See For Better or Worse (Part 1) for the complete disclaimer statement and other notes from the author.
Xena watched as Gabrielle's mother walked towards them, her cold eyes fixed on the Warrior Princess. "Where is Gabrielle?" She asked briskly. "Back in Amazonia mother," Sarah interjected drawing her mother's annoyed glare from the Warrior Princess. "I asked Xena the question Sarah, not you," she snapped then returned her gaze to the Warrior Princess. "Sarah is right, Gabrielle is still in Amazonia," Xena responded cooly. "You left her there...alone?" She asked incredulously. "Mother, she is not exactly alo..." Lila blurted, quickly silenced by her mother's sharp stare. "Gabrielle asked that I deliver these scrolls to Sarah," Xena relayed, pointing to the treaty and demands. "I did as she asked," Xena added simply, though the woman's words weighed heavily on Xena's already concerned mind. "She CAN be pretty stub...born," Meleager interjected then coughed when his future mother-in-law turned her icy glare towards him. "Who will protect her from that...that...woman?" The older woman blurted, having not slept since she finally wore down her daughters' resistance to explaining to her the disturbing reason for Gabrielle's abrupt departure. Surprised the older woman was aware of the situation, Xena looked over to Sarah and Lila, who shrugged innocently. "Once these scrolls are signed, the claim to Walsas is settled and Gurda no longer has an ability to challenge the throne," Xena explained cooly, staring at the older woman. Sarah quickly took her quill out and decided now would be good time to sign the treaty. "If Gurda challenges Gabrielle now, it will be a personal challenge and she can name a champion to fight for her. I will fight for her," Xena spoke calmly and confidently. "Xena's the best fighter mother," Sarah interjected as she blew on the ink to dry it, hoping to further allay her mother's fears. "She MUST be if she can fight a woman in Amazonia all the way from WALSAS!" She snapped. Xena's gaze dropped to the floor, the mother's words successfully hitting their mark. "Gurda wouldn't risk challenging Gabrielle now, she'd be crazy to," Lila interjected, amazed to find the Warrior Princess so...passive. The older woman looked at her daughters then Xena. "A few years ago, I knew my daughter," she paused wearily, slightly shaking her head. "The woman you...travel...with," The older woman exhaled slowly. "...is not the Gabrielle I raised," the woman relayed, looking up into the warrior's eyes. "Gabrielle has grown into an amazing woman," Xena spoke with conviction. "She is more willful, ready to take chances...You know Gabrielle better than I do Xena. If she is challenged, are you SURE she'll name a champion?" She asked and waited for an answer that Xena didn't have. "Xena," Sarah asked with concern, seeing the warrior's face as she hesitated in answering. "She wouldn't fight Gurda, would she?" In front of the cave, the Amazons watched uneasily as the challenge began. Immediately, the towering Gurda launched into a fierce attack. Gabrielle stumbled backwards while blocking each powerful strike from her opponent, who was trying to use her superior strength to overpower the smaller bard. Solari and Eponin gasped at Gurda's intensity. Sustra just nudged a concerned Trayla and shook her head with a knowing smile. To Gurda's surprise, this BARD Queen quickly responded with her own attack. Sustra noted that while the bard's blows did not have the same power, they were more controlled and came closer to hitting her opponent. Gurda's brow furrowed as she realized it would take longer than she expected to beat this bard. After long rounds of hitting and blocking, blocking and hitting, Gabrielle knew she needed an edge. Gurda's strength would eventually overwhelm her if they kept this pace up. "First you loose the chance at the throne," Gabrielle called out as she lunged towards the Amazon. The Queen's attack was easily deflected by the Amazon, who quickly countered with a grunt-filled attack of her own. Gabrielle swiftly blocked the rapid strikes but at the expense of valuable energy. The muscles in her arms started to quake with fatigue, never before pushed so hard. Gods I should