The Long Road Back

by Eimajj
eimajj@earthlink.net

Disclaimer: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle and Argo belong to Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended. The rest of the characters are from my own imagination.

This is a dark tale filled with hurt and comfort. Xena and Gabrielle go through an emotional roller coaster ride and if you are offended or bothered by this, please read no further.

Some graphic violence is depicted. Xena and Gabrielle canít have an adventure without smashing a few heads.

No graphic sex or theme is portrayed. What you read between the lines, is between you and your own imagination.

Enjoy!

This story takes place after the events portrayed in the episodes Debt I and II and after The Huns. However it is not necessary to have seen these episodes or read The Huns to follow the story.

A special thanks to Flynn for her fantastic advice and helpful editing.

Comments are appreciated, please send to eimajj@earthlink.net

Prologue:

The wind grew stronger, sweeping over the gray green barren landscape cutting into two weary travelers who traversed the rounded hills. Silence like a thick black shroud covered the shoulders of the two friends as they trudged along side by side with a large rangy palomino warhorse bringing up the rear. The taller woman on the right raised her head occasionally searching the horizon with piercing cobalt blue eyes. Once finding no danger lurking, she let her head droop down, staring at the ground in front of her. Every once in a while a grating, raspy cough deep and unbidden would rise from her throat, shaking her body in a brief spasm. The smaller woman looked up searching her friendís form with concerned sea green eyes each time the event occurred. Still with nothing to say or to do about the situation, the two continued to plod along.

The gray clouds grew more threatening as the bite in the air grew worse, colder and damp. Both travelers wore gray cloaks that whipped in the wind and swirled around their legs as they moved through the short cropped grass and bush. In the far distance, the outline of mountains could be vaguely seen behind the deep clouds.

"Weíve got to find shelter soon, Gabrielle. Stormís aícomin," the tall dark haired warrior noted softly with a deep, hoarse voice.

Gabrielle threw back her hood, revealing ash blond hair and searched the surroundings in front of her. "Not much out here, is there?" Gods, the land was so barren and cold, no people nothing but the howling wind. The young woman turned to her friend. The land was as cold, silent as her partner and best friend. Yes, sometimes the coldness from within is worse more bitter than any wind or storm. Not that it wasnít well deserved the young bard reminded herself. No, she had earned this fair and square.

She had insisted upon going to the Kingdom of Chin arriving ahead of her soulmate. She alone had betrayed her best friend to an evil tyrannical emperor, Ming Tien. Her act had caused the warrior to be brutally beaten, thrown into a dungeon and tormented by a heavy wooden collar locked around her neck. Left to try to survive in two feet of filthy evil smelling water, the warrior had spent a number of days in the cold damp tomb. The cough was the gift she had taken away from her stay.

"Xena, you should rest. You sound worse." Of even more concern to the young bard was the drooped shoulders and dragging steps of the warrior. Xenaís trademark jaunty swagger was clearly missing. Her whole appearance spoke clearly to the bard who knew her so well of fatigue and illness.

"We canít stop here." With these whispered words, the warrior pulled herself onto the horse and held a hand down for the bard. Without a word, the young woman grasped the offered support and swung up behind the warrior. Xena urged the horse into an easy lope as they continued to head south west towards the distant mountains.

Gabrielle held onto the waist of the warrior as they jogged along. She could feel the heat radiating from her body through the coarse woolen cloak. The bard recognized the warmth as fever yet another bad sign. So close, Gabrielle thought, holding onto the woman that defined her life and yet so distant, so unreachable just as the gray mountains barely visible in the distance.

Xena had been kind yet reserved the entire time. She had never mentioned any of the events that had occurred in the Kingdom of Chin. The boat trip had been long and uneventful. The warrior had stayed below deck in her bed rather than on deck taking part in sailing the ship as was her normal custom. The only emotion that Xena had displayed was when they had landed and she had regained her warhorse, Argo. The crooked grin and hug she gave the horse had touched the bardís heart. Then a pang of emotion had shot through her very soul. Could the warrior ever smile at her again and hug her in the old way? No, probably not. Still she hung onto the waist of the warrior, glad for at least that much contact.

After a while, the horse slowed to a shuffling walk as the wind died down slightly. Suddenly, the rain came, falling in sleeting angles drenching the travelers to the bone. Still they pressed on. Gabrielle could feel Xenaís body hunch forward as she wrapped her arms more firmly around the warrior. She took the reins from Xenaís nerveless hands and guided the horse. The harsh cough from the warrior was the only sound that competed with the drone of the wind and patter of the rain.

Finally, with dark almost upon them, the rain let up to a soft drizzle. In the distance, Gabrielle could see the outline of a rock slope. Farther on, a hollowed out indention in the shear wall was barely visible through the gray mist. It wouldnít be much but would give them some shelter from the rain. She had to make a fire somehow and warm the trembling warrior. Her condition was becoming desperate. All of this she knew to be true with no words passed between them. Xena never complained and Gabrielle knew better than to ask. Perhaps the truth was she was afraid of an honest answer.

Chapter 1

The smoking fire crackled and complained but gave off weak warmth and light. Gabrielle brewed tea and made a thin gruel that she was able to coax Xena to eat. Afterwards, they huddled together under their damp cloaks and blankets. It was all they had and it would have to do. The heat coming from the warriorís body was increasing. The bard could hear her breathing become more difficult and labored.

Gabrielle pulled Xenaís body more on top of her own, shielding her from the damp ground. She held her friend tightly, giving her own warmth to her soulmate. The warrior slept fitfully, with the constant cough keeping her from deep rest. Every once in awhile she grew restless causing the bard to hold on tightly to keep her from trashing. At these moments, Xena moaned softly, her troubled dreams only adding to her pain. Gabrielle whispered low, reciting a poem or story and stroking the raven black damp hair of the warrior. This seemed to ease her turmoil.

Gabrielle reached over and threw more branches on the fire. She looked down at the strong right arm that fed the flames and made a fist. It was this arm, this hand that slapped her best friend as she knelt before her, helplessly confined in that heavy torturous collar. How can I ever forget her face, the look of her eyes, sad, lost, yet defiant? They were without the burning passion and hate that have so often welled up into them in the past. Ming Tien promised not to condemn her to death. All she had to do was promise not to kill him. She was so silent, stubborn in her determination to murder. I was so frustrated and so afraid of losing her, I struck her. With that one stupid act, I lost her. The emperor told me he would have killed her anyway so it was all for nothing but I knew differently. It was not for nothing. It was my test and I failed it. I failed her and yet later she said she did not hate me. Still, everything is changed. Quiet tears of loss and pain ran down the cheeks of the bard. Gabrielle hugged the warrior closer to her, knowing that if she were awake, she would never take such liberty. She couldnít risk seeing the rejection in the warriorís eyes or the loathing on her face. That would be too horrible.

A weak sun climbed over the top of the eastern mountains casting a gray light on the two huddled women. Gabrielle awoke and found two glazed blue eyes regarding her.

"Hi."

"Hi yourself. How do you feel?"

Xena closed her eyes selecting options and finally admitted, "Rotten."

"Letís get some more tea in you and then back to sleep." Gabrielle started to climb out from under the blankets and the warrior when a hand reached out to hold her tightly. "In a minute," Xena whispered hoarsely.

"Okay, at least drink." Gabrielle grabbed the water skin and held it to the warriorís lips. She smiled as Xena drank long and deeply. They lay together sharing their warmth until the sun climbed well into the sky. The soft breathing of the warrior told Gabrielle she had returned to sleep. She gently climbed out of the blankets and turned to make sure the warrior was still covered.

The bard walked away from the camp gathering as much wood as she could carry. Argo was gazing peacefully and seemed none the worse for their wet journey. Gabrielle returned to the rock cavern and piled more wood onto the fire. Xenaís temperature seemed down but keeping her warm was crucial. Still the warrior slept, her coughs more sporadic but just as deep and grating.

Gabrielle set about making a breakfast of soft gruel and tea. Xena must eat to regain her strength. In the dungeon the prisoners were given only moldy bread to eat and vile water to drink. The emperor had finally allowed Gabrielle to see Xena in her prison after she was condemned to die. He told her Xena would kill her on sight. How wrong he was! Gabrielle knew that was impossible. Despise her, yes, hate her, even hold her in contempt! All these emotions the warrior would have. But kill her, no Xena could never do that. Gabrielle knew her too well. Yet she went down into that dark dungeon to face her best friend with a terrible fear in her soul. The rejection and hatred she deserved never came. Somehow Xena had turned to her with quiet blue eyes and asked her to scratch her nose. Gabrielle had cried with relief but the gnawing fear in her gut did not leave and was still with her now.

She picked up a plate and scooped the tan mass onto it. Not very pretty, she decided, but certainly nourishing. She poured some tea into a cup and walked over to the warrior. She was greeted with two blue orbs clear and sharp. "Youíre feeling better."

"Yeah."

Gabrielle gave the plate and cup to the warrior. She was glad to see Xena able to finish all her breakfast. "Iíll set up some snares later and try to catch us dinner."

"No you wonít. Youíre staying put. Weíre fine for a few days." The bardís green eyes danced with determination as her jaw tightened waiting for an argument. None came as the warrior leaned forward fighting spasms of coughs that racked her body. Finally, able to regain control, she drank again deeply and laid back down. This action scared the bard worse than anything else could have. Xena never gave up nor gave in so easily. The worried bard watched the warrior sink into sleep.

The rest of the day passed quietly with Gabrielle watching over her companion. About mid afternoon, she realized that water might become a problem and went out into the open on a search of the gray desolate land. Luckily, she did not have to travel far with the empty water skins as Argo showed her the way. The warhorse had ranged far down between two low hills. There Gabrielle saw a pound and the leap of a silver flash, the sure sign of fish.

The young bard carefully waded into the icy water shivering involuntarily. She stumbled on a submerged rock, flaying wildly and drenching herself completely. With an angry curse, Gabrielle straightened up and stared into the clear pool. Intent on fishing, she did not notice the sky darkening towards nightfall. Finally, with a triumphant laugh, she was able to grab an elusive silver lake bass as he flashed by her legs. Cold and shivering, she climbed out of the pound and gathered up the filled water skins. Gods, it was late and there still was wood to gather.

