If Wishes Were Horses

Part 1: Revelations

By Heather
seizeher@bellatlantic.net

 

Chapter 1

"This is horrible," Gabrielle grouched, stepping around yet another mud puddle. "Doesn’t this bother you at all?" Water dripped off the end of the bard’s nose, and she stared at it, cross-eyed.

Xena gave her companion an amused glance from atop Argo. Her own leathers were soaked through and so swollen she felt like she was wearing sausage casing. She’d have to get Gabrielle to help peel the stuff off of her when they finally stopped for the night. And on top of everything else, the temperature was rapidly dropping. The cloaks that they both wore provided absolutely no protection sopping wet.

But, hey. Why complain? Gabrielle was doing enough of that for both of them.

"Hello? Xena? Are you in there?" The bard whacked Xena on the leg with her staff. Xena raised an eyebrow.

"What was that for?"

"You haven’t been listening to me at all, have you?"

"I have. We’d get out of the rain quicker if you’d get up on Argo, you know. Then you’d be warm and dry in an hour instead of three." She reached down and offered her hand to Gabrielle for the fourth time that day. "We need to get to the village before sundown. It’s going to get a lot colder."

"I hate riding," was her token protest before Xena pulled onto Argo’s back. She wrapped her arms tightly around the warrior’s waist, pleased to note that Xena acted as a windbreak. And she was warm, even if she was wet and on a horse.

"So, where are we going again?" Gabrielle asked as Xena urged Argo into a gallop.

"Small town called Ephadon. It’s on the coast. There’s an inn—we’re going to spend a few days there while I look for Autolycus." She felt the bard look up in surprise.

"A real bed? Hot food? Who cares about Autolycus?"

Xena snorted. "You do, remember? This was your idea."

"Oh. Right. We’re supposed to stop him from stealing King What's-his-face’s diamond. Cursed or something."

The warrior chuckled. "My. Your bardly talents go flying out the window when you’re cold and wet, don’t they?"

Gabrielle grunted in response.

"Did I mention one of Greece’s largest markets is in Ephadon? If I recall, you’ve saved up quite a few dinars…."

"What in Tartarus are we waiting for, Xena? Can’t Argo go any faster?"

Chapter 2

Ephadon was a bustling seaport with a huge marketplace that sold items from all over the known world. Gabrielle squirmed in delight as they passed the stalls full of exotic fabrics, oils, and spices on their way to the inn. The smell of people, livestock, and fish was overwhelming.

"Oooh, I see something I want already."

"Patience, Gabrielle," Xena sighed, secretly delighting in the bard’s excitement. The market was why she’d chosen this town over any of the others. Where there were people in great quantities, there were thieves; out of all the towns in the kingdom, Ephadon would be the likeliest place for Autolycus to pop up. If it made Gabrielle happy in the bargain-- well, that was a plus. "Let’s go have a bath and eat first. Give the rain a chance to stop."

Xena put Argo in the stables while Gabrielle procured a room for them. By the time the warrior had rubbed Argo down and gotten upstairs, Gabrielle was already up to her chin in a hot bath.

Xena shut the door behind her and locked it. Eyes closed in ecstasy, the bard said, "Took you long enough. There’s enough room for both of us. If I can ever move again, I’ll wash your hair."

Xena sat on a chair and began the tedious task of removing her armor and leathers, correctly assuming Gabrielle would lend no assistance. After a full half candlemark of struggling she stood triumphantly naked. "Ha, you cannot defeat Xena, Warrior Princess," she muttered, looking at the deep indentations on her hips and chest left by the wet leather.

Gabrielle, who had been watching her struggle with some interest, burst into laughter. Xena put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. With a slow, slightly evil grin, she regarded the bathtub.

Gabrielle saw the smile and her eyes got wide. "Xena, you wouldn’t."

I wouldn’t, huh? Xena thought. Yeah, right.

The warrior leapt into the tub, full force. A tidal wave of soapy water crashed over Gabrielle's head.

Choking and sputtering, Gabrielle regarded the woman sitting at the other end of the tub, debating revenge. Deciding that it probably wouldn’t be worth it, she rose to her knees and started to wash Xena’s hair with lavender soap.

Xena wondered when exactly the intimidating warrior routine had been dropped between them and this familiarity had taken its place. Gabrielle was kneeling between Xena’s legs with her breasts in Xena’s face; the shyness had disappeared between them and they acted more like sisters than friends. She really liked that. It had been a long time since she’d had a friend, and she’d never had a sister.

"You know, you have really nice breasts," Xena said conversationally, watching them bob up and down in front of her.

"Thanks." She pause in the process of rinsing Xena’s hair to look down at herself. "I never really think about that, you know. Since Perdicus, I haven’t really met anyone I wanted to show them to. And he never said if they were, you know…nice."

Xena laughed a little. "Well, I’ve seen quite a few breasts, and yours are among the nicest I’ve seen." She was surprised at how much she meant those words.

Gabrielle giggled. "At the moment, I guess that’s all you’re seeing, huh?" Her task completed, she sat back down. Xena took the soap from her and began to return the favor, lathering the red-gold hair and presenting the same view to the bard as the bard had presented to her a few minutes earlier. "You know, and it’s not that I have the basis for comparison, but yours aren’t half bad either. But they’re probably deadly, like the rest of you."

"Yeah. Men have died for these." Xena deadpanned. At Gabrielle’s startled look, Xena chuckled. "I’m not telling you that story, either. You wouldn’t be able to keep it to yourself."

They finished washing and got out of the tub. Xena’s leathers were still wet, so she elected to dress in a tunic and breeches in deference to the chill, rainy weather. As she strapped on a wrist dagger, she regarded Gabrielle’s choice of attire, and nodded her head in approval. The bard handed Xena her boot daggers.

"This is okay, then?"

Xena looked up from securing her chakram to her belt, wondering why Gabrielle needed her approval at all. "Due to the weather, I’d say it’s called for." The bard was wearing forest green breeches and a lighter green tunic, with the thick, long cape Xena had given her last solstice.

"That color looks really nice on you. You should wear it more often." Gabrielle inspected the midnight blue tunic and breeches critically, brushing away a piece of lint.

"Yeah. But armor and leather is safer." Xena settled her own cloak about her shoulders and drew it about her, effectively concealing her weapons and everything else to the tops of her calf high boots.

They went downstairs and ordered two large bowls of lamb stew, a boule of crusty bread, and pastries. Gabrielle fell into hers with abandon, for once too busy to talk.

After a few minutes, Xena looked up from her bowl to see Gabrielle lavisciously eyeing the last bit of bread, but not making any moves to snatch it. With a sigh she handed it to her and was rewarded with a brilliant smile.

After all the food was consumed, they braved the brisk air so that Gabrielle could do her shopping. The rain had stopped and the descending sun was meekly showing between the clouds. Xena allowed herself to be pulled from one end of the market to the other and even tried on some silly hats for the bard at a hat maker's stall. She even managed to strike a secret deal with a weapons maker while Gabrielle was dickering for a length of wool two merchants down.

It seemed that everyone knew who she was even without the armor, and while some eyed her suspiciously, most were friendly and open. Gabrielle kept up a constant stream of chatter as Xena carried all of her packages. "Let’s see…a new pair of boots for you, a pair for me, wool to make winter clothes, linen for new shifts, a frying pan, dried fruit, a saddle blanket for Argo, a hatchet for making temporary shelters when it snows, ribbons for my hair, parchment, quills, sharpening stone…." A pause. "Are you going to buy anything?"

"Why? You’re buying it all for me." Xena winced at the look Gabrielle threw her. "Oh, okay. I’ll get some stuff later."

"Buy something frivolous, would you? Not everything has to be functional."

"Gabrielle," Xena said plaintively, "Where are we going to put all this? Argo will never be able to carry it all. She’s not a packhorse."

"Don’t worry, Xena. You do the fighting, I do all the other stuff."

That made Xena feel useful. "Which reminds me…while you do your bard thing tonight, I’m going to see if I can find the King of Thieves. I want you to keep your staff close by. I don’t think there’ll be any trouble, but it never hurts to be prepared."

Gabrielle nodded solemnly. On this one thing, she never argued, knowing that Xena was right. She also knew that Xena was acutely uncomfortable with being the subject of her stories, so she didn’t protest the warrior’s desire to be elsewhere.

Time to change the subject. Things are getting too serious, and I want her to have fun tonight. "The market is open at night, too," Xena continued, pointing at the poles stuck firmly in the ground at regular intervals, each with a circular metal piece on the top. "Those are torches, and the metal piece keeps the wind from blowing out the flame. There’s another market in Athens that has the same thing."

"I’d like to see that," Gabrielle said wistfully.

"Athens isn’t too far from here. Maybe after we finish this, we’ll take a little vacation." Xena didn’t miss the sparkle in Gabrielle’s eyes. "Maybe you ought to save some of your dinars for that."

"I’ve still got plenty. I’m a thrifty bargainer."

The warrior glanced at her companion warmly. "I think you could talk Ares out of his sword, Gabrielle."

Something else had snagged the bard’s attention, and she commented absently, "The only reason I would want the gods-be-damned thing is so I could smack him over the head with it."

Xena laughed at the mental picture that produced. "I’m going to take this stuff back to our room. Will you be okay if I leave you alone for a while?"

Gabrielle gave her an exasperated look and shook her staff at the warrior. "I can fight anyone off long enough for you to come save the day. Don’t worry."

"Just stay alert."

"I will," she said, already heading off towards a scroll dealer.

Xena shook her head and headed back towards the inn. An idea was forming, but she’d need to be free of Gabrielle for a little while to carry it out.

Xena dropped the packages off at the inn and went to do a little shopping of her own.

Chapter 3

The horse dealer at the other end of town did fine business. Horses were expensive to transport on a ship, and there was no guarantee they’d survive the voyage. People leaving port sold their horses to him, people coming in bought them from him. It was a prosperous little cycle.

He spotted Xena almost immediately—even without the armor, she was hard to miss. "Xena?" he questioned tentatively, running nervous fingers through his dark, greasy hair.

The warrior eyed the squat man that smelled like centaur poop. "Milios. The last time I saw you, you'd made off with a fourth of my army’s horses."

"Yeah, well…I’m trying to do business straight and honest now, I vow. Are you going to kill me?" he asked apprehensively.

Xena laughed and Milios jumped about a foot in the air at the sudden sound. " Milios, you’re not the only one trying to be good. That was a long time ago. I’ve changed."

Milios looked at her wonderingly, amazed how her smile had transformed her face. Gone was the warlord he remembered; this woman was still dangerous, but more even-tempered. "Yes. You have changed."

"I need a favor, Milios. I think you’re just the man to give me a hand."

"I’ll do what I can. What are you looking for?"

"I need a mare that’s a gentle ride and good natured, but one I can also train for battle. She can’t be skittish."

Milios ran a coarse hand over his stubbled chin. He thought of the magnificent beast that Xena had been riding on the last time he saw her. "Who’s going to ride her? Surely not you."

Xena quirked an eyebrow. "Hardly. It’s for my friend. She doesn’t like horses, so basically I need a miracle on hooves."

"Mmmm." Milios pondered the problem, scanning the pens. "I got one in this morning. The man that sold her to me said it had been his sister’s mount, but the mare was too spirited for the girl." He led Xena over to a pen towards the back of the lot. "I put her back here because I haven’t had a chance to look at her good. Why don’t you see what you think while I go see what these people want?" He motioned towards a family standing behind him, looking lost.

Xena nodded. She clucked to the mare, whose ears perked at the sound. She stopped cropping grass and tentatively moved forward. About six feet from Xena, she halted and

tilted her head in an inquisitive gesture. Xena grinned. She’d seen dogs do that, but never a horse. And it was good that the horse was friendly, but cautious.

Slowly the warrior slid between the railing and into the pen, keeping eye contact with the horse. She slowly walked around the mare and the mare followed. She was a pretty thing, sturdy, yet with fine bones and a smooth gait. Kinda like Gabrielle, Xena thought with a grin. Wouldn’t she love that analogy? Her coat was white with gray spots and her mane and tail were white. Xena stopped when she noticed the healing lashes on the mare’s back. I’d be spirited, too, if someone treated me like that.

The mare, meanwhile, was testing the air. She snorted decisively and then walked over and butted Xena in the chest with her head. Xena laughed, charmed by the horse’s actions and deciding that the bard and the horse were similar in personality if nothing else. Now that the horse had decided that she was friend and not foe, Xena ran her hands over the mare, checking for deficiencies. She got an annoyed look, but was allowed to procede with the examination.

"Did that nasty lady hit you, girl?" The horse nodded, or at least it looked like she did. She looked at Xena with large sad eyes. "I have a friend that needs a horse, but she’s afraid. That means you’d have to be a very special horse to my friend. Can you protect her?" The horse gave Xena a look and rose up, flailing her hooves in the air.

"I’ll be damned." Xena said faintly. The horse settled back down and gazed benignly at the warrior, as if to say "is that all"? Xena shook her head, baffled. Was this an enchanted horse?

Suddenly she remembered how the eastern tribes trained their horses with specific words and wondered if that was the case here. That would mean the person that trained the horse would have to have done it in Greek. "Defend," she said, looking at the horse. The horse looked back, expressionless. "Protect?"

The horse rose up and pawed at the air again. "Ahhhhh. I see." That explains one thing, at least, Xena thought. She patted the mare absently. So far so good. She tried to remember the other commands.

"I need to ride you, girl. Will you let me mount?" The horse knelt silently to allow her to get on. So "mount" is another key word, Xena mused. She climbed on and the horse stayed there. "Um, rise." The horse rose.

She stood still beneath Xena, not obeying body signals at all. "Go…forward…oh, damn it, how am I supposed to ride…."

The horse started at a walk and then obeyed Xena’s body signals to go from a trot to a canter to a full out gallop. She went through all the words again until she was confident that the horse was indeed well trained. She found that the mare had a rhythm similar to Argo’s, and that her movements were very fluid. She was perfect for Gabrielle.

She paid the stunned Milios twice what he thought the horse was worth and told him to bring the mare to the stables at the inn before dark. "And if you don’t deliver, Milios," she warned needlessly, "I might suddenly remember how upset I am with your betrayal." Milios threw in tack and new shoes.

Satisfied with her find, she went back to the weapons maker and picked up the new staff she’d gotten for the bard. It was a little heavier than Gabrielle’s present staff, but was carved on both ends with birds and flowers. Obviously made for a woman’s hand, the weapons master had old her he bought it from a tribe of Amazons to the north. She also bought new armor and a fine chain mail shirt to wear beneath it. She took those back to the inn as well, then went hunting for Gabrielle.

She found the bard at a spicemonger’s stall, and noticed that she’d accumulated several more packages. She spotted Xena and handed her the packages, ignoring the pitiful look the warrior shot at her. Xena stood quietly listening to Gabrielle argue with the merchant over the price of some medicinal herbs. When the bard finished, they went and got meat pies from a vendor, and found someplace quiet to sit.

Between bites, Gabrielle said, "We got here too late. I found out that Autolycus is in jail. Over there," She nodded her head toward an imposing stone structure at one end of the market square. "They found him, but they didn’t find the diamond. Because he was in the area when the theft occurred, they assume it was him even without evidence."

Xena thought for a moment. "You’d think after the mess that Hercules helped him out of—with that ruby, I think it was—he’d know better than to mess with stones that have rumored curses."

"Yeah, you’d think."

"I wonder why he’s still there. He can get out of just about anything." Xena popped the rest of the meat pie in her mouth, ignoring the wistful look Gabrielle was giving it. "While you tell stories at the inn tonight, I’ll go see him. After I get back, you and I will go eat dinner."

"Go eat dinner? We’ll be eating at the inn, right?"

