"Gabrielle and I are still talking about it," Xena replied, not willing to let the other warrior any closer to her heart and the pain she was feeling.

"I thought you both were going to stay on and live in the village with us. You know you have a rank here, and Ephiny would happily step down as Regent to let Gabrielle take her rightful place as our Queen," Eponin said, surprised that Xena was even having to think about not staying. She had just assumed the two travellers would settle down in the village, raising Shayna between them. Eponin had already been thinking of ways to get Xena to accept an Amazon adoption so she really would have a role to play in the future of the Nation.

"Like I said, we're still talking about it," Xena almost snapped at the other woman before suddenly turning on her heel and almost running from the practise grounds.

Eponin watched the tall warrior disappear into the undergrowth at the back of the training ring, wondering how long it would be before she returned and how frantic Gabrielle might get if she wasn't back by morning.

Chapter Twenty

Xena thudded, uncaring, through the undergrowth, blinded by the tears she could not have stopped if she had tried. Several sentries spotted her as she hurried along the little paths and tracks of the forest, but seeing the look on her face and the tears flowing down her cheeks, they wisely chose to remain silent and hidden in the branches.

The distraught warrior finally came to rest in a mossy clearing next to a sparkling stream some distance from the training grounds and the bulk of the Amazon village. Her mind had mercifully blanked itself, allowing her the rare luxury of being able to weep without her warrior instincts standing guard over her safety. Somewhere inside, she knew she was safe here, so the warrior in her was content to stand aside and let the woman within express the pain and anguish she was feeling.

How long she sat, her head on her knees, crying in the sun-dappled clearing, she wasn't sure. She never heard the quiet approach of another person as they crept towards her. So far gone into her misery and depression, she didn't feel them sit down next to her. Xena only snapped back into awareness when a gentle hand began to softly brush over her long, dark hair, tender fingers covering her own. The crying woman didn't even have to raise her head to know Gabrielle had somehow found her and was offering what comfort she felt Xena would accept.

The taller woman turned slightly into the open arms of her lover and life-mate, even now barely able to bring herself to ask for the solace of another human being. The warrior may have come a long way in her path of redemption, but she still had some way to go yet. Gabrielle's arms tightened around her and gently urge her to lie back until Xena found herself curled against the little bard, her head cushioned by the other woman's breasts. There they lay for some time, one needing comfort, the other offering it from the heart. No words were needed as two joined souls found peace together in the afternoon sunlight.

The sun had dipped in its journey along the afternoon sky, neither woman feeling its usual breathless heat, cooled as they were by the breezes wafting gently off the little stream and the crisp dampness of the moss beneath them. Xena had calmed a candlemark earlier, but for a change she had not immediately rolled from the security of Gabrielle's arms as she had so many times before. She lay listening to the beat of her lover's heart and the soft, whispery nonsense sounds the bard was making over her head. Both served to soothe her further until she felt strong enough to open her eyes and gaze into the honest, caring face of the woman who was the other half of her soul. The better half, she often thought.

"How'd you find me? Eponin send you out after I left the training grounds in such a hurry?" she asked quietly, her voice still ragged from the candlemarks of crying she had done.

"Don't know about Eponin. Haven't seen her since this morning," Gabrielle replied, smiling a little. "I was just out for a walk and found you by accident. Maybe it was a good thing I did too," she offered.

"Pretty long walk," Xena commented, still tucked within the bard's encircling arms.

Gabrielle laughed lightly. "I'm used to spending most of my day walking. That's not going to change just because we're here, you know. If I don't burn off all that energy somehow I'd never get to sleep at night," she said.

Xena moved up Gabrielle's body slightly, supporting most of her weight on her elbows. Looking down into the beautiful blue-green eyes of her bard, she dropped her head and softly kissed the other woman. For such a gentle, undemanding kiss, it left both women breathless by the time Xena finally raised her head again.

"What was that for?" Gabrielle asked, her chest still heaving a little, her breasts teasing Xena's eyes with their movement.

"Do I need a reason?" the warrior quipped back.

"Not really."

"Good. Then let me do it again," Xena said, her lips moving delicately against the bard's mouth as she spoke.

Gabrielle had travelled with the other woman long enough to know she was far from ready to discuss whatever was troubling her so deeply. This physicality was just the warrior's way of distracting the bard from asking any further questions, a technique she had stumbled on not long after they became lovers and one Xena used mercilessly to her own advantage. She was not rough or overly demanding about it. Xena truly enjoyed making love with Gabrielle, and she was sure the bard felt the same. She simply did not want to talk about what was on her mind, and this was the best way of keeping the other woman distracted until Xena felt she was strong enough to expose the painful emotions.

Neither woman knew, or understood, an extreme of emotion could often bring about a level of arousal almost akin to battle-lust. Even if they had known, it was doubtful either would have cared at that particular moment in time.

Gabrielle's hands were already unclasping the buckles of Xena's armour, something she could easily do with her eyes shut, or in the pitch dark for that matter, because she had done it so often in the past. Xena raised one arm, letting the armour slide from her shoulders. The bard quickly had the other woman's gauntlets and upper arm protectors off and tossed them to one side. They had to break apart for a moment so Xena could strip off her greaves and boots, taking the time to help Gabrielle remove her own footwear, before falling back into each other's arms as though they had been separated for moons and not just a few heartbeats.

Xena rolled the bard onto her back, teasing Gabrielle by slowly undoing the laces of her top with her strong, white teeth. The other woman had her fingers tangled deeply in Xena's raven hair, trying to push her deeper into her tingling breasts. The warrior simply locked the muscles in her neck and continued to take her time.

Gabrielle moaned softly as she felt the material fall away, exposing her skin to the cool breezes from the water. When nothing more happened, she opened her eyes to see Xena gazing down at her breasts as though they were some precious jewels she was too awe-struck to actually touch. "Please, Xena. Touch me. Make love to me. It's been so long," the bard almost begged.

"All the more reason to take my time," she said wickedly. Looking up into the gentle eyes of the other woman, she continued. "I'm sorry I have been neglecting you lately. I'll try to make it up to you somehow."

"Just take me as your own again. Now. Please. I don't want to wait anymore," Gabrielle whispered, her hands tugging at Xena's head, guiding her towards her breasts, aching to feel the touch of the warrior's mouth and hands against her body.

Xena moved up at the last moment, her mouth connecting with the side of Gabrielle's neck, heading for her sensitive ears. The warrior took her time, slowly re-discovering all the whorls and hidden crevices to be found in such a tiny area. Gabrielle revelled in the feeling of Xena's leathers against her skin, quickly growing slick with the bard's sweat.

However much she enjoyed the feeling, she wanted to relish in Xena's soft skin even more. Nimble fingers soon had the laces undone at the back and her impatient hands tugged at the leather clothing. Xena's mouth and lips never lost contact with Gabrielle's skin for a moment, yet she managed to wriggle her way out of her leathers, taking her undergarments off in the process. Xena's own hands soon had the little bard out of her skirt and underclothing, the two naked bodies twining together sensuously as their joined lips spoke soundless words of love in a language made up completely of movement and taste.

