Between the Times:

Lesson 3: Following Directions, spoken or unspoken

By Brigid Doyle

Disclaimer: Just for fun, characters belong to you know whom not to this author. This one is not based on any one particular episode or comment but on something my nephew once said to me…."Gabrielle never does what she supposed to do, that's why she is always in trouble." The kid made sense. So think back to Altared States, did the bard stay in the cave with the rocks? NOPE and she ended up with a knife at her throat. And in Death in Chains did she stay at the hospital with Talus?? NOPE again and yes again she was on the wrong end of a sharp instrument. Hmmm, let's see….there's The Reckoning when Xena tells her to get away from town and she ends up back handed by an out of control warrior princess; then there's A Royal Couple of Thieves when she is supposed to wait for Xena to return but ends up as a…well, you know the drill. So who really learns a lesson here?

Subtext: It isn't in my idea of this relationship, but it isn't something I wish to argue. See what you want. I've run my spell/grammar check a couple times and even have a proof reader, I haven't found anything between the lines so if you find it there…well then I guess it's yours to keep.

Violence: Depends on what you consider violence to be. Lots of misfortune here though and some rather upset ….oh gee, why don't you just read the story.

 


 

"But you don't understand how important this is!" The young man tried again to plead his point. He brushed his long auburn hair from his sweaty brow and held out a small piece of parchment tied with a dark purple bit of twine. "Please, I can't do it myself."

The dark warrior raised a mug to her lips and took a long drink. She placed it back on the table and stared at the hapless young fool before her. He blinked rapidly under her consternation. She glanced at the parchment he held and reached forward pushing his hand away as she rose.

"Look," she began, her voice laden with the exhaustion she was feeling. "Why don't you just go take a long swim in the lake and you'll feel a lot better." She turned away and walked toward the bar at the opposite end of the small dusty tavern.

The young man sat back in his chair, frustrated but not defeated. He looked at the wide-eyed young girl that remained at the table and shrugged his shoulders. "Why can't she see how important this is?" He shook the small parchment again. "If I don't get this message to Kalyca, my life will mean nothing." He let out a long breath and let his head drop into his hands. "I don't know where else to turn." He mumbled through his palms.

Gabrielle placed a hand on the young man's shoulder and patted it gently. "Don't worry." She smiled as he looked over his fingers at her. "She's just tired. Maybe tomorrow…."

"Tomorrow might be too late!" The man exclaimed starting the girl next to him. "If she doesn't hear from me before the equinox, it won't matter. That is but two days from now. If I could deliver this message myself I would leave now, but you know as well as I do that I and those like me are forbidden to go there. It would mean my life. " He was beginning to let defeat crawl into his tone, then quickly changed directions grabbing the girl's arm. "Perhaps you! YOU could convince her! Surely, you understand my plight."

His eyes were so pleading that Gabrielle could swear she felt his pain. "Well…" she hesitated a bit, knowing that a warrior princess in a foul mood and in bad need of a good night's sleep was not someone to pester, but this young man was desperate. He smiled again and tilted his head in a silent plea. "All right, Mikolas, I'll try." She patted his hand and rose from her seat then crossed the tavern to stand next to the warrior.

"Xena?" She began softly.

"Don't even try, Gabrielle." Xena answered quickly without looking at the girl.

"You haven't even listened to him, Xena. Don't you see his problem?" Gabrielle argued with just enough hint of a whine to grate on the already irritated warrior's nerves.

Gabrielle stood with her back against the bar still smiling at the young man seated at the table. The warrior rested on her elbows nursing her third mug of strong dry port. Xena closed her eyes and took several breaths before turning to meet the innocent green gaze that had turned back to her.

"I fully understand his problem, Gabrielle. He'll get over it. A nice long swim in that cold, cold lake should fix him up just fine." The warrior smiled smugly at the confused look on the na´ve girl's face.

"Xena," she let out a frustrated breath. "Why do you keep saying that? The lake is freezing. He'll catch his death!"

Xena continued to smile as she brought the mug to her lips again. 'Someday she'll know exactly what I am saying, but not too soon if I can help it!' She shook her head wondering where that thought had come from and why it had crossed her mind. Gabrielle wouldn't be a kid forever, eventually she'd….

"Xena, he loves her. He just wants her to know that." Gabrielle's gentle urging brought the warrior out of her thoughts.

Xena shook her head again and motioned for the barkeeper to refill her mug. "He should have known better than to fall in love with an Amazon. The fool." She huffed as the man filled the container and nodded in agreement.

"Love knows no bounds, no borders, no laws." Gabrielle reminded her with a bit of bardic flourish.

"Uh huh." Xena deadpanned. "Well, he's going to have to find someone else to deliver his message, Gabrielle. "Let Cupid do his own dirty work."

Gabrielle blew a frustrated breath over her lip causing her bangs to flip up briefly. "Xena, she might be his tree in the forest. What if you are their only chance of finding each other?"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Again with the trees! Look, Gabrielle I don't care if he is her tree or her forest or a whole damn country. I am tired, exhausted and we are here to be…oh how did you put it?" The warrior tapped her temple. "Ah…yes…to be a bit incognito for a few days." Gabrielle developed a fine pout that only served to amuse the warrior. "Now…" She tipped the mug back and drained the last drop. "I am going to get some sleep and you should do the same." She placed the mug on the bar and dropped a few coins into the barkeeper's palm. "I have no intention of delivering that message, Gabrielle so do yourself, and me, a favor and don't ask again." She patted the girl on the head and turned toward the stairs pausing for a moment before taking the first step. "Tell your friend good night for me, will ya? Don't be long. I don't want to come looking for you." With that she disappeared up the stairs, leaving a slightly furious young bard standing alone.

"You gonna order somethin'?" The barkeeper asked, startling the girl.

"Um…no, no thank you…I, I was just leaving." Gabrielle answered absently, watching the warrior depart then moved back to the table and dropped into her chair. Her mind was already racing with a marvelous plan.

"No luck, huh?" Mikolas sighed staring at the tabletop.

"Don't give up yet, Mikolas." The girl smiled. "I have a plan." She leaned across the table and whispered into the young man's ear.

He smiled again and rose. "I'll be waiting for your signal." He handed the small parchment to her and headed for the exit.

Gabrielle almost skipped up the stairs, eager to set her plan in motion.

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Xena lay across the large bed in the corner of the room. The warrior was so tired she hadn't even bothered to remove her boots or her armor. But she also knew this was a small nowhere town, that basically produced nothing more than road dust. If a warlord traveled through it, it was only to do just that, travel through it. The town lay just less than ten miles east of the Amazon Territory and had long been rumored to be the village that raised the male children born of Amazon warriors. Except for the ritual visits of those warriors to drop off a newborn boy child or seek to procreate their tribe, the village was unusually quiet and peaceful. Xena knew this and was therefore able to let her guard down for this small bit of rest she so desperately needed. She knew also that she would not have to be concerned with her young charge since the girl's Amazon garb earned her the immediate respect of the entire village. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of her own breathing, until the soft creak of the door brought her senses alert.

Gabrielle padded softly into the room knowing Xena would not be fully asleep until she made sure that she was 'tucked in for the night'. Oh, when was that warrior going to stop thinking she was a child and let her do things on her own? Maybe, just maybe, if she could pull this off she might be on that very track.

"Xena?" She whispered.

The warrior opened one eye. "Yeah." Her voice was low, but suspicious.

"I was just wondering…" Gabrielle began avoiding Xena's one-eyed glare.

"Gab-ri-elle." Xena warned. The girl's name came out as more of a growl than a word causing Gabrielle to take a deep breath before continuing.

"I know. I know. You aren't going to deliver the message, but…." She turned away from the warrior and picked at the fringe on the edge of the table covering. "I was thinking that…well… maybe…it isn't that far and well…I know you're tired and you really need a rest…so I was just thinking that maybe…." Gabrielle hedged through her plan that had sounded so good when she told it to herself downstairs.

"Forget it." Xena's eye closed and she folded her hands across her stomach.

Gabrielle's shoulders fell and she let out a huff in semi-disgust. "You don't even know what I was going to say!" She protested staring now at the reclining warrior.

"YOU are not delivering the message either." Xena replied without moving a muscle.

"But Xena, it isn't far and Mikolas says the trail is well marked and I can be there and back before sundown tomorrow and you won't have to do a thing. You said yourself this is one of the safest areas in the region." Gabrielle's defense came out a bit faster and whinier than she had planned. She took a deep breath and waited for Xena's counter argument but the warrior simply lay there saying and doing nothing. "Come on Xena, how am I ever gonna learn anything or show you I can do anything by myself if you won't let me try…er…do anything myself!"

The warrior's eyes remained closed but her index finger tapped up and down slowly. It was a short distance to the Amazon Village, if she left at sunup and stayed on the trail there was no reason she couldn't make the trip in one day. No one traveled the Amazon trail and if she were to run into a few warriors, well Gabrielle was their princess. She would be well protected. And…well…a whole day without all the questions and ramblings and the pestering and the whining and…well, it might not be such a bad idea…. Xena rolled on to her side and propped her elbow against the pillow, resting her head on her hand. She glared at the girl fidgeting with the cloth on the small table on the opposite side of the room. "There and back, no side trips." She said casually.