Xena gave her a little smile. "Nah. There’s a place near the docks that has really good fish. They put flour on it and sear it in a hot pan, then cover it with some kinda sauce. I bet you’ll love it."

"I bet you’re right."

"Can we head back now? I’d like to see what you’ve bought and try to figure out where to put all of it."

Chapter 4

Before they could make it upstairs, the locals were already asking for the bard. Xena volunteered to take Gabrielle’s packages upstairs for her, letting her know that she’d go see Autolycus now instead of later. The bard nodded and mouthed "be careful" as she was being led to a makeshift stage by the excited customers. Good bards were rare, and Gabrielle was known to be one of the best.

It was almost dark by the time Xena went out the back door of the inn. She’d donned the chain shirt before leaving as a precaution; the armor would be too noticeable, even under the cloak. On her way to the jail, she bought a basket of bread and a skin of wine.

Pulling the hood of her cloak over her head, she approached the guard. "I’m here to give succor to the prisoners," she said in her sweetest voice. Ick, she thought, I sound like Diana. "I’m a priestess from the Temple of Athena," she supplied when she noticed the guard hesitate.

"Well…there’s only one prisoner, and he’s to die in a fortnight. I suppose that’ll be okay. He’s a likeable fellow. It’s a shame." The guard continued to babble as he unlocked the cell.

If he were guarding my prisoner, Xena thought, I would kill him for being so talkative.

Xena could see Autolycus in the corner, thoroughly chained to a small chair. Moving closer, as if she were hesitant, she peered at the thief in the dim light thrown by the torches. She was startled by the look in his eyes. Autolycus had given up.

She imperiously waved her hand at the guard. "You may leave. I wish to counsel the prisoner before his execution."

"But…"

"Young man, what can he do to me? He can’t move. He’s trussed like a solstice goose."

The guard obediently locked the cell and moved back into the hallway to give them privacy. He could see them, but couldn’t hear them.

Autolycus had looked up at the sound of Xena’s voice. As she knelt in front of him, he recognized her. "Xena," he whispered, almost pleadingly. "Leave now. You can’t help me."

She was looking at the chains. "Why are you still chained, Autolycus? You can easily get out of these. What in Hades is going on?" She removed the bread from the basket and started feeding him chunks of it. "And why do I have a feeling that I’m not going to like this at all?"

Autolycus rolled his eyes. Might as well. She’s too persistent to leave without an explanation. "Xena…I fell in love with the most beautiful woman in Greece. I married her, and was going to retire." He looked at her, expecting to see disbelief.

Xena gestured for him to continue. Love could change people, she was living proof of that, and Autolycus had never been a bad person. She’s always suspected that he’d been a thief because it was something he was very good at, not because he had really enjoyed it. And once he’d had a reason to give it up….

"Thought maybe I’d try my hand at being a merchant. All those connections I made…" He shook his head. "We built a little cottage outside of Thermopolae. One day, this messenger rides up and asks if I’d do a job for him. That he needed the best…"

"…And you said no," Xena supplied. Autolycus nodded.

"I went into the village for the day, wanted to by some things for Ilyria—it was her birthday. I come back and she’s gone. There’s a note that says if I wanted her to live to meet the guy here. So I came here, met with the man. His thugs held a knife to her throat…Ilyria was so brave, she told me not to do it, not to give in."

"The diamond in exchange for her life." She gave him a sip from the wineskin.

"The diamond and my life in exchange for her life, Xena." He sighed. "I was supposed to let myself get caught and confess to the crime. He said he’d let her go free."

"But he won’t. She’s a witness now."

"It was a chance worth taking." He gave Xena a pleading look, begging her with his eyes to understand.

She did, but she wasn’t going to just let it go. "Autolycus, do you trust me?"

He looked startled by the question. "I hadn’t given it much thought, but yeah, I guess so."

"I have a debt to repay." Xena said. She touched his cheek when she saw the hope light up his face. "You gave me my life back, remember?"

Autolycus was strangely moved by the gesture, and rested his face against her hand for a moment in response.

"Sit tight," she said, then winced at her choice of words. Autolycus chuckled. "I’ll get her back. Give me some details."

"She was blazing red hair…like Gabby’s but darker. Blue eyes, very pale skin. Like she’s carved out of marble. The last time I saw them, after I gave him the diamond, they were riding north away from here. Forty men on horseback, armed to the teeth. Apparently going to meet up with others. The guy in charge is taller than you, long black hair, scar on his face. Has a ponytail on the top. Talks with an odd accent." He became aware of Xena’s intense stare. "Ring a bell?"

"Maybe, but highly unlikely. Did you hear his name?" Can’t be. I watched him die. There are plenty of men with dark hair and scars.

Autolycus shook his head. "But he did ask about you—if I knew you. Told him I’d met you once or twice, nothing more. I didn’t say anything else. Thought it would be more prudent."

"You’re right. I’m going to get your wife back, friend. If you haven’t heard from me by the day before the execution, escape. Be confident that I’ll get her back. Don’t go to your death and leave her all alone. I mean it."

Autolycus nodded. "I don’t think you’ll have problems with the curse, Xena."

She lifted an eyebrow. "Why is that?"

"Because it won’t effect those that are pure of heart. And you are, you know. No matter how battered your soul is, you’ve got a heart of gold. I can see it."

Chapter 5

Xena left Autolycus and wandered for a while, lost in thought. The market was still open, the torches were lit; she wandered from stall to stall in a daze. She needed to save Autolycus’ life and that of his wife. That was her priority, regardless of who was heading that army.

She stopped at a stall selling gowns, thinking it might be nice to actually have something pretty to wear should she need it. After all, she thought, I am a woman. I just happen to be one with superb fighting skills.

Her hand stroked a silver-gray silk gown, accented with silver thread and tiny pearls. She was startled out of her reverie by a hand on her arm. She pivoted to strike, and caught herself just in time.

Her opponent was maybe five feet tall and looked to be older than Zeus. She chuckled at Xena’s reaction.

"Come now, Warrior Princess, I have something that would suit you better." She produced a shimmering gown of pale blue, without ornamentation. It was a rare color, Xena knew, hard to produce.

"How much?"

"Nothing." The old woman said simply. She motioned to the back of the stall, where there was a small girl sleeping on a pile of fabric. "Pure barter. You gave me my granddaughter at Karanos, I give you this gown as a thank you. It hardly compares, but it is all I have." The woman stared at Xena, boldly daring her to refuse.

Xena was touched. She remembered the girl. Slavers had taken the village of Karanos, Xena and Gabrielle had beaten the slavers within an inch of their lives. She’s placed the little girl in her grandmother’s arms herself. Before she could say anything, she found another bundle in her arms.

"That’s for the little bard you travel with. Melyssa told me to make it for her when we saw her earlier in the market. She told the little one stories, and she never forgets a thing."

"Thank you." Xena said, giving the woman a quick hug. Startled, the woman almost forgot to squeeze back. "I’ll tell Gabrielle about her. I’m sure she’d like to see her before we leave tomorrow."

Xena looked over the woman’s goods and chose some beads for Gabrielle and some ribbons for herself. She paid the woman for those despite her protests.

Satisfied, she purchased saddlebags for the bard’s new horse, along with a saddle blanket and brush.

She checked in the stables before going into the inn. Sure enough, the horse was there, contentedly full of oats. She’d been brushed until she shone, her hooves had been oiled, and the saddle they’d left for her was quite fine. She added the packages to the pile at the back of her stall. The horse butted her playfully and snorted, then leaned over and butted Argo. Argo nickered, apparently quite happy to find a friend. "Well, that’s worked out. Now I just have to figure out what to do with all the stuff we bought here, and where to go first."

Her stomach growled. She’d managed to convince the guard that just arm and leg shackles would do for Autolycus, and left the bread and wine there with him since he was able to feed himself. Declining Autolycus’ offer to join him in finishing off the food, she’d given the young guard enough money to ensure that his prisoner would be fairly well fed. Now she was hungry again, and the moon hadn’t even been up for two candlemarks. She patted her stomach. I think I’m picking up Gabrielle’s habits. Thank the gods I’m as active as I am, or I’d be as big as Salmoneus.

She walked into the inn, not at all surprised to see Gabrielle collecting the copious amounts of denarii that had been thrown at her feet after her stories. Port cities were busier, and this was one of the nicer inns in the area.

As if she could sense Xena’s presence, Gabrielle looked up with a relieved expression. Adding the rest of the coin to her money pouch, she hurried to the warrior’s side.

Together they walked to the small restaurant by the dock, Gabrielle relating the details of her night to the warrior princess. "You really need to tell me the story about your deadly breasts, Xena. I could get twice as much denarii for that."

Xena snorted. "Dream on, bard. Some stories are never meant to be told. Besides, then you’d be known as the Bard of Raunch, or some such thing."

"Hey, everyone needs a title." She paused a second. " What did you find out?"

"Later. I don’t want to be overheard." The warrior inclined her head toward several scruffy looking individuals leaning on the bar, eyeing the two women with interest.

Gabrielle sighed. "I hope they don’t make trouble. This has been such a pleasant experience so far…."

"They don’t look like they’re interested in intercepting us. Just watching."

The fish was as good as Xena said, and Gabrielle inhaled two portions in the time it took Xena to eat half of hers. When the server sat two cold mugs of ale and a basket on the table, Xena immediately slid the basket to Gabrielle. "Here."

"What, oh I couldn’t…by the gods, Xena, it’s nutbread, I love…mumphhh." She stuffed a huge piece in her mouth and chewed it with palatable joy. The ecstasy on her face made Xena laugh. "Thammnk nyouf."

"You’re welcome, Gabrielle." She leaned forward. "I have some things for you at the inn, stuff I bought while you were doing your shopping."

Gabrielle looked at her wide-eyed, still chewing the bread. Speechless, she thought, when have I ever been speechless?

Okay, this was awkward. "I wanted to get you some gifts, since you always…I mean…oh, damn, because you’re my best friend and I love you." The rest came out in a jumbled rush and Xena cringed, expecting Gabrielle to laugh.

Gabrielle stared at Xena, who was hiding her face in her hands. She looks like she expects to be struck. It occurred to Gabrielle that Xena was always doing nice things for her, but that having to actually state that she had done something nice and why was probably uncharted territory for the warrior. She was probably expecting a rejection of some sort.

Gabrielle reached her hand out to touch Xena and was rewarded when Xena raised her head to look at her. "Xena, hearing you say that is the best gift you could ever give me. I love you, too." She touched the warrior princess’ cheek lightly, watching the emotions flicker in those incredible eyes. "You do so many little things for me all the time, but I never tell you thank you."

"You don’t have to, Gabrielle," Xena said slowly. "You being with me is thanks enough." She was amazed by the bard’s reaction, the tears swimming in her green eyes, the radiant smile.

Gabrielle grabbed her hand and pulled. "Let’s go. I want to see what you bought me," she said, hoping to diffuse the awkwardness and save the conversation until they were alone.

Xena allowed herself to be dragged, hoping Gabrielle didn’t notice the big, goofy grin plastered on her face.

Chapter 6

"What are we doing in here?" Gabrielle eyed the stables skeptically.

Xena sighed. She hoped that Gabrielle’s reaction would be a favorable one, but she wouldn’t be surprised if the bard got upset. She did really hate horses.

"Close your eyes, Gabrielle." Gabrielle obeyed. Rustling followed. She heard Xena sigh again, then "You can open them."

Horse and bard stared at each other from an arms' span length. Oh, Gods. Gabrielle thought. Is this a joke? She glanced out the corner of her eye at Xena, who was watching them both intently.

The horse seemed to sense the woman’s reluctance and decided that she would have to make the first move if she wanted to be rubbed. She trusted the dark woman, and the dark woman trusted this human. Slowly, the mare stepped forward until she and Gabrielle were almost eye to eye, then laid her head on the bard’s shoulder. Gabrielle’s eyes widened. The horse stayed perfectly still.

Xena felt hopeful. Gabrielle hadn’t run screaming yet, and it seemed the horse was using her charm on the bard.

After the initial burst of panic, Gabrielle was awed. A horse? For me? She’s so pretty. And she’s sweet, too. I think she may even like me. Which is good, because most horses hate me. She tentatively wrapped her arms around the horse’s slender neck. The horse moved a little closer.

Gabrielle turned wondering eyes and a gentle smile to Xena. "Is she mine?" She could have laughed at the relieved look on Xena’s face, but she was almost afraid to move.

"Yep. I thought maybe if you had a horse of your own, you might start to enjoy riding a little." She stroked the horse’s back as she talked. "She’s got quite a personality, and she’s been trained to voice commands."

She showed Gabrielle the various commands the horse knew. "I’m sure there’s more, but I don’t know what they are."

Gabrielle peered down at her from atop the mare. "I think I need to improve my riding form, especially for when she rears up." She squirmed a little. "I’ve never sat on a horse barebacked before."

Xena looked up at her. "Gabrielle, I don’t want you to feel like you have to ride. I just thought that with the right horse, maybe you’d enjoy it a little…"

"Xena," the bard said, halting the warrior in mid-sentence. "I think you’re right. I love my horse. What should we call her, or does she already have a name?"

Just like that, huh? Xena searched Gabrielle’s face for a moment. "If she does, I don’t know what it is. You name her."

Gabrielle slid off of the horse and then walked around her, admiring the way the torchlight made her coat look like molten silver. She looks like the sky, just before it rains. Cloud? Nah. Rain? Nope. How about….

Taking the horse’s head in her hands, she looked deeply into the mare’s eyes. "Storm." The horse nodded enthusiastically, then bumped Gabrielle in the chest.

"Well, I guess that’s settled. I’m glad you didn’t name her something sissy." Xena said, amused.

"What, like Fluffy? Or maybe Spot?" Gabrielle was rewarded with a raised eyebrow for her efforts. Gabrielle launched herself at Xena, enveloping her in a huge embrace. "Thank you, Xena. This is the best present ever." Xena flushed.

Xena showed Gabrielle the saddle bags, saddle, blanket, and combs she’d bought for the horse. She handed Gabrielle her package from the old woman, and held up her dress so that the bard could see it. "A gift." She explained about meeting the merchant in the market. "I told her you could stop by and thank the little one before we left tomorrow."

Gabrielle exhaled in surprise at her gift. It was a multicolored coat, lined with wool. Like the one in the story she’d told the little girl. "Wow."

"You’re going to be quite a sight riding Storm with that coat on." Xena said with a grin. "By the Gods, that thing is…colorful?" See, the Warrior Princess can be diplomatic, too, Xena thought smugly.

Gabrielle wasn’t fooled for a minute, but chose not to comment. "It’ll be warm. I think the little girl remembered the story of Iolas and the Multicolored Wish Cloak. It’s a wonderful gesture." Gabrielle fingered the fabric of Xena’s dress. "This will look really great on you. You just need an excuse to dress up."

"Hmmph." Xena put the beads she’d bought for Gabrielle around the bard’s neck. "They’re made out of amber. I had a lot jewelry of that when I was with . . . " she trailed off uncertainly. That’s something I think I need to think about. Just not now. I want to enjoy this…that look on her face.

The bard could tell that something was bothering Xena, and that it had nothing to do with amber beads. She decided to steer the conversation in a different direction. Fingering the smooth beads, Gabrielle noticed the ribbons in Xena’s other hand. "Will you let me braid your hair tonight?" She loved the warrior princess’ dark tresses, and was always looking for an excuse to brush her hair. It calmed her, made her feel closer to Xena.

"Sure," Xena responded, much to Gabrielle’s surprise. She handed her the ribbons, which were the same color as the dress. "While you do that, I’ll tell you what’s going on with Autolycus."

They fed the horses and Gabrielle brushed Storm down. The mare didn’t need another brushing, but Gabrielle wanted to spend that time with the animal. She chattered to it incessantly, and every now and again, the horse would nod, whicker, or snort in reply. Xena busied herself grooming Argo.