have practiced more, the bard silently scolded herself. "...and now your losing this challenge," she blurted, continuing her verbal assault and making Gurda very annoyed. The bard thrust one end of her staff with an enthusiastic and distracting cry. Deliberately stopping short of her opponent's high block, she deftly reversed her attack. With an underhanded thrust from the other end of her staff, she successfully slipped passed her opponent's defenses, making solid contact with the Amazon's ribs. Grins formed on the faces of the hunting party as Gurda recoiled in pain. "Tell me Gurda, aren't you tired of losing to me yet?" Gabrielle continued her attack. "Gods don't you ever shut up?" Gurda spat with irritation as she lunged at the bard, who blocked the attack but felt her strength draining away. The bard concluded she would definitely have to practice more. Gabrielle crouched down and attempted to sweep the feet from Gurda, who easily jumped the bard's staff. The bard looked up with wide eyes, realizing she was too slow and left herself open. Not having enough time to raise her staff to block Gurda's next attack, Gabrielle attempted to dive out of the way. Sustra gasped watching Gurda's staff plummet down with great force and strike the Queen's back. Gabrielle collapsed into the dirt. Still dazed by the blow, Gabrielle barely managed to roll out of the way of Gurda's violent downward thrust, aimed at the injured Queen's head. The smile of vicious glee faded from Gurda's face when her staff only hit dirt. Gurda's eyes widened with the realization that she had now left herself open. "Ughh," Gurda groaned loudly when the felled bard slammed the end of her staff in the Amazon's already aching ribs. Sustra blurted out her joy at the bard's skilled move from the ground. "YES!!" Stumbling back a moment, Gurda gasped, allowing the bard time to get back on her feet. The fatigued Queen quickly glanced over her shoulder at the gaping mouth of the cave. When Gurda rushed her again, Gabrielle retreated into the black void to Gurda's surprise and amusement. "Running already Queen Gabrielle?" Gurda laughed as she followed the bard into the darkness. "It will only delay the inevitable..." Gurda blurted confidently. Solari and Sustra grabbed their torches. "No!" Eponin called to her sisters. "We can not interfere," she relayed to the unhappy Amazons. "I am not going to interfere, just see what's happening. A challenge needs witnesses doesn't it??" Sustra argued, taking a torch and lighting it. "I'll go too," Raiz added grabbing Solari's torch. "To witness..." Raiz added, making Solari sigh and release the torch. Sustra nodded in agreement and entered the cave. Ahead of their field of vision, Sustra and Raiz heard the two women fighting in the dark. "Is she crazy?" Raiz shook her head and asked Sustra. "Well, you know Gurda better than I do..." Sustra responded sarcastically. The sounds they heard next were confusing. In rapid succession, they heard a dull thunk, what they thought was a muttered 'in the name of Hera', a very loud grunt, a swat, a moan and someone collapse to the dirt. As they rushed towards the noise, their torch light revealed their exhausted Queen standing over Gurda. Gabrielle held her staff at the ready, waiting for Gurda to move while praying she wouldn't. Sustra smiled broadly when her Queen quickly glanced at her. When Gurda rolled over on her back, Gabrielle held her staff threateningly. "It's...OVER...Gurda," Gabrielle called out between gasps. Gurda lifted her hands to her forehead and moaned. "Gurda!" Gabrielle yelled at her. Gurda nodded and lifted her hands up in a formal gesture of defeat. "It's over..." Gabrielle exhaled with relief that the burden of the whole Amazon situation was finally over. She looked up at her loyal Amazon, who was grinning ear to ear. Gabrielle smiled back and forced her exhausted body towards her friend as Raiz helped the moaning Amazon up. "Don't be too relieved, we've still got an egg to find," Gabrielle relayed with a grin to her friend, who shook her head in amazement at the tenacity of this bard. As they started to leave, a cold gust extinguished the two torches. Sustra and Gabrielle heard Gurda's chilling war cry, just before they felt the impact of the Amazon. She rode Argo hard all the way from Walsas and arrived in the Amazon village before the Amazon scouts at the edge of the territory could even announce her arrival. Xena dismounted and rushed into the Queen's hut. Bolting from the empty hut, Xena scanned the village and called out for her bard. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle?" Xena waited uneasily for a response. "Xena! What's going on?? Why are you so up..?" Ephiny met up with the Warrior Princess outside the Queen's hut. "Where's Gabrielle?" Xena sharply interrupted her. "Hunting for that furry...chicken thing with a small hunting party," Ephiny relayed with a shrug. "I'm not exactly sure why she was so determined to..." "Where's Gurda?" Xena interrupted, not attempting to hide her concern. Ephiny was too slow in responding. "Where's Gurda?!?" Xena snapped impatiently. "I don't KNOW Xena...what is going on??" Without another word, Xena left for the caves, with the confused and concerned Amazon close behind. "I won, I've defeated the Queen!" Gurda yelled triumphantly as the bruised and bloodied Amazon stumbled out of the cave. The Amazons noted with shock the amount of blood on her, unusual for a staff fight. "Gurda!" Eponin blurted angrily. "We will hear from our witnesses before declaring the victor." An uncaring Gurda sneered at her. "Raiz! Come here!" She spat back to the cave. Surprising Gurda, Raiz emerged with Sustra, helping their injured Queen out of the cave. Gurda's mouth dropped. "Raiz?" Gurda questioned her, panicked she would actually help that bard. "Aren't you..." Gabrielle spoke with great effort. "...a little quick...to declare...victory?" Gabrielle's breathing was labored. There was so much blood, Eponin's mouth dropped. "Arrest her," Raiz spoke coldly. The Amazons who arrived with Gurda froze, not knowing what to do. "She acknowledged the Queen as the victor, then stabbed her in the back," Raiz spit angrily, throwing the bloody dagger on the ground before their feet. Elea and Raylas stepped up and grabbed Gurda's arms. Gurda yanked her arms out of their grip. "NO! Elea...Raylas...listen to me! I beat her! I beat her!" Gurda shook her head emphatically, her eyes darted between the women that rode with her, not getting the support she expected. She looked to Wynna and Karael, who looked upon her with silent disgust. "NO! I WON...I WON," she repeated as she frantically backed away from them. Suddenly, she made a mad dash for her horse and mounted. "Stop her!" Trayla called out to the Amazons, as Gurda started to get away. Now a matter of personal honor, the group that formerly rode with Gurda, rode after her. "How are you doing?" Sustra said with a shake in her voice, still applying pressure on her Queen's wound. With only a moan in response, Raiz and Sustra lowered the very weak bard to the ground. "We need a healer NOW!" Sustra blurted as she eyed Eponin, who nodded and quickly left with the most important mission in her life.
Gabrielle moaned and shivered. "ssso ...c cold," the bard mumbled. Raiz rushed to her horse and retrieved a blanket. Sustra kept pressure over the wound. "Oh Gods..." Sustra silently prayed, not truly knowing fear until now. They placed the blanket around the shivering bard the best they could. "Fire...make a fire..." Sustra blurted to Solari, numbly following Sustra's orders. "Stop the...bleeding," Gabrielle relayed weakly. Sustra looked at the fire then Raiz. "Sword, get your sword..." Sustra relayed nervously, seeing no other options. She prayed she could do what needed to be done. Raiz nodded, standing by, waiting for Solari to get the blaze going. "Sustra?" Gabrielle called softly. "I'm here, Gabrielle," Sustra responded nervously. "Tell Xena ...I love her," Gabrielle relayed, barely above a whisper. "NO! No, I won't," Sustra responded forcefully. "You'll have to tell her yourself Gabrielle." The bard closed her eyes. "Gabrielle? Gabrielle!" Sustra yelled at the bard, who's eyes opened again. "Tell her..." Gabrielle softly urged the Amazon, grasping her arm with surprising strength. As Sustra was about to cave in and promise her Queen, she heard the frantic hoof beats of three horses approaching them. Looking up she saw