"You have to trust me sometime Xena. I'm not just a kid anymore. I can do this if you give me a chance and I can help people too and beside it's Ephiny and Melosa and it will only take a day," Gabrielle continued her argument not realizing she had already won.

"Gabrielle." Xena tried to cut in.

"I know. I know you think I won't do it right and that you'll probably end up coming after me but I'll show you Xena I can do this. This is something for good, something to help someone, something…"

"Gabrielle, I said you can do it." Xena said again, without raising her voice.

"And you said…you said YES?" Gabrielle was amazed she had gotten through so easily.

"Yes I said yes, but…" Xena waited until she had the girl's full attention. Gabrielle stopped and stood listening intently. The warrior pushed herself into a sitting position placing her hands on her knees. "You stay on the path. You deliver the message then you turn around and get back here. No visiting, no exploring, no daydreaming. Do what you set out to do and come back? Got it?" She raised an eyebrow in a familiar unspoken warning.

"There and back, got it! Promise!" Gabrielle smiled broadly. "I won't let you down, Xena. You'll see."

"You'll have to be up and gone by first light." Xena reminded her as she released her armor and placed it on the chair next to the bed. "You better get to bed or you'll never make it." She smiled as she pulled off her boots and stretched out once again on the bed.

"In a second." Gabrielle replied as she crossed the room heading toward the window. "I just want to open the shutters. It's a little stuffy in here."

"Fine." Xena yawned sleepily, already closing her eyes.

Gabrielle pushed the shutters apart and gazed down into the small city square. Mikolas stood in the shadows below. He stepped out from the archway as the shutters opened. Gabrielle gave him a quick thumbs up gesture then suppressed a giggle as the young man smiled widely and bowed with a grand flourish before disappearing back into the darkness.

"Gabrielle." The warrior's voice made her jump slightly, then Gabrielle turned and hurried across the room diving over Xena and bouncing into her spot on the bed closer to the wall. She squirmed and snuggled into a comfortable position fluffing her pillow and pulling the blanket around herself.

Xena gritted her teeth and clenched her fists waiting for the girl to 'get comfortable' since neither of them would find sleep until she did. Finally the girl stopped moving and settled into what Xena could only hope would be the spot. The warrior lay motionless for a few seconds, waiting, then let out an exasperated sigh and sat up quickly. She tore the blanket from the foot of the bed and grabbed the girl's feet yanking off both boots and tossing them across the room. Then the overtired frustrated older woman flung the coverlet back over the girl's bare feet and dropped back against her own pillow. "One of these days!" She grunted to herself pulling the blanket over her shoulders.

"Night, Xena." Gabrielle chirped from the opposite side of the bed.

"Go to sleep!" Xena growled, immediately regretting her tone. "Good night, Gabrielle." She said more softly then finally allowed herself to drift away into the sleep she so desperately needed.

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Gabrielle was up with the sun and finished with breakfast before Xena made her way into the empty tavern. She smiled at the disheveled warrior that slowly made her way to the table.

"They've got fresh milk!" She quipped pushing a jug toward Xena. "And it's cold! The innkeeper says there is this spring that runs under the mill and they keep the jugs corked and submerged to keep them cold. It's great!"

Xena looked into the jug at the chalky liquid and swallowed the churning motion of her stomach. "I'll just take your word for it." She pushed the jug back to the girl. "Besides you need it more than I do." She pressed her hand against the side of her head. 'How in Zeus' name could someone who had to be literally dragged out of a bedroll every morning be so blasted chattery so blasted first thing in the morning?' She pondered.

Gabrielle smiled past the remark, too excited about her pending adventure than to worry about the warrior's sniping. "I'm all ready!" She patted her pouch and reached for the staff that rested next to her chair. "The innkeeper's wife even packed a lunch for me to have along the way!"

"Great." Xena mumbled. Gabrielle had tossed and turned all night giving the warrior very little rest. Exhaustion had left her with a headache that throbbed against her temples and pounded the backs of her eyes. As soon as she had this kid on the road she was heading right back to bed for a whole day of blissful relaxation. She reached for a smaller jug that rested on the table and sniffed its contents. Satisfied it was nothing more than a very strong tea she poured it into her mug and began explaining the direct route to the Amazon Village to her eager companion.

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"Stay on the trail and head west away from the sun." Xena reminded Gabrielle as she stood at the edge of the small town. She glanced at the sun's position on the horizon. "You should make good time and be in the village when the sun is at its highest point. Deliver the message and…"

"I KNOW. I know already." Gabrielle sighed as she stepped toward her destination. "Come right back. I know." She turned and trotted away from the warrior turning at the beginning of the trail through the woods to wave. "See you before sundown!" She called before turning back and stepping into the thicket.

Xena stood with her hands on her hips watching until the girl disappeared from her sight then continued to watch half thinking she would reappear. Something ate at her tired mind and that same something told her this was not one of her better decisions. 'What could happen?' She asked herself as she walked back toward the inn. 'It's half a day's journey through protected lands.' She stepped into the dark cool tavern. 'She's not a child. Gotta let her grow up sometime, Xena.' The warrior walked past the confused innkeeper who shook her head at the fact the warrior was talking to herself. 'Look at it this way, you've got a whole day to yourself, a whole day of peace and quiet. Take advantage of it.' The warrior went directly back up the stairs back to her soft comfortable bed. She crawled into its nest of blankets and rested her throbbing head against the soft pillow. With any luck she'd wake up right before the girl walked into the room. 'Yeah, just in time for her to keep me up all night with stories of her adventures.' She took a deep breath, folded her arms over her chest and let sleep take her headache to another realm.

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Gabrielle marched triumphantly along the well trodden path basking in the grand feeling that not only had she finally won an argument with the Warrior Princess, but that victory included Xena giving her this opportunity to prove herself once and for all.

The trail she followed was fodder for her active imagination as she envisioned love struck young men wandering its twisting course in search of their Amazon sweethearts. She laughed out loud thinking of the queen or her court as young girls smitten with local farm boys. Of course that probably wasn't the case with Amazons. 'No.' She told herself. 'It probably doesn't work that way for Amazon maidens, or whatever they call their young women, certainly not maidens!' She laughed again and turned down a long slope bordered on either side by waist high grasses. Again her mind filled with images of lovers on hidden trysts in this wondrous field. She shook her head to clear the visions, almost feeling the blush that rose on her cheeks. Her hand went to her face almost as if she needed to hide the fact from someone who might be watching. But only the far away caws of crows and light chirping of insects seemed to surround her.

The sloping field ended and immediately the trail led back up a second very rocky incline. Gabrielle took the hill in stride and soon found herself at its summit overlooking the entire valley. She could see the smoke rising from the huts in the village she had left a short time before and smiled at her progress so far then turned and followed the rocky path across the top of the hill. Her mind drifted away composing a story about the two young lovers soon to be reunited. It would make a great tale about the little known life of the Amazons outside of their tribes, if she were able to get it to sound just right. Thoughts quickly turned to daydreams and daydreams to flights of fancy as the girl walked farther and farther into the wooded hilltop. The sound of running water brought the young dreamer back to reality.

"Ah! The river, yes! Keep the river on my right and follow it to the footbridge. Cross the bridge, climb the hill and be in the Amazon Village by midday!" Gabrielle repeated Xena's words in a singsong voice telling the trees she knew exactly where she was headed. The river's gurgling grew louder and the girl stepped faster to meet its song. A long wide trail led upward at a slight incline and she stepped over a small stream in one stride. Pausing for a moment she listened to the sound of the water knowing that that small trickle lead to the river ahead, but somehow the sound should have been on the opposite side. She stepped carefully to the edge of the rocks that jutted out over a ledge to her left. Below the stream joined a wider bit of water and ran quickly around the bend. 'Probably another place to cross and it will be on my right.' She reasoned and continued on her way a few steps before coming to a long drop littered with large stones that seemed to form some sort of rough staircase. Placing her hands on her hips she tapped her foot and sighed. "Well this is nice, nobody said I'd have to become a mountain goat to get to the village. Thanks a bunch Xena!" She called loudly frowning at the height of the climb she'd have to make. "Probably some sort of test, huh? Yeah, if I know that warrior she's expecting me to see this obstacle and run right back to town. Well, that's not gonna happen Xena! Nope, not this time!" She secured her pack across her chest and tossed her staff to the bottom of the climb, then sat down on the top ledge and scooted from rock to rock on her backside all the way to the base of the cliff. "So it isn't the most graceful way to get down." She told herself. "But it sure beats hanging off the side of the rocks." She brushed the back of her skirt and retrieved her staff. Then the girl walked around the large rocks into a small alcove and beheld a wondrous sight.

The stream had grown enormous and fell in a beautiful water fall over the jagged rocks into a small pool that ran in an arc through a gorge and under the large gnarled roots of several old trees. "Beautiful!" Gabrielle exclaimed as she dropped down on one of the boulders and leaned over to see more of the site. "I suppose this is as good a spot as any to stop for lunch." She told herself as she opened her pack and began munching on the fresh bread and cheese that the innkeeper's wife had given her that morning.

