Dialogues With A God

by M. Parnell

Copyright 1997


DISCLAIMER: This story contains graphic violence and a scene of violent and degrading, nonconsensual sex. If that type of material will upset you, please choose another story.


"Xena. I'm hungry." Gabrielle looked up at the mounted woman who seemed not to have heard. "I don't mean that as a complaint, that I'm hungry, but..."

"I heard you Gabrielle, and I didn't take it as a complaint. I take it you'd like me to do something about it?"

"Well, if we stopped, I could find some berries, or nuts..."

"How about the cheese?"

"That was just a morsel."

"Uh-huh," Xena nodded. " Gabrielle, have I ever let you go hungry ?" Gabrielle paused to consider . "By the standards of a normal person?" Xena teased. "We'll have something special tonight. There should be good game in these woods. And there's a village a few miles ahead, on the other side of this forest. We'll get some wine. That wineskin is nearly dry. How many dinars do we have?"

Gabrielle hesitated. There were three dinars in the little pouch tucked in her waistband. She remembered how Xena had insisted she buy parchment in the last village they'd stopped in for supplies. Parchment instead of wine. The new-boots-for-Xena fund was not doing well. "I'm not sure," Gabrielle lied. "I'll check when we stop. Speaking of which: could we take a little break? Don't forget, you're riding."

"We had this conversation miles back, Gabrielle. You didn't want to ride then. Change your mind?"

"Not today. Argo's been a bit skittish since we entered this forest. You're both ...different somehow."

"Are you saying I'm skittish?" Gabrielle looked closely at her friend. What was she trying to say? Xena looked great. Her face was glowing, her eyes sparkled; she was in a good mood. Even now she smiled her crooked grin, waiting for Gabrielle to explain 'skittish'. "I guess I'm just saying you seem in high spirits this morning ," Gabrielle ended lamely.

"Slightly intoxicated?"

"I guess that's what I'm picking, up, yeah," Gabrielle nodded.

"And you're worried because of the shrine we passed a while back. The shrine to Ares."

"Don't even say his name, Xena. Not until we leave this place."

"Gabrielle, I'm a warrior. This place is sacred to warriors. Armies come here to sacrifice to Ares. My army paid tribute when we came this way. All those warrior spirits and prayers infuse this place with a sort of energy. I think I'm feeling that. Energized. But don't worry.

"Not all the warriors who paid tribute to Ares were the way I was then. Just being here isn't going to turn me back to what I was." Her words were meant to be reassuring, and Gabrielle felt better that the issue had at last come up, but she still felt uneasy.

"I'll just be happier when we're out of here." She looked at the towering trees that rose on either side of the narrow trail. This was an ancient forest, and the trees were thickly hung with moss, and vines. It was oppressive to Gabrielle, and she wondered at the great chasm that lay between her and her closest friend that Xena's perception of the place should be so different.

"Then I suppose we should say this was our break, and hurry on," Xena suggested, clicking softly to Argo, and starting off again through the dense forest.

The path rose up steadily for several hundred yards. The ascent was gradual, yet Xena dismounted to lessen the strain on Argo. At last Xena stopped, "This is the place." She waved an arm in an expansive gesture at the vista before them.

"What place?" Gabrielle asked puzzled.

"You've wanted to come here for ages. I thought this would be a nice surprise." There was disappointment in Xena's voice. Gabrielle knew why, when she turned to the view. "Xena, this is the Eagle's Eye! From here you can see the ocean! How many villages did you say. A dozen?"

"On a clear day."

"This is breathtaking. I've heard about this place since I was a child. It's been-"

"I know-on your list of things to do." Xena was smiling, satisfied that her small gift to her friend was appreciated. "Was it worth the walk?"

Gabrielle turned to answer, but the warrior had focused on something far below and alarm crossed her face. "Xena, what is it." Gabrielle was now alarmed, for an unknown reason.

"See that band of armed men?" She couldn't, but Xena went on, her voice urgent. "There's a little village in their path. The track is all downhill from here. It won't take me long to get there." She mounted. " See you at the bottom. And stay on the trail. I don't need you getting lost." She was gone.

Xena could hear the sounds of strife before she could see the village. The acrid smell of smoke from burning buildings reached her nostrils, and the heady mix of battle sounds and smells elicited a cry that startled the attackers before she was in view. She plunged into the action, grabbing a spear from a startled soldier, butt-ending him with it before lodging the tip in the gut of another. She rode on, past roaring bonfires that had been homes and possessions, her charkram now in her hand, now forcing a trio of soldiers to change their plans concerning the woman they surrounded, as the disk ricocheted from helmet to helmet, then returned to her side. She drew her sword and met the onrush of two armed soldiers with devastating ferocity. Her sword moved so quickly from man to man that it seemed almost to be attacking both at once.

From his mount on the periphery of the engagement Malatin Segor watched through the thick smoke, bewildered. One woman doing so much to destroy his forces! Bewilderment turned to rage as he realized who the woman was: Xena! Her exuberant cry pierced the air again, and her face, incredibly held a cold smile. From his vantage point Ares watched with interest. Oh Xena, he thought. How battle suits you. Even if you are fighting for the wrong reasons. How good it must feel to breathe the air of my sacred forest again. It gave him small pleasure to know that she was almost intoxicated with that atmosphere. It was suddenly puzzling. Why had she come to lands dedicated to the God of War? Was this an admission of some dependence on him? Could he make use of her presence here?

Malatin Segor, sword drawn, was preparing to enter the fray against Xena. His men were in disarray; those who had not fallen were not eager to renew their assault on the awesome woman. He charged forward, as she withdrew her sword from a human sheath, and turned to face him. Cold, piercing eyes met his own. Suddenly chilled, he swiped at her off-balance, and she parried him neatly before thwacking him with the broadside of her own weapon. He went sprawling forward in the saddle and spurred on, past the confines of the village, into the broad meadows beyond. With that, the rest of his men went into full flight, some following their erstwhile leader, most heading the other way. Xena half-smiled, pleased with her efforts, until she realized the extent of the devastation. Buildings still burned. Soot-darkened figures moved wailing among the fallen villagers, finding loved ones, alive, or not. A wounded member of the raiding party cried out; before Xena could reaction ax was buried in his skull by a distraught villager. The blonde girl was leaning against a barrel, eyes glazed. Xena dismounted and approached her. She shrieked at the sight of Xena, and on jelly-legs tried to flee. An old woman went to her. "You saved her, and for that we'll be grateful, but now she can't take the sight of a warrior. You're all the same to her," the woman explained, examining Xena, head to toe. Xena followed her eyes and saw the copious blood that splattered her clothes and body. She nodded wordlessly.

