Xena entered the training grounds. Several pairs of Amazons were scattered around, sparring and drilling, but what caught the warrior’s attention immediately was a group of women arranged in a five by five rank near the back of the compound. They were dressed in identical outfits of pale, banded leather vests with thick shoulders and bracered gloves. Their legs were clad in tight leather pants with pads over the thigh and knee, and supple boots reinforced over the shin.

Each held a long wooden sword in both hands as they went through the precise motions of a drill Xena didn’t recognize. It was quick, fluid, and, the warrior noted, seemed ideally suited to the way a woman would move. While the group was large, they nevertheless drilled in near-perfect unison.

They were being watched by Juna. This in itself spoke volumes – Amazons didn’t train under Juna until their eighteenth year, when they were considered full soldiers, and then only if they showed talent. Xena walked over and stood beside the solidly built woman, who didn’t even look at her.

"Xena," was all the acknowledgement she gave of the warrior’s presence.

They watched the guards silently for a moment before Xena commented. "Nice drill Juna. Where’d you pick it up?"

"Not mine I’m afraid," came the reply. "It’s theirs. This is how they always finish."

They watched a moment more. "They move well," Xena noted. "How are they in a fight?"

"Seen worse." This was as close as the short-cropped Amazon ever came to actual praise – when pressed, she described her own considerable skill as "not bad." She shrugged. "Need some strength work though. Too evasive for my taste."

With a twisting leap, a loud cry and a sharp, two-hand strike, the drill ended. The group slowly stood upright, then sank to their knees, sitting back on their heels. They placed their swords on the ground next them before their hands came to rest lightly on their thighs, then they closed their eyes. Again, all had moved as one. The woman to the farthest right of the front rank announced, "Our pleasure for Inanna."

"Our pleasure for Inanna," they all chanted. They rested for a measured moment, then bent forward, touching their hands and heads to the Earth. After this they casually got to their feet, the disciplined movement over, and began hugging each other.

Juna grunted, "And this part I could absolutely do without." She clapped her hands twice for attention and took a step forward. "OK ladies, OK! You weren’t as awful today as yesterday, so tomorrow I’ll try my best to see if you can learn some more kid stuff. Now go get lovey-dovey somewhere else!"

The woman who had led the chant gave the stocky Amazon a slight bow. She was of medium build with lovely, somewhat foreign features, her light brown hair held back by a leather headband. "We thank you again Juna. It is pleasure, and has been good for us."

"Yeah, yeah." The Amazon just rolled her eyes, then walked around her, waving to get the attention of one of the other guards, a younger, blonde woman who was nursing a bruise on her bicep. "Hey, Dew-lips!"

"Uh, I’m Dulith," the startled object of her attention said.

"Whatever, let me see that arm…"

The guard with the headband approached the tall warrior, smiling. "You are Xena. I’m happy we meet. We’ve heard of you."

"Oh?" Xena crossed her arms. "And you are?"

"Morgin," she answered. "First Guardian." She extended her hand and they clasped forearms, each noting the other’s grip. "I hoped you’d arrive earlier, so that you might see more and teach us. We have much to learn if we are to serve in the days ahead, and the years to come."

"You were doing all right," Xena said with a wry smile. "Who taught you that drill?"

"The one who teaches us all – Lilith." Morgin rested her sword across her shoulders. "She taught me, and I in turn teach others, as best I can."

So Lilith knows combat too, huh? Xena thought, but kept her surprise from showing. "Are those practice blades about the same weight as your weapons?"

Morgin smiled and held the wooden sword out. "These aren’t for practice. These are what we fight with, when we must fight. The first rule we learn is do no more harm than is required, and to defend before we attack."

Xena took the weapon, hefting it. Except for the fact it was made of wood, it resembled a katana, a kind of long sword Xena had seen from the East. It was slightly over a yard long, smooth, lightly lacquered and solid, with a decent weight. The single-edged blade was about an inch and a half at its widest, half an inch or so thick along the top. It tapered gracefully along its length, ending in a wedge-shaped tip. The warrior gripped it in both hands, as it was meant to be wielded, and swung it lightly, noting that while it had no sharp edges, in capable hands it could be deadly.

"It’s excellent," Xena commented, passing it back.

"Thank you," Morgin replied. "Only once have I taken life with it. I hope I never need do so again." It was a simple statement, showing neither pride nor regret.

"I hope so too." Xena noted that Morgin seemed only a few summers younger than herself, but with an open sincerity and quiet strength that somehow reminded her a little of Gabrielle. A thin, old, somewhat ragged scar ran down one side of the guardian’s face, and another, not as old, ran along the bare stretch of her upper arm. Together they indicated some long endured pain or tragedy, yet Morgin’s eyes sparkled.

Xena took a step back. "Still, let’s see an attack. Hit me. Unless you’re too worn out from practice?"

Morgin cocked her head but gave a half grin. Recognizing the challenge, she settled into a graceful stance. "May this be pleasure for us both," she began, then lunged before the words even ended.

Xena smiled inwardly. She easily sidestepped it, but the strike was very quick and surprising, and would have caught a lesser opponent with painful results. She spun around, aiming a backhand at Morgin’s ear. The wooden blade snapped back and caught her wrist bracer, deflecting the blow as the shorter woman pivoted around and swung at the side of Xena’s knee. The warrior leaped it, flipping over to land on the other side of the guard and delivering a kick that Morgin rolled beneath, coming up in the same stance she had held originally.

"You’re quick," Xena said evenly.

"So are you," Morgin replied.

Let’s give her a scare. "All right, let’s see what that little stick can do." Xena put a warrior’s growl in her voice, drawing her own sword, more to see the other woman’s reaction than anything else.

Morgin remained impassive, meeting Xena’s eyes without moving, waiting. When it was clear the guardian wasn’t going to attack first, Xena came at her with a series of simple lunges and feints, found them all blocked and countered. Grinning, the warrior picked up the pace. Morgin was surprisingly adept at staying away from blows and following up with return strikes. Xena quickly guessed the other woman wasn’t putting much behind them, was trying different techniques, measuring Xena’s reaction.

After a few more exchanges, Xena was nearly caught by a dizzying series of counterattacks, and began putting some real strength behind her own moves, eyes blazing. Morgin turned them aside, using no more force than needed, got her body out of the way, always answering with a strike or thrust, moving as fluidly as water and never quite in the expected direction. The smaller woman used the longer reach of her wooden sword well, and Xena spun and twisted, trying to draw Morgin into overextending her movements, smiling when that didn’t work either.

Xena switched tactics, concentrating on driving attacks designed to wear the other woman down. Finally, tiring, Morgin fell for a double feint, countering to the wrong side and leaving herself open. Xena spun and slapped the flat of her blade across the backs of the other woman’s knees, sent her sprawling.

Morgin hit the ground hard, giving a loud grunt that abruptly gave way to an odd moan. Xena was momentarily worried she might have hurt the other woman, but then Morgin curled into a fluid roll and returned to her feet.

She came upright with her head thrown back, gasping in open, obvious delight. "Mmm Xeeena!" she cried, brown eyes twinkling, "you’re sooo goood!" She smiled around a low, almost sensual laugh.

The warrior felt Juna leaning in behind her. "Better get used to it," the Amazon murmured. "They all do that."

* * *

Xena checked the dining hall, but was surprised to find Gabrielle wasn’t there. She looked around, strangely relieved when she saw Ephiny seated at one of the tables.

"She took some scrolls to her hut," the regent replied when asked. "She didn’t want to be disturbed." The blonde pursed her lips. "She did say I should tell you she was there."

"Thanks." Xena found a tray and gathered up some cheese and vegetables, along with two bowls of stew and a small loaf of warm bread. When the tray was as well-laden as it could get, she headed for the royal hut.

Inside, the young bard sat at the central table, intensely scrutinizing a small pile of scrolls and parchments, quill in hand. She looked up as the warrior entered. "Xena!" She brightened immediately. When her eyes settled on the tray, her smile grew even warmer. "Oh Xena, thank you. I didn’t even realize what time it was."

Xena let herself smile back, just as warmly. "You’re welcome." What is with me today? She set the tray down and took the chair next to Gabrielle, trying being more casual. It wasn’t working. "So, what’s so pressing that you of all people almost missed dinner?"

"Oh, the usual," Gabrielle chuckled as she absently tore off some bread and pointed at the scrolls. "A few finely worded little sub-paragraphs of treaties here, a couple of hereditary disputes there. I don’t think Anza has much of a claim, but can see why they might think they do – it’s all in the wording. We can work it out though, maybe swap some land…" The bard dropped her voice a little, pointing at the map in the center of the table. "See, I was looking over these old scouting reports, and I’m almost positive there are some rich iron deposits in this stretch of rocky hills, right here. I had a small party sent out, so by tomorrow I’ll know for sure, but if it’s true…"

"Then those hills are worth a lot more than a hunting ground the Amazons haven’t used in a generation," Xena finished for her. The warrior grinned. "Not bad Gabrielle. Not bad at all…"

"Best thing is," the bard continued, "if you look at it the right way, claiming those hills would simply straighten the border on the other side of a bend in the river where the border is now…"

Xena cut off her companion by putting up a hand. "Gabrielle, you don’t have to convince me."

The young Queen blushed lightly. "Sorry … just kind of … interesting." Gabrielle looked down at the table, then smiled again. "Thanks for bringing me dinner."

"Come on," the warrior urged, uncomfortable but trying not to let it show, "let’s eat." The two women picked up their bowls.

"Mmm," Gabrielle said, "It’s good here … the stew, I mean."

Xena glanced at her companion. She really does make a fine Queen … got that regal thing down too, and doesn’t even know it … so beautiful… The warrior shook it off. "Stew’s all right then?" Not as good as yours. Xena blinked. "So what else did Ephiny pile on you?" The warrior couldn’t help the curtness in her voice, hoped Gabrielle didn’t notice.

"Well," the bard began, reaching for the bread and tearing off another piece, "I also have to draw up a formal Letter of Debt for Lilith which acknowledges how she owes one to the Amazons."

"That figures."

"Yeah, well." The bard popped some cheese in her mouth. "You know how they are about debts and honor. I’m trying to keep it simple."

"You? Simple?"

"Hey, be nice!" Gabrielle gave an exaggerated pout.

"All right, all right…" Xena smiled. "You’ll work something out. I know how good you are with words."


"Yeah," Xena replied. "And I know you won’t quit – you’re also too stubborn." She chuckled.

"Me? Stubborn?" Gabrielle affected a hurt look.

"Like a mule … but I mean that in a good way." What is it with me today?

Gabrielle sighed. "Well, I hope so." She pushed at one of the scrolls with her spoon. "I’ll need it to figure out who has the right to claim Errin’s sword – and not leave anyone feeling hurt. This is what’s really got me stumped. Amazon lineage can get very complicated."

"Do tell."

"Uh huh," the bard mumbled around a mouthful of bread. "Half these women were adopted, you know. Kinda random way to run things – historically speaking of course."

"Well, that would explain how a certain bard can just walk in and be Queen."

"Yup. Gotta keep track of everything like you wouldn’t believe. Stray comments mean a lot. Mmm, any more of those olives? They’re tasty."

"Here. Have mine."

"Xena … You’re too good to me."

"Do tell."

"Yup." They laughed together softly for a moment. "So," Gabrielle continued as she finished the last of the cheese, "how are the guards?"

"Better than I hoped, if a little unorthodox – militarily speaking of course."

"That’s good."

"You know, I’m starting to think we might just make it to Macedonia alive after all."

"Well that’s a relief. For a minute there I was worried you were just going to give up."

"Do tell."


Xena smiled. I’d better get out of here before I do something we both regret, she mused. This kind of playful stuff can get out of hand. "Well," she said, reaching for the shoulder buckle of her armor, "I’m going for a quick wash."

"Here Xena," Gabrielle said, standing and moving around behind the warrior’s chair, "let me."

"Gabrielle, it’s all right…"

"No, really," the bard insisted. "I’ve been in that chair so long my bottom’s going numb."

Xena raised an eyebrow as the armor was placed carefully on the floor. "Well, I wouldn’t want that."

"Do tell."

"Yup." Xena sighed quietly. I’d really better get out of here, the warrior thought with some determination. Then the thought flew out of her head along with her will as Gabrielle’s hands settled on her shoulders.

The bard kneaded them slowly, working her fingers in, finding the knots, gently rubbing them down and loose. The tension there began to ease, and when it was gone, she carefully moved her hands to the warrior’s upper back, between the shoulder blades, where the bard knew it was always just a little stiff.

As she continued the easy, careful massage, the bard began to hum softly. The contact was as warm and sweet as Gabrielle remembered, and for the first time in a long time her companion let it happen. Used to do this all the time, big warrior, she thought sadly. It was … special. I always felt so close. I know you did too. Why don’t you let me anymore?

"Hmm?" Xena turned her head a little.

"Nothing," Gabrielle replied. She hummed for a while longer.

Xena let the bard’s slim, strong fingers work her grateful, accepting muscles for as long as she could allow it to, feeling the warmth that flowed from the young woman’s hands seeping into her warrior’s body, settling everywhere. Knowing it should stop, needing it to go on. Let it continue a bit longer still.

Suddenly the warrior reached up and placed a careful hand on Gabrielle’s. Xena exhaled slowly, willed herself to stay relaxed. Too much … Get out. Now.

