Conclusion to The Long Road Back

Gabrielle leaned back and could see the strong angular profile of her soulmate in the moon light that flooded through the tiny window. "No, I mean it. What are we going to do? I wonít stand for you just strolling into the middle of the town square at noon and laying your head on some chopping block. Xena, these people will kill you." Her voice had lowered into a whisper. The fear and desperation she felt was plain to the warriorís ears.

"Tomorrow morning, I want you to take Argo and leave. Go to Athens or home or where ever you wish. I donít want you to be here at noon." Xenaís soft voice held a note of sadness and regret.

"Just like that. After all weíve been through. You want me to just leave." The bitterness in the bardís voice cut through the darkened room. "What about your promise, Xena?"

"Weíve been breaking a lot of promises to each other lately, havenít we? Perhaps, we should give up making them."

The bard pulled back from the warrior, anger now crackling through her entire body. "Thatís just great. Give up and get it over with. Makes it easier on you, doesnít it?"

"Perhaps," came the weary reply. "Gabrielle, we donít have a lot of time. Can we spend it not fighting with each other?"

"So Iím just to accept that you donít care enough about yourself, about us, about your family, about what youíre trying to do to keep on going? You just quitting?"

"Iím not quitting. Iím trying to face up to what Iíve done. This is the price I owe. Itís come due. It would have sooner or later. Iíd rather it have been later, but I canít run or hide from what I did. I owe these people justice."

"Xena, at least ask for a pardon. Let me speak for you if you wonít. If you truly are interested in justice, then your side needs a fair hearing."

"My side," Xena repeated with a dark bitterness filled with self loathing. "What do I say, Gabrielle? I killed the young men who were defending this town but thatís in the past. What difference does that make? I did it and I should pay for my crimes. You want to know something? What happened in this village really delighted me. My men performed well and my own skills were never better. I left here satisfied, food stores a plenty for my army, a village ransacked and the people no threat to ever disobey my orders again. Yes, I was well pleased with myself. Gods, I donít know why I felt that way, was that way. But Gabrielle, never doubt the truth. That was me. The same woman who lays next to you now was a monster so dark so evil that it is hard to comprehend. Killing that monster is what just and sane people must do to protect themselves."

"But Xena, you killed that monster long ago."

"No," whispered the warrior. "She lives yet, just below the surface, where the rage boils and churns, when the darkness threatens. Maybe one day I wonít be able to stop it or control it." There, at last, the doubt and fear of the warrior was out in the open. Gabrielle finally understood.

"Xena, you are too strong to ever let that happen. Youíve never backed away from a fight. Please donít give up now. You always do whatís right. This canít feel right to you. You are going to make these simple villagers into your own murderer to ease your guilt. Donít do this!" The bardís voice took on a hard edge. "By the gods, if you want to commit suicide, at least have the guts to do it yourself!"

The warrior jerked her head up and turned to the bard. "Is that what you think I want?"

"Yes, Xena. Ever since we left the kingdom of Chin, youíve been looking for a way to give up."

The warrior was silent. Gabrielle could hear her heart beat faster as she laid her head against her chest. The harsh words spoken between them could not drive the bard away. It would have to be the distressed warrior that broke their closeness. To her surprise, Xena lay still and tightened her hold around her best friend. It seemed to Gabrielle as if the warrior was holding onto her as a life line as she was battered and tossed against the rocks of her own acrimony and self hatred.

"Well, at least this time when we are together awaiting your execution, we are in a nice comfy bed instead of cold, filthy water. Iím doing better at getting you executed in style." One lone tear trickled down Gabrielleís cheek.

The warrior turned to her and saw her wet cheek in the moonlight. She gently wiped it with a finger and tilted the bardís chin up so their eyes locked. "Gabrielle, you are not responsible for this. Nothing that happens tomorrow is your fault or is even about you. Donít you think of taking any of this on your shoulders. All of this is my doing. Now, letís try to get some sleep."

After a pause, Xena whispered, "Iím sorry for dragging you into yet another chapter of my sordid past. It must get old, please forgive me."

"Xena, please forgive yourself and ask these people for forgiveness." After a heartbeat she continued in a low voice that broke at the end as the tears came, "I forgive you."

 

Chapter 10

The two women watched the morningís light creep through the tiny window. Gabrielle had dozed some unable to keep her heavy eyes open. Xena had not, staring straight ahead, trying to understand her own feelings. Gabrielleís words echoed in her mind as she tried to figure out who she was and what she should be. In the end, she came up with no answers, just a dull throbbing headache. That wonít be a problem for long, she thought allowing a little gallows humor to invade her dark thoughts.

Gabrielle enjoyed their closeness, feeling Xenaís warmth, hearing her quiet breath. Their hands remained clasped together but nothing the bard could do or say prevented the morning gray turning to gold and than a bright yellow. The day was advancing.

Finally, Xena moved gracefully out of bed and began the job of putting on her leathers, boots and finally armor. Gabrielle slipped behind her and helped fasten the shoulder clips in the familiar way. She laced up Xenaís gauntlets and turned to face her. The warrior stood tall and strong with her dark head held proudly. Gabrielle nodded her approval. "You look great."

Gabrielle noticed that Xena had not put her sword in the scabbard on her back. It lay on the table polished and sharpened as did her chakram.

"Gabrielle, will you grant me a last request and please leave?" Xena begged softly, her eyes brimming.

The bard shook her head emphatically. Her own eyes were filling as well. "Xena, please. You are the most courageous bravest person Iíve ever known. You are not afraid to die, youíve proven this over and over. Donít be afraid to live. Have the courage to beg these villagers for mercy. Swallow your warriorís pride. Lendila forgave you. Perhaps the rest will as well."

Xena smiled sadly. "Folks who have lost their loved ones and lived with the loneliness donít forgive. They get by through their hate. Iíve seen their eyes, Gabrielle. Itís no use."

"At least try. Youíll be giving them a chance to turn from their hatred and giving yourself a chance as well. You owe them that. You owe me that."

Xenaís grip on Gabrielleís shoulders tightened as she brought her face closer intending to give her a farewell kiss. Suddenly, the warrior jerked up. She turned, her head held at an angular stiff attention.

"Gods, what now?" With that exclamation, she grabbed her sword and chakram in each hand and turned for the door. As she bolted from the room, she called over her shoulder. "Trouble, Gabrielle." Then she was gone. Gabrielle blinked twice in astonishment, turned, grabbed her staff and followed on a dead run.

By the time she made it into the bright sunlight, Xena had already engaged a dark horseman in a sword fight. As he swung his large blade down, other riders emerged from around the building corner. Xena saw them out of the corner of her eye. She blocked the singing blade with her own and thrust it back with such force that the rider was thrown back. While he regained his seat in the saddle, Xena let her chakram fly. After one ricochet, it sliced through two riders before returning to the warrior in a wide arc.

Gabrielle met a horsemanís midsection with her staff and watched as he flipped backwards out of the saddle. Meanwhile, Xena turned back to her adversary in time to block another slice of his sword. Giving her war cry, "YaYaYaYa" she jumped and delivered a kick that connected with the raiderís chest driving him out of the saddle. He landed on his back with a thump. Xena delivered two quick blows and he slumped back unconscious. She turned in time to see Gabrielle take on two more sword wheeling thugs. She disarmed the first with a fierce swing and then took the second out with a backhanded thrust of her staff which connected with his head.

Xena let a feral smile turn the corners of her mouth as she turned to attack another group of raiders who had hesitated an instant too long. Throwing herself into their mist, with flying sword they began to drop one at a time at an alarming rate. The remaining few suddenly took to their heels vanishing as rapidly as they had come. The warrior watched them run and then scanned the fallen raiders for further trouble. Finding they were rendered harmless she turned in time to see Gabrielle running towards her. "You okay?"

The bard nodded. "Who where they?"

Xena shrugged. "I recognize this one." She turned, grabbed the front cross strap of an unconscious thug and lifted him up to show his face to Gabrielle. She nodded. "He was one of the slavers."

Xena let him fall back heavily to the ground. "Yeah, thatís what I thought. Maybe they decided to try it again." Xena turned and headed at a brisk pace towards the center of the small village. "Weíd better check on the damage." Gabrielle swung into a quick step, matching Xenaís stride.

As they turned the corner of the main street, they stopped in shock. There were a number of villagers lying scattered on the ground; some bleeding badly, others crying out in pain. Several buildings were on fire as smoke mixed with dust swirled around the village square.

Just then Lendila appeared from a small hut and saw them. "Are they gone?"

"Yeah, donít think theyíll be back soon. A couple are laying out cold up the street and can be hauled off to your jail."

"Thanks, Xena. You saved us. They demanded the girls and when poor Anthelis told them no, they struck him down. I think heís dead."

Xena swung around. "Come on, weíve got to move fast and get the wounded inside."

The warrior moved rapidly from body to body, pointing out which ones could be saved and leaving others that had crossed over unattended. Finally, she found herself staring at the old wrinkled face of the village elder. He appeared in a lot of pain as red blood flowed from a large gash across his chest. Xena reached down, picked up the old man as if he was a light sack of flour and carefully carried him through the threshold of the healerís hut. She laid him down on the nearest unoccupied pallet. Gabrielle came up behind her and handed her the healers pouch they always carried. "Thought you might need this."

Xena nodded and began to pull out bandages and supplies. By this time Lendila had returned, wringing her hands in despair. "I donít know much about wounds. So many hurt. Where should we began?"

"Gabrielle, you know what to do. Start with the ones we can save and stop the bleeding. Lendila, come here. I need help with Anthelis. Thatís it. Put your finger here while I try to stop this hemorrhaging. Weíll lose him if I canít."