Xena was amazed how quickly horse and bard had taken to each other; she decided that her instincts had been right all along. Gabrielle, much like herself, just needed the right horse.

After the horses were settled, they went back to their room. "You know, Xena," Gabrielle said, " I understand why you talk to Argo all the time. I never did before…hey, what’s this?"

Xena had let Gabrielle precede her into the room, hoping that she wouldn’t be too busy talking to notice the ribbon bedecked object leaning against the wall. The bard picked up the staff and turned it in her hands, looking at the carving. Experimentally, she twirled it, being careful in the tight space.

"It’s a little heavier than the one you’re used to, but I think you’ll be able to compensate. Your old one was getting worn out."

"Xena, this is wonderful! Will you spar with me tomorrow?" Gabrielle gave the warrior a healthy kiss on the cheek, then began to undo the bright green ribbon wrapped around the staff.

Xena blushed. That was new. Watching Gabrielle use the ribbon to tie up her hair, Xena busied herself removing her chain shirt. "Sure, Gabrielle."

Sitting on the side of the cot, Xena relaxed and let the bard brush and braid her hair. She told Gabrielle what Autolycus had told her, not even omitting her startled thoughts about the man who engineered the kidnapping.

Gabrielle was very quiet as she listened, refraining from interrupting with the questions that filled her head.

Finally, after a few minutes where silence lay between them like a stone, Gabrielle spoke. She said the only thing that she felt needed to be said. "So our peaceful little interlude is at an end. Nothing will be the same from this point forward." She gave Xena’s hair a satisfied pat and stood.

She went to the door and opened it, without looking back at Xena. The soft sound of the door closing rang in Xena’s ears like thunder.

Chapter 7

Xena was determined to wait until Gabrielle was ready to talk. She paced back and forth across the tiny room, muttering sourly. Finally, she threw up her hands and headed for the stables. I’m not going to let her think I don’t care. I’ve done enough of that to last us both a lifetime.

Gabrielle buried her face into the horse’s neck. Storm whickered sympathetically, allowing her new owner to take comfort from her presence. By the Gods, this still hurts so much. After everything, even though Hope is gone, she still hangs like a shadow over all we do and say.

She stroked the horse absently, still amazed at what Xena had given her. Practical Xena, not one for trinkets—and so worried about Gabrielle’s safety that she gave her a mount who could fight and a new staff instead of perfumes or clothes. And the only thing I’ve ever done is hurt her. I used to think that I was the person who was getting hurt the most. I never knew how much she hurt…she was the last person I’d want to do that to….

She heard Xena come up behind her, felt a hand stroke her hair in reassurance. Tears coursed silently down Gabrielle’s face.

"It’s over, Gabrielle. Time to try to put that behind us."

"But, if it’s…."

"It still doesn’t matter. He didn’t even know Solon. If that is him, and that’s a big ‘if’, he could have found us if he had wanted to. I haven’t been hiding."

Xena turned Gabrielle around to face her. She wiped the tears from the bard’s face, pushed her hair back out of her eyes. "Will you leave me?" Gabrielle asked softly, giving voice to her greatest fear.

"Never," Xena said firmly. "He is the past, you are the present. You can’t get rid of me that easily. I went to the Amazon afterlife looking for you, remember?" She gave Gabrielle a hug. That was the heart of it, I’m sure of it, Xena thought. I think I’m getting better at this sensitive stuff.

After Gabrielle had disappeared in Dahok’s inferno, Xena had finally known what it felt like to be completely lost. It was as bad as losing Solon, the feeling that she’d lost something that she’d never taken the time to acknowledge. She’d never told Gabrielle or Solon how much she loved them, never showed them the affection they’d craved. And then, after Alti, the knowledge that she would be the cause of Gabrielle’s death.

Knowing that she would never leave the bard behind again, Xena wanted to make sure that Gabrielle could adequately defend herself. And while Gabrielle had lost her innocence in so many ways, Xena was beginning to see her slowly heal. They were both afraid to be without the other, like a sacred trust would be broken if they were separated.

Now, Gabrielle was able to laugh again. Xena wouldn’t let anyone, especially someone who was no more than a ghost from her past, take that from her.

Gabrielle looked into Xena’s ice blue eyes, comforted by the determination she read there. She pulled away and tried to compose herself. "Are we leaving tomorrow?"

"Yeah. I think it would be best if we get an early start. I want to catch that group of men before they meet up with the rest. They’ll be traveling more slowly because of Ilyria." Staring at her feet, Xena scuffed the stable floor with her boot. "You know, something feels really wrong with this, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle’s brow creased. ‘You don’t believe Autolycus?"

"No, I believe Autolycus. It’s this feeling here," Xena said, placing her hand on her stomach, "that makes me uneasy."

"Like things aren’t what they appear." The bard nodded in understanding. "I’ve had those feelings, too. I feel like we’re being watched."

"We have been. That’s why I don’t want to talk about our plans in public." Xena began to pace. "The guys that have been watching us are nothing special…definitely not soldiers, not even mercenaries. They’re just…observers, it seems."

Gabrielle looked at Xena uneasily. "Do you think that warlord is paying someone to ‘watch’ you?"

"We don’t know that it is him, Gabrielle. But, yes, they are just watching. Autolycus said the man was interested in me."

The bard walked to Xena and put her hand on the warrior’s arm, effectively stopping her. "Xena, do you still love him?"

Xena closed her eyes, as if the question caused her pain. "I never loved him. I thought he was weak, I was lonely…I used him. But he loved me, and I cared for him more than I wanted to. If had been then what I am now, maybe things would have been different."

Gabrielle was suddenly terrified. But Xena, you are different now. And if that’s him, and he still loves you…what happens then? She left the words unspoken, but the question shone brightly in her eyes as she looked at Xena.

Xena looked away, unable to answer.

Chapter 8

They left in the middle of the night. Gabrielle had suggested, and Xena had agreed, that if perhaps they left under the cover of night, they would lose their observers. Xena knew of a good hiding place a few candlemarks away; it would be there they’d formulate the plan to get back Autolycus’ wife.

They had packed in silence, dispersing the goods between Xena’s saddlebags and Gabrielle’s new ones. Gabrielle ran her hands over her new coat, then packed it away. From beneath the bed, she pulled out a bundle and handed it to Xena wordlessly.

Xena gave the bard a puzzled look, then laying the awkward package on the bed began to unwrap it. Inside were soft leather leggings and a matching shirt with long sleeves, all in black. There was a travelling cloak in the same leather but dark green; it split up the sides to allow her to ride astride and fastened in the front. The hood was lined in fur.

"You remembered," Xena said happily. She’d told the bard in passing that she’d like to have winter leathers to wear, but never imagined that she would get them for her. "They’re wonderful. Thank you."

She gave Gabrielle a hug, then watched as Gabrielle picked up her own set in the same colors. "They looked really warm. Could you tell me if these are right?"

She couldn’t have surprised Xena more if she’d sprouted feathers. Gabrielle was holding up a sleeveless light mail shirt and boots that had a metal plate up the front. Looking embarrassed, she ran her hand around her middle. "I keep getting caught through here. I thought that this could help lessen the impact without slowing me down. And I thought the boots might protect the front of my legs."

Xena took the shirt and boots and looked them over, noting how light they were. She handed them back. "I think you did an excellent job. We’ll wear these tonight…just in case. I’ll help you put them on." She smiled at Gabrielle’s relieved expression.

Gabrielle’s gift to Xena had effectively broken the silence between them, as it was meant to. Xena told Gabrielle about the new armor she’d bought. "It fits closer to the body, and it’s hinged to be flexible. It’ll fit over the leathers you gave me." Xena closed her pack and assessed the room.

She stripped off her tunic and breeches and dressed in Gabrielle’s gift, admiring the way it fit and how warm it was. Gabrielle did the same. Xena showed Gabrielle how to fasten the mail down so that it wouldn’t rattle, and how to make sure she had enough room to bend and breathe. Xena put on her mail shirt and secured her new armor over the mail, then bounced up and down so that everything fell into place.

Xena looked at Gabrielle in silence for such a long time that Gabrielle was getting unnerved. "What is it?"

Xena gave her a colorless smile. "You look like a warrior. I thought I’d never see it and I think I never wanted to."

"Xena, I’m safer this way, right?" Gabrielle searched Xena’s face for a moment. "Isn’t that the important thing? I’m still me."

" Absolutely," Xena said. "It’s just…strange. It seems sometimes like everything’s changing."

Gabrielle started fussing with Xena’s cloak, getting it to hang right over her armor. "Well, not everything," Xena amended.

"You’re the warrior with the ribbons in your hair, remember?" Gabrielle lightly tugged on the thick braid interspersed with the bright blue ribbons that hung over Xena’s left shoulder.

Xena snorted. "It’ll keep my hair out of my face. Are you up to some fairly hard riding?"

Nervously, Gabrielle considered that. "I don’t really know. Can we take it slow for the first bit until I get used to her gait?"

"Sure."

They went out the back way and around to the stables. Xena’s keen hearing picked up nothing aside from the usual, but they still moved quickly on the odd chance that someone was following them.

Gabrielle had learned over the last few years to follow Xena’s lead, so she kept her mouth shut and her eyes open. Securing her saddle with Xena’s help, she mounted a little awkwardly and arranged her cloak around her. As Xena opened the stable door, she noted with no surprise at all that it had begun to rain again. It was as black as pitch outside, and colder than Hades, judging from the draft coming through the opening. Figures. You and your big mouth, Gabrielle. Just had to be like Xena this time, huh? Get the drop on the bad guys. Storm shifted beneath her and snorted, sensing her aggravation.

Gabrielle pulled the hood of her cloak up to cover her head and glanced over at her companion. Xena had mounted and was ready to go, looking at Gabrielle expectantly. Gabrielle nodded mutely.

Xena galloped through the stable door and out into the night. Storm stood still, leaving Gabrielle nonplussed as how to proceed. Then she slapped herself on the forehead. Of course.

She leaned over and whispered into Storm’s ear, "Ride". The horse shifted her ears back to catch her mistress’ command, then hied straight into a gallop at Gabrielle’s urging.

Gabrielle crouched low on the mare’s back, like she’d seen Xena do on Argo, and tried to relax. That was the only advice the warrior had given her about her new horse before they’d left the room. "Go with the horse, Gabrielle," she’d said. "Don’t try to control her. Try to become a part of her."

She focused on Storm’s steady gait, allowing her body to move with the horse. She became aware of Xena beside her, but only vaguely. Her concentration was on her mount and on the road out of Ephadon that rose to meet them.

A while later, Argo began to slow. Gabrielle took that as a sign that she should slow down as well, and reined Storm in. She was sore but pleasantly so.

Xena was pleased. Gabrielle actually rode quite well. She made a mental note to tell her when they stopped to sleep.

Xena dismounted and led Argo off of the road. Gabrielle trailed behind leading Storm, puzzled, but recognizing that Xena had a plan. They walked for several minutes until they came to a spring nestled in a small glade. She dropped the reins and allowed Argo to drink.

"Stay here."

Gabrielle did as she was told. Stroking her mare’s graceful neck, she told her to drink. The horse gave her a grateful look and nickered softly. Absently, she rubbed Storm as she listened to the night sounds and waited for Xena.

"Come with me," Xena said, noticing Gabrielle didn’t jump. She’d heard her coming. She was really getting better at that, too.

There was a small cave, large enough for the humans and horses to rest, about forty feet from the glade. It was a fairly long cave that turned to the side in the back, and Xena had started a fire in the rear. From the entrance, you couldn’t even tell anyone was inside.

Xena took a branch from a nearby oak and destroyed the tracks they made coming into the cave. The rain would do the rest. Gods, it’s cold. But at least we’re away from the town. Now I get to figure out how to save the day.

She walked to the back to find Gabrielle had unsaddled the horses and was brushing them down. Xena took over on Argo and they worked in companionable silence for a while. When the horses were taken care of, they stripped of their sodden clothes and laid them on rocks to dry. Gabrielle handed a length of the wool she’d bought to Xena and wrapped her self in the other. Xena pulled some meat pies she’d filched from the inn out of her saddlebags and handed one to the bard. They sat next to the fire in silence, exhaustion claiming their voices. After they ate, Xena mutely showed Gabrielle how to clean her newly acquired armor.

Finally, Xena spoke. "We weren’t followed. I thought we could stay in here until the rain stops."

Gabrielle nodded. "I figured as much." She paused, looking at Xena critically. "You’re getting sick, aren’t you?"

Xena’s mouth curled in a half smile. "’Fraid so." She held up the herbal tea she’d been drinking. "Hopefully, this will stop it from being more than the sniffles."

Gabrielle shifted closer to Xena and took the tea from her hand. She pulled Xena’s head into her lap, covered her with an extra blanket, then gently stroked her damp hair.

Xena was startled, but didn’t protest. She knew that no one had followed and that no one would find the cave. She felt herself dozing.

"Gabrielle," she muttered, half awake, "lay down. Get some sleep." She woke up completely when she felt the bard’s naked breasts press into her back as she unwrapped the wool and added it to the pile covering them both. She was suddenly very hot. Must be reeaaly sick, Xena. You’re imagining all of this.

Xena heard Gabrielle’s contented sign and felt her arm drape over her side as if it belonged there. A few minutes later, the bard began to snore softly. Xena, however, was more awake than she’d ever been in her entire life.

What in Tartarus is going on with you, Xena? She’s your best friend, your family. This is nothing new to you where Gabrielle’s concerned. So what is it you’re really feeling here? Xena’s voices ricocheted inside her head, making it ache. Gabrielle’s hand wandered in her sleep and nestled itself between Xena’s breasts.

Xena’s breath caught and her eyes widened. Whoah. THAT was new. This is not good. I’m definitely not feeling sisterly at the moment. I need to hunt. Yeah, that’s it. Killing things is the best way to work off this sudden energy. She slid from beneath Gabrielle’s embrace and donned her clean tunic, breeches, and cape, then almost ran from the cave into the predawn grayness.

Chapter 9

Three rabbits, two ducks, and several hours later, Xena felt no better. She was cold, wet, and confused. Her sniffles had gotten worse. The rain hadn’t stopped, and it was still very gray outside. Gabrielle was probably still asleep. Bah.

She was in the process of gutting the last rabbit, her head down. "Hello, Aphrodite," she said in annoyance. The cloying scent of flowers was unmistakable. "Been raiding Demeter’s garden again?"

The goddess crossed her arms and pouted. "You know, Xena, most people are happy to see the Goddess of Love."

Xena directed a raised eyebrow her way. "Hmm, let’s see. The last time I saw you, you made me obsessed with fishing, made Gabrielle obsessed with herself, and turned Joxer into a cross-dressing ape-man. Or was it the time you enchanted Gabrielle’s scroll and drove everyone nearly insane? I forget. How happy should I be?"

Aphrodite sighed. Warlords, both ex and present, were such a pain. Why was she even bothering? For love. "I came here to help you."

Xena’s other eyebrow shot up. "Really," she drawled, tossing a kidney over her shoulder as she worked. Aphrodite cringed.

"Ewww."

"Look, Aphrodite," Xena said, burying the offal and washing herself and her prey clean in the spring, "say what you have to say."

"I want you to be careful. If you’re not careful, you’ll break someone’s heart. I can’t tell you who—that would be meddling too much—but I felt I owed you that much for that last little…"she waved her hand, "…annoyance."

"Break someone’s heart? Like I care?" The last thing she needed was some lovesick puppy trailing after her.

"Oh, you’ll care, Xena. If you break this person’s heart, you’ll break their spirit also. For that person, who the gods have such designs for, it could be fatal. For mankind, even."

"Then why don’t you just tell me who it is?"