Eponin, Ephiny and the Warrior Princess arrive and quickly dismount. Grabbing her saddle bags, Xena and rushed over and knelt by her bard. "Gabrielle, I'm here," Xena informed the bard in a voice much calmer than her eyes, which anxiously surveyed the injury after Sustra removed her hand. "I'm here..." Xena repeated, reapplying pressure to the wound with her hand. The wound was going to require a large number of quick and small stitches to stop the bleeding, the warrior considered. For Gabrielle's sake she wanting to avoid searing the wound. That would be the last resort, she considered, swallowing hard. The weak bard smiled with relief. "About...time," Gabrielle blurted. "I should have never left you..." Xena added with a crack in her voice as she opened her saddle bag with her free hand to begin her task. "Xena?" She called to her warrior with concern in her voice. "I'm here Gabrielle..." Xena said uneasily, caressing the bard's face. "You know how much..." Gabrielle spoke softly, gazing intensely in the warrior's worried eyes. Losing her struggle with consciousness, the bard passed out. Xena gasped sharply, nervously checking for a pulse. The Warrior's reaction alarmed the Amazons. Xena sighed raggedly when she felt a faint beat. "I know," Xena answered in a whisper and proceeded to swiftly and meticulously stitch up the bard's wound. Ephiny brought over soup to the Warrior Princess who hadn't budged from Gabrielle's side for hours. "Hungry?" She asked. Xena's gaze never left her bard, who endured more...so much more adversity than she ever deserved. Having done all that she could, Xena could now only sit and wait... and remember. Remember the other times, the too many other times, where she anxiously waited for her injured bard to recover. In Corerik when her brave bard stood up to the prejudiced Sunmoon...at Uncle Ustas' after she fell off a cliff while leading an escape attempt from slavers...in Verbinia, after the bard had her gift brutally torn away...and now.... To helplessly wait, while this gentle soul she loved with all of her dark heart, suffered.... She knew THIS was the Warrior Princess' Tartarus, Xena numbly concluded, still gazing upon the gentle soul. Ephiny sat down with the bowl of soup, undeterred. "It's not that bad if I do say so myself," Ephiny added, taking an exaggerated sniff of the bowl. She sighed, getting no response. "Trayla and Eponin offered to be her champion," Ephiny informed Xena, finally getting a response...a cold glare. "She said no to both of them," Ephiny added, placing the bowl next to Xena, who's eyes glanced at the bowl with disinterest and returned to the bard. "She had something to prove Xena," Ephiny relayed. "Something to prove?!?" Xena blurted. "All she proved was that she shouldn't have fought Gurda." Gabrielle moaned and shifted. Xena was immediately checking her forehead and pale cheeks for a temperature. "It's ok Gabrielle, I'm here..." Xena spoke soft words of encouragement to the bard and sighed with relief, finding no temperature. "You're going to be fine," Xena added firmly, sounding more like an order than encouragement. She had to be fine, the warrior closed her eyes tightly, fighting the tears that threatened to come. "Gabrielle won the challenge Xena," Ephiny relayed, drawing another sharp look from the Warrior Princess, who didn't care. Xena's gaze softened when it returned to the bard, who she knew did. "But she already won...she found a peaceful solution, even when others...I ...doubted her," Xena said hollowly, guiltily shaking her head as she gently traced over the bard's pale cheek. "Yes. Yes she did," Ephiny nodded and sighed. "But even when she found her solution, we still made her feel she had something to prove." The truthful words finally defeated Xena in her battle against the tears, which started to escape from Warrior Princess' eyes. Ephiny set the bowl of soup down and stood up. "Eat the soup Xena, Gabrielle needs you to be strong," Ephiny told her. Wiping the tears from her face and drawing in a steadying breath, Xena stared at her bard then the soup bowl. When she grabbed the bowl, Ephiny nodded and returned to the other side of the fire. Ephiny sighed and sat next to Sustra. "No fever," Ephiny relayed