Xena worked feverishly, sewing up the wound and then bandaging it tightly. As she finished, the elder opened his eyes and searched her face.

"Take it easy, old timer. Youíve got a chance. Lendila will give you something to drink." As she started to get up, he reached over and grabbed her hand.

"They came too fast. We never saw them. The restľ ..?"

"Weíll try to save as many as we can. You have some loses. Donít know how many yet."

"And the raiders?"

"Dead or gone." Again she tried to get up but the old man would not release her hand.

"You saved us?"

"Right place, right time. I have to go, others need help." She gave him a slight smile and again started to rise.

His grip tightened as he stared at her with wide eyes. "Xena, do you know why we didnít hear those men attacking?" When she shook her head, he released her hand and laid his head back down. "We were too busy arguing and drawing lots over which of us was going to execute you."

She jerked her head back around to stare at the old man for a moment. "You can have your thrill later. Right now, Iím busy." Flinging this bitter remark over her shoulder, she made her way to the next pallet that contained a woman with a badly bleeding arm. Xena tossed her dark hair back from her eyes and got to work, putting Anthelis and his stupidity out of her mind.

It was late in the day before all the wounded had been tended. Lendila had stayed close to Xena, learning her healing techniques and helping to patch, stitch and bandage. Gabrielle, Inda and others from the village did what they could, bandaging and cleaning wounds, giving the injured water and comfort. Finally, the weary care givers had done all they could.

Xena gave the crowded room a final look and strolled out into the coolness of the early evening. She watched silently as the villagers placed the last of the dead on a large wooden funeral pyre that had been erected in the village square. She noted with some irony that right next to the pyre was a large oval tree stump with a rusty metal battle ax buried into its center. "No doubt waiting for me," she muttered to herself. She shook her head. A dark depression slowly overcame her. It didnít matter, none of it did. Nothing she could ever do would erase the past. Suddenly, she felt a soft warm hand steal up her arm and rest on her shoulder. Xena reached up and placed her own hand over the one resting on her with such familiarity. Their fingers entwined. Xenaís grasp tightened a moment as she led out a slow ragged breath.

"You were great in there," the bard observed softly. "I am always amazed at your healing skills. You saved a lot of people today."

The warrior turned pained searching eyes to her friend. "Still think asking forgiveness would matter?"

"Yes, I do. It would matter to many of these people and it would matter to you."

Xenaís head slumped forward as her forehead touched the bardís. "Okay, if you say so." The resignation and weariness in her voice tore at Gabrielleís heart. "Sometimes I get so tired, so tired of trying, so tired of failing."

Gabrielle tighten her hold on her warrior. "I know," she said softly. "You havenít failed. Hang in there, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Címon, letís get something to eat."

Nodding her agreement, the two walked away from the fire that was lighting up the night sky. Entering the tavern that had been their home for the past week, the atmosphere seemed somehow changed. The dour old proprietor actually nodded at them as they found their way to the back table near their room. The main room was filling up with villagers who were silent and grim. Several gave the two women long looks but Gabrielle could feel no venom or hatred in their stares.

As they sat down, their landlord made a sudden appearance with a tray that contained two steaming bowls of stew, a hunk of bread and two mugs of ale. As Gabrielle reached into her pouch, the old man stopped her with a shake of his head. "Your dinars are no good here, anymore." Without further comment, he turned and strolled away.

The two women exchanged glances and then dug into their dinner. Gabrielle made short work of her stew and noticed that Xena kept up with her for a change. "You should lie down. Youíre not at full strength yet."

"Yeah, I sort of figured that out today, about the second sword swing."

Gabrielle gave a short snort. "Not so Iíd notice. Still, drink up and off to bed with you."

The warrior shook her head. "Iíll be fine. Weíd better get back to Lendila and spell her. Sheís got to eat and rest. Some of those folks will need constant watching tonight."

"Not by you, warrior!" Xena jerked her head up to stare into Lendilaís warm smile. "Mind if we join you?" Xena inclined her head to one side indicating a spot. Lendila and Inda plotted down. Almost instantaneously, the tavern owner was back with more stew and ale. Again refusing payment, he disappeared into the crowded room.

Between mouthfuls Lendila explained who was taking care of the wounded and what their status was. Xena ticked off several things that had to be done during the night as Lendila nodded. "Weíll take care of it. You go to bed. I donít want any more sick on my hands tonight."

"You and Gabrielle are going to mother me to death."

"Canít be done. Youíre much too stubborn."

Xena tried to think of a retort but her tired mind wouldnít wrap around one. In the end, all she could do was arch an eyebrow and roll her eyes. That got a full laugh from Gabrielle.

"Gabrielle, I know youíre tired but if you could tell a story or two it would do a lot of good for these people." Lendila waved her arm to indicate the quiet crowd.

Gabrielle looked about her and then nodded slowly. As she started to rise, she felt a hand on her arm. She looked into the soft eyes of the warrior. "Not about me, okay? Not tonight."

The bard stood up and looked down at the warriorís quiet expression. "Sorry Xena. These people need something to make them laugh and I can think of a couple of things you and I got into that is perfect." With a mischievous grin, the bard strolled to the raised platform. There was no need for whistling tonight as everyone was instantly quiet.

The bard launched into two tales about Xena and a look alike princess. The misadventures and mistaken identity soon had the crowd roaring. Yet another tale of the strangest beauty pageant in all of Greece that was won by a man dressed as a woman had the crowd rolling on the floor and pounding the tables. Gabrielle finished with a tale of two friends, a wolf and a magpie. The tale told of their adventures, how they helped each other and gave each other hope. As Gabrielle took her bows, the crowd cheered and cheered. Xena noticed that many had tears in their eyes. Once more the bard had deeply moved her audience.

As she returned to the table the warrior reached up and grabbed her hand. "That was well done, my bard. Best performance ever."

"You think so?" Gabrielle asked with shinning eyes.

"I know so. Come here." She pulled the bard down next to her and gave her a big hug which was returned with enthusiasm.

"Okay, you two. Now both of you off to bed."

The two women looked at Lendila and laughed. They glanced at each other and in unison said, "Yes mom."

Inda chuckled and gave them both a knowing look.

Suddenly, Xena stiffened and turned. Several villagers approached the table slowly with stern hard expressions. Lendila saw the wary move of the warrior and half rose from her seat to face her neighbors. One of them put out a cautionary hand facing the warrior directly.

"We just wanted to say thank you for what you did for us today. Those raiders would have killed us all if you had not been here."

Xena glanced at Gabrielle and remembered the bardís angry words from a long ago argument. Gabrielle had been very upset when the warrior had turned away from a grateful village and silently walked away, ignoring their thanks. She looked directly at the villagers before her with an icy stare. After a moment, she dropped her eyes and said a quiet "Your welcome." After a pause, she continued "Glad we could help."

The roughly clad farmers nodded and one gave a tentative smile. They turned and walked slowly back to their own table where they sat down. Soon another group of villagers made their way to the warriorís table and also said their thanks. They were greeted in kind as the warrior once more quietly replied, "Youíre welcome."

Others performed the same courtesy until Gabrielle guessed that almost everyone in the room had visited their table. Through it all, Xenaís face remained an emotionless mask. She extended a cold courtesy but made no other comment. Finally, Gabrielle pulled her up from the table and pushed her towards the door that led to their little room.

Once inside, they pulled on night shirts and collapsed into the warm bed. Gabrielle noted that someone had built up a fire for them in the fireplace and placed fruit and cheese on the small table. Both too tired to talk or eat, they fell immediately asleep; Gabrielle into a sound snore and Xena into a restless nightmare filled with bloody bodies and grim accusing faces.

Chapter 11

The two woman spent most of the next day working with Lendila over the wounded. Anthelis and another badly wounded boy lay close to death and required Xenaís constant care. By the end of the day, it was clear both would live. Xena had not lost a single patient. That night the two returned to the tavern for dinner and Gabrielle once more practiced her bardic craft.

The following day passed much the same. In between caring for the wounded, Xena lent her strength and building skills to the villagers who were patching the burned huts at the edge of town. As she hoisted beams and wove new thatch to replace the roofs, the other villagers continued to stare in amazement. It was not clear if her wonderful strength or helping hands caused more wonderment. Some even dared to approach the silent woman and greet her or speak of common things. To all she answered politely but with few words. Towards the end of the day, most of the mending was completed and the wounded were in good shape. The warrior began to pace. She strolled about town only to return to the healerís cottage and then back out again. Finally, Gabrielle and Lendila exchanged desperate glances.

"Xena," Gabrielle called to the warrior as she completed yet another circle. "Your driving us nuts. Go out and run Argo or something. Everything here is under control."

The warrior stopped as a rueful grin tugged at the corner of her mouth. "Guess Iím a little restless. Shows, huh?"

"A little," the bard laughed, rolling her eyes. "Get out of here."

Gabrielle shook her head laughing at the wide grin the warrior gave as she turned on her heels and bolted for the stables. "She really has a hard time sitting still. Thatís why sheís such a lousy patient when sheís hurt."

Lendila watched the retreating warrior and then turned serious eyes on the bard. "Gabrielle, with Anthelis feeling better today, the town council has decided to meet tomorrow about Xena."

Gabrielleís face turned grim as her eyes searched the healers. "What do you think theyíll do?"

"Iím going to petition the council to pardon her. I think I have enough evidence just from what she has done for us to make a good case."

Gabrielleís eyebrows arched as hope crossed her face. "Do you think they will listen to you?"

"Oh, yes. By the gods, they will listen and hear me out. But Gabrielle, I donít think it will do much good. They have found her guilty and sentenced her to death by beheading. They wonít back down on that even with my say so."

Gabrielleís head dropped as she clasped her hands together. "What should we do?"