Summoning as much calm as she could, she whispered, "Thank you … Gabrielle. I’ve … got to wash up." The warrior rose more steadily than she felt and headed for the door, not daring to look around and risk losing herself in the green eyes she could feel on her back.

Gabrielle watched her leave, then leaned heavily on the table. Finally she sat back on her pallet against the wall and drew her knees up, hugging herself. She slowly rocked back and forth, keeping relaxed, staring without seeing.

* * *

Xena found the nearest bathing hut mercifully unoccupied and spent a good half hour scrubbing herself harder than necessary, ending the process by dunking her head into one of the cold buckets and holding it there until her breath ran out. Then she checked Argo, made sure the mare had plenty of grain and brushed her down for a while even though it was obvious the Amazon stablehands had already done it. "’Night girl," she patted the horse, got a low nicker in return.

Then the warrior started wandering, mind deliberately blank. It was well after dark so the main gate was closed, but a side door was open and she slipped unseen past the sentries without even thinking about it. She idly crossed the plain to where it sloped down sharply about fifty yards from the walls, an earthworks for slowing attackers and leaving them easy pickings for Amazon arrows. She settled down on the edge of the slope and looked up at the stars.

The dark of the night was calling to her, inviting her to lose herself in its numbing depths. As a warlord, the night had been her time of peace, when she could be blind, embrace the cool quiet, forget herself. For nearly ten years she’d fled from the sun, using its light only as tool for training or conquest, spending her days off the battlefield in the dim depths of her tent whenever possible. The night had been hers alone.

When had the sun become her friend again? The answer was as joyous as it was painful to her now: When the sight and sound of her companion had made the light wonderful. The proof was in the deep bronze of her skin, plain for all to see.

Gods Xena, what are you doing? I thought you knew this was wrong. The darkness never really left you. It could come again any time. She’ll be hurt. Maybe not today, maybe not summers from now, but that day will come, and I couldn’t bear it.

She stared at the night sky, finding every constellation she could name with an ease of long practice. When it was done, she started over.

The figure who glided up behind her was less than ten paces away before Xena even sensed it. She froze.

"No fear, warrior Xena," a honey-smooth voice drifted to her.

"Lilith," Xena grunted. She really didn’t want company right now, and grew even angrier with herself for letting the Whore Priestess get so close. Great. Now I’m really starting to lose it. Lilith smoothly moved up beside her and extended an arm towards Xena’s shoulder.

"Don’t touch me!" Xena growled. She remembered the Priestess’ hand on her face from earlier. Sorcery there, I don’t doubt. That would explain it. Should have guessed. Whatever it was she couldn’t risk any more.

"As you wish," Lilith replied simply. "May I sit?"

"Nothing in Amazon law to stop you," the warrior said bitterly.

The Priestess floated down beside her. There was a long stretch of total silence. Xena ignored the smaller woman, staring straight ahead.

Some time later, Xena caught herself rocking back and forth, and suddenly realized Lilith was humming a gentle melody. The sound had risen so gradually the warrior hadn’t even noticed.

"Stop that!" she growled again. She swung around and gave the Priestess the full-on warlord glare she felt inside. "Why are you here?" she hissed.

Lilith’s eyes met hers, evenly, with soft concern. "Your heart," she said gently. "It is like an open wound. I felt it as you passed our camp."

"That so?" Sorcery? No question. "Well it’s my heart. I’ll handle it."

Their eyes stayed locked for a moment longer, neither changing expression. Finally Lilith looked away. "As it pleases you to believe. I am sorry to have interfered." The Priestess didn’t even seem to move, but suddenly didn’t seem to be sitting as close. Xena took a breath, realizing she hadn’t done so for several seconds.

Lilith gazed at the trees in the distance. "Ephiny believes we can leave here two days hence," the Priestess said simply. "When morning comes I will make an offering in the temple of Artemis. The Huntress has promised me a sign, and I will then invite her priestesses to our ceremony. If all goes well, it will soothe those who still fear that our presence here angers her."

"Good idea," Xena replied curtly, though not as openly hostile. "How soon after dawn can you be ready to leave the day after?"

"Perhaps half a day, not more," Lilith answered. "I have pondered this, and it is good. To set out at mid-day is to reach the Amazon border at nightfall. We can stay one last night within its protection, and have a full day to travel after we leave it."

"Yeah, that works," Xena agreed. A tactician too. Swell. "How long to break camp that morning?"

Lilith smiled. "While we travel we will live out of the wagons as much as we can and raise only what tents we need. In this way it requires only an hour, rarely more, to pack and make ready each dawn. Is this good for you?"

"I guess it’ll do." Xena allowed herself a tight smile in return. Discussing strategy was taking her mind off Gabrielle for the moment, and she let herself relax a little. "I’ll ask Ephiny to send out scouts in the morning. There’s been plenty of time to set an ambush by now. With luck the slavers are eager and won’t be far outside Amazon territory. If so, the scouts will spot it."

"Shall I have Morgin accompany them?"

"No. I want her with the rest of the Guardians drilling tomorrow. I need to know what their strengths and weaknesses are." She paused. "From what I’ve seen though, they’re good fighters."

Lilith laughed. "As I have said, it is their pleasure, as it is yours. If they found no joy in such things, they would not do them. This joy makes them practice much, and practice brings them skill. So it is with all things, when each is allowed to choose their own way."

"Morgin told me you trained her."

"Yes, this is true," came the gentle reply. The Priestess looked down with a smile. "I am told I have many skills."

Xena raised an eyebrow, found herself smiling back. "All right. Fair enough. Where did you learn?"

There was a soft, pained sigh, followed by a pause. "In my youth," Lilith began slowly, "I was consumed for many years with much anger and vile selfishness. I killed and I took what I wished without thought or regard, caring only for my own whims." She shook her head. "I was … not happy, and sought only to make others feel my own pain as greatly as did I."

Then Lilith gave a warm, sweet smile. "But after many years, long past when I wished my life would end, the Goddess reached out to me, and once again I found the love and joy of the Earth. I learned what I already knew: That what is taken does not last, but by giving I teach others to give in return, and that goes on as long as there is joy in the world, spanning from one generation to the next." She looked down, running her hand over the Earth. "There is … peace in such things."

Xena gave a mirthless chuckle. "Sounds too good to be true."

Lilith laughed. "Ah Xena, you see the sadness, but in truth you speak of cold wisdom, for it is not an easy road. Too many see generosity as weakness, or as submission, or as a well to be plumbed until dry and forgotten. So first we must nurture that spirit which leads to the joy of equals sharing freely of themselves, each giving as they can, none taking more than is offered, and forbearing our mistakes and simple failings. Yet we must also guard against those who seek more and more merely for its own sake, who see the world as a toy and believe that strength is measured by the cowering of slaves, real and imagined."

Xena gave a long, weary sigh. "Sometimes the world is a rough place."

Lilith lowered herself back on her elbows. "Life is within us all Xena, and life is hope. There is evil. There is good. It is easy for one to think of evil as having less in its path, yet good is the simplest path for all to share together, and one cannot stand against all forever."

Xena looked up at the stars. Damn her, the warrior thought idly. Now I actually feel better. Well, at least I don’t feel good, but I still feel better, so damn her anyway. She smiled to herself.

"You know," the warrior mused, "I knew a man once – Pythagorus. He was really stupid about a lot of things. Never did like him much, but he was a genius with numbers."

"I knew him as well," Lilith smiled, a smile Xena could practically feel. "And I agree. He fought against his own nature in strange ways, and could not admit when he was wrong."

The warrior nodded. "Yeah, well, he was showing me once why I needed three-on-one odds against a dug in defense, and he said something that made sense: ‘Numbers don’t lie’. I’ve never thought about good against evil that way, but I your math isn’t bad. One against all is a pretty simple equation."

"Given time," Lilith nodded back, "it must win out. I see the truth in it. It is not – again, I must find your word – efficient? Not an efficient way, but it will happen. Of this I am sure."

Xena looked over at the white-robed Priestess. "For what it’s worth I hope you’re right. We’ll need it to get you to this valley of yours."

Yet her warrior instincts couldn’t help noticing that all the philosophy hardly answered her original question. Gods Lilith, I don’t know why you’re not telling the whole truth, but listen up Priestess: You’d better turn out to be all right, because I think I’m starting to like you – and if you don’t I’m gonna feel like an idiot.

Xena stood. "Well, I’m turning in if I’m going to be leading drills all day tomorrow. Good luck with your offering."

Lilith remained seated. "I thank you Xena, this has been good for me," she replied, gazing up at the warrior, making eye contact a last time. "Send love to Gabrielle. She is a pure heart, and special beyond measure."

The Priestess turned back around to look at the trees in the distance. "And in your heart, warrior, remember always – your true feelings are not your true enemy."

Xena silently regarded the dark-haired Priestess for a moment. Then, without another word, she strode back to the Amazon city.

* * *

Back in the royal hut, Gabrielle had fallen asleep at the table, her strawberry blonde head surrounded by scrolls. Xena smiled warmly, then gently lifted the bard in her strong arms. Gabrielle stirred but didn’t wake as the warrior carried her softly to her pallet.

She lay her friend down and tucked the blanket up to her chin, then moved a few locks of hair back out of the young woman’s innocent, sleeping face.

So beautiful, my bard … Gods, would that I were someone else. I wish … I wish I could be. I’m sorry…

After a moment the warrior leaned in close, just to breathe in the smaller woman’s clean scent, whispering softly, "Good night, Gabrielle."

Xena slowly rested back on her heels, watching for just a moment more. Then she rose and snuffed out the candles before heading for her own pallet a few steps away from her quietly sleeping companion.

* * *

Gabrielle woke the next morning to a knock on her door. "Hmmnn? Jussa minnit…" she groaned sleepily. With some reluctance, she made herself sit up, then was startled to find she was on her own pallet. How’d that happen? she thought, confused for moment. Last thing I remember I was working on the treaty…

There was another knock. "Yeah! OK. I’m coming…" She crossed the room, shaking sleep out of her head as best she could and opened the door.

An Amazon in full battle dress was waiting. "I’m sorry to wake you my Queen, but this … man wished to see you. Ephiny gave him permission," she said, as if hoping not to be blamed for it herself. She indicated behind her, where Gabrielle could see Meleager and another Amazon were standing.

"Yeah, that’s OK," Gabrielle nodded, grinning. "Let him in. I’ll be fine."

"Very well." The Amazon looked dubious. "We’ll wait here. Call if you need us."

"Thank you, I’ll be sure and do that." Gabrielle smiled as she took the bearded warrior’s elbow and ushered him inside, closing the door behind him.

"Gods!" Meleager groaned as he settled into a chair. "Will I be glad to get out of here! You have no idea what it’s like to be stared at everywhere you go."

"Actually, yes I do," Gabrielle grinned. "I travel with Xena, remember?"

"Yeah, but I don’t think Xena gets slapped on the butt too often, or at least I figure she can do something about it." He gave an exasperated groan. "Amazons!"

Gabrielle laughed as she sat next to him, thinking about what was likely to happen to anyone who tried that with her warrior companion. Then she noticed the table bore a tray with fruit, bread and cheese, and a small note, neatly folded and sitting on top. Her heart beat a little faster as she eagerly picked up the slip of parchment and looked it over.

She instantly recognized Xena’s simple, precise handwriting: Drilling all day. Join me if you can get out of bed, oh Queen. You need it. Gabrielle chuckled, then sighed. She folded the note carefully and set it aside, then reached for a slice of bread.

"What’s that all about?" Meleager asked, picking out a wedge of cheese.

"Oh, just … Xena," Gabrielle looked down as she smiled.

Meleager chewed thoughtfully for a moment, slowly scratching his beard. "Listen," he said finally, narrowing his eyes, "what is it between you two anyway? I never felt more like a third wheel in my life while we were traveling together."

"What do you mean?"

"You know. The laughing, the long looks, the way you … help her through her nightmares." He paused. "If I didn’t know better I’d think you were lovers."

Gabrielle blushed fiercely. "Oh Meleager, come on," she gave a laugh that was as forced as it sounded. "You know we’re not."

"That’s what I mean…" He sat back a little. "Why is that?"

"Oh hey!" Gabrielle said quickly. "A pomegranate! You know, I love these things!" She nearly knocked over her chair reaching for the fruit.

"Yeah," Meleager said slowly. "And I figure that’s why Xena put it there too. So, what’s going on?"

Gabrielle picked at the outer casing of the pomegranate, staring at it. "It’s just … Meleager … you know," she said with difficulty. "Xena doesn’t … feel that way about … me."

He grunted. "Oh yeah. Sure she doesn’t. That explains why yesterday when Ephiny was coming on to you, Xena had her jaw set so tight it creaked."

"Meleager!" the bard began indignantly. "Ephiny was not coming on to me, and…"

He snorted humorlessly. "Like Tartarus she wasn’t." He regarded the young woman for a moment, then shrugged and settled his elbow on the table. "Well … OK. Maybe you missed it somehow. Tell you though, Xena sure didn’t – Hades, I’m surprised her teeth didn’t crack."

Gabrielle was silent for a moment, unsure of what to think or say. She new Xena cared about her a lot, but realized she’d never let herself try to see it as more than that. Why should it be? However I feel about her, I’m still just a know-nothing village girl. I’m not heroic at all. Sure, we’re close, but … And I wouldn’t even know what to do…

"We’re just … not, Meleager," she said finally, trying hard to keep her voice even. "And that’s … all."