the bit of hopeful news, drawing Sustra's eyes from the fire. "She lost so much blood," she added, a quiver in her voice escaping. Ephiny nodded and looked across the camp to the Warrior Princess, who tenderly ministered to the bard. She noted how the stoic warrior, who once struggled to hide her love for her bard, could no more hide her love now than the sun could keep from setting. "I'm going to get some rest," Ephiny remarked. "You see to it they get whatever they need." Ephiny instructed Sustra, who nodded. "You should also get some rest," Ephiny told the group of concerned Amazons pacing by the cave. Sustra watched as Xena gently checked Gabrielle's face and forehead for signs of a fever. As she showered the bard with soft words of encouragement and love, Xena would gently lift up the bard's ugly but protective tunic to tend to the wound. To think those same gentle hands could wield such a deadly sword, was amazing to the Amazon. "Sarah signed the treaty Gabrielle," Xena noted to the unconscious bard. "She was not exactly thrilled with the demands," Xena grinned slightly as she caressed the bard's face. "But I think she really likes the new name," she noted. "I know I do," Xena relayed softly. "You surprised me my bard...again," Xena admitted, her eyes moistening once again. "Xena, do you need anything?" Sustra asked uneasily, startling the Warrior Princess, who's head jerked up abruptly. "No," she answered briskly, wiping the evidence of weakness from her eyes before it escaped again. Sustra nodded wearily and started back to the other side of the fire, mentally scolding herself for bothering the Warrior Princess. "Sustra," Xena called, making the Amazon turn. "Tell me what happened," Xena asked softly, surprising the Amazon, who nodded. Ephiny turned her head towards the two warriors who kept watch over their Queen and quietly talked. Ephiny smiled and closed her eyes. "She fought as an Amazon Queen should," Sustra noted with a satisfied grin. "Melosa would have been proud," Sustra added. Xena looked at the bard, knowing how important that was to her. "Gurda underestimated her," Gurda relayed, shaking her head as she looked down at the Queen. "Just like everyone does." "Except you," Xena noted, surprising Sustra, who's gaze was drawn from the bard. "I've practiced with her," Sustra explained with an embarrassed shrug. "It's not wise to underestimate anything she does...I've found out THAT the hard way," Gurda grimaced, making Xena reveal a small smile. "She drew Gurda into the cave and fought her. We thought she was crazy. You can't even see your own hand, let alone your opponent. But then Raiz and I went in to see what was going on. We heard them fighting and then someone collapse. When we got to them and could see what was going on, there she was..." Sustra grinned at the fond memory as she looked at her unconscious Queen. "...standing over Gurda, who just held her head and moaned." Xena's eyebrow raised. She glanced over to the cave then down at her bard. A small, knowing smile, emerged as she realized Gabrielle had compensated for Gurda's advantages with one of her own...one that was far superior...her devious mind. "She got Gurda to admit defeat and then...when we started to leave the cave," Sustra relayed, then grimaced angrily. "I shouldn't have turned my back on Gurda...I was so stupid," she blurted. "Sustra, Gurda admitted defeat. That means the matter is finished...you could not have known Gurda would not honour that Amazon custom," Xena relayed, fully understanding this Amazon's guilt. "I should have," Sustra said bitterly. "And I should have been there to protect her," Xena countered. "Xena, you couldn't have...she asked you to deliver the Treaty," Sustra responded. "And you couldn't have known Gurda would be dishonourable," Xena relayed, making the Amazon sigh and shake her head in disagreement. "Gabrielle doesn't blame you...and neither do I," Xena added sincerely. The Amazon looked up from the bard and eyed the warrior. "She must be rubbing off on you then," Sustra blurted, not ready to give up her guilt. "I hope so," Xena said softly, returning her gaze to the bard. As the sun finally rose and peeked over the mountains, Xena glanced around the camp, seeing the Amazons stirring. "How is she?" Ephiny asked as she approached the Warrior Princess. "So far, no fever," Xena relayed. "It is still too early to tell if she's past that," Xena admitted with a weary sigh, gently brushing her fingers over the bard's cheek. "Can she travel?" Ephiny asked. "Not yet," Xena relayed, her gaze fixed on the bard's pale face. "When we do travel, I'm taking her to Galisar," Xena added firmly, finally looking up at Ephiny, who knew better than to argue...though she wondered where that was.
