully, fully mindful that they each had some significant injuries. They both allowed their tears to flow as they comforted each other.

"Xena, I'm scared. Draco...he's not just satisfied with killing, is he?" Gabrielle pulled away from Xena and looked at her friend. For the first time she could ever remember, she saw fear in the Warrior Princess' face. "What?"

"Nothing...let's not talk about this. We need to get out of here and get you to safety."

Xena stood up quickly, much to Gabrielle's surprise, and quietly looked through the cell door's window. She noted that only one guard was outside, and he was at the top of the stairs sleeping. Obviously he thought his captives were secure for the night.

"We've got to get that guard in here. Time for a performance from the famous bard from Poteidaia! Are you up for it?" Seeing Gabrielle nod her approval, Xena turned back towards the interior of the cell. "Let's get back down and call him in. Then we're outta here."

Both women laid back down adjusting the chains to look like they were still locked and in place. When Xena nodded to Gabrielle, she began screaming for the guard.

"NO!!! She's not breathing...She's dead! Someone come in here please!!!"

The guard, stunned out of his sleep, stumbled down the stairs and looked in to see the young woman crying. " something...please...I think she's dead!!!"

Opening the door, the soldier carefully made his way towards the warrior. She did look pretty bad...all bloody. He knew that the beating she took could have killed even the strongest of men. Not getting too close, he couldn't tell if the warrior woman was breathing or not...but decided to take no chances and go get Gar. Turning around, he made his way out of the cell.

Xena jumped up, somersaulting across the room, and grabbed the soldier before he closed the door. Gabrielle was amazed that the injured warrior could move so quickly when she was as hurt as she was. Xena knocked the guard unconscious and then chained him in the same spot she had just vacated.

"Gabrielle, can you walk?"

"I think so...I mean, the alternative is not exactly something I want to think about. I'll keep just do your thing."

As they exited the cell, Xena saw all her belongings piled up near the jail entrance. She quickly dressed and fastened her weapons to her body. Turning to Gabrielle, she asked, "Ready?" Seeing a nod from the young bard, Xena removed her sword from its scabbard, and turned to leave.

Chapter 10

Xena slowly led her friend up to the entrance to the jail. Luckily it was past dusk and dark enough to work in their favor. "We'll go back towards the stables. I left Argo a few hundred meters back down the hill in the woods. Just keep close to me and in the shadows as much as possible...okay?"

Gabrielle nodded and they slowly began to make their way along the empty streets of the village. Somehow the gods were looking favorably on the two friends, as they made it to the safety of the woods with no trouble. Xena continued to motion Gabrielle to keep quiet, as she knew that Draco would have guards and sentries posted around the camp. Even so, knowing that they would both collapse soon from shock and exhaustion, not to mention the fact that Draco would probably miss their presence, Xena tried to push their pace as much as she safely could.

Suddenly Gabrielle saw Xena stop dead in her tracks. The bard was always amazed at the reflexes and senses of her best friend. She could see and hear things that no one else could, and obviously she was sensing someone coming their way. Xena turned and motioned Gabrielle down behind a fallen tree a few meters away. Complying with Xena's instructions, Gabrielle painfully crouched down and waited as Xena slowly advanced towards whatever sounds she was hearing. In the briefest of moments, Gabrielle saw one of Draco's men flying through the air, landing in front of her with a dull thud. Shaking her head in amazement, Gabrielle got up and slowly made her way towards Xena, who had come back to check that the sentry was unconscious.

They continued on, and after about 10 minutes, Gabrielle saw Xena lift up her fingers and lightly whistle for Argo. The horse miraculously appeared, and nuzzled into her master, as Xena quickly patted her head and seemed to whisper something in her ear. Turning to Gabrielle, Xena led her over to Argo's side and gently helped her mount the war-horse. "I want you to head straight down this hill and keep going until you get back to the inn....understand? Argo will get you there even if you fall asleep....They should have someone there who can take care of your injuries."

Gabrielle was now very frightened, "What about you?"

"I have some unfinished business to take care of. I'll be there in a day or so. Gabrielle, listen to me. If I don't get there in a few days, I want you to ride out and get as far away from here as you can...understand?"

"Xena, no...get on Argo and come with me. You're hurt...don't do this." The emotions Gabrielle saw in Xena's eyes both frightened her and broke her heart. Obviously her friend was concerned for her safety, but there was something else there, something Gabrielle had only seen a few times before, and it had frightened her each time. "Xena, you promised me...don't do this...just get on the horse and let's get out of here!"