"Has no one else survived?"

"The young ones were sent off to their hiding places when the alarm was raised. We're well used to these raids. We make our sacrifices to Ares for protection, but so many armies travel this way ... Someone's gone to fetch them home again." Tears started down her face. "Some of them won't find a home or a family." She turned away, tacitly dismissing Xena. Services no longer needed. Just as well, Xena thought grimly. She had recognized the crest of Malatin Segor, and was eager to find him before he was hopelessly lost to her in the forest beyond the meadows. "My friend is following me here. She has useful healing skills. She's not a warrior," she assured the old woman. "Would you ask her to wait for me here?"

At the edge of the forest Malatin Segor had stopped. He rose in his stirrups to see the surrounding country. The woman was not in sight. Stragglers from his army, archers and spear carriers, were trudging through the meadow on foot. It seemed as if the mounted troops had used their horses to best personal advantage. They were nowhere to be seen. Malatin dismounted. "Ares. I have been your faithful one all my life. My soldiers are taught to pay proper tribute to you, and yet you allow this traitorous bitch power over me. How do I teach proper respect for the God of War when he allows me to be mocked by one who has spurned him?"

"Malatin." He spun to see the black-clad figure who had called his name. Ares stretched lazily. "You wanted to see me about...what? Xena mocking you? Just because she slams you in the behind and you run from the field of battle? Be thankful that's not all she did."

Malatin sputtered, unsure of an acceptable response. "You complain that I gave her power over you? Well, you're wrong again. Xena has her own power. It comes from skill. And that doesn't come from sitting in a comfy tent drinking wine and stuffing her face. It comes from practicing her craft until every muscle, sense and nerve work in perfect harmony. I've watched her Malatin. In the early days her hands would bleed before she'd stop drilling. All worth it. I think she could defeat you if she were unconscious." Ares laughed. Malatin fumed but dare not express his anger. " Maybe your army should spend less time at my altar and more time on the drill field."

"My Lord Ares, I am nothing before you. I cannot question your choices. Yet my army will grow disheartened if your power is challenged by Xena with no response from you. She must be punished. She must learn that the place of all warriors is in your service. Let me be the instrument of your retribution. Empower me, my Lord, and I will smite the heretic."

Ares smiled to himself. This was easier than he had hoped. "You may be right, old friend. How exactly should I empower you? A super weapon? A flock of harpies to do your bidding?"

"No, Lord Ares. I need only for you to strengthen my arm." He held up his mail-encased right arm." Ares nodded.

'Let it be done." And perhaps a distraction for Xena at the appropriate time. "You will have your moment. Teach Xena her lesson. However, if she dies, you die. Understand?"

Malatin swallowed hard. He would have to contain his particular hatred for this woman. Never mind. It would be done.

Xena entered the woods as Gabrielle reached the village. The villagers were more busied with burying than healing. A few small children clustered around Gabrielle as the only adult with time for them. She wiped tears, rubbed soot off tiny faces and cradled an infant in her arms. She thought of some stories that had a soothing effect, and soon had a mesmerized band calm and still around her. She wished she had food for them, and for herself. One part of her mind speculated about Xena. It was clear from what the villagers had said that she had no trouble dealing with the soldiers. It was like her to take after a persistent villain as a preventive measure, especially considering the devastation he had caused. Yet a small anxiety played somewhere at the edge of Gabrielle's consciousness.

A similar anxiety struck Xena as she entered the forest. The euphoria of the battle had worn off quickly in face of the misery left in its wake. Yet it was not that alone that troubled her. The very woods, so friendly in the morning seemed malevolent. Even the implacable Argo was reluctant to continue along the wagon track that parted the trees. Traffic to and from the village had created a route that was much wider than the narrow track which traversed the mountain. This would cut across the woods at the base of the mountain, connecting to the main road to Sparta. She supposed Malatin Segor would head there. Their tracks indicated that they were three in number, two mounted men, one on foot. She considered cutting through the forest to head them off, but discarded the idea as unnecessary. Argo was sure-footed in the woods, and she was making good time. Why then the growing sense of dread? She loosened her sword in its sheath, touched the dagger in its nesting place at her ankle, and patted Argo reassuringly. She whinnied uncomfortably. There was a large clearing up ahead she remembered, where the woods were recessed for many yards on each side. That would make Argo happier, for a bit. It would make them both happier. An ambush was more likely in these close confines between the pressing trees. She would take a few minutes there to rest Argo. She'd had a full day and the sun was not yet at it's zenith.

Yet the openness of the clearing did not make Argo happy. She had to apply gentle pressure with her heels to insist Argo go forward. Then everything seemed to happen at once. A wall of light, like fire but without heat, rose before them; Argo reared, blinded, Xena turned her face, and in that second felt a searing pain in her right shoulder. There were figures on each side of her. She made out the form of Malatin Segor, sword raised, face contorted in a grimace. She pulled Argo hard to the left, away from the strange light. In turning she nearly avoided the blow Segor directed at her. His sword struck her right calf, midway between knee and ankle. It was not a clean strike. The blade angled in, slicing down through flesh for several inches, before biting into bone. Under Segor's Ares-given strength, the bone shattered.

Even as Xena's mind exploded in pain she automatically reacted to the assault. She tried to rise in her stirrups for a backward-dismount but her right leg refused to obey commands. As Argo reared again she tumbled off his back, the injured leg caught momentarily in its stirrup. She fell heavily on her back, and knew then the source of her shoulder pain, as the arrow lodged there completed its trajectory, and the point emerged at the corner of her vision. At the same time it tore diagonally through the flesh in her back, leaving a long gash, before the shaft snapped off. She was dragged briefly through the clearing until Argo, suddenly aware that she had been unseated stood still, despite the aching temptation to bolt. Desperately, Xena wrenched her body to tear the captured foot from the stirrup. She reached for the boot dagger, but her ankle was not where she expected it to be. She groped and found the dagger, withdrawing it from its sheath as a nearby voice said "My arrow found its mark." She snapped the dagger at the dark form. He was dead before Xena's head had fallen back to the ground. All this had taken seconds, now the effects of shock and blood loss engulfed her, as the remaining assailants approached. As if in a dream she heard a vicious string of vulgarities, ending in '"bitch," punctuated by a sharp kick to the midsection. A sharp object was pressed to her throat, and the stream of invective continued as blows rained on her. She was unable to offer even feeble resistance, but tried to anticipate and ride the blows. That was made impossible when a heavy boot stepped on her throat, threatening to crush her windpipe. Incredibly, all possibility of action seemed to have been removed. A black despair settled over her, with one overriding question: Gabrielle. Would these men find her?