Quickly she scampered back up to the cavern on the hillside. As she rushed inside, a cheerfully crackling fire greeted her. Her patient was propped up against the saddle, watching the blaze with serious eyes.

"Bout time you got back. Thought Iíd starve to death."

Gabrielle looked with astonishment at her lounging friend followed by a relieved smile. "So, youíre feeling better? You must be if youíre giving your nurse a hard time."

"Yeah. Must say watching you fish was the most entertainment Iíve had in awhile."

"You wereľ .wait a minute, just what is wrong with my fishing?"

"Gabrielle, Iíve told you over and over, if you want to catch anything, you have to be quiet. All that thrashing about would wake up the dead not to mention scare all the fish to the other side of the pound." The warrior gave this lesson firmly but the twinkle in her eyes gave her away.

Gabrielle stared at her friend as she felt the resentment rising. She opened her mouth to make a stinging retort but it died on her lips as she realized she was being baited. What was even better was that Xena was feeling well enough to engage in the banter that had so been a part of their lives together before they entered the Kingdom of Chin. Okay, Gabrielle, get a grip she told herself. This is a good thing.

The smile died on her lips as the hacking cough doubled over the warrior. She dropped the fish and immediately set about making tea. "Here, you keep warm," she said as she pulled the blankets up over Xenaís body. "How did you watch me without me hearing your cough?"

The warrior turned towards the bard and with a crooked grin replied, "I have many skills."

"Ahuh. Well, put your drinking skills to work and finish all of this." Gabrielle handed her patient a cup of steaming tea that she readily accepted.

Gabrielle made short work of cleaning and preparing her catch which both ate with relish. Xena seemed stronger and was able to help with the clean up chores. She also noted that the wood supply had been replenished and knew who was responsible.

As the fire crackled cheerfully, the two friends enjoyed the rest of their tea. Gabrielle felt this was the opportunity for sharing her feelings. Yet where to start? So much between them left unsaid. So much Gabrielle wanted to say. Yet try as she might, she couldnít find the words to began. She was not sure of her own truth, of her own motives. She had promised herself there would be no more lies to Xena. Yet how could she have been so easily deceived into betraying her best friend? Was stopping Xena from murder worth her life? The only truth Gabrielle was sure of was her own pain and the terrible guilt gnawing at her insides.

As the young woman watched the crackling fire, she sneaked a peek at her friendís face. The hard chiseled profile of the warrior was in repose, blue eyes staring into the fireís orange coals. Her dark hair was matted and tangled, showing the need of care. There was a slight flush in her cheeks telling the return of fever and her grating cough continued to disturb the nightís silence. Yet the stoic warrior made no complaint, and actually seemed stronger with her shoulders back and her head high, almost proudly carried.

Gabrielle pulled her eyes away from the beloved face and back to the cheerful blaze. "Xena, I just wanted to say again how sorry I am for what I did in the Kingdom of Chin. I thought I was saving you and insteadľ .."

"Weíve been through this before," Xena interrupted. "I told you then and I meant it just as I do now that I understand why you did what you did. There is nothing to forgive. You were trying to save me from returning to the darkness and committing murder. You did what you had to do. I did what I had to do. Itís over and we need to move on." The warriorís voice ended in a hoarse whisper as a raking cough finished her sentence. She reached over to the water skin and took a long draught.

Gabrielle swung to face her friend with a quick retort on her lips, blazing fire in her eyes. It died there as she saw the weariness cross Xenaís pale face, quickly hidden behind the stoic warrior mask.

"Why donít you crawl between the blankets and get some rest?" she said instead.

Xena gazed at her friend as her eyes softened with the unmistakable look of love and sadness. A strange flash of longing crossed her quiet face. As quickly as it was there, it was gone to be replaced with a look of resignation.

The warrior nodded and stretched her long frame out before the fire. The bard made no move to come any closer. After a moment, Xena turned and rolled into the blankets.

Chapter 2

As Gabrielle stared long into the dying coals, the raspy breathing of the warrior told her she had fallen into a fitful sleep.

Oh gods, now what? The bard looked deep within herself as she fought to understand her motives that led to the actions of the last fortnight. Gabrielle had always prided herself in her honesty especially when it came to her own motives that drove her actions. Now was the time to face tough questions, question she knew Xena would never ask her. Questions she had to ask herself and answer for herself.

Did I go to the Kingdom of Chin to save Xena or because I was angry with her? Did I hate her? Did I some how want her dead? No, this does not feel right. How could I have been so stupid? Was the life of an evil emperor worth Xenaís? No, never! I saved her soul only to loose her, to loose us.

Perhaps, I need to leave Xena. I could do that. She would let me go now. Perhaps, she would rather I leave. She will never trust me again. Canít say I blame her. I wouldnít trust me either. She does what she thinks is right to repay a debt and her best friend nearly gets her executed. Now there is a real friend for you.

A few misty tears trickled down the cheeks of the bard. What a mess Iíve made of our friendship, of our life together. Gabrielle thought back over the years they had shared. In danger and in battle, they were always on the same side, always fighting for what was right. Each guiding the other, each teaching the other, a perfect complement. One dark and haunted with the skills of life taking and of life giving, the other bright and optimistic, seeing the good in people and bringing out the best in even the darkest souls. One taking action and the other looking for alternatives. One filled with dread, the other filled with hope. Yet each giving themselves to the other, opening their souls to the other. Yes, with opening your heart and soul comes terrible risk for now each has the ability to inflict terrible wounds on the other. Gabrielle wondered which of them would heal the fastest. The warrior was legendary for her fast healing ability, but that was on the outside. Gabrielle knew her warrior well. She was vulnerable on the inside and easy to deeply hurt there. It was not clear that she could recover so quickly from such wounds especially when they were inflicted by her best friend. The one person she had trusted enough to open her soul to had failed her. Used to trust, Gabrielle reminded herself. That was gone now.

She said there is nothing to forgive, but she did not forgive me. I know Xena. She is day by day building back the wall between us, brick by brick. Here I am, letting her do it, even helping her to do it. Is that because I canít face her with the truth? Or is it because if she tells me how she really feels, how hurt she is, how much pain she is in, I will die of shame for what I have done. I donít think I can stand the look on her face, the cold stare of her eyes, the proud toss of head as she walks away from me forever. She will never trust me with her soul again. I wouldnít if I were in her boots.

The bard sighed heavily and glanced at her sleeping friend. A deep cough came up suddenly from the slumbering warrior, causing her to jerk awake. Gabrielle stirred the fire and put another log on top of the coals. She put a small pot of water to boil and put some herbs into it. She felt cobalt blue eyes on her while she worked but made no comment. Once the tea was bubbling, she poured it into an earthen cup and turned to the reclining form.

"Here, drink this down," she said extending the cup.

"Thanks." Xena took the cup pulling herself up on an elbow. She sipped the tea and gave Gabrielle an appreciative look. "Youíve gotten pretty good at herb tea making."

"Had a good teacher."

"Hmm, good for something anyway."

"Xena, you areľ ." Gabrielle stopped the rising anger and instead turned back to the fire. "Donít sell yourself short. I donít like it when you do that."

The warrior lowered her gaze to the cup and finished her tea. She set it down and turned over on her side into the blankets. Sleep soon claimed her weary body but a peaceful rest continued to elude her as the cough periodically woke her. Gabrielle watched the dying fire for a time. When she was sure Xena was asleep, she slipped into the blankets and held her close as the chills of fever again overtook the warrior.

Chapter 3

The gray dawn lit the entrance to the cavern waking the bard with a start. She realized she was alone in the blankets and turned over to give the area a quick scan. A bright fire was burning with a mound of fresh wood stacked beside it. Gabrielle jumped up and looked for the warriorís sword. A strong feeling of dismay came over her as she saw the sword and the warriorís armor were missing. She pulled on her cloak against the early morning chill and ran out of the cavern to the ledge. There below she could see Argo grazing peacefully on the hillside. An incredible sense of relief coursed up through her. The bard returned to the cavern and put up tea to boil.

Not long afterward, Gabrielle heard the familiar footsteps of the warrior. Xena strolled into the camp area and handed over two skinned rabbits. As she turned, the deep cough shook her for a moment.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked impatiently. "You should be resting, not hunting. We had enough gruel to last us another day or so."

The warrior turned back with a masked face and shadowed eyes. "We have to keep moving. Weíll need food stores to get us through."

"Xena, you arenít going anywhere but back to bed. That cough is not getting better and the night chills are still with you. By the gods, youíve got to take care of yourself." Gabrielleís sea green eyes snapped with anger as she shook a finger at her friend.

The warrior gave the bard a weary look. "We must leave here and keep moving south. If we get caught on these plains with the winter storms coming, it will be rough." Xenaís voice was low and patient. "Iíve been through here a few times and wintered here once. Itís a bad time of year for us to be crossing now. Faster we hit the mountains to the south, sooner we can get home to Greece."

"And what about you?"

"Iíll be all right. We just have to keep moving south. Okay?"

Gabrielle search the face of her friend. She saw the shadowed eyes soften as they returned her gaze. "Honest, itíll be fine."

"All right, Xena," Gabrielle replied with resignation in her voice. "But when I say stop for a rest, we do it!"

"Fair enough. Now how about cooking us some breakfast?"

Gabrielle nodded but before she could demand that Xena rest while she cook the rabbits, the warrior had strolled outside with Argoís saddle in her hand. The bard gave an exasperated sigh and began the morning meal.

The two women made quick work of their breakfast and gathered up their few possessions. Once loaded on Argo, they set off south towards the hazy mountains that seemed to draw no closer as the hours passed. The weather held as a languid sun kept them company for the entire day. Gabrielle insisted on several rest stops including a brief lunch. True to her word, Xena did not protest although she gave Gabrielle the cold warrior look when she demanded yet another rest stop mid-afternoon. Night found them in a sheltered cove under some scraggily pine trees.

