"I...fi fi fix th.things." He continued slowly. Looking at the two very patient women with an appreciative smile. "L..Lot's ... of...b.b.broken...th..th..things...at an orph..ph..anage." He added, rewarded with laughter from the women. Not many people gave him the chance to talk to them, he reflected, grateful for the chance now.

"Stop it! Trollius is pulling my hair! Ow!" The little girl yelped. Kenis looked back at the children with a glare. Trollius attempted to look innocent but didn't succeed. The children continued their bickering despite Kenis' attention. "Hey, Stop That!" The other little boy yelled at Trollius. "Don't look at me, Grena did it." Trollius yelled back. "Did not you liar!" Grena responded. "Did too."

Xena and Meleager looked at each other and slowed down.

"Excuse me" Sara told Kenis and Gabrielle, all noticing the warriors' attempt at a subtle retreat. "You go get 'em Sara." Gabrielle encouraged her sister as she rode back towards the disappearing warriors.

"Come on you two, hurry your pace up a bit." Sara scolded them. Xena sighed and looked over to Meleager. "We should stay back here your majesty. Slavers could still be interested in the children." Meleager started his explanation. Xena considered that pretty good story and nodded in agreement.

"You see... your majesty." He continued, deliberately using royal references when he could, knowing she liked that. "Back here we can offer more protection." Meleager looked over to Xena who continued to punctuate his story at appropriate places with supportive nods. "More protection?" Sara asked, looking around the area.

"Yes. More protection." He responded with conviction, very pleased with himself. Perhaps some of Gabrielle's bardly skills were rubbing off on Meleager the Mighty, he mused. What a combination of skills that would be, he considered. No enemy would ever have a chance against someone with her gift of gab with his skill at fighting.

"More protection FOR the children or FROM the children?" Sara remarked bluntly, quickly interrupting his musings to bring him back to reality. He did not now, nor would he ever, have the gift of gab.

"I want you two to hurry up, or...or..." She scolded them, then thought a moment. Xena's eyebrow raised in interest in what kind of threat this woman could possibly use against the two warriors. "I'll send Gabrielle back here." Sara added with finality and galloped back to the wagon with a grin.

"Did you tell them about the orphanage?" Gabrielle asked her sister as she saw two warriors reluctantly riding towards them, closing the distance. "No. I was going to let you do that." Sara smiled at her sister. Gabrielle's face lit up. "You really DO love me!" She responded to her sister. "Remember, you owe me one." Sara leaned in her saddle towards her sister and quietly informed her. Gabrielle nodded, struggling to wipe the big grin off her face.

The warriors finally arrive along side of the wagon and Gabrielle provides them with a report on their estimated time of arrival. "Kenis tells us we'll reach the...the..." An unwanted grin creeps over the face of the bard, who struggles in a losing battle to stop it. The bard finally bursts out laughing with so much energy she falls off the wagon seat. "Ack..." She blurted amidst her laughter.

The bickering children are stunned into silence by this woman's outburst.

Gabrielle pulls herself from the ground still laughing. "Oh Gods" She exhales in a high pitch. "Sorry...I'm...better now..." She takes a few deep breaths and wipes the tears from her eyes.

Everyone stares at her.

"Ok..." She takes another deep breath. "We'll reach the...the..." Gabrielle continues in a now calm and steady voice until she bursts out laughing again, unable to say the precious word. "Gods" Gabrielle whimpers.

"She's crazy." Trollius blurts. He is the only one to voice the common opinion among the group.

"She's just trying to say 'orphanage', don't pick on her just cause she can't get her words out too good." Grena defends her as she always defended Kenis.

The warriors stare at each other, now understanding Gabrielle's outburst. Meleager silently signals to Xena she should go save herself and he will cover her retreat. "Thanks, but I wouldn't even do that to an enemy." Xena responds. Meleager nods, having done his duty to at least offer the option to his fellow warrior.

"She's crazy." Trollius repeats bluntly. "Is not." The kids return to their bickering in the back of the wagon. "Is too."

"Let's go." Gabrielle told Kenis calmly with a gentle squeeze to his forearm, her mood completely somber now.

"Alright then, to the orphanage." She announced loudly, trying to draw any attention away from her sister's change in mood that she could. Gabrielle looked up at her sister appreciatively. Sara smiled warmly. "To the orphanage." Gabrielle repeated softly with a small smile.

"What just happened?" Meleager quietly asked Xena who was intently watching the two sisters. "I don't know."


Chapter 5 - The Orphanage

An elderly woman rushed out to meet the wagon. "Kenis! What happened? What took you so long? Are the children alright? Are YOU ok? " She asked a quick barrage of questions, overwhelming the poor man. Kenis looked over Gabrielle for help, knowing it would take him forever to answer all the woman's questions. Gabrielle nodded and attempted to help him satisfy the woman's curiosity.

"They were attacked by slavers. It took some time to defeat the slavers. The children are...healthy....and ... I'm not sure the answer to the last question...." Gabrielle admitted. Kenis smiled. "I'm FFFine."

When the woman insisted the four stay for a meal, Meleager spoke up. "We really need to get to Marapolis." Meleager looked over to Xena who nodded.

"But we would really appreciate your hospitality." Sara interjected eyeing Meleager.

"However, we should be going." Meleager responded again with growing annoyance.

"But, we WILL be staying." Sara took the old woman's arm and walked inside. Meleager muttered something as he followed her majesty.

The adults sat together, down at the end of one of the two kitchen tables. Xena and Meleager sat quietly eating, eyeing the children every time one would venture behind them. Sara and Gabrielle, who sat across from the warriors, chatted with the elderly woman and Kenis. Xena noticed Sara did most of the talking.

"You must let us give you something for the food Willa." Sara insisted. "We gladly accept all donations." Willa chuckled.

"It can't be easy running a place like." Sara added. "It isn't easy but we have been fortunate to have Kenis. He has been a wonderful help volunteering his spare time and money." Willa happily complemented her friend. "He recently fixed the roof over the children's bedrooms." Kenis blushed at the attention.