Lendila rose, walked to the bard and knelt down in front of her. She grabbed both of Gabrielleís hands in her own. "Make her leave. The whole village would be so relieved if she would just go. No one would try to stop her or send anyone after her. Not after what she has done for us."

Gabrielle raised her eyes to the healerís and shook her head. "I know her, Lendila. She wonít go."

"Then sheíll die."

"I accused her of wanting just that. She just looked at me. Itís not the same anymore with her and me. We use to know each other, trust each other, talk to each other, now thatís all changed." The bardís voice had gone heavy with sorrow and a single tear crept down her cheek.

"Loving a warrior like Xena isnít easy, is it?"

Gabrielle jerked her head up and stared at the healer. "What do you mean? Xena is the most wonderfulľ "

"Hey, you donít have to sell me," interrupted Lendila. "Remember, Iíve seen her do some amazing things. I just mean you are so different and I can see that you both are in pain."

"Weíve caused too much pain for each other. I donít know if we can go on together."

"You can," the healer said firmly, "If you have the will and heart to work at it. Itís not easy to keep any relationship going. The one youíve chosen is even tougher. Xena can be hard and cruel. The darkness and anger surrounds her. With that cold icy stare of hers, she intimidates the Hades out of everyone. The only time I have ever seen her face light up is when she looks at you. Did you know that?"

"There is another side to her, Lendila. She can be funny and kind. She has a quick wit and a wicked sense of humor. No one loves a practical joke better than the warrior princess." An inadvertent smile crossed the bardís face as she remembered the time Xena had placed a tree frog down her back. After squirming and screeching, she had grabbed the warrior and both of them had ended up in a nearby pound.

"Then what is wrong between you? Why the sadness? Why wonít she leave this place and live for you?"

"She promised me she wouldnít die again. Yet she wonít run. Lendila, she can be so stubborn. No matter how much it hurts her or us, she will do what she thinks is right. Sheíll march up to that chopping block and let this town execute her because she thinks that itís justice."

"It is."

"No. It canít be justice to kill someone who is doing good for so many." Gabrielle rose and walked to the entrance of the small cottage. "I donít have any answers but I have a feeling that one way or another Iím going to lose her soon and be all alone." The bard stared off in the distance. The healer put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Iím going to fight for her, Gabrielle. I promise you that."

Gabrielle gave Lendila a small smile. "I know you will. Thank you. If you can forgive her for what she cost you, maybe you can persuade them. Itís worth a try."

The sun was dipping behind the western mountains when Gabrielle spotted Xena returning on Argo. What a magnificent picture they made, horse and rider moving perfectly as one. Argo danced and pranced, clearly enjoying the workout with her mistress. As they approached, Gabrielle noticed that Xenaís face was a stoic mask her eyes shadowed as she glanced down at her.

"Whatís wrong?" she asked immediately.

The warrior shook her head and guided the warhorse towards the stable. Gabrielle followed along behind with an uneasy feeling in her gut and silent alarm bells going off in her head.

As Xena curried her horse and tended to her needs, Gabrielle related the status of the wounded. The warrior made no comment. She finished with a pat to Argoís neck and turned to leave the stable. Gabrielle stopped her with a hand on her arm.

"Xena, the town council is going to meet tomorrow to decide how to proceed with your punishment. Lendila said she will petition them for a pardon."

The warrior glanced down at her best friend with cold eyes and an inscrutable expression on her face. "For the last time, will you take Argo and leave?"

"No. Remember, friends stick by friends. Good times and bad."

"Yeah, I remember." Slowly, the warriorís cold set expression softened. She suddenly reached for the bard and took her up in a desperate embrace. She whispered softly into the bardís ash blond hair, "All right,ľ friend." Xena held her close another moment, turned without meeting her eyes and rapidly strolled into the darkening night.

Gabrielle shook her head in frustration. She knew something big time was up. She also knew her soulmate well enough to know she wasnít going to tell her anytime soon. She followed the warrior into the tavern. The evening passed as it had on previous nights. Lendila and Inda joined them for supper and afterwards Gabrielle told heroic tales of Xenaís goodness. Once the bard finished to rousing applause, the two retired to their small room.

Gabrielle watched as Xena seemed to spend even more time than usual carefully sharpening all her weapons and checking her armor. Satisfied after a final critical inspection, she put down her sharpening stone and padded to the bed she shared with Gabrielle. The bard laid down the parchment she was writing on and stared up at her friend. "Are you going to tell me whatís going on with you?"

The warriorís gaze dropped to the floor. "No, Gabrielle. Donít ask."

The bard sighed and turned to face the wall away from the warrior. Xena climbed into the bed and snuffed out the candle. No more words were exchanged between the two friends as the cold iciness descended around the two woman, not caused by the weather or lack of a fire.

Chapter 12

Gabrielleís eyes flew open and she swung immediately out of bed. A glance at the small window told her that the morning was far advanced from dawn. She scanned the room and noted Xena was gone as was her weapons and armor. Quickly, she pulled on her clothes, laced up her boots and started for the door. A deep voice whispering in her mind made her stop and turn to grab her staff. As she bolted through the door into the outer tavern, she noticed that it was empty except for the girl that helped the old proprietor and actually did most of the cooking.

"Did you see Xena leave this morning?" Gabrielle called to her as she rapidly approached.

The girl looked up smiling shyly. "Oh yes, long before dawn. I was just starting the fire when she came out. I asked if she wanted something to eat. She took some bread, a hunk of cheese and left."

Gabrielle knew it was useless to ask if the warrior had said anything.

"Do you want some breakfast?"

"Later," Gabrielle called back over her shoulder as she strolled rapidly out the door of the tavern and down the street to the stables. She noticed that there were no villagers on the street and wondered if the town council meeting had already begun. The bard looked inside the roomy barn and was not surprised to find Argo gone. She turned and slowly walked back to the tavern. Once inside she ate her breakfast but had no idea what it was. Her attention was turned inward, lost in thought. She weighed the possibilities of what Xena might be doing. If she really had decided to just leave, Gabrielle knew she wouldnít have left her behind, not without a goodbye. No, she was doing something out there that she knew Gabrielle couldnít condone. Maybe, she just doesnít trust me anymore, the bard pondered. Not only does she have to worry about keeping me alive, she has to make sure I donít kill. She just canít have me around when thereís trouble. Iím no good to her. She canít trust me to fight and canít even trust me not to betray her. Iíve almost got her killed in battle and now for the second time, sheís facing execution because of me. No wonder she doesnít want me around.

The bard buried her head in her hands. What a mess! Lendilaís words came back to her about their relationship. She could see no way to work through this. Perhaps after tomorrow, it would end anyway. Gabrielle shook her head and straightened up. She would stay by the warriorís side through this. After that, remaining together one way or another seemed almost impossible.

She got up and went back to the little room she shared with her soulmate. She sat down and tried to write but nothing came to her. Finally, the tears fell, tears of sorrow for Xena, for herself and for the loss of something so wonderful, so special,ľ . the loss of their bond.

As the day wore on, Gabrielle again left the room and walked the deserted streets of the little village. She stayed away from Lendilaís cottage as she knew the town council was meeting there. It was better if Lendila pleaded Xenaís case alone. The bard had been pleading it every night in the tavern with her tales. Now there was little more she could add. Gabrielle returned to the village square and sat down on the stone platform next to the tree stump with the old rusty battle ax buried into it. As Gabrielle gazed over at the smooth round surface, she noted the number of rings etched there. It certainly had been an old tree. Suddenly, it occurred to her that the stump had no other marks in it other than where the ax cut the surface. She wondered if the villagers had ever executed someone before in this manner and decided they probably had not. Tomorrow wasnít going to be easy for anyone.

She looked away, watching the road that led away from the village, wishing with all her heart to see a gold colored horse and rider appear. Finally, as dusk shadowed the village, Lendila appeared from around a corner and walked slowly toward the bard. From the expression of sorrow on her face, Gabrielle knew the results of the council meeting and hung her head.

"Iím so sorry. I tried. They listened and Xena actually had a lot of supporters. But then those that had lost love ones so long ago spoke and demanded justice. I tried to explain that the Xena who they wanted to execute was all ready dead and this would be murder. No one saw it that way. The sentence stands, tomorrow at noon."

Gabrielle looked up and smiled through misty eyes, "Thank you so much for trying. Youíve been a good friend."

Lendila searched the face of the bard. "She wonít leave?"

Gabrielle shook her head.

"Perhaps, we can come up with something to save her. If we use force, no one in this town will rise to stop us. In fact, they are all still at my cottage arguing about who will execute her. So far all who have been asked refused." Lendilaís eyes snapped fire as she straightened up with determination.

Gabrielle again shook her head and placed a restraining hand on the healerís arm. "No, donít go there. Xena would never permit it. You canít risk your friends and neighbors. Once weíve gone, youíll have to live here, raise your daughter here. Thatís not the answer. The only way to truly save Xena is for her to ask for forgiveness and mercy. These villagers must forgive her and replace their hate with love. Nothing short of that will solve this."

Lendila stared at the bard a moment and then hugged her tightly. "You are a very special person, Gabrielle. I will pray to the gods that this happens. If they kill her, then we all lose some more of our humanity. Itís a price too high to pay for the little satisfaction that revenge brings." She walked slowly away.

Gabrielle sighed and turned back towards the road leading away from town. She narrowed her eyes squinting harder. In the waning light, she could just make out a shadowy spec. She jumped up and walked rapidly to the edge of the village, staring so hard that tears came to her straining eyes. Yes, it was a shape of a horse and rider traveling slowly towards her. As they became clearer, Gabrielle made out the familiar form of Xena and Argo. The mare was shuffling along, with her lowered head wearily bobbing. Gabrielle raised her eyes to the warrior. Xena still rode the horse gracefully but the slight incline of her head and the limp left arm dangling at her side told the bard all she needed to know. The warrior was exhausted and hurt.