The days passed as the travelers plodded along through the barren land constantly traveling southwest. Xenaís cough seemed no better but she moved forward with determined step. Her strength seemed to flow away by nightfall but return the next morning. She seldom spoke, saving her energy for walking or riding. Gabrielle had given up on any discourse. She kept a silent pace side by side with her friend, haunted by her inner emotional turmoil, gnawing gut and troubling visions of the past.

After a number of days of weak sunlight, the weather again turned dark and foreboding. The chill in the air and the brisk wind spoke of yet more storms to come. As the two friends crested yet another gray green hill Gabrielle spotted the square shapes of a village in the distance.

"At last, civilization. We can get a hot meal and warm bed for the night."

Xena drew her head up and looked stoically at the bard. "Afraid not. Thatís Thorbis. Letís just say that village and I have a history."

"Xena, you have a history with over half this inhabited world. Maybe we can just sneak in quietly."

The warrior shook her head and moved off to the left giving the village a wide berth. Gabrielleís resentment grew as the wind cut through her. The thought of hot food and a warm place to sit was too much to let pass.

"Maybe I can go down to Thorbis and get some supplies."

The warrior stopped suddenly, straightened and turned to the young bard. "Suit yourself. If you want to stay the night there, thatís fine. Iíll be up ahead." This comment was made with cold shadowed eyes, and the hard set warrior mask firmly in place on her face.

"Not without you," Gabrielle replied firmly. "I just thought we could use some food we didnít have to catch and prepare."

The warrior shook her head firmly and swung onto the back of the palomino warhorse. She reached down a hand to the bard demanding coldly. "Decide, Gabrielle. Come with me now or go to Thorbis. Your choice."

Gabrielle lifted flashing sea green eyes to the face leaning down towards her with a ready retort on her lips about just where and how fast the warrior could go. The instantaneous flash of sorrow that crossed Xenaís face gave her pause. Just as quickly as it was there, the expression was gone with the cold mask firmly in place. Without comment, Gabrielle grabbed the offered hand and swung up behind Xena. Argo moved out at a brisk cantor.

They hadnít traveled more than a mile or two when Xena pulled the warhorse to a halt. She stiffened and turned her face into the wind with listening attention. Gabrielle knew the expression and movements of the warrior all too well and grabbed her staff firmly. Trouble was ahead.

Without a word, Xena dismounted and with Gabrielle following closely behind, slowly made her way up a steep hill. Near the top, she dropped down to all fours and crawled forward, parting the bushes carefully. Gabrielle followed suit, long use to mimicking Xenaís movements when danger was near. As they reached the summit, Gabrielle caught the tangy smell of wood smoke and peered over Xenaís shoulder. Below the hill, a rough camp was being set up by a group of dark suited soldiers of fortune. Huddled near a small ravine, a group of young girls sat, each tied by the leg to a rope line strung between two scrubby trees. By the expressions of fear and horror on their faces, Gabrielle sensed they were newly captured, no doubt taken from their homes that very day. They seemed to range in age from older teenagers to fairly young girls. All seemed physically in good shape.

Xena watched the camp for a moment and then motioned Gabrielle back. They retraced their steps down the hill to the waiting Argo. A grating cough over took the warrior that ended in a slight shudder as they reached the warhorse. Gabrielle reached up, pulled out the water skin and handed it to her friend. Xena took the skin silently and took a long drink. She replaced the skin and turned back to Gabrielle.

"Slavers," she noted in a hoarse voice.

Gabrielle nodded slowly looking up searchingly into the piercing blue eyes of her soulmate. "Xena, thereís five of them down there. Maybe we should let this one go."

"What are you saying?" demanded the warrior.

"What I mean is, you are in no shape to go up against five thugs. We should pass on this. Maybe I can go back to Thorbis and get help. But if not that, then I think we should ride on."

"No!" the warrior uttered with firm voice and fierce eyes. "Once the men finish setting up camp, they will go after those girls. I wonít leave them to that fate."

"But Xena," Gabrielleís voice held a note of pleading. "You are not well enough. Please donít do this to yourself."

The warrior searched her friendís face and then a half grin turned up the corners of her mouth. "This is the first time you have ever doubted my abilities. I know Iím not at full strength. I didnít plan on attacking them all at once. Iím going to use your tactics and talk them to death."

"What?"

"Gabrielle, I know their leader. His name is Orbis. He used to be a young soldier in my army. I taught him how to use a sword and fight. We go way back."

The bard stared at her friendís face while the warning bells went off in her gut. The slight grin on the warriorís lips was not reaching her cold calculating cobalt eyes. Gabrielle was not fooled. There was more to this situation than the warrior was sharing but she decided to go along for now. "You know him, so what. Talking is my thing, not yours. Whatís your plan?"

"Iíll ride into camp, strike up a conversation, and get those soldiers in close. You take my dagger and cut the girls loose. Sneak them away down that gully and head for Thorbis as fast as you can. Get them there safely, Gabrielle. Iíll meet you later. Thatís it, short and sweet."

"And when they see the girls gone, you end up taking them all on. This is a lousy idea. Xena, normally this is a piece of cake for you but not now. Donít do this." The worry and concern in the young bardís face broke through the warriorís cold mask. She drew the bard close.

"Itíll be okay, honest Gabrielle. I can take them. I promise to finish it quick, use my chakram and get out."

"Xena, do you promise? I mean it. Quick and get out of there."

"Yes, I promise. Do you promise to keep those girls safe and get them to Thorbis? They are the main concern here. Now promise me."

Gabrielle searched the treasured features before her. The warrior was keeping something from her. She could sense it. "I promise to keep them safe. But is Thorbis such a good idea? Thought you wanted to avoid that village."

Xena looked searchingly at her friend. "One problem at a time." She released the bardís shoulders and turned towards Argo. "Síallright, then. Letís get on with it. Just like old times, huh Gabrielle?"

The bardís worried frown stayed on her face, "Like old times, Xena. Do you trust me to do this?"

"With my life," came the ready reply.

The catch in the bardís throat choked off further comment. She fiercely hugged the warrior, turned and walked rapidly towards the slaverís camp.

 

Chapter 4

Gabrielle moved carefully and cautious through the tall grass and brush making a wide circle around the camp. Finally, she struck the ravine that stretched out towards the west and scampered down the embankment. She picked her way carefully over the rocks, doing her best not to make a sound. Finally, she crouched down low as the coarse voices of the slavers reached her ears. Crawling slowly up the bank and moving quietly between several large boulders, she finally was able to see the captives directly in front of her and just beyond, the movements of the soldiers. She moved closer but remained hidden behind some dense bushes. She must have made a slight sound for one of the older girls swung her head around to stare. Gabrielle placed a finger to her lips smiling encouragingly. The girl's eyes widened. She nodded slowly and turned back. She whispered something to the girl next to her who did the same to the next. No one looked back in Gabrielleís direction but each girl stiffened slightly.

Now there was nothing to do but wait developments. There was a gnawing in Gabrielleís stomach that she sensed was fear and excitement. The excitement always came over her before a fight no matter how many times she and Xena found themselves in this situation. The fear was new. Gods, she was never afraid before. Why now? She trusted Xena completely. The warrior would get them out of any scrape and deal with all opponents. Yet now fear clawed at her gut. Was she doubting the warriorís strength and skills? Right, that would be a first. Or was she doubting her own ability to carry out this plan and get the young girls to safety? Iíve messed up so many times recently. Will I blow this as well and get Xena killed? She said she trusted me with her life but do I trust myself? By the gods, if I screw this up, I wonít be able to live with myself. Gabrielleís musings were cut short by the sight of a horse prancing from side to side entering the small camp. A low sing song voice purred into the air.

"Hiya boys. Long time no see."

Gabrielle stared at the warrior as a thrill coursed through her body. She was magnificent, so strong, tall and self-assured sitting the saddle proudly and moving instinctively as the horse under her danced and shifted. Her dark head was held high as pure menace and hatred surround her like a black swirling cloud. Her sharp piercing eyes gave off such a penetrating glare that even from that distance Gabrielleís heart froze.

The effect of the warrior princess on the lounging men was immediate. They scrambled to their feet as one and grabbed what ever weapons they could find. As they huddled closer, the tallest of the group sauntered forward.

"Xena, it has been awhile."

Gabrielle started out of her trance and slipped around the bushes to the rope that held the captives. She quickly cut the line, moved to the nearest girl and cut her free. As she moved from captive to captive, she freed them and motioned to them to move into the gully. The oldest girl gathered up the youngest and moved the freed girls ahead of her down the bank while Gabrielle continued to work on the ropes that bound the rest. She worked feverishly while listening carefully to the conversation from the camp site. She paused in mid-motion as Xenaís words cut through the air, hard and cold.

"Orbis, heard they call you the best swordsman in Greece these days. You donít really believe that talk, do you?"

The tall slaver dressed in dark leather, spikes and armor gave a harsh laugh. "Taught me well, Xena. Iíll give you that but those days are gone. I am the best. Want to find out just how good I am?" His mocking laugh grated on Gabrielleís ears as she freed the last captive. She risked a quick look over at the camp in time to see Xena swing down from Argo. She slapped the horseís rump, moving her away from the men and danger.

"Maybe, but I donít think it would be much of a match. Building your reputation by killing defenseless villagers is not very impressive." The warriorís cold tone and the rage that radiated from her gave the slavers pause as they glanced nervously at their leader.

"But Xena, you did!" Orbis spat out. He drew his sword and twirled it in a vicious arc.

Gabrielle gave a last glance at the confrontation. So much for Xena talking her way out of the situation. The bardís heart lurched as she saw three more men come out of the bushes to the side of the camp. This now made eight. Xena didnít have a chance dealing with all these thugs and the greatest swordsman in Greece. Gabrielle knew she would draw out the confrontation and then the fight, giving her time to get the girls to safety.

"Centaur dung," Gabrielle swore under her breath.