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Xena tossed and turned all morning wondering why, with all the quiet and a whole bed to herself, she could not find a comfortable spot, or the rest that she sought. 'She isn't a child. And it isn't that far to the Amazon village.' That thought ran back and forth across her mind like a pesky insect. She absently brushed at the unseen image as if it were a fly or mosquito flittering around her face. Letting out a long sigh she flipped from her back to her side and punched the pillow into a more comfortable blob of goose down. 'The trail is well marked and all she has to do is follow directions.' Another sigh and she flipped 180 degrees to her other side again smashing the pillow into a fluffier mass. 'And when has Gabrielle ever followed directions?' She half laughed, half groaned to herself. "Anyway, why should it matter to me? She wanted to do it for Gia's sake. Nobody said she had to." That thought was out loud and the warlord rolled her eyes as she tossed again and ended up in the same position she had started. She blew a long loud exasperated breath across her lips and threw her arm across her eyes in a half-hearted attempt to block out the sunlight as well as the thoughts that would not allow her to rest. It wasn't long before the frustrated warrior dragged herself from the bed and squeezed her palms against her throbbing temples. That headache continued to pound against her skull like a hammer on an anvil. The noisy tavern beneath her room did nothing to help calm her nerves or sooth the ache. She felt the frustration rising and threatening to become full-blown anger. Perhaps a few drills with her sword would arrest the feeling. Grabbing her weapon she headed out the door and down the stairs still grumbling under her breath. The customers in the small crowded tavern stopped and the room fell silent as the warrior stormed through the inn without speaking to a soul. 'Damn that little brat, anyway. Even when she isn't here she manages to disrupt my life or is it maybe that I miss her pesky little voice and all those questions she always seems to have?' She stopped and shook her head trying to free that last thought and knock it aside. "MISS HER? Yeah! Like I miss sand in my leathers!" She barked at a half-awake bearded man who leaned against the doorframe. His eyes widened, he scratched his head as the warrior pushed past him and marched across the dusty town-square.

A few minutes later Xena found herself in a wide clearing and began training routine. "You better be doing exactly as I told you, Gabrielle." She warned the absent bard. "I swear if I have to come out there looking for you…" Her thoughts trailed away imagining several variations on how she would teach her young wayward messenger a lesson not soon to be forgotten. Unfortunately, she reminded herself, Gabrielle had more ways of forgetting lessons that she could even imagine teaching them. 'Gods! I never had this much trouble with young soldiers! What makes her so blasted stubborn!? Why can't she just do as I say? Why does she have to make things so damn difficult?! Why…why…DAMN IT! Why is it getting to me like this!?" The myriad of thoughts swirled with the same cadence as her flashing sword. The warrior stopped and breathed heavily, panting with the exhaustion of her exercise. "What are you doing to me Gabrielle?" She shook her head and asked quietly. "And why?" She added slightly above a whisper.

The warrior glanced over her shoulder at the sun's position. It was not quite midmorning, but late enough to imagine the girl was getting very close to her goal. Xena breathed a sigh of relief knowing that soon Gabrielle would be under the watchful eyes of the Amazon tribe and if they held true to their custom there would be no way the young 'princess' would be returning alone. Beside, Xena had added a small note of her own addressed to Melosa tucked neatly around the message young Mikolas had handed the bard. Now, provided the little busy body wasn't overcome with her own insatiable curiosity and dared to open the young man's message, Kalyca would see the note for the queen and deliver it before she opened her own. The warrior smiled at her own ingenuity and allowed herself to relax for a moment before a second thought entered her mind. 'First Gabrielle had to get to the village, what if some…No, no bandits would dare traipse anywhere in those woods, not with all those Amazons on constant patrol.' She parried and thrust at imaginary foes as she continued her morning drill then wound down slowly and breathed heavily wiping the sweat from her brow. The headache had found its way to the edge of her pain level and suddenly she felt a bit hungry. She twirled the sword in several arcs over and around her head landing it safely inside its sheath then headed back toward the village.

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Gabrielle sat on one of the large roots peering under the trees. She marveled at the way the water had carried away most of the soil, but the trees still managed to stay alive. It struck her that the large arbors seemed to be standing on their tiptoes and allowing the water to run beneath, like very tall skinny maidens holding up their skirts while crossing the stream. The thought caused her to giggle then to remember a tale she had heard from her grandmother about how tiny magical people sometimes liked to make their homes in just such places and that such places were quite enchanted in their own rite. Suddenly her mind was far away concocting and recalling those wonderfully charming tales she and her sister had listened to over and over again as small children. Perhaps this was one of those places her grandmother had spoken of and perhaps those magical beings were watching her watch them. Gabrielle shivered with excitement. What a wondrous place! For a moment she regretted the fact that there was no one to share such a beautiful place with, then promised herself that she would definitely bring her big stoic warrior friend to see it. Even Xena couldn't deny the majesty of this site.

She stood and took a last bite of the apple she had been eating tossing the core far over the edge of the high cliff then brushed her hands on either side of her skirt. Placing a hand on each hip she turned in a wide circle trying to plot her next move. There was no going back up that incline, nope no way, it was scary enough coming down and she had no intentions of climbing up the side of the wall like some kind of insect. Nope! That was warrior princess stuff but certainly not Amazon princess stuff. She paced back and forth along the side of the stream watching as it tumbled over the many rocks in its bed and headed toward the drop at the edge of the cliff. She walked to the edge of the rock face and peered down. The path, if you could call it a path, was about as wide as her foot. "Hmph! Probably made by the water trickling over the edge when it rains." She reasoned out loud. There was not a tree, a vine or a good-sized rock to hold on to on a trip down.

"Okay, Gabrielle, think!" She told herself as she tapped her temple with her index finger. "What would Xena do?" Inside her mind a voice answered that sounded very much like the dark warrior she had left in the village that morning. 'Xena would not have gotten off the path and Xena would not have been daydreaming and Xena is gonna kill me if I get lost.' The girl frowned at that thought. "Yeah, yeah, yeah…" She remarked out loud flipping her wrist as if dismissing the unseen warrior. "Well, I got myself into this and I can get myself out of it, 'Miss I Never Make a Mistake Warrior Princess'." She stepped back and turned to view the stream once again. Her eyes followed the flow, then moved off to the opposite shore and along the narrow path that lead up and back to what was probably the trail she should have been on all along. Scrunching up one side of her face in thought she looked back to the water and then to the row of trees that lined the shore only a few feet away.

Gabrielle placed a hand on one of the saplings and bent it easily toward the water. She tugged at it testing its hold as well as its strength. "Huh!" She smiled. "No problem. I simply bend this little tree and use it to anchor myself while I reach for that little tree's branch." She eyed the branches that bent down toward the water on the other side of the stream. It would work perfectly and Xena would have to be impressed with her creativity. After all, Xena wasn't the only one with an imagination and a penchant for the improbable. The girl pulled the strap of her pack over her head and secured it across her chest then looked at the gurgling water at her feet. She would have to be careful not to step too close to the edge of the cliff where the water dropped over a second fall to the glen below. For a moment she thought about her plan. "Hmmm, no sense getting my boots wet and spending the day in soggy footwear." With that she plopped down on the soft turf and pulled her boots from her feet then tied their laces together. She reasoned she couldn't hold on to all of her belongings in addition to the trees, so it made sense to toss them across first and retrieve them on the other side. Her staff sailed easily over the water and landed upright inside a small hedge. "Good." She nodded with satisfaction. "That'll keep it safe till I get there." She swung one boot around her head a few times allowing it to pick up a bit of momentum then released the pair and watched as they tumbled through the air and caught on one of the many saplings lined up at the base of the rock face. "Hmmm, that could be a problem." Gabrielle grimaced, but then watched as the heavy boots bent the spindly branch downward and quickly dropped into the same row of hedge that held her staff. She clapped her hands and shuffled her feet in a kind of happy little victory dance. "Okay, Gabrielle," she told herself, "now get yourself over there and get back on track before you lose even more time." She shook her head wondering how Xena's words got into her thoughts then grabbed onto her little sapling and stepped into the freezing water.

"Brrr…" She involuntarily shivered as the icy stream pulled at her ankles. She stepped as carefully and as quickly as possible across the smooth rocks under the water feeling the slimy moss that covered them. Holding on to the slowly arching tree had proved to be a wise choice since the slippery surface set her off balance repeatedly. She held her tongue between her teeth and gripped the sapling with one hand, using the other to maintain that balance and to reach out for the second branch. Her hold on the first tree was getting precariously close to its tip and she was not yet close enough to snatch the other. Gabrielle stretched out reaching for the branch, her feet becoming numb in the rapidly flowing water. "Just…a…little…farther…." She groaned, her fingers barely brushing the reddish colored leaves. She edged a little farther, sliding her left hand along the thinning sapling. She tried to slide her feet as well, but the cold water had caused them to burn and she slipped backward with very little poise letting out a very ungraceful screech as she did.