"Now Vicus has no more excuses for a soggy bed!" Trollius imparted that shot before bolting from the table. "You're dead!" Vicus declares and rushes off after the spiteful boy. Xena and Meleager sigh and continue eating.

Gabrielle felt a tug on her clothing. She turned in her seat to find Grena behind her. "Oh, Hello." Gabrielle smiled at the young girl. "Excuse me. Uh, Gabrielle? Can I ask you a question?" She asked. "Sure Grena...what's on your mind?"

"Your horse." She answered and waited. "What about Four Feet?" Gabrielle asked her. Xena finally found something of interest being discussed.

"Why do you call him Four Feet?" Grena asked. Xena was pleased with the question. "Because that's what Sara named her." Gabrielle responded making the little girl thoughtful for a moment. "Oh. That makes sense." Grena nods and disappears. Sara frowned at her sister. "What?" Gabrielle responded defensively.

Sara was not surprised to feel a tug on her clothing and the curious little girl standing behind her. "Hello Grena." Sara looked down at the little girl with a smile. "Excuse me. Uh, Sara? Can I ask you a question?" Grena asked. "Yes Grena, you can ask me a question." Sara responded to the patient little girl with a chuckle. "Why did you name Gabrielle's horse Four FEET? He has hooves." Grena pointed out. "Thank You GRENA!", Xena almost blurted.

"Four Feet was the name of a horse in a story that is very special to our family." Sara explained. Xena remembered all the stories that Gabrielle told her and didn't recall any one of them having a horse named Four Feet in it.

"Why was it so special?" Grena asked. Xena once again silently thanked the little girl. Sara looked over to Gabrielle, who shifted uncomfortably, before answering. "Well Grena, it was the very first story Gabrielle told our family without forgetting any parts." Grena lit up. "Gabrielle's a bard?" She asked enthusiastically drawing the attention of a few other children.

"Oh Gabrielle, the children would love it if you told them a story." Willa encouraged the bard. "Yes, please" A number of children voiced their agreement. "Ok, but we do have to get going soon..." Gabrielle answered. It didn't take much arm twisting to get the bard to tell a story to a group of children.

"Tell us the story with Four Feet in it." Grena requested. Gabrielle looked up at her sister who looked apologetic. "I don't think that would be the best story..." Gabrielle tried to gently let the enthusiastic girl down.

"Why not?" Xena interjected, drawing a surprised look from Gabrielle. So the warrior speaks, Gabrielle thought.

"It is a rather long story..." Sara noted to help her sister out, drawing an annoyed look from Xena.

"I would like to hear that story." Xena stated, returning her gaze to the bard.

"Me too." Meleager added, supporting his fellow warrior, as she had done for him. Now the Queen shot an annoyed look to her Captain of the Guard... perhaps now a Lieutenant.

"Please?" Grena added, seeing the bard still deciding.

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "Ok, a story with Four Feet it will be." Gabrielle responded with a smile to Grena, delighting the girl.

The kitchen filled with excited murmurs from the children. "Alright children, the quicker you help me clean up the faster you'll hear that story." Willa announced getting more help from the children than she could ever remember. Eyeing Gabrielle, Willa wondered how she could get a bard to volunteer her time like Kenis did.

"I'll be back in a few minutes. I need a little quiet time to see if I can remember everything.... it has been a while." Gabrielle informed Willa who smiled and nodded.

Gabrielle found herself outside, next to Four Feet. "Do you know how much trouble you've caused?" Gabrielle looked at the horse who whinnied. "I'm sorry, I know it's not your fault." She apologized, scratching the horses neck.

"Gabrielle, I'm sorry." Sara came out to her sister. "Well, I guess I can't blame you either." Gabrielle sighed. Sara looked at Gabrielle and her horse she kept having conversations with. Perhaps Trollius was right, Sara considered.

"When you named her Four Feet, how could you have known I would be riding her when we rescued children, who would ask about her name, and cause me to get bullied into telling THAT story by Xena." Gabrielle half laughed.

"Gods Gabrielle, she didn't bully you. It's obvious you never told her and she was understandably curious. Speaking of curious, you two have been acting very odd since you arrived in Walsas. Is everything ok?" Sara finally asked.

Gabrielle looked over at her sister and sighed, shaking her head. "I'm not sure... after Perdicus' death...things have been...different. She has become very distant." Gabrielle relayed sadly.

Of course, Gabrielle didn't feel it was necessary to mention that for a time after his death, she never felt closer to the Warrior Princess. A closeness she had never felt with anyone before. She thought Xena felt the same closeness, that was, until that distance between them appeared. It was bad enough that closeness they shared during that time disappeared. But now, Xena seemed at times even more distant than when they first starting traveling together, Gabrielle sighed. She missed her friend, her best friend.

Sara shook her head. "Gods you are worse than Meleager." She relayed.

Four Feet neighed, drawing a surprised look from Sara.

"I have a feeling that's an insult and I should be mad, but it is rather hard when I don't know WHAT you are talking about." Gabrielle responded with increasing irritation and volume.

"Oh Gabrielle" Sara shook her head. "Things ARE different for you. Life, MARRIAGE, death happen and things change....." Sara could no longer hold her tongue. However, her new found voice was interrupted by a smaller, more excited voice.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Grena came rushing out. "Oh, sorry. Excuse Me." She corrects herself, not wanting to be rude. "Uh, Gabrielle? Are you ready to tell us that story yet?" She asked with a bright smile that was infectious.

"Everyone is gathered out back and waiting." Grena added with some panic considering the bard might have changed her mind, seeing no movement and the bard's gaze returning to her sister.

"Well now, I guess I'd better tell that story then." Gabrielle looked down warmly, finally responding to the happy girl. Grena eagerly took the bard and her sister's hands and led them to the audience.

Sara squeezed her sister's arm. "Go get 'em" Sara whispered before joining the adults.

Dyessa stormed into the Marapolis Tavern with an anger Fagan was surprised he didn't see sooner. She looked around for Fagan and saw his men were nursing their wounds from a recent brawl. Considering all their bruises, Dyessa considered they must have been incredibly out numbered in one Tartarus of a brawl.