Xena rolled slightly, bringing the bard with her until she could sweep one strong hand along the other woman's spine, finally coming to rest clasping one buttock. Tensing her arm, she brought Gabrielle even closer as she drank deeply of the sweet tastes found in the bard's hot mouth.

The blonde pushed at Xena's shoulders a little, making room for her to move down the warrior's face towards her breasts. Gently wrapping her lips around an erect nipple, she nipped lightly, causing Xena's head to fall back at the bolt of luscious energy it released along her body. "Oh gods, Gabrielle," the woman moaned. "Again. Do it again."

The bard didn't need a second invitation and was soon nibbling her way around the lushly curved globes of Xena's breasts, alternating the soft bites with long strokes of her tongue and shivery, wet kisses. Xena had given herself over to the powerful drive of her own passions, needing to feel, for a little while, that someone else was in control of what was happening to her. It was rare when Xena handed herself over so willing into the intimate care of another, even one she loved as deeply and completely as her bard, and Gabrielle was going to take full advantage of it.

Sensing in Xena the need to be passive for a time, Gabrielle became the aggressor, letting her hands roam freely over the muscular body of her lover, enjoying the feel of the hard, flat planes and sweeping, soft curves. She could feel the slow tension building in Xena's body, unsure how much longer the warrior would allow her to continue being the one controlling the situation. She was expecting at any moment to be flipped onto her back and for Xena to unleash her passions on the bard in such as way as to leave her almost mindless with pleasure.

Xena didn't want to be the one in control, to be in charge, to make decisions. She wanted someone else to wipe from her mind and heart all the pain she had been feeling from the moment she realised she would have to leave the young wild child to the safety of the Amazon nation. As she had once left her son to the care of the centaurs, as she had left him there for a second time. She wanted nothing more than to feel the physical drives of her body and to have those drives sated and satisfied. Already her mind was blank, overloaded by the sheer power of her need, but she could still feel the pain in her heart crying out its reluctance at leaving behind yet another she loved.

She felt two fingers abruptly enter her and she thrust her hips up sharply, driving them deeper. Letting the sensations wash over her, Xena wrapped her arms strongly about the bard above her and clung to the security of her presence, seeking, almost desperately, for the temporary oblivion of release. Her heels dug into the moss as her body arched against Gabrielle's fingers, the bard barely able to keep up with the warrior's forceful need. Deep, low grunts came from somewhere inside her chest in time with her moving hips, long fingers digging into the well-toned muscles of the other woman's back, leaving dark bruises in their wake.

Gabrielle was struggling to keep up with Xena's desires and need, sheer determination the only thing keeping her thrusts matched to the other woman's rapidly pistoning hips. Cycles of wielding her staff and practising with Xena had not prepared her muscles for the demands she was making on them now. She could feel her shoulder and arm starting to cramp painfully but she hung on grimly, the intense shuddering that signalled the warrior's release already shaking her larger frame violently. Xena's pace quickened even more, surprising the bard, the taller woman's body becoming almost rigid in its demands for release.

But the release would not come, Xena falling back exhausted and frustrated, her chest heaving in its attempt to replace the oxygen her lungs so frantically craved. She had stood on the edge of the cliff, even looked over into its welcoming blackness wishing she could just fall away from consciousness, if only for a few moments. But for some reason, it was not to be.

Still gasping, she clutched Gabrielle to her, saying urgently, "Please. Please. Make it happen. Let me forget for a little while."

The bard could hear the desperation in the other woman's voice and tried to soothe her gently. "Relax a bit, Xena. It'll come if you stop trying so hard." Gabrielle wiped at the warrior's sweat-soaked bangs, brushing the hair out of her eyes and off her face. She jumped, startled, when those blue eyes turned to ice and she felt the crushing grip of Xena's hand around her wrist. "Xena? Xena, you're hurting me," she said, the tears of pain filling her surprised eyes.

The grip immediately eased but Xena did not let go of the bard's wrist. "I just want to forget, Gabrielle. Please. Can't you see that?" she asked, softly.

The blonde heard the steely tones of the warlord emerging from beneath the evenly spoken words and gave in to the inevitable. It was not often that Xena got like this, but when she did, Gabrielle simply had to trust the warrior would not hurt her. In all the time they had been together, the warrior never had, but each time the bard journeyed with her lover into the depths of a warlord's need, she knew she was taking a dangerous chance.

"Lay down," Gabrielle said. "I know what to do." And she did. They had walked this path as a team several times before, when all Xena wanted was the empty limbo after orgasm. Later, they would talk about it, understand it, together, but for now the warlord had taken control and Gabrielle bowed before her.

Easing along Xena's long body until she nestled between her legs, a warlord's ice cold eyes watching her every move, Gabrielle dipped her head and buried her face deeply into the seat of the other woman's passions. One strong hand wrapped itself around the back of her head, partly supporting her and partly holding her in place. She could feel the heat of Xena's excitement rising against her lips and cheeks, the taste flowing richly across her tongue in waves. The warrior's center was so engorged with blood, Gabrielle was sure any touch at all would be almost painful. Another sign the warlord had taken over. Settling her lips around the distended organ, she washed her tongue over it carefully, trying not to hurt the woman she loved.

The brief, sharp jerk of Xena's hips and the quick sucking in of her breath told the blonde bard the warrior was very over-sensitive to being touched, but the warlord inside her was not going to let Xena stop. It was release or die trying. She kept up the slow, gentle movements of her tongue, easing the other woman towards orgasm with the least amount of discomfort as possible.

"Yes, Gabrielle. That's it. That's it. You know what I want, how I like it. Make me forget. Oh gods, yes. Yes. Take me there. Make me forget. Oh gods, Gabrielle. Gabrielle. Yes, Gabrielle," Xena whispered, her winter blue eyes never leaving the bard's for a moment.

Xena's hips were moving in a slow back and forth, letting Gabrielle take her to where she wanted to go so desperately. The warlord might have taken control of the situation, but the bard had control of her release. Once again, Xena's heels dug deeply into the moss below them, her eyelids slowly lowering as she drew closer to the edge. Gabrielle could feel the muscles of the warrior's legs starting to tense, the shuddering picking up until it was all she could do to hang on.

When the orgasm finally hit, Xena's body locked in place, a breathy, almost silent version of the bard's name being dragged from the warrior's throat. Then she fell back against the moss, gasping, for the moment having reached that point of forgetfulness she had so craved. Gabrielle crawled up next to Xena, gathering her limp body into her arms. There would be enough time to talk later. For the time being, the bard was content to leave Xena in her limbo for as long as she needed to be there.

Chapter Twenty-One

The two women lay together peacefully as the late afternoon heat finally settled around them like a heavy woollen blanket, the direction of the cooling breezes changing with the setting of the sun. Xena had dozed then slept deeply, worn from her extremes of emotion and physical activity. When she had eventually woke, the gentleness had returned, thawing the ice from her blue eyes. Gabrielle knew the warlord had been buried once more, at least until the warrior felt in need of her again. They had made careful love together for the rest of the afternoon, Gabrielle left wringing with sweat and pleasantly tired from their exertions. Xena had been solicitous of the bard's bruises, softly kissing each one and promising to massage some arnica ointment into them later when they returned to the village.