Luckily the motion sent her just far enough to catch the elusive branch, unluckily she failed to release the one she already held. For a moment Gabrielle simply wobbled back and forth with each arm stretched out holding on to branches on opposite sides of the stream. A passerby might mistake this pose as some sort of Amazon punishment, if he didn't keel over with laughter first. Slowly she caught her balance and collected what was left of her dignity. "Great…" she growled to herself through clenched teeth all at once glad that Xena was nowhere to be seen. The warrior would never let her live this down. Since her hold on neither branch was strong enough to support her and the force of the water was gradually pushing her toward the falls she had no choice but to make a choice. She had to let go of one to grab the other. "Simple." She told herself. "Just let go of the tree and spin with the force of the water to catch the branch… right… sure… anyone can do it." Taking a deep breath and saying a quick prayer to whatever god guided foolish travelers she did just that. Her left hand slid off the small tree and immediately she twisted herself around and latched onto the branch. Unfortunately that motion also caused her to loose balance just long enough to send her feet out from under her which left her mostly dangling from the small bough. Quickly she scrambled to regain her footing but the slick mossy surface of the rocks refused to give her purchase. She succeeded only in pulling herself closer to the edge as the branch bent with her weight. The girl twisted and struggled mightily but the forces of nature were against her and within seconds her feet slipped over the edge and she bobbed at the end of the tree's pliant limb like an animal caught in a snare.

With her arms stretched above her she glanced down then quickly closed her eyes as the ground seemed to spin up and at her. The falls roared drowning out any attempt she might make to call for help, even if there was someone to hear her. She swallowed hard and tightened her grip ceasing any motion that might jeopardize her position. She listened to the pounding of her heart against her chest and the ragged sound of her breathing as her upper arms rested against her ears. A part of her wanted to cry, this was such a stupid, STUPID situation. Part of her wanted to scream, Xena would never end up like this. A soft crackling noise caught her attention. "Oh, please let that be someone walking toward me…please let…" She didn't finish the thought before a louder more urgent crack met her ears at the same time she seemed to drop suddenly then stop abruptly. "Oh, please n…nooooooooooooooo…" One last CRACK sent her spiraling downward as the branch tore from the tree. Her knee bounced off a ledge that jutted out from the water and scraped the side of her leg from up to and past her hip. It was the last sensation she felt as the ground seemed to reach out to pull her toward it.

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Xena sat in the far corner of the small stuffy tavern. Even though the weather held the chill of autumn, the air inside the establishment still held the muggy stiffness of a summer afternoon. 'They oughta open a few windows and air this place out.' She mumbled to herself as she moved a few dates around on the small wooden plate in front of her. Fruit, cheese, day old bread and luke warm tea was all the kitchen offered for lunch. 'Gabrielle must be starving by now…' Xena thought, then immediately shook the thought away. Why should it be her concern? After all the innkeeper's wife, or daughter, or some such mothering soul had seen to it that the girl had a sack of food to take along on her silly mission. "Hmph!" She huffed out loud causing the snoozing man at the next table to snuffled once and open one eye to peer at her. The warrior turned away almost embarrassed to be caught in her reverie. 'They probably think I can't take care of her myself…I would have made sure she had the proper supplies…what do they think I am anyway?'

"DAMMIT!" Xena slammed her hand on the table and the sleeper jumped with such force his chair slid from under his weight dropping him to the floor with a loud thud. "I AM A WARRIOR NOT A NURSEMAID!!" She growled at him as she stepped over his large mass. The man blinked a few times and nodded in agreement, certainly in no position to argue. The wild-eyed warrior turned back to the man. "This was her idea, whatever happens is her doing. She is not a child and whatever happens she probably deserves it!" She barked before realizing she was voicing her concern at the top of her lungs and that the entire tavern had stopped to listen. "Serves her right, the little brat…who the hell does she think she is? WHAT was she thinking? What was I thinking??" Xena turned from the man and the crowd and headed back toward her small room still speaking out loud. "Probably end up with a broken leg and I'll have to carry her all the way to Athens!" She told a rather portly woman who was collecting mugs from an empty table. The woman nodded in agreement. The warrior took went up two of the stairs then turned and caught a glimpse of a familiar young man before he ducked behind a larger friend. "YOU!" She growled, reaching him in three long strides.

Mikolas gulped audibly and backed away from the crazed woman. Xena reached out taking the young man by the collar and lifting him a good six inches from the floor. "This is all YOUR doing! You and your stupid note! You lovesick moron…you just couldn't…" She shook him for emphasis. "If she comes back here with so much as a sprain…a bruise…a scratch…." She shook him once for each instance. "If she is the least little bit hurt…" Xena pulled the man close and whispered hoarsely. "You and your Kalyca won't have to worry about raising a family because I'll see to it you are never able…" Her voice rose in volume as well as pitch. Mikolas grabbed at her hold on his throat and kicked his feet wildly, gasping for air. The warrior let out a loud disgusted sigh and dropped the young man to the floor. This whole thing was ridiculous! She turned to the man behind the bar. "PORT, NOW!" She barked at him.

The man grabbed a flask and a large mug, spilling most of the liquid around its lip rather than inside its chamber. He pushed it toward the warrior almost like an animal trainer might push food toward a ferocious beast. Xena snatched it away and swallowed its contents in one long gulp. She slammed the mug on the counter and in one move pulled the coughing Mikolas up next to her. The warrior slapped two silver coins on to the bar in front of her. "Make sure he gets something to soothe that cough." She commanded then turned and walked toward the stairs still muttering under her breath.

The clientele of the tavern watched as the warrior disappeared up the wooden staircase. A moment later every person there jumped as the door to the woman's room slammed shut with a mighty BAM that echoed throughout the silent building. Each one turned to another, no one voicing what they thought for fear the crazy warrior would return. Slowly they returned to their own business, saving any comment that might be made for the safety of their own homes, or until after this insane person was gone from their town.

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Gabrielle remained motionless, face down in chilly water that was less than six inches deep. In her mind she turned over her choices. On one hand she was freezing and wanted nothing more than to leap up from her present position, jump up and down and rapidly rub some warmth into her arms with the palms of her hands. On the other hand the dull pain that centered in her stomach and was bouncing back and forth between her shoulder blades was like an anchor holding her to the ground. When the weather had been much warmer she and Xena had found a beautiful lake and spent an afternoon in its cool waters. Xena had tried to teach her to dive from the high cliff over the deepest part of that pristine body of water only to have the girl land flat against the surface tension in what the warrior called a 'belly flop'. It had been anything but a graceful dive. The feeling in her gut now was a repeat of that, only this was worse. It felt like everything that made up the inside of her body had come lose and slammed against the skin that held it in place. She closed her eyes and let the cold water help to numb the pain. She even dared to pull a mouthful into her cheeks and swish it around before spewing it back into the stream. Swallowing it would have dire consequences. Throwing up right now would be catastrophic, although it was not entirely out of the question.

The girl laid in the stream until her breathing calmed and the sound of her beating heart slowed to almost normal. Fear slowly subsided replaced with embarrassment and anger. Carefully she placed her hands on the bed of the shallow stream and pushed herself up on all fours, her stomach lurched forcing her to stop suddenly. When the feeling passed without any further incident she rose shakily to her feet and holding her gut with both arms she staggered to a patch of deep green grass on the shore. Once there she fell to the ground and rolled on to her back still grasping her middle. She rolled slowly back and forth in a rocking motion trying to force her innards back into their rightful locations. Moans turned to whimpers and then to sobs as the tears rolled as well. She didn't mean to cry but somehow it seemed to help, if only a little. It took some doing but she managed to quell her throbbing pain and after a bit just lay in the soft grass staring at the clouds above. One hand rested on her still queasy stomach, the other on her forehead.

"That was a very stupid idea!" She chastised herself out loud. "What were you thinking?! You're lucky a tummy ache is all you've got!" She scolded herself, hearing a certain warrior's voice in the back of her mind. Of course that voice peppered the lecture with a lot of very colorful cuss words that would more than likely get a certain bard's mouth washed out with that nasty yellow soap. Those words she left in her mind, even in her solitary spot in this wilderness it seemed they should stay absolutely forbidden. For a few moments she continued to lie still, watching the clouds move across the deep blue harvest sky. She took a small breath feeling only a few remnants of pain.

Very gingerly she pushed herself up on both hands and looked down at her body. Sure enough there was a deep purple bruise across her midsection that would be hard to explain. Of course it wouldn't be any easier to explain the scrape that stretched from the middle of her right knee around to the outside of her thigh then up to the…she lifted the edge of her skirt…. Gabrielle rolled onto her left side and tried to see just how far this scrape reached, then moaned rolling her eyes. "Great." The abrasion reached well up under the garment. It wasn't a deep bloody gash that required stitches but more like just the top layer of skin had been rubbed away leaving it red, raw, and definitely stinging. 'Funny,' the girl thought, 'until a minute ago, I didn't even know it was there.' There were little spots of blood here and there, but not enough to require any sort of bandaging, not that that particular part of the body could be bandaged.

"Xena's gonna kill me." She sighed as she struggled to stand and test her ability to walk or at least to move in an upright position. "Yep, she is gonna skin me al…." She looked again at the bruise on her hip. "Well, I guess she won't have to. I've done a pretty good job of that already." The girl shook her head and took a few cautious steps. It didn't feel like anything was broken. Yeah, she ached a little, well actually a lot, but she could still walk. Of course she'd be walking barefoot, but she was walking.

Gabrielle turned and looked back at the waterfall she had just 'slid' down. The rock face on either side was steep and flat, not a hand or foot hold from top to bottom and those sides seemed to run along in an ever widening canyon growing higher and higher as they did. She stood on a patch of flat ground that sloped gently up the side of that cliff for about ten feet before it became deep dark rock and shot straight up to the sun. Her boots and staff were still at the top of that wall. For a brief instant she considered trying to climb the rocks that jutted out from the falling water. They almost resembled a set of stairs. Of course that was impossible, even if the force of the water didn't slam her back to the ground the rocks were probably slick with moss and would be like trying to walk across wet ice. The girl shook her head. No way was she going to try that. She'd made enough poor choices for one morning.