Spotting Fagan at a table, she stomps over to confront him. "You shouldn't have damaged the merchandise. You know the buyer doesn't appreciate damaged goods!" She tried to keep her voice down. "Dyessa, they only received thirty very minor welts. They were making too much noise. They had to be disciplined." He explained. "And how many people are quiet during a whipping?" She asked, punching holes in his flimsy excuse.

"If you are so worried about the merchandise, you can take care of them from now on. It was supposed to be your brother's job this time anyway. Remember? He wanted the extra money and I am really sick of it...especially that little brunette." Fagan noted. "Alright, I will." She blurted, making her think of what could possibly be keeping her brother so long.

"Thank the GODS. Let me show you my appreciation by buying you a drink Dyessa, you look like you need one. I know I do." He said with a smile. "Ok Fagan, if you are buying....by the way, what happened to your men?" She asked, noting a couple of them walking funny. "Ouch" She recoiled sympathetically, seeing one man's pain when he tried to sit on a bar stool. She didn't want to know the details.

"They said they ran into some trouble trying to pick up some more merchandise....a whole group of angry men they said." He shrugged.

That concerned her. "Nobody tracked them back here did they?" Dyessa asked. "No. No. You are really paranoid about that Dyessa. I didn't think it was necessary to drag those two women all over creation to just to bring them back to Marapolis." He sighed sipping his drink.

"Would you watch your mouth! You were the idiot who decided to pick up two right here in our best port town!" She wacked him in the arm and wondered just how much the bartender, who was delivering some drinks to the next table, heard. "Sorry." He rubbed his arm. "I was just trying to make sure we were close to the numbers the buyer wanted. We are still short but thanks to my two, we are close. I'll be glad to get underway this evening."

"We are not going until your men go out again and pick up the rest of the merchandise." She responded, surprising him. "Give them a chance to recover then send them out again. I'd rather arrive late than short, Fagan."

She departed a concerned business partner. Now he might have to deal with explaining why his men attacked her brother.

Chapter 6 - The Stars In The Sky

Gabrielle took the time to survey her audience while she reviewed key points of the old story in her head one last time.

Grena had not surprisingly taken her spot in the front row. Next to her was Vicus and three other children. There were eight other children on the grass in a not so organized arrangement, despite Grena's insistence they form neat rows. In the back and away from the group was Trollius and his friend, trying to appear not as interested as the rest of the children.

Finally, Gabrielle was ready. "Well, due to the overwhelming requests for this story..." Gabrielle threw a quick look to Xena who looked back unapologetically. "I will tell you a story called.... The Stars In The Sky." The children clapped following Grena's lead. The clapping stopped and an excited hush fell on the children as the bard began to spin her tale.

"Once upon a time, there was a little girl who's dream was to touch the stars in the sky. On clear, moonless nights, she would lean out her bedroom window, gazing up at the thousand tiny lights scattered across the heavens, wondering what it would be like to hold one in her hand."

Gabrielle looked up at the blue sky and reached up towards a far away imaginary star, causing her young audience to look up with her. Xena smiled to herself, seeing how easily the bard drew the young audience into her story.

"One warm summer evening, a night when the stars shined more brightly than ever before, she decided she couldn't stand it any longer - she just had to touch a star, no matter what. So she slipped out the window and started off by herself to see if she could reach them."

"Excuse Me. Uh Gabrielle? Did she get in trouble?" Grena asked with genuine concern that the girl was going to get in trouble.

Two boys in the back laughed with great amusement, while the rest of the children loudly shushed the young girl.

Gabrielle glanced up to Xena who stood behind the group of children with a raised eyebrow, relaying more interest in how Gabrielle was going to answer that question than the young girl. Standing next to Xena, Meleager and Sara made some not very convincing attempts to muffle their giggles. Gabrielle's eyes quickly narrowed at the supposedly more mature audience, considering they were entirely too amused with this interruption.

Gabrielle's attention quickly returned to the Grena, who was now unexpectedly on the verge of tears for causing a disturbance and for potentially being considered impolite by the bard.

"I'm sorry..." Grena said weakly. Gabrielle smiled warmly at her. "You know that is a VERY good question..." Gabrielle admitted thoughtfully, surprising the young girl as well as the rest of the audience.

Gabrielle leaned towards her young audience as if she was going to tell a secret and reveal the answer to that question. "But, you'll have to wait and see..." Gabrielle responded with a smile and winked at Grena, who immediately smiled and forgot she was on the verge of tears.

"She IS good." Meleager remarked to Xena, neither of them taking their eyes off the bard.

"The best" Xena whispered back, touched again by Gabrielle's compassion for others. The bard had an uncanny ability to completely change someone's mood from sad to happy with a few thoughtful words and a smile. No Gabrielle, Xena thought, it is your smile that is truly powerful.

With the Warrior Princess' steady gaze fixed on her sister, Sara believed that whatever was going on between the two of them, it would be alright, eventually.

The bard continued with her story and the undivided attention of the audience.

"The young girl walked a far, far way, and then farther still, until she came to a mill wheel, creaking and grinding away. 'Good evening,' she said to the mill wheel. 'I would like to play with the stars in the sky. Have you seen any near here?"

Gabrielle glanced over the attentive audience and helplessly watched as the next interruption formed on the lips of Trollius, who was still sitting in the back with his friend.

"Hey, mill wheels can't talk!" He called out. The other children were annoyed and turned to face the young heckler in the back, loudly shushing him. The crowd of his peers turning against him didn't seem to bother him one bit. He just stared at Gabrielle, waiting for an explanation.

Xena eyed the boy and considered he had the boldness to become a warlord, if he could survive his childhood ....or today's story.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, knowing as a bard, there would be days like this and rude audience members like Trollius to deal with.

"Well, you do have a good point." Gabrielle responded diplomatically, making the young boy smile with victory and nudge his buddy next to him. "but...if you let me continue...you will find that the young girl in my story is in a special land...where mill wheels talk and other SPECIAL things happen...but if you don't want me to continue....." Gabrielle sighed sadly. The rest of the children reacted as Gabrielle had hoped.