She scrambled down the embankment gathering the girls to her. She pointed the way down the gully and put her finger to her lips signaling them to be quiet. The older girl nodded and helped Gabrielle get the small group moving. Carefully, they scampered over the rocks and sand as the distance increased from the slaverís camp.

Gabrielle kept them moving as fast as she dared with frequent looks over her shoulder. They had not yet been discovered as the first clang of swords echoed from the camp. She broke into a slow jog and encouraged the girls to move faster. Finally, they came out of the gully and onto a wide wagon road that lead down towards the village in the distance. She stopped the girls there for a brief rest and pulled the oldest to the side.

"Whatís your name?" she asked her.

"Inda," came the quiet reply.

"Inda, my name is Gabrielle. Can you get these girls the rest of the way into Thorbis? You must keep going and run as fast as you can. Donít stop again until youíve reach the village."

The girl was tall with bright red hair and serious gray eyes. She nodded slowly. "Arenít you coming with us?"

"Iíve got to go back to help my friend, Xena. Weíll keep those slavers busy to give you enough time to get to safety."

"Xena? That warrior who rode into camp was Xena? She must have been joining them."

Gabrielleís eyes flashed fire as she grabbed the shoulders of the girl harshly. "Look, I donít have time for this. Xena is risking her life to safe yours. Iíve got to get back there. If we donít make it, at least remember who saved your butts!" Giving Inda a quick shake, the bard angrily jerked the girl around and pushed her towards the village. With a quick glance back to make sure the girls were hurrying away, Gabrielle broke into a dead run back to the slaverís camp.

Panting, she scrambled up the bank from the gully and found herself behind the same bushes where the girls had been held. In front of her, the sword fight between Xena and Orbis was swirling dust as the two fought viciously back and forth in the middle of a tight circle of yelling men. Gabrielle shook her head. Xena was clearly parrying the thrusts of her advisory and drawing the fight out as long as she could.

"Great promise, Xena," she muttered under her breath. Gabrielle could also see that the normally fluid strokes and easy motions so like a ballet and second nature to the warrior were missing. She was tiring and soon would be in big trouble. Just as Gabrielle was about to yell to her best friend to finish him, one of the slavers turned and noticed the captives were gone. With a yell, he pointed towards the bushes were Gabrielle lay hidden and started to run. He was joined by two others. It was their last action as Xena flipped over Orbis and released her chakram. The three fell to the ground as the weapon cut their throats, flew in an arc and returned to her left hand. She turned just in time to parry yet another thrust by Orbis while delivering a back kick hitting one of the soldiers behind her.

Two more slavers started running down the hill towards the gully. Xena turned to make yet another throw of her chakram. She felt another opponent behind her and rolled just in time to avoid a sword thrust but took a cut across her arm from Orbis in the process. As she whirled yet again, frantically searching for the two men, she saw Gabrielle leap from behind the bushes and take them both out with a neck high thrust of her staff. A feral grin turned up the corners of her mouth as she swung around and began a full out attack on her opponents. There would be no more holding back. Now blood would flow! Xena fought the three to a stand still, never giving ground.

In the meantime, Gabrielle finished off the two thugs with a blow to the head of one and than the other. The sound of Xenaís voice in her head told her to always be sure, so she stopped a moment to check the condition of her advisories. Finding them both unconscious, she took off running for the fight still raging on the hill side.

A quick kick to the face finally dropped one of the three slavers as the other two charged Xena at once. Xena swung her sword high blocking yet another thrust by Orbis just as Gabrielle arrived in time to deliver a staff blow to the arm of the other soldier. He whirled and attacked her with his sword flashing. Gabrielle met the swing of the sword solidly with her staff and swept low, taking his legs out from under him. As he fell back, he grabbed Gabrielleís staff jerking it from her hand. She kicked his sword hand and the blade fell to the ground as he rolled over howling in pain.

Gabrielle turned back to her friend. Xena was fighting with all the reserves she had left but she was gasping for breath and stumbling badly. Orbis was bleeding from numerous cuts but he sensed finally an advantage and pushed forward with all his strength. Xena gave ground blocking his thrust as she gave him a severe cut in his side. With a roar of pain, he flung himself forward forcing Xena back. Suddenly, Gabrielle saw one of the soldiers rise with a dagger in his hand starting a downward swing for Xenaís back.

"No," she screamed and grabbed the sword that lay at her feet. With a leap, Gabrielle thrust the sword towards the torso of the attacking soldier. In a flash, as the blade struck forward, Gabrielle was shocked to find it knocked from her hand with a fierce sweep. She turned in astonishment as Xena completed the swing and then rolled away from the dagger swipe. She was quick enough to avoid a direct stab, but the knife cut her side as she rolled away. From the ground, she threw her chakram directly into the chest of the soldier who slumped forward, blood spewing everywhere.

Orbis took advantage of this motion to slice down with his sword. Xena raised her arm in defense and took the cut directly there and on part of her gauntlet. The sudden flash of pain cost her the hold on her own sword and it fell to the ground. She again rolled and tried to reach her feet but the world started to spin as a wave of dizziness overcame her. As she staggered up, a terrible spasm of coughing took her down on one knee gasping for breath. A red mist came before her eyes as she lost sight of her opponent.

With a harsh laugh, Orbis staggered to his feet and brought his sword forward for the killing blow. Suddenly, he found his arm stopped in mid-motion by a very desperate bard who hung on to it for all she was worth. She released her hold only to leaped on his back with such momentum he fell forward to the ground thrashing wildly. As he flung Gabrielle off and rolled to his feet, he found himself face to face with the warrior princess sword in hand.

"We finish this now, swordsman," she croaked. The two dirt covered bloody fighters circled each other and then came together in a final lunge. Xena let his blade slide by, under her arm scoring her leathers as she brought her own blade up into Orbisís body. She plunged her sword into his heart. As he fell back, she was dragged forward by his momentum and collapsed on top of him.

Gabrielle scampered to her feet and ran to the side of her friend. She knelt down next to her soulmate, rolled her on her back and onto her lap. "Xena, Xena, can you hear me?"

The warrior opened her cobalt blue eyes and looked up into the face of the bard. "Howíd we do?" she whispered hoarsely.

Gabrielle grinned as tears fought their way down her dirt stained cheeks. "Same as always. Good guys won, again."

Xena returned her grin and struggled to a sitting position. She looked at the bodies scattered around and nodded. "All in a dayís work." The cough came again doubling the warrior over. This time a trickle of blood appeared in the corner of her mouth as she completed the spasm.

Gabrielle reached over and held the warrior until the spasm and shaking passed. "Xena, weíve got to get you help." She turned and whistled for Argo. As the warhorse appeared, she gently lowered the warrior back to the ground. She grabbed the water skin from the saddle horn and lifted Xenaís head. The warrior looked up at her gratefully and swallowed several large mouthfuls of water.

"Can you ride?" she asked the wounded warrior. Xena nodded and once again struggled to sit up. Slowly, she climbed to her feet with a helping arm from Gabrielle. She stood for a moment and turned to hold onto the saddle of her warhorse. Gabrielle again offered her water which she drank. Then she slowly and painfully climbed into the saddle. Gabrielle turned and grabbed Xenaís sword and chakram, cringing as she pulled the bloody weapons from the lifeless bodies. She took them back to Xena and tied them onto the saddle pack. She turned and started to lead the horse away from the slaverís camp.

After a moment, Gabrielle stopped and turned back to her friend. She saw Xena sway in the saddle, and quickly jumped back to her side, holding her steady. Without further thought, she climbed onto the back of Argo holding Xena around the waist with one hand and grabbing the reins with the other. She urged the warhorse forward out of the camp and onto the road to Thorbis. Xena needed help and needed it fast. As Xena had said, one problem at a time.

Chapter 5

Gabrielle guided the golden warhorse down the wagon road to the edge of the village. She circled behind the huts and wooden structures until she saw a building that looked like a tavern and hopefully an inn. Halting Argo against the back wall of the building, she slipped out of the saddle. Carefully, she drew the warrior from the horse and helped her to a sitting position, her back against the wooden wall of the building.

"Xena, can you hear me? Iím going to see if we can get a room inside and get a healer."

The warrior opened weary eyes and regarded the bard steadily. Another spasm of coughing again doubled Xena over, leaving her gasping for breath. Her chest heaved as it no longer seemed possible for her to drive air into her lungs. She nodded and looked up at the bard with pained blue eyes.

"Do what you think is right, Gabrielle," she whispered as her head drooped forward.

Gabrielle reached back up behind the saddle, drew the warriorís sword and laid it next to her. "Just in case," she said as she turned on her heels and rapidly walked around the tavern to the front door.

Once inside the dark interior, Gabrielle paused until her eyes adjusted. She finally saw a bent grizzly old man wiping cups. He was stacking them on a shelf behind a long wooden counter, carved and worn just as he appeared.

"Do you have a room available?"

The proprietor turned and stared at the young bard in front of him. He noted her disheveled appearance and the dry blood on the front of her cloak.

"Could be," he replied evasively.

"I want a room now for me and my friend who is hurt. We also need a healer. Do you have one in this village?" Gabrielle dropped her demanding tone as her voice took on a desperate note. She gave the man a pleading look.

His expression softened slightly as the open caring face of the young woman before him overcame his better judgment.

"You can have the room over there," he said pointing to a stout dark oak door near a steep staircase. "Two dinars for the night."

Gabrielle gave him a winning smile that lit up her whole face as relief swept over her. The old man returned her smile, unable to help himself. "About the healer?"

"Oh, right. We do have a woman who delivers babies and knows something about herbs and such. She lives out at the edge of town."

"Will you ask her to come for my friend?" Gabrielleís voice held such a note of hope that the old manís head froze in mid shake from side to side.

"Yesľ well...Iíll see if she can come. Where is your friend?"

"Iíll get her. Please hurry. Sheís in a bad way." The bard looked anxiously at the proprietor with desperation in her voice.