The graying warrior looked at her, took in how difficult this was for the young bard. "OK," he said gently, placing a hand on hers. "I know how it is sometimes." He gave a dry chuckle. "And Hades, I’m probably the worst person in the world to give advice about this kind of thing. After all," he chuckled softly, "you don’t get to be my age and still be single without being really good at just blowing it. Sorry I brought it up."

"No, it’s OK," Gabrielle sniffled lightly, raising her head. "She … she knows how I feel. If she wants to, when she’s ready, it’ll happen." Does she? Can it?

The young woman smiled, squeezing his hand. "And hey, old man," she chuckled, "Lilith seems to like you just fine."

"Yeah well…" Now Meleager blushed. "She uh … she likes everybody just fine."

"Maybe so," the bard laughed warmly, "but I haven’t heard her call anyone else ‘dear one’. And another thing: In case you didn’t notice, she slept with a god, one of the good ones even, and then apologized, actually apologized about it – to you. How often do you think that happens?"

Meleager scratched his chin absently, pursed his lips. "Well, now that you mention it, I hadn’t really thought about it that way…"

"Has she been, um, participating in their ceremonies lately – with anyone but you I mean?"

His head snapped up and he nodded vigorously, raising a finger. "Oh yeah! Now that she has been … aw … Hades…" He slumped over, looking confused. "Gods … I think you’re right. I mean, she has, but she always asked me if it was OK…"

Warriors! Gabrielle rolled her eyes. Why are they so blind sometimes? "Maybe next time you should say ‘no’."

"Hhhurrr!" he grumbled, then stood abruptly and began pacing, arms folded tightly across his chest. " I can’t! I mean, it’s her work! It’s her life! She’s High Priestess of Inanna!"

"And last I heard she had twenty-four other priestesses to help her out," Gabrielle replied. "Besides, didn’t you even say they still consider themselves virgins, because it’s really the Goddess having the sex? There’s a big difference between having sex and being in love you know, and it sounds like she and her followers make that distinction better than most. Why don’t you let her decide for herself next time?"

Meleager sat down hard on the edge of the nearest pallet. "Aw Hades!" he groaned, elbows on knees, running his fingers through his hair. "I just wouldn’t be any good for her Gabrielle," he said miserably. "I’m just another old soldier gone to seed with a history of violence and alcohol abuse. She deserves better than that."

Warriors! "Meleager," the bard said as gently as possible, trying to contain her irritation, "you’re forgetting that you’ve also done a lot of good, and whatever problems you’ve had you’ve risen above them and you’re doing good again. You’re strong and brave. Even I can see that. Lilith seems like a bright, sensitive person. If she’s fallen for you, I think it’s safe to say she loves you for who you are, sees the good as well as the bad, loves you for them both. Like I said, why don’t you at least let her make up her own mind?"

He rubbed his temples hard, then sighed. "Well, OK. I’ll … think about it."

"Well, that’s a start at least," Gabrielle said evenly. She finally broke open the pomegranate, then shifted to more innocuous subjects. "So, what brought you here this morning? You didn’t wake me up just to talk about our relationships."

"Oh, yeah," Meleager stood up again. "Lilith is making an offering in Artemis’ temple this morning. Ephiny thought you should be there. Aw Hades!" He thumped his fist against his forehead. "It’s probably happening like, right now!"

He stood and quickly headed for the door. "Ephiny thought you should dress for the occasion – Amazon mask and so on. I’ve gotta get to the training grounds, but in the name of the Goddess, hurry!"

* * *

Clothed in her full Amazon garb, Gabrielle stood next to Ephiny, watching silently as Lilith solemnly placed a silver bowl of three apples on the altar of Artemis. The temple wasn’t large, but now it was packed full, Amazons shoulder to shoulder, more than a few holding their breath in fear.

"Oh Artemis," Lilith intoned, "great Huntress who watches over the night, I humbly ask your blessing upon me and those who travel with me. Your favored ones, the Amazons, love you with purest devotion, and wish only to know they serve you by helping us. Inanna loves you, for she is the power of nature, whom you honor and protect. Accept this simple gift I offer. See into my heart and know the truth of the love I bear you, for it is yours, always."

Lilith bent on one knee, head down, arms raised out, waiting. There was a brief moment of silence, one so heavy it nearly had a sound of its own.

Then, a gentle breeze wafted through the temple, carrying the faintest echo of affectionate laughter. A light began to grow around the bowl on the altar, growing so bright no one could look at it directly. A falcon suddenly flew out of the light, and there was a loud, collective gasp as the huge bird of prey soared over the heads of the assembled women and away through the front arch of the temple.

Then the light went out.

The bowl and apples were gone. In its place, a single, silver arrow lay on the altar. Lilith hadn’t moved.

Her heart pounding, Gabrielle leaned closer to Ephiny and whispered quietly. "I’d … Um … I’d say that was a sign."

Ephiny nodded at her, eyes wide.

Lilith rose and gently lifted the arrow in both hands, raising it up, smiling. "Artemis, this day all my thanks are for you. This day all my love is for you. This day all my joy is for you. May your blessing keep us safe on our journey, for the road will be long. I praise your power and wisdom, oh Huntress, as I praise the strength of your Amazons."

She turned and crossed lightly to the Amazon High Priestess, Terisia. "Oh daughter of Artemis, her favored servant, this gift of the divine Huntress is meant for you and for all who are counted among the Amazons. Accept it as you accept the love of myself and my followers, for there is no greater joy than that of kinship among women."

The Amazon Priestess was clearly stunned, but reached out and took the arrow, her hands trembling. "Thank you Lilith," she said. "We can see our fears were groundless. You’re truly among the blessed of Artemis. Accept our apologies. We’ll remember this day and your time here always."

Lilith smiled warmly. "Love and devotion to the Huntress requires no apology. Come, I invite you to take part in our ceremony. Touch the joy of nature with your own body and spirit, that Inanna might guide you to the face of Artemis."

She slipped an arm around Terisia’s, entwined their fingers together, and gracefully led her through the temple and down the steps. Still stunned, the rest of the assembled began slowly filing out after them.

Gabrielle turned to Ephiny. "You should join them," the bard urged.

"Gabrielle, you’re the Queen," Ephiny smiled. "If anyone should go, it should be you." She paused, looking down. "We could go together…"

"No, that’s OK." Gabrielle brushed her arm. "I’m leaving tomorrow, remember? I’ve got lots to do before then." She laughed. "Not the least of which is write down what just happened while it’s still fresh in my mind."

Gabrielle caught Ephiny’s eyes, and for a moment they looked at each other. The young woman took a breath. "Ephiny, I know how you … feel about me, but … well…"

The Amazon regent closed her eyes. "I know. Xena."

Why is it everyone can see this but me and a certain dumb warrior? Gabrielle mentally fumed. "Yeah," she said softly, looking away. At least, I’m starting to hope so…

"Yeah," Ephiny repeated, chuckling ruefully. "It’s not like I don’t understand. I had a thing for her too when I first met her – actually, I’m pretty sure half the village does." She chuckled again, a little more naturally this time, then grew sober. "But you…"

The regent took a slow, deliberate breath, released it. Then she looked up and gave her Queen and friend a warm smile, affectionately running a hand over Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Well, listen – if that big woman ever lets you down, I’ll still be here … if you don’t mind helping raise a centaur anyway." She laughed, and Gabrielle found their arms going around each other in a heartfelt embrace.

"Count on it," the bard answered.

* * *

Gabrielle threw herself into her work for the rest of the day, trying to use the carefully worded legal documents to take her mind off anything else. It worked – mostly – and by nightfall she thought she had sorted out both of the right of heredity disputes and had written three proposals for dealing with the treaty problems with Anza. She placed her seal on everything and set them aside to present to the council in the morning.

She was halfway through her second draft of the Letter of Debt between Lilith’s followers and the Amazons when the door opened. Xena walked in, and Gabrielle’s heart almost melted when she saw the warrior once again carried a tray loaded with food.

"Gabrielle, this is getting to be a habit," Xena said with mock sternness. "I may not know what the Fates have planned for me, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t spending the rest of my life bringing you room service."

"Well, you never know," Gabrielle replied, fighting back a smile. "The Fates have a weird sense of humor sometimes."

"Point taken," Xena rolled her eyes. "And I guess I could have it worse." She set the tray down. "Come on, let’s eat. I’ve got a meeting in half an hour about strategy for the road."

Gabrielle hid her disappointment. However, thinking about it for a moment, she realized it was probably for the best. And just what would I have said, exactly? ‘Gee, thanks for dinner Xena. Oh, and by the way, I was kinda wondering if you love me the same way I love you? Sure, I know we’re gonna be tied up protecting Lilith and the rest for the next couple of weeks and all, and can’t do anything about it anyway, but hey, I just wanted to know.’ Yeah right!

"Hello, Gabrielle? You in there?" Xena snapped her fingers in front of the bard’s eyes.

"Huh? Oh, sorry," Gabrielle shook her head. "What did you say?"

The warrior gave her a wry smile as she sat down. "I said I missed you at drills today."

"Yeah, well. Sorry," Gabrielle blushed a little and wrapped a slice of venison in some bread. With a nod she indicated the sealed scrolls on the table. "I’ve been kind of busy. Sorry I couldn’t make it."

"Well, I think you were the only one," Xena said. "Half the city must’ve been out drilling. And Meleager – gods, I’ve never seen anyone push themselves that hard. He was still throwing javelins when I left."

Gabrielle chuckled. "I think he’s trying to avoid Lilith for a while."

"Oh really?" Xena cocked her eyebrow. "And why’s that?"

"He figured out she loves him."

Xena snorted. "Like anyone with half an eye couldn’t see that. Typical."

Tell me about it. "Well, he’s been a warrior for a long time," Gabrielle replied innocently, "I think his feelings scare him." Oooh bad! Bad bard!

Gabrielle took a moment to carefully push a few loose strands of meat back into the folded bread. It wasn’t easy. Even if she deliberately didn’t look to see it, she could feel Xena’s steely gaze boring right through her.

Finally, the warrior spoke. "Do tell."



Chapter Three

One by one, the tents of Lilith and her followers were taken down and carefully stowed in the wagons. Many hands made light work of it, since nearly a hundred Amazons came out to help. The atmosphere was a strange mix of joy and sadness, and the air was filled with long stretches of Amazon work songs, followed by equal, more restful spaces of gentle Sumerian melodies – each oddly complimenting the other.

When the horses were all hitched to the wagons and the last of the gear was secured, everyone slowly moved inside the city and gathered around the central square before the doors of the council house. In front of the assembled throng of hundreds of women – and one man – Ephiny and Gabrielle embraced Lilith warmly.

"Lilith," Ephiny announced, "the Amazon nation has been fortunate indeed to have known you and your followers. You’ll always have a special place in our hearts, and we’ll miss you. All of you will be welcome if the Fates ever allow you to return."

Lilith laughed sadly. "Oh Ephiny, return we cannot, for that is not our path. However," the Priestess turned to address the crowd, "five of our priestesses and their acolytes wish to stay, if you will accept them. Jocelyn, you and the rest may come forward." She motioned to a petite, dark-haired woman standing near the front of the crowd, who separated from the rest of the priestesses, followed by nine other women.

"Regent Ephiny, Queen Gabrielle," Jocelyn announced, "we’ve seen the devotion the Amazons feel towards Inanna, and it would be sad indeed if that devotion were to grow dim. It would be great pleasure if you allowed us to stay here, build a small temple, and keep alive the teachings of the Goddess."

Ephiny and Gabrielle shared a brief, knowing look. Lilith had sent word early that morning that some of her followers would be staying, and Gabrielle had reworked the Letter of Debt in anticipation. "Well," the bard began, "Petitions for citizenship have to be approved by the council." She turned to the half dozen village elders who stood in ranks behind her. "What does the council think?"

The stunned elders looked at each other for several moments, then Althena, the Council leader, spoke up. "The uh, Council has no objections."

Gabrielle turned back to the dark-haired priestess and the women with her. "Then as Queen I welcome you to the Amazon nation. May you and your descendants enrich our land and our people." A loud, sustained cheer broke out from the crowd as Jocelyn and the others walked over and hugged Ephiny, Gabrielle, and the rest of the Council in turn.

When things had calmed down a little, Lilith raised a hand. "Gabrielle, Ephiny and assembled Council, you should know also that five of my Guardians wish to join you as well, and serve their lives defending the Amazon Nation. Dulith?"

Five of the guards stepped forward, led by one of the younger women. Dulith spoke, "Amazons, your discipline and devotion to self-defense are a joy and pleasure to us. Although it pains us to leave our beloved Lilith, the Amazon way has stolen our hearts. We ask that you find us worthy to continue the training we’ve begun here, and help defend the Nation in its times of trouble."

Smiling, Gabrielle turned to the elders. "Sounds OK to me."

Althena didn’t even look at the others, who were all nodding enthusiastically anyway. "Of course. They’re fine warriors. They can probably teach us a few things."

"Then it’s settled," Gabrielle agreed. "Pending official ceremony, welcome, fellow Amazons!"

There followed another round of hugs and applause, then Dulith stepped back. "Of course, we must serve and protect Lilith on the coming journey – that’s a duty we cannot and will not abandon. However, when the journey is over and all are safe, we’ll return with the warriors you send with us."