Gabrielle was stretched out on her side, head supported by one hand, the other tracing intricate patterns on the warrior's chest with the tip of a leaf. Through half-lidded eyes, Xena watched her, a sensuous smile still lingering on her face. "Tickles," she said when the bard started swirling the leaf tip around her nipples. Catching up the hand delicately torturing her, she briefly kissed the palm before lowering it to her stomach and away from her sensitive breasts.

"Feeling better now?" the bard asked, leaving her hand captured between Xena's strong fingers for the moment.

"Mmmmm, much," the warrior replied, pulling the other woman a little closer.

Gabrielle took the hint and snuggled up as closely as she could to the taller woman, draping one leg over Xena's muscular thighs, wrapping her arm across her stomach. She dropped her head and indulged herself kissing Xena's softly curved breast.

"Greedy," Xena snorted as the blonde lifted her head, trying not to let the sensation arouse her again and only partially succeeding.

"No. Hedonist," the bard answered with a laugh. "How can I help myself when they're so beautiful?"

That raised a subtle smile in the warrior eyes. "You're pretty spectacular too, you know," Xena observed, after sweeping her gaze along the bard's shorter body.

Gabrielle blushed before lowering her head and kissing the full lips of her lover. Time lost its meaning for both women, but having sated their desires for the moment, the kiss was meant more in affection than passionate need. Finally coming up for air, the bard's face sobered, she asked seriously, "You ready to tell me what brought you out here in the first place? I thought you had planned on spending the day on the training grounds?"

Xena sighed deeply. She really wasn't ready to discuss any of this with the bard, but the longer she put it off the harder it was going to be for both of them. "Eponin thought we were going to settle down in the village and raise Shayna," Xena said as though that explained everything.

"And you told her we weren't," Gabrielle stated.

Xena remained silent, her eyes flicking over the greenery surrounding them, avoiding the bard's eyes.

"If you didn't tell her that, what did you tell her then, Xena? We're staying?"

"I told her we were still talking about it," the other woman replied quietly, her eyes finally settling on the concerned features of her lover.

The bard brushed her fingers along the warrior's strong jawline, looking deeply into Xena's eyes, almost reading her soul. "We did talk about it. On the way here, remember. I thought we had agreed to leave Shayna to the care of the Amazons because our life on the road is far too dangerous for a child," Gabrielle said. "Something's changed for you, hasn't it? You can't leave her behind like you did with Solon?"

Closing her eyes so the blonde could not see the heart-ache eating at her, Xena nodded briefly. "But I can't stay here either. I still feel as though the darkness," she paused. "I don't think I have done enough yet to make up for my past."

"Taking Shayna with us isn't an option then, is it?" Gabrielle asked. She could see the quandary the warrior found herself in, but the choices were pitifully few. Stay in the village or leave the child behind. Either choice would affect all their lives and perhaps, the price on the other woman's soul would be too high, regardless of what she decided to do.

"Eponin said everyone just assumed we were going to stay. Even Ephiny would be willing to stand aside and let you take your place here as Queen. Is that what you want? To be Queen of the Amazon Nation? To be safe from all the dangers we face on the road? I could try settling down here, if that is what you wanted," Xena said.

To the blonde's bardic trained ear, she could hear the way Xena was hoping the other woman would make the decision for her, but if Gabrielle did choose for them both, the warrior would never be truly happy, wondering what might have been if she had made her own choices in life. No matter how much the bard ached for Xena, the warrior had to make this decision for herself. It would be the only way she could ever live with herself afterwards.

When it came to making decisive battle choices, Xena could not be out-matched, but when her heart became involved, she found those decisions so much harder to make. A battle in her heart was one of the very few fights the warrior even attempted to run from. Gabrielle was not going to let her run from this one. Eventually, the other woman would make the decision she could live with, but right now they didn't have the luxury of time on their sides. It had to be made tonight.

"Xena, I can't make this choice for you. Only you know what path you want to follow, what is best for you in the long run. If you decide you want to stay here, then I am happy to do that. If you decide to leave, then you know I will be happy doing that too. Wherever you are is all right with me, but you need to be happy as well," Gabrielle explained, seeing the anger rise in Xena eyes as her face hardened.

"You follow me all over the countryside," the warrior snarled with some heat, pushing away from the blonde's embrace. "Why can't I follow you for a change?"

"Because you have never been a follower to anyone," the bard said evenly, her heart beating a little in fear, not for herself but for what Xena may do. The last thing the dark-haired woman needed right now was another blind dash through the forest. She had to face her decision sooner rather than later, for the sake of all of them. "I choose to stay with you when we travel. That is my choice, one I made quite freely. I didn't know what I was getting myself into at the time, but I have stayed because I love you so much," Gabrielle said, edging a little closer to the warrior, kneeling a short distance away. Reaching her side, the blonde carefully placed one arm around Xena's tension bunched shoulders, surprised she was not shrugged off immediately. "Xena. This isn't about you and I, is it? This about Shayna and what is best for her," the bard said.

Xena slumped against Gabrielle, appearing defeated by her own emotions. Resting her head on the shorter woman's shoulder for a moment, she answered, "Yes. It's about Shayna. I have to leave her here. It is the best thing for her, but why does it have to hurt so much?" A single tear slowly crawled down the warrior's cheek.

Gently pulling Xena into a loving embrace, the bard answered, "Because part of you really would like to lay down the sword and be the mother to Shayna you never could be for Solon."

For the second time that day, a distraught Xena turned into the comforting arms of Gabrielle, crying her bitter tears of pain and anguish. For the second time that day, Gabrielle helped the warrior share the heavy burden of her heart and soul.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Side by side, the two travellers walked back along a moonlit path heading for the village and the comfort of their shared bed. At several points, sentries softly called, revealing their presence and acknowledging the two women as they passed. Xena gave quiet owl hoots in return, letting them know they had been heard and their vigilance noted, the warrior's distinctive stride clear to them, even in the waning light of the old moon.

Gabrielle giggled as another sentry alerted them to her post. "If I was out here on my own, guaranteed one of them would be down here in a heartbeat to escort me back to the palace. Sure makes taking lonely moonlight walks kinda hard."

Xena just smiled down at the shorter woman by her side, her eyes never leaving the path or the surrounding undergrowth. Though it would be nearly impossible for any raider or thug to penetrate this far into the hunting grounds, there were always other dangers to be aware of, such as panthers and wolves. The Amazons rarely made any effort of remove these creatures from their lands, simply seeing them as part of the natural cycle of life in the forest. Only when one attacked did the warriors and sentries hunt them down. Having tasted human blood, they became too much of a menace to leave roaming the woods. It was an uneasy alliance between human and animal but one that had worked for them since the dawn of Amazon history.