The old man shrugged as he moved past the bard and out the door. Gabrielle turned, followed him out and walked rapidly around the tavern. She glanced quickly around as it struck her that no one was in sight. This was odd since the captive girls must have made it into the village ahead of them and spread the news of the fight. She grabbed her staff more tightly as she thought hard. The hairs on the back of her neck bristled as she had the feeling that they should leave this village at once. Maybe coming here was not such a good idea. Still Xena couldnít travel any further with her wounds and the terrible cough that was clearly attacking her lungs. There seemed little choice. With a sigh, she walked around the building and found two penetrating blue eyes studying her.

"I got us a room, Xena. Letís get you up and into it. The tavern is empty and the owner went for the village healer."

Xena didnít speak but continued to gaze into Gabrielleís eyes. At last, she dropped her head and struggled to her feet. Gabrielle rushed to her side and helped study her. Noticing that the warrior had left her sword on the ground, the bard stooped to pick it up and hand it to her. Xena again met the bardís eyes with a soft glance filled with a mixture of love, sadness and pain. She turned slowly and walked around to the front of the tavern leaving the sword in the hands of the bard.

Once inside, Xena stopped as Gabrielle followed her and pointed to the large door next to the staircase. Gabrielle kept a studying arm around the waist of the warrior as she staggered slightly towards the room. The bard moved forward and opened the door into a clean, cheerful interior. There was a large bed to one side, a stone fireplace and small table. Moving the warrior forward, Gabrielle was able to help her lie on the bed. She placed the sword on the floor next to Xena and turned to start pulling off the warriorís boots.

"Please Gabrielle. Itís okay. Can you take care of Argo?" the warrior pleaded.

"No problem. But you first. Iíll get our packs and be right back."

"Gabrielle," the warrior whispered.

"Yes, what is it?"

"You should knowľ .no more lies or omissions between us. Just the truth, okay?"

Gabrielle turned and knelt next to the bed bringing her sea green eyes level with the warriorís blue. The nagging fear that clawed at her stomach since they had left the Kingdom of Chin returned in an instant. She grabbed the warriorís hand and held it tightly ignoring the dried blood. "Agreed, no more lies."

"This place, I did terrible things hereľ ..too horrible to describe." Xenaís deep voice grew softer with regret. "The villagers will demand justice and they should have it. When the time comes, leave. Ride Argo back to Greece or where ever you want to go. Do what you must. Just leave."

Gabrielleís eyes widened as she looked with astonishment at her best friend. "Why should I leave?" Suddenly, she realized Xena was warning her of pending doom. "You wonít fight them or try to escape, will you?"

"No."

"Than I will. Xena, I wonít give you up and by the gods I wonít allow you to give in."

"Please donít, Gabrielle." The warrior gently intertwined her fingers with the bardís and looked softly at her. Her once piecing eyes now only held pain and weariness. The grating cough overcame the warrior once again. As the bard held Xena until it passed, a slow trickle of blood again flowed down the corner of her mouth.

"No more talk now, Xena. Funny I should be the one to say that. Stay put. Iíll get our packs and get you settled. Then Iíll take care of Argo. I promise." As she finished the sentence, Gabrielle jumped up and rapidly walked out the door before Xena could protest. She quickly brought their possessions back into the small room and gave the water skin to her friend with the no-nonsense command to "drink". While Xena did as she was bidden, Gabrielle piled wood into the fireplace and soon had a cheery fire burning. She then put some water to heat in a pot.

"Now, letís take care of you." Before Xena could say a word, Gabrielle had removed her boots and unclasped her armor. Next she removed the leather under garment now tattered with several deep rents in it. Carefully washing off the blood and grim, Gabrielle found several cuts that needed stitching. She took up the healer's kit and got out the needle. Xena watched her with steady eyes as she pulled the thread through and turned.

"Iíll do the one in your side first, okay?"

The warrior nodded and grabbed the bed post. Gabrielle made clean small stitches and soon had deftly sewed shut the long slash. The warrior was silent throughout the procedure. The only sign that Gabrielle had of Xenaís pain was the white knuckles of her left hand.

"All done. Are you doing okay?"

Xena opened her eyes and looked down at the neatly closed wound in her side. "Nice job, Gabrielle."

"Had a good teacher." Gabrielle looked up into the stoic face of the warrior with a threat in her eyes waiting for yet another self-demeaning remark.

The warrior surprised her with a look of such sadness and remorse that her heart almost broke. "Youíve had way too much practice."

The young bardís wrinkled forehead showed age well beyond her actual years. She nodded in agreement. "Youíve been hurt too much, Xena."

The warriorís stoic features took on a bitter scowl filled with darkness and self-hatred. The bard could not stand seeing the expression. "Donít you say it! I mean it, Xena. Donít you even think it. I wonít let you. Now, Iím going to do the cut on your arm. Are you ready?"

The warrior extended her bloody right arm to the bard and closed her eyes. Soon that wound was closed as well and the rest bandaged. Gabrielle used the rest of the hot water to clean Xena up and slipped a night shift over her battered body. "Here, drink some more and rest. Iíll take care of Argo and find out whatís keeping that healer."

"Gabrielle, take your staff and be careful." The warrior whispered the warning in a low voice as she dropped her head wearily. She seemed to slip into sleep almost immediately. The bard gave her best friend a worried look and hurried out the door.

Gabrielle found a small stable in the back of the tavern and soon had Argo bedded down and curried. She found some grain and hay for the animal. Argo thanked her with a neigh and a nudge of her head. "Thatía girl. You take it easy here. Iíve got to get back to your mistress." The golden warhorseís ears flickered back and forth and she nodded as if in agreement.

Rounding the corner of the tavern, the hurrying Gabrielle almost ran over the old tavern owner. "Where have you been?" she demanded.

"Sorry miss. Lendila will be here shortly. She was finishing delivering a baby, boy it was. Anyway, said she would be right over."

"Good, any chance of getting something to eat?"

"Have some soup cooking. That do?"

Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes narrowed as she studied the old man more closely. "Just where are all the people in this village?" She didnít like his nervous look or evasive eyes.

"Most everyone is out in the fields. Theyíll be around tonight." He uttered this phase while keeping a close watch on his feet.

Gabrielle shook her head as the warning bells went off in her gut once more. Still there was little she could do. She pushed past the old man and went back into the tavern, keeping a firm grip on her staff. Once inside the little room, she added some more wood to the fire. As the warmth filled the room she went over to the bed to check on her friend.

As she approached, two clear blue eyes greeted her. "Hi."

"Hi yourself. How do you feel?"

The warrior thought a minute and finally admitted, "Not too bad, considering."

"So that means rotten but still alive and kicking, right?"

The warriorís eyebrows shot upward as a slow grin turned the corners of her mouth. "Something like that. Howís Argo?"

"Better than you. She told me to say hello."

"And hi back to her. Thanks for taking care of her, Gabrielle."

Xena watched the bard for a long minute. "Shouldnít you be taking care of yourself a little?"

Gabrielle looked at her blood stained hands, arms and clothes and nodded her agreement. She quickly peeled off her clothes and used some of the remaining hot water to wash. She then put on a clean shift. "Iíll clean up all of this stuff in the morning." A knock halted her speech. She grabbed her staff and carefully opened the door to reveal the proprietor who produced two steaming bowls of soup, dark bread and strong hard cheese. He glanced at the warrior lying in the bed and then back at the bard as he set the tray down on the small table. One more look and he was quickly gone pulling the door closed behind him.

"Strange old guy," Gabrielle observed.

"Hmmm," was Xenaís only comment. Gabrielle did not miss the icy blue flash and glitter of her eyes before she dropped them to study the food before her. The bard read trouble from the warriorís reaction and sighed. "Letís eat," was all she said.

They made quick work of the meal. Gabrielle was glad that Xena had shown some appetite and eaten well.

"Now, letís check your wounds." As she moved over to Xenaís side, she noticed the stiffened position of the warrior who was listening intently. "Whatís wrong?"

Xena just shook her head, closed her eyes and laid back, resting her head against the wall behind the bed.

Suddenly, there was a loud bang at the door. It flew open as several well-armed roughly clad villagers barged into the small room. Gabrielle whirled and grabbed for her staff only to find it pulled from her hand by her best friend who gently laid it down on the floor.

"Thatís twice, Xena," Gabrielle angrily spat out as she turned to confront the ever increasing number of armed farmers making their way into the small room.

Chapter 6

"What is it you want here," demanded the angry bard.

"Her!" replied the nearest villager who pointed a finger at the reclining warrior.

"Now wait a minute. We donít want any trouble, just wanted to see your healer." Gabrielle spoke softly and more slowly. She sensed the nervous, tense mood of the ever increasing numbers of villagers who were trying to enter the already crowded room.

An elderly man in a blue tunic elbowed his way through the crowd to the front and then began pushing some of the villagers out of the room. "Get back, all of you. We canít breath in here."

While he continued to push back on the crowd, a large comely woman with a shock of red hair swung around the old man and turned to face the young bard. "Iím Lendila, the healer. Are you hurt?"

"No, please look at my friend. She has a cough."

The healer glanced over at the warrior who had watched the crowd and the movements of the old man with a stone face and cold crystal blue eyes.

"Young woman, your friend will have no need of me. She will be executed long before a cough will kill her. Donít you know who she is?"

Gabrielleís eyes narrowed as she spat out angrily. "I am well aware of who my best friend is. She is a woman who has performed incredible acts of courage and self-sacrifice saving the lives of strangers and battling the forces of evil and darkness all over this land. She has saved countless villages from harm and restored the lives of numerous people with her own healing skills. Just today, she fought slavers to return the daughters of this village to their homes and save them from worse than death. I do not know why you believe she should be executed. I do know that you will look at her and try to help her cough or by the gods you will have me to deal with!"

With a quick jerk of her thumb towards Xena, Gabrielle stared at the healer daring her to refuse. The large woman shifted her weight uncomfortably and finally muttered, "I could take a look."