"Well, its gotta come out somewhere." She said as she looked at the stream that ran between the rock walls. There was enough land on either side of the water to form a narrow path and where it didn’t there were plenty of large boulders and rocks to step across. She still managed to hold on to her pack and it was cinched tightly. It had somehow landed on her back when she fell and remained relatively dry. The afternoon sun was warm and as long as she kept it in back of her she was still heading in the right direction. She'd walk for a bit, collect some dry wood and make a fire.

The soggy, shivering, battered young messenger took a few steps trying to avoid the more jagged rocks on the forest floor and began her trek through the canyon, hopefully still heading toward the Amazon Village. With any luck she'd find a way back to the top and be back on the trail very soon.

 

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Xena stood inside the door of the small room and stared at the bed. Her head was still pounding but she had pushed the pain into one of those dark corners where it could exist on its own without interfering with what needed to be done. Except in this case she couldn't figure out exactly what that what was. She ran her fingers through her hair and walked across the room to the window. A year ago at this same time she was running wild through the Greek countryside. Hercules was only a legend that she had yet to defeat. 'Hmph, some defeat…." She reminded herself and then smiled at the warm memory of the way he had 'defeated' her on that sunny afternoon. For a few minutes her mind reveled in thoughts that did not feed the ache hidden in that gloomy corner of her mind. She rested her palms against the windowsill, closed her eyes and let the midday sun warm her face. Back then she had no concerns other than what she needed and what she wanted and where she wanted to be, no little bard to worry about…no little bard to protect…to listen to…to smile at…to l….

"GODS!" She slammed her hands against the sill driving a sliver of thin wood into one palm. The warrior quickly drew her hand to her mouth and yanked out the offensive splinter with her teeth then rubbed the slight pang out with her opposite thumb. Why was this making her so insane? Why was the girl's absence more annoying than her presence? How did this happen? When had that little girl climbed so far into her mind…into her heart…that she could not push the concern far enough into the darkness? One other person had touched this part of her heart and when her little brother was lost she was sure the feeling was gone as well. How did she let this happen? How was she going to stop it? Did she really want to?

The sun had passed its zenith and was on its descent. That meant Gabrielle was on her way back. "She better be.' The warrior thought with a smile. In a few hours it would be time for supper and they would sit together discussing the days events. And finally this gods-awful anxiety would be gone. Gabrielle would be safe and sound, back where Xena could be sure of that. She nodded with a bit of satisfaction at that thought, even though the trepidation that filled her mind laughed at it. Xena laughed back. "Gabrielle would throw a fit if she knew what I was thinking. She'd have a good laugh if she knew how worried I am…after she reminded me that she is not a kid, for the ten thousandth time this week." The warrior shook her head. Maybe it would help to exercise Argo for few hours before meeting her missing friend.

 

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 The fire was more smoke than flame, probably because the wood was soggy from the damp environment. It was so damp in fact it had that odd watery smell that usually was very prevalent around a well or cistern. Gabrielle rested on a rotting stump rubbing her hands on her upper arms to create a bit of warmth. The shadowy canyon was a lot chillier than the sunny trail above. She wriggled her toes in front of the pitiful little blaze. They were now covered with muck and grass and she imagined if the mud dried it might form some sort of natural shoes that would provide a bit more protection against the elements.

It seemed as though she'd been walking forever and still the only scenery was the tall rocky walls that bordered the sides of this creek bed. It was difficult to judge but it had to be close to suppertime because her stomach had been grumbling for the last few meters. She'd stayed on the left bank and headed away from the sun, when she could see it. Of course this was a creek not the river, so she was cheating a bit, but in a way she was still following directions. She threw a few more soggy branches onto her weakening fire and held her hands over the small flame. It was a lot darker here in this pit where the walls and trees blocked out most of the light. The ground was spongy and cold and most of the time she found herself walking in the water to avoid the jagged stones on the shore. She rubbed the muddy moss colored stains on both knees that she had earned on the four or five times she had stumbled and ended up on all fours. There were matching stains on both of her palms and all of the rubbing she did only succeeded in making it worse. Constantly having to brush her disheveled hair away from her eyes had left similar greenish tan stains on most of her face. Gabrielle shivered again then grimaced as the action woke up the soreness in her stomach. A tear trickled across the smudges on her cheeks leaving one long clean streak in the grime. It ran along the line of her jaw and slid off of her chin before she sniffed mightily and drew her courage back into place.

"You're not lost, Gabrielle." She told herself in a voice that shook through her chattering teeth. "Just a little…." She looked in all directions and let out a long sigh. "Just a little turned around. That's all. You're still heading in the right direction…." The she added in a small voice, "I think…." Once again the small fire had turned to a smoldering pile of damp twigs and this time the girl kicked the pile of wet leaves over its dying embers sufficiently putting it out of its misery. Slowly she pushed herself to her practically numb feet and noticed just how hard it was to move cold, damp joints. For a moment she thought of her grandmother and how the old woman had always moved so very slowly as if she measured every step. Her clothes clung to her pale skin still damp with the lack of sunshine and warmth. She took a deep breath and a small hesitant step continuing her journey along the side of the gurgling creek.

 

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The warrior raced the large palomino across the open fields that spread out to the south of the small village. Her dark hair whipped in the breeze created by the rapid pace they kept. Argo's blonde mane matched its rhythm as her nostrils flared with each deep breath. It had been many months since the warrior had run the horse in such strenuous exercise. It felt good to feel the freedom of the open air and the power of the mighty beast beneath her. They hadn't spent much time together in this fashion since a certain little blonde non-equestrian had joined them on their travels. Xena leaned forward toward the horse's neck and gently nudged the animal's ribs. Argo galloped faster, her hooves pounding a steady beat on the ground under them. Time seemed to stand still and all problems raced away in the wind as the horse and rider became one. But Xena knew she could not run her steed continuously and gradually she brought the large animal to a trot before allowing her to work down to stop at a small clear pool of water. Xena slid gracefully off the saddle and allowed the horse to drink her full. She patted the animal's neck affectionately.

"You know I did tell her to come right back, but if I know Gabrielle she'll have a few tales to share with her 'sisters' before she heads back." She told the animal then checked the position of the sun. "That means she should be dragging her tired backside out of those woods just about sundown." Xena laughed a small laugh. "Maybe I won't have to listen to her stories tonight. Maybe she'll be too tired to talk at all." The warrior squatted down to bring a handful of water to her lips then flicked the drops off her fingertips before turning back to her equine friend. She pulled herself back into the saddle. "Ready, girl?" She pulled the horse gently away from the water and pointed her back toward the small sleepy village. Argo nodded once and broke into a healthy run before the warrior had a chance to encourage her to do so.

An hour later Argo had been unsaddled, rubbed down and fed. She stood satisfactorily in her stall inside the extremely clean barn. Xena patted the animal's flanks as she moved from the stable. The warrior stepped into the later afternoon sun and held a hand over her eyes in order to focus on the spot at the end of the road where the village ended and the woods began. The sky was beginning to turn from bright blue to pale pink, soon it would be deep crimson and then purple as the sun made its way behind the trees and the mountains beyond. It was difficult to make out the small form that seemed nothing more than a shadow at the edge of the village until Xena noticed the item the form was swinging at its side. The young girl tossed her auburn hair over one shoulder as she swung an empty wooden bucket back and forth. A sturdy young boy stepped to her side and took the item as they engaged in a conversation that she could not hear. They disappeared around the side of a building at the end of the street. The warrior let out an exasperated breath. "Where is she?" She whispered to no one. She stood for a few minutes still watching for that familiar form to appear then started feeling a bit foolish for it. 'GODS! I'm like a mother hen!' She chided herself. 'I can't believe what this kid does to me.' If Gabrielle did appear and saw the warrior waiting for her she would not be a happy bard and Xena knew she would never hear the end of it. It was probably a much better idea to wait in the tavern and look nonchalant when the girl arrived. The warrior shook her head as she strode toward the inn. She'd stood up the mightiest warlords in all of Greece and then some, and she now a little bit of a girl had her worried in more ways than one.

 

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Gabrielle staggered, stumbled and wobbled along on the craggy ground, muttering some newly learned curses under her breath. Suddenly it didn't matter who or what heard her and Xena always used them when she felt this frustrated. "OUCH!" She bellowed as she stepped on yet another twig that seemed to be covered with tiny thorns. She pulled it from her big toe and massaged the digit while balancing on the opposite foot. "Everybody gets you when you're down!" She grumbled and limped a few steps before falling back into her odd cadence. Her right foot landed in a soft mass of brownish muck with a sploosh. "Ick!" She grimaced as the sludge covered her ankle. It held her small limb tightly in a cold grasp and she pulled to free herself but it seemed to only increase the suction that held her there. She pulled again and again, even placing her hands under her knee and yanking with all her diminished strength.