"I can’t. I promised. The goddess of love is not allowed to tattle." Her voice was petulant.

"Fine. Thanks for the advice. I’ll keep it in mind." Xena strung the carcasses together and slung them over her shoulder. She looked at the goddess expectantly. "Anything else?"

Aphrodite smiled. "You’re not as hard as everyone thinks, Xena. Even you could fall in love." With a giggle, the goddess disappeared in a shimmer of pink light.

Xena felt herself grow pale with that statement. Why do the gods have to meddle with me? I’ve got Ares trying to turn me into a slathering hound of war and his sister is trying to convert me into a lovesick pup. Someone shoot me.

"You called?"

Oh, centaur shit.

"Now, Xena, that’s not very nice. I know my flighty little sister was here a moment ago."

Xena sighed. "And?"

"And I’m telling you not to listen to her. She thinks she can put the old love spell on you. I can’t have that."

Xena turned and walked away. Enough of this. I’m going back to my nice warm cave and wait out the rain. Eat some of Gabrielle’s rabbit stew. Forget that I just had a visit from love and war in a less than five minute interval.

"Whoah. Feeling cranky."

"Shut up, Ares." She stepped around the god, who’d just popped up in her path. "I’m not in the mood." She was definitely coming down with something.

"Fine. I don’t care if you listen to me. Just as long as you don’t listen to Aphrodite. I don’t want you going soft on me."

Xena snorted and headed back to the cave, Ares words echoing behind her. I truly think I hate the gods. Except Artemis. She’s just about the only one who hasn’t tried to screw me yet. Unless you call the whole Velasca thing an exception to that. She stopped talking to herself and looked around warily. When Artemis didn’t pop from behind a bush, she continued her stream of conciousness conversation with herself. Anyway, what in the Hades are Aphrodite and Ares up to, I wonder? She wants me to listen to her, he doesn’t want me to listen to her, I don’t particularly want to listen to either of them. Great. I just want to get Ilyria and get this whole thing over with.

The cave was still toasty warm and there was a highly disgruntled bard sitting on her bed roll. "I go to sleep, you go hunting? What is wrong with you? You’re the one that’s getting sick, and you just decided to go playing in the freezing cold rain?"

Xena opened her mouth to protest, then shut it. Gabrielle was right, of course. "I wanted some of your rabbit stew," she said lamely, holding up way too many rabbits and two ducks besides. "I got a little carried away?"

Gabrielle gave Xena the "I don’t believe a word you’re saying, but I’m not going to argue with you look" she’d been expecting. Wordlessly, she took the carcasses and began preparing stew with two of the rabbits. "It was lucky we bought supplies in town. I’ll cook and salt the rest of the meat and we’ll eat that for the next few days. I have a feeling that you’ll be too sick to hunt."

"You’re probably right." Sniffling rather miserably, Xena stripped out of her wet clothes and wrapped herself in a blanket, shaking.

Gabrielle had to admit she looked pitiful. Xena gave her the big sad eyes routine as the bard fixed her another mug of the healing tea. Sighing, she ruffled the warrior’s dark hair as she drank.

Gabrielle knelt in front of Xena and felt her forehead. The bard’s hand was blessedly cool against her skin, and Xena knew that meant trouble. The bard looked at her reproachfully. "Yeah, Gabrielle, I know. That was extremely stupid."

Gabrielle touched Xena’s cheek with the back of her fingers, and this time Xena’s shiver had nothing to do with her illness. Gabrielle’s eyes locked with hers. They stared at each other for what felt like a lifetime.

Xena lowered her eyes and concentrated on a bit of fuzz on the blanket. What is going on? I feel…shy? Me?

Gabrielle moved behind Xena and began unbraiding her hair without asking. There was a time when Xena would have reflexively backhanded me for touching her, the bard mused as she began brushing. I usually ask, but not this time. She needs this, I think. Or maybe it’s just that I do. I wish she wouldn’t take chances like this.

She brushed Xena’s hair until it was nearly dry; by that time, the stew was finished. Xena had sat through the bard’s ministrations with that same confused feelings she’d had all day. She accepted a bowl with a little nod to Gabrielle.

The only sounds in the cave were the soft breathing of the horses and the crackling of the fire. Gabrielle poked at her stew, then finally gave up and sat the bowl down.

Both Xena’s eyebrows shot up. She sat down her second bowl full of food and looked at the bard expectantly. Gabrielle’s mouth opened, and then shut with a decided snap.

"Out with it."

"Excuse me?" Now Gabrielle’s eyebrows were raised in a passable imitation of the warrior’s.

"Whatever you want to ask me. Out with it." She pointed her spoon matter-of-factly at Gabrielle’s full bowl. "It must be driving you nuts if you can’t eat."

Gabrielle looked at her bowl and gave Xena a half smile. "Why did you really leave this morning?"

Xena almost dropped her stew. "What do you mean?"

"Are you worried about tomorrow?"

Oh, that. Whew. Xena didn’t have to ask what she meant. If the rain let up and they could leave at the high sun mark today, Xena expected to catch up to the kidnappers by dusk tomorrow.

It was two full candlemarks from high sun. "I don’t even know if we’ll get to them by tomorrow. Depends on the weather," she noted.

Gabrielle nodded. "This whole thing feels strange."

‘Tell me about it," Xena snorted. She told Gabrielle about the appearance of the gods.

Gabrielle sighed. "So Ares has something to lose if you fall in love. You? More than likely that’s what he’s afraid of. Sounds like one of Aphrodite’s messes."

"I don’t know." Xena rubbed her hand over her eyes in agitation. "I wish I knew what was happening here." She looked at the bard. "Aphrodite acted like it was out of her control. Like she’d made a promise not to tell on whoever was doing this."

"Mmmm."

"What?" Xena could tell Gabrielle had a theory.

"What if it’s all Ares? Ares sets you up to fall in love, with a little help from Aphrodite. Aphrodite doesn’t like it, so she comes to warn you. A god’s promise is sacred, so she can’t give you details."

Xena’s brow creased. "What in Tartarus would that accomplish?"

Gabrielle gave Xena an exasperated look. "If you fall in love, that makes you vulnerable. Let’s say your sweetheart gets murdered. You become bent on exacting revenge, letting hate into your heart. Ares has an easy way to get in. He can turn you back into his chosen." From a storyteller’s point of view, it made perfect sense.

Xena dropped her spoon into her bowl. It was entirely plausible. "So I won’t fall in love," she shrugged.

"Xena, I don’t think it’s that easy." Gabrielle was pacing, her bare feet kicking up plumes of dirt. She stopped and stood over Xena. "If you break this person’s heart, you break their spirit. Aphrodite said it would be fatal, maybe even to mankind."

Xena leapt to her feet. "So, if I fall in love, this person dies. I turn into a warlord and make life a living hell for thousands. If I don’t, I break this poor guy’s heart, he dies anyway, and mankind dies right along with him." She looked at Gabrielle. "Is that what you’re saying?"

The bard nodded mutely. "Knowing Ares, that’s my best guess. Either way, you’re trapped. He gets what he wants." A chill ran down her spine as she felt an unmistakable presence make itself known.

"Sometimes, the annoying blonde is too smart for her own good." Ares said next to Gabrielle’s ear, his breath tickling her face. She cringed.

"Try chewing on mint. Your breath reeks."

Ares shot a look at Gabrielle and snorted. "Disrespectful little…."

"What now, Ares?" Xena interrupted before he could take his disgruntlement out on the bard.

Ignoring Gabrielle for the moment, Ares walked around to Xena’s side. Xena glared at him.

"Since you’d essentially figured it out, I thought I’d give Gabrielle credit where credit’s due. It would have been more fun had you been oblivious, but hey," he said with a dazzling smile, "I’ve never been good at keeping secrets. You’ll worry more now that you know."

"Essentially?"

"Well, there are a few details you left out, but…." He shrugged. He laid his hands on Xena’s shoulders. "You belong with me."

Then he was gone.

"Great," Xena muttered under her breath. Gabrielle looked like she’d seen a ghost.

" I really hate him, Xena."

"You’re one of many. Let’s go get this over with. Autolycus needs his wife. I won’t let Ares’ little game stop that from happening."

Chapter 10

Fortunately, the rain had stopped by the time Xena and Gabrielle were ready to depart. Storm whickered anxiously and sidestepped, throwing her head back.

Xena noticed the bard’s panicked look. It would take a while for her to learn her horse. "I think she wants her head, Gabrielle." Seeing the confused expression replace the panic, she clarified, "She wants to run. Too much pent up energy."

"Oh." A pause. "Would it be safe in all this mud?"

"Should be. Let’s get out on the road and see if we can pick up the trail. If we can, Argo and Storm can both have a long run." Besides a mild headache and annoying sniffles, Xena felt pretty good. The fever seemed to have run its course within a candlemark or so. A run would be just the way to let off some tension.

They walked the animals through the trees and onto the road. She crouched and looked closely at the menagerie of tracks on the muddy surface. Autolycus had been pretty accurate about the number of men. Forty on foot, six on horses, two wagons. They hadn’t met with the others yet.

It was a miracle that the tracks had survived the rainstorm. Or a little intervention from Ares. He wants me to go after these guys. Looks like Autolycus has gotten stuck in the middle of my vendetta with the god of War.

Gabrielle waited patiently for Xena to finish her scouting. She fished a couple of dried apples out of her bag and gave one to each horse.

Xena stood and walked over to Gabrielle. "She’s going to get fat, you know." Argo snorted, letting Xena know exactly what she thought about that statement.

"I sincerely doubt that." Gabrielle gave Argo a brisk pat, then mounted Storm almost gracefully.

Xena smiled in approval. "I think you’re a born horsewoman, Gabrielle. You’re adjusting to riding really well."

"Thanks." She flushed a little at the complement. "I think I just needed a certain warrior princess to find me the right horse."

Xena mounted Argo and nudged her into a gallop. Gabrielle followed, and soon they were both flying down the road at breakneck speed.

It was a couple of candlemarks after dark when they finally stopped for the night. Xena would have preferred to stop at dusk, but she’d wanted to get them to a place of relative safety to camp. Gabrielle, uncharacteristically, didn’t complain. She started a fire while Xena tended to the exhausted horses, leading them to a nearby spring to drink.

Dinner was a mish-mash of leftover rabbit and duck made into a thick stew with vegetables. They ate side-by-side quietly, bundled beneath furs and wool to guard against the cold. Preoccupied with their own thoughts, the two were silent.

Xena thought that this was about as miserable as she’d ever been. Knowing she was a pawn of the gods was really bad enough; worse was not knowing what was real and what was contrived by Ares. She studied Gabrielle out of the corner of her eye. The bard was lost in thought, the fire turning her reddish gold hair into a flame halo, green eyes silently contemplating as she ate mechanically. Beautiful as always, in her quiet, serene way. Xena was uncomfortable with the warm feeling in the pit of her stomach and felt the urge to move away. She didn’t. Things started out so simple. This weirdness with Gabrielle has got to be part of Ares’ plan. To unnerve me? To divide us?

Gabrielle was thinking along those lines herself. The concept of Xena getting hurt in any way was almost more than she could bear. She’d noticed that Xena was really kind of jumpy, but she attributed that to the circumstances that surrounded the situation. It was possible that Ares’ would try to separate them from one another at some point, and that bothered her. At least as long as she was around, she could be Xena’s conscience.

She knew Xena was watching her, felt it like a warm caress. It was a gift the two of them shared, the ability to always sense the other’s thoughts. Smiling slightly, Gabrielle turned to look at her companion. "How are you feeling?"

Xena glanced at her. "A little tired and sore, but not too bad," she admitted. "How about you? We did an awful lot of riding today."

"Oh, I’m a little sore. Pretty positive it’ll be worse in the morning." She studied Xena’s profile admiringly. Truly, she was lovely. Like a jungle cat she’d seen in a cage when she was a child, strikingly exquisite, but in a dangerous way. That was Xena. She shook her head a little at the path her thoughts were taking. It was a path traveled often.

"Let me know if you need the cream in the morning." She grinned. "I know it smells like dog droppings, but it helps sore muscles." Xena sat her bowl aside and burrowed beneath the blankets contentedly. "Do you realize I haven’t had to fight in a few days? That’s unusual."

"Sounds like you miss it."

"Maybe." She paused. "It worries me when things get this uneventful. We haven’t even seen anyone on the road, have you noticed?"

"I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right." Gabrielle’s forehead creased. "I don’t like it."

"Neither do I. Maybe we’ll have some answers when we catch up with this warlord." She motioned to Gabrielle. "Come on and get under here with me. We’ll both be warmer. Try to get some sleep."

They settled in for the night with Gabrielle closest to the fire. Xena wanted to be able to get up quickly, and the bard had a way of wrapping herself around the warrior like a snake.

Xena lay quietly, listening to the sound of the night and her partner’s gentle snores. I don’t know what’s happening here, and I definitely don’t like it much. Or maybe I like it too much. Maybe things will look better in the morning.

Chapter 11

Xena was awake before dawn, but lay staring up at the trees until the sun crested. Partially it was from pure exhaustion. That, and the fact that Gabrielle had somehow managed to wind her legs around Xena without waking the warrior, neatly trapping her. Whew. Must have been really tired.

She glanced at the bard, peacefully sleeping in the puddle of drool she’d left on Xena’s shoulder. Xena sighed as Gabrielle snuggled even closer, giving up the thought of extricating herself without waking Gabrielle. It was almost full dawn, and they had to get moving.

Shifting slightly, she dislodged the bard from her sodden shoulder. "Gabrielle, wake up…time to go."

"No." Gabrielle refused to let go, planting her face against the curve of Xena’s breast and wrapping both arms around her neck. Xena indulged the thought of just letting her stay where she was, but the warm heat in the pit of her stomach was too much for the warrior princess.

With a regretful groan, she disentangled herself from her bard and rose. Gabrielle looked up at her with a pout, one eye half open. Xena ran her hand over her face and then decided that she really needed to go for a swim.

The bard watched the warrior jog out of the glade, sitting up in horror when she heard a loud splash. "Xena! Get your ex-warlord butt out of that freezing water before you catch consumption!"

Xena rose out of the water in time to hear Gabrielle’s screech of outrage. Her skin was so cold it was numb, but the heat in her still burned. "This sucks," she muttered, wading out of the water and heading back to the fire that Gabrielle had quickly stoked into a blaze. She was greeted by an enraged bard and a huge blanket.

Gabrielle shoved Xena down—or rather, Xena allowed herself to be shoved—onto the bedroll and began to roughly dry the dark hair. She ranted about stupid warriors and their stupid whims. Xena finally shrugged her off and dressed in the warmest clothes she could find. Gabrielle disappeared into the bushes to do her morning ritual, still talking to herself.

Gabrielle was more angry than she’d ever been with Xena before. She changed clothes rapidly, rinsing her face in the spring. One minute she’s all cuddly, the next minute, she’s running for the hills. Whatever her problem, it’s going to be aired. Now. Before she truly makes herself ill. Gabrielle hefted her staff with a definitive motion and headed for the unsuspecting warrior.

Drinking a cup of tea with the morose thought that she was going mad, Xena was unprepared for the sight of the furious bard coming toward her with her brand new staff poised to strike.

"Gabrielle?" Xena asked hesitantly. "Is there something wrong?"

"If you don’t tell me what is going on with you, I’m going to take your head off with this thing." Gabrielle’s voice was quiet, and her frustration evident. Her chest rose and fell rapidly with her agitation.

"And I thought I was going nuts." Of course, she could disarm the bard in a heartbeat, but she would never take the chance on hurting her. As mad as Gabrielle was, it was possible that any attempt to take the staff away would result in her getting accidentally hurt. "Put it down, and we’ll talk about whatever you like, but we have to get moving soon."