Gabrielle smiled. "I wouldn’t expect anything less." Then she stepped back. "Lilith," she announced, holding up the Letter of Debt, "your obvious friendship towards the Amazon Nation, as shown by your followers’ desire to remain and both help defend and enrich it, renders any Letter of Debt almost unnecessary, however…" She paused, just for dramatic effect. Can’t help it, she thought, not with an audience this big. "You have enjoyed the protection and sustenance of Amazonia, and such a thing is not offered by us lightly. Therefore," she unrolled the small scroll, "from this day forward, you will always respond to any request of assistance in defending the Amazon Nation, sending whatever help you’re able and is prudent given your own circumstances."

"This I agree to with all my heart," Lilith responded so everyone could hear her clearly. "I would have offered no less. It would be of the greatest pleasure for us. I hope only that you are never in such danger as to require our help."

Gabrielle smiled. "Us too. Which is why, as a token of our continuing friendship and your debt, we will also require that every year, on the day of summer Solstice, you will have delivered to us three of your finest apples, as an offering to Artemis and a tribute to the Nation."

"This also will be great pleasure," Lilith began. "However, as I have told you, there will come a time –"

"I’m getting to that," Gabrielle leaned in and whispered. "Trust me here." Lilith only smiled and straightened.

The Amazon Queen raised her voice again. "Let this offering continue as a symbol of gratitude from the followers of Inanna to the Amazon Nation until the day comes when you feel you must close yourselves off from the world. At that time, send a delegation of your people, and we will feast and celebrate our friendship once more. Then, years from now, according to your beliefs, when you feel it is safe to emerge, find us again, wherever we may be, that we might once more join together. This is a debt of untold years we ask, that we all keep alive our memory of this time together. Can we all agree?"

Lilith nodded. The council nodded. Gabrielle beamed. "Then as Queen of the Amazons," she announced, "and with the full voice of my people, I wish you luck with your journey. May you remain safe and well for all time."

There were more cheers. "I thank you, Queen Gabrielle," Lilith said, her voice somehow carrying over the growing din of the assembled women. "We thank you all, from deep in our sincere hearts. I give this land the blessing of the Earth."

* * *

Gabrielle took a brief half hour to clear up a few remaining details with the Council, then after the Council chamber was cleared, took a moment to quietly say goodbye to Ephiny. "Ephiny," she said affectionately, "you’re the best." The bard looked down, suddenly feeling a little guilty. "I’m sorry you have to do all this by yourself. I wish I could be here more…"

The blonde regent shook her head, smiling. "Gabrielle, this isn’t the first time in our history we’ve had an absent Queen. We’ll be fine." She rolled her eyes, "And it wasn’t like I didn’t want to be in charge either." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "I wasn’t born into royalty Gabrielle. I worked hard. I was a good soldier. I fought and scraped for every advantage … sometimes I was completely ruthless when I wanted to get ahead."

Ephiny looked at the floor. "I remember being so angry when you were made a princess – didn’t know then how … how good you are."

The regent straightened. "I want you to know you’re a fine Queen, Gabrielle, whether you know it or not. When you and Xena are ready to stop wandering, I pray to Artemis you’ll settle here, and … and…" Ephiny’s brows furrowed. "She’d better appreciate you," she said sharply. Then more softly, she added, "And she’d better not get herself killed."

Gabrielle nodded, taking the Amazon’s hand gently. "You really loved Phantes, didn’t you?"

Ephiny stiffened, then sighed. "Yes," she answered quietly, then gasped, "Gods, I shouldn’t have … I didn’t want to…"

Gabrielle held the hand tighter, brushed her other fingers along the forearm. "Love is a precious thing Ephiny. It might sneak up on us when we don’t expect it sometimes, but never regret it. I’m so sorry you had such little time together, but the love you had was real, and wonderful, and you had a son together. Xenan is amazing – he’s growing so fast, and he’s so smart." The bard chuckled. "I saw how he was standing only a couple of hours after being born, and I hear he was talking just a couple of months later. The few moments we had together yesterday – It’s strange, because he didn’t seem to want to talk at first, but when he finally did, he almost managed to quote Socrates."

Gabrielle and Ephiny both laughed. It felt so good to talk about families, about personal things, and not the problems of the Nation for once. Then the young woman looked up and asked, "When did you know? I mean, that you and Phantes…"

Ephiny brushed her thumb over Gabrielle’s hand. "Not long after I met him," she said, simply. "At first I was actually kind of disgusted with him. He just looked so helpless and scared – I thought he was pathetic." She chuckled. "But later I realized that was just because he was honest about his feelings, not because he was weak. He never hid anything … I think that’s what I loved about him most." The regent blinked, paused. "When I confronted him that first time, he told me the truth, and somehow he saw right through me when he did it, almost as if he knew the reasons behind my questions, even when I didn’t yet." Ephiny shook her head, blushed lightly. "He could warm my heart just by walking into the room, and that … doesn’t happen very often…" Her voice drifted off.

Gabrielle looked thoughtful for a moment, then hesitantly began, "Ephiny, I’m sorry I can’t return those feelings. Artemis knows, if it weren’t for the way I feel about Xena, I really believe we could be happy together." She paused. "I do love you Ephiny, and I care about you more than anyone. You’re the best, but don’t … don’t pine for me. Promise? Find someone who can love you the way you deserve. I don’t want you to be alone."

Ephiny looked down at her with an odd half smile. She sighed, then shrugged. "Hey, listen my Queen, it’s not like I don’t get offers."

Gabrielle chuckled. "Oh really? Can’t understand why." She stopped teasing. "I have so much to thank you for Ephiny … more than you’ll ever know." Once again they hugged each other tight.

As they slowly parted, Ephiny suddenly gripped Gabrielle’s strawberry blonde head in her strong Amazon hands and covered the bard’s mouth with a passionate kiss that lasted a long couple of seconds. Then Ephiny broke it off and strode out of the council house without looking back or speaking another word.

Gabrielle stood frozen in place, heart racing, fighting for breath. She gently placed a finger on her still tingling lips. Merciful Artemis! Ephiny? she thought, head spinning. Is that what it’s like? Maybe I’d better think about this again – if Xena ever did that I couldn’t possibly survive …I’d catch fire or explode or burst open or shake into little tiny pieces or…

* * *

Gabrielle hurried out to the slowly organizing caravan to look for Xena. She found the warrior sitting on the ground by the lead wagons in a small circle with Meleager, Solari – who would command the Amazons on the journey – and Elena, the Amazon’s eldest scout. As the bard approached, she began to pick out the conversation.

"…they’ll just whittle us down that way," Solari pleaded.

"No, because they won’t get the chance," Xena said. "I know it’s a risk, but it’s a small one."

"What’s going on?" Gabrielle asked.

"It looks like we’re walking into an ambush," Solari replied spitefully. "Without bothering to warn anyone."

"Solari," Meleager groaned, "we’ve been over this."

"You’re all dead wrong!" Solari spat. "Sisters will be killed!"

"Uh, excuse me," Gabrielle broke in, thumping her staff on the ground. "I asked, ‘What’s going on?’"

Xena turned to the scout and prompted, "Elena?"

The older Amazon sighed, then turned to her Queen. "While scouting ahead, we found a band of about thirty-five slavers – it looks like two groups joined together – already laid in ambush less than half a day’s ride along the western road." She paused. "We infiltrated their camp as best we could, and it doesn’t seem like they know how many soldiers will be traveling with you, but –"

Solari cut her off. "But the best thing to do would be to swing north and avoid them –"

"But…" Meleager broke in, then went quiet with a look from Xena.

"But nothing!" Solari insisted. "Our defenses are better than we might hope, but they’re still pretty slim considering. But we should head north, keep away from trouble, then head west. But if we let these tiny bands attack us, we’ll just lose soldiers. Maybe just one or two each time, but it’ll add up. Before long, we won’t have enough left to defend us if we really get hit hard. But even if it’s just a test, someone’s bound to get killed. It’s stupid!" she added finally.

"So," Gabrielle said slowly, "I take it there’s another opinion?"

Xena nodded to Meleager. "Well," he began, "thing is, we’re pretty boxed in as far as the route goes. Crossing into Thrace at Byzantium is about the only way – we could go northeast around the Black Sea, but it’d take weeks longer and we’d have a Tartarus of a time getting through the mountains. Everything’s OK really, since we’re pretty confident about both the Guardians and the Amazons. Trouble is we, ah, don’t really know how well they’ll work together. We’ve got to know whether they can handle themselves, and," he paused. "Most of all we need to know whether our traveling plan works. So a, um, small band of the enemy would –"

"Be a good test of our defenses," Gabrielle finished. She thought for a moment, looking at Xena. There had to be more. "So, what else?"

Xena just met her gaze without expression before turning to Elena again. "Tell her."

"OK," Elena set her jaw. "Here’s the real problem. Everywhere our scouts went they came across other scouts. We avoided being seen by the enemy very well," she said with a note of simple pride, "but these men were set up at all points of the compass, and they had messengers ready with fast horse. Worse, although they wore two different insignia, they were mixed groups, and neither matched the clothing of the slavers to the west, which means…" Her voice trailed off.

"Which means we’re facing someone with the resources to find us anywhere we go," Xena said simply. "That many scouts means an army. It just makes it that much more important we test our defenses."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. I’ve got the deciding vote don’t I? Can I knowingly send everyone into a situation where someone will possibly, even probably be killed?

After a long moment, the young Amazon Queen asked, "Can we stay here longer, train together some more?"

Solari turned away with a disgusted grunt. Xena and Meleager looked at each other briefly.

"No," Xena said, with just a hint of sadness under the strength only Gabrielle probably caught. "If they’re that organized, giving them more time would only make the risk worse."

"Can we warn the others?" the bard Queen asked, knowing the answer.

"No," Xena answered in the same tone. "If our strategy doesn’t work, we need to know now, when it’s still possible to retreat to safety."

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. "So it’s a matter of strategy then?"

Xena’s voice seemed far away. "Strategy against time," she answered. Then more slowly, she added, "And against lives. Maybe a few now against many later."

Gabrielle inhaled deliberately. The greatest good for the greatest number … Gods, sometimes I really hate being Queen…

Then a thought struck her. "Wait a minute," she said with some excitement. "Do the Guardians have any trained scouts?"

"Yes, they do," Elena answered.

Gabrielle nodded. "Good. Were any of them with you when you found the slavers to the west?"

Elena smiled. "No, they weren’t. None of the Guardians were. They were here, training."

"Then fine," Gabrielle said, pleased with herself. "We’ll send them ahead in the morning, instead of Amazon scouts. It’ll be a good idea to test them as well, and see how quickly we can form a strategy based on what they find." She turned to Xena. "Wouldn’t that be a fairer test anyway? Hopefully it’ll be closer to what would happen for real. If we’re all doing our jobs, we shouldn’t just blunder into a complete ambush in the first place, right?"

The warrior looked away for a moment, but let a thin smile slip out. "Fair enough."

"I’m sorry Solari," Gabrielle turned, "but they’re right. It’s a risk, but if the system – the whole system – works, then it should be a small one. We’ll leave in two hours, as planned, and no one will warn anyone."

Solari stood. "The Queen has spoken," she said, but seemed much less distraught than before. "I’d better grab my stuff." She strode off, Elena following.

Meleager stood as well. "You made the right decision Gabrielle. That was … well, that was great. Now, I gotta run too. See you in a couple of ticks." He patted her shoulder and left.

Gabrielle leaned her forehead on her staff and gave a long, heavy sigh.

"So," came Xena’s voice from behind her, "when did you become a tactician as well as a bard, fighter, and Queen?"

Gabrielle gave a dry laugh, turned to look up at the warrior, who was smiling with something very close to open pride. "Oh, I dunno," the bard smiled back warmly. "I guess you’re rubbing off on me more and more every day."

Xena looked suddenly wistful. "Yeah, well, don’t take that too far. You were very close to siding with me completely and risking a lot more lives. But you found a way." The warrior put a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Meleager is right – what you just did was incredible. I love … I love it when you surprise me like that."

Gabrielle just let herself look into Xena’s pale blue eyes, then placed her hand over the warrior’s and gave it a light squeeze. By Artemis, the young woman thought. I hope so Xena …I hope so much…

* * *

The moving village of Inanna left the main Amazon city a short time later. They were accompanied by nearly twice their allotted force of soldiers, some traveling casually, just there to watch over the wagons until they reached the border. The rest, the ones who would continue on for the journey, walked or rode in their assigned positions while Xena, Meleager, and Morgin spent the rest of the day circling the whole group as it moved, checking for possible gaps or things that might need changing. At appointed times, they would form together along with Solari at the front or rear of the column to discuss what they thought.

Just before sunset they came short of reaching the border. "Pull up," Xena commanded over her shoulder. "Time to camp."

"I’ll get the watches set up," Meleager announced, turning his horse. "Morgin?" The First Guardian nodded and pulled alongside him wordlessly as they rode off.

Gabrielle and Solari walked up to Xena. "Hey," Gabrielle smiled.

"Hey yourself," the warrior smiled back.

"I rode with Lilith part of the way," the bard said. "She wants to see you once you’ve finished checking on the camp."

"Anything in particular?" Xena asked.

"She wants to have some kind of celebration tonight," Gabrielle answered. "She figures it’ll be the last chance before we get wherever we’re going. Wants to know if it’s OK, I guess."

"Yeah, I’ll talk to her," the warrior said, turning Argo. "I’d get a few stories ready if I were you, oh bard," she grinned over her shoulder as she cantered off. "This might be your last audience for a while, and I know how you love an audience…"

Solari watched the warrior ride away. "She always tease you like that?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Gabrielle admitted, smiling after the receding form.