"Oh Please! continue!" The first little interruption spoke up, now leading the children in their encouragement of the seemingly dejected bard. "Please!" They called out. The bard waited for a few seconds and a few more 'pleases' before she continued.

Gabrielle could see Xena shaking her head and laughing to herself. Xena appreciated the bard's skilled manipulation of the audience. Well, at least some good was coming from this ordeal, Gabrielle considered, pleased anytime she could bring a smile to the warrior's face. However, the ordeal was not over, she sighed and looked back at her audience.

"Ok, if you really want me too..." Gabrielle responded, with an innocent look that made Xena roll her eyes. "Now where was I?" Gabrielle quickly found her momentum and continued. "The little girl came upon a mill and asked if the old mill had seen any stars around to play with." Gabrielle recapped.

"Ah, yes" groaned the old mill wheel. 'Every night they shine in my face from the surface of this pond until I cannot sleep. Jump in and you will find them.' She jumped in and swam and swam. 'Excuse me,' she called to the old mill wheel, 'but I don't believe there are any stars here after all!"

Grena smiled at the politeness of the little girl to the mill wheel. One should always say excuse me, she thought.

At the encouragement of Trollius, his buddy called out. "That girl was REALLY stupid to jump in the pond!" This prompted the children into another loud and disruptive round of shushing.

Meleager was not amused at the continuing and unprovoked attacks on the bard and considered the young boys were sorely in need of some discipline. Sara looked at him with some concern as he squeezed the hit of his sword while eyeing the boys. Sara reached out and placed her hand on his. "I gather you've never had any kids." She spoke softly to him. "I wouldn't have any like that." He said softly but gruffly.

Gabrielle took another deep breath. "Some might say that, but I would say she was... naive..." She responded keeping her composure which was not the response the two boys were hoping for. Xena was truly impressed with the bard's patience, for she was just as, if not more, annoyed than Meleager.

"Yeah, she was just NAIVE." The children responded, jumping to the bard's defense, anxious for the story to be continued. "Please continue Gabrielle," they called out. With that plea, Gabrielle was even more determined to get through this torture...story.

As the children cheered the bard on to continue, Meleager and Xena looked at each other, and exchanged some subtle hand signals. Gabrielle curiously watched as the two nodded and moved to stand on either side of the young hecklers. Neither Meleager nor Xena looked down at the boys, their quiet towering was sufficient squelch future interruptions. Gabrielle grinned to herself as the boys shrunk in their seats, realizing they were surrounded by two fierce and unamused warriors.

Gabrielle cleared her throat. "OK. Where were we?" She asked the children. Grena spoke up. "The girl jumped in the pond to find the stars but she didn't find them...." The other children agreed. Gabrielle smiled, pleased they were able to pay attention despite the interruptions. "Ah yes, and the young girl questioned the mill about where the stars were..." Gabrielle once again continued the story.

"Well they were certainly there before you jumped in and stirred the water up," the mill wheel called back. The little girl climbed out of the pond, dried herself off and set out again across the fields."

"With everyone she met, she would tell them, "I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Have you seen any here?" Each time, she would follow their directions, and each time, she did not find what she was looking for."

"After a long while, she finally sat down to rest in a meadow. It was a FAIRY meadow, because before she knew it a hundred little fairies came scampering out to dance on the grass. 'Good evening, Little Folk,' said the girl. They cautiously greeted the little girl who looked very discouraged. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. If you don't help me, I'll never find any to play with.' The little girl sadly sighed."

"The Little Folk all whispered together. Finally one of them crept up and took her by the hand, and said: 'If you're really determined, you must go forward. Keep going forward, and mind you take the right road" Gabrielle paused, looking at the children intently, to stress that good advice. They all nodded. Gabrielle then looked at Grena with a smile and continued.

"Ask Four Feet to carry you to No Feet at All, who will carry you to the Stairs Without Steps, and if you climb that --"

"Then I'll be among the stars in the sky?' Cried the girl. The fairy grinned and then vanished. So the little girl traveled on until she spotted a horse, tied to a tree. 'Good evening,' she said. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky, and I've been told by the Little Folk to ask Four Feet to carry me to No Feet At All who will carry me to the Stairs Without Steps. Can you help me find Four Feet?"

"Four Feet? That's me!' the horse whinnied. They road and road until they found themselves at the edge of the sea. 'I've brought you to the end of the land and that's as much as Four Feet can do.' Four Feet told her. So the little girl slid down and walked along the sea, wondering what she would do next. Suddenly, the biggest fish she had ever seen came swimming up to her feet."

"Excuse me,' she said to the fish. 'I'm trying to reach the stars in the sky. Can you help me?"

"Get on my back and hold on tight.' No Feet At All offered the little girl. Kerplash! They went into the water and swam to where the water met the sky."

"Finally, in the distance, the little girl saw an incredible rainbow rising into the heavens. At last they came to the foot of it and she saw the rainbow was really a broad bright road, sloping up and away into the sky, and at the far, far end of it she could see wee shining things dancing about. No Feet At All stopped. 'I can go no further. Here are the Stairs Without Steps. Climb up, if you can, but hold on tight."

"The little girl climbed and climbed up the rainbow. It wasn't easy. Every time she took one step, she seemed to slide back two. And even though she climbed until the ground was far below, the stars in the sky looked farther away than ever. 'But I won't give up,' she told herself. 'I've come so far, I can't go back." Gabrielle repeated the girl's declaration. "I won't give up."

Meleager finally looked down at the boys. They were caught in the in the bard's tale. Looking up to his fellow warrior, he saw Xena listening intently. Xena wondered why she had never heard Gabrielle tell this story before, and why the bard tried to avoid telling this story today.

"Up and up she went. The air grew colder, but the sky turned brighter, and she could tell she was nearing the stars. 'I'm almost there!' She cried. Sure enough, she reached the very top of the rainbow. Everywhere she looked, the stars seemed to dance. 'I'm finally here,' she whispered to herself. She stood gazing and wondering at the heavens, never seeing anything so beautiful before. 'If I could touch just one star...' She said as she stood on her toes and stretched her arms as high as she could. She stretched further and further ---and suddenly she saw a bright flash, a shooting star zipped by and surprised her so much she lost her balance."