Finally reaching the palace and making their way inside, Gabrielle said quietly, "I'll see about getting us something to eat. I'll bet anything you skipped breakfast this morning."

The two women stopped by the guard at the door of their rooms, the bard asking for something simple to be brought over. She had missed nooning while out for her walk and they had still been by the stream when evemeal was served up for everyone else. It wasn't too late in the night, so the cooks might still be in the mess hall, preparing the breads for the next day.

Xena opened the door carefully, not wanting to wake Shayna, though the child's hearing was almost as acute as her own. She found the room in darkness but, knowing the layout, quickly reached the table and lit a small candle so Gabrielle could see her way. She turned, looking into the adjoining bedchamber, expecting to see the tiny lump under the covers the child usually made when she fell asleep before the adults came to bed. The large pallet was as flat and unwrinkled as it had been when the bard had made it that morning. Crossing the room rapidly, she almost bumped into the blonde as she entered.

Putting her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders to steady her, Xena snapped at the door guard, "Where's Shayna?"

"II don't know," the guard stuttered under the intensity of the warrior's gaze. "Hang on. She was with the children's pack today, wasn't she. Probably be with Lias then," the woman stated confidently.

"Amaran and Eponin's daughter?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena nodded, already starting to move down the corridor heading for the hut shared by the two women, the bard right at her heels, wondering if this was going to present some kind of a problem to the warrior.

They were quickly across the compound, seeing the candlelight shining through the light curtains Amaran had hung over the front windows of her little residence. Xena's boots crunched loudly in the bed of gravel and shells Eponin had laid to announce the arrival of any visitors, the bard's lighter step almost masked by the sound of the warrior's purposeful stride.

Eponin knew Xena would be turning up there at some point in the evening, as soon as she realised Shayna was not asleep in the Queen's quarters. Amaran and Eponin had been expecting her, and at the first sound of the warrior's unmistakable footsteps on the path, the Amazon Royal guard was on her feet and opening the leather covering they used as a door. Xena immediately stepped through with Gabrielle right behind her, but neither of the Amazons expected the expressionless face they were presented with.

"Where is she?" Xena asked flatly.

Amaran moved to one side and pointed to the brightly colored woollen blanket hanging over the door frame leading into her daughter's room. Xena took three long strides and carefully lifted the hanging, shielding the occupants of the room from the candlelight with her body as she did so. She stood for several heartbeats looking at the two children, sleeping curled tightly around each other, feeling Gabrielle standing by her side as she gazed down on them.

The bard was concerned Xena was simply going to sweep the child into her arms, taking her back to the palace and the set of rooms they shared whenever they were in the village. She glanced over and saw that the look on the warrior's face had softened a little and the glint of tears could just be seen reflecting the last of the moonlight coming from the open window. A hesitant hand eased its way into her own and she squeezed it gently, supporting the warrior in whatever decision she was about to make.

"I think I might just leave her here tonight, if that's all right with you," Xena said, turning from the doorway, dropping the woollen blanket. "I don't want to wake her if she has gotten herself so comfortable."

Eponin indicated a chair for Xena to sit in and answered, as she poured some port into a large mug. "She'll be fine here tonight, Xena. Lias might get upset if she woke and found Shayna gone." Handing the mug to the warrior, she lifted a questioning eyebrow at the bard standing at her back, one hand resting on a slumped shoulder. The Amazon was not surprised when Gabrielle shook her head at the offer of port.

"Missed you at evemeal, My Queen," Amaran said, a little shyly. Even though she considered this woman her friend, Gabrielle even standing with her at her joining to Eponin, she had never broken herself of the habit of calling the bard Queen. It had simply been too well-trained into her when she began as a Royal guard. The blonde had accepted it eventually, but that didn't stop the eye-rolling she did every time Amaran acknowledged the bard's royal status.

As usual, Gabrielle's answer was accompanied with an eye-roll to the ceiling. "Xena and I were talking. Guess we just lost track of the time." She shrugged her shoulders a little.

"Happens sometimes," Eponin said into the mug raised to her lips, before taking a long swallow of the dark liquid. She no longer drank the potent Amazon wines, but the odd mug of port now and then did her no harm at all.

Xena stared into her own mug trying to find the courage she needed. Looking up with bleak eyes, she said, "Can I ask something of you both?"

The two women across from her nodded. After Xena's hasty departure from the training grounds earlier that day and the Queen's absence from the palace, they assumed the discussion they'd been having was about what to do with the wild youngster. They both hoped the travellers would decide to stay in the village but if not, then they were willing to offer themselves as guard-mothers to Shayna. Eponin was reasonably sure Xena would decide to leave the child in the village so she could finish the task she had set for herself some three cycles before. Amaran, a womb-mother herself, was certain the warrior couldn't leave her own heart-daughter behind and would stay.

Xena stared down into her mug again before raising her head and looking at the two Amazons seated across from her. In one part of her mind, she knew she would always remember the gentle, caring expressions these two women carried, already knowing what Xena was going to ask. "Would you care for Shayna until we," the warrior paused for a moment, glancing at the bard over her shoulder, "until I can settle down?"

"She'll always be welcome here, as will you and our Queen," Amaran said, briefly touching one of Xena's hands. "Are you sure this is what you want, Xena?" she asked, dropping her head a little, empathising with the heart-ache she knew the other woman must be feeling.

"It's not what I want, Amaran, but it is the best thing for her. I still have a lot to do out there and it just isn't safe for a child to be with me while I do it," the warrior explained honestly, the pain in her eyes so obvious Eponin had to fight so as not to start crying herself. "It's bad enough I keep putting Gabrielle in danger," Xena said.

"My choice," the bard commented, her hand squeezing the shoulder it rested on.

Xena reached up and lay a tender hand over the fingers she could feel offering the bard's support and her love. "Doesn't mean I like it, but I have learned not to argue with a bard. I never win anymore." Xena managed a watery smile at her life-mate before turning back to the Amazons again. "We'll try to come by the village as often as we can, maybe stay a while sometimes, but Shayna would be safer here than just about anywhere I might be. It's going to be a long time before people forget my warlord days."

"We'll keep her safe, Xena," Amaran promised, making it clear she would protect Xena and Gabrielle's child with her life, if necessary. "Lias has been after me for cycles about having a sister. Now she can have that, and a friend at the same time. They already get along wonderfully. Lias might make it easier for Shayna to accept your leaving too," the Royal guard said.

Seeing the expression on Eponin's face, Xena fixed a steely eye on the Amazon, the warlord showing herself for a moment, "I don't want her pushed into being a warrior. She has to decide for herself what her path will be."

"Told you this morning, Xena. She may have already done that. You didn't see her on the practise grounds with the rest of the pack this afternoon. Never seen a child take so quickly to training. Show her something once and she just seems to have it down. Xena, you'll be proud of her one day. She's going to make a fine warrior, maybe even better than you," Eponin grinned at the other woman.

