Chapter 8

Celeste was tending to Toris. Alert eyes studied the healer from the shadows in the hallway, wondering where the old woman found the energy to take care of a wounded man and a stubborn warrior and still wake up first.

"’Morning, warrior. There’s your breakfast. I figured you’d be here early. If you want to stay, you have to be chewing."

After a good night’s rest, Xena was less vulnerable to the healer’s orders. She moved into the room but crossed her arms and glared at Celeste, who chuckled instead of quaking. Nevertheless, she relented.

"All right. So I can’t make you. But maybe if he wakes up and sees you eating, he’ll try some himself," she said, eyes back on her work. "Would you like to take over? I know it has been eating you up that I keep doing this before you have a chance."

How did she know? The warrior hated being predictable. I never said a thing about...

"It’s the way you frown when you look at what I’ve done and see it is as good as your own handiwork," Celeste said, turning to face Xena. "Even now you try to hide your feelings. But I can see them. You can probably fool most. And sure enough, I could be wrong too." She stepped aside to offer Xena room next to the injured man. "But I doubt it."

"Well I suppose I have my guard down. A bit." Xena wondered if Celeste could read minds as she picked up bandaging where the healer had left off.

"Sounds reasonable." The healer seemingly changed the subject and asked Xena what she planned to do today.

The question made Xena’s stomach churn. She had tormented herself with it the previous night until her exhaustion won out over the spinning of her mind. Should she stay with her brother and do what she could for him in case Ares was right and only she could save him. Or should she go after her mother who may or may not be injured by now.

"I haven’t decided. I am not sure where I need to be more." This isn’t like that day I had to save two villages and used the two threats against each other, she thought.

Celeste brought the tray of porridge and milk closer to the warrior. "That’s easy. You need to be wherever you end up."

"It isn’t that simple, Celeste." The words were said with condescension.

"Actually, Xena, it is, and I’ll explain it to you if you’d like."

"Uh huh. And if I say no, you’ll tell me anyway, right?" Xena finished securing the bandage on Toris’ forehead and looked to Celeste with a bored, know-it-all expression.

"No. I don’t waste my breath on help that isn’t appreciated. You don’t have to believe what I tell you, Xena, but you must be willing to listen with an open mind. The choice is yours." The healer’s voice was calm and concerned.

"You know, you are really starting to aggravate me. I don’t like to be challenged at every turn."

Celeste heard the warning and would have been a fool not to heed it. "I’ll take that as a ‘no’ then."

"No. Take that as a ‘yes.’ I’d like to hear how I know the decision I make will be the right one that will save both my mother and my brother." The frustration crackled around the warrior who didn’t know whether to be sorry for raising her voice at the healer or cut off her annoying head.

Celeste suggested they talk away from Toris. Xena agreed, but sent Celeste ahead, saying she wanted to sit with her brother for a while. What she really wanted to do was beat down some of her rage.

By the time she went to find Celeste, Xena had buried her latest anger with the rest. She still wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what the healer had to say, but she had to admit she had no real plan to speak of, other than leave her brother and hope he would live until she returned with their mother.

Xena joined Celeste on a bench behind the inn. From there they could hear the continuing repairs being made to the village. The heat had let up a tiny bit, but as the pair looked into the sky they saw no sign of any rain.

"Did you eat?"


"Good. Xena, I know all of this is hard for you. I don’t want to ask a lot of you but I need you to really listen to what I have to say. If you get angry, say so and we’ll work that through until you are ready to listen more."

Xena felt like Celeste was talking to her like a child and she resented it. But she was curious about what she had to say. She nodded for Celeste to continue.

"Xena, let me start with a question. Do you think you are better than everyone else?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

Please, Xena. Humor me. Do you think you are superior?"

"Far from it."

"Then why do you insist on doing everything yourself? Why don’t you ask someone from the village to scout ahead for signs of where Cyrene was taken? There are some with military experience here. Don’t you think they could do that well enough?" Celeste paused to let Xena consider but told her not to speak yet. After a moment she continued.

"And, although it means a lot for Toris to see you here I wonder if, on the other hand, you don’t want to leave here because you think something may happen when you leave that only you could fix."

"Celeste, that’s it. It doesn’t mean I don’t trust you or the villagers here. But I don’t see how I can be two places at once."

"You can’t Xena but by thinking you must find a way to be, you show that you believe that you are somehow... better. More skilled. Super competent.

"No. Although in some things I am more skilled because I am more experienced. But in this case I am more responsible."

"Because they are your kin?"


"Well, you make people feel small. What do you think might happen to Toris that I can’t handle?"

Xena couldn’t think of a specific example, and she was getting impatient. She didn’t see how talking about her would help her mother or her brother. She told Celeste so.

"Xena talking to me will help you. How can you help them in the state you are in? You are paralyzed into indecision and insecurity. Now answer my question."

"I don’t know what could happen but Ares told me that I could save him. I don’t know how. Maybe I already have by showing up. He has improved."

"Ares told you?"


"I see. Does he help you like this a lot? Can you trust what he says?"

Xena grunted. "No. Didn’t my mother tell you about what happened last year with him and her?"

"Yes. So, what are you going to do now? Sit here and wait for him to show up and tell you if Toris will live now? And because you feel so guilty and responsible, you are willing to believe that somehow you have the power over your brother’s life and death. Is that what you are telling me Xena?"

"I don’t....I guess so."

Celeste wiped her brow. The sun was burning at full strength yet the day was still young. "Take the guess out of it."

"Fine. Yes."

"Xena, I hate to be the one to tell you. But no one has that kind of power."

"But you don’t understand, Celeste, I do." Xena told the healer how she had saved Gabrielle’s life in Thessaly. "If I hadn’t been there, she would have died."

"Sure, unless someone else there might have tried the same thing. Or maybe something else that would have worked too. Or maybe Gabrielle would have come back on her own. Possibly fate was on your side and it just wasn’t her time to die. And you yourself said you have no idea whether it was your words or the pounding on her chest that brought her back. Do you save everyone you touch? Do you agonize every time you leave a village that someone will die because you aren’t there to heal them? That is a lot of pressure to put on one person, Xena."

Her audience blinked through sweat and possibly tears as she listened. Celeste took it as a sign that she was getting through.

"So your instincts or maybe your ‘high’ connections have served you well. You have a great knowledge of many things. But you can not will people to live or die. If you go to save your mother, she may die anyway. Toris may die. They both may live. Whatever happens is because it is supposed to happen."

"According to you I might as well go fishing, then."

"Not really. You can make a decision to the best of your ability and if you act on it in the same manner, you will have a clear conscience. You will have peace, even amongst pain."

Xena hung her head. She could see how Celeste’s reasoning could free her to act without feeling compelled to make the perfect decision all of the time. But without shouldering all of that responsibility, she also gave up any feeling of control over what happens.

"Can you stay here with Toris?"

Chapter 9

Gabrielle stood before the queen’s hut. She leaned on her staff and realized it’s presence comforted her. Something was missing though, something big.

It was the warrior, of course. Her warrior. Gabrielle felt incomplete without her, especially in situations like she had found herself lately. In fights and presenting herself to new people, the bard felt awkward. Especially when the people were amazons who had expectations of an amazon queen who traveled with the reformed warlord. Sure she got by, but it wasn’t the same.

Then there were the constant reminders of Xena from each of those she had met thus far. Voula, Kiriaki, the queen and the general had asked at some point, "Should we be expecting a visit from the warrior princess?"

There was no guard at the hut so Gabrielle knocked on the doorframe. The general pulled back the curtain. She smiled in greeting and invited the bard in.

"Look who it is, Tasia. Our dinner guest has returned for breakfast."

As Athanasia spoke, Gabrielle noticed that her long curved nose moved with certain words. In spite of herself, the visiting queen grinned.

"Good day, Gabrielle," said Tasia. "What brings you here so early?" The queen was straddling a bench near the weapon’s hutch cleaning a pair of boots that Gabrielle thought she recognized as Athanasias.

"I came to talk about what we discussed last night. About my staying here...for...a while." As Gabrielle moved to sit closer to Tasia, the general slipped on a pair of sandals and excused herself to go commandeer enough fruit and porridge for three.

Tasia called her thanks to Athanasia then turned her attention to her guest. "So, Gabrielle, you know what you would like to do?"

Over dinner, Gabrielle had told the two amazons that she was waiting for Xena to return from rescuing her family and that the bard wished to stay in their village for an indeterminate time. Although quite agreeable to her visit, and her request not to be treated as a visiting dignitary, Tasia had informed Gabrielle that according to tradition every able-bodied amazon must be productive. Even if it involved just rinsing vegetables for market. If Gabrielle truly wanted to fit in and be treated as any other amazon, she must find a task. They had no call for a bard except celebrations or festivals, and she was not thrilled with the idea of teaching techniques of staff fighting.

"Yes. Last night I went back to talk with Voula. I remembered her saying that she was taking on apprentices."