"Down she slid, down the rainbow. The further she slid the warmer it grew and the sleepier she felt. She gave a great yawn, and a small sigh, and before she knew it, she was fast asleep. When she woke up, she found herself in her very own bed. The sun was peeking through her window, and the morning birds sang in the bushes and trees. 'Did I really touch the stars?' she asked herself. 'Or was it only a dream?"

Gabrielle looked at the intense faces on her audience of children and grinned. "What do YOU thing it was?" She asked. A few children discussed it among themselves wanting to make sure they got the right answer. A young boy finally took a chance and answered. "It was a dream, no one can really reach the stars!" He blurted. Xena noticed Gabrielle's smile faded ever so slightly with that comment.

"The young girl she felt something in her hand." Gabrielle continued and looked down to her fist. "When she opened her fist, a tiny light flashed in her palm, and at once was gone" Gabrielle recoiled at the flash of imaginary light from her hand then Gabrielle looked at her audience. "The little girl smiled because she knew it was a speck of stardust."

"Remember, if you are willing to work hard and have the determination to persevere, you can make your dreams come true." Gabrielle advised them.

The bard smiled broadly for this test of her will to persevere was finally over.

Chapter 7 - Marapolis

Xena stared at Kenis, while he was placing his saddlebags on his horse. He was coming with them to Marapolis. "This gets more fun all the time doesn't it?" Meleager quipped and received a silent stare from Xena. Meleager wasn't as scared of those anymore considering he had received many in the past couple days and was still alive. However, he didn't want to press his luck and went to see if Sara was all set.

Gabrielle came towards Xena, giving her hope that the bard was still talking to her. That was until she realized Gabrielle was headed towards Four Feet, who was directly behind the Warrior Princess. Still a stupid name, Xena sighed looking at the horse.

"Gabrielle! Gabrielle!" Grena rushed up to the bard. "Sorry, Excuse me. Uh Gabrielle?" Grena tugged on her skirt even though she had the bard's full attention. "Yes Grena." Gabrielle softly laughed. "I wanted to tell you I'm sorry for interrupting your story...I'm really really sorry. I hope you're not mad at me. I don't want to be like Trollius." She blurted.

Gabrielle knelt down to look the young girl in the eye and smiled warmly. "Trust me Grena, you are nothing like Trollius." The bard couldn't help but brush the hair out of the little girl's face. "When Trollius interrupted, he wanted to get some attention for himself." Grena looked perplexed.

"He just got everyone mad. Why would anyone want to do that?" The child asked a good question.

Gabrielle shrugged. "I think people like that crave attention, Grena. Unfortunately, they don't see that by treating others with respect and kindness they can receive far more rewarding and fulfilling attention. So they keep doing bad things to attract whatever attention they can." Gabrielle still saw a puzzled look on Grena's face.

"But how do you stop them from doing bad things? I've tried to be nice to Trollius but he is SOOOO annoying. He makes me want to slap him!" She sighed with great exasperation. Xena could appreciate the little girls feelings towards the youth.

Gabrielle smiled at the little girl. "Slapping him isn't the answer Grena. That only gives him the attention he wants and he will continue to do bad things. And worse yet Grena, he will have succeeded in making you more like him." Grena frowned and nodded, knowing that was not what she wanted.

"What should I do then?" She asked the bard. Gabrielle sighed. "I wish I had an answer for you. What do you think the girl in the story would do?"

Grena smiled. "Well, she wouldn't slap him. She's polite you know." Grena responded knowingly. "You're a good girl Grena." Gabrielle brushed her cheek affectionately. "So you're not mad at me?" Grena asked.

"How can I be mad at you Grena?" The bard answered, making the little girl beam and lifting yet another spirit, Xena noted.

"Go on and say good bye to Kenis, he's waiting." Gabrielle stood up and watched the little girl skip off. Gabrielle turned and faced Xena.

Say something, Xena told herself.

Gabrielle sighed at the still silent warrior and started towards Four Feet. As she passed Xena, she heard her friend's voice. "Gabrielle." Xena said softly. Gabrielle slowly turned to face her friend.

The ship was still in port and the women were becoming much more edgy as the days wore on. Lila included. The brunette, who had been a rock throughout the whole incident, now had lost her appetite and ability to sleep so soundly, the tall blond noted. The blond didn't know that Lila's faith in her sisters was severely being tested.

Instead of the dumb guy with the whip coming to feed them, the mysterious woman descended the ladder to the cargo hold with a bag of food.

Dyessa knew the merchandise's eyes were staring at her but she had other things to worry about. Her brother was late again, they were short, and Fagan's men had not gotten back yet with the rest of the merchandise.

"Why haven't we left?" Lila stood up and ventured a question that everyone else was too afraid to ask. The woman was surprised the smallest woman of the group had the biggest nerve. This must be the annoying brunette Fagan was lamenting about, she mused. This was the little girl he couldn't handle, she smiled.

"We will be getting some more... cargo... soon. Why the question, are you anxious to meet your new owner, slave?" She snapped back with a growl, trying to scare her. "No, and for your information I am a prisoner with the name of LILA, not SLAVE." Lila looked at the taller and stronger woman defiantly.

"What's in a name?" She laughed at the slave, throwing a loaf of bread her way. "Perhaps nothing...Dyessa." Lila responded deliberately using her name. "Or should I say Traitor...but what's in a name...." Lila felt a crack across her jaw and fell back into the straw and unconsciousness. Dyessa quickly looked around the cargo hold for others willing to learn a similar lesson.

The tall blond woman captured in Marapolis with Lila, stood up and shook her head at Dyessa. "My, My, Dyessa, you act as if you care what Lila thinks of you." Dyessa's eyes widened with surprise that they would be so defiant. She raises her hand ready to strike the impetuous blond hoping she would cower. She didn't. "Oh, you didn't KNOW your merchandise had names? My name is Rayla, Traitor."