"Then let's hope she never has to use the skills," Xena replied, tipping her mug and pouring the rest of the port down her suddenly aching throat.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Xena opened her eyes slowly, listening to the first sleepy bird calls drifting over the windowsill. The sun was yet to send its first golden beams lancing over the mountains to the east, but pearly first-lights filtered through the gauzy curtains and gave everything in the room a glorious sheen. The dark warrior loved this time of the morning, before all the people and creatures woke for the day, cluttering up the near-silence with their noise and presence. It was a perfect time for her to think and examine those aspects of herself she still felt uncomfortable with. It was her time to learn about herself, safe in the encircling arms of the bard.

Gabrielle lay draped over the other woman, one knee pressed between her legs as it was every morning. Xena twitched the muscles of her thighs, only then realising just how sore her center was after making love again the night before. It had not been the savage, animalistic, almost primal love-making of yesterday afternoon, but it served the same purpose. Xena just wanted to forget the pain and heart-ache she was feeling and simply be wrapped in the tender care of someone who loved her, no matter what. She ran her eye along the bard's bare back and mentally kicked herself for not rubbing the arnica into the vivid bruises she had left on her lover the day before. She's really going to feel those this morning, Xena thought to herself. I'm amazed she puts up with me when I am like that. Why doesn't she just say no to me?

The warrior snorted quietly. Even if Gabrielle did try saying no, the warlord buried in her soul would not listen. If the bard did not give herself willingly, Xena knew she would simply take what she needed. It was something the bard knew too, but she still continued to take those increasingly rare journeys into Xena's darkness. Shielded by Xena's deep love for the gentle bard, the worst Gabrielle ever received in her encounters with the old warlord part of the warrior's soul was a few nasty bruises and once a black eye. Xena had spent several seven-days after that had healed trying to make up for her brutality. The bard merely saw it as the risk she took in getting to know the deepest and darkest part of the woman she loved.

The realisation of the true depths of Gabrielle's love for Xena had come slowly and at times painfully to the tall woman. Whenever the bard encountered the warlord in their love-making, she faced her down with courage and gentle understanding. It strengthened the younger woman and helped heal, a little at a time, the still bleeding wounds Xena carried inside herself. The warlord surfaced less often now as the darkness slowly receded and the warrior's trust in her partner's love, bravery and tenderness had grown. A few cycles of Gabrielle's nurturing love were not going to overcome a lifetime of evil, but Xena was gradually getting the sense of light back in her soul, making each eruption of the darkness easier for the warrior, and the bard, to deal with.

They were still to talk about what had happened yesterday afternoon in that mossy clearing, but Xena knew they would eventually. As surely as night followed day, Gabrielle would chase after a deeper understanding of the warlord, helping Xena accept she would never be rid of that part of her soul but she could learn to control it and use it for good.

Xena sighed, mentally readying herself for what might be a painful conversation. Kissing the fiery-blonde top of Gabrielle's head, she thought about rising and getting on with the day itself. Her sharp ears caught the sound of the door slowly opening and near silent bare feet padding in the direction of their bed-chamber. Glancing side-ways, Xena spotted Shayna as soon as she rounded the corner, a look of delight on the child's face at finding her mother awake.

Shayna quickly tip-toed over to the side of the pallet, not wanting to wake the still sleeping bard. "Morning, Mama," she whispered. "Shayna get in you and Aabriel?"

"Sure. I don't think Gabrielle will mind. You don't take up much room," Xena replied, a smile on her face. Constant exposure to language again was improving the youngster's speech in leaps and bounds, but she still dropped words and letters indiscriminately, especially when she said the bard's name. Tossing back a corner of the blankets, the warrior invited the child to crawl into the bed next to her.

Shayna nudged up against the warrior's ribs, the bard's hand and arm automatically lifting to cover the child. The warrior couldn't help being delighted at the girl's acceptance of Gabrielle holding her, however loosely. It was quite a step forward from the first days when she wouldn't let the blonde near her unless Xena stood right at her side. If the bard were awake, she'd probably be equally delighted too. Maybe now would be a good time to see if Shayna can explain the fear she had of Gabrielle when they'd first met, Xena thought as she looked down on the little scrap of humanity lying next to her.

"Why were you afraid of Gabrielle before, Shayna?" Xena asked gently, not really expecting a sensible answer from the child. She was completely surprised when she got one.

The girl's hand moved towards the red-blonde hair fanned across one of Xena's naked breasts where the bard had snuggled into her shoulder. She didn't quite touch it, but it was clear she found it fascinating. "Head on fire," she said.

It took Xena a moment to understand what the child meant, but once she called up the mental image Shayna had probably seen that first night, it made a strange kind of sense to her. Lit by the last glow from the dying coals, the same light reflecting off the dark water behind her, Gabrielle rising from her hiding place in the rushes beside the stream where they had camped, it probably did look like her head was on fire to a child who probably hadn't seen one up close in quite some time. Xena couldn't help chuckling at the image in her mind. "Still afraid now?" she asked.

"Not so much. But face sometimes turns same as hair," the child observed. "Sure no fire?"

The image of the bard's face flaming redly at various times got the warrior chuckling again. "Oh. A fire burns in her, all right, but it's not one to be afraid of. It helps make her brave and strong," the warrior explained. "You have it too."

"Oo?" Shayna said wonderingly. "Where? Brave like Mama?" Her agile mind leaped from one question to the next.

Xena rubbed her callused hand up and down the child's back. "Yes, as brave as me," the warrior answered softly. "The fire is inside, where you can't see but it is there, I promise you."

Shayna smiled to herself, liking the idea of a fire inside she couldn't see but made her as brave as her Mama. She even had red hair like Aabriel, so Mama must be telling the truth about Shayna having that hidden fire as well.

"Did you enjoy staying with Lias and her mothers last night?" Xena asked, edging into what she already knew was going to be a traumatic conversation with the young girl, not to mention herself.

"Uh huh. But Amaran make Shayna eat green stuff. Yuk," the child pulling a face at the remembered taste.

The warrior didn't know what the 'green stuff' was but it had to be something universally hated by children everywhere. She could just imagine what it might be from some of her own food dislikes as a child, and anything green had featured high on that particular list. "Gotta eat your green stuff, Shayna, if you want to grow as big and strong as Amaran." Xena actually startled herself. By the gods, I sound exactly like Mother when she tried to get us to eat something good for us, she thought.

"Don't want to be big strong like Amaran. Want to be big strong like Mama," the girl stated, glaring into the warrior's blue eyes.

Xena could almost hear the words 'and that's final' following the child's statement. "Did they try to take your knife from you yesterday?" she asked.

"No. Eponin say, okay with Mama, okay with her. Shayna keep knife. Need it to eat anyway," Shayna giggled quietly. "Eponin say Shayna careful with knife cause everyone not know how pointy they are. Never to give to other girls in pack, ever. Make Shayna promise. Shayna promise."

The warrior sighed to herself. She knew the Amazon custom of keeping edged weapons away from the youngsters until they had been through their Pleasures of Womanhood ceremony. At least that wasn't going to be a problem for the child. Realising she was just putting off the inevitable, Xena finally decided it was time to tell Shayna of her decision to place her into the care of the Amazons until the warrior felt she could settle down.