Days passed slowly for the weary group but to their relief, the bard grew steadily stronger. Raiz had returned to Amazonia to inform the tribe their Queen was recovering and the remaining Amazons would be escorting their recovering Queen back to Galisar, wherever that was. By their seventh day by the caves, everyone including the bard was anxious to travel. That is, everyone except the Warrior Princess. "Any idea when we are going to be ready to travel?" Sustra asked with a mouth full of bread during breakfast, earning an annoyed glance from the Warrior Princess. "I am ready to travel now," Gabrielle relayed enthusiastically as she started to lean to her side to stand up. She groaned slightly, the pain in her back reminding her to take it slow. "What do you think you are doing?!?" Xena blurted with great exasperation, grabbing the bard's shoulder, keeping her put. The uneasy Amazons quickly looked at each other with wide eyes and suddenly found some chores they had to do...elsewhere. "I'm trying to stand, which I'm finding rather difficult with you continuing to hold me down," Gabrielle snapped, eyeing the warrior's hand on her shoulder then the warrior. "Gabrielle, you are pushing yourself too fast. We are GOING to wait until you are stronger," the determined Warrior Princess informed the weak bard. Helping Gabrielle up on Argo, Sustra cringed, noticing a very disgruntled Warrior Princess scowling down at her. However, after receiving a smile from her Queen when she got settled in the saddle, Sustra considered the scowl a small price to pay. Though, wisely electing not to push it, Sustra quickly left their company for her horse. When Xena carefully slipped her arm around Gabrielle's waist, she felt the bard's fingers capture her's. As Gabrielle cautiously leaned back into her with a contented sigh, the warrior shook her head with a small smile. "Are you ok?" Xena asked. "More than ok...now," Gabrielle responded softly with a smile. The group rode for hours before stopping at a clearing for lunch. Though she was not about to admit it, Gabrielle was thankful for the break from the painfully bumpy ride on Argo. In the middle of their lunch, Xena saw Gabrielle grimace slightly as she shifted to a more comfortable sitting position. "Gabrielle, you should take a nap after lunch. Sleep is important to recovering quickly," Xena informed the bard as inspected the bard's bandages again. The Amazons exchanged glances. "I don't need to take a nap Xena," Gabrielle countered with a restrained grimace as the warrior touched her near the wound. "Gabrielle, you're exhausted and need to sleep," Xena quickly responded in a stern voice. The Amazons quietly wrapped up their food and put it away, except for Sustra, who was hungry and still enjoying her lunch. "I can SLEEP on Argo as we ride," Gabrielle responded with increasing irritation. The Amazons started to look around for something to do...elsewhere. "You want to practice?" Eponin asked Trayla, who nodded vigorously and blurted "YES!" Ephiny opened her mouth to ask Solari, who agreed before the words escaped. "Great idea! Let's practice!" The four abruptly got up and left their picnic site. Sustra looked up from her bread to find the Amazons had abandoned her. When the Warrior Princess and Queen looked at her a moment, Sustra smiled weakly and unenthusiastically bit into her bread. "I know you can sleep on Argo Gabrielle, but you will be more rested from a nap here," Xena continued her discussion with the stubborn bard, pointing to the grassy patch they were sitting on. "Please?" The Warrior Princess added softly, surprising Sustra, who finished her lunch and nonchalantly pulled out her sword and inspected a spot on it. Sustra