Gabrielle glanced back at the warriorís face only to see an eyebrow arch and amused blue eyes roll upward. With a shrug, Gabrielle returned the look with one of her own. She noted with a slight grin how fast Xena returned her warrior mask to her face as she gave the healer an icy stare. She turned back to the woman to try to reassure her Xena wouldnít bite but was stopped by a sudden narrowing of the healerís eyes. "Hmmm, well get out of my way and let me see what I can do for this evil warlord and destroyer of nations." She moved boldly by Gabrielle and marched to the bed side of the warrior who continued to glare at the woman with her best intimidating Xena look.

The healerís eyes softened slightly as a sudden bout of coughing wrenched the warrior upward. Xena struggled to gain control of the spasm that followed and laid back in exhaustion as the latest wave passed. The healer turned, reached into her pouch at her side and produced a cloth. She used it to wipe the trace of blood from Xenaís lips. She then reached over to grab the water skin and hand it to the warrior. After Xena had taken several swallows, the large woman knelt down by the bed side and placed a hand on the warriorís head. She nodded slowly, "Some fever." She looked carefully into the warriorís clear eyes, ignoring the icy return stare and then leaned her head over to place an ear against Xenaís chest.

Gabrielle started forward with a warning look at the warrior. Xena was not know to lie still for anyone touching her unbidden. The woman was touchy enough to knock a person into the next county for startling her warriorís reflexes. The stern look of the bard was returned with yet another roll upward of the warriorís eyes who lay still. Letting out her breath, Gabrielle turned back to the old villager who had managed to remove enough people from the room to make conversation possible.

"Now young woman, I am Anthelis head elder of the village of Thorbis. I am here to arrest the warlord known as Xena and take her away to the town jail. I must inform you that she has been judged and sentenced to death several years ago for her crimes against these people."

"How can you try someone who isnít even there to defend herself? That is not justice, itís murder." The bard stared at the old man with fiery green eyes. She took a deep breath and again softened her tone.

"Look Anthelis, my name is Gabrielle and Iíve traveled a lot with Xena. Sheís changed and has done wonderful things for people. She saved the girls of this village from slavers. I think we need to talk this over."

There were several angry mutters from the crowd in back of the elder. A gray haired woman shook her fist and yelled, "She killed my husband. Death to the monster." Others took up the cry and the crowd began to press forward again.

"Enough," shouted the elder as he raised his arms and again drove the crowd back. "Silence."

He turned back to the young bard and then glanced over at the warrior as the healer lifter her head and stood up. "So you know some healing, do you warrior?" she asked Xena with a stern look. The warrior nodded but still said nothing. "Then you know that you have the lung sickness. It is far advanced since you are coughing up blood. There is a rattle in your chest. You might indeed die before this crowd can execute you."

"Lendila, just what are you doing? Iím trying to arrest this woman."

"Oh, be off with you, you old fraud. She isnít going anywhere. If they had wanted to leave or kill us for that matter, something tells me we would have been dead already." The healer turned piercing gray eyes on the bard. "I can help your friend with some herbs and treatments for her cough. She will need complete rest." She paused and turned back to the elder. "Iím not letting you take her to that cold damp jail. She will stay here until she is well or dies, whatever the fates have in store for her. Once she is better, you can decide what you want to do with her but remember she did save our children." The healer turned back to Gabrielle and her comely face softened into a small smile. "Inda is my daughter. Thank you both for bringing her back to me." As she finished, tears came to her eyes. She glanced back at the warrior who dropped her own eyes for the first time.

"Humpf, well I neverľ and just what makes you think she wonít just leave when she feels better? Perhaps, even murder us all in our sleep."

Xena raised her head and pulled her body up so that she was sitting upright resting against the head of the bed. She eyed the crowd and then returned her icy stare to the old man who shuttered involuntarily under her gaze. "For what itís worth, I give you my word I wonít leave."

"Not good enough," yelled a villager from the back of the crowded room as the muttering of the crowd increased again.

"Here, put these on her and maybe we can all get some sleep." Stepping forward, one of the villagers handed Anthelis a set of leg irons with a sturdy bar welded between each anklet. He was also given wrist irons with a chain between them that attached to another piece of heavy chain that ended in a throat collar. Anthelis dropped the bundle with a clang, unable to hold onto the heavy load. He gingerly picked up the leg irons and looked at the warrior. Her face was a stoic mask as she lifted her eyes to meet Gabrielleís stare. She nodded slightly.

"No," the bard said firmly. "No collar and she doesnít need anything on her wrists. She has bad arm wounds."

The elder glanced at the bandaged arms of the warrior and inclined his head. "Agreed." He moved to the foot of the bed with the leg irons and paused. His hands were shaking so badly, it was clear he was not going to be able to shackle the warrior. Gabrielle sighed and looked again at the face of her best friend. The warrior had slid back down until she was laying flat on the bed. The pain and weariness the bard saw written on the warriorís face tore at her heart. "Do it, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle took the irons from the old man and clasped them around the ankles of the warrior. Once they were locked with the iron bar that held the warriorís ankles in place, she gave the key to the elder and turned back to the crowd. "Okay, showís over. Now all of you, get out!"

With a murmur, the crowd filed back out of the room. The elder followed them with a quick glance back over his shoulder.

The healer closed the stout door behind the retreating crowd, moved to the fireplace and began building up a blaze. She pulled her pouch from around her neck and took out different dried plants. "I use mint, eucalyptus, chicory root and some camphor for a tea. I also make a paste that Iíll rub on your chest that is very aromatic. It will relieve the congestion. You must sit up and spit out the phlegm that is in your throat. You agree?" She looked back at the warrior who had closed her eyes and seemed asleep. Finally, Xena turned her head to regard the healer a moment and finally whispered in a hoarse voice, "Quinoa in the tea as well if you have it." The healer nodded her agreement and continued to work. Gabrielle watched her for a moment and then turned with concern to her friend. She was greeted with a crooked grin and soft blue eyes that begged her not to worry. Gabrielle just rolled her eyes. Why should I worry? If the cough wonít kill her a crowd of angry villagers will. I just delivered her into another situation where she is condemned to die. Good move, Gabrielle. Youíre now two for two.

Chapter 7

Gabrielle sat watching as the large boned woman finish mashing her herbs together to make a cream colored paste. The sweet smelling aroma filled the room and made the bardís noise twitch. The healer returned to the fireplace and poured hot water from a pot into a large earthen mug that contained crushed herbs. She mixed these slowly waiting for the tea to seep. Once satisfied that the drink was ready, she added a fairly large pinch of a white powder and again stirred the mixture. She brought it to her noise, smelling the contents. With a nod, she turned to the reclining warrior. Xena had laid quiet with her eyes closed, her labored wheezing breath more pronounced in the quiet room.

"All right, Gabrielle help me get her up to a sitting position. She must not lie flat." Lendila smiled gently at the bard and then turned. "Come on, warrior. You know Iím right about this."

Xena opened weary glazed eyes and slowly began to struggle upright. Gabrielle was immediately at her side. She gently pulled her shoulders upwards until she was in a sitting position, her back and head resting against the back board of the bed. Lendila passed the cup to Gabrielle who brought it to Xenaís lips. Suddenly, the warrior pushed the cup back almost spilling the contents on the bard. "What are you doing?" she demanded of the healer with a flash of angry piercing eyes.

"Whatís the problem?" The healer returned the glare of the warrior with one of her own. She pushed her bright hair out of her eyes and placed both hands on her wide hips.

"This has a sleeping drug in it. I can smell it. Any reason you are trying to knock me out?"

Gabrielle rolled her eyes and looked pleadingly at the warrior. Gods, even her sense of smell is better than any normal person.

Lendila grinned slightly and relaxed her stance. "All right, all right. Warrior, I have to admit you are pretty good. Yes, I added a sleeping powder. The lung disease in you is far advanced. The only way you will be able to over come it, is to get complete and total rest. You will have to sleep for days. Weíll wake you periodically to eat a little to keep your strength up but deep sleep is what you need. I watched you. Even when laying down, you are tense and alert. That is not rest."

Xenaís face was expressionless as she stared at the healer with icy cold eyes. "I can not afford the luxury of the kind of sleep you suggest."

"Xena please. Iíll be here to watch over you. I promise." Gabrielle took the warriorís hand and looked gently into her eyes. "Gods know why you should believe me after all Iíve done. Yet I mean it. Lendila is right. This is your chance to get well. Please." The bard took the strong hand that rested in hers and held it against her face. The warrior turned her head. Her eyes softened as they filled with love for her best friend.

"Never could say no to you, Gabrielle," she said with a deep soft voice. In a hoarse whisper she continued, "I never doubted you or your intentions." She took the cup in her left hand while still holding on to Gabrielleís hand with her right. She drained it in one long gulp, handed the cup back to her friend and laid her head back against the wall, too weary to hold it up.

Lendila turned back to the table and brought the paste over to the warrior. "Do you want to do this?" she asked the bard.

"What do I have to do?"

"Just rub this on her chest. Should be done about every four hours."

The bard nodded, set the cup down, and held her hand up to receive the shallow bowl. She looked back at the warrior but Xenaís eyes had grown too heavy to keep open. Gently, Gabrielle reached over and carefully applied the salve under the white sleeping shirt. She thought the warrior was asleep as she finished. Xena opened her eyes smiling slightly. "Feels good, warm," she mumbled. With that, she closed her eyes again and fell into a deep sleep.

Lendila nodded her approval and returned to the small table. She crushed and mixed more herbs quietly while Gabrielle watched.

Finally with a glance towards Xena, the young bard questioned the healer softly. "Will she be all right?"

The large woman turned and looked long into the bardís face. "I donít know. She is strong, powerful. She can become well if she wishes. She can also choose to give up and die. I can make it possible for her body to heal. Itís up to you to help her choose to live. Even then, you will still have to deal with that crowd of villagers who will be demanding her life."

Gabrielle nodded slowly and glanced glumly out the small window. "One problem at a time." The sentence was becoming a mantra.