Gabrielle eyed Xena warily, amazed that she hadn’t risen and knocked her on her bottom with her own weapon. Xena looked back at Gabrielle mildly, waiting for her to speak.

"You haven’t been yourself."

"Uh-huh."

"Why? Have I done something wrong?"

Xena looked at Gabrielle, her mind whirling. Gabrielle had done something, all right, but it wasn’t anything wrong. She knew her mouth was hanging open, but she couldn’t seem to make it close. What am I supposed to say? That I’ve been acting like a dolt because I’m in love with you and can’t deal with it? Or because I think it may just be a mind game the gods are playing? Defining it so clearly in her mind made Xena want to run again, but she knew that the bard would never forgive her if she left now. She took a couple of deep breaths, debating on lying to get herself out of this mess.

"If you’re trying to decide whether to lie to me to protect me or to tell me the truth, I’d prefer the truth, please."

Xena raised an eyebrow. Gabrielle was very serious, her green eyes hurt and troubled all at the same time. The sight of the confusion, and the knowledge that she’d caused it, made Xena’s heart ache.

"You haven’t done anything wrong, Gabrielle. I…just don’t know how to tell you what I need to tell you, that’s all."

"You’re not leaving me behind again. I thought we were past that."

Xena shook her head. "No, I’m not leaving you at all."

Gabrielle was surprised at the tone. Fiercely protective…and something else.

Xena looked as if she were in pain. Or like she was going to be ill. Gabrielle moved to take her hand, and after a moment, Xena enfolded the bard’s hand in her own larger one. They sat side by side, Gabrielle patiently waiting, Xena studying the callouses on the hand she held.

I put those there. It’s because of me she’s accepted this existence. I owe her the truth. I just pray she won’t leave me when I tell her.

"I think the gods are messing with my head, Gabrielle…with my perception, with my…feelings," Xena said carefully. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt Gabrielle by saying the wrong thing. "I think they may be trying to make me feel something…other than sisterly…toward you…to make me confused and weak." She covered her face with her hand, thinking that had probably come out all wrong.

Gabrielle stared at her silently for a few moments, speechless. Xena was feeling…what? Desire? Love? For me? And how do you feel about that, Gabrielle? "Whatever they’re doing it’s working. You’ve been taking some rather stupid risks lately."

"I know."

"So you think the…feelings…you’re developing for me are a way for the gods to manipulate you?" She couldn’t keep the slight pleading note out of her voice. Gabrielle was surprised to feel disappointed, half hoping that Xena did truly feel these things for her and that it wasn’t an illusion.

Xena looked at the bard’s face, shocked by the rawness of the emotion she saw there. Did she see regret there? "I don’t know, Gabrielle. I really don’t know. All these other…emotions…have happened so suddenly. The timing is odd, especially after Aphrodite’s warning. I know that I care about you more than I ever have about anyone, but I need to know if this is a trick or not before I can say anything for sure. And if it is real, we’ll deal with that." She squeezed the small hand that rested in hers. "Do you understand?"

Gabrielle didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She might want me, but she’s not sure it isn’t just a joke the gods are playing. But if it is real, I think she may want to pursue it. Oh, Artemis.

Xena was looking at Gabrielle with concern, worried about her silence. She watched the emotions flash across the lovely face of her bard and felt her heart ache. Gabrielle didn’t run screaming, though, and Xena took that as a hopeful sign.

"All right. We’ll do this your way." Gabrielle said finally, rising to her feet. "But I can tell you this…if this is a ‘joke’…they’re playing it on me, too." That ought to make her think for a while.

She was too busy with her own thoughts as she mounted to notice Xena’s stunned expression. It was probably just as well.

Chapter 12

Xena had known they were getting close and slowed their progress accordingly. There was no need to rush ahead now, and caution would have to be exercised to avoid running into sentries once the camp had been established for the night.

They halted frequently, both to rest the horses and to give Gabrielle’s backside some reprieve. Xena had a feeling the creams weren’t helping any, but the bard never complained. Xena would leave the horses and Gabrielle and scout ahead a little, looking for anything out of the ordinary she might miss on horseback. Partially, it was an excuse to get away from the bard and her own conflicting emotions; Gabrielle had been very quiet since they’d left this morning, and Xena hadn’t really felt like talking, anyway. The last sentence Gabrielle had spoken had affected her deeply, and it was something she refused to deal with on the eve of what promised to be a huge battle.

On her last excursion near dusk, she topped a ridge and found herself looking down at the warlord’s encampment. She cursed quietly. Apparently they’d met up with their reinforcements; roughly 600 soldiers filled the plain below. What troubled her even more was the obvious nationality of the soldiers and their leader. They were eastern tribesmen.

Three hundred yurts crowded the plain, with one large, officious one settled in the middle. That would be the warlord’s…boy ,do I remember those days. The power…the hunger. She shook her head to free herself of the dangerous thoughts and turned her attention back to the encampment.

Sentries were planted all around the perimeter, but there were none on the ridge. Apparently, they weren’t expecting trouble…why would they when the ‘thief’ was already in jail? But it was still careless, Xena reflected, and maybe a little na´ve on the leaders’ part. Always expect the worst, she’d told Borias, and plan for it. He never listened.

As if her thoughts were heard, a lone figure stepped out of the central yurt. Though from this distance it would be hard to visually confirm what her gut told her, it was rare that her instincts were wrong. The man raised his head and looked right to the clump of trees where Xena was hiding. She could feel his eyes searching in the receding light, and she pressed her body into the large tree beside her, hoping that in her astonishment she hadn’t given herself away.

His attention shifted as a girl with flaming red hair was brought out of another yurt, kicking and screaming. Xena smiled a little; that must be Autolycus’ wife. He was right about the feisty part. The warlord spoke to the men holding the girl and they led her away. Well, at least I know she’s alive. And apparently well. Most definitely pissed, which means she’s probably not been abused.

Having seen enough, Xena returned to the campsite. Gabrielle was huddled beside a small, smokeless fire, trying to produce a soup with the rest of their dried rations. More surprisingly, there was a neatly trussed eastern soldier hanging upside down from a tree, gagged with Xena’s last clean pair of underwear.

"Was I gone that long?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Sorry you missed the fun?"

"The first chance I have to fight in a week…yeah, I am sorry. Did you have to use my underwear, though?"

"He snuck up on me, and after I whacked him, he wouldn’t stay down. I kept telling him to stay put, but he wouldn’t listen. I had to knock him out, and when he came to, he kept screaming in some odd language. I had to do something to shut him up."

The swarthy man’s face was almost purple.

Xena walked around the dangling, squirming form contemplatively. She plucked at the rope, sending him swinging. "Did you learn this from Ephiny?"

Gabrielle didn’t even look up, knowing that Xena was providing her own special kind of torture. Even if he couldn’t understand the language, he would get the point. "No, Eponin showed it to me. She said it works particularly well on large men, so I thought no time like the present to give it a shot."

"How’d you hoist him?"

"Storm did it."

"I’m really impressed. Next time show me how you did it."

"Sure. Hungry?" Gabrielle held a bowl of stew out to the warrior who accepted it gratefully. While eating, Xena would occasionally reach out to bat the dangling man, eliciting a muttered curse from the gagged warrior. After a while, Gabrielle joined in, and the purple hue of the man’s face had turned a tad greener with each swing.

After eating, Xena tossed her chakram, cutting the rope holding the man in the tree. He landed face first with a meaty thud. Since he was still bound, he could do nothing but lie there with a mouth full of dirt and warrior underthings until someone decided to roll him over. Gabrielle took pity on him and pushed him over with her foot. Xena pulled her underwear out of his mouth and tossed them in the fire.

"Xena! They could have been washed."

"Nuh-uh. There’s no way they could have ever been washed enough, Gabrielle." She dumped a skin filled with water over his head as he lay gasping for breath. "Speak," she said in the eastern tongue.

"In...my bag…over…there…scroll," he motioned frantically with his head.

"Go look in the bushes there, Gabrielle." Gabrielle walked over to the spot indicated and poked her staff in the bush until it hit something solid. She fished it out and tossed it to Xena.

Xena dumped its contents onto the ground, her eyes immediate fastening on the one scroll in the bag. She unrolled it, and her face was impassive as she read its contents. Mutely, she handed the scroll to Gabrielle, and began to cut the man loose.

Gabrielle studied the scroll, which was written in Greek, her eyes wide. A weak roiling began in her stomach, and she felt like she was going to lose her dinner.

"Tell your master we will meet with him tomorrow. Here, and with him alone. He has my word he will not be harmed in any way."

The man backed out of the small clearing they had camped in, then turned and ran. Xena stared at the retreating figure thoughtfully, breaking out of her reverie only when the bard reached out and touched her cheek. "Hmm?"

"Are you okay?" Gabrielle had to know what Xena was thinking.

Xena enveloped the bard in a gentle embrace, reacting to the almost panic-stricken expression Gabrielle wore. After a moment, Xena pulled away and looked into the bard’s eyes.

"I will never leave you. There are a million reasons why I won’t, but the most important thing is that you are the best thing in my life."

Gabrielle nodded, her eyes closed to fight the tears that threatened to spill forth. "What about…him?"

"He is my past. He is part of me, I can’t help that, but not as much a part of me as you are. I’ve changed a lot since then, in ways he could never dream." Xena brushed away a tear that fell down the bard’s cheek. "You made that possible. Nothing else matters."

Xena found herself fighting back tears of her own. Gabrielle and Xena stared at each other for a long moment, then Gabrielle rose up on her toes and softly kissed Xena’s lips. "I trust you," she whispered, then walked away.

Xena watched as Gabrielle gathered Storm’s currycomb and an apple for each horse. Giving into her sudden overwhelming need to sit down and think, she plopped herself on a nearby log and pulled out her sword and sharpening stone. With the rhythmic scraping, she felt her tingling nerves begin to calm. Not that they were excited in a bad way, just one that was inappropriate at the moment. I wish I understood this…

Morning came too quickly for Gabrielle. The desire to prolong the inevitable had kept her from doing much sleeping; she spent the night staring at Xena and trying to telepathically tell the warrior the words that Xena was just not ready to hear. The thought of losing her tortured the bard.

Little did Gabrielle know that Xena lay awake as well, her eyes closed against Gabrielle’s wistful gaze. She allowed herself to feel the uncertainty of her position—as hard as it was to admit, she didn’t know what would happen tomorrow, or what the future held for the love she felt for Gabrielle. She admitted that she felt something for the dark warlord, but it didn’t hold a candle to what she felt for the bard. Then, there was the question of getting Ilyria out in one piece and back to the village in less than six days’ time. It would also be nice to be able to return the gem that had started this mess, which would clear Autolycus, but Xena was not really fond of curses, so….

It was still dark, just an hour or so before day break, and Xena knew that sleep was not going to come. She sighed theatrically and decided that getting up and preparing herself would be the best thing. Grabbing her sword, she went to a spot on the other side of the clearing and began to do her drills, letting the familiarity of the moves clear her mind.

Gabrielle watched Xena practice for a few moments, then silently got up and stoked the fire. Since the army in the valley knew that they were here, there was no reason to disguise their presence; Gabrielle added wood to the fire until it was hot enough to keep the cold at bay. Xena wordlessly disappeared into the woods, reappearing as the sun was peeking over the horizon with a plump rabbit. She skinned it efficiently and gave it to the bard, who spitted it over the fire. Sipping on tea that Gabrielle had made, they waited.

By the time they had eaten, the sun was making its way across the sky. Xena looked up, calculating the time to be two candlemarks past sunrise, then cocked her head in a listening pose. Gabrielle gazed at Xena steadily, waiting for an interpretation.

Using finger signals, she told Gabrielle that there were three behind her, two to the left, and one in front. Gabrielle gave a short nod, her hand closing over her staff. There was no motion from Xena other than a narrowing of her ice blue eyes.

"Tell your men to go back to camp or I’ll kill every single one of them." Gabrielle threw Xena a startled look. Xena winked back.

A figure materialized out of the trees directly in front of them. "You heard her. I’ll be fine," he called in a thickly accented voice. He gave Xena a gentle smile. "You haven’t changed, Xena."

Xena stared at the man in front of her. She inclined her head slightly, her eyes never leaving him. "Borias."

Chapter 13

Xena didn’t rise or make an overture of friendship. She’s not happy to see me, Borias thought with some dismay. His smile faltered a little at that. "No kind words for an old friend?"

Xena regarded him wearily, much to Gabrielle’s guilty delight. "I thought you were dead," she said flatly, her eyes cold. She thought of Solon and the unknown father he’d worshipped, and that brought a bitterness to her voice. What about Solon? "You never tried to find me."

Gabrielle felt like her heart would break. She was sorry that he didn’t come for her? I thought she didn’t love him. Her hand tightened on her staff, wanting to throttle Borias for interfering in their lives like this.

Borias tossed his weapons to the side, out of reach, and sat across from Xena at the fire. His warm brown eyes studied her quietly for a moment. "I was in no condition to come after you, Xena." He pulled his shirt open and revealed a badly healed scar on his lean stomach. "It continues on the other side. I couldn’t walk for some time."

Xena accepted the explanation stoically. Gabrielle handed Borias a mug of tea, which he took gratefully and without suspicion.

He held out his hand, remembering his manners. "I’m sorry. I am Borias."

"Gabrielle." She took his arm in a friendly clasp, thinking that acting jealous would probably not help the situation at all.

He smiled briefly and turned his attention back to Xena. "I have heard you’ve changed. I kept up with your life even though I couldn’t be a part of it," he supplied, forestalling her question with a raised hand. "Everyone knew about the Destroyer of Nations."

"You have a woman named Ilyria. I’m here to get her back." Xena was tired of the small talk and wanted to leave as soon as possible. She didn’t like this at all. There was something…strange… about this whole thing. Borias…alive?

"Ah." Borias contemplated that for a moment. "Autolycus is your friend, then?"

"You should know. You had your men follow us through the town."

"I should have known you’d notice. Some things could never change." He sipped the tea, thinking. "You can have the girl. But I must ask something in return."

Xena snorted in disbelief. "You shouldn’t be making demands. I could take her if I wanted."

"I know. It would be hard, but you could do it. I’m offering you an easier way."

Xena glared. "I’m listening."

"Stay with me for a fortnight. Let me get to know you again, to talk to you." And tell me of our child, Xena, and why he’s not with you..

"Autolycus is to be executed in less than six days."

"Let Gabrielle take her back. She can send you a message when she gets there and meet you back here."

"And the stone?"

"No. I cannot give you that. Not even for the pleasure of your company. I have a buyer, and business is business."

No deal, Xena thought, at least not yet. Autolycus would need to be cleared if he no longer intended to live as a thief. A small smile flickered across her face as she glanced at Gabrielle, who looked like she was about to have a fit. "Gabrielle and I will discuss it. We’ll let you know by nightfall."

"No matter what you decide, join me for dinner. You’ll be admitted to my camp unmolested."

Xena gave a nod. Borias stood, having the impression that he’d just been dismissed. After collecting his weapons, he went back the way he came.

Xena looked over at Gabrielle, expecting anger. Instead she saw sadness, and she found herself defenseless. "Gabrielle," she said softly.

"You’ve already made your choice, haven’t you?" Gabrielle’s voice cracked, and she hated herself for it.

"No. If you don’t want me to go, I won’t."

"Can I think about it?" She knew what her answer would eventually be, but she couldn’t voice it.

"Of course."

Gabrielle was silent for a few moments more. "What will you tell him?"

Xena didn’t have to ask what she meant. "That he died. The circumstances are none of his business."

"It doesn’t change the truth, though, does it?" She took a deep breath. She still couldn’t say it. "I guess you at least should tell him about the child he never knew. He did really want him."

"I need to get that stone back and take it to its owner." Xena absently tossed a twig onto the fire. "If Autolycus really wants to have any kind of life, he’s got to be cleared of the crime."