breathed over that spot and tried to rub it off. It needs polishing, she concluded. That would be a nice quiet activity that wouldn't disturb her Queen, she considered, pulling out a cloth. "All right, all right..." Gabrielle responded, lifting her hands up in defeat, making the Warrior Princess smile. "But you need a break yourself," Gabrielle relayed with concern. Sustra quickly glanced up at the two, now also concerned. "I don't need..." Xena relayed with a furrowed brow. Sustra's glance returned to her sword, which she more vigorously rubbed with her cloth. "Xena...go for a walk...run...ride...do SOMETHING," Gabrielle interjected. Sustra's eyes widened with fear as they looked up at the too-helpful Queen, then drifted down to the sword in her lap. "I know you need a break from this..from me," the Queen argued. "I don't want to leave..." Xena countered. "Sustra will be here. I'll be fine," Gabrielle argued to quell any further objections. Sustra held her breath, hoping. "You sure?" Xena asked. Letting out a long and relieved exhale, Sustra silently thanked the Gods, all of them, for the reprieve from practicing with Xena. As she stared at her sword with that spot, she felt cold and discriminating eyes on her. When she dared to look up, her suspicions were confirmed, the Warrior Princess was glaring at her. "Absolutely," Gabrielle blurted with conviction, drawing the warrior's gaze back to the bard, who beamed at her success when the warrior rolled her eyes. Xena shook her head as she got up. Looking in the direction of the Amazons' sudden retreat, Xena unsheathed her sword. "I'll see if they are interested in practicing...with me," the Warrior Princess relayed with a wild twinkle in her eyes and an enthusiastic grin on her face. As she watched the Warrior Princess disappear into the forest, Sustra was not so upset anymore that her sisters abandoned her. "Uh, maybe I shouldn't have suggested she take a break," Gabrielle noted, looking at Sustra with a guilty grimace. "All I can say is I'm glad I'm here and not there," Sustra admitted. "Me too," Gabrielle responded warmly before laying back and closing her eyes for that nap. Soon, she was sound asleep. Sustra looked upon the Queen for a thoughtful moment, then smiled and proceeded to polish her sword. Gabrielle woke to the sound of the Warrior Princess, who was humming as she strolled back from the forest. The bard yawned as she sat up, expecting to find the other Amazons following her warrior. When they didn't appear she looked over to Sustra, who shook her head and shrugged. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked, watching her carefree warrior approach. "Yes Gabrielle?" The Warrior Princess responded with a warm smile as she sat down next to her bard. As the warrior lounged back on her elbow, Gabrielle noticed how incredibly... relaxed...Xena was. "Where is everyone?" She asked, her concerned eyes darting back at the forest. As the Warrior Princess opened her mouth to explain, Ephiny appeared. Shooting a cold glare at Xena as she emerged from the forest, Ephiny silently passed them, clenching her aching right side with her hand. When she sat down next to Sustra, the smallest of moans escaped. Gabrielle turned to Xena. "Xena?" Gabrielle asked, interrupting her Warrior Princess' tenacious inspection of her nails. "Hmmmm??" Xena responded softly, looking up from her nails with a warm smile for the bard, who now watched Trayla emerge from the forest. The Amazon held her hand against her eye, using her remaining good one to coldly glare at the Warrior Princess. Sustra started to giggle, successfully drawing the glaring eye towards her. Sustra's giggles were promptly extinguished. Gabrielle's eyes widened. "Xena," the concerned bard once again started to question her warrior when she saw Eponin helping a limping Solari from the forest. "Solari! Are you all right?" Gabrielle gasped. "Except for my sprained ankle, I've never been better," Solari responded dryly as Eponin helped her sit down. "...now that my ARM is fully healed," Solari snapped, her narrow eyes glaring at the Warrior Princess, who slightly cringed with a twinge of guilt. "What a coincidence," Eponin relayed, rubbing her sprained left arm. "My