The Amazon looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know, if I didn’t know better –"

"Don’t even say it!" Gabrielle cut her off.

* * *

That night, there was dancing around the fire, a lot of song, and Gabrielle told a number of stories, after which Lilith did a special dedication under the moon in honor of Artemis. The Priestess led the ceremony in front of the altar, which had been placed before her tent, ringed again by twelve smaller tents, the only ones that had been set up in the camp.

Earlier, Xena had been adamant about keeping things simple and cutting them off as early as possible. "Lilith, the last thing we need is a bunch of hung over travelers who haven’t gotten much sleep."

"This I know as the truth," the Priestess had replied with a gentle smile. "But once we are beyond the Amazon border, there will be no more chance to worship until we reach our valley. I assure you," Lilith had touched the warrior’s arm softly, "my followers know … ah, that phrase … ‘Know the drill’? We can still be ready to leave within an hour of dawn. I will end things promptly this night, and have made this plain to all. We will be ready come the sun. Fear not, Xena. It is a farewell gift to the Amazons, and to ourselves. Please see the truth in it."

"Yeah, all right," the warrior had relented. "Can’t see any harm."

After Gabrielle had finished the last of her stories and basked in the applause – Xena’s right, I love an audience, she admitted to herself – the bard had found Xena at the edge of the clearing and sat down beside her to watch the ceremony. The bard had a scroll and quill at the ready. "I should probably write this down," she quipped. "It’s an ancient ceremony, after all."

"Good plan," Xena nodded with amusement, then set to sharpening her sword, although she watched along with the intent young scholar beside her.

Lilith led her followers in a song, a sensuous rhythm that had everyone swaying in unison for a long, lingering time, joining all who were assembled with a common voice. The effect was mesmerizing. Even Xena seemed affected by it, as the warrior ceased her sharpening, rationalizing that she didn’t want to interrupt – in fact, in would have taken serious effort to tear her eyes away.

When the song was over, the priestesses rose and chanted:

"Behold the three-formed Goddess;

She who is ever three – maid, mother, and crone.

Yet is she ever one;

She in all women, and they all in her.

Look on these three, who are one, with a fearless love,

That you too, may be whole."

"Behold," Lilith took a step forward from the altar, holding her arms out before her. "I am Inanna, the Goddess of Earth, the power of Creation."

"The power of Creation," came the chant.

"I am pleasure, and love, and wisdom."




Lilith raised her arms, then intoned:

"My furrow,

The Boat of Heaven,

Is full of eagerness like the young moon.

My untilled land lies fallow.

As for me, Inanna,

Who will plow my fertile soil?

Who will plow my high field?

Who will plow my wet ground?"

The other priestesses stood and each took an Amazon by the arm. The supplicants were clothed in simple white robes, and all seemed to have been recently bathed, freshly scrubbed skin glowing in the firelight. Priestesses and Amazons arranged themselves in a semi-circle around Lilith, then they all responded:

"Goddess, I will plow your fertile soil.

I will plow your high field.

I will plow your wet ground."

Lilith answered:

"Then come to me now,

Oh dearest of my heart!

Our pleasure for the Earth,

Our love for the Earth.

All become one,

Joined with the body of the Goddess.

Hold me and love me,

Inanna, who brings forth life."

"Inanna, who brings forth life!" the other priestesses answered.

The priestesses each led their Amazon around to one of the smaller tents and ushered her inside. Lilith stood for a moment in front of the altar, then gestured towards Meleager, who walked up and embraced her. The two of them entered the central tent, and for a time the camp was strangely quiet.

"Gods," Gabrielle breathed, "That’s uh, that’s some ceremony…"

"Have to admit," Xena answered, "I’m starting to understand why they call them ‘Sacred’." The warrior sighed. "C’mon," she urged, "we should get some sleep."

"Yeah," Gabrielle replied, feeling oddly sullen, not able to put her finger on why. "Guess so."

The bard followed Xena to a spot just downhill from one of the watch points. After they’d unpacked their bedrolls, Xena sat on a log and began the process of taking off her armor. The bard moved to help.

"Gabrielle…" the warrior began to protest.

"Ah Xena, come on," the bard chided. "I used to do this all the time … it’s not like I don’t know how."

"Whatever," the warrior replied, allowing Gabrielle to undo the hooks and clasps, then set the brasswork aside. "Thanks," Xena said, carefully – too carefully for the bard not to notice the way the warrior was holding back.

Once again, Gabrielle set her hands to work over the warrior’s muscles, knotted from a day in the saddle. Feeling Xena gradually loosen and relax made Gabrielle feel warm and wanted.

And yet, once again, when the warrior seemed to enjoy it just enough, she started to pull away. "’Night Gabrielle…" Xena stood, took a few steps up the hill.

"Xena, please," the bard cried out. I can’t live like this anymore. She searched for words. "Please, don’t go. I’m not … dangerous or anything."

The warrior stopped. Without turning around, she said, "I dunno about that. You can kick around the best of them by now. Don’t need my help much anymore."

"Xena, I’ll always need your help," Gabrielle answered. "I’m … I’m just a village girl, after all. I don’t know a lot when it comes down to it. You’re the world to me. My world. I … need you. Please stay. Talk to me at least. After tonight we might not get much chance to … be together."

"Yeah," Xena sighed, turning. "Look…" She paused. "Gabrielle, I know for a while we haven’t been as … close as we used to be."

"Yeah, I’ve noticed," the smaller woman tried to smile. "You were so open, so…" The bard found herself carefully struggling for words. "So relaxed after you … After we found the ambrosia and brought you back. You were playful, even – gods Xena, I never expected, never hoped to see you just laugh and make jokes. It was … It was wonderful." Gabrielle looked at the ground. "Then we met the Horde," she looked away, uncertain. "And things just … changed. You haven’t been the same since then."

Gabrielle caught Xena’s eyes. "Please. What happened?"

Xena looked into the bard’s face, saw it full of sincerity and concern, an expression that always moved her warrior’s heart. "Gabrielle," she began with difficulty, "the Horde … It was the purest kind of evil I’d ever known." The warrior looked up at the sky. "Even in my darkest days as a warlord, I could still use them to frighten the troops." She smiled wryly. "I’d threaten to chain them to the ground for the Horde to find if they disobeyed. It was … comforting, in way. No matter what I did, there was always something worse."

The warrior swallowed. "When we … when I met them again, I just let everything dark inside come out. I didn’t even think about it really. No matter how much I thought I’ve changed, it was … It was easy."

The red-gold blonde took a step forward and touched the warrior’s arm lightly. "It was a hard time Xena," Gabrielle soothed. "It frightened me too. I was as confused as you were."

The warrior gave a cold laugh and pulled away. "Oh yeah, we were both so confused! You tried to help, I just did my level best to slaughter them all. I thought I was doing it because I had to, but really … now I know I did it just because I could. An army at my back, an enemy I could destroy without mercy – I slipped into the darkness like a well-worn boot. I was enjoying it!"

"Xena," Gabrielle insisted, "we talked about it then. You really did do only what you thought you had to. No, listen!" She cut the warrior off, then said quietly. "Let it go Xena. Just look at what you’re doing to yourself now. Do you think if you really were that evil it would bother you like this?"

Xena closed her eyes. "You don’t know what I really am, Gabrielle. Who knows when it might happen again? Next time…"

"Xena," Gabrielle said gently. "The only way you could ever hurt me is by shutting me out. It tears me apart to see you hate yourself this way." She paused, took a step closer. "When I think about what you’ve been through, how hard it must be for you…"

"Stop," the warrior turned away. "Don’t you see? You’re the last person who should be carrying that kind of weight. You’ve never hurt a soul. You should be off somewhere, telling your stories, making people happy, loving life…"

"Xena," Gabrielle broke in quietly. "I do love my life. With you. If I didn’t want to be with you, more than anything else, I wouldn’t be." She chuckled softly, resting a hand on the warrior’s shoulder. "Gods know you’ve given me enough chances to leave. I know you. I see the good in you, and I don’t expect the worst ten years of your life to disappear overnight. We’ll work through it, like we always have … Together."

The bard paused. She knew how her companion never felt comfortable hearing things said out loud. She did it anyway. "I love you Xena," Gabrielle said, softly, slowly. "Nothing you do, or have done, will ever change that."

Xena finally turned her head to look at the bard with an almost painful expression, but her eyebrow was raised playfully. "Guess I’m stuck with you then, huh?"

Feeling oddly exhausted, Gabrielle pressed her forehead against the other woman’s solid shoulder. "You’d better believe it. I’ve worked for it too hard."

Xena ran her hand softly through the bard’s hair. "Stubborn like a mule," she chided gently, rewarded by Gabrielle’s arms going around her in a fierce hug.

The warrior returned the embrace for a long moment. Then she sighed, exhaling with effort. "All right," she said, gathering herself. "Look, I’m sorry, but I have to check the watch posts. No, it’s all right," she insisted as Gabrielle started to protest. "It’s just my job. Someone has to. Solari’s on her own watch now. Morgin’s taking last watch, so hopefully she’s asleep, and Meleager, well," she laughed, "I think he’s busy. It’ll take an hour or so, so turn in, get some sleep yourself. I mean that. We’ve got a long day tomorrow."

"Yeah," Gabrielle sniffled, but smiled. "Guess so."

* * *

Of course, sleep was completely impossible for the young bard. Instead she lit a torch, resting her back against a tree as she took out her quill and scroll. Trouble was, that didn’t really work either. Her mind wandered too easily, and almost every other line had to be crossed out and rewritten. It seemed like a lot of time passed, and still Xena hadn’t returned.

Gabrielle was no closer to sleep than when she’d begun, and her frustration grew with the warrior’s continuing refusal to come back. Then a soft voice came from beside her. "Why are you not sleeping, young Gabrielle?"

The bard should have jumped at the sound, yet the gentle ease of the words simply caused her to turn her head. "Oh, hi Lilith. What are you doing here?"

Crouching only a foot or so away, the Priestess smiled warmly. "Meleager has fallen asleep, as many men are wont to do. In truth he has a warrior’s stamina, but I demand too much of him I fear." She laughed softly. "Perhaps I should have stayed, yet I am restless with thoughts of the journey continuing when dawn returns. I decided to wander. I found you. You are restless as well?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle sighed. "A little. I had a talk with Xena earlier. We worked out a few things, or at least I hope we did. She had to check on the guards, so I’ve been, well, waiting for her to come back. I think things were OK, but she’s … she’s hard to figure out sometimes."

"This I can see," Lilith agreed, sitting down. "Her heart is set against itself, and lacks the trust of her own feelings. She has endured much sadness, and blames herself." The Priestess looked down. "It is a hardship I know well, for I too was once forced on a path I did not choose, and rather than understand that it was something I could not control, I chose to believe it was my nature to be so. It is an odd, perverse kind of pride to believe this, to think oneself so immune to the whims of fate that you would choose to follow darkness rather than accept that at times, your life is beyond your control or understanding."

"Lilith," Gabrielle soothed, "sometimes things just happen."

"Ah, Gabrielle," the Priestess laughed, flowing around the bard in a warm embrace. "You spread such goodness. You give of yourself even when there is no such need."

Lilith eased away, then brushed her hand along Gabrielle’s face. "I am long since past the time when I require healing, young one," she assured. "I show what I feel from one moment to the next because it is right for me to do so. Open honesty is best for me, I have found. If I appear sad, or troubled, or amused, worry not, for I am a creature of circumstance. I live only for the here and now, because I must. Things which strike me more deeply, I will make plain."

Lilith looked away again, smiling even wider. "…whenever it is prudent, given my own circumstance." She laughed lightly. "You have a simple gift of words Gabrielle. It has been some time since I knew one who had such a grasp of tales in this way."

Gabrielle blushed. She loved an audience, but when one person – especially someone she knew – complimented her, she was never quite sure how to deal with it. "I try my best," she stammered.

"You do well," Lilith replied, touching her gently. The Priestess sighed. "And with Xena. I have seen what is in each of you. She is strong, yet dwells too much on what she has done, and not enough on who she is. It is rare I meet one who sees herself so blindly, yet is so true to her nature at the same time. She is like a puzzle box, one layer yielding truth only to reveal further contradiction."

Lilith cupped Gabrielle’s face in her slim hand, a gesture at once so intimate, yet so casual, the bard felt enraptured and calm all at once. "And beside her, you too are bounded in layers: Strong and innocent, curious and wise, impatient and understanding. How is this?"

Gabrielle shrugged, not knowing how to respond. "Xena is … well, she’s who she is," the bard answered honestly. "I help her when I can. Me? I just got lucky. I followed a hero and we became, well," she paused. "We became very close. Why is that so hard to understand?"

Lilith shook her head slowly. "Because two such as you do not happen, Gabrielle, not together. One so open and yet so wise, one so troubled and yet so strong. Each of you knows herself so intimately, yet it is the other you know best, and still there is much you do not see. It is … most unusual."

Gabrielle laughed. "Well, that’s Xena. ‘Unusual’ is putting it mildly."

Lilith cocked her head, settling back. "I can see you following a hero, for you are a restless soul, with a depthless need of knowing of the world. When did you first see her for herself?"

"What do you mean? When did I see she was troubled … her dark side?" the bard asked.

"That as well," Lilith replied, laying back and smiling. "You are a teller of tales. Tell me."