Dyessa imparts a blow to Rayla's face that knocks her down, but not out. Rayla doesn't seem shocked. "Why don't you hit us all, Traitor. Perhaps you will feel better about what you're doing to us." Rayla wipes the blood from her lips and moves towards the now conscious Lila to help her sit up.

Dyessa threw down the bag of food, stormed up the cargo hold ladder, and bolted down the hatch.

Lila sees Rayla's lip and realizes she inspired the woman to mouth off. "Rayla, you really should find someone else's lead to follow....it would be less painful for you."

Lila smiled, causing pain in her bruised cheek and a moan. Rayla smiled back which resulted in an "OW" and chuckles from the two women. After that incident, the women in the cargo hold learned each others' names and used them.

On their way to Marapolis, Gabrielle, Four Foot, and Kenis were in front, leading the way. "You're st..story wa was wo wonderful." Kenis noted to the distracted bard. "Thanks." She responded, just like she responded to Xena when she said she liked the story. "I wi wish I c..could ....t.t.tell ...a st.story...like...th...that." He said slowly.

Even with his stuttering, Kenis was better able to communicate to the bard than the Warrior Princess, Gabrielle sighed. She knew Xena wanted to say something to her, other than she liked the story. Yet, once again, Xena retreated behind her mask. Gabrielle was getting incredibly tired of that mask.

"If you really want to tell a story Kenis, you can." She said confidently, returning her attentions to the gentle man. He laughed. "Rrright...v very... ff... funny." He responded with amusement. Gabrielle didn't know which annoyed her more, his laughing at her or his lack of confidence in himself. Either way, she had a point to make and she was going to make it...her way, of course.

"Kenis, let me tell you story. A story about little girl who had a problem and how her friend gave her the help to overcome that problem..." Gabrielle started.

Meleager felt he was in the middle of something but he didn't know what exactly. This something made him uncomfortable. Xena was riding alone, in back, again. Gabrielle was riding in front, chatting with Kenis. He could tell Xena wanted to ride with Gabrielle, but did they ride together? No. Why? Who knew. He could tell Gabrielle wanted to talk with Xena, but did they talk? No. Why? Who knew. This didn't make any sense to him. Feeling Xena's eyes fixed on his back made him even more uncomfortable. "I wish we were in back." Meleager relayed to Sara who shook her head.

Xena wasn't happy with all the distractions around the campfire. During dinner, Meleager kept trying to talk to her about warrior things, making it impossible to hear what Sara and Gabrielle were talking to Kenis about. Gabrielle didn't say one word to her and there were no stories that evening before they slept, that is, before everyone except Xena slept. While lying still, Xena listened to every noise...every... little... annoying...noise. Kenis even stuttered while he snored, Xena noted. She hoped the day would come soon when it would be just Gabrielle by her side at the campfire and she could get some sleep.

In the morning, they arrived in the port town of Marapolis. When they dismounted, Meleager announced the plan of attack for searching for Lila. "We will start in the tavern." Meleager announced. "I'll start in the general store." Sara countered, eyeing Meleager, interested in his reaction.

"You are NOT...." Meleager started to tell her she was not going anywhere alone, but recalled that ordering the Queen didn't go over so well the last time. He took a deep, calming breath then continued. "It is not safe for you to go anywhere alone." He curbed his response. "Ok then, come with me to the general store." Sara started towards the store with a smile, hearing a frustrated and muttering Meleager follow.

"I'll check out the tavern." Xena turned and proceeded towards the tavern before Gabrielle could respond. Gabrielle watched the proud Warrior Princess walk away from her. Perhaps things are forever changed, Gabrielle pondered Sara's words sadly.

Entering the Tavern, a hush fell over the patrons as they carefully watched for any signs that this intimidating woman was after them. After a few seconds of eyeing the room, Xena approached the bar and the normal chatter returned.

In the general store, the owner saw a woman and soldier come in. "May I help you folks?" He asked moving to his position behind the counter. "I hope you can." Sara smiled. "I am looking for my sister, a small brunette. About so tall..." Sara held her hand out indicating Lila's height. "She was supposed to have passed through Marapolis with a young soldier about a week ago. Perhaps you have seen her?" Sara asked with amazing warmth, Meleager noticed. Sure, be like that to total strangers, he sighed.

"So, has she run away and eloped with this guy or what?" The man laughed. Sara was not amused and her mood changed quickly. "As I have said, I am looking for her and I am concerned. Have you seen anyone that fits that description?" Sara eyed him and spoke slowly and deliberately. The man cleared his throat, feeling extremely uncomfortable.

Next time he needed someone to interrogate a prisoner, Meleager considered he should get Sara to do it. She would first lull him into a sense of security with her kindness then rip his heart out with her vicious .....

"Oh, well, I did see a soldier and a young woman in here about a week ago. I thought they were married because of the way he kept telling her they had to get moving and she said they would when she was done shopping...he looked pretty annoyed..." The man relayed.

Meleager could believe it. Meleager started to feel bad for giving one of his best soldiers such a difficult assignment of escorting one of the Poteidaian sisters. He would have to give him a reward or something for his troubles.

Sara was relieved by this news. "She's probably still visiting Uncle Ustas. We'll still need to rescue her" She said with a smile. "I can't wait." Meleager responded with feigned enthusiasm, then noticed she wasn't listening to him. She was distracted by something more interesting, the collection of broaches on sale. "Looks like you'll have to." The store keeper laughed.

Kenis looked around the town uneasily. "What's wrong?" Gabrielle asked her friend. "N..Nothing...I wa wanted t...to th..thank y..you. I'll th..think...about...wa..what y..you and Sara s..said." He smiled. "Good, Kenis." Gabrielle smiled. "But I hope you do more than think about what we said." She responded. He nodded, with a shy smile.

"Kenis!" A woman's voice called out with a mixture of concern and irritation. Gabrielle smiled as the woman came towards them. "Where have you been? You are lucky we delayed our departure or we would have left you here." She scolded him but restrained herself from yelling at him like she wanted to in front of this stranger. "D..Dyesssssa." He blurted nervously. "He was attacked by slavers...my friends saved him." Gabrielle explained.