"Gabrielle, I can’t believe Voula agreed to that. She usually demands at least a two season commitment from her apprentices. She must really like you."

Gabrielle turned her head to the side and smiled shyly. Before she explained, she allowed the smell of the leather soap to bring an image of Xena to her mind.

"Well, actually," the golden haired bard began, clearing the vision of Xena’s strong hands working stiff leather into soft from her thoughts. "Voula is allowing me to learn with the apprentices only in my free time. She says she could use me to help cook and keep up after her since she’ll be busy with them and any regular healing that comes up."

Tasia nodded. That is one way around the time commitment. But how will this young queen take to being what amounts to a maid, Tasia wondered. Time will tell.

"Have you met Voula’s partner?" the queen asked.

"No. She hasn’t even mentioned her," said the surprised bard. "When I stayed there last night there was no one there."

"They are having some difficulties so Polixeni moved out for a while. From what I hear she still comes around now and then." Tasia raised an eyebrow and wore a lecherous grin.

"I see in at least one area, our two villages are exactly the same," said Gabrielle, stifling a laugh.

"How’s that? Lots of midnight visitations?" asked Tasia.

"I was talking about gossip, but that works too."




After the meal obtained by the general was consumed, Gabrielle ventured back to see if there was anything to be done at Voula’s. Told she had some free time, Gabrielle waited patiently for Voula to give her something mild to ease the pain of her still tender nose. Although she’d been told it looked worse today, the pain had eased a bit.

Xena is going to be so angry with me, thought Gabrielle. I could have just not told her about the whole thing, but now there is evidence. She drank the potion Voula handed her, glad to have a distraction from her thoughts of Xena’s impending wrath.

Once the bard had asked for and received a detailed explanation of what was in the concoction, and why, she decided to take a walk around the village. A few things became quickly apparent.

First, word of her arrival had traveled quickly, but not that she wanted to be addressed by her name only and not by her title. Second, that there was a clear distinction between the amazons who were primarily concerned with trade and those whose task it was to defend the village, at least as far as their attitude toward Gabrielle.

Whenever she passed a group of amazons with noticeable weapons, she got silent looks ranging from curious glances to steely stares. From merchants, traders and women of other village crafts and trades she was greeted with polite words, friendly questions and inquiries about her injury.

During her exploration, the blonde encountered a young woman about her age who was folding large blankets and tying them, three to a bundle. Despite being bigger than Gabrielle, the amazon’s reach wasn’t long enough to fold them with out dragging the ends on the ground. Gabrielle offered to help.

The two conversed during their labor, finding out about each other’s background, likes, and dislikes. Once there was a mountain of folded and tied wool behind them, they sat upon a few bundles and talked about their favorite colors.

"I like the blue green of the ocean," said Gabrielle. "Just before the sun sets when it is still deep and mysterious but not completely unknowable."

"That sounds beautiful, Queen...I mean Gabrielle," said Cassa. "I have not seen the ocean. But the color that makes me happiest is the color of firelight filtered through my grandmother’s curtain. It smiles a warm golden yellow."

Gabrielle smiled herself. "May I use that in one of my scrolls?"

The weaver blushed. "Why?"

"Because the way you said that, Cassa, made me want to change my answer. And I don’t even know your grandmother."

Cassa soaked up the praise and the smile being offered by the visiting queen. She wanted to give her something in return.

"Would you share my evening meal with me, Gabrielle?"

Chapter 10

The tracks of the army were easy to follow. Either their leader was an idiot or, as she had thought all along, he was just trying to reel her in. Riding at a moderate pace for half a day, she found an abandoned camp a few days old.

Xena left Amphipolis almost immediately after her talk with Celeste. She made a short stop to check on Toris. He was sleeping, but his heartbeat and breathing were stronger. When the healer suggested Xena take a few men with her, the warrior refused. She was willing to think about the things the healer had brought up, but Xena wasn’t ready to involve other people on this mission.

Argo nibbled on some oats the army’s horses must have missed, while her mistress explored the grounds. The numbers Celeste had approximated were correct, except it seemed there were more horses than she had said. Some ruts in the drought-hardened earth caught her eye. Situated near the center of the camp, there were two sets roughly square in shape, each side being a bit less than the length of Xena’s body.

There was only one set of footprints within the confines of the areas, leading Xena to surmise that they were the cages holding prisoners, one of whom was Cyrene. The footprints in the other square were bigger and deeper, probably made by a man and a large one at that.

Stakes for what was probably the leader’s tent were just off to the side from the second cage. It looked like there had been a lot of traffic between the two, but not much between the tent and her mother’s prison. The leader must have a great interest in the male captive, the warrior woman mused. A pattern in the dirt peaked her interest again. It looked like the male had been dragged at some point, but the multitude of footprints made it hard to tell. Still, Xena thought, he might not be above harming his prisoners.

Once the area had been fully examined, Xena led Argo to a nearby stream for water. She herself ate a little of what Celeste had packed for her, not paying attention to what it was. After a drink, she was back in the saddle and headed toward her still unknown enemy.

The sun looked forward to a quarter day’s journey across the sky when the dark haired warrior slowed the war-horse. Someone so determined to get her attention would surely have numerous lookouts posted to signal her appearance. She had been surprised no one was left behind to follow her out of the village. She wished there had been. She could use some information.

Xena kept her senses alert, but she was aware that her mind wanted to give some attention to Gabrielle. Thinking back to their fight, she wondered how she could have thought that the bard wouldn’t mind if she had a few ales and kissed someone else; someone from her past no less. Yet, they had never declared that they were to be monogamous since their relationship became physical. But Gabrielle certainly did seem committed to the warrior and had acted out of jealousy sometimes--like with Lao Ma.

The warrior was able to forgive Gabrielle for that so easily because she understood the motivation so well. Jealousy can not be reasoned with. When Gabrielle married Perdicus, the envy and pain Xena withstood was a barely contained torment and she and the bard weren’t lovers at the time. Surely, Gabrielle must have felt it even more when Xena left for Chin to help what must have seemed like a phantom from the past.

Lately, after going through all of the betrayals, losses, separations and reunions, Gabrielle was acting more----what is the word I’m looking for... vulnerable? Needy?

Insecure. Her self doubt turned her inward, away from Xena at times, like during her journey to find and work through her denial of her real reason for following Xena to Chin. Other times her need for Xena’s attention brought her to confront the warrior as during their recent adventure to return the stolen urn of Apollo, and their stand against the Persian army. Into that last category Xena also placed her companion’s recent more urgent requests for lovemaking.

"Damn it, Argo. It’s too hot to think and too hot to ride," she said, pulling up on the reins. "I’d find a shady spot to sleep but it’s too hot for that too..."

A constant stream of sweat ran down the warrior’s shiny black bangs and into her eyes. The good thing was the salty fluid washed the dust from her face. The bad thing was it occasionally blurred her vision.

Xena dismounted with a thud and led Argo over to a shady spot. They shared some water from a skin, then the tall woman felt around the saddlebag for something to tie around her head.

The cleanest cloth of the right size she came up with was Gabrielle’s spare pair of underwear.

Xena smirked. She had left so fast all she had given Gabrielle was some money. She had her friend’s scrolls, ink, quills, and it turned out, undergarments. The warrior decided she would just buy her a new pair and ripped the pale peach fabric into a long strip she could fashion into a headband. She tied it on and sat down beneath a tree, listening for any unwanted intruders or potential meals.

Her instincts told her that the men who raided Amphipolis had not traveled far. This would probably be her last chance to eat and rest before encountering the army. Once the light began to fade a few creatures stirred including a rabbit. Although rather lean, it was enough for one. After dinner, Xena checked the surrounding area for any signs of human life.

Eventually she relaxed enough to rest her eyes. It was hard not to go running into the night to rescue her mother, but Xena fought the resilient urge and tried to focus instead on being in control and physically and emotionally prepared for what and who awaited her.

Even before her dinner was digested, she had stood and paced off the anxious energy coursing through her more than once. It was going to be a long night.

Chapter 11

Three times during the night fresh scouts went out to replace the dozen lookouts posted around the outskirts of the camp. Another group of four were watching the areas farther out for any signs of the warrior princess and her bard. They were under strict orders to leave the pair untouched and to stay as far away as possible while still keeping them in sight. Also three times a night one of these men would trek back to an outpost and report on any sightings, turn around, and go back. Because the four were the best trackers in the army and the front line, there were no shift replacements for them.

Vassilios was bone tired. He had just made his report to some lucky soldier who was on his way back to camp, a comfortable bedroll and the camaraderie of other soldiers. Vassilios had been stuck out there for days eating dried meat and drinking stale water. For the first time in his long, violent and ugly life, Vassilios would kill for a bath.

He thought about taking off, finding another less maniacal warlord to serve. What stopped him, so far, was his future. He knew he had one, he wasn’t’ foolish enough to get in any battle with Xena. He had seen her fight, even met her a few times. No, that wasn’t the problem.