Gabrielle thought for a moment, then tucked her legs under herself, sitting cross-legged in front of the tree. While she was usually eager to tell stories about Xena, some of them only brought back memories she would just as soon forget. "Actually," she said, hesitating just a little, "I don’t think I’ve ever told this one before."

"Then I am honored to be the first to hear it," Lilith laughed affectionately. "Yet I believe it needs telling. May my pleasure be yours."

"OK," Gabrielle couldn’t help smiling. "Let me see now…" The bard paused for a moment, then took a breath and began her tale. "Once there was this village girl, who was rescued by a great hero, and decided to follow her. What the girl didn’t know at first was that this hero had a dark past, one that haunted her, and left her troubled…"

The village was called Forsina. It wasn’t very large really, as villages go. It rested quietly in a small valley, nestled against the base of a steep cliff where a river spilled forth. While the valley had proven very fertile, Forsina’s main source of wealth was silver, discovered in the same cave that produced the river, then painstakingly refined and wrought into jewelry and other items.

By common assent, the find had been kept secret. The village’s wares were sold anonymously in small lots at large cities many days’ ride away, and while this meant that no one in Forsina was ever wealthy, everyone was afforded a generous living. Moderate affluence and isolated geography conspired to lull the people into an easy peace. They ate well, everyone had their share of comfort and more, and they were happy. Within a dozen summers crimes were rare – who needed to covet what could be had after a month of trading?

It took almost two generations before their secret was discovered, by a raider named Obportus. A group of his men caught two travelers, laden with glittering trinkets, and slowly roasted them alive until they gave up their village.

Gabrielle had been doggedly keeping up with Xena for a little less than a month. The two had shared several exciting adventures – well, to be honest, Gabrielle had witnessed what she had thought were a couple of exciting adventures. Then one night a drunken conversation at the table next to them in a small, especially nasty tavern caused the warrior to stiffen. Gabrielle never heard exactly what was said, but whatever it was the very air around Xena seemed to grow dark.

The young woman had watched her strong hero grow hard and cold in a way she’d never seen before. The ice blue eyes had glanced around, then seemed to relax, and a slow smile spread across the warrior’s face. She’d stopped talking, but even by then Gabrielle knew that with Xena, sometimes words just … went away.

Gabrielle had simply concentrated on her half-cooked, half-raw venison. As bad as it was, it was the first meal she’d been able to eat at a table in a week. Then the three drunken, heavily armored men had risen noisily to leave. Xena’s eyes settled with irritation on Gabrielle. "Stay right here," the warrior had said, not even waiting for the confused young woman to nod before following the three men out the door.

Gabrielle self-consciously, methodically attacked her meal, ignoring everything that might, or might not have been going on around her. She didn’t feel very comfortable in this kind of place, and wondered why Xena had decided to find a table inside when they’d passed it. Still, she waited for the warrior’s return.

She actually didn’t have to wait long. Xena was back in her seat only minutes later. The armored woman picked up her barely touched mug of port and leaned back in her chair, easy and relaxed, not saying a word. Gabrielle had tried to be as casual, finishing as much of her meal as she deemed edible before sitting back herself. "So," she said, trying not to sound eager. "What happened?"

"Don’t worry about it," Xena replied, barely looking at her. "Get some dessert if you want. We need sleep tonight though. We have to be out by first light."

"Where to?" Gabrielle asked immediately.

Those eyes fastened on her. "Northeast," the warrior replied evenly. "About a day’s ride." Then Xena had cocked an eyebrow in amusement. "All right, let’s say a day and a half, assuming you still don’t want to ride."

Of all the questions she could have asked, Gabrielle made herself ask only one. "You said we should hurry. Do I really have time for dessert?"

To her surprise, the warrior chuckled. "We have time. The morning will be fine, as long as you can get up early." Xena raised an eyebrow, then downed the last of her port. "Stay here, I’ll see what passes for dessert in this place." With that she stood, idly snatching another mug of the drink off the end of the bar as she passed, switching it with her empty in a blur of motion behind her back so quick and silent no one noticed except the strawberry blonde who watched her every move.

By the time the two of them had reached the village of Forsina, Gabrielle had managed to prod Xena into explaining that Obportus had been a minor lieutenant in her army. "What’s he like?" Gabrielle had asked.


"So how’d he become a Lieutenant?"

"Because I thought I knew how to control him. He was also creative about causing pain. That was useful, at one time," Xena said flatly. "Later I kicked him out for getting carried away – hurt someone he shouldn’t have, in ways that … weren’t necessary. Seems he’s been busy since. Can’t keep many men with him, but enough to cause trouble around here."

"So we’re going to stop him now, right?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yeah. Looks that way." Xena had looked down at her with casual amusement, but just for a moment, even then, Gabrielle had known the warrior wasn’t as calm as she seemed.

Once they had reached the village, a combination of Xena’s steely remarks and Gabrielle’s dramatic embellishments convinced the wary inhabitants they were in grave danger. Xena had then begun instructing them how to set up defenses: Covered pits, and walls of sharpened stakes at the perimeter for a start. When the warrior discovered that archery was a respected pastime in the village, she soon had everyone who had ever held a bow in their hands practicing – at hastily thrown together, human-looking targets, raised to horseback level. She gently cursed everyone who missed, but skillfully encouraged all who hit their mark.

"Come on you people!" Xena yelled, not angry, just making herself heard, letting her strength carry in her voice. "Your lives depend on this. You’ve got to make every arrow count!"

From her place helping build the defenses, Gabrielle was amazed by how the warrior took charge, instilling courage, or at least a measure of confidence in every archer under her command. Such a natural leader, the young, budding bard thought.

By nightfall, all the villagers who were able to join the defenders were at their posts, and Gabrielle had seen to it the rest were ready at the infirmary and the bucket brigade. Gabrielle had been through a few small skirmishes but this was her first actual battle, although from what she knew of Xena’s ease in combat, the young woman had every confidence they would repel the attackers. The raiders were a small group, yet there were scores of villagers ready to fight them, all thanks to the warrior princess.

Then, through the early morning fog, horsemen thundered towards the village. Frightened by the way the ground shook at their approach, the villagers began to back away. Xena, astride Argo, simply leaned her head down and listened to the sound. "Not a problem," she said, concentrating. "Maybe thirty … no heavy horse. The defenses will hold."

As more and more defenders scuttled away, Gabrielle began to wander up and down the lines, trying her best to calm everyone. She had some success at first, but as the thundering hoofbeats grew louder and the fog began to lift, exposing the solid line of mounted raiders, nearly every villager broke and ran for the safety of their homes.

When the attackers were within twenty yards of the perimeter, Gabrielle shouted at her warrior companion. "Xena!"

Xena seemed to come awake. She looked scornfully at the fleeing villagers. "Figures," was all she said as she kicked Argo forward.

Together the horse and rider leapt over the massive wall of stakes, the warrior using the added momentum to spring off the saddle into the very center of the enemy line, bringing down at least a half-dozen riders and several horses, causing the entire force to pull up short. A whirling flash of steel erupted, followed by Xena’s high, singing battle cry and the screams of wounded men. The raiders moved to counter the disruption in their ranks.

Gabrielle kicked at the few remaining defenders. "Shoot!" She screamed. "And aim at the ones toward the outside!"

The young woman was almost beside herself. She’d seen Xena easily best a dozen men, but to her eyes this was an army. She found herself praying to any god who would listen, hoping the warrior she’d been following would survive. She also quickly realized that if someone didn’t come back and help, the village was lost.

"Come on you monkey’s asses!" she screamed at the village, hurling at them the worst curses her bard’s mind could think of. "Fight for your lives! Your homes! What in the name of Hephaestus are you waiting for?"

Hephaestus, the patient forge, was the patron deity of Forsina. How this screaming young girl knew their god the villagers didn’t know, but they couldn’t ignore the name, and slowly returned to the lines.

In some triumph, Gabrielle jumped up on the makeshift battlements, worriedly looking out onto the field of battle. What she saw stopped her breath.

Xena stood amidst a very large pile of bodies, laughing as Obportus’ remaining troops began to run away. With a quick forward flip she was down off the mountain of the fallen and was running after the breakers, still laughing, pursuing them, closing the distance, easily catching up.

The warrior plunged off the hill at the end of the clearing, disappearing around a stand of trees. The rest was silence.

Gabrielle and the villagers had continued to stare out at the plain. Abandoned horses slowly wandered around the field, nibbling at the grass. Then the bard snapped herself out of it. Forsina was apparently safe. "C’mon," the young woman urged those around her. "We should bury the dead."

It was sunset when the warrior returned, her triumphant silhouette strangely radiant with the sun behind her, swinging her sword easily. Gabrielle’s heart soared at Xena’s return, until the black haired ex-warlord ceased to be an outline against the sun. The bard gasped.

The warrior was grinning a predatory smile, blue eyes flashing, her face and body covered in blood. She lifted her left hand, her dripping prize held high, smiling. Triumphant.

"Obportus won’t bug you again," she said, the raider’s head staring, sightless, out into the growing darkness, his hair twisted in the warrior’s grip.

The villagers dropped what they were doing, gathering around Xena in a loose circle, everyone staring at her in horror. Struggling against her own nausea, Gabrielle had rushed up to the warrior princess, fighting to make eye contact. "Let it go," she said calmly. "Xena, drop it … Please?"

Xena had finally shifted her eyes to rest on Gabrielle’s, and what the warrior saw there caused her bloodstained face to suddenly become puzzled, then grow dark with realization.

"Oh gods," the warrior breathed. She looked down at herself, then her gaze scattered around, seeing fear everywhere – fear and repulsion directed at the warrior who had once been their savior. Finally she settled her eyes back to Gabrielle.

For the briefest of moments, Gabrielle saw Xena’s eyes become those of an animal caught in a trap … hesitant, wounded, pleading. The slightest blink and she would have missed it.

Then the iron behind the eyes had closed down once more. "I’m going to wash up," Xena had said, tossing the head aside and walking away towards the river. "About the bodies," she called over her shoulder, her voice strong. "Bury them as you find them, with all their possessions. If anyone is caught stealing, I will deal with them."

Gabrielle had run after her. "Xena! Are you … all right?"

"I’m fine," Xena had hissed over her shoulder. Then, more gently, added, "It’s not my blood."

The next day they left the valley before sunup, moving very fast, not even saying goodbye. It was all Gabrielle could do to keep the warrior in sight, but she didn’t complain, just kept up as she was getting used to doing. Towards evening, Xena found a clearing and began a fire.

"I thought we weren’t supposed to," Gabrielle had said, puzzled, remembering some advice the warrior had given her once. "If any of Obportus’ men are still around, can’t they spot us by the fire?"

Xena looked up, raising an eyebrow, but there was no humor in the warrior’s face. "No," she said simply. "There aren’t any left." She fed a few more sticks into the growing blaze.

"But … " Gabrielle began, then suddenly understood, and turned in quiet shock to retrieve the food in the saddlebags.

They ate in relative silence. Gabrielle tried several times to start a conversation, but Xena kept her replies too short and to the point for any dialog to grow. Finally, Gabrielle said, "Hey, listen! I haven’t told you the one about how Perseus saved Andromeda yet. Well, as it happened, her father, Cepheus …"

"Perseus was a self-centered little weasel," Xena cut her off wearily, laying back on her bedroll. "And you wouldn’t have liked him."

"But this story is really good," Gabrielle insisted. "It’s so romantic. I’ve been working on it and… "

Xena stopped her with a tired glance. "Sorry bard," she said, her expression all wry amusement, but her eyes still as hard as they had been all day. "I’m really not in the mood. But you must be pretty worn out too. I know I ran you ragged today."

The bard had started to protest, but Xena shushed her. "Gabrielle!" Then more gently. "Please, just go to sleep?"

Shivering a bit, as much due to the chill from her companion as the night air, Gabrielle lay down. Disappointed as she was however, the moment her head hit the pack she used as a pillow she realized Xena was right about how ragged she felt. Within minutes, Morpheus had descended on her exhausted body.

Then in the night came a low, gurgling scream. Gabrielle didn’t even stir at first, then started, wide awake as something moved off to her right. She immediately scrambled up on all fours, crouching low. The shout came again, and even by the low light of the barely glowing embers of the campfire, she realized Xena was sitting up, her sword held out protectively, groaning and thrashing.

Gabrielle waited until the sword stopped moving. She crawled across to the other side of the fire. "Xena?" she said in a soothing voice. "It’s just me. Gabrielle…"

"Gabrielle?" The warrior still seemed tense, confused.

"It’s just a dream," Gabrielle soothed. "It’s OK…"

"Gabrielle…" With that, the warrior came fully awake, but stayed where she was.

Without thinking, the girl placed a small hand on the warrior’s shoulder. Xena tensed at the touch, then seemed to relax, if only a little. "Gabrielle…"

A long moment passed in the dark. Finally, Xena said, "I’m all right." She shrugged. "Go back to sleep."

The small hand didn’t move, didn’t move for a very long time. When Xena sagged forward unexpectedly, Gabrielle leaned forward as well. The touch on the warrior’s shoulder never left.

Then through the darkness the girl heard her own voice, full of the compassion that ached from deep inside her. "It … hurts you. Blood … on your hands…"

The tiniest of shudders ran through the warrior’s body. She masked them by sitting up straight again, but Gabrielle had felt it.

"I lost it yesterday," Xena said matter-of-factly, a moment later. "You shouldn’t have had to see that." There was a long pause, neither woman moving. "Go back to sleep," Xena repeated.