"What!?" Dyessa looked at him, then the young woman. He nodded, still very nervous. "Hi, I'm Gabrielle. We met during, well actually just after the attack." The bard introduced herself. The woman nodded, amazed at what she just learned.

Spotting a warrior woman walking their way, Dyessa decided it best to leave. "We should talk, brother. NOW." The woman commanded and abruptly left, not wanting to be introduced to the warrior woman. "Y..yes..D..Dyessssa." He called to his sister who quickly disappeared through a crowd.

Gabrielle did not like to make quick judgements of people but she would have to admit, so far, she didn't like this woman named Dyessa. "G..Good B..bye..." Kenis surprised her by hugging her. "Th..thank ...y..you..." He whispered in her ear and held on tightly.

"Are you going to be ok?" She asked as she pulled away, not so sure about his sister's odd reaction. "F..Fine..." He looked up and found Xena standing quietly behind the bard looking at them.

"B...bye ....Xe..Xena." He smiled at the stone faced warrior. "Kenis" She said cooly. Usually able to size people up quickly, Xena concluded her original assessment of him was still valid. She didn't like him.

Gabrielle waived good-bye to him as he left, then turned to face the warrior.

"Any information from the tavern?" Gabrielle asked. Xena shook her head no. The two stood silently waiting for Meleager and Sara. Gabrielle, tired of initiating a conversation that Xena would end up abruptly killing, didn't try. As a result they stood silently waiting.

Say something, Xena told herself.

Say what? Xena wondered, finding that starting a conversation was not as easy as responding to the bard's comments or questions. She could ask Gabrielle what that hug was all about, but that would just make Gabrielle more annoyed with her. The weather, Xena considered. She could discuss how nice the weather was. No, that's a stupid thing to just jump into. But the weather IS nice, Xena noted, as well as it being a safe topic. Alright then, Xena thought, coming to a big decision. She would discuss the weather.

She then noted the bard looking at her curiously. "What?" Xena asked. "Are you feeling ok?" The bard asked with some concern. "I'm fine. Why do you ask?" She asked.

"You just look......never mind." The bard saw her sister and Meleager coming their way. Thank the Gods, Xena and Gabrielle thought to themselves.

"Lila and her escort were seen here a week ago." Sara announced with relief. "However, rescuing her from Ustas may still pose a challenge." Sara added with a grin.

"Can we get moving...your almighty highness?" Meleager mentioned with a grating tone. Sara shot a warning glare at her Lieutenant of the Guard. Sergeant, if he keeps it up, she considered.

"Xena and I really need to talk, do you mind if we ride together on the way to Uncle's?" Gabrielle asked her sister as Xena looked at the bard with some concern. There was only so much the Warrior Princess wanted to say about the weather.

"Oh...not a problem." Sara smiled, happy her sister was still trying to set things right with her friend. Her smile disappeared when she looked at Meleager. "Come, Meleager." She commanded, leading the way to their horses. He followed and muttered something she suspected was not flattering.

As Sara and Meleager mounted their horses, he eyed her. "You don't expect me to talk to you do you?" He snapped. "Will you just shut up?" She snapped back at him.

After the two love birds ride out of earshot, Gabrielle turns to her uneasy friend. "I think riding in silence with each other will be better than riding with either of them right now." The bard explained with a quick smile and mounted her horse. "Come on Four Feet."

Chapter 8 - The List

As she stared at Meleager's and Sara's backs while they quietly rode to Ustas', Xena's curiosity grew about the heated exchange in Marapolis. "I wonder what happened between them..." Xena commented, surprising Gabrielle with her interest in the two's romantic progress. Although, Gabrielle mused, Xena did help, well, try to help Meleager with that romantic encounter at the balcony.

Thinking of her friend's comment, Gabrielle eyed the two in front of them as they rode. When Gabrielle didn't immediately respond, as she usually did, Xena felt uneasy, wondering if the bard was going to answer her at all.

"Sara was always especially difficult on men who showed interested in her." Gabrielle finally explained. "I'm surprised she ever got married." Gabrielle quipped. Xena shook her head sympathetically while looking at Meleager. "What?" Gabrielle asked.

"I knew Meleager was in over his head." Xena remarked. "Sara really DOES feel something for him Xena. I think he has a good chance of winning her over, that is, if he doesn't give up." Gabrielle responded with confidence.

"I think you are much more sure of his chances than he is Gabrielle." Xena remarked with a raised eyebrow towards her optimistic friend. This lack of confidence in the man was amazing to Gabrielle.

"Meleager the Mighty...able to do battle with, and single handedly kill, four hundred enemy soldiers..." Gabrielle started to recount his warrior deeds. "I heard it was four fifty..." Xena interjected, causing Gabrielle to eye the interrupter. Trying to ignore Xena's comment, Gabrielle continued.

"...afraid of ONE woman, Sara, who is anything but his enemy." She shook her head in amazement. "You think that's so odd?" Xena asked, a little more defensively than she expected to. Gabrielle shrugged. "I guess I just don't understand what he is so afraid of." Gabrielle relays and sees the Warrior roll her eyes. "Now what?" Gabrielle asks.

"You don't understand what he's afraid of? Do you want me to make you a list?" Xena responded with amazement at the normally perceptive bard. Gabrielle grinned.

"If you don't mind...." Gabrielle challenged her friend, who immediately regretted mentioning a list. "Please...this should be very educational." Gabrielle added to encourage the hesitating warrior.

Xena made a mental note to never, ever, offer to make a list for the bard. Noticing the bard waiting, she sighed and proceeded. "She's a Queen." Xena confidently announced her first, obvious reason that Gabrielle can't possibly argue with. "Royalty can be very intimidating." Xena explained.

"Not good enough." Gabrielle responded bluntly. "What do you mean that's not good enough?" Xena blurted with annoyance. "You're going to say that with whatever I say aren't you?" Xena quickly added. "Probably. But I mean it with that royalty excuse." Gabrielle responded honestly.

"Why...." Xena sighed with exasperation, awaiting a long rebuttal from the bard. She always seemed to have one. "First of all, Meleager is a respected and famous warrior. So her position shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle remarked.