"Shayna, you know Gabrielle and I travel a lot, don't you?" she asked, waiting until the child had nodded before continuing. Drawing the girl closer, hugging her tightly with one arm, she said, "It's very dangerous out on the road and we can't take," Xena stopped for a moment, already seeing tears filling the youngster's eyes as she realised what was coming. "Shayna, Gabrielle and I love you very much but we can't take you with us when we travel." There, she had said it. Xena waited for the emotional explosion she knew was coming. It didn't matter to her which of them burst into tears first.

Shayna's bottom lip began to quiver as it dawned on her she was losing her mother once more. "Why?" she asked pitifully, her voice ragged with the tears she was barely holding at bay. "Shayna good. 'Member everything Mama showed. Shayna be better, promise. Please don't leave again." The tears overflowed and the child hid her face in the warrior's shoulder.

Xena dropped her head, nuzzling into the short red hair of the child. "You have been good, but it's not safe out there for you. I know you remember all the lessons you were taught." She felt the bard starting to stir at her side, the voices finally waking her from sleep. "Shayna, I did some very bad things a long time ago and I have to make them right. I can't take you with me when I do that, but I will come back, I promise."

Gabrielle woke to hear Xena trying to explain her decision to the child tucked against her side weeping strongly. The warrior was crying almost as hard and the bard tightened her grip around both of them, offering her support. She chose to remain silent for now. This was Xena's choice, and it was up to her to help the child understand and accept it. Later, she would talk with Shayna, easing some of the separation pain if she could. She could hear the muffled words coming from the girl, and her own gentle heart was being wrenched in sympathy for the child.

Shayna felt as though her world was ending all over again. She kept repeating between sobbing gasps for air, "No, don't go. Stay. Please stay. Don't go."

There was little Xena could do for Shayna at that moment other than to keep reassuring the child she would return and that she did love her. Eventually, the child cried herself to sleep, the warrior continuing to weep over her head for another candlemark.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The tall warrior stood leaning against the window frame of the common room, staring blankly out into the forest surrounding the village. Shayna still slept in the bed-chamber, and she felt that was probably the best thing for the young girl right now. Besides, she had barely gotten herself back under some kind of control. She didn't want to lose it again so soon. "I thought making the choice was hard enough, Gabrielle. I never realised telling her was going to be so much worse," she said, turning slightly so she could see the bard sitting at the table.

"All choices have consequences. You told me that a long time ago," the bard replied mildly.

Xena snorted. "Yea, but I was thinking of choices like picking up a sword or something. I wasn't really thinking of choices like this," she said.

"Still applies, doesn't it?"

"Guess it does," Xena answered.

Gabrielle stood and walked over to where Xena had been standing for the past candlemark. Wrapping her arms around the other woman's waist, she continued. "Back then, you weren't very into your feelings, were you, but a lot of what you said still makes sense when it comes to these kinds of life choices."

Turning, Xena drew the bard closer, resting her cheek against the top of Gabrielle's head. "It's just moments like these that make me think the consequences have a price which is a little too high," she observed quietly. "I never intended to end up as Shayna's heart-mother or for you to have to deal with a child suddenly taking up all my time. Don't think I haven't noticed you struggling with that."

The bard blushed silently, not realising the warrior had seen all the little signs of her jealousy. She had worked hard to try to understand how much the child needed the other woman, but she had grown used to having Xena all to herself most of the time. At least she could be grateful she had never taken it out on the child herself. Gabrielle found she was pleased to discover that level of maturity in herself.

"But after tomorrow morning, well, it will be winter Solstice before we can get back here again. Do you think we might be able to stay a few days then?" Xena asked.

"If we can. Choice is yours, after all. Who decides when and where we go anyway?" the bard answered cheekily.

Xena looked down into the blue-green eyes of her lover. "Me," she smiled. "How in Tartarus do you put up with me sometimes?" She still found it incredible how patient the bard was with her most of the time. Oh, they had their fights and disagreements; Gabrielle's temper could be the match of her hair color at times, but somehow the bard understood the glue that held them together and knew exactly what to say to make things right. And Xena was learning too. Their togetherness was becoming, more and more, a two-way thing.

"Don't know. Guess I must be madly in love with this worn-out old ex-warlord, I suppose," Gabrielle replied, squeezing her arms tightly around the other woman's leather encased ribs.

"That just earned you a kiss," the warrior said, lowering her face towards the bard, who was already meeting her halfway.

A brief knock at the door stopped the kiss, but neither woman made any move to step away from the embrace of the other. "Come in," Xena called out evenly, quickly kissing the bard again before whoever it was could walk through the door.

Eponin strode through the open door, already twitching with the excitement for the battle to come. Right on her heels followed Amaran, with Lias shyly bringing up the rear. "Thought we might take Shayna over to the hut. Get her settled in, stuff like that," Amaran said. "I know what you legendary warrior types can be like the night before setting off into battle."

Xena scowled at the Royal guard for a moment until she realised the woman was actually joking with her.

Amaran looked the warrior up and down coolly. "Who said I was talking about you, Xena, oh fabulous Warrior Princess? The biggest legend we have around here goes under the name of Her Majesty."

Gabrielle stood spluttering for several heartbeats, until she too saw what the guard was attempting to do. This was going to be hard enough on Xena as it was. Amaran was simply trying to make it a little easier. Getting her blush under control, the bard nodded, acknowledging the sensitivity of the woman in dealing with the warrior and her heart-daughter.

"She'll probably sleep for another candlemark or so," Xena said tightly. "She was pretty cried out when she dozed off."

"We'll do our best for her, Xena. I can promise you that," the Royal guard said as she stepped from the common room headed for the bed-chamber, Lias trailing along behind a little uncertainly. She soon passed back, carrying the limp form of the still sleeping child gently in her arms, Xena's eyes following Shayna until she was out of the room, their footsteps fading in the distance.

Eponin gave the warrior a few moments to collect herself before launching into the plans and discussions for the battle they knew would take place on the other side of the swamp.

Chapter Twenty-Five

Artalus stared dismally at the broad expanse of swamp ahead of them. The scouts had already told him it was far too large to go around unless they wanted to spend the next couple of seven-days travelling. He had briefly considered it but soon realised the Amazons would probably know of their presence in the area long before they could get close enough to actually capture any of them. Even the trek here had been a less than profitable experience. Word of the slave army's advance had spread ahead of them faster than the fully loaded men and wagons could travel, meaning there were few people wandering around openly. Those villagers they had stumbled across were either too old, too sick or simply too disabled to be of any real use to the slave second as profitable material. The rest had taken flight and were now safely hidden in any one of a number of valleys and caves on both sides of the army's line of advance.