Gabrielle pushed herself into as much a standing position as she could manage and took one deep cleansing breath. With one last mighty tug she freed her foot. The muck released her with a loud squishy pop and with such force it sent her reeling backward. The girl grasped wildly at nothing but air before landing with a splat in the smelly gook that seemed to cover most of the area she had wandered into. The foul brown slime now clung to her legs, her backside and both hands were immersed to their wrists. She lifted them and shook the mess away. The smell was somewhat akin to manure, only worse. Gabrielle didn't want to image what might have left such a horrid putrid pile of gook.

"Ya know…." She began rolling her eyes and tossing her head back in total frustration. "The next time Xena says something is not a good idea I am really going to pay more attention. Me and my brilliant ideas!" She pushed herself out of the stench, doing her best to keep most of it off of what still remained clean. She dreaded the thought of once again immerging herself in that freezing stream but it seemed the lesser of two evils. With clenched teeth she waded into the knee-deep water bending down to splash its frigid contents over her arms and upper legs. She thought very briefly about sitting in its depth to rinse that part of her anatomy then quickly opted to splash the cold water there instead.

Once more the shivery, dripping young girl walked along hoping to find release from this damp smelly torture chamber very soon. As if in answer to her prayer (or better yet to quiet her constant complaints) the stream opened into a much wider area where the walls seemed to lose some of their jaggedness. The trees parted allowing the late afternoon sun to cast a wondrous sparkle on the gurgling water. Gabrielle smiled despite her plight at its sudden beauty. It was almost as if the land was apologizing for its harsh treatment.

A few feet ahead the stream became a river and wound away through a gully that provided no walk room on either side. Just before that turn there seemed to be a slight parting in the walls that led up and out of this canyon of horror. It twisted at an odd angle and Gabrielle would have to slide along a narrow path while stooping beneath a low outcropping but in the distance the top of the path she could just make out a bridge. A BRIDGE!!! That meant civilization, people, warmth and food. The girl walked quickly across the rocks and began her climb back to the world above. Normally the young bard would hesitate to take such a path but all she wanted was to be free of this place and even the stern admonition she would surely receive from a very angry warrior was better than this punishment. She crossed the bridge triumphantly and made the crisscross path across strategically placed boulders to the top of the gorge, silently thanking whoever was clever enough to make such a wonderful trail. As soon as she reached the top she recognized the well-trodden path that she probably should have been on all along. The girl stood for a moment contemplating her position and the direction she should take.

She'd been tossed and turned around so much in the past few hours she couldn't decide whether she was east or west, or for that matter north or south of the Amazon village. "Now what?" She asked herself as she rubbed her cold arms with her even colder hands and shifted from chilly foot to chilly foot. She could tell by the position of the sun that there wasn't much daylight left. "Well if I was supposed to keep the sun behind me this morning in order to be heading west, then I guess I should keep it in front of me now." She told herself smugly. "I can't be that far away from one place or the other." The girl told herself in order to calm her own fears as she started walking again. She should reach one village or the other before the sun completely set and left her…in the dark…in the woods…all alone….

Gabrielle walked faster.

 

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"That's it!" Xena exclaimed as she slammed the mug she had been holding down against the top of the long oak bar. "I don't care how old she is or how much she needs to prove whatever it is she needs to prove. THAT IS IT!!"

The bartender nodded quickly, hoping to avoid a repeat of this morning's incidents. He moved to refill the mug but the warrior placed a hand over its opening.

"Do you realize what time of day it is?" She questioned the man.

He turned and looked out the small window behind the bar. The sun had set at least half a candle mark before but the sky still held a hint of light. Before he could compile an answer the warrior barked. "It's not only way past the time she should be back…but way past the time I should be looking for her!" She turned and stormed out of the bar leaving the portly man once again speechless and bewildered. He was almost positive this warrior was dangerously mad.

Xena saddled Argo in record time and was making her way along the trail minutes later. "She's probably so immersed in visiting with her friends she's forgot the time. Forgot the time! Oh, I can just hear her explanation. No, no I don't want to hear it. No, oh no my little bard I won't be the one listening…oh no, no, no, no, no. YOU, you little girl are going to get a lecture you won't forget…lecture? Oh and that isn't all I have planned for you my young wayward, forgetful, young friend…no that is far from all I have in store for you. Ooo, when I get my hands on her I'll…." The warrior's thoughts drifted away with unspoken threats as her fear of what might have happened leapt to the front of her mind.

Someone in town had said it had been unseasonably wet this year and the rains had swollen most of the streams and rivers beyond their normal size. The falls that lay between the villages would be more powerful than usual and would have attracted the young wanderer for a better look. There were many traps set by the Amazons in the woods off the trail…. Xena pressed Argo to hurry. They passed through the tall grassy field and over the rocky hillside as the last of the day's light disappeared.

Traveling at night was risky at best, but this situation warranted it. The warrior pressed on stopping at the top of the first falls and pushing herself to a standing position in the stirrups. A full moon had risen and cast an eerie light across the forest floor leaving dark pockets of shadow along the bases of trees and shrubbery. If the girl had fallen her body would blend into those shadows. Xena pulled the horse away from the edge of the cliff and continued on the trail toward the village.

 

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A few miles away on a darker rocky path, a young, cold, and very tired traveler sat on a large boulder. She brushed a few errant tears away with the back of her hand and resigned herself to the fact that she wasn't going to find any shelter or respite from this journey on this evening. Gabrielle could go no farther. She was exhausted. The girl pushed herself off the rock and moved to a small nook that was formed between its edge and the ground beneath. It was just the right size to wriggle into for protection from the elements. Xena had taught her that. With the last of her energy she squirmed into the hole and was asleep as soon as she rested her head against the pack she had managed to hold on to throughout her ordeal.

 

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The warrior heard the celebration before she saw it. Amazons were very, very good at keeping their presence unknown, and even better at the wild midnight festivities they held to honor their royalty. The drums beat out a steady rhythm interlaced with the loud voices of chanting warriors. Xena's blood came to a slow boil. "I'll kill her." She hissed through clenched teeth. How dare that little imp worry her half out of her mind while she was out here prancing around at a harvest celebration! "No…no, I won't kill her…that wouldn't be painful enough!" She slowed Argo to a walk as she entered the village then stopped to watch the revelry before she dragged her little Princess away.

The Amazon warriors' flesh glowed in the reflection of the large bonfire they encircled. It's flame reached high into the night sky and lit up the entire village. The Amazon Queen Melosa stood on a scaffold observing her tribe as they writhed in ceremonial dance. The dark woman raised a hand bringing the music as well as the frenzied activity to a halt. She stepped from the platform and crossed the short distance to stand before the uninvited warrior.

"Xena." The queen remarked neither in question nor surprise.

Xena threw her leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground in front of the Amazon. "Where is she?" She growled stepping past Melosa without making eye contact.

Melosa turned and followed the warrior's line of sight. "Xena, you know you are always welcome here…but this is a ceremony for our tribe alone. We are to initiate our young warriors on this harvest equinox."

Xena turned, her eyes blazed in the fire's reflection. "I'm not here to disturb your celebration Melosa. Just here to collect some lost goods." She smiled sarcastically at the queen's perplexed look. "I'll be out of your way as soon as find her." She turned back to the group of young girls that had stopped to watch as their queen approached this respected visitor.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Melosa asked from behind the warrior.

Xena spun back not quite believing what she had been asked. "Where is Gabrielle?" She repeated. "I sent her here this afternoon. She should have arrived hours ago."

"Xena…." The queen's voice took on a hint of concern. "Gabrielle is not here."

Xena swallowed the lump of fear that tried to rise in her throat. She hadn't passed the girl on the trail. Gabrielle was not in the village. She moved back to her horse and swung up into the saddle. "Then I have to find her."

Melosa grabbed the horse's reins. "NO, Xena…you know as well as I that you cannot find her in the dark." Xena glared at the woman as Argo pranced nervously. Melosa's voice remained calm. "Come, rest…tell us what brought you…we will search at first light."

Xena knew the queen was right. She closed her eyes to block out the images that flashed behind them. She turned her head away from the Amazon pulling her warrior's mask into place to hide the fear she was just able to manage. With a quick nod she dismounted and stood next to the leader of the tribe. Then followed as the woman walked toward the queen's royal hut. It would be a long restless night.

 

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Gabrielle woke just as the sun peeked over the horizon. She pulled herself from the confines of the small nook that had served as her bed. Her stomach complained loudly not having been satisfied since the early day before. Aches and pains that had quieted in sleep woke with a vengeance as the girl rubbed the sleep from both eyes. She climbed onto the rock and peered down the path in both directions. It seemed as though she had walked an awful long way the night before and not really gotten any closer to her goal. Apparently she had been heading in the wrong direction. It made perfect sense to her to go the opposite way this morning.

Once again the weary traveler rose to her bare feet and began to trek along the wooded trail. "Well at least this time it's dry." She remarked only to realize she could use a drink about now.

The path sloped down a small hill then back up again and soon she was at the point where she had climbed up out of the ravine. The sun was beaming down on her and in the past few hours had taken most of the dampness and chill out of her clothing as well as her bones. She slapped at the soft deerskin skirt beating the hardened mud off of it. "Yuck! It doesn't smell any better dry than it did wet!" She wrinkled her nose and then let out a loud sneeze. "Great…oh that is just great…." She told herself as she continued down the trail. "That is all I need…right…get sick on top of this and Xena will have me drinking some gods-awful potion just to get even with me. Oh, yeah she'll say it's for my own good, but she will just bask in the fact that I will be the one suffering…." She babbled as she walked then stopped abruptly when she was sure she heard something.