She was brought back sharply to her immediate situation by sudden movement. She was hauled over the rough ground to a large table-top rock, and deposited unceremoniously. "Here she is, Ares! Your sacrifice! With one last lesson to be learned." Malatin Segor threw back her leather skirt and roughly pulled her breeches down below her knees.

Ares had watched the proceedings with interest, impressed by her ability to resist even under such handicaps as he had arranged. This last he had not expected. Still he did not interfere. How will you react to this, he wondered?

When Xena realized Malatin Segor's intent she set to work withdrawing her mind from the scene, and focused on the chakram hanging at her hip. Unwitnessed by Segor or his accomplice, she worked life back into the fingers of her right hand, and flexed the arm, readying it for its task. She was not aware that the two were finished until Segor slapped her hard across the face to rouse her from her seeming semi-conscious state. The other man had collected her dagger and handed it to Segor, who laid it next to her on the rock.

"Is that fear in your eyes,?" he asked, for dramatic effect apparently, thought Ares, who saw only a strange intensity in her eyes. "Don't be afraid. I'm not going to kill you. But-know that Ares is your master!" He turned, and the two strode off for the horses, while Ares winced at the heavy-handed message. Xena, meanwhile winced as she unfastened her chakrum and sent it careening from the nearest tree to the throat of Malatin Segor, who had a brief moment to wonder at the blood on his chest even as he fell dead. The deadly disk found its second victim, then returned to Xena's side. "Big mistake," she rasped. "Magnificent," Ares whispered." Hurry back to me Xena."

Xena took a painful breath and listened for any movement in the clearing. None. She relaxed, then remembered what Malatin Segor had done to her. She moved slowly to cover herself again with the skirt, laughing grimly at her new-found modesty, until weakness betrayed her, and her body was wracked with sobs. She was aware of nothing for a time, asleep, or unconscious, then woke to the softness of Argo's muzzle, lipping her gently. She touched the mare's neck, then focused on her task. It seemed unlikely that any of Malatin Segor's men would show up, but she was in no condition to take chances. At the same time, it seemed likely that Gabrielle would be looking for her. She needed to see without being seen. The underbrush and small bushes around the clearing would be ideal for that purpose, if she could get that far. No "ifs" allowed, Xena she told herself, you WILL do this. She considered. Walking was not possible. She had not seen the extent of the injury to her leg, but she had a good sense of her body. As she took stock now, she felt a vague alarm at the toll the attack had taken. Ribs were broken on each side; breathing was an exercise in discipline. The flat rock she lay on was now pooled with her blood. She didn't know how much more she could lose before it would be critical. Her upper face throbbed; one eye was swollen shut. That was mostly pain and distraction. The shoulder and leg injuries were on the same side. Movement would have to be accomplished with the left side. She felt for the dagger, and after an eternity she grasped it. Impossibly far away the wineskin hung from her saddle. She dismissed it from her mind and with a sudden effort rolled off the rock. It was only three feet high, but it might have been Mt. Olympus. Every wound cried out, and she produced an agonized grunt. She reached the hilt of the dagger to her moth, and clenching it between her teeth began the arduous crawl. She put the destination out of her thoughts and focused on the individual inches that needed to be crossed. At one point, inexplicably, she recalled a paradox of Zeno : if you travel half the journey each time, you will never arrive, because there will always be a half a journey to complete. She had thought it foolish nonsense when she heard it, and determined now to demonstrate her own theory: if you take care of the inches, the yards will look after themselves. She paused once on the journey, and remembered that Malatin Segor had spoken of Ares. What had he said? It chilled her to think of him. Her thoughts turned to Gabrielle: please find me.

Gabrielle was beginning to regret that she had left the village. She had been driven by her unease to follow Xena, but now it seemed likely that she would be hopelessly lost in this beastly wood. What had Xena said? 'I don't need you getting lost.' Well, she was lost. She couldn't find her way back to the village if she wanted to. She realized she had passed the same spring twice. Both times she paused for a cool drink; that was good, but it wasn't getting her anywhere. "Don't worry, Xena will find you" she assured herself, but for the first time, she wasn't sure if that would happen.

Xena was finally still. She didn't feel good, but there was nothing to be done for the time being. That alone felt good. She was beneath a fragrant shrub; she knew its leaves to have healing properties. She had stuffed a wad of those in the gash in her shoulder. She considered pulling the arrow out throughout the front of her shoulder, but feared it would start new bleeding. She also doubted she had the strength to dislodge it. From her position she could see if anyone entered the clearing. If she dozed off, Argo would attract Gabrielle's attention. Satisfied, she settled down to wait for Gabrielle.

"Xena you're in desperate straits if that little girl is your best hope." Ares sat on a rock near Xena's head, just out of her field of vision. "Do you really think she'll find you? It's more likely she's settled down somewhere waiting for you to find her? Isn't that the pattern? You saving her? And if she does find you, what will she do? She'll never lift you. The two of you will sit here until you bleed to death , and she starves." Xena woke with a start as if from a bad dream, certain she was not alone. "Gabrielle?" she asked hopefully. No one was there. The ground beneath her was muddied with blood now. And she was cold. The sun still filtered in through the trees warming the ground in spots; she remembered how warm the rock had been. No. She didn't want to think of the rock. But she did want to be warm. Here under the bush there was no sun. Her bedroll was on Argo ,who was grazing ten yards away. Even if she called him she'd never reach it. She couldn't remember being so helpless in her entire life. How? How had that pathetic excuse for a warrior managed to do this to her? It defied logic. Unless...What had he said of Ares? She had been trying not to hear him then. Her mind reached past her recent agony. 'Know that Ares is your master?' Was that it? Was this the work of Ares?

"Brilliant, Xena. Full marks. Not too hard to figure though, given our history." And now what? Have you learned that lesson? Once you accept that, this nightmare will end. Think of me Xena, and feel the warmth." Unseen, he touched her hair lightly, and as heat spread through her, she sighed aloud. 'Xena I can do so much more for you."