The tracker picked his way back through tough underbrush, made more prickly than usual by the lack of rainfall. By now, he knew the route so well he could maneuver on auto-tracker. The dilemma he faced concerned the outcome of the coming battle. If he left, deserted, and found a nice prostitute and a nice bath while this crazed warlord succeeded in capturing Xena and her little friend, his reputation would be lower than an old Minataurs drooping balls. He’d never get a tracking job in a decent army again.

But, if Xena and what’s-her-name win, then most likely half or more of this army will be slaughtered or so hurting that nobody will notice or care about what happened to one no account soldier.

An owl hooted overhead, surprising Vassilios. He had gone farther than he realized if he was already to the owl’s nest. He paused, deciding his fate, weighing the possibilities.

He bet on Xena.




Slipping out was easy. He knew where the other three were positioned and when they would move. Once beyond their scope of surveillance, Vassilios’ only concern was to avoid running into the warrior princess on her way in. He reached up to grab the branch on a sturdy tree, wanting to get a look around before choosing his direction. The whiffs he got of himself told him he better give Xena a really wide berth. She’d sense his presence from Amphipolis.

Vassilios headed straight toward Xena’s village. Xena would know that they would be watching for her and possibly setting an ambush for her. Therefore, Vassilios was counting on her to be searching for a way to sneak up on the army that had abducted her mother. The only hitch in his plan was that he didn’t want to get too close to the village. He had no way to be sure whether Xena had arrived there, was still there, or was around the next tree trunk.




Dawn was stirring in the distance and Vassilios wondered if he had made a mistake. His nerves were shot from imagining what would happen if he calculated incorrectly and happened upon....

"Xena. Long time no see."

"Mmm. No smell either."

Vassilios smiled. A reflex. She was leaning against a tree, looking at the fingernails of her hand, and glancing at him only when she spoke.

"How’ve you been?" he asked, his voice cracking. He was a tracker, not a fighter. And this woman could kill fighters a thousand different ways.

Blue eyes looked up at him, amused and excited, like a cat with a mouse. Their color was barely visible in the pre-dawn gloom.

She pushed off the tree with an elbow and reached back for her sword with the hand that owned the previously fascinating nails. Vassilios heard the blade scrape the scabbard on it’s way out to wave "hello" at him, then point at his throat.

"Actually, I’ve been a little under the weather," Xena said with a playful pout. "But I’m feeling a lot better."

She took a step toward the man who hadn’t bothered to reach for his sword. "I wonder if it has something to do with running into you."

"Xena, look, I’ve drawn no weapon." He held out his arms for emphasis.

"You took my mother and may have killed my brother. You think I need further justification to kill you?"

"But I’m worth more to you alive. I have information you can use."

"Don’t worry about that. You’ll tell me everything I want to know." Xena’s voice took on a much less playful tone and Vassilios felt his guts knot up.

"C’mon. We go way back. I didn’t hurt your brother. And I want no part of keeping your mother. I’m leaving, see? There’s no need to kill ol’ Vassilios."

Ah so that’s his name. I forgot what to call him besides sniveling coward.

"Maybe you’re right. Once I’ve finished torturing you for information, you’ll be as good as dead anyway. Better, in fact."

Vassilios didn’t want to know how he would be left "better" than dead. He kept pleading his case.

"Xena, I’ll tell you now. There is no need for pain to loosen my tongue."

"You’re a deserter. Why should I believe you? How will I know you’re telling the truth unless I hurt you?"

Tracker thought of the only thing that might work, though it was not an option he wanted her to take.

"Take me with you," he said. "If anything I tell you turns out to be untrue, kill me then." He saw no change in her demeanor or in the fact that her sword seemed to be getting closer and somehow sharper. "And I can help you along the way. I swear on the sword of the god of war, I’ll do anything you say."

He thought he saw a flicker of something in the hard eyes beneath the soaked headband. He decided to lighten the mood.

"Hey, speaking of doing your bidding, where’s that cute little friend of yours?"

A sharp pain on his left temple and a sudden burst of light fading quickly to black were the last things Vassilios remembered when he woke up in a stream.

Getting his balance wasn’t too difficult despite the pain in his head and the accompanying grogginess, because the water wasn’t even waist deep and someone had a grip on the back of his tunic.

I’m still alive, he thought, and I am getting the bath I wanted. But I don’t remember us being near a stream. How long was I out? Vassilios went to wipe the water from his eyes and realized for the first time that his hands were secured behind his back.

Shaking water and snot from his head the deserter asked, "Hey, what did I do?"

"You asked me about my friend and I didn’t like your tone of voice. We’re gonna leave her out of this, understand?"

Vassilios smiled a wide happy smile and squinted up at the warrior. Now she would trust him...and let him live. "That’s gonna be pretty tough, Xena. That bard of yours, she’s the one he’s really after."

Chapter 12

Gabrielle awoke later than usual, a thin layer of moisture coating her skin. She had slept naked on one of the sickbeds in Voula’s hut. Lying on her side, the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was the healer fussing with some of the containers on a shelf.

The bard reached for her borrowed top and usual brown skirt and covered her more private areas. "Voula, I’m sorry. I was so tired and it was so hot...."

"Don’t be sorry, Gabrielle. I sleep in the nude in weather like this too." The lean older woman averted her eyes momentarily, giving the visiting amazon time to get dressed. "Remember, my new friend, I am a healer and I have seen more amazon bits than you could ever dream of."

Out of the corner of her eye she saw the blonde shrug and slow down her wrapping tugging, and tying.

"How was your evening with Cassa?"

"Nice, and relaxing. I told her that I would meet her for lunch if you had nothing planned for me to do."

Actually, I could use your assistance, but I’m sure you can be finished by then." Voula went on to show Gabrielle an assortment of bottles and flasks and explained how she needed to handle and clean them.

"One of my new apprentices will be moving in tomorrow, the other the following day. We’ll need to bring an extra cot in here too. But that can wait until after your date."

Gabrielle didn’t know which statement to comment on first, so she went in order. It turned out that Voula’s apprentices moved in with her for the first four seasons and that they would share a room with Gabrielle. Although surprised, the bard didn’t see this as a real problem especially since her stay was only temporary.

She moved on to the next issue.

"Voula, it isn’t a date. I am just spending time with Cassa."

"So you and Xena are committed? I hadn’t heard that."

With everything that had recently come up between the bard and warrior, Gabrielle wasn’t sure how to answer that question with a simple yes or no. Neither had been truly intimate with another since they began to explore their sexual attraction over a year ago. Seeing Xena in those costumes at the Miss Known World contest and that strangely compelling kiss she shared with Miss Artifice had gotten the bard talking to Xena. Since then, Xena had almost broken the bard’s heart more than once, but had returned to Gabrielle’s embrace without having crossed the line into sexual infidelity.

"Yes we are committed. In action, anyway. But...."

Voula looked with compassion at the young woman before her whose demeanor tried so strenuously to hide her sadness. She led the bard back over to her cot and sat her down, then joined her. "Gabrielle. I know something is bothering you. You need someone to talk to about it. I would be honored to be that someone," the older amazon said, putting a tanned arm around the bard’s shoulders.

"I feel foolish. It isn’t that big a deal," the bard said, with a wave of her hand. Voula remained silent and held Gabrielle in the tender embrace.

Gabrielle felt sadder by the second. The nearness of someone compassionate who was willing to listen and who could also be objective released her from the binds of putting on a good front.

"It’s just that I don’t understand why she hurts me so, when I love her and she says she loves me." She cried once the words were out and Voula encouraged her to cry for as long as she liked, then waited for the torrent to end. The healer made gentle circles with her palm on Gabrielle’s back and handed her a cloth from her pocket for the bard to blow her bruised nose with.

Once the bard became still, the healer asked her how Xena had hurt her. Gabrielle told Voula of the times Xena’s attentions wandered elsewhere. She described when Xena told Gabrielle of her affection for Ulysses and how the bard had been awake when the two had kissed, expressing their passion when they had thought her asleep. Gabrielle related the tale of Lao Ma’s request and the warrior’s willingness to leave her companion behind and the jealousy and betrayal that ensued. Finally, she recounted the more recent tales of Rafe and Linus, and the argument that preceded her visit to Voula’s village.

"So you betrayed Xena after your conversation with the god of war and he offered you a way to beat Xena to Chin."

"Yes. I was angry at her. I wanted to hurt her." Gabrielle looked into Voula’s gray eyes, finding the understanding she sought.

"And you had buried this memory until Xena, in a way, arranged for you to seek out the answers to your pain at the temple of Mnemosyne."


"That was a good idea. You found your answers there."

Gabrielle found a little smile on her lips and a measure of peace within her. "I did. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do. And then I found out that Xena knew what I had done, why I had done it. I still felt some guilt, but Xena said it was in the past and to leave it there.

"But you are still angry and hurt. Something must still be unresolved."

The bard felt a jolt in her gut. "Of course something is unresolved, but it is her, not me. I know what I did was wrong and I faced it. Now, she is the one doing something to me."