Gabrielle closed her eyes. She hadn’t even thought about that. "What about the curse?"

"Autolycus said that the ‘pure of heart’ were immune. I have no idea what the curse does to you if you’re not pure enough." I wonder what it’s done to Borias. He possesses it.

"I don’t think you’ll have a problem," Gabrielle said with a small smile. She gave Xena an assessing look from beneath her lashes. "Can you trust him?"

Xena stared at her hands. Good question. I’ve changed…has he? "Borias was always honorable, much more than I was back then. I have no idea if he’s changed or not."

"Well, then. I guess you’re staying and I’m going. Any ideas on how to break him out?"

"Once he knows Ilyria’s safe, Autolycus can do the rest." Xena took Gabrielle’s hand. "Are you okay with all of this?"

"No." Seeing Xena’s crestfallen look, she relented. "I’m okay enough, Xena. Do what you have to do." Just don’t leave me forever, her heart cried, reality hitting hard. Please.

Xena sighed and pulled Gabrielle to her, resting her cheek on top of the bard’s head. Gabrielle’s arms went around Xena’s waist, and she buried her face in the curve of the warrior’s neck. "It seems I do this more and more often," she murmured into the bright red-gold hair.

"Remember when we first met? You couldn’t stand for me to touch you." Gabrielle raised her head and looked into Xena’s brilliant blue eyes. "Some things are still really hard for you, aren’t they?"

"Yeah. Talking about feelings are a lot harder than showing them, I think." Xena’s mouth quirked in a tiny smile. "Sensitive stuff is your department, remember?" She paused, debating, feeling the warmth of Gabrielle’s hand stroke her back under her cloak. "I like it when you touch me. Before I always used my body as a tool…a way to get things from men. I didn’t like to be touched because I think I always felt like it was an invasion…of me. Do you understand?"

"I think so, yeah."

"When you touch me, I know you don’t want anything from me other than to be touched back. That feels good to me. I feel…you don’t invade me, you…."

"…complete me." Gabrielle finished quietly. Xena looked at her, startled. "I know. I feel the same way."

"Yeah," Xena said, squeezing Gabrielle to her a little harder. "Listen, Gabrielle…maybe this separation is a good thing. It’ll let us clear our heads a little."

"Or maybe it’s what Ares wants us to do." She chose to ignore the plea in Xena’s statement. Her head was perfectly clear. Gabrielle shifted around to face the fire, pulling back from Xena’s comforting warmth. "If your sword was cut in half, would it be an effective weapon? You could use the hilt to pummel someone, maybe, but really, it would be useless. Split up, we’re not as effective as we are as a whole. And maybe that’s what he wants."

Xena deliberated Gabrielle’s words. "But if I charge in there and take her and the stone, a lot of lives will be forfeit," she reminded the bard softly, "and I know you don’t want that." She laid a gentle hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder. "Take her home to her husband for me."

Gabrielle nodded. "Promise me you’ll come back, Xena."

"I promise, Gabrielle." Xena said the words without hesitation. "I’ll meet you in Athens by the time the moon is full again. You can do some shopping while you’re waiting for me."

Gabrielle was satisfied. Xena never broke a promise. The new moon would fall on solstice eve. Athens was seven or ten days from here, and since Xena was staying with Borias for fourteen days, that meant she wasn’t planning on lingering. They could spend solstice together exploring the feelings they had for one another in Athens, the greatest city in the world. It would be wonderful. Now if only I can wait that long. "Can we go see your mother after solstice?"

Xena stood easily and brushed the seat of her breeches off. "I don’t see why not." She offered a hand to Gabrielle. "Wanna spar? I think I promised you a session a few days ago."

Gabrielle took the hand, reassured, but with a vague feeling of uneasiness gnawing at her. "Sure."

Chapter 14

Dinner in Borias’ yurt was a lavish affair, considering the surroundings. Gabrielle ate heartily of the best food she’d had in a while, watching the interaction between Xena and her former companion. The fact the Xena was more than a little obvious in her reluctance made Gabrielle feel worlds better.

Xena stared at Borias out of the corner of her eye as she ate, noting the changes age had brought to the handsome warlord. He was much more thin and gaunt, his hair silvered at the temples. After much polite chatter between Gabrielle and Borias, and an occasional grunt from Xena, Borias got down to business.

"Have you discussed my offer amongst yourselves?"

Xena inclined her head slightly. "I’ll stay. For a fortnight, no more."

Borias’ face bloomed into a beautifying smile. "Wonderful! Xena, I have missed you. I want to know everything about what has gone on."

"Good luck. She’s about as forthcoming as that bearskin your sitting on," Gabrielle snorted, earning an amused look from Xena.

"I will have Ilyria ready for you in the morning, Gabrielle. You may take her back. She may arrive in time to say goodbye to her husband." He nonchalantly removed a small bone from his mouth and tossed it aside.

Gabrielle felt her temper flare at the mention of Autolycus’ death. She didn’t understand how he could be so callous towards a person who had done nothing to him.

Xena’s eyes narrowed dangerously, the tranquil blue becoming like ice chips. She gave Gabrielle a quick look, knowing the bard would take exception to the comment, and then focused her gaze on her former lover. He had changed—in the most subtle of ways, but it was there. Borias had never been a ruthless man and had always acted with a steadfast sense of honor. She’d been counting on that when she’d brought Gabrielle into the lion’s den. Now she wasn’t so sure she hadn’t made a mistake.

Interpreting Xena’s quick glance as a hint to keep her mouth shut, Gabrielle swallowed the words she was about to say and picked up a cup instead.

"Can I trust you?" Xena asked in a low, dangerous voice.

Borias looked at her with a wounded expression.

"If she leaves, will she make it there alive, or will you send someone to kill her?" Xena chose not to mince words. Subtlety was never my strong suit.

"Xena, I promise that she will make it there in one piece. Have a little faith in an old friend."

Suddenly really needing some air, Gabrielle asked, "May I go see Ilyria while you two start catching up? I feel like a third wheel." She felt Xena’s concerned gaze rest on her and gave her a reassuring smile.

"Absolutely." Borias turned and spoke a rapid spate of words to the man standing at his shoulder. "Mitha will take you to her yurt."

Gabrielle ducked out of the yurt and into the night air with a sigh of relief. The incense was overpowering inside the cramped confines, and she had started to feel a little queasy. Incense and implied death threats always make me feel lightheaded. The guard led her to the next yurt and motioned for the men standing guard to step aside. He let Gabrielle proceed inside unescorted.

It was very dark, not so much as a candle lit. Gabrielle could hear rapid, ragged breathing coming from beneath a pile of furs. "Ilyria?" She queried cautiously, peering through the dark. "My name’s Gabrielle. Autolycus sent me to bring you home."

A stifled sob came from the pile. "Autolycus? Gabrielle? Is Xena with you, too?" The voice was almost too low to hear. Gabrielle wondered if she had been injured.

"Honey, I need to light a candle and see if you’re okay." Gabrielle felt along the small table until she felt a wax stub. She fished flint from a pocket in her cloak and struck it, lighting the burned down candle she’d found. She moved over to the pile of furs and knelt down. "Are you all right?"

Ilyria looked up into the first kind face she’d seen in weeks and burst into tears. She flung herself into Gabrielle’s arms, almost knocking the bard over.

Gabrielle looked down at the petite woman who was wrapped around her—she was even shorter than Gabrielle herself—and her eyes widened in shock. "By the gods…." she breathed. Xena’s going to love this. Yep, just one surprise after another.

Chapter 15

Xena watched Borias wearily for some moments after Gabrielle exited. "You’re still the most beautiful woman in the world, Xena. Even more so with age." He reached over and touched her face familiarly, and she allowed it, but not with out a warning look. "But then, some things will never change," he murmured, withdrawing his hand.

"What are you doing in Greece, Borias?"

He leaned back and quietly contemplated the question. "I came here looking for you, Xena. Once I was recovered enough to make such a long journey, the only thing I could think of was to get back to you. To at least see you for myself."

"Do you know what happened that night?"

Borias shook his head. "I came to my senses many days later. I can even remember how I became injured."" He gave her a steady look. "I was betrayed."

"Yes." Xena paused. "Do you remember Satrina?"

"Yes, I remember her. The slave."

"She arranged to have you killed. Told Dagnine you were coming to kill me, so he threw a sword into your back."

"You believed I was dead."

Xena’s mouth quirked at the edges. "Most men don’t survive an injury like that, Borias."

"And the child? What of him?"

Xena had been dreading this, more because it brought up painful memories than because of Borias. She took a deep breath. "I gave Solon to the centaurs to raise, to Kaliapus. I was afraid that he would be killed by someone trying to get back at me. Used as a bargaining chip, at least."

"I wouldn’t have expected that you’d give him to the centaurs, Xena. You wanted to annihilate them."

She fiddled with her eating knife. "I did it because you trusted them, Borias. Better a centaur than me raising our son."

He moved to sit beside her, years of memories casting shadows in his eyes. "I was going to take you away, Xena. To have our child, to start our family. I thought that the baby would change you. You would have been a good mother." He covered the hand holding the knife with his own. "I loved you. I still do," he said in a soft voice.

"Borias…."

"I know, Xena," he murmured, holding up a preemptive hand. "I was a tool for you to use, and you never loved me. Cared, maybe, but it was not love." His voice held no bitterness.

Might as well get this over with. "Borias, Solon is dead."

He looked stricken. "How?" he choked, searching her face frantically.

"Last year, an enemy found out about him. She killed him to try to make me hurt." Xena took a deep, painful breath. "He never even knew he was mine. I was going to tell him. I was going to take him with us after Kaliepus died. I never had the chance." She ran a hand over her face. "He was told that his mother was dead and that I had killed his father, a great soldier. Once I got to know him, and spent some time with him, he no longer believed it, but that’s what he was told. He thought I was his friend." She omitted Hope and Illusia from the story. That wasn’t necessary to the telling.

Borias had cradled his head in his hands. "It sounds like you were his friend, Xena. What was he like?"

"Brave. Intelligent. He got the best of us, I think." He eyes misted a little, and she blinked impatiently. "When I first got to know him again, he was getting into trouble constantly. He had your sword, and he was determined to take on the world with it." She laughed a little at the memory. "I was finally able to convince him that there was a time to fight, and a time to run. I was afraid he’d get himself killed before he’d learn the difference." Sadness filled her, and when Borias embraced her, she almost welcomed it. He was, at least, the other parent of her child. She let him take the liberty, knowing that the son he’d never known was the only thing they would ever have in common again.

They both cried a little for Solon. Borias tenderly wiped a tear off her cheek. "I think we’re both getting a little soft, Xena. Not like old times, right?"

She smiled at him, the first genuine smile she’d given since they had reunited. "Gabrielle saved my soul, Borias. She found all that was good in me—what little there was." She switched subjects suddenly, uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation. "Why are you content to let an innocent man die?"

Borias gave a snort of disdain. "Hardly innocent, Xena."

"In this case, he was, though. That’s not like you."

A dangerous glint came into his eyes. "You don’t know me anymore, Xena. Maybe it is exactly like me." He opened a chest and picked up a dark bag. "The buyer of the stone had very specific instructions, Xena. Autolycus was instrumental in the directions I received. It was to be him, and only him, that stole the jewel."

"You could have had someone else steal the stone, Borias. A lot of people would be willing to pay the price, regardless of the curse."

"This buyer was the only one who had what I wanted," Borias answered, dropping the bag back into the trunk. "The curse only affects those that touch it directly, anyway."

"What’s the curse?" Xena asked curiously, standing and moving to his side.

"If your heart is not pure, it will make your worst fear come true." He shrugged, shutting the lid. "I don’t know if it’s true. I haven’t touched it to find out, and Autolycus didn’t either, so…."

"I wonder what would be the definition of a pure heart?" Xena wondered aloud, more to herself than to him.

"I don’t know, but I doubt that either one of us have one." He picked up his cup of wine and swirled its contents reflectively. "Your Gabrielle is quite lovely."

Xena felt herself flush a little at the possessive. My Gabrielle. "Yes, she is. What’s your point?"

"You love her, don’t you, Xena?"

"If I do, it’s no business of yours." She rose, suddenly impatient and uncomfortable about the line of questioning. "I need to see to the horses and check on Gabrielle. Do you have a yurt for me?"

He had almost let himself hope she might want to stay with him. "Of course." He called to the guard and instructed him to lead Xena to her lodgings.

When she left with a nod, Borias sunk down into his chair and stared at her retreating form through the open doorway. A small smile played about his lips. Soon, Xena, soon.

Chapter 16

Xena found Gabrielle already waiting for her beside the yurt, a troubled expression on her face. Xena gave the guard a dismissive wave and followed Gabrielle inside. Their possessions had already been neatly arranged inside of the dwelling, but Xena’s had been unpacked. She scowled, hating the thought of a stranger going through her possessions.

Gabrielle gave Xena a slight tug on the arm. She could tell the direction of the warrior’s thoughts. "I unpacked your things, Xena." She didn’t miss the relieved, grateful expression Xena gave her.

"What would I do without you?" Xena fondly pushed the bard’s hair out of her face.

Gabrielle gave her small smile, wondering at the attention, but welcoming it, nonetheless. "Looks like you’ll have to find out, at least for a while."

Xena looked at her seriously. "I don’t want to do this, Gabrielle." She paused. "Can’t we just do the warrior thing instead?"

"No, and you know why. It’s rare that we’re offered the opportunity to settle things peacefully." Gabrielle paused and grabbed Xena’s hand, leading her to the bed. "Sit."

Xena sat, and looked up at Gabrielle expectantly.

"We have a problem."

Xena raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.

"Ilyria is pregnant. Really, really pregnant. In her last season pregnant."

Xena covered her eyes with her hands. "Great. This will end up slowing you down immensely, and you only have a few days to get back to Autolycus." She sighed. "I can’t believe I didn’t see that when I was scouting. Why isn’t anything simple? Why didn’t Autolycus tell us?"

"He didn’t know. She’s been gone for two months, remember, and apparently really began showing in the last month. She was waiting to see if the babe would carry before she told him. She lost the last one."

Nodding in understanding, Xena asked, "Well, other than the obvious, how’s her health?"

"She’s been well taken care of, but she’s really a tiny thing. Could you take a look at her before we leave?"

"Yeah. I might be able to give her something that’ll make the trip easier on her." Xena chewed her lower lip reflectively. "Tell you what. Scrap the trip to Athens and meet me back here since it’ll take more time for you to get to Autolycus. I don’t want to be separated any longer than necessary."

Gabrielle felt a little warm all over at Xena’s statement. At least she’s not trying to get rid of me. The warrior sat on the cot, obviously planning details in her head, and Gabrielle knew that Xena would figure it all out. It’s wrong of me to put all that responsibility on her shoulders, Gabrielle thought guiltily. She thought of the prophecy that Aphrodite and Ares had conveyed earlier.

Little did she know that Xena was thinking of the same thing. Can’t break this one person’s heart, or I will destroy mankind, but if I love them, they’ll die because of me. And I’ll be warlord again. And mankind will die with them, either way. I don’t get it. Xena kept turning Aphrodite’s little riddle over and over in her head. She thought of Alti’s glimpse into her future. Who could love me enough to be destroyed if I break their heart? And who would I love so much that it would push me over the edge if they were killed?

She slapped herself on the forehead, the realization of the simple truth like a mace to her gut. Gabrielle, who’d been lost in her own train of thought, leapt up, startled by Xena’s uncharacteristic movement.

Xena stared blindly at the wall of the yurt, trying to keep the pain she felt from overwhelming her. Alarmed, Gabrielle knelt beside her. "Xena, what is it? What’s wrong?"

Xena turned agonized eyes on her companion. "We need to talk. I just figured everything out."