He had managed to get the men this far on the threat of Viper's continued presence in the camp, but as no one had really laid eyes on him since the Amazons had escaped, it was getting harder and harder to keep up the dangerous charade he was playing. Removing the heads of a couple of the healers, especially the one with the big mouth, had intimidated the rest into silence. He had also been less than impressed with the fact it had taken them three days to spot the Assassin's beetles crawling about among the man's blankets. Admittedly, they were tiny, but there must have been a dozen of them between the covers with Viper. Considering the number of times they had moved him to do various things, surely one of them should have noticed a great deal sooner. So he removed the head of a third healer for that.

The only surviving healer, the old man, had been incredibly vague about Viper eventually recovering from the beetle's bite. The slave leader was alive, and that was all the healer could say with any certainty. Right now, Viper was propped up in bed with no more wit about him than a child. Artalus was having a hard time just getting the near mindless man to keep his clothes on. Hoping the man would ultimately recover, the second decided to pretend Viper was still quite ill but capable of giving orders which Artalus then passed on to the rest of the men. Artalus had grown more and more desperate as each day passed and now was totally obsessed with fulfilling Viper's last orders – capture as many women as they could find on the Amazon lands. If nothing else, it kept the minds of the men busy thinking about the dinars they could make from selling the forest women, and not on trying to take over the leadership themselves.

Thinking of the Amazons briefly, he wondered yet again at the story handed to him by the survivors of the guard party. A beautiful, dark-haired, blue eyed warrior woman dropping from the trees, indeed. It was laughable to say the least, in his own mind anyway. Most likely, the women had found some way of escaping the cage they were in and had simply taken their revenge. The survivors probably didn't want him knowing they had slipped up in some way. Knowing the men, they must have opened the cage intending to rape the young women and gotten more than they had bargained on.

But a single warrior, and a woman, at that. Appearing from the treetops like some shade. Unbelievable. The story they had told of her amazing speed and her incredible ability with the dazzling blade was the sort of tale he paid bards to tell. And then there was the part about a small girl-child with flashing jade green eyes, weaving her way through the men, hamstringing them as she passed. Artalus had ordered the survivors staked for telling him such crazy nonsense, but they had still been insisting it was the truth even as the last wagon had pulled away. He snorted to himself. Women were only good for one thing, and fighting wasn't it.

The tall scout leader, one of the three who had stood in Viper's tent that first morning, not quite able to believe the damage done to their leader, came splashing back out of the dark, murky waters of the swamp. "Artalus, we're never going to get the oxen through this. The bottom seems to be nothing but stinking mud. I think we should try to find a local to show us the path through," he said, attempting to shake the black, clinging mess from his boots.

"There are no locals, not for leagues. Anyone who could have possibly shown us the way heard about the advance and is now long gone. We're just going to have to do this ourselves," the second snarled at the tall man next to him. Artalus couldn't believe the noxious odor coming from the mud coating the other man's boots. Something told him crossing this swamp was not going to be a pleasant experience for any of them.

"How are we going to get the all wagons across, then, if the oxen just sink into the muck?" the man asked.

"Forget the beasts," he snapped. "The men can pull the wagons. They should float on top of the water okay," Artalus replied.

The tall man looked the second up and down before speaking again. "Let me tell you something about this lot, Artalus. It'll take six men to drag each of those wagons, and I can tell you now, if you say 'pull', four will push and the other two will say 'pardon?' That is, if you can convince them to hitch themselves up like farm animals in the first place. With some of these men, I'm surprised they know which end of the sword is sharp."

Artalus pushed his hand through his unruly hair savagely for the hundredth time that morning. "By the gods, man. How have they managed to stay alive this long, if they are that bad?"

"Because Viper kept us out of any battles and just concentrated on captures," the scout explained as though the second was a particularly stupid child. He looked suspiciously at the other man for several heartbeats. "You sure this is what he has ordered? We don't usually just uproot the entire camp and move like this. He usually does things a lot different."

"Yes, I am sure this is what he ordered. We don't know how many of them blasted Amazons there are on the other side, and we might need every man we have to capture them alive. That other lot escaped, thanks to the incompetence of horny guards, so they have probably alerted the rest we are coming by now," the second said patiently. He stood waiting for the scout to question the order again, in which case there would be one less scout in the camp.

Sensing he had pushed the slave second as far as he safely could for the moment, the tall man nodded. "I'll see about getting the men hitched to the wagons, then. The sooner we're across this swamp, the happier everyone will be."

Artalus sighed with exaggerated relief as he watched the tall scout walk away, wondering just how much further he was willing to go in the name of loyalty, and dinars.

It was a thought that frequently crossed his mind over the next few days. He was sure the Amazons had chosen to live on the other side of the swamp because it was acting as such a perfect barrier, stopping anyone from getting to them. It was almost like the place had been cursed by some god, another thought he kept to himself. There was enough fear and superstition going around as it was, after word of Viper's injuries had gotten out. It did no good whatsoever explaining that part of it was because of the Assassin's beetles. Everyone was sure that Artemis was still watching them closely and that maybe trying to capture the Amazons was not such a brilliant idea after all.

The forward scouts had passed the word back earlier that morning it might take another day, possibly two, to get completely across the swamp, not something the second had enjoyed hearing. As it was, they were losing men at a terrible rate due to sink-holes, quicksand and deep mud pockets. That was not to mention the sheer numbers who were simply drowning in the water because they didn't know how to swim and didn't have enough sense to keep one hand on a floating wagonbed at all times.

Little tracts of stable land appeared out of the muck and water now and then, but they were never dry and always cold, often shifting under the weight of all the men who tried to camp on them. It had been a miserable three days so far, and the prospect of two more shortened worn tempers even further. The fights for a less than sopping wet place to sleep at night were getting savage indeed, taking yet another toll on the number of men who might make it across.

To add to Artalus's troubles, there had also been a lot of grumbling over the one truly dry person in the army. Artalus had loaded Viper onto the healer's covered wagon with the instructions no one, other than the old healer and himself, were to see the man. The rest of the men were getting unhappier about that with every passing day. More than anything, the second prayed to see the solid ground on the other side of the swamp as soon as possible.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Eponin strode quietly up to the tall warrior as she sat sharpening her sword, staring distractedly into the flames of a small fire. "Where's Gabrielle?" she asked, sitting by Xena's side.

Peering through the darkness at the various campsites spread around the clearing, she spotted the red-blonde hair of her lover seated with several of the forest women nearby. From the rapt expressions of their faces, it was clear the bard was spinning some tale to her engrossed audience. Nodding her head in Gabrielle's direction, a soft light chasing the dark shadows from her eyes for a moment, she said, "Doing what she does best, talk."

"Guess it is better to keep their minds occupied until that slaver army shows up. Always did hate the waiting-for-it-to-start part of a battle," Eponin said. "The scouts reckon it will be nooning tomorrow before that lot find their way out of the swamp."

The Amazons, along with Xena and Gabrielle, had made much better time getting to the forest than the slaver army simply because they didn't have fully loaded wagons and countless camp followers to worry about. The women had simply set a moderate ground eating pace and run. Arriving in the area Eponin had pointed out on the slaver's map, they had hidden look-outs all along the edge of the swamp, waiting for the first sign of the army struggling its way from the murky water and clinging mud.