"I didn’t say she doesn’t have a problem to look at, Gabrielle. But I think your pain goes deeper than her kissing a few men."

"I’m not sure. That is all I can think of," said the blonde as her stomach growled.

"What did Ares say that convinced you that Xena should be punished, that made you want to hurt her?"

Gabrielle hesitated. She didn’t want to make Xena sound like a horrible person yet all she was doing was complaining about her. "He reminded me of how much I had given up for her."

"Like what?"

"Like my family and my blood innocence. I don’t really want to talk about this, Voula. What I did was still wrong. I know that."

"What else did you give up, Gabrielle?"

"My daughter. My home. I gave up everything for her and she was just going to walk away and help someone, a woman, she loved."

"And this made you angry."

"Furious." Her eyes flashed. "Now that I think about it, even if what I did was wrong and now I understand why she had to go there, I am still angry that she didn’t give me the chance to help her. She could have tried harder to explain it to me instead of just leaving me there." Gabrielle felt her blood simmer. "After all I had.... no have sacrificed for her, she was and is still willing to keep me out. At arms length unless it is a crisis or it is convenient for her." The bitterness of her own words sickened the bard.

Voula pulled Gabrielle closer, telling her with her body that she understood and accepted her. Then she said it with words.

"My friend, that must be a hard thing for you to carry around. You feel like nothing you do is good enough for her. You give her everything you have, all that you are, and still she holds back. Certainly, that hurts. But your anger is misplaced."

Gabrielle pulled back from the healer and asked her who, if not Xena, was to blame.

"She did ask you to give up your daughter. Did she ever ask you to give up your home? Your family? Your blood innocence?" Voula paused. "Your heart?"

Gabrielle answered in a small voice. "No."

"Then how can you be angry at her for taking what you were so willing to give? I think you are angry at yourself for giving so much and not getting back what you need."

"I think I understand. I am blaming Xena for taking what I give. And for not giving me what I don’t ask for. That isn’t fair to her."

"No. And it isn’t fair to you."

Chapter 13

"Could you untie me, Xena. I haven’t tried to run, fight you, or lie to you. Yet you coldcock me, tie me up, toss me in a stream and now you’re acting like a wild animal pacing around me with your sword swinging." Vassilios looked up at her from where he had been tossed in a heap. "I mean, c’mon. Give a guy a break."

The pacing halted long enough for Xena to glare at her captive, transmitting her thought with her look. The tracker gulped realizing his mistake in word choice.

"Well, not literally a break."

"There’s got to be something you’re not telling me, Vassilios."

"I agree Xena. But I can’t tell you what I don’t know. I’ve told you everything." The dripping man wriggled uncomfortably. The lukewarm stream water now just made him hotter since it caused his leathers to stick to his skin. "Giannis wants Gabrielle. He thinks he has to have you too. The best way to get you both was to attack your precious Amphipolis."

He saw the fire in her eyes. "Hey, his words, not mine."

"What does he need us for?"

"I don’t know. He just says everything will be fine once he gets his hands on the little bitch, his words, and if that doesn’t work he’ll fix it with you."

"Fix what?" Xena concentrated. She knew this Giannis. There had never been any bad blood between them. She had seen him not much more than a year ago when Cupid’s little terror flapped around shooting everybody with love darts. He just went about his business being one of Draco’s lieutenants.

"Since when did he go out on his own?"

"After Draco went soft as an overripe melon. I wasn’t around then, but I hear he tried to go good, if you can believe that." A loud cackle emerged from his throat. "Did you ever hear anything that ridiculous as a reformed war.... oh crap." Vassilios winced as he realized what he had said. I really ought to just shut up.

Xena furrowed her brow and ignored Vassilios’ stupidity. She was beginning to make a connection. "It couldn’t be. No. No way." She turned her attention back to the tracker whose lips were clenched and was repeating in his head not to mention that she was talking to herself.

"Vassilios, where is Draco now?"

"I thought you knew. Giannis has him. Keeps him all drugged up. I heard he tried to reform Giannis too." The seated man fought the urge to laugh at the absurdity of Draco’s mission, pretty sure that it would get him in deeper trouble.

Xena smiled. Well, her mouth curled up at the edges but in a less than gleeful expression. She squatted in front of Vassilios with her sword balanced on her thighs. He could look at her now without craning his neck.

"What about my mother. Is she drugged too?"

"Don’t know. Haven’t been in camp much since we left Amphipolis."

"Tell me everything about the defenses leading into the camp. The layout of the camp, too, and the men he has," the warrior demanded, her black hair shining in the early morning sun.

"If I tell you, again, will you at least give me some food?"

"When you’ve gone over it, again..." Xena wanted to kill him. She also wanted to let him go right then and there. She had more important things on her mind and this poor excuse for a human being had served his usefulness. The indecision came across as intense thought in her eyes and Vassilios held his breath for her to finish her sentence. She didn’t.

"Turn around."


"Fine, don’t." She seized a fistful of his hair and yanked his head to the ground. He grunted in pain as his lazy muscles stretched along his back and legs, which were sprawled in front of him. Suddenly he felt cold metal at his wrists and his arms were free.

Just for fun, Xena rubbed his face in the dirt before stepping up and back and turning away. She deserved a reward for letting him live.

"Get out of here."

The tracker wondered briefly if she would kill him while he ran away. Then he sped off into the forest, sure he had made the right choice after all. Even though Xena had changed, Giannis didn’t have a chance.




Everything was as Vassilios said. The outposts keeping watch for her disappeared into the distance as Xena approached the camp. Argo was waiting for her where she had released the deserter. Giannis was so sure of his lookouts that the actual camp was practically unguarded. The warrior crept up on the camp from the south, where the cages and leader’s tent stood. Xena scanned the cage for her mother. She was close enough to see that a small privacy area situated in one corner of each pen. These were simple blankets hung from the top which could be put up or down easily. Nearby there were a few skins tossed in a heap.

A soldier neared the twin jails with a bucket and two bowls. He rattled the bars of the first one and someone moved from under the skins. From the layout of the other camp, she was expecting this to be Draco. The former warlord tossed the skin off his torso and tried to make out who was waking him.

"Food. Come and get it." The soldier ladled something from the bucket into one of the bowls.

Draco crawled toward the bowl almost toppling over on the way. Xena felt pity for her former colleague, now drugged and reduced to crawling for his meals. They hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but there had always been a mutual respect between the two. The soldier had placed the other bowl on the bucket at his feet and was teasing Draco by raising the food higher and higher, always just out of reach of the once proud warrior.

Xena memorized the soldier’s face. She would make sure she paid special attention to him when the time was right. For now, she narrowed her eyes and focused on taking in the scene before her. She watched the men milling about, sharpening weapons and telling jokes. The two guards at the main tent stared forlornly at their comrades relaxing. A pair of watchful blue eyes saw no movement from the skins in the second cage as the soldier had finished toying with Draco and was now ladling a second bowl.

"Food. Come and get it."

No response. Xena’s heart skipped.

"Food, old woman. Come and get it or it gets tossed in the dirt."

There was a bit of movement from the skins. Xena heard a cough and then nothing.

The soldier waited. He looked around. "You know, you remind me of my mother," he said, a noticeably softer edge to his voice. Xena began to rethink her earlier judgment of him.

"I don’t know what I’d do if I saw my mama penned up like you are. The food is pretty good though. Maybe you’d like to have some." He was almost pleading with her.

Cyrene pulled off her covers. She was dressed in a simple cloth frock but it was dirty and stained from sweat and some blood. She was facing the soldier so Xena couldn’t see her face full on.

"I don’t want any of that. Don’t you think I know that there is something in there that makes him like that," she said gesturing at Draco who was sitting in a corner, asleep with the empty bowl in his lap.

"Do you really want to be awake for this?" the soldier asked. Cyrene didn’t reply, she just leaned back on the bars and closed her eyes.

The watching warrior felt proud of her mother. She was being brave and had taken care of herself in another horrible situation caused by her daughter. That didn’t mean that Xena couldn’t wait to get her hands on Giannis. Her blood was pounding through her so hard she couldn’t hear her own thoughts. She watched as the soldier dumped the gruel onto the ground. He looked back at Cyrene and smiled.

"Fine, then starve. Oh, and this is exactly what I’d do if I saw my mama in a trap like we got you in. I hate my mother." He grinned. "Except maybe I’d do a little dance, too."

Cyrene and Xena heard his laughter all the way to the other end of the camp. It was all Xena could do not to put her chakram in the back of his greasy head. She backed away from the camp, needing some distance to get herself under control.

When she felt far enough away to let her guard down some, the warrior crumpled onto the hard ground. She wanted to hurt something, anything, everything. Her vision had clouded over with a red haze and she thought she smelled and tasted blood. She licked her lips and her head lolled wantonly on her neck as she sensed the savory fluid easing its way to her stomach.

She felt a presence. Familiar and sanguine. It felt like Ares. It felt like herself.