The next few days blended together into a sameness marked by Lendila reappearing every few hours to check on her patent. Gabrielle never left her side, putting the ointment on her chest and brewing the tea that she had learned how to make that kept Xena asleep. They fed Xena soups and stews several times a day. It was quite a chore to get much down the drugged warrior whose head would roll forward as sleep would claim her almost instantly. Gabrielle wiped her face with a cool cloth as Xenaís fever would come and go. She watched for any sign of chills and kept the warrior warm but in an upright position.

As time passed, Gabrielle slid next to the warrior and held her to keep her warm as the chills started. She talked to her softly reciting poems and stories. Mostly, she just held the warrior close willing her to fight to stay alive.

As the afternoon sun of the third day streamed through the small window, Lendila pushed into the room and laid a rough hand on the bard. "Out you go. Youíve been here for three solid days. Go out and get some air and food. Iíll watch over her."

Gabrielle jerked the hand off her arm and shook her head. "No. I wonít trust guarding over her to anyone else. She wouldnít trust anyone else but Argo."

"Whoís Argo?"

"Thatís her horse. Oh Cyclops turds. Iíve got to see to Argo. Iíll be right back. Donít you leave her!"

Gabrielle grabbed her staff and bolted out the door.

Lendila shook her head with an amused grin and turned back to the warrior only to be confronted with crystal blue eyes that regarded her thoughtfully. "How you feeling?"

"Better."

"Your cough seems to have faded."

The warrior nodded and closed her eyes a moment. "I owe you ľ and Gabrielle. Thanks, you are a good healer."

"Coming from you, that is quite a compliment. But it is I who should be thanking you for the return of my daughter. She is my light, my life. After my husband was killed, she is all I have. Inda will come later to thank you herself."

"No need."

"Warrior, will you leave now?"

"Call me Xena." She paused a moment and seemed to look inward. "No, Iíll stay and face your justice."

"Theyíll kill you. Is that fair to Gabrielle?" Lendila turned serious gray eyes on the warrior. "I donít know what drives you or even who or what you are. I do know that you killed my husband, most of the men in this village, burned us out and then saved my daughter. I donít know if I want you dead or just gone. I do know I donít want to watch your execution and that young woman should not have to witness it." Lendila looked at her hands a moment and then raised her eyes to the warrior in time to see the flash of pain and regret that crossed her face. "Ah, you do care about her, donít you? Thought so."

Xena raised her own eyes filled with shame to face the healer directly. "I am truly sorry about your husband. I am guilty of doing terrible things in my past. Nothing can ever undo or change the harm I caused so many. Now, I just do the best I can to atone and go on. I will agree to whatever punishment you deem fair."

"And Gabrielle?"

The warrior dropped her eyes to her hands but the pain and anguish visible there was not lost to the healer. "Iíd hoped for more timeľ .that isľ Iíd hoped weíd have time to work some things out. Still,ľ itís just as well, I guess. She should leave at first light, take Argo and go back home or perhaps to Athens." Her voice trailed off as she seemed lost in her own thoughts.

Lendila gave her head an impatient shake. "And just how are you going to make her go? She hasnít left your side all these days. By the gods, you are selfish. Thinking only of your own feelings. How can you inflict such sorrow on your friend? Warriors, humph, so brave, so courageous, so stupid." The healer rose and with an angry glare at her patient she pulled a key out of the pouch at her side. She strolled to the foot of the bed and roughly grabbed the warriorís shackled ankles. With a click of the key, the iron bracelets fell away as the bar that was suppose to be solid between them fell to the ground.

"Do you think I donít know that you could leave at anytime? You broke the restraining bar two nights ago."

Xena glanced up with a sheepish look on her face and one arched eyebrow. If the healer had not been so upset with the stubborn warrior, she would have let out a chuckle. "I had to goľ .you know out back," Xena admitted. "Didnít want to wake up anyone or cause trouble."

"Yeah, right. So now you are free, no excuses for you to still be here tomorrow. I wonít say anything about your condition until morning when Iíll have to let Anthelis know you are well. By then you can be long gone and they wonít chase after you."

"No, but there still will be a price on my head and the villagers will send bounty hunters after me. Thatís how I learned I had been tried and sentenced in Thorbis in the first place."

"You knew you were going to be executed if you ever came back into this village and still you saved our children and came anyway? Why? Do you have a death wish?"

Xena dropped her eyes as shame crossed her face. "I always intended to come here and face your justice. I justľ ..well things happened and I put it off."

"Gabrielle happened, didnít she?"

"Yes," the warrior admitted softly. "I promised her I wouldnít leave her again. I just couldnít break that promise. Figured, one way or another Iíd pay for what I did either here or in Tartarus."

"Xena, while you slept Gabrielle told me stories about you, amazing stories. Why would you leave this world to suffer? Why would you give up the fight you have waged against evil? Are you a coward after all?"

The warriorís head snapped up as icy blue eyes bore holes into the healer. Inadvertently, Lendila took in a quick breath. In an instant, she understood what it was like to look death in the face. In a flash, the look was gone replaced with one of sadness and regret. With a weary sigh, the warrior looked away.

Suddenly, the door burst open as Gabrielle charged into the room, taking deep breaths. She had run all the way.

"Argo was fineľ sheľ .wait. Xena, youíre awake." The bard stared at her friend a moment and then her face broke out into a wide grin that wiped out all traces of worry. It seemed as if a burst of sun light threw the little room into a yellow glow. The healer couldnít help but return the smile and she noted that the warrior could not keep a crooked grin off her own face. The bardís enthusiasm was infectious.

"Hey, you look great! How do you feel?"

"Have to say, pretty good. I was just telling Lendila here that she must be a good healer. Had a great nurse as well." The bard basked in the warm glow of twinkling blue eyes.

"Well, Iíll leave you two to talk. Xena, think about what I said. Please. Gabrielle, how about telling some stories tonight? We all enjoy hearing the tales of a good bard and I would love to share you with some of the other villagers." She gave the bard a meaningful stare, turned and was quickly out the door that she pulled closed behind her.

The bard turned back to her friend. "You know, Xena, Lendila has been great. She was here most of the time you were out."

"Címere." Xenaís low musical voice washed over the bard as she held out her arms. Gabrielle flew into them and they held each other in a glad embrace.

"Thanks for taking care of me, Gabrielle."

"No problem," Gabrielle whispered into Xenaís dark hair as they held each other closely.

Gabrielle pulled back searching her best friendís face. What she saw caused her heart to sing. "You look so much better. Cough gone?"

"Seems to be."

"Outstanding." The bardís eyebrows knitted together as a frown slowly tugged at the corners of her mouth. "Now, what was Lendila talking about?" Again she searched her friendís face with serious green eyes.

When the warrior remained silent, the bard continued. "Ahuh. She told you to leave and you refused, right?"

"Something like that. Did you know that I killed her husband?" The warriorís voice dropped to a low whisper.

"Yes, she told me." Gabrielle glanced at the warriorís feet and noting the shackles removed, lifted her eyes back to Xenaís face. "So, she took them off. What more convincing do you need? She doesnít want to see you executed, Xena. She has learned that the woman who killed her husband is already dead."

"Gabrielle," the warrior replied gently, "I wonít run." She placed both hands on the bardís shoulders as they gazed into each otherís eyes.

"Xena,ľ ..you promised. I wonít lose you again."

"Oh, Gabrielle." The warrior pulled her close embracing her in a fierce hug. "So much between us and now perhaps so little time. Letís just enjoy tonight and leave tomorrow to the fates. Please."

The bard sighed and returned the embrace. She snuggled closer to the warrior enjoying the warmth of her body. Perhaps Xena had a plan. In the Kingdom of Chin, Xena had harnessed a strange focused power which she had used to free herself and defeat the evil emperor. Gabrielle knew she would not use this power now. The bard also knew that this time she would not stand by silently and watch her best friend destroyed even if the reason for this was justice.

Chapter 8

The only light in the room came from the low burning fire in the fireplace as the two friends lay together in each otherís embrace. Somehow words were no longer necessary. Together they had watched the brilliant red sunset reflect through the small window against the far wall of the little room. Now shadows danced there as the dying fire gave them form and motion.

Finally the bard stirred. "Iíll get us something to eat from the tavern."

Xena nodded her agreement. "How about I go with you? Iíll stay back out of sight."

"Getting cabin fever?" Gabrielle teased gently.

The warrior grinned. "Yeah, kinda. Busted huh?"

"You doing okay?"

"Better than okay. I really feel good. Honest."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Itís magic the way you heal up so fast."

The warrior swung over the edge of the bed and began to lace up her boots. "Letís go get something to eat and create a little more magic and less havoc for a change." She gave the bard a meaningful glance as she straightened up and stretched. Gabrielle slapped the warrior in the belly. "Enough. You raise more havoc than I do, on any given day."

"Mostly becomes necessary trying to get you out of some jam."

Gabrielleís smile faded as she dropped her eyes to the floor. Gods, was that the truth. Being here in this mess sure was another example.

Xena sensed the darkening mood of the bard and gently grabbed her arm. "Címon, letís go see what theyíve got on the fire."

The warrior opened the door and slipped out into the main room of the tavern. Gabrielle noticed that she had not armed herself with either her sword or chakram. How strange for Xena to enter a room without any weapons! Gabrielle grabbed her staff and followed right behind her friend. Havenít lost that protective streak yet have I, she thought. She gave a silent chuckle, as if Xena would ever need her to fight off attackers.

Xena quietly sat down at a table in the back of the large common room with her back to the wall. The bard watched her a moment and then moved over to the counter on the other side. She saw the tavern owner and motioned to him. He stopped his animated discussion with a patron and inclined his head. "What do you have cooking for dinner?"

He glanced towards the back of the tavern and then back at the bard. "Iíve got lamb stew. That okay?"

"Yeah, thatíll be fine. Also, two mugs of ale."

"Five dinars." As Gabrielle counted out the money, the proprietor turned his back and disappeared into a back room. He was soon back with a tray containing two steaming bowls, a hunk of black bread, and a small block of white cheese. He filled two earthen mugs and set them on the tray. As he accepted the money from the bard, again he glanced at the back table. "You know that tomorrow she dies. Hope she enjoys her last meal. Itís better than she gave any of her victims from this village." He growled out the words in anger as his voice carried across the room.