Gabrielle had been endeavoring to determine the sun's position in the sky when two riderless horses cantered by. She wasn't sure what that meant, but Xena had been known to unseat mounted troops. She followed the track they had come along, wary of where their riders might be. When she came to the clearing she found the riders, and knew Xena had been there. She had seen throats slit by the chakram before. At the edge of the clearing, nearly hidden by bushes Argo stood, patiently waiting. It was not strange for Argo to be alone while Xena tended to business, yet Gabrielle was uneasy as she crossed the clearing. When she came in sight of the gory flat rock she swallowed a wave of nausea. "Xena," she called, certain for no reason she could explain that the blood was Xena's. Hearing no response she ran to Argo, and implored her, "Take me to Xena. Xena," she repeated urgently, and the great mare ambled across the field, Gabrielle in her wake. Xena had heard Gabrielle's voice and tried to respond, but she couldn't get enough air, couldn't make her aching throat open wide enough to make real sound. She grasped the dagger in her left hand and hit it against the chakram. Once. Twice...come on, Gab... A feeble third time. And Gabrielle was there.

Xena tried to smile to reassure Gabrielle, but one look at the young face and she realized it was no good. Every place she felt sticky, Gabrielle would see blood. Her face hurt even in repose; it would appear to Gabrielle as one massive, raw, bruise. Gabrielle had prepared for the worst; this was almost it. Her mouth opened to say something, but only "Xena..." came forth. A silent acknowledgment passed between the two women: Xena was in trouble and Gabrielle was the only possible solution.

With fumbling hands the young girl began to remove Xena's scabbard and armor. The long-practiced task required no thought, and gave her the opportunity to calm herself before tackling bigger things. She focused on the buckles and straps, avoiding unnecessary movement, avoiding the sight of Xena's breeches around her ankles. At last she spoke: "I have to stop the bleeding Xena, but I can't work under this bush. There isn't room." Xena nodded her understanding, and at Gabrielle's urging raised herself on her left elbow to make it easier for Gabrielle to shift her onto the blanket she'd retrieved from Argo. With that Gabrielle was able to drag her, slowly, painfully to a soft cushion of moss a few feet away. "Better?" the girl asked her, gently. She covered her with a second blanket. The woods had turned chill and Xena had begun to shiver. She began to pour water on a strip of cloth torn from her chemise. Xena's head turned at the sound. "Thirsty, " she managed.

"Gods, Xena, I'm sorry." She held the waterskin to her mouth while Xena took several shaky sips swallowing with difficulty. Why didn't I fill my waterskin at the spring? she reproached herself. Xena is always exceptionally thirsty after a battle. There was little enough in the two skins, and she'd need much of it to cleanse Xena's wounds.

"Did you ever think we'd wish Joxer was here?" she said aloud, only half in jest.

Xena heard the uncertainty in the younger woman's voice. "No. You're doing fine, " she said. "Wouldn't want anyone else." Her lips parted in the painful sketch of a smile. Her voice was husky, but clearer since the water.

"I'm glad you killed them, Xena" Gabrielle said suddenly. With a slight effort Xena recalled the method and moment of their deaths. She shuddered as she remembered the preceding moments. Gabrielle guessed her thoughts. " I know Xena. I don't know how ... but..."

"I rode into an ambush. I felt it. That dread...There was a flash-not lightning...like a wall of fire," she said remembering. "Spooked Argo. "

"She threw you?"

Head shake. "No. I fell. My leg wouldn't work. I don't know what Segor struck with..." Beads of sweat stood out on her brow. "They had me. On the ground." Breathing became an effort.

"Stop, Xena, it doesn't matter."

"Gab?"

"I'm here."

"You know what they did."

"I know," she repeated.

"I'd like to feel clean."

"You will," Gabrielle promised fervently. "You will." She shook her head to clear the clouds of emotion gathering, and brushed Xena's hair from her forehead as if to wipe remembrance away.

"Right now I have to patch you up, Xena. I'll need to unlace-"

"No. Leave it laced. You can't do anything about the ribs." Gabrielle could see the signs of subsurface bleeding spreading its black and purple fingers beneath the edges of the tightly laced leather corset. It frightened her, yet she Xena's admonition to let it go.

"I'll take care of the arrow, then. She lifted Xena's right shoulder off the ground and probed the wound with her fingers. She removed a wad of leaves from the long, jagged tear in the flesh. The shaft of the arrow had splintered where it was broken off, and fragments of wood were evident in the blood she wiped from her fingers. "Not too bad," she lied. She worked her body behind Xena and cradled her head and shoulders in her lap. "Let me know if I hurt you." She was alarmed by the sudden tremor that passed through Xena's body, then realized that it passed for a form of silent laughter. That was a good sign. She encouraged the lighter mood. " I guess that's about all I'll be doing for a while, huh?"

Reaching around front she grasped the protruding arrow head and jerked sharply. It grated as it came out. She wasn't sure if that meant it had passed through bone. "Is that all right, Xena she asked anxiously?" New blood spurted from both sides of the wound. Xena shuddered and collapsed against Gabrielle. With difficulty she shifted her to her side, and began to clean the wound. Bits of bone, splinters of wood and dirt were flushed out by the water. She sprinkled one of Xena's pulverized herbs on the wounds, front and back and packed each tightly with a wad of cloth secured by an improvised bandage. Remembering Xena's dictum that wounds that were too contaminated with foreign matter tended to become pus-filled faster when stitched she had decided to leave that a last resort. Xena's head, hair matted with, blood, lay in her lap. She didn't move when Gabrielle began to gently dab her face with a wet cloth. The bruised eye and swollen lips stood out in stark contrast to the ghastly pallor that lay beneath the blood and dirt. Satisfied that the other wounds would wait a few minutes, she allowed the fallen warrior to sleep. Reality had begun to settle on Gabrielle's disbelieving mind. How, Xena? Who could do this to you?

Gabrielle turned the blanket down gently, afraid to wake the fitfully sleeping woman, afraid to look at the gruesome injury she still need to tend. From knee to ankle the leg was swollen despite the tightly laced boot. Worst of all, the leg was bent at an impossible angle; a jagged piece of bone protruded through the leather. Long past weariness she began her work. The boot was cut, the wound displayed, the blood wiped away. She became aware that she was being watched. Xena's unfocused eyes surveyed the scene.

"Xena, this will hurt." Gabrielle wished someone, anyone, were here to help. She needed to put these two pieces of bone together so that they would heal and form a strong, straight bone. That required the strength to wrench them apart. A strength Gabrielle did not have. Xena, if she lived, would be permanently damaged. She had watched Xena do this, jaws clenched, powerful arms wrenching bones so slightly apart, and fitting them together again. Gods help me, Gabrielle whispered as she took hold of Xena's leg.