"Hello, Xena. Mmmmm. Looks like you bit your lip. Want me to kiss it and make it better?"


Chapter 14

Cassa sucked and nibbled the meat of a plump olive. She spit the pit into a cup. The shady spot she had brought Gabrielle to was her favorite from when she was a amazon pup, running wild all summer with her friends. At first, the bard seemed thrilled with the cool hideaway, a short rocks climb from the waterfall. Now she seemed a long distance away, and from the looks of it, in a not so pleasant place.

"Gabrielle, is something wrong?"

The question jarred the visiting queen. She quickly answered that everything was great, from the olives and greens to the view and the company.

"That isn’t what I was talking about, but thanks anyway." Cassa smiled. "You seem to be bothered by something."

"I’m sorry, Cassa. I guess I’m not very good company." Gabrielle focused on her new friend, vowing to pay attention to their meal instead of her own worries.

"You don’t have to talk to be good company Gabrielle. I enjoy resting quietly and sharing an experience with someone I like, as much as a rousing conversation." Cassa leaned back on a smooth rock wall bearing a carving of her name and that of her first lover. "But I want you to know that I am here if there is something you want to talk about."

"That is the problem, Cassa. I don’t know where to start. There are so many things I want to talk about. It overwhelms me, so I can imagine what a burden it would be to you."

"If I need a break from it, I’ll tell you. How’s that? Besides, we can only talk about one at a time, right?"

Gabrielle couldn’t help but smile at the kind woman. She thought how much Cassa reminded her of herself about a year ago, before she had lost her innocence. She wondered if Cassa could understand where her pain came from, the kind of soul weariness she felt creeping up her spine at times like these.

"Okay, I’ll try, but I still don’t know where to start."

"What is the first thing that comes to your mind."

Gabrielle closed her eyes and saw Kiriaki whirl around and tell her she was dangerous. "I killed someone, Cassa. That is something I never thought I would do. I defined myself as someone who would never hate, never spill blood. Since I have done both, I’m more determined to never repeat them. But...I...."

"You wonder if you can live with yourself? You don’t know if you can ever be that pure of heart again. You are no longer sure that it is an ideal that you can attain, traveling as you do with the warrior princess?"

Gabrielle stared open mouthed at the young amazon weaver who had given voice to her darkest thoughts and fears. The pale woman with golden brown eyes and hair to match took a deep breath and blew it out and up, fluffing her bangs.

"What? You thought all I did around here was fold blankets?"

"You’ve killed?"

"Sure," she looked down at a pebble near her hip and rolled it between her fingers. "A few times. But the first is always the hardest. Unfortunately, the first three times came all at once for me in a battle."

The bard still could not believe that the gentle woman before her was an amazon hero. "So you became a weaver because you didn’t want to kill anymore?"

"Yes and no. I wanted to be a warrior when I was younger. It is hard to grow up in any amazon village, whether it is a fishing village or a trading village or a warrior village, and not want to fight for the nation. I was no different. But after I had my taste of what that is like, I decided to do something a little less... fierce. Yet I still train everyday and would not hesitate to join my sisters in battle."

"I know that warriors are necessary. I understand that sometimes, killing is the only way...."

"Just not for you."


"There is nothing wrong with not wanting to take a life, Gabrielle. But death is a part of life. One can not exist without the other. You have worked hard to attain a skill to defend yourself for a reason. This is a brutal time we live in and there are those who would decapitate you as soon as look at you. Why should you feel bad about doing what you must to protect what you love?" Cassa leaned forward as she finished and reached for Gabrielle’s hand.

"Your hands are not stained with blood. And neither is your soul." The weaver looked into the bright green eyes of the bard. "Does this help you?" she asked.

Gabrielle wanted to be honest with this brave woman who so freely offered her words of support. "I don’t know. In a way, you are helping me, because I don’t feel so alone. But, I think I need time to think about what you’ve said."

Cassa told her she understood. The pair leisurely finished their meal then made their way back to the village. On the way, Cassa asked Gabrielle if there was anything she could do to help her. The bard replied that listening to her and sharing with her such insights as she had up until now were the best help for her. But Gabrielle also had to admit that between Voula and Cassa, she had gotten more than enough advice for her to digest for a few days, anyway.

As they entered the outskirts of the trading village, a group of amazon warriors turned their attentions toward the strolling pair. Seven women, armed to the teeth and trying, as amazons often do, to look menacing, stood to block Gabrielle’s way.

"Cassa, why don’t you head back to your hut, I hear someone wants to place an order for two dozen yellow blankets." The dirty blonde in the front had her arms on her hips and her chest in Gabrielle’s face as she spoke.

"Must be for that ex-warrior amazon village up north. I hear yellow is their favorite color," said an amazon with a dark green headband in the back.

"If you all are this bored, I can come up with some useful chores," said Cassa, her voice level. "Stavroula," she said to the one in her new friend’s path, "Don’t you have to finish crafting your new staff for the initiation?"

Gabrielle looked from face to face, unflinching. Stavroula, the obvious leader of this band of adult delinquents, didn’t answer or back down. Cassa motioned for Gabrielle to walk around Stavroula and follow her back to her hut. When the bard tried, the dirty blonde cut her off. "Cassa, I don’t think it is fair of you to keep this morsel all to yourself. We think you should share some of what this amazon queen has to offer. It isn’t everyday we get to taste royalty, you know." The leering warrior’s hand hovered near the bard’s lips.

"Stavroula, does General Athanasia know where you are?"

At this, Stavroula turned her gaze toward Cassa. "We were just having a little fun, weaver," she spat the last word as though it were a curse. "No harm done," she said to Gabrielle. "Perhaps we should wait until your face heals anyway, before we get to know each other. Isn’t that right, Queen Gabrielle." Stavroula grinned and moved her hand to the bard’s sore nose. Gabrielle reacted by bringing up her staff in a defensive position.

The amazons chuckled. The one in the back with the headband had been with Kiriaki’s party that found Gabrielle. "Don’t worry, Stavroula, she wouldn’t hurt you with that staff, it is only for show."

As Cassa and Gabrielle continued on the path, Stavroula called out, "Hurry up and get better, Gabrielle. We can’t wait to find out how much Xena has taught you." The loud cackles and wolf calls made the pair shake their heads.

"They act like the youths in my village whenever a young girl walked by."

"Did they upset you Gabrielle?"

"No. I guess if I wasn’t feeling so sensitive right now, I might even find if funny."

"Just be careful of Stavroula. She has had it in for me since I devoted myself to weaving. She tries to get back at me anyway she can. Nothing really serious, mostly challenges to fight."

Gabrielle wondered if everywhere she would ever go, people would be this competitive.

"Do you fight her?"

"I would if she could find something I would consider worth fighting for. But so far, she hasn’t and it sticks in her craw like bad falafel." Cassa smiled at the bard and put her hand on her shoulder as she walked her back to Voula’s.


Chapter 15

Xena struggled to regain her composure before Ares. She knew she was too close to Giannis’ camp to make too much of a commotion and she was not ready to announce her presence.

"What do you want now, Ares? You said no strings, remember?" Xena stood to her full height and watched Ares’ bemused expression for any hint of his intentions.

"No strings, Xena. We both know leather is more my style."

The warrior princess thought of asking the god what he had meant about saving Toris, but first she wanted to know the reason for his current appearance. "Get to the point or get lost."

The god of war smiled. "Fine. Just one question first. Did I ever tell you how sexy you sound right before you decimate an army? I mean, Xena, the power is thick in your voice. I can smell the blood on your breath."

"I guess I didn’t cook the rabbit enough."

The god’s dark brows wrinkled up in the middle and his lips twitched in mirth. "Always with a good comeback, Xena." He moved closer to her, touching bare skin on her arm seductively. "And now would be a great time for a real comeback. I don’t blame you for leaving the bard back in that village. She was getting way too uppity, if you ask me."

Ares used his sultriest voice as he circled the warrior princess, intent on bringing her to that semi hypnotized state he found so compelling. "Imagine thinking that you could ever be satisfied with one partner for any length of time."

He slid his hand around her waist to rest lightly on her stomach. "Even I would never presume to ask you to limit your...appetites."

"Ares," she said with a threatening growl as his teeth nipped her neck.

"You’re right, Xena. Now isn’t the time or the place. After all, your mother is right over there," he said, returning to his humorous tone. He then switched quickly to seriousness.

"That’s right. Your mother is locked in a cage like a trapped animal, or a common criminal. And your gal pal isn’t here to help you. Hmmmm."

"Ares," Xena interrupted. "Don’t you have any friends who might actually want to hear your little speeches?" She chuckled. "Wait, what am I saying?"

The leather-draped god ignored her. "Not that she’d be much help, though, in a situation like this. She’d be going on and on about how you shouldn’t become a monster, when a monster is the only thing it will take to get in there and save mommy dearest."

By now, Xena had forgotten all about Toris. She herself had been trying to figure out how she could break into the prison that held Cyrene and free her without alerting the soldiers in the camp. Once they spotted her, she would no doubt mortally wound the lot of them.