"Who's there?" She gasped, suddenly missing her staff. She crouched low, turning in a complete circle to view the entire area. Then jumped back as a girl no older than her own age dropped softly from the trees above. The girl immediately fell to one knee and rested her head against her folded hands.

"Princess…." She breathed heavily. "You're safe."

"Huh?" Gabrielle wrinkled her nose and cocked her head to look at the girl.

"You're safe, majesty." The girl repeated to the ground not daring to look up at the rescued Princess.

"Please get up." Gabrielle replied finally realizing the girl was showing respect for her title. She reached down and pulled the other girl to her feet. "You don't need to do that." She blushed under her smudged 'makeup'. "It's sort of…embarrassing."

The girl smiled then stepped back away from Gabrielle. "Yes, princess. Whatever you wish."

"My name is Gabrielle." The bard informed her stepping closer.

Again the girl back stepped. "I am called Kalyca." She said still lowering her eyes to the ground.

"You're kidding!" Gabrielle laughed. "Boy am I glad to see you! In fact I'm glad to see anyone! How did you find me? I mean how did you know I was coming or that I wasn't there yet?"

The Amazon warrior's eyebrows went up as the young princess rattled off questions without waiting for answers.

"Oh I have a message for you. That's why I was coming to the village. It's important." The bard began rummaging through her bag. "I have it here somewhere, but I had a bit of trouble yesterday and well….here it is…." She pulled out the scroll and reached out to place it Kalyca's hand. Again the girl moved away. "It's okay." Gabrielle assured her. "It's a note from Mikolas. I told him I'd deliver it…I mean since he couldn't." She stepped toward the girl again only to have Kalyca move farther away.

"The queen awaits your arrival. We should hurry. There are many concerned with your welfare." Kalyca remarked as she held out a hand to show the way.

"Listen," Gabrielle remarked placing her hands on her hips. "I really think you could at least look at the note." She held it out again.

"I would princess…but…." The young Amazon looked to the ground again finding it difficult to address the Princess.

"Don't you want it?" Gabrielle suddenly realized the girl might not have the same feelings for Mikolas as he did for her.

"N-no, no that isn't it. It's just that…that…well…" Kalyca hesitated.

"Tell me." Gabrielle almost whispered half in girlish curiosity and half in female concern.

"I mean no disrespect my princess, but you…you smell very bad." The girl finished in a bit of a mumble, but Gabrielle understood. For a moment she stood just staring at the girl who now refused to meet her eye. The young princess shook her head and tried to be angry, tried to be 'regal' but a snicker escaped. She put her hand to her mouth but was unable to suppress the laughter that erupted. Kalyca smiled then joined her and soon both girls were sharing the humor of the situation.

Gabrielle composed herself first. "Do you suppose there'd be a nice hot bath waiting for your smelly princess?"

"Oh most definitely!" Kalyca laughed harder. She took a small breath and held it then reached for the scroll. She quickly tucked in the small pouch she wore on her waist then expelled the breath. "Come on," she took a step and waved a hand motioning Gabrielle to follow, "I know a short cut. The sooner you get out of those…things…the better!"

The young princess laughed again and allowed her guide a head start before following her off the trodden path.

 

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The Queen of the Amazons joined the Warrior Princess as she moved carefully along the trail toward the Men's Village searching for any sign of where the Amazon Princess may have lost her way. It was rare that Melosa joined in such a thing, but this was the heir to her throne. She felt obligated. As they walked Xena explained the circumstances that led to Gabrielle's mysterious disappearance.

"It's less than a half day's walk to your village…" The warrior shook her head still not believing the girl could have gone missing in such a protected area.

Melosa stepped off the path and followed a rocky creek bed to a much larger stream. "This is what we call the Seven Sisters." She waved her hand before her. "Seven veils of water that fall in steps to form the lake at the base of Mount Buscillus. We send our young novices here as a test before they are made full warriors."

"Yeah well that's great Melosa, but I'm not here for a geography lesson." Xena remarked uninterested in the queen's description of the land. She barely looked at the area but stood scanning as far as she could see still hoping to find some sign of the young bard.

Melosa smiled. It was apparent Xena's tracking skills were being affected by her concern for the girl. "Then look here." The queen pushed aside the low branches of a tall pine and pointed to a line of grass that had been flattened. A few small footprints stopped at the edge of the creek.

Xena turned her head to avoid looking foolish in front of the Amazon. She followed the prints with her eyes picking them out easily on the opposite side of the creek. In one long stride she was across and following them into the wooden area beyond.

A moment later the two seasoned warriors stood at the top of a step like cliff. They looked at each other once then began the climb to the its base, both knowing that the young girl they sought would more than likely have followed the same path. How Gabrielle had stumbled on to this hidden path was a mystery in itself, but one Xena had every intention of getting to the bottom of it…as soon as she knew the kid was safe. 'Probably day dreaming…or prattling on to herself about some such nonsense…not watching the trail…not pay attention….' The warrior told herself feeling her blood beginning to boil with more anger than fear. 'Can't leave her alone for a second! Oh, it will be some time before you go traipsing off on your own again, my little Amazon bard.'

They stood at the bend where the water rushed under the roots of the thin trees. The roar of the falls blocked out anything they might try to say to each other. Both warriors saw it at the same time, the familiar tip of the girl's fighting staff.

Xena bolted to the water's edge and sprang in a graceful flip, landing lightly on the opposite shore. In two steps she reached for the staff and pulled it from the hedge. A pair of boots tumbled free as well. She bent and picked them up. Then looked back at the queen nodding once to answer her unheard question.

 

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The Amazon bathing hut was luxury a young village girl had never been privileged to in her short life. The water in the large tub was just the right temperature and somehow it bubbled as if it were boiling. Before stepping in, Gabrielle was sure it would scald the skin from her bones. Kalyca thrust her own arm into the water to show the girl it was safe. The young Amazon had managed to sneak the princess into the village and then to the hut without being noticed. Of course everyone was so concerned with finding the lost heir, no one was looking right inside the village. Gabrielle reasoned that it would be better for her to greet the tribe in a more appealing condition and that her current aroma would probably be quite offensive. Not exactly the impression she wanted to put forth. Kalyca agreed.

Gabrielle pulled off her offensive garments and lowered herself into the welcoming water of the tub. It felt so wonderful she let her body slip completely under the surface. Even the sting of her bruised thigh wasn't enough to bring her from its welcome warmth. The only thing that did bring her up was the need for breath, which she took with a long, 'ahhhhhh!', as she popped out of the water.

Kalyca handed the princess a large bar of soap and a small vile of purple liquid. "It helps get rid of the swampy smell." The girl smiled. "I'll go see if I can find you some clothes. These will need to be boiled." She grabbed a long pike from the wall and stabbed the pile of clothing on the floor bringing it up and out in front of her. "You better soak for a while…um…." Kalyca hesitated watching her princess rest against the large tub's edge with her eyes closed. "Maybe I should bring the healer back with me."

Gabrielle's eyes shot open. "Healer? Why?" The girl sat up holding both arms out in front of her, examining them carefully.

"Well, there's that knot on your head there." Kalyca pointed with one hand while balancing the pike with the other.

Gabrielle raised her own hand to her forehead and felt the bump there. She winced with the dull pain it caused. She couldn't remember hitting her head but apparently this was proof that she had. "This? It's nothing. Hadn't even noticed." She commented.

"And the mark on your middle…." The Amazon nodded toward the water's surface.

Even through the churning water the dark purplish mark on Gabrielle's stomach was apparent. It was tender to the touch and unconsciously the girl was taking short breaths to avoid the stabbing pain anything deeper happen to cause. She looked down at it suddenly embarrassed that so much was visible under the clear water. She moved to the opposite side of the tub with her back to the Amazon, folded her arms over her chest and shrugged her shoulders a bit.

"But I really think you oughta have that scrape across your backside looked at…all that crud from the swamp couldn't have helped it much. Can't imagine how you're gonna do any sittin' for a while." Kalyca finished. Her tone was casual and matter-of-fact, certainly not in jest.

Gabrielle's mouth turned up in a kind of half smile/half frown. Of all the injuries she managed to give herself on this haphazard misadventure that one seemed to be giving her the most grief. It wasn't too bad resting in the soothing water, and before it was so cold she hadn't noticed any discomfort but something told her the worst was yet to come. However, she wasn't too thrilled with having anyone 'look' at that particular part of her anatomy let alone 'treat' it. She swallowed hard. The thought of infection from that nasty muck was just as unnerving. She squirmed a bit in the bubbly water sliding further into its depth. "You really think you should bring her?" She asked in a voice that sounded much younger than her years.

Kalyca bit her bottom lip and nodded slowly. "Dyjea is very good. She's been the tribal healer for as long as anyone can remember. She is gentle and…."

The girl stopped suddenly as a large shadow filled the doorway of the steamy hut. The dark figure stepped inside and held a finger to its lips warning her to keep quiet. It moved without a sound into the light of the structure then thrust a thumb over its shoulder motioning the girl to clear out. Kalyca's mouth hung open for a moment before she slid past the tall warrior without losing the poker she still held.