Gabrielle stiffened as she felt two icy blue eyes on her. As she took the tray, she replied in a low voice, "Thank you for your hospitality." She turned and moved back across the room to the table located in the shadows in the back. She set the food down then slipped behind the table next to her partner. She glanced up to meet quiet pained eyes who regarded her softly. "Thanks, smells good."

The young woman nodded and took a sip of the ale. She suddenly found that she had lost her appetite but was glad to see her friend attack the meal with relish. If Xena noticed that Gabrielle pushed her food more around the bowl than into her mouth, she made no comment.

"Mind if I join you?" The two looked up into the smiling face of Lendila. Right behind her, Inda, her daughter peeked timidly over her shoulder. Seeing the two together, the mother daughter resemblance was amazing from carrot colored hair to the tall comely features and bright freckles that dotted their open faces.

"Please," Gabrielle motioned the two over to the bench on the other side of the table.

"Xena, Inda has something she wants to say to you."

The warrior inclined her head to one side and stared at the girl. She grew red in the face as she stammered, "Hum, thanksľ ľ I mean thank you for saving us."

Xena gave the girl a cold stern look. No emotions could be read on her face. Gabrielle alone caught the slight twinkle in her crystal blue eyes and chuckled silently. This was going to be good.

"How did those men catch you? Werenít you paying attention? Do you know how bad your mother would feel if they carried you all off and sold you? Girl, use your head and be careful. Next time there may not be anyone around to save you from your own foolishness." She gave the girl another cold stare and then averted her eyes to the room, dismissing her without another glance.

The teenager tried to speak several times but could only stammer and finally fell silent. Xena glanced over at the healer and was rewarded with a grateful smile. The healer turned to the young bard. "So, Gabrielle. Will you tell some tales tonight?"

"I donít know. Doesnít look like a very receptive crowd."

"Oh, pay no heed to Vargas, the tavern owner. He is sour all the time. In another hour or so, this place will be full. Most folks here love a good story. Will you tell one? Iíll introduce you."

Gabrielle glanced at Xena who gave a slight nod. "Iíd like to hear you."

"Any particular story?"

"No, I love them all. Just take it easy on me, okay?"

A wicked grin crossed the bardís face and Xena groaned. "On second thought,ľ "

"To late my friend."

Lendila laughed. Inda seemed to lose her timidity and fear as she heard the banter of the adults. "Is it true that you fought the Huns?"

Gabrielle laughed, "Yes, itís true. Xena lured them into a trap and killed their leaders."

"And Gabrielle led the Amazons and Centaurs that defeated them." Xena finished the statement for her with a note of pride in her voice.

"Wow, you did?" As the red began to creep up the neck of the bard, the warriorís grin widened. "Did you know that Gabrielle is actually the queen of the Amazons?"

"Really?"

"Yes, really and she alsoľ ľ "

"ENOUGH!" The bard shouted loudly enough to be heard at the next table. "Iím the bard here, Xena. Remember the rules. You fight, I talk. You were suppose to talk your way out of that last fight. Remember how that went."

The warriorís merry laugh, low and musical carried across the table. Lendila and Inda both looked at her in amazement. How beautiful and lovely her face when the warrior smiled. Gabrielle grinned widely at her friend. It always made her feel so warm inside when others got a glimpse of the Xena she knew.

Inda stole another glance at this woman, so feared yet so fearless. Her anger and dread of the warrior forgotten she stared openly with hero worship in her eyes. Gabrielle watched and laughed. She could spot a case of this disease a mile away. Had a bad case of it myself, she mused. Maybe I still do. She put a hand on the arm of her best friend and whispered, "You want some more ale?" The warrior covered her hand with her own and smiled into her eyes, "No, Iím fine."

"So, Gabrielle. Ready to tell some tales?" The bard glanced up and noticed every table was filled. Some villagers were standing around the bar, talking while filling their mugs. The tavern had become crowded and noisy.

Suddenly, Gabrielle felt her stomach turn over. Butterflies, she thought in amazement. When was the last time that she had been nervous before a performance? Then she remembered why. She was performing for Xenaís life. The bard turned to the healer and nodded. "Iím ready whenever you are."

"Now before they drink too much and Xena has to knock a few heads." All eyes turned to the warrior who rolled her eyes upwards and feigned an innocent expression. "Hey, Iím the sick one here."

Lendila looked the warrior up and down and then shook her head. "Not so Iíd notice." She rose from the table and with Gabrielle in tow made their way across the tavern to a slightly raised platform at one end.

Inda watched her mother as she confidently observed to the warrior, "Donít worry. Theyíll be quiet when mom tells them to."

"Ahuh," was the only response the warrior gave.

Lendila walked onto the platform and turned to face the crowd. "Friends, neighbors, please can I have your attention?" The crowd continued to talk and ignore the healer. "I said friends, kinsmen, we have a real treat tonight." Although she shouted her statement, nothing could be heard over the din in the crowded tavern. Suddenly, a shrill whistle pealed out over the crowd, so loud and piercing that a number of villagers put their hands to their ears. The immediate silence was almost deafening.

"Síokay. Now as I was saying, we are really lucky to have a world renown bard with us tonight, Athens trained. So please give your attention to Gabrielle, the bard."

With a slight wave of her hand, Lendila left the platform to the bard. Gabrielle stepped up and turned to her silent audience. She could feel their coldness and distrust. This was going to be one tough crowd. Remembering her advice to other bards, she decided on her first story and began to see it unfold in her mind. I sing of Xena the great warrior princess and how she and Hercules freed Prometheus thus saving all mankind."

In the back of the room, Xena groaned softly. This was going to be a long night. As the bardís voice rose and fell, her gestures making the story come to life, Xena found herself becoming engrossed in the tale. Soon she along with the whole room, felt their emotions rise in terror only to fall in sorrow. Just when the tension reached an almost unbearable peak, the bard would tell something funny and the room would shake with laughter. Finally, it was back to the thrilling climax. With the taleís end and Gabrielleís last dramatic gesture, the room fell completely silent. Then huge thunderous applause and cheers peeled out with chants of "More, More." Gabrielle smiled, "Very well." Quickly, before the audience could be distracted she launched into her next tale of yet another heroic deed performed by Xena.

The warrior could feel Indaís gaze and finally turned to the girl. "Inda, she is a bard. She exaggerates."

The girl just continued to stare so Xena turned her attention back to Gabrielle with a sigh. Lendila made her way back to the table and with a huge grin sat down. She whispered to the warrior, "She is wonderful." Xena nodded her agreement, already captivated by the bardís tale. Even though she knew them by heart, she was never proof against the bardís spell. As she glanced around the room, she could tell the entire room was under the control of the bard as well. Xena leaned back and became absorbed in the story.

Gabrielle told tales for several hours and yet the crowd demanded more. Finally, hoarse and tired, the bard performed her finale and bowed low to loud acclaim. She smiled, skipped off the platform and threaded her way through the crowded room back to her friend.

Xena passed over her mug of ale to the bard who took several sips. "Inda, get some water for Gabrielle, please?" Inda jumped up to pick up a water skin and return to the table. Gabrielle smiled her thanks and took several long pulls.

"Gabrielle, that was just fantastic. You are the best bard Iíve ever heard."

"Thanks Lendila." She turned to the warrior who smiled proudly at her with soft blue eyes. "Great performance," she whispered. "But you could have told a few more classics and left me out of some of your stories."

Gabrielle grinned at her friend, "Nah. You are a classic." She was rewarded with two arched eyebrows.

The bard turned to watch the crowded tavern as the noise level had reached the previous din. She also noticed that more than a few curious stares were leveled at her and the other occupants of the table. Try as she might though, she couldnít stiffen the yawn that tugged at the corner of her mouth.

Xena saw it immediately. "Bed time for bards. Think youíve done enough damage for one night."

Lendila smiled as the two got up from the table. "I think she did fabulous good." She got up as well and drew the warrior close. "Did you decide to leave?" she whispered. When the warrior shook her head, the healer sighed. "Didnít think so. Anthelis will want you in the town square at noon. Xena, please donít be there."

The warrior with a trace of a sad smile took her hand. "Thank you Lendila for your help. I am very very sorry about your husband." She turned from the healer and placed a finger under Indaís chin forcing the girlís eyes to meet hers. "Remember what I told you, girl. Be safe." She patted Indaís head and turned. Taking Gabrielleís arm, she guided the tired bard towards their little room and left the din of the crowded tavern. A number of heads turned and stared openly as the two made their quiet exit.

Lendila also watched them go and then turned back to her friends and neighbors. She could see a mixture of emotions on their faces. Gabrielle had made it much more difficult for this crowd to execute Xena, the brave hero they had heard described tonight. Sill the healer knew that hatred runs deep and the warrior would not be spared. Tomorrow night we will all be murders with blood on our hands, she mused sadly. The very thing we want to punish so it will stop, we will actually foster with our own actions. And for what purpose? The dead will still be gone and a woman who has come to do good will be gone as well. Before she had met the warrior, Lendila had hated the warlord Xena and would have gladly killed her with her own hands. She knew that would be impossible now for her to do. If only she would just leave. The healer shook her head sadly. She knew that was impossible for the warrior to do.

Chapter 9

The two woman returned to their room and pulled on their sleeping shifts. As they climbed into bed, Gabrielleís mouth opened wide in a large yawn. "Wow, I didnít realize how tired I am."

Xena looked searchingly at the bard. "You donít look like youíve had much sleep recently, my friend. My fault?"

"I got some winks here and there. Iím fine, honest."

"Ahuh. Well, curl up and Iíll douse this candle." With a sweep of her hand, Xena put the room into total darkness. She lay next to Gabrielle with her head against the backboard and her arm around the bard. She heard Gabrielleís quiet breathing and knew sleep was soon going to claim her.

"Xena."

"Hummm?"

"What are we going to do about tomorrow?"

"Face it."

Continued...Part 2 (Conclusion)