She didn’t have a single idea. A part of her wondered if that was because she didn’t want to find one. The warrior believed that deep within her a dark force craved the opportunity to crack some heads and engage in all out bloodshed. She was unlikely to come across a better excuse than the one now in her lap.

Ares waited and watched. He knew Xena was fighting her instincts, and was timing when to give her what she needed to push her over to the right side. His side.

"Yes, Xena. I know about that little promise you made. But if you remember, you only promised you would not become a ‘monster’ if something happened to Gabrielle, not your mother. And I promise you, the little blonde is alive and well. And quite popular at the moment."

Xena knew the god’s tricks. She also knew that, although he may sometimes speak in riddles or bend the truth, he didn’t flat out lie. He was taking something true and manipulating it to serve his purpose, which was to get her back, entice her to bloodlust, to re-ignite her wrath and glory in it’s unleashing.

This was the moment Xena’s destiny brought her to time and again. She had to choose a path. Images flashed before her. People she had loved, killed, saved, conquered, healed, destroyed, befriended, betrayed. She saw Gabrielle weeping at a campfire. Callisto swallowed by quicksand. Hercules balancing half a mountain on his shoulders. Cyrene huddled in a warlord’s cage.

She saw herself on a stallion with Borias in Chin and floating on love with Lao Ma. She felt herself give birth to Solon and plunge a hairpin into Ming T’ien’s temple. She heard herself whisper words of love to Gabrielle and seduce Caesar. And she felt her last embrace from Lyceus.

Xena smiled at Ares. Her beauty stunned him. Before she spoke, he knew what she would say.

"Thank you, Ares," she said in a voice so low and honeyed it made his mouth water. "Now get out of my way."




Xena’s warcry stopped time in Giannis’ camp. No hearts beat, no orders uttered, no spit was swallowed until she came out of a flip and landed on top of her mother’s pen. Then all Tartarus broke loose as soldiers armed themselves and scrambled for a position to attack, yelling out to comrades and asking commanders for instructions.

The sweat drenched warrior princess, fevered with conviction, took aim with her chakram and let it fly. The spinning orb glanced off a helmeted head and two trees before breaking the locks from both cages. In it’s final turn around the camp it sheared the tops off two swords held by the guards positioned at Giannis’ tent, before returning to the hand of its owner.

One lieutenant’s voice was heard above the rest, frantically ordering two men to retrieve the men on lookout for reinforcement. For a moment, there was a stand off. Xena looked down to see Cyrene staring up at her. "Don’t come out until I tell you to."

Giannis strode from his tent, a shaken man running behind trying to attach his leader’s weapons. Giannis turned to see where all his men were staring and locked eyes with one very angry warrior princess.

"Don’t just stand there, capture her."

"Not very likely, Giannis." At her height on top of the cage there was a bit of a breeze and what raven locks weren’t tied down with the headband blew across Xena’s face. Her eyes shot blue heat through the frayed strands.

The warlord grimaced and shouted for his men to attack. Xena somersaulted to land before the door to her mother’s prison. She removed her sword and prepared for the onslaught.

The men came at her three or four at a time. She slashed the first group with one long sweep of her blade. Two of the next came at her straight on, trying to gore her. She jumped up and out of their way long enough for their swords to go through the bars. When she came down her boots landed heavily on their arms and the resulting loud cracks were only partially muffled by the warriors cries of pain. With another warcry, her legs pushed off from the broken limbs and landed her behind the dazed warlord.

There were enough bodies piled before the door to Cyrene’s pen that Xena felt safe drawing the attention elsewhere for the moment, though she never stopped watching to make sure none of the soldiers attempted to put a knife to the older woman’s neck. Giannis spun around, removed both swords from his back, and pushed his awed dresser to the side.

"I don’t want to kill you, Xena."

"That’s good, ‘cause you’re not gonna."

The blows came fast and hard. Xena blocked each with even more speed and strength. The rest of the army was in a semicircle behind Giannis and on Xena’s side. The warlord mixed up his swings with kicks to the body, nearly landing a roundhouse kick to the ribs. Xena pulled back just in time and Giannis had to fight to keep his balance. His face was so red with exertion and frustration, that it nearly matched his shirt.

He backed up a few paces to catch his breath and ordered two of his men to go after her in his stead. One swung low while the other swung for her chest. Xena blocked the low blow with her sword and tried to catch the high one with her bracer. It worked, but her forearm caught the edge of the sword and suffered for it with a gash. Xena grabbed the blade with her hand and pulled it from the man’s grip. She swung it around over her head, landing the hilt in the soldier’s face.

She then flipped the long sword in her hand grasping the end with the soldier’s blood. "Come on Giannis. I kinda liked the way you use two swords. Now that I have two, let’s play."

Another soldier came at her from behind and she elbowed him in the neck without looking. "Hurry up and let’s get this over with Giannis."

More than a dozen of Giannis’ force of forty were still out on patrol. Now seven more were out of commission. He knew he had to get her now before the ranks became any thinner. Suddenly a voice came from behind.

"Xena, where is Gabrielle?"

Giannis and his men turned to see Draco wobbling outside his cage. His clothes were soiled and his normally impressive body slumped and looked drawn. "Get him back in his cage," he yelled, quickly returning his gaze to Xena, who was no longer there.


Chapter 16


Every tent, every bush, every horse and every corner of the camp was searched at Giannis’ command. One very brave, but very frightened group went off into the woods behind where their adversary had last stood.

Giannis strolled over to where Draco staggered held upright by a soldier on either side of him.

"Where did Xena go, Draco?" the warlord asked. He spoke to his former commander like he was a child.

With the wonder of a child, Draco smiled and cocked his head to the side. His eyes, dulled by the drug, still shone a mere spark of joy.

"She flew away. Up to the skyyyy," he answered, letting his skull dip back and his eyes follow her flight toward the sun. When he found the golden orb sending wave after wave of bone-crisping heat, he closed his eyes and continued. "It was amaaazzinggg."

"Lock him up."

"The locks are broken."

"Then place guards." Giannis turned to enter his tent but halted when he heard yelling and running from the woods on the opposite side of the compound. It was the lookouts returning to help fight the warrior princess. As they arrived in small groups, they toppled over gasping for air and sweating profusely.

"Get them water and send them out. Find the bard. Xena must have hidden her somewhere." He barked his orders to a lieutenant.

"What should we do with the wounded?"

Giannis pondered this. "I don’t care. Wait. Toss them in with the bitch’s mother. Let me know if anything entertaining comes of it."

Giannis’ slave boy was still on his ass where he’d been pushed by his master. Once the flap to the warlord’s tent closed, the angry warrior realized the boy was still outside and he called for him. The youth stood and dusted off his trousers. He felt something wet land on his head. He reached up a hand expecting to find bird droppings. Instead, his fingers appeared before his eyes slick with blood.

In the next instant, he struggled to take a breath as something snaked around his delicate neck. His hands reacted by clawing at the leather choking him and his feet flailed as his body was lifted swiftly from the ground.

Xena yanked the slave up into her hideout, her sweaty palms almost losing her hold on the whip. Once she had him in her grasp she loosened the makeshift noose and clasped a strong hand over his mouth.

"Do you want to be free, boy?"

He nodded as hard as he could while sucking in as much air as possible through his nostrils. Xena let go of his mouth and held him while his breathing returned to normal. While she waited, she watched the encampment from her perch in the tree that was giving shade to Giannis’ tent. The men were scampering, looking for Xena in all the wrong places.

The warrior woman looked at the youth in her arms. She asked him what Giannis’ interest in Gabrielle was. The slave answered in a whisper matching her own.

"He is in love with Draco. After Draco’s infatuation with that bard who travels with you came to Giannis’s attention, he went crazy. When he discovered that his change in personality was due to a spell cast by a god, he went to every temple to ask for his beloved to be released. They all refused him." The boy had to stop again to catch his breath. Xena shifted to get a good look at her mother’s cell. The injured warriors were in too much pain to be trouble... for now.

The boy continued. "He was able to find out alternatives to break the spell. If Draco kills for any reason but self-defense, or if the one he loves dies, he will return to his old self. Giannis wants to find the bard and kill her. Either that or he thinks he can make you ask the gods to free Draco’s heart. He says they listen to you."

"We’ll wait here until it’s dark. Then I’ll help you sneak out."

The boy nodded and found a comfortable branch to recline on, just as Giannis stormed out screaming for someone to find his slave.


Xena kept an eye on Cyrene’s cage. The men were mostly passed out from the pain and heat. Cyrene tended the wounded men as best she could. She ripped off strips of her filthy dress and covered the bleeding gashes. There were two guards in front of each cell. Most of the rest of the men were still out searching for herself and Gabrielle. Xena bandaged her arm with a sleeve of the slave’s shirt and considered her options. It was still a while before dark. If she waited until then, many of the men would return to camp. If she freed her mother now, she would be seen as soon as she dropped from the tree, but she had no doubt that she could easily take the soldiers who remained in the camp.