"And?" Gabrielle asked wondering what other skill the Amazon healer might possess in order to change her mind. The sound of something hard clunking against the dirt floor was her answer. "What…." Gabrielle began as she swiveled around and rested her chin on the side of the tub.

"Lose something?" A gruff yet familiar voice inquired.

Gabrielle swallowed hard as she looked at her boots and staff lying on the floor then followed the line of the other set of boots all the way up to the stern look on a very familiar warrior face. "Xena." She whispered through a teeny weak smile. The warrior stood with her hands on both hips, shaking her head, one eyebrow raised in that warrior scowl. The girl swallowed again as she let herself slip beneath the water a second time.

 

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Xena's skills left no room for any Amazon healer, regardless of her age or seniority. After the young princess was swaddled in a large blanket she was marched off to a hut that the tribe used for honored visitors. A very stoic warrior followed behind. Once inside she was mortified when ordered to drop the covering and submit to a very thorough healer's examination. If that wasn't bad enough the healer's exam, however gentle, was peppered with a not so gentle warrior lecture. Gabrielle winced several times at the harsh tone but remained amazed that the touch never matched that fervor. From the bump on her forehead to the minor cuts on her toes, Xena didn't miss a spot or a wound and each one brought on a new slew of warnings, reminders, and threats regarding the need to pay attention and follow directions as given.

When she was completely satisfied and quite finished, Xena found nothing broken…nothing serious enough for stitching…nothing life threatening. There were mostly bumps, bruises, scratches, and of course that nasty scrape that the warrior-healer covered completely with some spicy smelling salve that stung enough to bring tears to her patient's eyes. The warrior smiled evilly at the girl's plight and swatted the unbruised portion of her backside when she completed her treatment.

"Okay, princess get dressed." She quirked as she pulled a very unflattering shapeless dress from the top of one of the large trunks in the room and handed it to the girl. "Your queen wishes a word with her next of caste." The smile on Xena's face was anything but reassuring.

Gabrielle slipped the garment over her head and tied the sash around her waist. She slipped her boots over her tender feet then took a step toward the door. She turned back looking at the warrior through her bangs. "Are you coming with me?" She asked quietly more in a request than an inquiry.

Xena folded her arms over her chest and shook her head. "Oh no, your majesty, you got yourself into this mess. You're on your own. After all you're not a kid. Are you?" The warrior used the girl's words against her, never losing that catlike grin.

"No, no I'm not." Gabrielle retorted finding courage in the anger she felt toward the warrior's sniping. She turned again and limped purposefully out the door toward the queen's hut. Xena waited just long enough for the girl to be out of sight then stepped out of the hut and made her way to the rear of Melosa's quarters.

 

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Apparently Melosa and Xena had attended the same school of 'Teach the Young People a Good Lesson' because most of what the Amazon Queen said was just a repetition of what Gabrielle had just heard. While the girl was not usually one to go without getting in the last word, in this situation in was impossible to get in a word at all. She remained silent, nodding only when she was sure it was appropriate. Some of the physical threats of punishment were quite terrifying, even though she was absolutely sure Xena would never allow the queen to carried them out. She wasn't quite so sure however, that the warrior herself might not consider one or two of them. But after two verbal spankings, one on top of the other, Gabrielle was convinced of the need to pay closer attention to her surroundings and not to take situations quite so lightly. Directions were given for a reason, and one of those reasons was to follow them. Melosa reminded her also that she was lucky her injuries had been minor, things could have turned out much worse. Xena had made the same point, several times. However, all of these reminders were but harbingers of the actual sentence the queen passed on her young princess.

She was given a meal of warm gruel and forced to drink some bitter tea that old Dyjea insisted would ward off any chance of infection. Xena had sniffed the mixture and wrinkled her whole face in distaste, then nodded in agreement with the ancient Amazon and pushed the mug toward the princess. It wasn't the best meal she had ever had, but it filled her empty stomach. She sat alone in the hut listening to the reverie outside as the tribe celebrated her return. The girl pouted at the irony of a celebration while the guest of honor was confined to her hut, punished like a wayward child. She would have protested, but thought better of it not wishing to test either warrior's threat of a worse fate. The smells of the many foods spread out at that banquet filled her nostrils, but she shoveled the mush into her mouth and washed it down with the awful beverage. A candle mark later a very contrite Amazon Princess Bard lay curled into a tight ball on the large bed in the royal visitor's hut. Exhausted from her ordeal and its aftermath she had fallen asleep with the stern lectures of the queen and the warrior that still rang in her ears blocking out the party that went on outside.

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The warrior stood at the edge of the village watching as the last of the large bonfire slowly turned to glowing red embers that blinked in competition with the star filled sky. She could not help thinking how much her young friend would have enjoyed such revelry and this quiet moment that followed. Melosa had decreed that absolutely NO ONE was to engage in conversation of any kind with Gabrielle for the remainder of the day while the girl reflected on the day's events. Xena shivered a bit knowing that the worst punishment any leader could declare was to be shunned. Gabrielle was such a social kid, this isolation would be hard on her. Again the warrior found herself overly concerned with the girl's welfare and shook her head trying to push the thoughts away.

"You can't hide your concern from your own heart." Melosa's voice came from behind.

Xena sighed but did not turn. She had heard the Amazon's quiet approach. "Concern?" She repeated emotionlessly.

The queen merely smiled as she stepped next to the warrior and stared at the same fire. "She is a stubborn one."

Xena laughed a small silent laugh. Stubborn was quite an understatement when it came to Gabrielle.

"And it is well for both of you that she is." The queen continued still staring ahead. "That obstinate nature may one day be your salvation."

Xena glanced at the woman briefly, then back to the dying fire.

"Hide your feelings well, warrior." The queen warned as she took a step away. "It is wise to keep this soft weakness in yourself hidden, but know this." Melosa continued as she moved toward the darkness the fire was leaving behind. "You cannot for long feign affection where it does not exist, nor hide it were it grows."

Xena watched as the queen disappeared into the inky blackness but was still able to hear the last of her advice on the quiet woodland air.

"She has touched a part of your heart, warrior. Hide it well from your enemies, but not from yourself."

For a moment the warrior stared at the spot where the queen had become invisible letting her words sink into that part of her mind that housed all the maternal anxiety that had gnawed at its edges the past two days. Something about those words seemed to quiet that beast, for now. She looked at the blinking red coals one last time before turning away and walking slowly toward the large hut with the two alert guards positioned outside. She had been ordered, more precisely she had agreed to, leaving Gabrielle alone for the extent of her sentence during the day but not during the night. Xena had no intention of letting this little trouble finder out of her sight any time soon.

Xena stood for a moment watching the girl sleep. Somehow she knew this would not be the last time this young person went off on some half baked adventure and ended up slightly worse for wear. While brushing a stray hair from the girl's face she mentally thanked the unseen hand that had guided and protected the little imp this time. Gabrielle shivered and the warrior reached for a thick blanket then tucked it around the small form. Melosa had seen what Xena refused to look at. This small bit of a pesky kid had managed to touch a part of the warrior left wounded and scarred by the loss of younger brother. She pulled off her boots and loosened her armor then settled back in a large chair content to have her young charge back safely.

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Two days later Gabrielle's Amazon solitary confinement was lifted and both Xena and Dyjea agreed she was healed enough to travel. In the time she had been in the village Gabrielle had not seen Kalyca again. As she and Xena said goodbye her eyes searched the small circle in the village center for the young girl. She was not to be found.

Xena swung up onto Argo's saddle and held out a hand to the bard. Gabrielle allowed herself to be pulled up behind the warrior. Her bruised posterior was still a bit tender, but it felt good to know that despite Xena's anger she had been forgiven. She wrapped her arms around the warrior as Xena urged the large horse away from the Amazon village and headed west.

"We're not going back?" Gabrielle inquired.

Xena thought for a moment about the impression she had left in the Men's village. Somehow the vision of a Warrior Mother Hen frightened her much more than the memory of the Destroyer of Nations. "Nah…" she answered.

"Xena?" Gabrielle began.

"Mmm?" Xena answered concentrating on the rocky path they traveled.

"What do you think she decided?" The girl asked.

"Who?" The warrior replied totally confused by the question.

"Kalyca. Do you think she went back to Mikolas? Do you think it was true love? Do you think she felt the same as he did?" The girl went on. "They'd make such a cute couple, don't you think? I mean not that we've ever seen them together, but he was so romantic and so much in love with her and she well she couldn't even bring herself to talk about him. She did take the scroll even though it didn't smell very nice. I mean she could have thrown it away. Maybe she did. Xena, do you think she read it? Maybe that's why I didn't see her when we left maybe she was already on her way…."

Xena smiled as she listened to the girl's one-sided conversation. The rocky ground fell away to a smooth dirt road. It was good to listen to that chattering. She pressed her knees against the horse's ribs and flicked the reins gently. Argo picked up her step jarring her rear passenger.

"Whoa!" Gabrielle yelped then wrapped her arms tighter around the warrior resting her cheek against Xena's shoulder. "Xena?" She said quietly.

"Yeah?" The warrior replied over her shoulder.

Gabrielle smiled for a moment thankful for the moment. "Nothing." She answered not knowing exactly how to say thank you.

"Yeah." The warrior said simply, thanking the girl in return.


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