"Brace yourself, Xena. I'll give her this: she's devoted, working hard. Feel the tenderness of those hands as she clicks that bone into place." Ares chuckled as Gabrielle tried to move the stubborn bone. Xena grimaced in pain. "Ouch! That hurt! Be more careful Gab," Ares taunted Gabrielle.

"Xena, I'm sorry, I'll be more careful." Gabrielle promised. "I just... I'm not strong enough to do this, Xena."

"Try... again," Xena urged, her voice raspy. Gabrielle nodded, and clutched the limb furiously once more. Again the bones refused to budge. Again the warrior stiffened in pain. "Again." This time Gabrielle thought there was some movement, and tried yet again, with no urging.

"This is ludicrous Xena, and ugly. She can't set that bone. No one can. You must have felt it shatter when the sword struck. Put you at quite a disadvantage in the 'battle'. Let her stop. All she's succeeding in doing is rubbing dirt from her grubby hands into the wound. Give it up! It will save you both a world of misery. That's not sympathy," he assured her, with a shake of his dark head. " You earned this. But this ministering to your wounds is getting old. I want to move on to the next bit, the part where you both realize that the Lion of Amphipolis is a cripple."

The roar which came from Xena's hoarse throat startled Gabrielle into tears.

"Xena I'm stopping. Now. It can't be set. Not by me. It feels as if there are tiny fragments of bone, just there...I'm so sorry." Xena closed her eyes. She hadn't roared in pain, or protest to Gabrielle, but she was too exhausted to reply, or even gesture reassurance to her friend who lowered her head to her hands and wept, from exhaustion, and momentary despair.

"That's better," Ares crooned, "no poking and prodding for a while. Give you time to take stock of the damage. The leg we've considered. No more running, or jumping, or tremendous, thundering blows dealt out from those limbs. See, the thing about legs, is that it takes two. Two to walk, or one to plant while the other delivers a boot to a sensitive body part. Oh, I think I've made a lot of men happy today. Now what else? Ribs? Don't strain yourself counting. I'll tell you: three broken on the right side, two on the left. Now they'll heal. You know that, you've dealt with broken ribs before. You've lead men into battle with broken ribs. Wrapped them up yourself, nice and tight, laced on your battle dress and no one knew. Of course they wondered why you invited no one to your tent on those evenings. You usually had someone in to keep you company. Here's a riddle: Who had lots of company, yet was always lonely? Very good! The Warrior Princess!" Xena felt her face grow hot with the memory. So many men. Men? There were some men...she couldn't quite remember...what?

Gabrielle picked her head up and rubbed the back of her fingers against her eyes. This accomplishes nothing, she chided herself. Xena would never sit weeping while there was work to be done. She looked at her friend. Xena's cheeks were tinged with crimson. She dabbed them with a cool cloth. "I'm here, Xena. We'll get through this. Somehow." A soft kiss brushed her cheek.

Gabrielle surveyed the little clearing. Everything she had done was accomplished with the gear carried by Argo, who waited patiently, nibbling the bushes, trusting her warrior mistress to be astride her once more. It was light enough now for Gabrielle to see the signs of violence in the glade. Blood-all Xena's? was splashed over the ground. Heavy boot prints scuffed the soft undergrowth. She thought she could make out where Xena had fallen, an impression in the earth surrounded by trampled vegetation. She still could not look closely at the three corpses. They had to leave this site of death and destruction. She need to make camp near a fresh spring. How to accomplish that was the big question.

"Rest time's almost over Xena. Gabrielle's got something in mind. Almost. You're about to know the exquisite torture of being dragged through the woods on a litter, unless I'm very much mistaken." Xena opened her eyes with an effort. Gabrielle was surveying the edge of the clearing, assessing young trees for their suitability for the job. Satisfied, she hacked two small but sturdy trees with Xena's sword, and bent to the task of stripping the branches. Xena watched briefly, wanted to give direction to the struggling girl, but lacked the strength. She awoke to Gabrielle's voice near her face.

"We have got to leave here. I 've splinted your leg with your sword, and I've made a litter, sort of," she began uncertainly. "It's hitched to Argo. I -we've just got to get you on it. Can you help? A little?" she implored. "I can't lift you Xena."

"So willing and so unable. That's very sad. You've bet on the wrong horse, Xena." In reply to Ares, Xena lifted her head, a little too vigorously. The litter was positioned as near to Xena as Gabrielle and Argo could manage. It was a flimsy thing, held together with what rope Gabrielle could find, and vines.

"If you roll over a bit I'll get these things you're lying on to cushion this thing a bit. " A very little bit, Gabrielle thought. Still, best I can do. When that was accomplished she bent down and placed her shoulder under Xena's and tried to lift. Pushing with her sound leg, Xena lifted herself briefly, and Gabrielle half shoved her onto the litter, then tucked the useless right leg on the entwined branches.

"How's that?" One look at the contorted, sweaty face and Gabrielle had her answer.

"Oooh! How is it?" Ares mimicked. "Like sitting on the back of a porcupine. I must mention this to Hades. He's always looking for new ideas for Tartarus." Xena forced her face into a wordless grin for Gabrielle. Heartened, Gabrielle urged Argo forward. "Argo, let's go slowly. " The track through the woods was rough going, not a route for vehicles. The litter snagged on every rock, every thick root, every mound of earth. At those times Gabrielle eased it over, then resumed her place at Argo's side, or behind Argo, making sure the litter wasn't falling apart.

"You have certainly chosen the hard way my dear. All this pain ,and you'll end up in Tartarus anyway. Maybe very soon. All alone in Tartarus. No Lyceus. No Mother. No Marcus. No Gabrielle. You don't think these times you've gone in harm's way for others will make a difference, do you? Why have you done that, anyway? For those whining peasants? Or because you love any opportunity to stick steel in someone's gut, to prove your superiority to the world. Or do you just like the physical pain it causes you? Does it ease your precious guilt? Is that why you stand the pain now? Walk away from it Xena." There was command in his deep voice. "Give me your hand. I'll take you from the agony, from that broken body and those festering wounds. Still won't return to me? I'll do you a favor. I'll bring you to Celesta. Death will take you to her brother. Tartarus can't be worse than this."

Suddenly the jostling stopped. "We all need a rest, Xena. It's not much further," Gabrielle lied. She had set out determined to make camp near the spring she'd passed twice that morning. Now she had no idea where it was. She sat next to the litter and held Xena's hand, absently soothing her bruised fingers. "I figure when we make camp I'll start a fire, brew some herbal concoction from your medical supply. Something there must ease pain." Not enough, she admitted to herself. "When you can sleep undisturbed for a bit you'll feel better. " Eyes still closed Xena squeezed her hand, with a strength that surprised Gabrielle.