The soldier with the food lumbered over to the cages. He was about to ladle out a portion for the former warlord when Giannis emerged from his tent and ordered him to stop. The warlord looked around the encampment for any signs of his foe. He knew she was out there somewhere watching and waiting. It had taken a while and some hard thinking to devise a new plan to fetch her to him. But he had found one that fit into his goals quite nicely.

He excused the guards at Draco’s door and opened it. When he reached the former warlord’s body he dropped to one knee and cupped the dark skinned man’s chin and lifted. The chaos had postponed his feeding for half a day. He is just about in the state I need him in. He’s drugged and susceptible to my suggestions, yet aware enough to wield a knife.

"Draco, I’ll have you back the way I want you soon enough. I just need you to do one thing for me. You must trust me. It is what you would want."

The almost black eyes looked back at Giannis, comprehending his words but perhaps not their meaning. Giannis stood and reached a hand down to Draco. The warrior reached up and was pulled to his feet where he remained, although unsteadily.

"Get her out of there. Tie her to the trunk of that tree." He pointed to the big tree near his tent.

Xena and the slave boy both sat up and peered through the leaves surrounding their roost. The two guards entered the prison and pulled Cyrene from where she was soothing one of their injured comrades.

"I know you’re out there Xena. You wouldn’t leave the woman who gave you life to face my wrath alone." Suddenly it hit him where she must be hiding. His eyes scanned the trees for a leather-clad figure. "Look for her in the trees," he called out to the soldiers still in the camp.

Xena motioned the slave to stay quiet and reached for her sword. She watched as her mother was led to the trunk of the tree below her and she leaned back to avoid the eyes of the guards who tied the captive. Giannis walked over to the tree followed by Draco and two guards. He glanced upwards but didn’t spot her, or if he did, he said nothing.

He slid one of the daggers from its sheath on his chest, and wiped it on the red cloth of his shirt. With a ceremonial air, he handed it to Draco.

Cyrene looked everywhere for Xena. She knew she should be calm and trust that her daughter would not abandon her now, but after lack of food and the traumas she’d been through over the past few days, she had no strength to hold back the rising emotions. She was going to die, and if that wasn’t reason enough to panic, she didn’t know what was.

Xena saw the growing fear pulse out of her mother below her. She felt the increased anger grow with every beat of her mother’s heart, with every nervous glance and drop of sweat on her brow.

"Draco," Giannis began, "This woman is Xena’s mother. She conceived the woman who stole your beloved from you. You can take vengeance on the woman who looted Gabrielle’s passion away from you."

Draco held the knife uneasily. Xena had told him that Gabrielle could never love someone who killed. Now Giannis, his former friend and second in command was telling him that Xena betrayed him.

"Kill her," Giannis ordered.

Xena readied herself to jump.

Draco felt sick to his stomach. The constant pounding in his head was increasing. His head felt fuzzy but his thoughts were more concrete than they had been for months.

"Kill her, Draco and we can lead this army together, as we were meant to," the warlord shouted as he reached for Draco’s wrist."


Chapter 17


"Voula, why didn’t you mention Polixeni?"

The healer stopped scraping the soft towel over her wet hair and peered out from under it. The bard was chopping vegetables for their supper but obviously, her mind was elsewhere than on the task at hand.

"Did she stop by while I was bathing?"

"No. But I just thought that since I’d been telling you about my problems with Xena, that you might have brought up your problems with Polixeni. I was sort of wondering why you didn’t." Gabrielle continued to dice a carrot throughout.

"Oh." The healer wore a thin white shift that clung to her lithe body wherever she had missed a spot with the towel. Gabrielle was impressed with her physique, and hoped she looked as good when she reached her age.

"Well, Gabrielle. There isn’t too much to tell. Polixeni and I have been lovers for five years now. I love her. But sometimes love isn’t enough."

"But isn’t love the strongest thing there is? I think love can conquer anything." Gabrielle took a break from the carrot to smile at Voula.

The healer sighed and dropped the towel to form a wreath around her shoulders. "I used to think so too. It may very well work out between Polixeni and I as well. But there have been others I have loved, my friend. Sometimes....." The gray eyes looked far into the past. "Sometimes loving someone means you can’t be with them. Sometimes when you really love someone, you have to let them go."

Gabrielle moved on to a cucumber. The bowl for their salad was filling up nicely. She was beginning to get hungry. It wasn’t often she got to eat a fresh salad on the road. Most inns and taverns stuck to meat and ...well, meat.

She heard the sadness in Voula’s voice and wondered where exactly it came from. The story must be a painful one, and she berated herself for wanting so much to ask the healer to tell it.

When the bard glanced over at the healer, she was staring out the window from her seat at a simple table. She had her hands on her knees and her eyes on the clouds.

"Do you want to tell me about her?" Gabrielle asked.

Voula smiled softly. "I haven’t talked about her for years." She got up to fix herself a cup of water with lemon and mint and sat back down. "She was my first love." She chuckled. "My first real love. She loved me back, too. So hard I felt it squeeze my chest of all but my want and desire for her."

Gabrielle stopped chopping and pulled up a chair. "What happened?"

"We were young is what happened. And too, too ignorant to find a way. It just wasn’t meant to be." She looked at Gabrielle and saw that she wanted her to continue.

"We became lovers during my twentieth year and her thirtieth. She was an adopted amazon, a former slave who made her way to our village. I was born here, to the healer. No surprise there." She smiled and sipped her drink while Gabrielle chuckled. "She was stunning. Gorgeous thick red hair and a spirit so big it should’ve filled two women. Anyway, her former master had been cruel and try as she might she couldn’t let go of the pain. She carried it with her, hiding it beneath her warmth and generosity. Now I see that she needed to accept her anger and fear, and honor it without shame before she could let it go."

Voula leaned forward in her chair and rested her elbow on the table. Gabrielle felt tears forming in her eyes. She wanted to take Voula into her arms, despite the fact that the healer wasn’t the one on the verge of crying.

"I thought I could make her better. I just had to love her more. Say or do the right thing and all that suffering would be washed away. She believed it too, you know. It was mutual. She dove into my love like a fish into water. But eventually her anger bubbled up. She never hurt me physically, but I felt useless. Worse, I felt like I had failed her. And at the same time I resented her for not responding to my love by being whole."

"It wasn’t your fault," the bard said, her chest clenched in empathy.

"No. I know that now. And it wasn’t hers either. She thought she could ignore the hurt and damage that had been done to her. We both couldn’t understand that we couldn’t wish it away. That just leaving that horrible situation wouldn’t make her scars disappear."

Gabrielle was crying now, silently. Voula offered her a cloth from her pocket. "How many of those do you have?" asked the bard, laughing.

"Enough. They come in handy, don’t they."

Gabrielle blew her nose and took a deep breath. "So what happened?"

"She left the village. She didn’t want to hurt me anymore. She told me she couldn’t give me what I truly deserved. I argued with her, of course. At the time, she gave me exactly what I needed. I needed to feel needed. But she was right. I deserved more. And so did she. Together we weren’t capable of seeing what needed to be done. Separately...I don’t know what happened to her, but I learned. And I loved again."

"Love wasn’t enough," the bard whispered.

"No. It wasn’t enough to keep us together. But it was enough to show my beautiful one what she needed to do. She gave me the chance to find my happiness. She loved me enough to leave me."

"I don’t know what to say, Voula."

"There is nothing to say. Are you hungry?"

The bard nodded.

"Good, me too. I’ll finish this salad up and if you still want me to, I’ll tell you about Polixeni."



During the meal, Gabrielle learned that Polixeni was a merchant in the village and that she traveled back and forth from this amazon village to Ephiny’s. The two villages actually took turns making the trip. Gabrielle was surprised to learn that she knew nothing of the long-standing trade agreement. The hunting around Ephiny’s eastern village was much better than the local hunting so dried meats and tanned skins were traded for anything else there might be need of. Utensils, blankets, fresh produce, tools, ropes, and spices were just some of the items that passed between them.

Tasia’s village was located toward the center of a number of amazon villages and territories and therefore gained news and gossip from all of the participating villages. All of the best of everything amazon came through there on their way to somewhere else. Polixeni was a part of that, and she was gone for sometimes weeks at a time. The separations were beginning to bother Voula, but Polixeni loved her work and the travel that it included.

The healer and the merchant were in the middle of a separation to help them decide if they should try to work it out or just end their affair. It depended on Polixeni, said the healer, since the trader had yet to compromise at all. Voula had put up with the trips for long enough and was willing to try to see if cutting back to one trip every month would be feasible. Polixeni was considering it.

Gabrielle ate her salad and listened to Voula explain the problem. It surprised the bard that Voula seemed so calm about the whole thing.

"Voula, doesn’t it bother you that you are waiting for someone else to decide your fate? And how can you still be sleeping with her through all of this?"

Voula spit out a half-chewed radish. "Where in the known world did you get the idea that we were sleeping together?"