Xena sighed again as she waited for Gabrielle to provide a dozen more reasons to prove why the first item on the warrior's list was inadequate. However, Gabrielle didn't say anything else.

"Well, what's second?" Xena asked with a little impatience. "Second?" Gabrielle questioned her innocently.

"Yes. You said 'first of all', that usually means you have a second point unless... you don't have one." Xena responded with a grin slowing forming on her face as she began to believe the woman of many words erred and the woman of few words caught it.

"Second" Gabrielle, of course, responded. "He's royalty too. So, like I said, it shouldn't be such a big deal." Gabrielle relayed the incredible news, making Xena's mouth drop and Gabrielle slyly smile.

"He never said anything to me." Xena blurted with surprise, looking at Meleager than back suspiciously at the bard.

"Are you sure?" Gabrielle questioned with a furrowed brow. "Its not easy to keep something like THAT a secret..." Gabrielle added looking at her friend curiously. Xena just shook her head no.

"What is he?" Xena asked, still having trouble accepting this news.

"Meleager's a royal pain in the...." Gabrielle's response was quickly interrupted.

"Gabrielle!" Xena blurted with exasperation and shook her head. This made the bard laugh. Thinking about the bard's observations of Meleager's royalty, Xena had to agree. She looked at the bard and amazed at how easily she could talk circles around the warrior.

"Ok, what's your second reason for Meleager's fear?" Gabrielle asked Xena, who sighed heavily. The bard wasn't about to let her forget the list. There was still a possible diversion, the Warrior Princess considered.

"Gabrielle, did you notice the nice weather we're having?" Xena remarked looking at the sunny blue sky.

"Xena, a list has to have at least two on it." The persistent bard held up two fingers. "Who says?" Xena argued. "Some say three or ...." The bard added. "Come to think of it, two sounds about right...." Xena interrupted the bard, who didn't seem to have a problem with making things more difficult on the warrior.

The warrior breathed deeply and identified the second reason for Meleager's fear. "Rejection." Xena said simply. "Well that's always a risk. I'm sure Meleager has had his share of rejection and survived it in the past." Gabrielle smiled then continued. "It shouldn't prevent him from acting now." Gabrielle responded with a shrug.

"Except ..." Xena started to argue but stopped. "Except what?" Gabrielle asked. "Nothing." Xena responded. "Except WHAT Xena?" Gabrielle's voice raised slightly, clearly relaying her annoyance with Xena for retreating again from a conversation she didn't want to have.

Xena responded. "Except he's worried that he won't be good enough for her." Gabrielle sighed and nodded knowingly. "Everyone has those doubts." Xena shook her head, knowing she was not getting her point across well. Gabrielle looked curiously at her friend.

"Except Meleager feels he is in competition with Enerall and there is no way he can win her heart." Xena responded, and returned her emotionless gaze forward.

"What?!?" Gabrielle asks, shocked he could possibly think that. "He feels he's in a competition against Enerall?" Gabrielle repeats what she heard, completely amazed. Xena continues to ride silently, staring at Sara and Meleager.

"If her past is what's holding him back, then it is a loss...a tragic loss, for them both." The bard responded with great sadness. However, that sadness quickly transformed to anger.

Competition! The bard hated that word and idea. "GODS" Gabrielle spurted. "It's not like HE doesn't have a past...." With the mention of a past, Gabrielle identified yet another item on Xena's list, her personal list.

The four finally arrived in front of Ustas' house. As they dismounted, Gabrielle and Sara smiled in anticipation of a reunion with their Uncle and sister. "Sara! Gabrielle!" A happy voice boomed from the doorway. A large man came out of the house with an equally large smile. "Uncle Ustus!" The sisters run to hug the man who easily sweeps the two up in his muscular arms.

"He's huge." Meleager commented to Xena, noting his height, massive chest and strong arms. Arms that would wield a powerful sword, should the carpenter ever have a reason, Meleager considered. "I think it's the only women of this family you need to worry about Meleager." She relayed to him.

Meleager considered that was probably a good assessment and was about to respond but found Xena was no longer next to him. She was at the bard's side. He understood why, seeing the disturbed looks on the sister's faces.

"Lila never got here." Gabrielle relayed with a hollow voice. "We've got to get back to Marapolis!" Sara declared and almost ran over Meleager to get back on her horse. Gabrielle stopped her. "Wait!" She said forcefully, grabbing her arm. "Sara, we need to think through this before we go off and panic." Gabriele looked her sister in the eye. Sara nodded reluctantly.

Inside Ustas' home, the five sat at the kitchen table with Ustas seated at the head. "I have heard of the Ouzas in this area." The Uncle relayed sadly. Gabrielle could see her sister cringe at the mention of the Ouzas. "They have a camp North of here I am told." Ustas added. Meleager, familiar with the area, nodded. He looked over to Sara seeing his Queen barely away from tears. "We must go get Lila back from them." Sara blurted nervously, knowing that is what they should probably do but not wanting to face the slavers that took her so long ago.

Gabrielle looked at Xena. "I want to talk to you...alone." The bard 's tone and face was unreadable to the warrior. The bard looked over to her curious family and Meleager without so much as a smile. Silently Xena got up and followed the bard to the workshop where Gabrielle considered she would have some privacy with her friend.

"I would like to go with you to the camp." Gabrielle turned to face the Warrior Princess. The coolness of the bard's tone struck the warrior as odd, until she concluded it was the bard's way of handling her fear for her sister. However, the warrior was still puzzled why Gabrielle sounded so reasonable by asking to go instead of announcing she was going .

"You don't need to ask." Xena responded, returning the cool tone. "I'm not asking." Gabrielle corrected her. Xena rolled her eyes, so much for reasonable. "Gabrielle, we can save some time here." Xena looked at her friend. "I am not objecting. I'm not going to argue with you. I think you should go." Xena stated with finality. "Really?" Gabrielle responded with surprise. "YES." Xena sighed with exasperation. "Well, I'm staying here." Gabrielle informed her and shrugged.

Part 3

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