After a time Gabrielle had let the hand on the warrior’s shoulder retreat. "Please Xena," Gabrielle said softly, edging back to her own bedroll. "Please … sleep well."

The concern in her voice made the warrior lift her head, if slightly. Later, the young bard convinced herself Xena’s whispered reply was just the wind in the trees.

"The gods’ blessing on you, Gabrielle."

Her story ended, Gabrielle stared at the ground in front of her, avoiding Lilith’s eyes. Gods, she thought, now I can sleep. I can’t remember when I was this tired.

Lilith was silent for a time, then she spoke, saying quietly, "And when did you know you were in love?"

The bard gave a choking laugh, blinking back tears. "You don’t ask for much, do you?"

A slim hand rested on hers, and a sudden peace filled her. "I am sorry, Gabrielle," Lilith soothed gently. "We will speak of this no more."

"Nah, it’s OK," Gabrielle replied, wiping her eyes and smiling. "It’s just…" she sighed. "It’s just something I feel so stupid about, is all." She looked around at nothing in particular, then back at the Priestess. "Xena had to die before I understood."

Lilith stared. "This is … I am confused." For the first time since Gabrielle had met her, the Priestess seemed at a loss for words.

Gabrielle chuckled, then gave an exhausted sigh. "It’s a long story, and I’m too tired to tell it right." She looked up at Lilith. "The short version," she chuckled again, self-consciously, "is that we were saving some women and children from a cult, and Xena was hit by a log trap. I tried to get her to a healer, but … I couldn’t make it in time and…" The young woman closed her eyes, let out a slow breath. "And she died."

The bard looked up at the stars, making herself continue to explain. "Anyway, she fought it. Somehow she found a way to reach me from the other side, and helped me and some friends find some ambrosia so we could bring her back."

The bard laughed in spite of herself. "That’s a bad way to tell it, I know, but it’s basically what happened." She looked back at the ground. "I hate myself sometimes for being as stupid as I was. I mean, I’d always cared for her, looked up to her. Gods, she’s … she’s heroic and smart and so beautiful. She’s the best friend I ever had, but it wasn’t until … when she was gone, when I thought I’d lost her forever … that I knew…" Gabrielle shifted, went quiet.

Lilith studied the younger woman for a moment with a mixture of awe and, the bard thought, longing. Finally Lilith spoke. "I could not know it was this way. No tale has ever touched me so." The Priestess flowed towards Gabrielle, pulling her close, her full lips brushing lightly against the bard’s before moving up to press against the young woman’s forehead. Lilith lowered her face until it was almost touching Gabrielle’s. "To defeat death with love … No, it is too beautiful."

The Priestess pulled away slightly, openly gazing into Gabrielle’s face as she ran the backs of her hands through the younger woman’s hair and down across her shoulders. "Ah, would that I had met you sooner Gabrielle … would that I had met your warrior. But no," she smiled ruefully, "that is wrong. I am thinking only of selfishness." She ran her hand idly over the ground. "Oh Inanna, what fools these mortals be…"

When the bard could look up again, Lilith was standing. "For now, Gabrielle, I bid you rest, and an easy sleep," she smiled. "Trust that your love is strong, and shines for all to see – of this you should have no fear. I wish only life, and joy, and love for you. Until morning, farewell."

"Good night Lilith," the bard said as the Priestess left.

Though still disappointed Xena hadn’t come back yet, Gabrielle felt utterly exhausted. She snuffed out the torch and lay back on her bedroll, falling into a deep sleep almost as soon as she lay her head down.

The next day dawned bright and clear – or at least it would very shortly. The sun hadn’t quite come up when the bard awoke, Xena gently nudging her. "C’mon sleepyhead," the warrior said with mock sternness, "we’ve got a long, dangerous day ahead of us."

"S’okay," Gabrielle mumbled, "I’mup…" As the young woman opened her eyes and half sat up however, the sight that greeted her made her heart jump enough to bring her fully awake: Xena was lying only a foot or so away, and their bedrolls were once again side by side – something that hadn’t happened in months.


Chapter Four

Gabrielle was nervous as the caravan left Amazon territory that morning. Out of the huge group of women – and one man – who began the journey, she was among the small handful that knew that danger lay ahead. Morgin and her two best scouts rode out just before sunup, and true to her word, Lilith and the rest of her followers were ready less than an hour later. Gabrielle politely declined Lilith’s invitation to ride in the Priestess’ wagon, preferring to walk along with Solari.

It was mid-morning when Vana, one of the two scouts, came galloping back down the road. Xena signaled the caravan to a halt.

"Slavers!" Vana called breathlessly as she approached, pulling her mount to a halt in front of Xena and Meleager.

"Where? How many?" Xena asked.

"An hour’s ride west, in ambush along the road … at least thirty," Vana replied, catching her breath. "Morgin and Treya sent me back while they remained to scout further. Morgin will return as soon as more is known. Treya will stay, and note if there is any change."

"Do the slavers know we’re coming?" Xena asked.

"It’s possible," Vana said, smiling, "but we found and took down two of their own scouts. One is dead, having fought Morgin – she didn’t have a choice. The other is a prisoner, and she will bring him with her. It was felt he would only slow me down, and that you should know of this as quickly as possible."

"All right. Good work," Xena commented. "Find Solari, tell her and Lilith, and put the watch commanders on alert – I want everyone in position immediately. Then come back for a debriefing."

Vana nodded and spurred her horse back through the caravan. Meleager turned to Xena with a half smile "I guess it starts, huh?" he chuckled.

"Looks that way," Xena replied.

"I’ll check the deployment," Meleager turned his horse. "And Xena," he said, making sure he caught her eye, "I just want you to know, thank you. I really owe you one." He extended his arm.

Xena raised an eyebrow, but smiled. "You should wait until this is over to thank me," she said with a note of dry amusement. "Doing it now is just asking for bad luck. Still, you’re welcome." She clasped his forearm and they gripped firmly for a brief moment.

"And you’re right, Meleager the Mighty, you owe me big time." She flashed her eyes at him, then gave his horse a slap on its flank and sent him on his way.

* * *

The slaver scout told everything he knew with no trouble at all. Surrounded by an armed force that was much larger than he’d ever dreamed, he clearly feared for his life, which surprised no one – slavers and those who traveled with them were usually monstrous cowards at heart. Between what he told them and what Morgin could confirm, the situation wasn’t good. A large tree had been felled across the road, and the slavers were waiting in ambush.

"We could just let him go back to his, um, companions," Gabrielle mused out loud. "Maybe when they know what they’re up against, they’ll just leave us alone. We outnumber them by a lot. Even if you only count soldiers, it’s more than two to one."

"Maybe," Xena replied, "but I don’t want to count on it."

"Yeah," Meleager agreed. "And they might come back with help, or figure some other way to trick or trap us."

"I would," Xena said simply.

Meleager scratched his beard. "Frontal assault is out, I guess."

"Damn right," Solari insisted. "Too risky."

"The log is the most serious problem," Morgin offered. "Were it not for that, we could almost certainly keep moving and weather the attack. They aren’t many…"

As the discussion continued, Gabrielle motioned to Xena. The warrior rose and joined her, slightly away from the rest. "Xena," Gabrielle began. "You could take these guys – at the very least, you and Meleager, maybe take Morgin or Solari and a couple of others for diversion. Run them off…"

Xena smiled thinly, shaking her head. "You’re right, I probably could, but the journey’s too long. I don’t want this whole camp depending on me, not this early anyway. Something could happen in a day, or a week, and I might not be there anymore."

"Xena…" the bard began.

"It’s all right Gabrielle," the warrior quietly reassured her, "It’s not like I’m writing myself off. Just being practical. You were the one who said we had to find out if the whole system works, remember?"

"Yes, but…" The bard’s words trailed off. Gabrielle didn’t know whether to be hurt or not by the comment, but her frustration was clear. Xena never ran from a fight.

"Look," Xena sighed, but smiled warmly, "I’ll do whatever it takes to keep everyone safe. You know that. But this is just the first obstacle. One way or the other, there isn’t much danger, not really. I’ll give advice, play my part in the plan, but we all need to work together, all right?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle answered thoughtfully, "and a shared victory will help keep everyone’s morale up too. I’m sorry."

"Don’t be," Xena said, giving the bard’s shoulder a squeeze. "You’re just being concerned. Don’t ever lose that – I count on it."

"Deal," Gabrielle smiled back.

* * *

Penthus was getting impatient. Worse, when he thought about it, he realized he was also getting worried.

"So?" Darmus asked spitefully. "What now, oh great leader?"

Penthus just glared at him. The uneasy peace between them had been sorely tested by the waiting game they’d been forced to play, and even their mutual hatred for Meleager and those damned whore guards had been barely enough to keep the two of them together for the last week or so. Then, last night, judging by the bonfire they’d spotted, it seemed he’d guessed right about the road the whores’ caravan was taking out of Amazon territory. That had shut up Darmus at least.

They’d felled the tree Penthus had so carefully chosen – in Zeus’ name, what else had he had to occupy his time? – and the caravan should have pulled up and been stopped by mid-morning. A couple of volleys of flaming arrows later, and their men would have been able to keep the guards at bay long enough to haul off at least a few wagons in the confusion. Then they’d have enough flesh for trade to make the whole thing profitable.

It had seemed like a good plan, but then his scouts that morning hadn’t returned. Then the men he’d sent after the scouts hadn’t returned. Darmus – damn his eyes – had insisted on sending out a few more, and they hadn’t come back either. Now their mild numerical superiority over the guards had dwindled to nothing, and it looked like they didn’t even have surprise on their side anymore.

"They know we’re here. They’re picking us off one at a time," Penthus said.

"Duhhh," Darmus rolled his eyes, spiteful as ever. It was the last thing he ever did in his short, selfish life.

Without looking, Penthus whipped his sword from his scabbard and decapitated his testy ally with a single, powerful sidearm stroke. "Don’t piss me off," he said simply.

As the twitching body fell to the ground, Penthus continued looking thoughtfully down the road. All right, he said to himself, the plan can still work. They should have stopped for the tree, but now they’ve stopped themselves. No big deal.

"Mount up!" he called out to his men – all of them were his now. "I want two groups! We’re heading east. Fan out from the road, and try to stay quiet!"

* * *

Shortly before mid-day, Treya returned to the caravan, bringing news of the slavers’ imminent arrival, but by then everything was already in place. The Guardians had been divided into two squads and posted in the woods on either side of the road well ahead of the caravan, while Amazon archers, sheltered in the first row of wagons, covered the road.

The mounted slavers approached through the woods, planning on surrounding the caravan. It wasn’t a bad idea, but moving through the trees and brush of the forest effectively sacrificed whatever advantage their horses gave them. The Guardians let themselves be seen, then pulled back – falling into neat lines which put them between the enemy and the caravan. The slavers pursued them eagerly, only to be fallen on by Amazons hidden further within the woods and in the trees.

Surrounded and outnumbered, the group to the south offered only token resistance. Xena quickly dispatched their nominal lieutenant by tossing him against a tree trunk like one would swat a mosquito. A single ice-blue glare later and they all their fight was gone. They surrendered quietly.

The group to the north, however, had their leader with them, and his blind rage spurred them to action. Heedless of the Guardians barring his way, Penthus had simply charged the line, galloping towards the wagons as fast as his horse could move through the trees, his men following. While many were knocked from their mounts by sharply wielded wooden swords, at least a half-dozen broke through.

From her place in her wagon, Lilith rose to her feet. Crouching next to her, Gabrielle watched from behind the cover of the wagon’s side planking. Although Lilith had seemed amused by the idea she needed a personal bodyguard, both Xena and Meleager had insisted – Meleager out of concern for the Priestess, and Xena, truthfully, so Gabrielle would have something to do that would keep her as far from the main battle as possible. Now it looked like the battle was coming to her anyway.

"Hey, Lilith," Gabrielle said, tugging at the Priestess’ robe – the bard couldn’t believe how calm she seemed. "Don’t you think you should keep down?"

Meleager galloped after the leader and his men. "Penthus!" he shouted. "Come on you bastard! Hey, bottom-feeder! It’s me you want!"

That brought the slaver up short, his eyes blazing with hate. He turned to his few remaining men. "No prisoners," he hissed, waving an arm in the general direction of the caravan. "Just kill!" Then he spun around, screaming as he charged toward Meleager.

His men continued on, and the first one who broke through the treeline was immediately pincushioned with Amazon arrows. The rest dropped from their horses, pulling out their own bows and crossbows and taking cover behind the trees.

Meleager and Penthus charged each other, their swords ringing out, clashing as they passed. Penthus pulled up and began to turn, but Meleager didn’t bother. He drew Melampus up short and leaped back out of the saddle, twisting around as he did, catching Penthus in a flying body tackle and taking him to the ground. In moments they were both on their feet, Penthus in a low crouch, growling. "I’m gonna bleed you slow!"

Meleager stood with his sword out, but settled into a casual slouch. "Aw come on Penthus, you can’t still be angry about that broken nose? That was years ago."

Xena was just beginning to supervise tying up the captured men to the south when she heard shouts coming from the other side of the road. "Gods, now what?" she grunted, sprinting towards the noise.

A crossbow bolt thunked solidly into the side of the wagon. "Lilith!" Gabrielle hissed insistently, a little frustrated. "You really need to keep down!" She rose to her own feet, reaching out to grab the Priestess by the shoulders and force her under cover, when Lilith’s hand struck within a few inches of her face, faster than the bard could see it move. Clenched in Lilith’s delicate fingers was another bolt.