Argo started forward at Gabrielle's command, and she was grateful for the perceptive war-horse. "You wouldn't have lost the spring, would you," she observed. "of course you wouldn't, she continued suddenly excited. Argo could find the spring! How to make her intention clear. "Argo, you must be thirsty! Go find water, girl. Go on, you lead the way. Argo started down the same track they'd been on, and when the road forked she waited for direction. When none was forthcoming she chose her own path, doubling back in the direction they'd come. And so Argo found the spring. It was nearly nightfall when the big animal halted, and turned her intelligent eyes to her sometime antagonist. "Xena will be proud of you girl," Gabrielle said, nuzzling with the horse briefly, before turning to business.

She unhitched the litter near the center of a small clearing, deciding that Xena could not be moved off the litter tonight. She set to building a fire, fetched water from the spring and rummaged through the supply of herbs in Xena's bag for the ones she knew were good for pain. And fever. It's unmistakable signs were creeping over Xena's pale face. She was warm to the touch, and shivered slightly, even next to the fire. She needed to wake Xena to urge the warm brew into her. Gabrielle drank water. There was plenty of water, and precious little else. They had not had money enough to buy more than the essentials in the last village they had stopped in. She wished again that there was more wine. The dried meat was enough only to make a weak broth. Xena would need that. Normally Xena would hunt small game, and find the edible fruits of the forest to make a supper in lean times. Gabrielle could find some plants, when it was light again. But she was no hunter. There was a bit of bread, but Gabrielle was afraid there would be other uses for that. Too exhausted to do any more, Gabrielle shut her eyes to rest them, and was soon in a deep sleep.

" Well, that should be satisfying. An herbal infusion! What more could a warrior want? Remember the old days, Xena? You had your fill every night. Food, wine, loot! What's in your purse now, all told? Three dinars? Won't go very far. You might deny yourself, but I've seen Gabrielle eat. I've seen her go hungry. Not a very good provider, are you, even healthy? How do you plan on surviving as a cripple? A vexing question, I'm sure you'll agree. " Xena watched the God of War stroke his beard while he considered the problem. "Let's look at the alternatives. There's always Mom. She'll never turn you away. Not now. Not when she knows you'll never disgrace her again with your warrior-ways. She can spend the rest of her life saying 'I told you so', and you can spend the rest of your life sitting in the corner of the inn. It will be good for business. For a while. People will be curious about the Warrior Princess, listen to your tales, ask you questions. And, when the interest fades, you can hide in the kitchen washing dishes." He waved his hand. "No. I can't see it." His face brightened. "There is marriage. I'm sure some loutish farmer with corn between his toes would have you, even crippled. Lots of fun in the fields over a plowman's lunch regaling his fellow farmers of his exploits between the sheets with the infamous Warrior Princess." She closed her eyes against his penetrating stare. "I don't feel any enthusiasm here, Xena. Help me out. I'm planning your future. Got it! The centaurs owe you a favor. No." he shook his head in mock regret. "Too painful to be so close to Solon every day and not let him in on the secret. We don't want him thinking you only wanted him for a son when there was nothing else for you, do we?" He paused, allowing Xena's fevered mind to keep up. "The Amazons? Another favor to be collected. You really should stay on top of debt collection Xena. The world owes you more than it likes to acknowledge. We'll keep the Amazons in mind. " Ares was pacing now, at the foot of the litter. His looked at Gabrielle with interest. Xena followed his eyes. "Has the answer been here all the time? The Brat-excuse me- The Bard of Potadeaia. She brings in a few dinars, doesn't she, telling her stories in inns? She can look after you, provide for you. Keep you. Of course, I don't how you'll feel about her wearing the pants in the family. " Xena adjusted her position on the litter. "That thought makes you squirm," he winked knowingly. You might not have an army to command, but you've got a legion of one to boss around. Oh, Xena, " he spread his hand before him, as if looking at a broad vista. "See the years stretching before you, growing older, watching Gabrielle grow older, roaming from inn to inn, squalid taverns, eking out an existence. I see Gabrielle grow thin, in rags. Tell me, Xena: How much more guilt can you stand?"

"Ares," Xena moaned, at the voice in her head that wouldn't stop, that made so much sense. With an effort she raised herself on one elbow, and looked at the sleeping Gabrielle. "It will never happen, Gabrielle" she whispered, barely audible.

"No? How do you prevent it? She's the one who's good at words. She'll twist every argument you have. But look on the bright side. Now you'll never have to worry that the next handsome, fresh cheeked boy she meets will woo her away. You've got what you want at last, even if you won't admit it. Even if the circumstances will have you hating each other long before you die."

"No! Ares, no!" Xena half rose. Gabrielle was beside her in an instant, clearing her head, looking around for the provocation.

"Xena, it's all right. It's the fever. " She moved her gently back to the litter.

"Ares..."

"...isn't here Xena. It's only me.

"No. He's been here all along. This is all Ares." Xena's eyes were bright with fever, but held an insistent urgency Gabrielle couldn't ignore.

"Ares?" It would explain some things: the flash that made Argo rear at the worse possible moment; the feeling of a dread presence Xena had before the attack. It wouldn't be the first time Ares had made life difficult for his onetime follower. But he had never damaged her so badly before. This seemed an odd way to win her back. Then again maybe it was imagination, fever talking and exhaustion listening. "Rest, Xena . I'll get you some wine. " She fetched the wineskin from the branch where it hung, dismayed at how little remained. Gabrielle had glimpsed the lives of warlords, the riches they commanded. She had tried to picture Xena that way, but imagination failed her. Xena seemed satisfied with so little. Good thing, she thought ruefully, there was little profit in good-deed-doing. Anyway, it would make it easier to earn their living in the future. Gabrielle had already looked ahead. It seemed clear that life on the road, as traveling warrior and bard, was over. The warrior was to be a fond memory. Just as clearly, Gabrielle saw her new role: she would remain as Xena's companion, and provide for both of them. She just had to find a way of making it palatable to the proud woman. She would think of something. Convince Xena that Gabrielle's need for her was just as great? She knelt and held the wineskin to Xena's lips. My need is as great, Gabrielle admitted, a wave of affection sweeping over her. If Ares had done this, well curse him. Gabrielle would tarnish his reputation in every story she told in every inn she visited. She settled Xena again and rehung the nearly empty wineskin, resisting the temptation to swallow some herself. It would be nice to have a little more wine. And some food for tomorrow. And maybe some sign that Xena was out of danger.