Xena pulled Argo to a stop in front of the bard as their eyes locked. Gabrielle put a gentle hand on the horseís damp neck as she studied the warrior. Xena was covered in dusty dark grime, her raven black hair flying about in disarray. The side of the warriorís face was beginning to show a dark bruise that started below her right eye and continued down to her angular jaw. It was clear that she had been brutally kicked. Bright patches of red and rust brown colored blood covered most of her. Gabrielle dropped her eyes to Xenaís arm and noticed a steady red stream flowing down it dripping on the ground below. Xenaís eyes traveled Gabrielleís gaze to her arm. She gave a slight shrug. "Itís just a scratch."

"Ahuh," was all the bard said as she reached up and grabbed Argoís bridle. She walked the horse to the stable. Once inside, she watched as the warrior slowly swung down from the saddle. She pushed Xena away from her horse towards a bale of hay that lay against the stall and shoved her down to a sitting position on it. She turned back to the horse, quickly unsaddled her and gave her a measure of oats. While Argo munched Gabrielle rapidly curried the animal knowing full well that Xena would not have herself tended until her horse was cared for. The warrior watched Gabrielleís actions silently.

Finally, with her tasks completed, the bard turned back to her friend. Xena had laid her head back against the stall, weariness showing on her face. "Here, drink," the bard said with a cold voice handing the warrior the water skin which she had removed from the saddle.

After the warrior complied, Gabrielle moved over to her, unlaced the gantlet of her left hand and slipped the bracer down to her wrist. She unclipped the armor and slipped it down off Xenaís left shoulder. Finally visible was a large tear in her skin. "Needs stitches. Whereís your healerís pouch?"

"Lendilaís."

"Well, thatís just great, Xena. You go off to do battle and leave your pouch behind. Címon." She pulled the warrior to her feet roughly and pushed her out the stable door. As they slowly walked towards the healers cottage, Gabrielle stopped the warrior with a hand on her arm. "You going to tell me what you did or just let it come out as a surprise." The anger and hurt in Gabrielleís voice stopped the warrior cold. She turned soft pained eyes towards her friend.

"I saw the tracks yesterday of men and horses massing near here. I figured that it might be some of those thugs who attacked this village so today I had a closer look."

"You knew you were going to fight them, didnít you? You planned to. Why did you leave me behind, Xena? Why didnít you tell me? You couldnít trust me to hold up my end could you?" The bitterness almost hatred in Gabrielleís voice shook the warrior to the core.

"No, this was not about trust. I didnít want you hurt."

"Thought we got beyond that a couple of years ago."

."Iíve never doubted you." Xena spoke these last words with firm conviction as her eyes snapped cold fire.

The bard searched the beloved face of her friend as a slow dawning thought caused her to pause. "You didnít plan to come back, did you? You thought theyíd kill you."

The warrior grabbed the bardís shoulders in a hard grip. "I never go into a fight planning to lose."

"If you had died today Xena, would you have considered that a loss or a victory?"

When the warrior remained silent, Gabrielle turned her head away wearily and grabbed Xenaís hand in her own. "Come on. Got to get you sewed up before you bleed to death right here."

She pulled the warrior forward. When she seemed to stumble, Gabrielle swept her arm around Xenaís waist to steady her. "Hades," she mumbled under her breath as she moved the warrior into Lendilaís cottage. "Youíre hurt worse than youíre telling me. No, donít say a word, just move."

Lendila rose, concern on her face as Gabrielle helped Xena to the bench by the fire. She quickly removed the unlaced gantlet and then the armor that still hung by one shoulder clip. She undid the strap that held Xenaís leathers and began to pull them off. The warrior noticeably flinched. The bard looked questioningly at her friend. "Ribs?"

Xena nodded.

"Gods, do we cut the leathers off?"

"No leave it. Itís in a place where wrapping wonít do much good."

Lendila and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "All right. Lean forward."

As the warrior moved forward on the bench, Lendila handed Gabrielle a clean cloth soaked in warm water. Carefully Gabrielle began to clean the wound. While she worked the healer got a needle and thread ready. Gabrielle once more showed her skills as she made small and careful stitches. Her thoughts went back to the first time she had performed this service for the warrior. She had shaken like a leaf and done a very poor job. The result had been a long jagged scar on Xenaís thigh still highly visible till this day. She was much more practiced now.

As Gabrielle bandaged the wound, Lendila made a herb tea which would fight infection and handed it to Xena who accepted it gratefully. As she carefully sipped the warm brew, Gabrielle glanced up and saw the facial bruise was darkening and swelling.

"Lendila, do you have a small metal container you can fill with cold water?"

The healer nodded and disappeared. While the healer was gone, Gabrielle took the cloth and carefully wiped the warriorís face. "This looks bad. Does it hurt."

"Yeah, a little," the warrior admitted.

Lendila returned with a small filled metal flask and handed it to Gabrielle. She gently pressed it against Xenaís battered cheek. The warrior flinched momentarily as the cold sent a shock wave of pain through her entire head.

Gabrielle kept the cold flask pressed against Xenaís face for a few minutes and then took it away much to the relief of the silent warrior.

"All right Xena. Any place else on you need mending?"

"No, think you got it all."

"Good. Now I want you to tell me just what happened today. And Xena, I want the long story not the I had a fight and you should see the other guy version. Okay?"

The warrior looked up into fiery sea green eyes and noticeably sighed. Lendila shook her head in amazement. Xena might be the most feared warrior in the civilized world but it was clear that she was a pussy cat in the hands of the bard.

"Well, I found the raiders camped a couple of hours from here. They had more than doubled their number and while I watched, two more scum came and joined right up. I figured it wouldnít be too long before they came back for another crack at Thorbis since this village is the only one around. After tomorrow, there wouldnít be anything to stop them. So,ľ .I walked into their camp and suggested they leave."

"Xena, no more lies. Remember?" The warrior raised weary eyes to face the bardís cold countenance. Her eyes traveled to Lendilaís face and rested their a moment before she dropped her gaze to her hands in front of her.

"I gave my warrior cry and attacked them on the spot. I was able to deal with the first group before the others came back from the river. Then it got pretty hot and heavy. They had me down for awhile but I was able to break free and finish them."

"How many were there? Tell me, Xena."

"I donít know maybe ten or so."

"Xena, how many? Upwards of twenty maybe?"

"Sort of."

"Right, sort of. You attacked over twenty armed raiders alone? Good plan, Xena. Go on, tell me the rest."

The warrior raised cold icy eyes to meet Gabrielleís stare a moment and then again lowered her gaze. "The others took to their horses and ran. I gave chase. Took awhile but I finally got them all."

"You killed them all?" Gabrielle asked in a horrified whisper.

The warrior nodded raising her head to face Gabrielle directly. "I couldnít take a chance on them coming back here. There would be no one left to defend the villageľ .afterwards."

"Xena, you could think of no other action but to kill all of them?"

The warrior lowered her head and shook it slowly. The room was silent except for the cracking of the fire as the bard and the healer stared at the warrior before them. Finally, the healer stood and looked down at the warrior. "Thank you, Xena. You have saved us again. I donít know why you have done this for tomorrow we are going to reward you by taking your life. Iím going to go tell Anthelis what happened but understand, it will make no difference. Noon tomorrow, Xena. For the last time, donít be here!" The healer turned on her heels and left the cottage.

Gabrielle rose with a slow finality. She moved to the warriorís side and took the cup from her hand. "I donít know whatís going on with you anymore. I donít know you anymore."

The warrior made no comment with her head bowed and her eyes closed. For a long moment, silence filled the small room.

"Time to get you to bed," Gabrielle said at last in a resigned voice. She helped Xena to her feet and arm and arm they made their way back to the tavern. The large main room was totally empty. Gabrielle didnít know if the villagers were still at their town meeting or if they had not the courage to face them. Either way, it didnít matter. Nothing mattered anymore except that tomorrow would come.

She moved Xena into their little room and watched as she gingerly climbed into the bed they shared. The bard sat down at the little table and faced the reclining warrior. "I have a last request of you. It will be the final promise between us. Will you agree to my last wish?"

Xena turned and faced the bard, her piercing eyes softening with love and pain. "What is it?" she whispered.

"Tomorrow, when you face these villagers I want you to beg their forgiveness and ask for mercy. Xena, I want you to promise me youíll do this last thing, for yourself and for me. Will you?"

"Oh Gabrielle. I keep telling you it wonít matter."

"I donít care. Will you do it?"

The warrior closed her weary eye. For a moment Gabrielle thought she had fallen asleep. Finally, in a low voice softly musical and deep Gabrielle heard the magic words, "I promise."

Chapter 13

The night passed slowly. Gabrielle was up several times checking on Xena as the warrior slept fitfully. Twice she applied a damp cloth to Xenaís forehead as she felt the first signs of fever. Both times the warrior woke and gave a slight smile as her thanks. By daylight, Xenaís amazing recuperative powers were evident. Stiff and sore, she was still able to get out of bed and dress. The bruise on her face had lost the puffy angry look and her shoulder wound was healing nicely. Ribs were just what they were and as the warrior had told the bard many times, nothing could be done for such an injury except to endure the pain. The bard had long ago given up the argument that rest might help. She knew her restless warrior all too well.

Neither spoke as the morning wore on. It seemed as if they were both beyond words, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Gabrielle left the little room and the warrior who was reclining on the bed her head propped up against the base board. She returned with two steaming bowls of gruel.

"This might go down a little easier. You donít look like you want to do a lot of heavy chewing."

Xena rubbed the side of her jaw as a rueful grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. "You have a point."