The Priestess gave a sly grin. "Perhaps you should take cover young one," she said coyly, pressing Gabrielle back down to a sitting position. "I truly need no protecting." Then Lilith’s gray eyes darted to the side and in an instant she was airborne, diving headlong over the bard. She connected with the wagon driver, knocking her from her seat as both women tumbled over the front end of the wagon and out of Gabrielle’s line of sight.

Penthus did exactly what Meleager hoped he would: Charged forward, screaming with anger, his sword making a sloppy arc that Meleager easily countered. The graying warrior landed a solid kick to the slaver’s knee as the bigger man went past, hearing a satisfying crunch as the joint was pushed in a direction nature never intended it to go. Howling in pain, the slaver hopped a couple of yards on his remaining good leg, then turned back to face Meleager again, cold fury in his eyes.

"Aw c’mon Penthus," Meleager drawled, "don’t you think you should just kinda, you know, cut your losses here?"

The slaver drew a dagger and threw it at the aging warrior, who easily batted it aside with his sword. "Guess not," he shrugged as Penthus came at him with another bouncing charge.

Xena ran down the road, sensing the position of the snipers in the treeline. Two were down, but two more were left. With no conscious thought, just instinct and skill, she let fly with the chakram into the woods, angling it off two trees and one sniper’s helmet before it buried itself in the chest of the other. Hearing the sounds of battle continuing from deeper in the woods, she drew her sword and charged into the trees.

Gabrielle scrambled out of the wagon. Lilith was on her side, back arched severely as she listened to the driver’s chest for a heartbeat. "Is she…" Gabrielle began.

The Priestess turned to look at the bard with a strange, tight smile. "No," she half gasped. "She is unharmed, merely knocked senseless. Thank the Goddess I was able to reach her in time."

"Lilith, you’re hurt," Gabrielle observed, taking the Priestess by the arm and helping her sit up, scanning for signs of injury. "What in the name of Artemis made you do that?"

Lilith looked down, closing her eyes, an unreadable expression on her face. Then with a deep sigh she gave a shrug and looked back up with that same tight smile. "Simple, young one. So she would not be struck by this." With that, Lilith half turned and let Gabrielle see the crossbow bolt lodged deep between her shoulder blades.

Xena reached the battle just in time to end it. Having been knocked from their horses, the few slavers with any will to fight weren’t in any shape to be effective, and were easily overpowered. Xena was well pleased with the actions of her troops, none of whom were even scratched. She had passed by where Meleager was fighting the leader, but he hadn’t seemed in need of help. Still, after making sure the Guardians and Amazons had the situation under control, she jogged back in that direction – no sense in leaving anything to chance.

She found Meleager standing with his arms crossed, watching as the slaver dragged himself across the ground, still growling and swinging his sword despite his two obviously broken legs. Xena sheathed her own sword, "Having fun?" she asked Meleager.

He gave a disgusted grunt. "No, not at all." He caught the slaver’s weak swing with the sole of his boot and stepped on the blade, pinning it to the ground. "Lights out, bottom-feeder," he snapped before knocking Penthus out cold.

"Gods Lilith!" Gabrielle gasped. "OK, don’t move! I’ll get Xena, she’ll know what…"

"No, young one," Lilith said quietly, waving her hand. "Do not be troubled. I am in no danger. I am, however, in … uhnn!" she groaned, then unaccountably chuckled. "I am in some pain. Please, help me to stand…"

Wide eyed and totally beyond understanding, the bard took the slim hand in her own and pulled the Priestess to her feet. Lilith swayed a little but miraculously stayed upright. She gently stroked the side of Gabrielle’s face, smiling warmly, and for no reason the bard could fathom she felt her panic subside.

"I wish you to know, young Gabrielle, I have seen into your heart, and trust it with all of my own. Please, have courage." With that, Lilith closed her eyes tightly and slammed herself back against the side of the wagon, driving the bolt all the way through her torso and out the other side.

Gabrielle was simply too shocked and scared for the scream inside to escape. Instead, she stared, mute, as Lilith’s legs buckled slightly. The Priestess made a feeble attempt at reaching for the bolt which now protruded from just under her left collarbone. She looked up at the bard, smiling weakly. "Gabrielle," she gasped, "could you be kind and pull … pull this…"

Numb, the young woman watched as her own hands reached out and gripped the shaft, then with two short tugs, managed to pull it free. "Ahhh," Lilith sighed. "Better."

Gabrielle instantly pushed her fingers over the wound, looking around for something to make a bandage with. "It’s OK Lilith, we’ll get help…"

"Young one," Lilith said softly, her usual warm smile back again, covering the bard’s hands with her own. "There is no need. Truly. Look." She gently pried Gabrielle’s fingers away, and the bard saw that under the small amount of blood, the wound had already closed. She watched, dumbfounded as the small mark it left behind faded before her eyes.

She looked up into Lilith’s amused face. "Gods," the bard breathed, "you’re … you’re…"

"Yes, I am," the Priestess said simply, running her hand over the young woman’s brow and down her cheek. She cocked her head at a coy angle. "It is, I think, time for us to talk. We shall do so tonight, after we are camped. For now there is much to do, and you should find your warrior. I have little doubt she will wish to know you are safe and unharmed."

"Yeah, Xena," Gabrielle babbled. "Oh gods, Xena! She needs to know this … and Meleager! Does he know? He does know. Right?"

Lilith shook her head. "No young one, he does not know, and he should not for a time longer. I will make things plain tonight, after we make camp. Bring Xena as well, as I believe she already has her suspicions, and there is no further point in keeping this from her. For now, however, please respect my wishes and tell no one else. Do you see?"

"Yeah, I see, I guess," Gabrielle said slowly, rubbing her temple, still trying to take it all in.

"Amazon Queen," Lilith said affectionately, but as if talking to a small child, "go now. Find your warrior."

* * *

"Yeah, that fits," Xena said slowly. "Explains a lot."

Gabrielle gave a half grin. "She said you suspected."

"I did, sort of," Xena looked thoughtful. "Question now is, what else has she kept from us? More to the point, what else will she keep from us?"

"Well, we can ask her tonight," the bard said cheerfully. "Personally, I’ve got a million questions."

"You would," the warrior playfully raised an eyebrow. "Personally, I’ve got a bunch of prisoners to deal with. Let’s see now – executing them would be easiest…"


That prompted the warrior into real smile. Xena rolled her eyes unconvincingly. "All right, so we’ll graciously spare their lives. Let’s find Meleager and Solari, see what we can work out."

In the end it was decided to leave the captured slavers at Nimos, a good-sized village not far off. It was slightly out of the way, but the caravan could reach it before nightfall, and if Penthus and his men had been working in the area for any length of time, the villagers would be happy to get their hands on them.

Xena, Meleager and the Amazons had begun stringing the captives into rope trains when Lilith and several of her priestesses approached and stopped them. "Dear one, warrior Xena, it is my wish that they should ride in the wagons, with us."

The two warriors just stared at her, puzzled. "Uh, Lilith," Meleager began, "I don’t think that’s such a good idea. What in Hades’ name for?"

"To reclaim their spirits," Lilith smiled. "We will lead them to the face of Inanna, perhaps then on the road to redemption."

Xena crossed her arms. "Lilith, these men are dangerous…"

"Yes, they are," Lilith said simply, "and they will continue to be so unless they are shown another path. I well know we may not reach them all. It is possible we will not reach any, yet as sons of the Earth they must be given the chance."

Meleager stared at her in disbelief. "Lilith, these men would have kidnapped you, sold you into slavery, gods know what else, and you’re just going to … well, I mean, I think you’re going to…"

"Yes, we are," she laid a hand on Meleager’s arm. "Dear one, you have done a hero’s work this day, as have you, Xena, and all who protect us. It is time now for I and the priestesses to do our work, that work you fought to protect. Can you see?"

The aging warrior stared at the smaller woman for a time, then, slowly, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. "Gods," he sighed heavily into her hair. "Yeah … I guess … I guess I do…" They held each other for a long moment, Xena just watching, pursing her lips thoughtfully.

"Again, dear one," Lilith said softly, brushing her lips over his neck and shoulder, "I ask if you wish for me not to give myself…"

"Nah," Meleager replied, squeezing her tight again before letting her go. "Just … just do what you think is right." He patted her shoulder. "I gotta check a few things," he announced, then walked off without looking back.

Xena gave a sharp sigh and shrugged. "All right," she said flatly, "do what you want. I’ll put guards around each wagon. If any of these men give you even a hint of trouble, have someone call out. Use the word ‘flying’ – that’ll be the signal. Understand?"

"Yes, Xena. This I will make plain to us all."

"And one last thing," the warrior said, letting the seriousness be heard in her tone. "These men stay tied – tight. No exceptions."

"I would not expect less," Lilith replied. "Forgiveness and love we graciously extend, but this does not imply any measure of stupidity. Many times have we dealt with ones such as these, and know full well the risk it entails. Besides," she gave the warrior a playful smile, "it will make things somewhat more … interesting, will it not?"

Xena couldn’t help a short laugh. She caught herself and rolled her eyes. "I’ve heard immortals are a jaded bunch. Now I know it’s true."

Lilith laughed honestly – a wonderful, musical sound. "Ah, Xena," she sighed, running a hand down the warrior’s arm, "you know not the half of it. Yet ones such as you make eternity bearable, you and Meleager … you and your bard…" She looked and caught Xena’s eyes. "Of this, we must talk."

"Maybe," the warrior grunted, then turned and went back to have the prisoners untied from the trains.

* * *

Xena had looked on, both amused and impatient as the bound slavers were given a nominal washing before being split into groups and loaded into the back of several wagons. After that, the journey to Nimos was relatively uneventful, unless one counted the chanting of the priestesses, punctuated occasionally by loud, often emotional shouts from the captive men. As for what went on inside the wagons, none could tell – except, perhaps, the Guardians riding alongside who doubtless could hear everything. The boxy, canvas wagon covers which had been removed as a precaution against flaming arrows had been replaced.

Xena and Meleager rode together at the head of the column, but neither said much, and it suited them both. As they reached the outskirts of Nimos, Xena signaled a halt, then motioned to Morgin. "Tell Lilith we’ve arrived. Whatever they’re doing has to stop, now," she said, not missing the way Meleager stiffened slightly. "The Amazons can get the prisoners together. Meleager and I will ride ahead and let the villagers know what we’ve got."

"Xena," Meleager spoke finally, "it’s probably not a bad idea to ask permission if we can stay here too. I mean, an armed camp outside your village can be a little, uh, distressing."

Why didn’t I think of that? Xena asked herself. Simple, dumb warrior, last time you rode with an armed camp, you never needed to ask – they accepted it or they paid the price.

Xena shook it off. "Yeah, you’re right. Go on Morgin." She waved the guardian off. "Come on, Meleager."

"Hey! Xena?" Gabrielle chimed in, hopping down out of the wagon she’d been riding in.

The warrior suppressed a smile. "Wanna come along, I gather?"

Gabrielle chuckled. "Want to? I’d better – or do you think a pair of heavily armed and mounted warriors seems like a friendly envoy? Besides, this close to the territories they’re bound to be used to dealing with Amazons. I’ll just flash my royal seal and they’ll know they can trust us. Probably not a bad idea to bargain for supplies while we’re here too."

Xena and Meleager exchanged a brief, stoically amused look. "All right my little flasher," Xena sighed. "Mount up." She reached down and helped the bard into the saddle behind her, then nudged Argo towards Nimos, Meleager chuckling beside them.

The village leader and his constable never had a chance. By the time the sun was just starting to set, the persuasive bard had not only convinced them to allow the caravan to camp near the river, but had also exacted a substantial bounty on the captured slavers, then negotiated the dinars for foodstuffs and other supplies.

"Gods," Meleager grunted from his horse, watching the hopelessly confused expressions on the faces of the two villagers, who mostly nodded while getting few words in themselves. He leaned towards Xena. "She always get her way like that?"

Xena gave him a wry grin. "Why do think I don’t talk around her much? Arguing with her is like falling into a bear trap." The smile warmed on the warrior’s face. "She could talk her way out of Charon’s boat – all he’d have to do is open his mouth to disagree."

"Xena, you are a braver woman than I even gave you credit for," Meleager drawled. "Glad she travels with you and not me."

"Yeah, me too," Xena said softly, then realized she spoke out loud. "C’mon, let’s go," she said quickly, turning Argo. "Oh Queen?" she shouted, managing to sound both reverent and playful at the same time.

"Yes?" Gabrielle said over her shoulder, clearly annoyed by the interruption.

"We, your humble captains, shall fetch the prisoners, all right?"

At that, Gabrielle smiled, then hid it quickly. "Good," the bard said soberly, "and bring back a wagon…" She paused, looking the village leader straight in the eye. "No, make that two wagons…"

Both warriors managed to keep silent until they were out of earshot, then laughed for a solid minute. As they neared the column, however, Xena noticed Meleager’s mood drop again. By the time they reached the prisoners he was practically glaring at the bound men.

A bit jealous aren’t you, Meleager the Mighty? Xena sighed to herself. Well, you could have told her ‘no’. "Meleager," Xena called out. "Hey, Meleager!"

"Yeah, what?" he replied, snapping himself out of it.

Continued...Part 3 of 6

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