It was a clear night, and Gabrielle could pick out the constellations. Orion, Pisces. And the Red Planet, the planet of Ares, was as bright as she'd ever seen it. That seemed an ominous sign. Whatever benign gods are listening, she implored, take care of Xena.

The morning suggested that it had been a vain prayer. She woke to find Xena blindly groping for her sword, mumbling about a battle. She was delirious with fever, her skin like fire. Gabrielle examined each wound, turning the resisting woman over to reach the arrow wound in her shoulder. She gasped at the quickness with which the wound had become infected. The arrow had been easy to remove because the flesh around the entrance had been torn. It had also been the entry point for filth. The flesh was tight and shiny now. Pus oozed from the hole, which seemed enormous. Gabrielle put fear out of her mind and set herself to her tasks. She put water on to boil, lay the blade of Xena's dagger in the fire and watched the blade, reviewing the steps she had to take, in order. When the water was ready, she lay some clean strips of rag in the water. She crumbled the remaining bread and some leaves she'd hastily collected in the cloth, and folded it over to make a sort of sleeve. She placed it back in the water, took up the dagger, waited for it to cool, and knelt beside Xena. She had lost count of the times she'd inflicted pain on her friend in her attempts to keep her alive. She wished Xena was unconscious now, so she wouldn't feel this latest pain. She set her teeth and made four tiny slits around the circumference of the wound. Pus and blood flowed freely. She squeezed the wound, forcing every bit of the matter out of the wound, not stopping until the blood showed no signs of pus. Then she squeezed some more. Xena had grown quiet at some point, and remained that way while Gabrielle laid the bread and herb poultice on the wound, to draw out any remaining impurities, and medicate the wound. She had though Xena was asleep, or unconscious, but her eyes were open. She seemed to be listening to something.

Ares had watched Gabrielle with interest. This impertinent young woman who dared to curse him in his own presence was behaving beyond his expectations. Without Xena's strength she had found considerable strength of her own. Still, he was calling the shots, and Xena, resist as she might, could still hear his Siren-like call. Seductive, enticing, he spoke to her in her fever. " This isn't the kind of heat I wanted from you Xena. He laid a hand on her brow. She felt the coolness of his touch and sighed with relief. "See, even now you respond to me. I can heal you. Give you back your strength, your life. " Gabrielle lifted her head from her work by the fire at the sound. "We were good together Xena. You were good for me. Let me repay you."

Xena's existence for almost twenty four hours had been an unending nightmare of pain and fever. The one constant from the end of the attack in the clearing had been the smooth, confident, familiar voice. It had brought a strange comfort, being the only thing more powerful than the pain, able to reach her even when she was unconscious. Strong and masculine. Protective. Lyceus? No. She had stood by his grave. Not Marcus. But someone from her warrior past. So many men. She willed his face into her vision. "Ares", she whispered in recognition.

"Yes. A face from the glorious past. Remember me, Xena. Remember my spirit coursing through your veins in battle. " Now this voice was tempting her almost beyond endurance. She had almost forgotten who it was. Now she remembered, and struggled to heed his call. That had brought another voice, and pain. Now she welcomed the voice again, welcomed it's promise of relief. She strained to hear every word. "Ares," she called with the strongest voice she could manage.

"Xena?" Another voice responded, alarmed. "He's not here! And if he is he'd better not show himself to me. It's a good thing he's a god, because he's way too cowardly to make it as a mortal." She was not speaking to Xena now, her words were hurled as a challenge, an insult to the God of War. " This is his hallmark, the indefensible attack, by his lackeys! He doesn't even show up himself, except in tricks of fire and noise! On their best day Xena could beat them all, alone, or all together. So Ares evens the odds. A little godly intervention to tip the scales. Is that anyway to treat the bravest warrior of all? Just because you don't do it for her anymore Ares? Because the rewards of fighting for you didn't give her satisfaction? Look at her." Unthinking, Gabrielle threw back the blanket covering the still form. "Proud? How hard is it for a god to destroy a mortal? Will you boast about this on Mt. Olympus? Or would they laugh at you? The greatest joke is that Xena helped you recover your godhead when you couldn't do it for yourself. 'Thanks a lot Xena, remind me to destroy you sometime. If I can't have you, no one can.' Except of course the men you give power over her. Man or god, what sort of being hands a woman over for that kind of violation? " The words stopped all at once. Xena shouldn't be hearing this. She covered her again, took her hand and took a deep breath to compose herself. Xena had not followed Gabrielle's words, but heard now, as the soft voice asked a familiar question: "Do you want to hear a story?" Without waiting for a reply she began:" Once there were two friends. Who loved each other very much," she added with a smile." They spent their days together, delighting in each other's simple gifts. One had the gift of song with a voice so sweet that travelers were sure they'd heard Orpheus himself. The other could recreate the beauty of nature, and the likeness of other people with a lump of charcoal, on any surface. They gave each other such joy that the gods smiled on them. But one god was jealous. He heard their laughter ,saw their happiness, yet his shrines went untended. In his jealousy, he visited a curse on them. The singer's voice grew harsh, she could no longer sing a melody. The other's hand withered; she could no longer hold her lump of charcoal. Contented, the god returned to his other tasks. Sometime later he was surprised to hear laughter coming once again from the two friends. He investigated the cause, and found that when the two had realized that they were forever changed, they each determined to raise the other's spirits, by finding a new gift for the other. The singer tried to draw. She wasn't very good, but neither was the other at singing. Yet their delight in the results, and their attempts to impart their former skill to the novice brought them together in a new way. Once again, they were happy. This puzzled the god, forever after. He didn't know, that the joy was not in the gift, but in the giver."

Gabrielle didn't know when the eyes had closed, or how much Xena had actually heard. She knew the limp hand was still too warm when she released it. Time to sponge her off. She picked up the water skins, and rose to stare into the face of Ares. He was dressed as Gabrielle had last him , when Xena had won back for him his place among the immortals. She stopped a long moment, questioning her senses. "You're not welcome here, Ares," she said at last, satisfied that she was not speaking to a figure conjured up by her own mind. She moved to position herself between the black-clad figure and Xena's prone form. Ares laughed.

"We could let Xena decide that."

"I'm deciding for her. I know how she feels about you."