They made short work of breakfast. Gabrielle turned to the small fire in the fireplace and placed a pot of water on it to seep herb tea. The two women watched the fire as the silence between them became heavier as the morning dragged on.

Finally, glancing out the small window, Xena slowly stood up. "Itís time."

Gabrielle watched as the warrior padded over to the small table and reached for her armor. The bard was instantly at her side lifting the heavy pieces over her head and shoulder, fitting the buckles and clips. She reached over for the arm bracers and gauntlets lacing them in place.

"Thanks," Xena said in a low voice as she shoved her sword into the back sheath and attached her chakram to her side.

She stood straight at attention for inspection her head inclined to one side. Gabrielle put her hand to her mouth and dropped her eyes that were beginning to fill. "You look terrific."

"Hey." The warrior reached out a hesitant hand lifting the bardís chin up so their eyes would meet. "Why donít you stay here?"

Gabrielle pulled her face away, shook her head and grabbed her staff. The warrior took a deep breath and strolled out the door with the bard at her heels.

They marched together down the dusty village road to the town square. There were no people visible anywhere. Finally, as they turned the corner they came upon the entire multitude assembled around the stone platform and oak stump that still had the ax buried in its center.

The warrior stopped, took in the scene before her and turned to her soulmate. "Guess this is it."

"Shhhhh," she whispered as she wiped the tears that were falling freely from Gabrielleís sea green eyes. "Not like this." She paused and then lowered her head to give Gabrielle a warm kiss. "Iím sorry for all the pain Iíve caused you, now and before. I never meant to. I love you."

Gabrielle grabbed her friend in a tight embrace, her head buried against the warriorís broad shoulders. "I love you. Remember your promise," she whispered.

"Iíll remember," the warrior replied in a low musical voice. "Goodbye, my love." The warrior straightened up and turned to stride forward once more. Gabrielle watched her walk towards the platform, dark head held high, swagger in her step, the cold warrior mask firmly in place. It was just the way she knew Xena would walk to her death. She followed behind with dragging steps and heavy heart.

Anthelis stood on the platform with his arms crossed clearly not in the least happy to see the woman strolling towards him. The crowd parted as she moved through them until finally she reached the edge of the stand. Gabrielle took up a place right behind her next to Lendila who draped a comforting arm around her shoulder.

"Soľ " Anthelis rumbled in an authoritative tone.

"Iíve come as directed," Xena stated as she climbed onto the platform to stand facing the elder.

"Ah yes, so you have."

Xena turned and grabbed the rusty ax, jerking it from the wooden tree stump with one quick pull. As she turned back to the elder, he involuntarily took a step back as the crowd gasped. She held the weapon in both hands parallel to her body and with one twist snapped it in half. She threw the two pieces down, disgustedly and faced the elder. "Youíll be hacking at me all day with that thing." She drew her own sword with one quick movement as the crowd collectively held its breath. She flashed it about her head in a silver whirl. She finished the movement by turning it so that the hilt end came up extended towards the elder. "Use this and save us both a lot of trouble."

"Ahľ yes." The elder cleared his throat and turned to the strapping blacksmith who was standing behind him. "Theo."

The black bearded villager took a hesitant step forward and placed his hand gingerly on the hilt. His eyes met the warriors with a look of regret as he grabbed the weapon in both hands.

All three now turned to face the crowd before them. "Xena, of Amphipolis, you have been charged, found guilty and convicted of cold blooded murder, looting, theft and the burning of homes in this village seven winters ago. Do you wish to challenge this judgment?"

"No, I am guilty as charged," the warrior replied in a clear steady voice. Her face was stern and cold, her eyes piercing as she faced the crowd before her.

"Then it is by the power that the good people of Thorbis have invested in me that I sentence you to death by beheading for your crimes against this village." His stern voice carried over the silent crowd and settled like a heavy mantle across Gabrielleís shoulders. She lifted her eyes to the warriorís as their gazes locked.

"Do you have any last words?" The elder ended his sentence hopefully turning to the still silent warrior beside him. In a hushed whisper meant only for her ears he added, "Please."

She turned her head to look at him, surprise on her face as he nodded encouragingly at her. She drew a deep breath and turned back to the crowd, searching for one beloved face. Once she found it, her eyes locked onto her soulmateís. Then she started to speak in a clear yet low tone that carried out to the very edge of the assembled villagers.

"I Xena of Amphipolis am guilty and I accept the punishment you have decreed as just and fair. I will submit to your judgment. I have one last request." Her crystal blue eyes never wavered from the bardís as she continued. "I want to beg forgiveness for my crimes from each of you and to ask you for mercy by sparing my life. If you so decide, I pledge to continue to try to atone for my past by helping the innocent and fighting evil for the rest of my days. A warrior like me does not grow old. Another foe; bigger, stronger, faster will eventually carry out your judgment. I know beyond doubt that my final resting place no matter what, will be Tartarus for all eternity. The choice of when is yours. I am sorry for the pain and suffering I have caused you."

She broke her riveting stare with the bard abruptly by turning to the elder and whispered softly, "Iím ready." She turned and knelt down before the tree stump. Turning away from the crowd, she laid the side of her head against the smooth wood. She said a silent prayer to any of the gods who might be listening that the blacksmith could handle a sword. Xena closed her eyes and waited for the smooth blade to find her neck. Her last thought was a silent goodbye to Gabrielle and a plea for her forgiveness for breaking her promise.

The blacksmith took a step forward to stand over the warrior and brought the sword up. He looked at the elder waiting for the sign to proceed.

Anthelis turned away from the scene before him to stare at the crowd of villagers. He saw the faces of his friends, kinsman and neighbors, some that he had known since he himself was a boy. Finally, he spoke.

"Since Xena has come among us, she has saved our daughters from harm. Twice she saved this village from raiders that would have killed us all. I believe that if we pardon her, she will keep her pledge. I believe that she will never harm the innocent again. I also believe that to take her life now would rob others of her protection and help. Nothing she or any of us can do will bring back our loved ones or take away the pain and suffering she has caused us. She has asked us to let her live to continue her atonement and I believe that is the right thing to do. Soľ I hereby move that we pardon Xena of Amphipolis her crimes against the village of Thorbis. This is subject to the provision that she never murders in cold blood or in any way harms any innocent villagers ever again. All those that agree signify by saying aye."

For a brief moment as Gabrielle held he breath, stillness surrounded the assembled villagers. Suddenly, with a loud roar the crowd chimed in with a ringing "Aye."

"All those opposed."

A few grumbling nays were heard among the villagers and then a woman shrieked. "You canít be thinking of letting this monster go free. She killed my husband and brother in cold blood with a laugh." As the woman wailed, two villagers one on either side drew her away from the crowd as she broke down and wept. Anthelis watched her leave and then turned back to the villagers before him.

"The motion is carried." He turned to the kneeling warrior and gently pulled her to her feet.

"Xena of Amphipolis, you are hereby pardoned of the crimes you committed against the townspeople of Thorbis seven winters ago. Remember your pledge, for we will hold you to it. Go with the gods."

The warrior turned a very startled expression towards the elder as Gabrielle and Lendila hugged in a fierce embrace. The blacksmith grinned as he pushed the sword he was holding into Xenaís back sheath with a sigh of relief. The elder also smiled and grabbed the warriorís arm as he tottered slightly.

Xena immediately became alarmed and turned to help the old man off the platform. "Get to bed, old timer," she admonished him. "You need rest." As he nodded, Lendila came up to give him a hand. Xena whispered into his ear, "Thank you." He turned back to the warrior and extended his hand which she gripped warrior style. "Itís been a pleasure Xena. You are always welcome here."

"Send for me if you need anything."

The elder nodded tottering towards his small cottage at the edge of the village. Others crowded around Xena and Gabrielle to share their gladness. Both smiled and thanked the villagers but never faced each other directly. Finally, Xena moved off and whispered in the bardís ear. "Any objection to getting out of here now?"

"No, sooner the better."

"Iíll saddle up Argo, if youíll get our things."

"Xena, you okay to travel. Another dayís rest mightľ ." Xena gave her the stern warrior look which stopped her in mid-sentence. "Right, Iíll get our stuff."

They met at the town square and turned towards Lendilaís cottage to say goodbye. The healer and her daughter were out front waiting for them. With warm hugs, the healer turned to the bard and whispered, "Take care of her, Gabrielle. Please. She needs you."

Gabrielle smiled through misted eyes. The warrior grabbed Inda in a tight bear hug and then pushed her away with a stern look. "Remember what I told you. Be safe for yourself and your mother. Promise?"

Inda smiled and nodded, "I promise. But I donít promise to stay forever in this village. I want to be a traveling bard just like Gabrielle."

The warrior rolled her eyes as they all laughed. "Not sure the world is ready for two of you out on the road."

"Hey," the bard admonished slapping Xenaís midsection.

"Hey yourself." The two turned and waved goodbye to their friends. Soon they left the small village far behind.

Chapter 14

Once more out on the road, the familiar movements took over as they traveled closer and closer to their homeland. The camp under the stars and the chores so routine occupied their actions but not their minds. Each remained in their own worlds, driven by their own thoughts and emotions. Nothing of the dayís events or of recent actions was shared between them. Once more the silence grew and deepened. Gabrielle could almost see the dark shadow hovering over their heads as they walked towards the setting sun. Time was running out on their bond and their friendship. All that they had been through seemed to drive a stronger wedge between them more clearly defining their differences and opposing life choices. As the days passed, Gabrielle became more and more certain that she could not go on this way with the woman at her side who had become almost a stranger.