Instead of heeding Gabrielle's plea, Xena slapped Argo's side and the horse took off down the hill away from Tiberon. Watching to make sure they were well out of harm's way, Xena turned back towards the village.

Chapter 11

Xena slowly approached Draco's hut. She had only come across five or six of his guards along the way and had easily dispatched them. Her resolve to protect Gabrielle seemed to keep the wounded warrior focused on the job at hand and not on her nearly depleted physical resources. She noted that there were a few guards around his quarters, but that apparently hers and Gabrielle's absence had not been discovered yet. The camp was quiet.

The Warrior Princess saw that the only way into or out of Draco's hut was through the front door. That meant she would have to take care of the two guards without alerting either Draco or the rest of his men. She crept around to the back of the hut and began climbing up the side, using the misshapen stones as footholds. Careful to make no sound, she finally reached the roof of the structure. As she began to move forward, she heard the front door open and flattened herself down. Draco walked out of the hut and made his way to the stables with his personal guards close behind. Xena watched as the warlord disappeared into the structure and quickly used this opportunity to swing herself off the roof, entering Draco's quarters.

She was only there a few moments, when she heard the door open and Draco enter. In his hand was a metal poker, used by most blacksmiths to brand village cattle. Xena's rage came to a boil as she was under no illusions what Draco's intent for this item was.

Thinking himself alone, Draco quietly inspected the poker and pondered out loud, "It's about that time...our friends should be awake by now. Xena, what will you be thinking when you watch us heat this up and place it on your friend's body?"

The Warrior Princess stepped out into the room from her hiding place, placing her sword against Draco's neck. "Hate to be the bearer of bad news Draco, but your little plan isn't going to work." She allowed him to slowly turn around and face her.

Draco saw the murderous look of the old Xena in front of him. Knowing that he was very near to death at this point, he tried to talk with his enemy. "Xena, I didn't think you did this sort of thing anymore. Killing cold blood...I'm unarmed...where's the sport in that?"

"You asked me how low I would be willing to go for my friend. Well, this is it." And with those words, she plunged her sword into Draco's chest. As he fell dead at her feet, Xena pulled her sword back and quietly stated, "I'm sorry Gabrielle."

Chapter 11

Xena slowly made her way into the village tavern she and Gabrielle had entered what seemed like years ago. Although she had found a stream to wash the blood away, her bruised and weary body still showed most of the signs of her ordeal. Everyone in the inn stood still and stared as Xena made her way towards the back of the building. Darius, seeing the warrior woman enter, came from the kitchen and approached her.

"Your friend is fine. She got here about a day ago, and we had our healer take care of her. She's been sleeping alot, but has been calling out for you." Seeing how badly Xena was hurt, Darius continued, "I think I should get the healer for you too. She can..."

"No, don't bother, I won't be here very long. Just show me where Gabrielle is."

The innkeeper took Xena back to the same room Gabrielle had stayed in before. He opened the door and left as Xena slowly walked in to see her friend sleeping soundly under the covers. The warrior walked over to the bed and gently sat down, fearful of waking up her friend.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I broke our promise...I didn't know what else to do..." Tears streamed down Xena's face as she continued. "But you're safe now, that's all that matters. Thank you for all you've given me...for being my friend...I'll always love you...But this is for the best." Xena bent down and gently kissed her friend and quietly got up walking towards the door.

As Xena was about to leave the room, a voice called out from behind her.

"Is the Warrior Princess such a coward that she can't even face her best friend?"

Xena slowly turned around to see Gabrielle rise up from her bed, walk over and shut the door to the room. Turning towards Xena, Gabrielle bluntly stated, "We need to talk."

"Gabrielle, there's nothing to talk about. This is for the best...really. I'll never change, you've seen that. You knew what was going to happen when you left...I could see it in your eyes. And you were right...I went back and killed Draco...didn't even give him a chance to draw his weapon. Very cold blooded wouldn't you say? I broke the promise Gabrielle..." Xena saw the cold stare of her friend and continued, "Besides, being with me makes you as much of a target as I am. I refuse to take responsibility for that anymore." Xena was surprised by the tone of Gabrielle's quick response.