He raised a dark eyebrow. "I know how you feel. But what do you know of me and Xena. You've been privy to some of our encounters, but Xena and I go back a long way. She was mine when you were a little girl in Potadeia. In some ways she'll always be mine. And the pleasure was not one-sided," he asserted with a broad wink. " But I'm not here to reminisce. A god has heard your plea, Gabrielle, to take care of Xena."

Gabrielle eyed him with suspicion. "What god?"

"The one that knows best how to heal a warrior." He moved to Xena's litter. Gabrielle tensed and moved toward him. "I can't remember a mortal who's been so provoking and lived, Gabrielle. Xena's been a great teacher. But don't push it. " He dismissed her with a wave of his hand, knelt over Xena and touched her right leg, moving his hand over the calf. Xena seemed unaware of his presence. Before he rose he brushed the hair from her bruised forehead, and kissed her softly. " How can one resist?" He asked, looking at Gabrielle, then: "You had some requests." He waved at the wineskin. "All the wine you need." He held out a small pouch. "Put some of this in her wine, or water, whenever she drinks. Don't worry. It's not poison. It's more powerful medicine than any Xena's got in her bags. She'll heal quickly. Stay away from people while she heals. They'll think one, or both of you are witches," his face cracked in a cold smile at his own wit. Gabrielle hesitated. " It will keep her alive," he insisted. "That's still in the balance you know." Gabrielle took the pouch. " It will also give her peace. She can forget the more... unpleasant aspects of this incident. You can fill in anything you think she needs to know. But this goes no further. Find your stories somewhere else. " He left with no farewell, as silently as he'd arrived. Gabrielle clutched the pouch to be certain he had been there. With sudden alarm she ran to the litter. Xena was sleeping, her breathing more regular. The angry flesh of her shoulder was less red, the swelling much reduced. Gabrielle remembered Ares bending over her, and held her breath as she pulled the blanket away from the maimed leg. Where there had been a blackish-blue, swollen sheath surrounding the bone, there was now whole, healthy flesh. "Thank you, " she breathed, fervently.

Xena grew stronger over the next few days, drinking steadily of the wine left by Ares. Gabrielle had hesitated over using the powder, then trusted her gut, and Ares. If it had any ill effects they weren't obvious. Gabrielle also drank the wine, and found herself refreshed in body and spirit. True to Ares' word, the wineskin seemed always to be full. Amazingly, it seemed to Gabrielle that the forest had turned into a larder. Xena would have kept them alive in the forest indefinitely. Gabrielle didn't have that skill. Yet every day she found branches of trees hung with ripe fruits, and fragrant blossoms perfumed the air. Not far from camp, a swarm of bees seemingly abandoned their hive, leaving behind a mess of honey. The empty food bag held fresh bread, and cheese. One morning she woke to hear Xena's voice- singing? She pretended to be sleeping until the simple song of the earth awakening to spring was finished.

"I've only heard you sing in mourning" she said, acknowledging that she was awake. Xena was reclining against Argo's saddle, cushioned with the saddle blanket. "You should sing more often. What else do you know?" Gabrielle urged, half expecting Xena to refuse, knowing she had an audience. Instead, she smiled broadly, and launched into a lively song about young girl's clever methods of escaping the watchful eyes of her parents in order to meet with a succession of suitors. By the third verse Gabrielle knew the chorus well enough to join in. When it was over both women were laughing, Xena clutching at her sides, in pain.

"You okay?" Gabrielle asked. Breathless, Xena nodded assurance.

"They didn't sing that in my village," Gabrielle said.

"You can learn a lot growing up in an inn. Mother used to sit me behind the bar to keep me out of mischief, until I was old enough to help," she reminisced.

"You should sing more often."

"I haven't felt much like singing since" she paused. "I guess it was when Barius left. After that I didn't even sing to Solon." A shadow of remembrance crossed Xena's face and Gabrielle determined it was time to change the mood.

"Hungry? I'm famished. The usual? Bread, cheese, fruit? Water? Or since we have no pressing engagements, should we start the day with the fruit of the grape?"

"Gabrielle. I've been wondering," she began slowly, as a question caught up with her. "Where is this food coming from?"

Gabrielle had been expecting the question, yet hesitated, before answering with her own question. "Xena, if ambrosia is food of the gods, what would you call food from the gods?" Xena looked at her quizzically. Before she could speak Gabrielle forged on. "This stuff just shows up. The trees grew fruit overnight. The bread and cheese are just there when we need them. The wineskin is never empty." She shrugged, and smiled, hoping Xena's reaction would be as accepting of the small miracle. "This little glade is blessed somehow, right now. For us. Don't you feel peaceful? Contented? Of course you do! You woke up singing." She shook her head, "I don't know if its the wine or just everything, but-" Xena cut her off.

" Food from what god?" She knew even as she asked.

"Ares. He was here the night you were hurt... "

"Why would he do this for me?" she asked, suddenly uneasy. "He's the reason I was hurt," she stopped, certain she had spoken the truth yet groping for the details.

"Xena we really have to talk. Do you remember anything of the past few days?" With difficulty Xena recalled their journey to the Eagle's Eye. No further. Gabrielle nodded, sat facing Xena, and spoke for a long time. What she didn't know of Xena's defense of the village, she guessed at. The ambush in the forest she pieced together using Xena's own sparse account and her observation of the scene. The rest she told with as little attention to painful detail as possible. Xena listened raptly, watching Gabrielle's eyes. The bard, used to audiences hanging on her every word spoke steadily and managed, she hoped, to omit the incident on the rock without raising suspicion. When she told of her reviling Ares Xena suppressed a snort of laughter. At last she stopped. Xena lay back against the saddle, considering.

"Where are my boots?" she demanded. Gabrielle fetched them and handed the damaged right boot to Xena. She thrust her whole hand through the slash in the leather, and threw back the blanket to reconcile that damage with the sound leg.

"From what you've said I have little right to be alive," she concluded. "Why can't I remember this?" In answer Gabrielle held out the pouch containing the white powder.

"Ares said it would heal you, and give you peace. I know he can't be trusted, but he said it was a matter of preserving your life. If I was wrong to use it, I'm sorry." Xena reached a hand to Gabrielle's stricken face.

"No. You were right," she said emphatically. "I will never understand the games the gods play, certainly not Ares, but you - and he - saved my life. Gabrielle, how did you manage? How can I thank you? "

Gabrielle beamed, relieved to know she had done the right thing, contented to be here, in this wood, with her best friend. "Well, there is one thing," she suggested, playfully.

"Sing another song."


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