"They started out with about four hundred men, dozens of large wagons, oxen, camp women, healers and all the other bits and pieces a large army needs. My guess is they will be lucky to get to this side with half that number intact," Xena observed. She sat remembering how she moved her own army about, back in the days when she actually had one.

Every time they moved, it was done in stages. First scouts, to spy out the land and find the best tracks for the few wagons she used. Then some two-thirds of the fighting army itself would follow, sacking any villages they passed along the way. The wagons, healers, armourers, smiths and anyone else who travelled with them came after that, picking up any loot and tending to the injured soldiers. The other third of her army acted as guards for the wagons and cleaned up any last pockets of resistance they might encounter. Her army had been able to move surprisingly swiftly from place to place, the wagons and camp followers catching up each night. Trying to move the entire lot in one hit would have been insane, slowing everyone to the speed of the slowest wagon.

Xena snorted to herself. Probably why it took so long to get them to the swamp in the first place, she thought. They knew the slavers were advancing after coming across several small groups of villagers who had calmly moved out of the way ahead to the army and would move back again once they had passed. The Amazons had pointed out several excellent camp sites to the villagers where they could wait until the slavers had moved out of the area. That had earned them the gratitude of the temporarily displaced people, opening the possibility of future discussions, and maybe even trade, between themselves and the Amazon Nation. The tall warrior had been quite surprised at just how much the diplomat Eponin had become.

"Wouldn't matter if they all got across. We've got one hundred and seventy odd fully trained warriors as well as that group of fifty trainees. They'll be great for mopping up afterwards. Get them blooded before we send them off for their Challenges cycle. I'm glad we decided to join their training session today. What did you think of the looks on their faces before we got started?" the Amazon asked.

"Serious, weren't they?" Xena commented, a smile appearing on her lips. "Think we both surprised them."

Both women took a moment to chuckle together at the sober expressions they had seen on the young warrior's faces as they had worked out against each other. It was understandable they were a bit nervous, having never been in a battle of any kind before. So, Xena and Eponin had faced up together, turning their own practice session into something coming close to bardic comedy. They had indulged in some pure silliness with their weapons, bouncing around behind the other, smacking backsides with the flat of their blades, blowing insolent kisses, Xena teasing the Amazon at being too slow and Eponin taunting back the tall woman was getting too old. It eased the tension among the young women as they watched the Warrior Princess actually playing with Eponin. Admittedly, it was a deadly sort of game, but what did they expect from warriors.

The sharpening stone had stilled against Xena's sword as her uncanny hearing picked up the sound of someone racing through the trees. It had to be a friend, or the sentries would not have let them pass. The familiar slight form of a forest scout came dashing headlong into the clearing, her eyes sweeping rapidly in all directions seeking out one particular person. Spotting the dark hair and piercing blue eyes of the tall warrior, she belted over to Xena, skidding to a halt in front of the two seated women.

Bending over, hands on her knees, she fought to get enough air into her lungs to gasp out her message. "Xena," she panted. "Shayna left the village. Followed you here. Lost her tracks as she took to the trees."

Eponin quickly passed a full waterskin to Jadaxious as she started walking in tight circles letting the overworked muscles in her legs cool slowly.

Xena waited, a slightly stunned expression on her face, as the little scout's breathing calmed enough to explain more fully. She couldn't believe the child had slipped away like that. Xena had spent some time the night before they left explaining why Shayna had to stay with the Amazons. She seemed fine when the warrior had finally taken herself off to go to bed and had even waved them goodbye the next morning, Xena keeping a tight hold of her emotions as she had ridden away. Thinking about it now, the child had seemed a little too calm then and was probably planning on coming after her the whole time.

Jadax looked exhausted, having run non-stop for two solid days to get to the Amazon war party. Whether the child was ahead of her or behind she had no idea, but Shayna had gotten a whole night's start on everyone in the village, sneaking off in the darkness. It had taken several of the warriors and scouts some time to find the small girl's tracks in the forest, but they lost them again as she climbed into the trees overhead. The forest scout hadn't bothered trying to find them again once she had reached open ground; she simply ran like the wind to get to Xena and let her know what had happened. The child could be nearby, for all she knew.

The warrior starting swearing creatively once Jadaxious had explained everything she knew. Eponin took a moment to file away some of the more vehement curses should she ever find herself needing them in the future, though she didn't think some of them were anatomically possible.

"Gabrielle. Grab those trainees and get them searching. She can't be too far away," Xena ordered quickly. The bard had walked over to stand by the warrior's side as soon as Jadax had appeared in the clearing. She could see the way Xena's hands had fisted together but couldn't be sure if it was in anger or in fear. Perhaps it was a bit of both.

Eponin was already rounding up any available warrior to search the woods as well. It looked like it was going to be a long night for everyone.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Xena sat on the flat of a stump near the main fire, Gabrielle reclining between her spread knees, relaxing against it as the warrior slowly braided the bard's hair so it wouldn't get in her eyes the next day when she fought. Eponin had convinced the anxious warrior, after a loud argument, to stay in the clearing near the fire so Shayna could easily see her if the youngster was willing to break from the cover of the undergrowth.

The warrior had spent some time sharpening her weapons until she knew to scrape the stone over them any more would simply be uselessly wearing away the metal. Her armour was polished until it shone brightly in the firelight, and there wasn't a loose stitch to be found anywhere on her leathers. She had even taken the time to gently sand away the few rough patches she could find on the bard's staff where her hands would normally be. Having run out of things to do, Gabrielle had asked the other woman to braid her hair in an effort to stop the tall warrior from pacing back and forth in front of the fire.

Every so often, an Amazon would report back to them, letting Xena know they had found no sign of the child in the forest and were moving the search to another area. Several of the trainees, along with a handful of the trained warriors, started backtracking the paths they had travelled on, hoping to find some trace of the youngster having passed that way. With so many Amazons moving into the forest originally, some had taken the high paths and others the low. Shayna could easily be on any one of them now, so they all had to be checked.

"Jadaxious looks exhausted," Gabrielle commented, glancing over at the worn face of the little forest scout sound asleep on Eponin's bedroll.

"She did amazingly well in getting to us as quickly as she did. I'm surprised she found us at all, though," Xena replied, tying off the end of the braid with a bit of raw-hide string.

The bard laughed lightly for a moment. "I think she could track a mouse over bare stone sometimes. It wasn't like we tried to hide our prints, at least until we got a little closer to this clearing, anyway. Besides, she probably smelled the wood smoke when she got close enough to us."

Xena nodded in agreement. Jadaxious might have been the tiniest Amazon scout she had ever seen, but she could run like the very wind itself and knew her way around the forest as though she was part of the living, breathing earth. If she hadn't been so worn out from her run, the dark-haired warrior was sure the little forest Amazon would be out searching along with everyone else.

"I still can't believe Shayna took to the trees, though. By the gods, just where did she learn to do that?" the bard asked, wonder at that feat firmly etched onto her face.

Continued - Part 4


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