"You have some ego Princess....Who gave *you* the right to decide? This is *my* life, not yours. Don't for a minute think otherwise. It's *my* choice to be with you. I know I was a little naive when we met, but believe it or not, I knew what I was getting myself into. And by now, after all we've been through together, you should know that it doesn't matter. What matters here is you. I want to know why you went back and killed Draco. Tell me why."

Xena stood silently, staring into the eyes of the one person in the world she cared for most. Unable to keep eye contact, the defeated warrior went over to the bed and sat down. She couldn't bring herself to utter a word. All she could think was that her best friend was lost to her, regardless of what she said.

Seeing that Xena was not going to talk, Gabrielle spoke up. "Well, I've had a little time on my hands here, sitting around, worrying about I've come to a few of my own conclusions. Why don't I share them." Seeing Xena look up into her eyes, Gabrielle continued. "When we were in the cell, you wouldn't answer me when I asked you what Draco had in mind....As a matter of fact, I saw a look on your face I've never seen were afraid Xena. Now I know you well enough to know that you wouldn't have that kind of reaction unless something else was going on...Draco had threatened you in some way...with something you cared about. Then you said you needed to get me to safety...not Your words here, when you tried to sneak out, just confirmed my conclusion. He was going to use me against you, wasn't he? Wasn't he? You killed him for it. Right? Xena answer me!"

"Gabrielle, it doesn't matter why I did what I did. I killed Draco in cold blood. I had that old rage in me when I did it. I promised you I would never become that person again, and I broke that promise."

Gabrielle slowly walked over and sat next to Xena. Tears began flowing down her face as she answered her friend. "I can't tell you that it doesn't upset me Xena. It does. You made a conscious decision to go back and kill Draco when you could have gotten on Argo with me. But I'm not so naive that I don't understand why you felt you had to do it. And I love you for wanting to protect me."

Xena could no longer hold back the emotion she was feeling. She reached over and grabbed Gabrielle, hugging her as if she would never let go. "I'm so sorry. Draco could see how much you mean... I mean how much I care... and he taunted me with it. He knew he finally had a weapon. I couldn't bare the thought of watching you suffer. The flogging was only the beginning...he made sure I knew that. I have never felt so helpless in my life. The thought of what he was going to do to you just drove me crazy....I didn't know what else to do to stop him. Even if we got away, his threat was always going to be there Gabrielle...and one day he would have made good on it. I couldn't let that happen. Regardless of the cost...I couldn't let you be hurt anymore; not because of me."

Gabrielle was overwhelmed at the emotion that Xena was sharing with her. She was like a young child, begging forgiveness. As Xena cried in her arms, Gabrielle slowly started rocking her friend...comforting her, forgiving her, loving her. They sat that way for a long time. Finally, Xena's emotional state along with her injuries took their toll. She could barely hold herself up. Gabrielle took control of the situation.

"Xena, we need to get you into bed and have the healer check your wounds. Let me help you get undressed." The bard reached down and began removing Xena's boots.

"Um...Gabrielle, what do you think you're doing? I can take care of this...and I don't need a healer."

"Uh huh...keep talking like someone's listening Xena. You're so weak at this point, I think I could take you." Seeing a slight smile on her friend's tear-streaked face, she continued, "Let me help you...please."

Xena put up no more argument, as Gabrielle helped her friend remove her clothing and put on a toga that was in one of their travel bags. Xena then laid down on the bed and Gabrielle made sure she was covered up. The bard then called for Darius, the innkeeper, issuing some requests for water and the healer. Once Darius left, Gabrielle made her way back to the bed where Xena was laying, and sat down on the edge. Xena reached over and took hold of her hand.

"Gabrielle, you're a gift from the I don't deserve. Thank you..."

Smiling, Gabrielle tried to lighten up the mood a bit. "Yeah, I'll remember that the next time you tell me I'm talking too much! Now why don't you just relax...the healer will be here soon, then you and I can both get some sleep. And maybe tomorrow we can share a meal seems like we tried that a while ago and it didn't exactly work out very well...."

Later that evening, Gabrielle sat up in bed and looked over at her sleeping friend. Xena, although still bruised and battered from their encounter with Draco, slept soundly. In the spur of the moment, the young bard gently leaned over and lightly kissed Xena on her forehead. A small smile appeared on the warrior's face, and even though she still slept, her hand sought out and grabbed onto Gabrielle's. A feeling of true security and love washed over Gabrielle by this unconscious gesture and she laid her head down, falling back asleep with a gentle smile on her face.

The End