She was now convinced that Xena would always choose to kill when confronted with a threatening situation. In many ways, the warrior remained the dark souled avenger resorting to blood letting she had first met. If she continued to travel with the warrior, she was a liability, a risk to Xenaís life. Her softer better instincts, her reverence for life, might once more betray her friend or get her killed. Gabrielle was sure she could take a life to protect her friend but she now knew that Xena would die trying to prevent that from occurring. Gabrielle also suspected, although the warrior kept on denying it, that Xena no longer trusted her in a fight. Perhaps she no longer trusted her at all.

As she walked next to her silent traveling companion, Gabrielleís heart ached with dread. She knew her own inner turmoil and guilt was causing much of their estrangement but could not bring herself to speak openly. The warrior had pulled back into her shell, silent cold waiting for the inevitable. With no danger lurking or others around to deflect or occupy their thoughts, their inner pain and doubts ate at the closeness the two once shared. As the days wore on, they became more distant each with a protective wall up against the pain the other could so easily inflict. It was easier to hide within the dark silence. The villagers of Thorbis had forgiven Xena for the past but Gabrielle was sure the warrior had never really forgiven her. Gabrielle was also sure she never would.

Days of travel first west and then south had finally brought the two woman to the crest of the high ridge

overlooking Greece. Below lay flat fertile fields as small villages dotted the horizon. The green Arcadian highlands rose on either side. Just below them lay the well-worn wagon rutted Thessalian road that stretched to the forks and beyond to Athens.

The two gazed long in silence at their homeland stretching out below them. So much had happened to them and between them since they had left. As Gabrielle turned to the warrior, Xena suddenly stiffened and turned back towards the road they had just traveled. She drew her sword and stood listening silently. Finally, Gabrielle could hear the distant thump of hoof beats. Then from a dip in the road, a company of mounted horseman became visible rapidly approaching them.

"What now?" Xena muttered through clenched teeth as she noted the number of the advancing force. If they attacked, the two woman stood little chance of survival.

As they drew closer, Gabrielle recognized their banners and style of armor. "Theyíre from the Kingdom of Chin. Thatís the green dragon insignia on their chest. They must have been sent by Ming Tien."

She turned to her friend who nodded slightly and moved forward, sword still extended. Gabrielle took her defensive posture with her staff and waited as the horsemen drew near.

The group stopped in front of the two women as their leader raised his hand in the air. "Xena, weíve been searching for you."

"Well, you found me. Now what?"

"Wait. We didnít come here to do battle. Iíve been ordered by the families of Lao and Tien to bring you back to Chin. They want you to rule their joined clans."

"I have no desire to ever go back to the Kingdom of Chin."

"Xena, as emperor, great riches await you. Please, the people want you as their leader. I have been asked to convince you to come and conduct you back safely."

"Pick a ruler from your own kind, one who is fair and just. This is your chance to make a better life for your people. Chose wisely." The warrior had not lowered her sword but she stiffened as Gabrielle drew closer to her.

"What happened to your emperor, Ming Tien?"

The leader of the mounted troops turned to the bard with a surprised look on his face. "Thatís why we are here. Since Xena killed him, she earned the right to be emperor in his place. Her refusal is not acceptable."

Gabrielle turned a stricken face to the woman at her side. "Is it true? You killed him?"

Xena glanced down at the bard, closed her eyes for a moment and slowly nodded.

The bardís eyes blazed as she spat out, "You lied to me, you said you made him small. Killing him is not making him small, itsľ itsľ .Oh Xena, how could you after all that happened?" Gabrielle straightened up with cold hard eyes she bore into Xenaís soul. "You murdered him after all. You are a monster. By the gods, I canít do this anymore. I canít be with you anymore. All along I believed in your goodness, in you. I was a naïve fool, wasnít I, Xena? Youíll never change."

Gabrielle turned abruptly. With a firm rapid step, she walked away from the warrior, crested the ridge and was quickly lost from sight. Xena watched her go and then turned back to the mounted troops in front of her. With a cold inscrutable gaze she barked at them, "Once and for all, Iím not coming with you. Leave and go find your ruler among yourselves." She raised her sword in defiance and waited their next move.

Confusion registered on the leaderís face. Finally, he slowly turned his mount around. They road off back down the road they had just traveled. Xena watched them until they were a distant blur on the horizon. With a ragged sigh, she mounted the golden warhorse. She loped her up the hill and down the other side towards the retreating figure of her friend.

Xena caught up to the rapidly striding bard quickly and rode along side of her in silence. Finally, the forks of Thessalian road loomed before them. The bard stopped there and looked up at the stricken warrior.

"Xena, Iím through. Weíre through. Iíve got to leave." Gabrielleís voice was cold and emotionless as she stared up into the older womanís face.

"I know," came back the resigned voice heavy with a mixture of pain and weariness. "Where are you headed?"

"I donít know, Athens I think. Maybe, Iíll spend a little time at the academy."

The warrior studied her hands in front of her, not facing Gabrielle. The thought crossed her mind that this was the second time that she had parted company with the bard at the Thessalian forks never intending to see her again.

"The cut off is the shortest way, a couple of days up the road."

"I know, Xena," Gabrielle replied impatiently.

"Yes,ľ well thenľ . I guess this is it." The warrior had not raised her eyes as she pulled Argo around. "Gabrielle, take care of yourselfľ .and if you ever need anythingľ " Her voice trailed off as she looked up to see the emotionless mask on the young womanís face. How far weíve come she thought bitterly to herself. The once sunny open bard now looked like a stern warrior, hiding her feelings, anger controlling her actions. And Iíve just continued to be the bloody monster of old. Atonement, what a joke. Now Gabrielle sees me for what I really am and my darkness has infected her.

The warriorís head drooped as she moved Argo off the road towards the Arcadian highlands. She didnít look back at the bard who had turned and was once more striding down the rutted road. She moved Argo into the trees near a small stream and dismounted. Mindlessly, she unsaddled her horse and cared for her. She set up camp with automatic motions and built a small fire. Later she would set up snares but for now, there was no need for she was not hunger. Xena leaned back against a downed tree and stared into space. She sat and she waited.

Chapter 15

It had taken several hours of steady walking but finally Gabrielleís anger had evaporated. It was replaced with a terrible sickness in her soul and an ache in her heart so severe it felt like a knife wound. The tears had come then, silent sobs that had racked the bard to the point where she had to stop along side the road to catch her breath. Once these had passed, the aching loneliness had set in. It was with dragging steps that she finally reached the outskirts of a small village. She recognized it immediately as Norbia, a friendly town that Xena and she had passed through on more than one occasion. They had spent relaxing nights in the local tavern that also served as an inn.

It was market day, and although the afternoon was far advanced, the peddlers were still trying to persuade late comers of the bargains still to be had. Gabrielle strolled silently from stall to stall. First she spied a hair clip that would look great in Xenaís dark tresses. Then she found a leather belt that Xena could use to replace the worn often repaired one around her waist. Finally, Gabrielle stopped at a small stall and picked up a breast dagger thinking about the one Xena had lost in the fight with the slavers. She almost started to bargain with the eager merchant until she realized what she was doing and threw the knife down. She turned away dejectedly. Why buy a knife for a person she would never see again?

She knew Xena well. Even if their paths might cross someday, the warrior would stay hidden, out of sight. She had wounded her once too often. Gabrielle squirmed at the thought of her last bitter words. Calling her best friend and soulmate a monster, the very thing she feared, stepped over the line and she knew it. The warrior would never seek her out or come to her.

Gabrielle shook her head and stared at her feet. She had done terrible harm. She remembered Lendilaís caution as her words came back to her inflecting yet more pain. Yes, Xena had lied to her, but what of her own lies to Xena? Were they any less terrible? Tears threatened the corners of her eyes as she continued to berate herself. Iím suppose to be the sensitive one, the one thatís good with words. So how much sharing have I done? In fact, the warrior had made more attempts at conversation than the bard. Gabrielle looked honestly within herself. She acknowledged that the reason for this was she was afraid to talk and even more afraid to listen. If Xena had told her the truth, told her of the pain the bardís betrayal had caused, Gabrielle would have been devastated. Gabrielle saw the truth for what it was, her own failure of her best friend. She couldnít face what she had done. Instead she hid behind the silence that had developed between them. It was easier to run and hide than admit her own failure. It was also easier to blame Xenaís past or her violent nature than to blame herself. What had happened to her softer better instincts in regards to her soulmate? They had failed her when she needed them the most. As a result she had abandoned her best friend.

With heavy heart, Gabrielle entered the small tavern and greeted the rotund owner. "Hello, Fibus. Been awhile"

"Gabrielle, how are you? You be needing a room?"

The bard nodded and sat down heavily at a dark wooden table.

"You want something to eat? Guess I donít have to ask that. Got some beef cooking on the fire." The jolly booming voice of the tavern owner echoed off the log walls of the establishment.

"No thanks, Fibus. Just a glass of cider if you have it."

"What, no dinner Gabrielle? You sick?"

"No, Iím fine. Just a little tired."

The kindly proprietor studied the young bard more closely with a worried frown. "Hey, whatís up?" He looked around tentatively and then back to the bard searching her face. "Whereís Xena?" he asked softly.

"Gone."

"Gone, as in dead?" Fibus asked with a hint of fear in his voice.

"No, sheís fine. Weíre just not traveling together." The bard stared at her hands not facing the kindly owner.

"Oh," was his only reply as he disappeared only to return with a mug of cinder which he sat down in front of the bard. "Will you tell stories tonight? You know how everyone loves to hear them."

Gabrielle almost declined and then looked up into the kindly face in front of her. She nodded taking a small sip of her drink. Fibus grinned widely and bolted out the door to spread the word.

Gabrielle sighed. She didnít feel like doing anything but curling up into a ball somewhere and dying but she knew that wasnít much of an option. She was going to have to start getting use to being on her own, alone. She was also going to have to start getting use to carrying around a load of guilt, something a certain warrior princess was really good at.