"Tasia said..."

"Figures, that little gossip would assume such a thing. She is just so hot and bothered about that general that she thinks everybody else in this village has to get laid every night."

This time it was Gabrielle who found herself spewing a cucumber slice onto the table.

"Sorry, Gabrielle. Don’t get me wrong, Tasia is a wonderful queen. Sometimes she doesn’t think with her head though, if you know what I mean."

"Uh huh."

Voula popped the radish back into her mouth and continued speaking while she chewed. "And Polixeni isn’t deciding our fate. I decided my part when I put on the table what I needed from her. Now it is up to her to decide if she can give it to me. If traveling is something she feels is more important than our relationship then I’ll accept that. I want her to be happy, too."

Gabrielle retrieved the cucumber that had rolled off the table and landed on the floor. She tossed it out the window and watched its path through the humid air. Voula watched it with her.

"You know," the healer said, breaking the silence. "I think we are due to have a visit from your village in the next few days."


Chapter 18


Cyrene screamed out her daughter’s name as Giannis pushed Draco’s hand toward her gut. Xena’s boot landed in the warlord’s face an instant afterward. The three of them were sent crashing to the ground, but Xena was the first one standing and her sword was pointed at Giannis’ throat.

"Xena. Thank the gods," Cyrene said. "I was starting to worry."

The warrior had her back to her mother so she answered in a hard voice without turning. "Me too."

Xena raised an eyebrow at Giannis. "Tell your pawns to get back or I’ll slice and dice my way outta here starting with your head."

"Get back."

The men stood still, staring at the warrior princess whose booted legs were on either side of their leader’s chest.

"I think they need convincing," Xena said pressing her sword tip into his flesh. "Perhaps a demonstration is in order..."

"Get back. Get back." the warlord screamed. This time the warriors complied.

Draco was slowly getting to his feet, his hand still held the dagger. "Xena, where’s Gabrielle?"

"She’s not here, Draco. But she’s safe."

"Is it true, what he said, Xena? Is Gabrielle yours?"

"I...Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, Draco," the warrior woman was uncomfortable talking about Gabrielle in front of a crowd. Especially a crowd of mercenaries... and her mother.

"Get off it, Xena. Everybody in Greece knows you and the little bard are more than friends."

She glared at Giannis. "If I kill you, do you think your army is going to stick around and attack me? Or do you think some other opportunist is going to take over and start causing mayhem in the region?"

Giannis went white with understanding. "But you’ve reformed. I saw it with my own eyes. Even though you were in love with Draco, or thought you were because of that spell, you refused to work with him and share in the profits from those virgins. You won’t kill me. You’ve gone virtuous."

"Ya think? Well, I guess compared to you anything looks pious. But after what you did to my brother, and my mother, and what you planned to do to Gabrielle, it’ll be a pleasure to drench the earth with your blood."

Xena raised her sword and Giannis tried to squirm out of her reach. Cyrene called out her daughter’s name as the blade swung down and nicked his ear. She knelt down, knees pressing into his chest.

"All right, so I exaggerated a little." She knocked him out with the hilt of her sword just as the smell of his emptied bowels reached her nose.

Murmurs bounced around the encampment. Dusk was already there, leaving precious time before nightfall. Xena turned to Cyrene and cut the ropes that bound her. The warrior looked up into the tree and sent a silent message to the slave boy to wait for her all clear before coming down.

"Are you all right, Mother?"

"Yes, Xena. Thank you. How is Toris?"

"Alive. Celeste is staying with him at the inn. She is taking good care of him."

Cyrene gasped. Xena turned to see what upset her. Draco had the dagger at the throat of the unconscious warlord.

"Draco, don’t do it." She was at his side in a wink, pulling his hand away from murder. In his weakened state, it was easy to do. The dark eyed man hung his head. "I remember what he did to me, Xena." The drug was wearing off, and he was shaking. "He drugged me and had me brought to his tent. Let me kill him."

"I can’t."

The men surrounding them were getting anxious. Their leader incapacitated, they didn’t know whether to attack Xena, stick around, or run for their lives. Xena was aware of the growing volume of their discussions. Some had already fled, taking with them any weapons, food, and supplies they could carry. Others were talking about forming a new army, one set on looting instead of revenge.

Xena searched for the wretched little man who had tormented Cyrene with the poisoned gruel. She found him in a group talking about capturing her for whatever bounty they could get. She led Draco to lean against the tree trunk, took the dagger from his hand, and gave it to Cyrene.

The warrior princess walked into the center of the camp and announced to them their choices. She placed her sword in its scabbard and told them they could stay and fight her and be killed. They could leave immediately and never return to Amphipolis. "Or you could plot against me...." she walked up to the gruel boy, looked him in the eye and continued past him, "And take your chances." With that, she put a foot on his ass as launched him into the campfire.

The soldiers laughed some nervously and some genuinely as the man rolled around screaming trying to put himself out. Xena smiled. One of the men called out, "Can we take what we want from Giannis’ tent?"

"Don’t push your luck."

The camp cleared out and Xena returned to the tree to find the slave coming out of the tent with water skins for them.

"What’s your name, anyway?" she asked him.

"My name is Iolaus."

"I have a good friend named Iolaus. Now I have two."




Xena and Iolaus spent the rest of the daylight fixing up a wagon to transport the group back to Amphipolis. Before leaving, Xena checked on the injured men. Three were dead and the two with broken arms were patched up and tossed onto horses.

There wasn’t much of a road leading out of the camp but there was a path, which had been used to get them in, and wagons on which the army had carried the dissembled cages while on route. Giannis was tied, gagged, and placed toward the front of the wagon just behind Xena. Draco and Iolaus sat in back and Cyrene sat up front with her daughter.

They left when it was already dark, Xena anxious to get back to Argo. Once they were well on the road, the foursome ate what they had collected from around the camp.

"Xena, how can you see where to go?"

"I don’t know, Mother, I just go by instinct."

There was a short silence, as Xena wiped her brow. It was then she realized that at some point she had lost her headband.

"Looking for this?" Cyrene held up the still soggy article.

"Yeah." Xena took it and shoved it into her cleavage.

"We can talk about that later," her mother teased, having figured out the type and size of garment it had once been when she stretched it out when Xena wasn’t looking.

Her tone grew more serious when she continued. "But, there is something I’d like to talk about now."

Xena’s nod was barely visible in the twilight. "You almost killed that man, Xena. I’m not saying that I wouldn’t understand if you did. After what I saw them do to Toris, I wanted to myself, for a moment. I just want to know why you didn’t."

"I had already decided that I wasn’t going to, unless I had to. I think I finally realized that I will never change what happened in the past or the things I did. I will be making up for them for the rest of my life."

Xena paused to choose her words. She knew how she felt inside, but this would be the first time she would have to explain it to someone else. "But, I think I am starting to understand about what I am responsible for now. That I have a choice that I must make." She smiled into the darkness. "I make the choice," she said again mostly to herself. "Every time I get to make another choice to do what I know to be right, I get to start fresh in a way. I can choose who I am today. I can’t forget the past and in some ways, it formed who I am. But I don’t have to be that person anymore."

"Did Gabrielle have something to do with this?" Cyrene liked the young woman who was her daughter’s companion, and liked the influence she had on her.

"Of course she did. She’s been telling me that all along. But I needed to go it alone and prove to myself that I didn’t need her with me, to remind me, to choose for me. That is how I came to understand." Seven days had passed since they had parted in Petros’s village. She couldn’t wait to get back to Gabrielle and tell her how this new understanding would benefit them both.

Xena looked at Cyrene and gave her a crooked smile. "Plus I had a little help from Celeste. And some from Ares, too. Though I don’t think it was the result he wanted."

As the wagon turned on to the road, Xena whistled for Argo and listened for the mare’s answering neigh.

Continued...Part 3

Return to The Bard's Corner


Xena paused to choose her words. She knew how she felt inside, but this would be the first time she would have to explain it to someone else. "But, I think I am starting to understand about what I am responsible for now. That I have a choice that I must make." She smiled into the darkness. "I make the choice," she said again mostly to herself. "Every time I get to make another choice to do what I know to be right, I get to start fresh in a way. I can choose who I am today. I can’t forget the past and in some ways, it formed who I am. But I don’t have to be that person anymore."

"Did Gabrielle have something to do with this?" Cyrene liked the young woman who was her daughter’s companion, and liked the influence she had on her.

"Of course she did. She’s been telling me that all along. But I needed to go it alone and prove to myself that I didn’t need her with me, to remind me, to choose for me. That is how I came to understand." Seven days had passed since they had parted in Petros’s village. She couldn’t wait to get back to Gabrielle and tell her how this new understanding would benefit them both.

Xena looked at Cyrene and gave her a crooked smile. "Plus I had a little help from Celeste. And some from Ares, too. Though I don’t think it was the result he wanted."

As the wagon turned on to the road, Xena whistled for Argo and listened for the mare’s answering neigh.

Continued...Part 3

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