Several minutes later, Gabrielle and Xena were seated on the floor next to the fire, their arms around one another. Xena had insisted that she needed to check on the horses after her apocalyptic statement, leaving Gabrielle anxiously making tea and awaiting her return.

She came back inside in record time, dusting the first flakes of snow from her coat. "We’re close to the mountains, so we’re getting flurries. By the time you leave in the morning, the snow won’t even be on the ground."

Gabrielle nodded and handed her a cup of hot tea, then wrapped her arms around Xena’s waist. Xena didn’t hesitate to return the gesture. They sat in silence for some time.

"I could think of a million other ways I’d like to say this, but we haven’t got the time right now to do this right." Xena sighed and shifted so that she could look at Gabrielle. In the light of the fire, her hair looked like molten copper, and Xena took a deep breath at her beauty. "I love you. It’s for real, and it’s part of this riddle we’ve been handed."

Gabrielle opened her mouth to say something, but Xena put a finger over her lips. "Wait, okay?" Gabrielle nodded numbly, wanting to reciprocate the feelings, but knowing that this whole conversation was incredibly hard for Xena.

"Because I love you, your life is in danger. I can’t bear that. But if I send you away from me for good, it will break your heart, won’t it?" Gabrielle didn’t have to say anything. The look in her eyes spoke volumes. Xena sighed. "I lose you, either way."

"Promise me that if anything happens, you won’t go back to the way you were…before." Gabrielle’s voice was soft, but intense. "You have to give me your word. I know you’ll never break it." She folded her fingers around Xena’s. "I love you. You are my reason for living. Do this thing for me."

Xena looked into Gabrielle’s face, into her eyes glittering like emeralds, full of unshed tears. She studied the shape of her lips, the curve of her cheek, the halo of coppery hair framing her perfect face. She memorized it all, so that while they were separated, she would always remember that moment. "I promise," she murmured, meaning it with her whole being. She buried her face in the curve of Gabrielle’s neck and held her tight.

Xena ignored the raising of the fine hair on the back of her neck, knowing that Ares had seen the whole exchange. I’ve beat you. No matter what, I won’t be your pawn.

The God of War looked on from the shadows, frustration evident. You haven’t won, Xena. This is a little uncomfortable, but I can work around it. His face lightened as an idea occurred to him. An evil smirk replaced the scowl. I can have both. You WILL break her spirit, and you will ride at the head of my army. Mankind will be like sheep under your sword. I have to see a man about a horse….

Silently, he disappeared.

The next morning, Xena helped Gabrielle and Ilyria onto the horses. Ilyria was to ride Argo. Xena wouldn’t need her here, anyway, and Argo would be able to help Storm defend both women from an attack.

Xena gently hugged Gabrielle, her eyes telling her bard everything that she could not say in front of these people. Gabrielle whispered, "Remember your promise," and Xena nodded numbly, her heart breaking at the thought of ever losing Gabrielle. She gave Ilyria a packet of herbs, and told her to take them twice a day. The woman glowed with excitement, liberated, and gave Xena a huge hug. She extracted a promise from Xena that they would come by before going to Athens.

Then they were gone, her beloved bard, her horse, and her friend’s wife. She watched them until they were small figures in the distance. Why does this feel like goodbye? Her heart cried.

She was so lost in her thoughts, she never heard the man come up behind her. By the time her mind realized what was happening, it was too late.

Chapter 17

Ilyria and Gabrielle rode as hard as they could under the circumstances. They took frequent breaks to allow Ilyria to rest, but they still made fairly good time. There were no unpleasant encounters.

Gabrielle stood on the gentle rise above Ephadon, watching them build a scaffold for Autolycus. He was due to be executed in two days, she had discovered earlier on a small excursion into the city. She intended to visit as a devotee of a Athena—it wouldn’t be so unusual, since a priestess had been there a week or two before. She dressed in a cloak to conceal her daggers—Artemis only knows if she’d have the strength to use them--and prepared to leave Ilyria in a sea cave that Xena had suggested for its privacy and remoteness.

There’s not much she doesn’t think of, Gabrielle reflected wryly. Apparently, Xena had done some fairly thorough scouting of the area before they'd left last. She prepared to leave, trying hard not to think of Xena alone with Borias. Smiling reassuringly, she asked Ilyria, "Will you be all right?"

The girl, who Gabrielle had become truly fond of, gave her a gentle push. "I can get through anything to have Autolycus beside me again." She grinned. "I think you know how that feels, huh?"

Gabrielle flushed a little, but wouldn’t deny it. "I won’t return without him, I promise." For that she got a quick hug. "And I’ll bring some food back, too."

"Be careful."

Gabrielle went into town and straight to the jail, and found to her relief that the young guard appeared to be the same one Xena had described. She pulled her hood back a little. "I’m here to counsel the prisoner in the place of the temple priestess."

He gave her a quick smile before letting her in. "I guess you’re here to see the guy they’re going to execute tomorrow. That was the one that your priestess came to see." He remembered the priestess because of her beauty, but would never voice his thoughts on that.

Her brows knitted in aggravation. "I thought that it wasn’t until two days from now."

"No, it’s been moved up. Someone was awfully anxious to get rid of him." He opened a cell and stepped aside to allow her to enter. "Just a few minutes, now." He moved down the hall to allow for some privacy.

She peered into the darkness, barely discerning the form on the straw pallet. "Xena?" the form whispered softly.

He shifted and focused his eyes. Too short. "Gabrielle?"

She knelt and gave his arm a gentle squeeze. "I’ve got her." She gave him a brief description of the cave and its location.

"She’s okay? Where’s Xena?"

"Yes, she’s just fine, and Xena had some loose ends to take care of." She rose and nodded. "The rest is up to you."

"Thank you." His voice was choked with emotion.

"Anything for a friend. See you tonight." Gabrielle saw a ghost of a smile on Autolycus’ face.

She left with a lighter heart and the unnerving sensation that something was wrong with Xena. She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself. She shrugged her shoulders and tried to concentrate on the eminent happiness of Autolycus, Ilyria, and their soon to be born baby. She couldn’t wait to see Autolycus’ face…. She stopped in the market and bought a roasted haunch for dinner, along with some figs and a loaf of nutbread.

She hummed a little to herself as she approached the cave. Storm and Argo both whickered in greeting as she walked inside. Ilyria was sipping a cup of Xena’s herbal tea, her face strained and pale.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle murmured, dropping to her knees in front of the pregnant woman and feeling her forehead. No fever, at least.

"It’s the baby. I think he’s coming." She looked into the darkness behind Gabrielle, a look of panic on her face. "Autolycus?"

"He’ll be here in a little while." Gabrielle felt the woman’s abdomen, feeling where the baby had dropped. She could feel the child shifting inside, and the muscles tensing. "Try not to push, honey. We’re not ready for that yet. Can you tell me when the pain comes?"

Ilyria nodded quietly. After a few minutes, she gasped. "Now…."

"You’ve got a while before you deliver, Illy." Gabrielle used the pet name that Ilyria was more comfortable with, arranging the furs so that the woman was in a semi-reclining position that was easier on her back. "Just try to relax. We’ve got a while before anything needs to be done."

Gabrielle fixed her a plate of food and she managed to eat a little in between spasms. To keep her preoccupied during the wait, Gabrielle told Ilyria stories about her travels with Xena.

"Tell me some about Autolycus, Gabrielle. He won’t tell me anything. I think he’s ashamed." Ilyria had let Gabrielle braid her long fiery hair, and now she played nervously with the plait. "I love him regardless of what he’s done."

Gabrielle wrapped an arm around the smaller woman in a gesture of comfort. "Autolycus has a good heart, he always managed to do the right thing in the end. He saved Xena’s life." And mine, she silently added, unable to think of a life without Xena.

"Tell me?" Ilyria whispered, caught up in another contraction.

Gabrielle nodded, knowing how hard the telling would be, but knowing that the woman needed to hear it. She told Ilyria about Xena’s death, and about how her spirit had entered Autolycus’ body.

By the time the story was finished, they were both in tears, hugging each other.

"Hey, now, what’s with the tears? Did you think I wasn’t going to make it?" Autolycus sauntered in a few minutes later.

"Tolly, thank the gods!" At her squeal of delight, Autolycus rushed to his wife’s side, enveloping her in a huge embrace.

"Are you hurt, why didn’t you get up, is everything…." His frantic litany ground to a halt as she pulled back the furs, revealing her swollen stomach. "Uh."

"I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I wanted to make sure we wouldn’t lose this one."

Autolycus hesitantly touched her belly with his hand in a caress, his eyes wide. The child inside his wife rewarded him with a sharp kick. He ran his fingers over the place on her stomach where a little foot insistently pressed. There was a look of wonder on his face as he looked at his wife. "I’m gonna be a…daddy, Illy?"

She nodded, then grimaced. "Really soon, I think. My water just broke."

"Oh, I, uh, Gabby? Help?" He sought out Gabrielle, who had been grooming the horses in an attempt to give the couple a little privacy.

She wiped the tears from her cheeks, having witnessed the touching reunion, and moved from around Argo. Silently she changed Ilyria’s shift and found some clean blankets to put beneath her. Xena had made sure that she had plenty of cloths and blankets before they left. "Hand me some cloths and boil the water…Tolly." She giggled at the look Autolycus shot her. "Revenge for calling me Gabby."

Things progressed quickly from that point forward. A few hours later, Gabrielle delivered a squalling baby girl and handed her to Autolycus. She cut the cord and delivered the afterbirth with skilled efficiency, leaving the two new parents alone long enough to bury the placenta and offer a prayer to Hestia. As Ilyria nursed the dark-haired infant, Gabrielle changed the blankets and cleaned the new mother, settling her in a more comfortable position so she could finally sleep.

As mother and child napped contentedly near the fire, Autolycus and Gabrielle sat on the other side and watched. The ex-thief looked overwhelmed and a little teary-eyed. Gabrielle just wanted morning to come so that she could get back to Xena. Something was wrong.

Autolycus looked over at the quiet bard. "Gabrielle, thank you." His gaze wandered back to sleeping wife and child. "I don’t think I could ever thank you enough."

Gabrielle patted his hand. "You’ve changed quite a bit, haven’t you? No more stealing."

"She brings out all the good in me. Why steal, when I have the greatest treasure in my possession?" He fidgeted a little under Gabrielle’s scrutiny. "I couldn’t even fight it. It was like I looked at her and saw the other half of my soul." Clearing his throat a little, he asked, "Where’s Xena?"

Gabrielle filled him in on what had happened since they’d left Ephadon, leaving out the revelation that she and Xena were in love with one another. She was still trying to get used to thinking of them that way herself. Autolycus suddenly grabbed her arm and she jumped.

"Listen to me," he murmured with sudden urgency, "I know Xena can take care of herself, but this guy is not all sweetness and love. The way you describe him and the way he acted when I saw him, well, let’s just say they’re worlds apart."

Gabrielle felt a mounting sensation of dread. "What do you mean?"

"The first time I met him, he had a family of peasants strung between poles in the center of his camp. Mother, father, two kids. He was making a deal for the woman and her children with a slaver. After they were sold, he peeled the father like an apple. The most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen, Gabby, he lived through the whole thing. The children and his wife were made to watch before they were carted away by the flesh peddler." Autolycus put his hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders. "He didn’t even get his men to do it. He did it all by himself, with a smile on his face. Kept telling the man he would regret betraying him."

"By the Gods, Autolycus…I think she still thinks of him as the man she knew before. If he thinks that Xena betrayed him all those years ago…." She leapt to her feet. "I’ve got to go to her."

Gabrielle packed as quickly as possible, taking only what she felt she’d need and no more. The rest she would leave with Autolycus and his family. "Take Argo with you. She’ll help protect you, and she’s got a steady gait. We’ll come get her after we come back this way." She talked gently to Argo, telling her that she was to go with the others for now. "Try to leave tonight. Go to Xena’s mother’s inn. She’s not far from here, and Amphipolis has got a good doctor to look after Illy and the baby. You shouldn’t go home yet, and that way, we’ll know where to find you."

She saddled Storm quickly and mounted just outside the cave. "When Illy wakes up, tell her I’ll see her soon."

Gabrielle rode like Cerebus was after her, retracing her path back to Borias’ camp. Storm sensed her master’s urgency and seemed to move faster because of it. Resting only long enough to eat and take care of the horse, it took her half the time it normally would have otherwise. Cresting the hill where she left Xena a few days before, she stopped in sheer shock.

Nothing. Everything was gone, and not even the debris of a campfire remained. In the gloom of twilight, she could only discern the churned ground where hundreds of horses had passed. Tears stung her eyes. I shouldn’t have left you.

She dismounted and led Storm behind her into the valley, looking for even a trace of Xena. Then, in the distance, she saw a huddled form.

Stumbling, her gut clenching, she ran to the body, falling to her knees beside it. "No," she said firmly. She rolled the body onto its back, ignoring the cold blood on her hands and the sickening squelch of dead flesh. "No…." Her voice was less sure this time.

It had no skin, and it lay in a puddle of frozen blood. If it had been summer, there would have been nothing left, but the cold had preserved the body well. Streamers of black hair, woven with the light blue ribbons Xena had bought in Ephadon. The skinless form had been redressed after the mutilation in a garish display of modesty. The dress was black with blood except for a small corner. It was pale blue.

All of these things were circumstantial to Gabrielle, because anyone could be dressed in Xena’s clothes. Then she looked at the face of the pitifully mutilated corpse, and her world stopped spinning with a sickening lurch. She opened her mouth to scream and nothing came out.

The eyes were open. Even after days of exposure, they were still crystal blue.

Xena’s eyes.

 

 

Part 2:

Remembrance and Restitution

I tell you, hopeless grief is passionless.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61)

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.

Hebrew Bible. Psalms 30:5.

 

Chapter 18

Gabrielle would never remember how long she knelt by the body, numbly staring at the beautiful blue eyes that gazed up at the darkening sky. She didn’t feel the tears that trickled down her cheeks, or the biting cold of the wind. She was empty.

Snow began to fall, covering the corpse with a fine white shroud. Gabrielle gathered the stiffened body close and hummed a little, rocking to soothe herself. Her conciousness dimmed, her mind attempting to cushion the devastating truth. Only one thought repeated itself. She would not let Xena go now that she had her back.

A warm hand touched her shoulder, and she found herself beside a pyre that burned brightly against the star lit sky. She looked down at her clean hands, the unfamiliar clothes, and then at the shrouded form being immolated by the flames. Smoke spiraled up in lazy drifts into the night, taking with it the last of Xena’s corporeal self.

Every star in the sky reminded her of the light in Xena’s eyes; the velvet dark was the exact shade of Xena’s hair. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, imagining the gentle breeze, warmed by the fire, was her beloved’s breath.

In her heart, she knew that Xena was gone. They had decided not to consummate their relationship until there was time to savor it; they hadn’t even shared one passionate kiss. She had wanted to be with Xena in every way, and now she would never get the chance. When the tears began anew, arms encircled her, and she fuzzily realized she was not alone anymore.

She looked up into a face that was as heartsick as she felt, illuminated in sharp relief by the flames. Joxer. Her mind wrapped itself around the reality of the man, and she was truly grateful for him. Bits and pieces came back, the memory of being lifted—dragged, really—away from the body so that Joxer could shroud the pitiful form. Joxer saying that Xena wouldn’t want her to see her like she was. The recollection of snow being scrubbed into her hands to get rid of the gluey blood, and of Joxer building the pyre for Xena, tears falling down his grimly set face. As she gazed up at Joxer, all she could manage was a whispered, "I loved her".

"I know," he said, and in that moment, she realized that he really did understand. After a second’s hesitance, he ventured, "Are you back now?"