Fibus came back shortly and showed Gabrielle her small but comfortable room up the stairs to the back. A pang struck her heart as she recognized the room she and Xena had often shared. As the proprietor turned to leave he grinned. "Theyíll be quite a crowd tonight. There is a big caravan in town headed for Athens. Theyíll be leaving in the morning."

"For Athens, do you think they would let me go with them?"

"Sure, donít see why not. Gabrielle, if youíre headed that way it would be a good idea. You know there is always safety in numbers." He gave her a knowing look and left. Gabrielle sat down on the small bed. True she thought. I donít have Xena around for protection anymore. She sighed and stared at the walls in front of her.

That night she told rousing tales of the warrior princess and reaped a lot of applause and dinars for her efforts. The next morning Gabrielle was up early. She watched the caravan pull out into the dawn chill. She just couldnít make herself join the group and watched them as they turned into small dots traveling the dusty road to Athens.

The bard spent the day wandering aimlessly about town. As the long afternoon finally dragged into dusk she returned to the tavern for a dinner she hardly touched. She packed up her things in her pouch and came down the stairs intending to leave but not having a clue where to go. Fibus saw her and grabbed her arm gently. "Gabrielle, its too late to set out now. The roads are not safe. Tell some more tales tonight and leave in the morning. Please."

The bard heard a soft deep whisper in her mind tell her that traveling any road after dark was asking for trouble. She smiled at the tavern owner and nodded.

Chapter 16

The large crowded common room of the inn was deathly silent. The dark stained log walls trapped the heat and suspense inside. The close ripe smell of warm bodies, ale and a smoky fire had not driven a sole towards the large oak door and the cold, dark, damp air outside. Every bench and stool was taken and rough clad men lined the back walls. They leaned against the wooden planks, mugs in hand, hardly daring to breathe least they miss a word of the story the young bard was telling. Her voice rose and fell dramatically, weaving the tale around the emotions of her audience, binding them to her in rapt anticipation as the climax approached.

Suddenly, the bard stopped speaking in mid-sentence, sea green eyes starring out above her audienceís heads as if she actually saw the battle she was describing. The crowded audience seemed to catch and hold their breath as one, waiting for the bard to continue.

"With an impossible kick high into the air that left her body parallel to the ground, Xena delivered the telling blow to the evil warlord Draco. He fell backwards off the shoulders of the villagers and onto the ground. With a forward flip and mighty leap, Xena landed right on the chest of the warlord who lay quietly on the straw matted floor." As the bard described these final events, her body crouched, twisted and sprung forward, giving her audience a visual representation of the tale.

"Xena demanded that Drago leave never to attack or harm the villagers again. Defeated, he agreed and was never again seen in that valley." As she finished, the bardís arms rose dramatically and then fell, giving her audience a winning smile.

A cheer and large roar of approval rose up from the crowded room as the rapt audience clapped their hands together and pounded their mugs on the wooded tables.

Gabrielle grinned and bowed low as the applause and cheering continued long and loudly. Finally, holding up her hands for quiet, the ash blond haired woman smiled and thanked her audience. A plate was passed from hand to hand. The clinking sound of it filling with dinars gave the bard a warm glow.

Suddenly, above the buzz and movement of the crowd a voice rang out. "Bard, do you really understand what youíre doing?"

Gabrielle turned towards the caller and spotted a tall, weathered farmer dressed in tattered shirt and faded blue trousers.

"Do you?" he demanded insistently, his voice echoing over the stilling room.

The bard smiled uncertainly and shook her head. "Iím not sure what you mean."

The caller pulled his bent frame up into a straight defiant stance and pointed at the bard. "It is always the same with you story tellers. You glorify the scum and evil of this world and call them heroes. Long after they are mercifully dead and no longer a menace or threat to decent people, you bards go around keeping their memories alive with rubbish about how great and exciting their lives were. You glorify their blood letting and paint a picture of epic deeds and glorious adventures. In fact, they are just killers and bullies who should never be remembered except in scorn or as an example of evil to be avoided. Xena was the worst of the worst. She was no hero. She was a killer and robber of innocent villagers. I can name you dozens of towns looted and burned by her own hand starting with mine."

"That was a long time ago," Gabrielle quietly replied. A pained sorrowful expression crossed her beautiful face, strangely aging and lining it.

"Long ago. Does that matter? Does that change what actually happened? Let me tell you, it was not some heroic tale. Xena and her army swept into my village, killed, pillaged and then moved on to the next town. My two brothers and my father were murdered without mercy defending their homes. Their families suffered, I suffered. I wanted to go after that piece of dung and send her to Hades but my wife stopped me. She pointed out that I would probably be killed and no one would be left to help the woman and children who needed food and fuel to survive the winter." He spat and crossed his arms in front of him. "She was so arrogant, riding in front of her men, sword flashing, killing anything that moved. The world doesnít need or want any hero like her and you should not be telling the stories you do. She is not a role model for our young and you glorifying her adventures is wrong."

Gabrielleís head dropped as she starred at the floor in front of her. The old farmerís words flayed her like a whip as a deep pain coursed through her. "Xena would be the first to agree with you," she began slowly. She raised her head and stared straight into the eyes of her accuser.

"She never saw herself as a hero. In fact, she was tormented by guilt brought by memories of her past deeds. She would see the faces of those she had harmed in the orange coals of the dying camp fire. Night after night terrible nightmares robbed her of any real rest or peace." The bard paused a moment in thought and then continued. "I know, you see, because I use to travel with her." The bardís voice had taken on a lower sad quality but vibrated with the strength of pride.

"She was the best friend a person could ever hope to have in this life. She was kind to a fault, never thinking of herself or her needs, always putting mine and otherís first. She never complained even when her body was racked with terrible pain. She never refused a request for help and risked her life countless times to help anyone who was in need." The bard pulled her eyes from the face of the farmer and gazed out above the heads of her silent audience.

The bard continued to speak, her voice growing stronger and louder with each sentence. "She had wonderful, truly remarkable skills she put to use to help others. She could somersault through the air, doing flips and spins effortlessly almost as if not bound to earth like the rest of us. She was of course a skilled fighter with all weapons but you may not know she also was a skilled healer. Countless wounded and injured people all over this land owe their lives to her healing knowledge and gentle care."

"She had an amazing sense of humor and a quick wit. When she smiled, her whole face took on a glow. And of course there were her eyes, the most magnificent shade of blue. They could be icy and sharp. They could be warm and glowing. But most of all, they could be shadowed and veiled, truly the windows to her troubled soul. You see, she was a contradiction. She possessed a soul so dark and passionate, Ares tried to own it over and over again. And yet at the same time, a soul so loving, kind and self sacrificing she would do anything, give up everything to save her friend, family or even perfect strangers from harm."

"You talk of role models. She was a wonderful role model for me, self confident and strong in her determination to do what was right. She never backed down and never flinched even when doing the right thing caused her terrible pain."

The crowd was silent, waiting for the bard to continue. Gabrielle turned her face back to the farmer. "You have every right to despise the warrior princess. She caused you terrible pain and loss that no words or tears can ever wash away. Just remember, she was not a god or a myth. She was a person, a woman who made mistakes and performed terrible acts of evil. To her credit, she saw what she was and changed herself. Most of us could never look at ourselves with the kind of cold honest scrutiny that Xena turned on herself. Most of us wouldnít have the courage. She lives her life trying to atone for her past, knowing that Tartarus will be her end and never backing down from that final judgment."

The bardís eloquence had no effect on the farmerís pain. He shook his dark head in bitterness and replied, "I hope her torment in Tartarus matches the pain she caused here on earth."

Gabrielle dropped her head again and closed her eyes sadly. "I am sorry for you, not for your loss as much as for your inability to forgive. Itís by forgiving that you finally can mend yourself and come to terms with your grief. You live in as much darkness as Xena does. If itís any consolation, she never forgave herself either."

The bard raised her head, squared her shoulders and stepped off the slightly raised platform where she had delivered her stories. She passed through the quiet crowd, reached for her long Amazon staff and small pouch resting against the wall by the broad door. As she pulled the door handle to let herself out, a gentle hand reached over and held her arm stopping her motion. She turned to see Fibus, the burly tavern owner with tears in his eyes, lift a filled bag of dinars and place them in her hand. She smiled at him and slipped out of the tavern into the cold night.

Some distance away, the dark night air closed in around a lone figure sitting silently before the dying camp fire. No sounds cut the silence that surrounded the woman and the purple orange coals of the once large blaze. A sword was grasped in her right hand, pointed towards the earth and a sharpening stone was in her left. However, stone did not meet blade as the woman warrior stared into the fire lost in her own thoughts.

"How much longer must this go on? So much death and horror. Even now I see their faces before me in the coals. Faces that have not troubled me for a long time have returned." With these dark thoughts, the warrior placed the stone on the ground, grabbed the hilt of the sword with both hands and leaned closer towards the dying fire.

A dark depression settled over her shoulders just as the night air had done. She bowed her head. "So much to regret and no act or deeds able to blot the past away. All of this is taking me nowhere but in useless circles, causing yet more pain, more suffering. So much blood, death still caused by my hand. And for what? I kill scum to help strangers who hate me and may not be any better or more worthy than those I destroy. Who am I to judge? I am a warrior that has violated all warriorís codes, betrayed an entire army, my own kind and killed so many. All of this done in the name of atonement."

As the warrior starred into the ashes, her dark shadowed eyes took on a strange and unnatural resolve. She shifted the sword hilt to her right hand and turned the blade tip upward from the ground towards her own midsection. "How easy it would be. So simple to stop all of this useless struggling. Just a quick thrust and then only eternal Tartarus. No one else hurt, no one need know. Easy enough to finish this charade, this farce of a life. In the end, the final blood shed will be my own. How perfect! Of all the blood on my hands, my own will end it. She even told me to end it this way. Better I do it than another."