arm has just started acting up," she mentioned, also glaring at the Warrior Princess. As they rode towards Galisar, Xena couldn't stand the silence. "I SAID I was sorry," Xena repeated to the bard. The bard responded with another sigh. "Gabrielle, they are warriors, they are used to getting a few bumps and bruises," Xena explained. "It keeps them on their toes...." Xena added to her defense. Gabrielle looked over her shoulder at the Warrior Princess with an open mouth, about to respond, but then elected not to. Sighing, she shook her head as she turned her gaze forward to survey the damage riding in front of them. Ephiny was leaning at an odd angle in her saddle. Solari's left ankle was wrapped and too swollen for her to bother trying to place her foot in its stirrup. Eponin held the reigns with one arm, the other wrapped in a brace, which the recently experienced Solari helped put on. Trayla continued to hold her hand to her eye. "I said I was sorry..." Xena muttered. As they rode in the front gates of Galisar, Gabrielle's family gasped at the sight of the group. "Gods, it must have been some battle," Lila blurted in amazement to Sarah. Gabrielle's parents looked at each other briefly before returning their concerned gazes towards the riders. When the sisters called out Gabrielle's name, the bard smiled. "What happened?!? Xena left a WEEK ago! We were so worried," Sarah blurted, watching her sister dismount with some difficulty. Lila noted the other Amazons also having difficulty dismounting. "Nothing to worry about now, so how are the wedding preparations coming along?" The bard responded. "What happened Gabrielle," her mother approached her and asked calmly. "Did you fight that Gurda woman?" She questioned, surprising Gabrielle, who looked at her sisters. They shrugged. "Yes mother," Gabrielle admitted with a sigh, bracing herself for another lecture on the evils of fighting. "Are you all right?" Her mother asked softly and reached out to squeeze Gabrielle's forearm gently. A surprised Gabrielle smiled. "I'm fine, now," Gabrielle relayed, glancing back at her warrior, who sighed. Feeling more tired than she realized, Gabrielle started to sway. Xena quickly caught the bard before she tumbled over. "She still has a lot of healing to do," Xena informed the older woman, who suspected Xena was not one for exaggeration and looked at her daughter with greater concern. Gabrielle sighed heavily. "I bet you're going to still say that a YEAR from now," Gabrielle blurted, looking up at her warrior. "Gabrielle, it's only been one WEEK since you got hurt," Xena responded with annoyance. "You're pushing yourself TOO hard" Xena blurted. The Amazons shifted uncomfortably. Sarah and Lila looked at each other. Gabrielle's parents quietly watched the Warrior Princess and their middle daughter. When Gabrielle opened her mouth in protest, Xena interrupted. "Don't argue," Xena snapped. "Now let's get unpacked and ready for dinner," Xena instructed her, grabbing their saddle bags then the bard's shoulder. "Come on," Xena quickly added as she pointed the bard towards the castle and prompted her along. "You should also take a bath." Gabrielle's mouth dropped. Her mother and father silently looked at each other, then watched the two women as they left for the castle. The youngest Poteidaian turned her curious gaze to the Amazons and ventured a question that weighed on her mind since she saw them dismount. "What happened to you?" Lila asked Trayla, who's eye was now very puffy and taking on a rather unattractive hue of purple. The good eye glared at the youngest Poteidaian, making her uneasy. Lila felt relieved when that good eye turned on Sustra, who struggled unsuccessfully to muffle her giggles. "Ambush," Solari offered with a casual shrug, shocking the Poteidaian family. Ephiny, Eponin and Trayla nodded in weary agreement. Sustra grinned. "Well, Gabrielle has once again managed to arrive just before meal time," Sarah relayed to the Amazons with a grin. "You ALL are welcome to my table for a welcome back dinner," Sarah announced warmly. The Amazons smiled. "Of course, dinner will be AFTER you...ladies...freshen up," Sarah's mother relayed to them with a polite smile. The Amazons' smiles were gone.