She scrubbed a cold hand over her eyes, longing for some kind of clarity, and moved away from him to face the fire. "Yeah." She didn’t have to ask what he meant. "How long?"

He moved to stand behind her, his make shift armor and the popping of the fire the only sounds. "Day and a half."

I was "out" for a day and a half. Gods. What was I doing? She forced her mind to veer away from the possibilities. "How did you find me?"

"Actually, Autolycus found me. He pointed me in the right…direction." His voice broke a little on the last word. His question came as a plea. "Gabby, what happened?"

Gabrielle felt a part of herself crumble, and her lips tightened into a hard line. The truth? "I killed her."

Joxer grabbed her shoulders and swung her around to face him, his face contorted in the first real anger she’d ever seen him display. "You did not. You couldn’t. Why do you think that?"

She made to pull away, but Joxer wouldn’t let her go. She supposed she could wrench herself free if she tried hard enough, but honestly, she didn’t have the strength. The tears had started again, stinging raw flesh as they poured down her windburned face. The pain gave her lucidity. "She agreed to stay with him because of me. Because I hate needless death. Because of me!" The last part was screamed in a high, hysterical voice. Her ears rang with Xena’s pleading voice. Can’t I just do the warrior thing?

And then the final vision of Xena alive, looking up at her with those wonderful eyes, speaking volumes without saying a word. Her hand on Gabrielle’s leg, firm and loving, instead of the goodbye kiss they both wanted.

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around herself in a protective gesture, as if to fend off the memories, and her voice softened. "I always thought love was the answer, and Xena always said that love couldn’t solve everything in the world. I was being na´ve. She was right all along. There’s no place for love on a battlefield. I might as well have been holding the knife, Joxer." The last was said in a quiet sob. "Love is nothing." Nothing without Xena. I don’t want to be here without her.

Joxer’s warm hands framed Gabrielle’s face and he made her look at him. "Do you think Xena wants…this?" he asked quietly.

Gabrielle shook her head mutely, unable to deny the truth she saw in Joxer’s eyes. Xena would hate to hear her saying such things, even if they were true.

They say the dead can hear the thoughts of the living. I love you, Xena. And I will make sure that Borias pays for your death. If it is the last thing I do, your death will not go unpunished.

Joxer dropped his hands away from Gabrielle’s face. Over the years, Xena had taught him that sometimes it was best to retreat in the face of insurmountable odds. He had seen the naked fury in Gabrielle’s green eyes for just a fleeting instant, and knew that Gabrielle was headed down a dark path. If he couldn’t stop her, he would at least follow her and try to protect her. Xena would have expected no less.

Decision made, Joxer straightened his hat and crossed his arms against the cold. "So where are you headed now?"

With effort, Gabrielle focused. Gods, my head hurts. "Amphipolis. She’d want to be next to Lyceus. Her ashes belong at home." Xena was my home. Where do I go from here? What should I do? Anger tore through her in almost painful waves, replacing the emptiness with a profound desire for revenge. He deserves to die. There was no one that was more special than my Xena. She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the thought and replace it with a less dangerous one. The motion made her dizzy.

"Where’s your horse?" Joxer asked, breaking her reverie.

"Huh?"

"Your horse," Joxer repeated patiently. "I know you were riding one…."

"Storm! You mean she wasn’t here when you found me?" Xena’s gift. I’ve lost her, too. Where did she go? She reached up her hand to touch the beads around her neck, the amber warm from her skin. At least I still have these.

The back of the bard’s neck prickled in an unmistakable warning. She gasped, feeling searing pain travel down her spine. Gabrielle knew that something was seriously wrong with her body. She turned panicked eyes to the campsite and the surrounding trees, feeling herself start to slip back into the void.

When Gabrielle fell bonelessly forward, Joxer was right there to catch her. He thought it was of little wonder; he knew losing Xena, sitting in the bitter cold for hours in the mud, and not eating or drinking would eventually all take its toll. It would be too much for anyone to deal with.

As he lifted her into his arms, Joxer felt the heat that radiated off of the bard and realized that this was more than exhaustion. Gabrielle needed a healer, and she needed one now. Once the pyre had burned down, he would take both Xena and Gabrielle home…together…one last time.

Chapter 19

The falling snow quickly developed into a blizzard as Joxer made his way to Amphipolis, dragging an unconscious Gabrielle and Xena’s ashes behind him on a litter. He used familiar landmarks to guide him; the snow was so thick at times that he couldn’t see the sky at all. Even this time of year, heavy snow was highly unusual in this part of Greece.

Joxer knew that if he didn’t hurry, he’d be building a funeral pyre for the bard as well. Then, he would build one for himself, because even if he could never have her, a life without her in it would never be worth living.

Joxer's legs were so numb from the cold, he almost fell through the front door of the inn. It was very late, and there were few people downstairs; one of those people happened to be Autolycus. Recognizing him instantly, Autolycus helped Joxer pull the litter inside, looking towards the open door expectantly.

Joxer grabbed Autolycus by the arm and shook his head sadly. No words were needed; Autolycus’ face fell as the truth slammed home. He knelt beside Gabrielle and hugged her, even though she was oblivious to the gesture. "I’m so sorry…."

Cyrene bustled out of the kitchen ready to scold the patron that had left the door open. The draft could be felt all the way to the back of the inn. She stopped in mid-stride when she saw the scene before her. Joxer was sitting on the floor in a pool of melting snow; Autolycus knelt with an unconscious Gabrielle in his arms. The urn in the litter next to the bard told its own story. No one needed to tell Xena’s mother that her daughter was home to stay.

Choking back a sob, she ordered one of the serving girls to go for the healer. Gabrielle was near death now, and her health took priority over Cyrene’s grief.

Dry, relentless heat radiated from Gabrielle’s body. Joxer had tried to force her to drink during the arduous trip, but she was unresponsive to his pleas. It was as if she had given up and decided to join Xena in the underworld.

Cyrene moved her to the kitchen, the warmest place in the inn, and began trying to lower her body temperature with cool cloths. A little later, Illyria, awakened by Autolycus, came downstairs with the baby. Placing the little one in her basket near the hearth, she shooed the men out of the kitchen and began to help Cyrene change the bard into warm, dry clothes. When they did all they could, they waited for the healer; Cyrene busying herself making a weak broth, Illyria by talking softly to Joxer in an effort to find out what had happened. Joxer was reticent, preferring to relate the story just once, and escaped to the main room.

The healer arrived with her assistant shortly thereafter, and asked for privacy to examine the patient. Illyria scooped up her baby and left, pulling Cyrene with her.

Joxer was seated in front of the main room’s large fire, staring despondently into the flames. He clutched the urn in his arms, mouth working, trying to think of what he could possibly say to Cyrene about her daughter’s death. Yes, Cyrene, it was just as you always feared, it was violent, and bloody, and horrible…and Gabrielle found her like that, and I found Gabrielle cradling your daughter’s corpse like a babe in the middle of a snow covered field.

He shook his head at the horror of that moment. Gabrielle’s face, blank, her tears rolling down and plinking on the cold dead flesh of Xena’s ravaged face. She was muttering endearments and apologies and rocking the body soothingly. He had figured out much of what happened from her ramblings. It had taken every bit of his strength to move her away from her best friend. Mad with grief, she’d almost taken his head off his shoulders.

He calmed her as best he could and covered Xena’s body. He told her that Xena would never want her to see her this way. Gabrielle became very quiet and sat with her hands in her lap in the snow, staring at the blood that covered them. Joxer took her limp hands and used the snow to get rid of the slimy mess, and gave Gabrielle a clean shirt to wear. She stared at it blankly, so Joxer dressed her himself, looking away from her nakedness. Satisfied that she would stay put, he began building a pyre for Xena’s body. It took a full day to find enough wood to make it burn properly.

It was as the pyre began to burn that Gabrielle had moved to stand next to him, and he had laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. She came back then, if briefly. She might not ever come back again; her need to be with Xena may be too strong.

He looked up as Cyrene sat beside him. There was unspeakable pain in her eyes, and she held out her hands for the box he cradled so gently. He gave it over willingly, this part of his self-imposed mission through. Xena was home safely.

Cyrene stared at the object in her hands, once the small glazed container Gabrielle had used to hold her bottled inks. Gabrielle’s bag and staff had been lying beside her in the mud, dropped by uncaring hands. Joxer had despaired of finding anything to put the ashes in, but he’d found the box at the bottom of her satchel wrapped protectively in fox fur. It was something, at least. He re-wrapped the inks carefully and placed them in the bard’s bag. Now Cyrene’s fingers traced the delicate patterns in the pottery absently, trying to think of a way to ask the unthinkable.

Joxer, with unusual perception, said, "I don’t know exactly what happened, Cyrene. I don’t think I want to know." He nodded toward Autolycus. "I only stumbled along at the end."

Cyrene looked up at the man who would be a warrior. "I know all of the story but the end. Tell me. Everything." Very quietly, Autolycus and Illyria sat on the other side of Joxer, their hands intertwined, needing to hear the ending as well.

Joxer told the entire story, what he knew and what he inferred from Gabrielle’s rambling. He left out nothing, and tried to be oblivious to the sobbing of the small group of Xena’s friends that surrounded him. Everyone in the room mourned the Warrior Princess.

Except one.

She lurked in the shadows behind the bar, a small, evil grin plastered on her elfin face. Xena, with her innate sense for danger, would have known who it was. Maybe even Gabrielle would have sensed it, had she been conscious. The servant girl remained for a moment longer, watching, before disappearing with a muted silver flash.

Chapter 20

Gabrielle lay on the cot next to the fire, languishing near death. The healer had done all she could for the bard. It was in the hands of the Gods.

Illyria or Cyrene was always at her side. Cyrene was there the most often, holding Gabrielle’s hand, understanding at last that her daughter had loved this gentle girl more than her own life. By being here with Gabrielle, maybe Xena would know that her mother accepted the woman that Xena had become. She cried for her daughter, and for the bard who loved her daughter with such profound trust. The kind of love that Xena's own mother was never capable of showing to her daughter.

Cyrene had an inn to run, and Illyria, a daughter to tend. There were times for brief moments that Gabrielle was alone. In these moments, a concerned form would appear and hover near the bard. In the final days, as Gabrielle’s mortal body began to give way, Aphrodite decided that she could take no more.

"This is not technically breaking a promise, is it? I mean, I’m not telling her anything, right?" The Goddess of love muttered to herself, standing over the prone bard in an agony of indecision. "No. This is okay. Ares has no right to do this to Gabrielle." With a wave of her hand, Aphrodite removed the parasitic spell that Ares had thrown over Gabrielle. She knelt and whispered, "It’s all up to you now. Remember, things aren’t as they seem to be." She disappeared as Gabrielle awakened.

The bard lay staring up at the ceiling as reality came crashing down, pondering the Goddess of love’s parting words. Whatever Aphrodite had done to her had brought her back to land of the living; her body was weak, but otherwise okay. Hungry, too--that meant that she was on her way back to normalcy. She sat up experimentally, wincing at the rush of dizziness that threatened to bring her down again.

"Gabby?"

She focused on Joxer and gave him a weak smile. "Yeah. It’s definitely me. How long was I out this time?" When he told her a full month, she almost passed back out again. So much time lost.

Gabrielle was swooped up in a hug before she could think to protest. Within minutes, people surrounded her; her eyes found and focused on the only face that mattered.

The bright blue eyes—Xena’s eyes—held hers for a moment before Cyrene came forward to envelop the bard in a heartfelt embrace. She tried to stutter out an apology between sobs, Cyrene shushed her and held her tighter. The others in the room melted away as Cyrene tried to do for Gabrielle what she’d never be able to do for Xena. It was the last gift to the little girl she could barely remember.

"Gabrielle, listen to me. You helped Xena to change. You brought the light into my daughter’s eyes." Cyrene’s voice was firm. "Don’t dishonor her by taking that final decision away from her and onto yourself. It was Xena’s choice. It always has been."

Gabrielle shook her head mutely.

"No, Gabrielle. Xena has always been her own person. You know that the decision was hers, don’t you?" Cyrene paused. "She wouldn’t want you to go down the road she traveled."

Green eyes widened in shock.

Cyrene gave a morbid little chuckle. "I’ve seen the look, remember? You’re thinking of revenge. So am I. Who wouldn’t?" She smoothed Gabrielle’s hair back from her face. "I know Xena would be horrified if I went after blood in her name. I would become the person she was trying so hard to leave behind." She patted the bard’s arm comfortingly. "Xena lies next to her brother. When you’re ready."

Cyrene was gone, leaving her in silence. How do I start living again? How can I? The anger came and went. She thought of all the times she’d watched Xena battle her dark side and sighed, understanding at last what a hard fight it must have been. Stretching carefully, she felt her body with tentative hands. Her ribs stuck out from her emaciated body; her hipbones were too prominent. The way I eat, that won’t last long.

Gabrielle found a bowl of broth waiting for her on the table. She ate slowly, satisfied when her stomach didn’t rebel. Grabbing a dried apple from the cellar, she slowly walked to the stables, stomach clenching.

The family tomb was on a rise overlooking the sea. Xena had told her stories about how she and Lyceus played together on these cliffs, pretending to be pirates. Gabrielle’s eyes misted as she thought of the child that Xena was so long ago.

Cyrene kept the tomb clean and the sepulchres decorated with wreathes of meadow flowers in the spring and summer; evergreen boughs were placed in the colder months where flowers were not to be had. There were two carved likeness now, where once there had only been Lyceus’. She remembered the first time she had been in here; it was right after she’d first met Xena. You’re not alone anymore.

She reverently addressed Lyceus first, telling him how she wished she could have met him. Then, before she could lose the nerve, she turned to Xena’s sarcophagus.

The likeness was astounding. She hesitantly ran her fingers over the stone, half-expecting to feel warmth. The Greek characters on the base read: Daughter, Mother, Warrior, Beloved. A final ode, nameless for fear of desecration, left by those that knew Xena better than she knew herself. She was all those things, and yet so much more.

There isn’t enough stone in Greece to carve what you meant to me. Gabrielle laid her head over the chest of the figure and wept softly.

Leaving the tomb, Gabrielle headed straight for the stable. Argo nickered in soft greeting, recognizing the bard’s scent. Gabrielle gave Argo the apple and began brushing her methodically, letting the motion calm her. Everything reminds me of you. The tears came—had they ever really stopped, she wondered--and she welcomed them as part of the healing that would have to happen to be able to live without Xena. Argo nudged her, gazing at Gabrielle with sad eyes. "You know, huh?"

Argo whickered softly.

"Just you and me now, girl. I think Xena would want us that way." She leaned her head on Argo’s shoulder. "I have to find him. He’s got to be brought to justice for what he did to Xena, and for all the pain he put Autolycus and Illyria through. Autolycus needs his life back." She felt the impotent, bitter rage swell within her and resolutely stomped it down. Cyrene was right about that. "No. Not for revenge. Because it’s the right thing to do."

She felt Ares behind her before she saw him. Turning, she focused on the God of war, dumping him on his bottom with a pitchfork that had been leaning against Argo’s stall. She studied Ares insolently, daring him to do his worse. I don’t care anymore.

‘Testy, aren’t we?" he growled, climbing to his feet. This is more interesting than I thought.

"Go away."

"No. You and I have something in common."

"I doubt it."

He paused dramatically. "I want this guy Borias gone. I think you’re the woman for the job."

"Did he mess up your little game?" Gabrielle asked bitterly.

"You could say that. Xena was never supposed to die." He paused in lieu of an apology. "He’s headed west, and will eventually take a boat to Ch’in. Stop him before it’s too late." He looked at her curiously. "I underestimated you. I won’t make that mistake again."

He was gone before Gabrielle could form a response. She stared at Argo, considering Aphrodite’s earlier words.

Things aren’t as they seem to be.

Continued - Part 2

 


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