With a thin cruel smile, the warrior brought the tip closer to her body. Suddenly before the unblinking stare of the warrior, a face appeared, sweet and pure filled with love and sorrow. Gabrielle. The vision shook her head slowly and softly accused, "You promised me, remember?"

The warriorís arm trembled and her hand shook as the sword tip wavered. "Leave me be," the warrior hissed through clenched teeth. "You and I are through. I wonít cause you any more sorrow and you wonít cause me more pain. Itís at an end." Yet the vision would not vanish but remained with soft loving eyes and sweet smile. The warrior screwed her eyes shut and blinked rapidly hoping to dispel the face before her. When she opened her eyes again, it was gone and only the soft glow of the fire remained. The warrior eased out a ragged breath bringing the sword point closer to its final destination.

Gabrielle started to run. She wasnít sure why but she felt driven beyond any normal thought. She had to get back and somehow find Xena. That was all she knew. Everything was clear to her now. She saw her own folly and she understood the pain they had caused each other. It couldnít be too late but some strange feeling in her gut told her to hurry. She had no idea where to look for the warrior. She knew running down the Thessalian road in the middle of night with only a full moon to guide her was foolish. She could hear the tongue lashing she would get from a certain warrior princess. Yet none of it mattered. She had to find Xena.

Somehow once she saw her face, the words would come. She could sense her nearby, could almost smell the warriorís tangy leathers, feel the firm solid muscles of her arm as she hugged her close. But Iíve got to hurry. The words played in her mind over and over as a mantra. Iíve got to hurry. Please Xena, she voiced a silent plea. Wait for me.

Chapter 17

It was still an hour before dawn with the full moon lowered in the night sky when one very tried bard finally reached the forks in the Thessalian road. Now where? Gabrielle looked to the left then right. Something drove her through the trees to the right, towards the water she could hear rushing over uneven boulders. As she moved into a sheltered cove she could barely see the outline of a horse who turned a head towards her and gently nickered. Argo!

Gabrielle rushed forward, then stopped cold. She could make out a dying camp fire and a form slumped against a fallen tree. As she drew closer, the form took the shape of the warrior lying back with her head resting against the tree, her sword buried in the thick trunk. Dark tresses covered a still pale face, strangely eerie in the dying campfire light. Gabrielle squinted into the darkness. The warrior should have heard her by now. "Xena?"

As she knelt down next to the still form, two crystal blue eyes stared up at her. "Hi."

Gabrielle gently touched the warriorís cheek. "Hi yourself. Didnít go very far, did you?"

Xena sat up slightly and searched her friendís face. "Didnít have any place to go. Waiting here was as good as anywhere else."

Gabrielle leaned back. "So you knew Iíd come back."

"No," Xena whispered. "I knew you wouldnít."

"Then what were you waiting for?"

"I donít know."

"Xena, Iíve done a lot of thinking since I left. I realized I was running away from you, from myself, from us. I couldnít handle the pain anymore. I guess I was trying to hide from the truth ever since we left the Kingdom of Chin."

"Before then," Xena supplied in a soft voice.

"Yes, before then." The bard paused and then continued in a low voice choked with emotion. "Iíve been the cause of all of this and I want to ask you one last time to forgive me. Xena, I have to know you will."

The warrior was silent a long minute and then wrapped her long muscular arms around the bard as she drew her close. "Oh, Gabrielle. This isnít about my forgiveness. Iíve forgiven you long ago. You know when, in the dudgeon. I beg you to forgive me for lying to you and for all the pain Iíve caused you, but none of that matters. You have to forgive yourself or we wonít be able to go on together. The guilt and the self-hatred are eating you up. Remember, Iím an expert on this sort of thing. Donít follow my lead. Please."

Tears streamed down the bardís face as she lifted her head to gaze into Xenaís eyes. "I canít. Iíve betrayed your trust. How can that be forgiven?"

Gently the warrior traced the cheek of the bard with a long finger that wiped the tears away. "Simple. I forgive you, you forgive me and now you must forgive yourself. Just do it. Remember, no more lies, no more secrets, just you and me living each day as best we can, trusting each other, loving each other. The past is gone, we live from now on."

When the bard was silent the warrior drew in a jagged breath and hugged the bard closer to her. "Any pain you caused me in the Kingdom of Chin is nothing compared to the pain of losing you. Donít you understand? I canít go on without you. I just sat here because I couldnít think of where else to go. It was the last place Iíd seen you. So I stayed."

Xena pulled the bard back and looked deeply into her eyes. "My soul was ripped apart. Do you understand now? I need you. I love you."

The bard searched the blue windows into the warriorís soul and saw the truth shinning through. She grabbed Xena and held on as if she would never let her go again. The warrior returned the embrace. They lay in each otherís arms and watched the dawn break over the Arcadian highlands. The reds, yellows and purples lit up the sky in an amazing display. "Red sky in morning, sailor take warning," Xena mused.

"What does that mean?"

"Oh, its just an old saying we used when I was at sea. Red sky at night, sailors delight, red sky in morning sailor take warning."

"Was it usually true?"

"Yeah, actually it was. The morning red sky meant a storm and high seas were coming."

"Then we better batten down the hatches and get some breakfast."

Xena laughed. "You hungry, what a surprise." She studied the bard for a moment and then hugged her close. "Guess I just want to make sure youíre real. You came to me in a vision last night."

"I did. What did I say?" The smile on Gabrielleís face evaporated when she saw the pained look in Xenaís eyes. "What?"

Xena dropped her gaze as she shook her head slightly.

"Xena, remember no lies, no secrets. Itís about this trust thing. I trust you, you trust me and we do the very best we can not to hurt each other."

The warrior nodded as she studied her hands and whispered, "You told me to remember my promise." She paused a moment and then added, "So I did and shoved my sword into this tree."

The catch in Gabrielleís throat almost choked her as her heart beat wildly. "I knew it. Somehow I knew I had to get back to you for your sake but mostly for mine. Oh, Xena. Thank you for waiting for me." She threw herself back into the warriorís arms and held her close as she felt Xena take a deep breath. She looked up and wiped away a tear that was trickling down the angular cheek of the warrior.

"Xena, Iím so sorry for all the pain Iíve caused you. No, donít say it. This is my apology. You can have yours later."

Xena arched an eyebrow and then laughed outright. It had been a very long time since Gabrielle had heard that musical sound. She grinned widely. She knew that they were a long way from healed. The road ahead would have rough spots. Still working at her relationship with one tough warrior princess was infinitely better than living alone and worrying about her all day long.

"You take a nap my adventurous bard while I go scare up something for breakfast. Then you and I are going to have a chat about the dangers of these roads at night and how you are never going to travel them after dark again. Okay?"

Gabrielle looked into the eyes of her best friend and grinned. "I knew Iíd hear about that."

Epilogue

The plump red squirrel chattered disapprovingly at the two humans below his perch in the broad oak tree. The thump, swish and knock of metal meeting wood had disturbed his winterís sleep and he angrily protested this interruption. His concerns were ignored by the tall muscular warrior who swiftly swung her broad sword downwards. The flashing bladeís motion was abruptly halted by a sturdy wooden staff welded by the fair haired bard.

The ash blond beauty followed the block with a quick whip of her staff to the side that would have caught the warrior square in the jaw if she had remained in the same location. However, as sword met wood, the warrior had spun. With a gravity defying leap, she flipped over her opponent smacking her on her rear with the flat of her blade. She then ducked and rolled away from the swinging staff that would have knocked her unconscious if it had connected with her beautiful dark haired head.

"Nice move, Gabrielle," the warrior noted, grinning widely. She leaped high into the air as the staff swept harmlessly beneath her feet. "I think Iíll start calling you warrior bard."

The Amazon was to busy concentrating and gasping for breath to reply as beads of sweat flowed from her forehead. Again she whirled swinging her staff with a level stroke that the warrior blocked with a side swipe of her sword. She grabbed the staff with her left hand and tried to disarm the bard but Gabrielle held tightly onto her weapon. She flipped the staff around bringing it square against the shoulder armor of her tall opponent. The blow glanced off harmlessly as the dark warrior turned and with a swipe of her leg tripped her opponent. Gabrielle tried but could not keep her balance and would have fallen heavily to one side if the warrior had not flashed a quick hand out and caught her by the arm.

"Hades Xena, no fair tripping." Before Gabrielle could protest further, she found herself swung around, disarmed and hosted into the air. With a gleeful laugh that always meant trouble, the warrior dropped her sword, strengthened her grip on the bard and began to run pell mell towards the quiet lake that rested a few yards away. "Uh oh, when will I learn to keep my mouth shut."

With a piercing undulating cry, "YaYaYaYaYa," the warrior snatched a whip from a rock, snapped it onto a limb and swung out over the edge of the lake with Gabrielle still in her arms. She let go of the whip when they were clear of the bank and both splashed nosily into the cold emerald colored water. They sank below the surface then rose sputtering and splashing. The resulting water fight left both woman laughing hysterically and gasping for breath.

"Enough, I give, I give," choked the warrior. "Iíve swallowed half this lake and Iím freezing to death. You win!"

Gabrielle eyed her best friend suspiciously looking for some hidden trick. Xena never gave up. But then the dark souled warrior was not behaving anything close to normal. These last few weeks had been very different and unusual for both of them. Perhaps, at last they were back from the Kingdom of Chin. No, Gabrielle thought as she followed the dripping warrior out of the cold lake. They were not just back, they had moved ahead.

 

THE END-or make that the beginning


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