Standard Disclaimer - These characters, most of them, belong to Universal, and Renaissance Pictures, and whoever else has a stake in Xena: Warrior Princess. This is written just in fun, and no copyright infringement was intended.

Specific Story Disclaimers:

Violence –Yep - there is violence here. If you don't want hear graphic descriptions of bones crunching, and steel cutting into various body parts, don't go no further. Nobody out there watches Xena just so they can collect Gabrielle's Handy Housekeeping Hints. Be warned.

Subtext - Subtext. Oh, heck yes, there is subtext, maintext, supertext, call it what you like. This story is about two women who are in love with each other and we're not pretending any of this best friend/sister/mother/daughter stuff. Nothing is graphic, we stick to PG13, but if it gets your shorts in a wad to think about two female persons sleeping together, please try some other stories. There are lots of really good ones - check Xeno's listings under general fanfic.

And while we're on the subject, if you do read past the above warning, and are offended by the love described in the story, email me your snail mail address, so I can send you some nice rum balls. (it's the season for it.) Cause I feel bad for you.


 Any and all comments are always welcome. You can email them to: 

The Longest Night - Part 1

By Melissa Good

The midmorning sun weakly patterned through the sparse leaves, speckling a rough hewn path that lead up into the hills above Amphipolis, and throwing shifting patterns of light and shadow across the moving bodies of a tall, dark haired woman and a large black wolf.

The woman carried a heavy pack across her shoulders, which was strapped down tightly to keep it from bouncing in time with her long, powerful strides. The wolf loped alongside, tongue lolling out, his ears pricked to the myriad of sounds coming from the surrounding brush.

"Not bad, Ares." Xena commented, glancing down at her companion. "Four big rabbits, a string of fish, and a pair of black foxes whose pelts are going to make someone very happy." She took a deep breath of the cold air, and sped up her pace, lengthening he strides and leaping over the rocks and small gullies in the path.

Gods.. this feels good. She sighed to herself. They'd been stuck indoors for a week, with ice storms pelting down and locking the water supply into a solid frozen block, and this had been the first day with any decent weather. Xena had decided to check her traps, reasoning that she really didn't know when she'd be able to get back out, as Gabrielle really hated when she went out in the storms.

And she hated when Gabrielle was unhappy, so that was pretty much that. She grinned privately to herself. Besides, she was human.. she hated being out in the weather just as much.. besides, she could always clear the floor in the inn, and amuse herself by sparring with the visiting Amazons.

It had been almost two weeks since a plunge under the ice had caused the Amazon regent Ephiny to get sick, and the blond woman was steadily recovering. As predicted, a delegation of Amazons had arrived a few days ago to provide her with a proper escort, with Eponin at their head, and Xena had immediately sent the dour Amazon into an indignant frenzy when she mentioned her surprise at the lack of stamina she'd been noticing in Eponin's compatriots.

The warrior chuckled quietly at the reaction.. she hadn't lacked for sparring partners since, but had, she privately smirked, proven her point by running them ragged at every opportunity, and after spending a solid week lazing around in bed with Gabrielle as the bard's ribs slowly healed, she'd had a lot of energy, among other things, that needed to be burned off. The Amazons were a perfect solution.

"That's not nice." Gabrielle had chided her, as they snuggled quietly near the fireplace in their cabin. "You're driving Pony crazy." Not that she hadn't noticed the bard's smug grin while watching, of course.

Xena had nibbled her ear playfully. "I know." She'd whispered. "She'll live."

"Xena.. she has those poor Amazons doing push ups in the stable." The bard had objected, with a grin.

"Good." The warrior had chuckled. "They'll keep Argo entertained."

A sound.. so close to natural, it could have been an animal.. could have been the wind brushing two branches. But Xena felt her instincts come live, sweeping across her body and making it sensitive to the faintest of signs.

"Well, Ares." Xena sighed, continuing her steady, purposeful jog. "Looks like we've got three of them." Amazons..they never learn.

"Roo?" The wolf looked up at her inquiringly.

"No, three." She corrected him, jumping over a boulder in her path. "Two on the left, and one on the right."

"Roo?" Ares bounded along happily.

'Yep, two. On the left." Xena playfully agreed. "One of those two is wearing a set of those bone necklaces the Amazons love, and other's wearing leathers that are way too tight."

"Argrhhoo." Ares muttered.

"Yeah, I hear em squeaking." Xena confirmed. "The one on the right… " She concentrated, then let out a low chuckle. "Looks like I lured out Eponin, Ares." Big surprised there.. the older Amazon instructor had taken her challenge somewhat.. er.. personally. Last night she'd tried to sneak up behind Xena at the inn, and been stopped, to Xena's great amusement and pride, by an almost unthinking dump block from the startled, but pleased Gabrielle. "Always pays to have the best watching your back." Xena had drawled to the disgusted Eponin, which had gotten her a look of pure love from the bard, and a fierce hug in the bargain. It had been a good night.

They were travelling alongside, and slightly ahead of her, and she could see a small, heavily leafed junction ahead that would be perfect for an ambush. They were so.. unimaginative sometimes. Xena sighed. Now.. if it had been her.. but then, she reflected, she very seldom had to ambush herself. How would she go about that? A moment's serious thought. Nets.. darts… a pit maybe? Nothing that would put her within arms reach of herself, that's for sure. Or kicking range.

I could keep this going. Xena mused, considering. We could be trying to clobber each other until after Solstice. She consciously let her steps slow, and sensed her trackers slowing as well. Or I could just do this. She bounced to a halt, and ambled over to a convenient rock, seating herself on it, and shrugging off her pack. Ares circled around her twice, before curling himself around her feet and letting out a big sigh. And make Gabrielle happy.

Xena crossed her arms and waited, leaning back against the rock face and checking her pulse idly. Hmm.. not too bad. She reflected, as she heard the bare whispers as the Amazons consulted. "C'mon Eponin." The warrior called out lazily, letting her head rest against the rock.

A rustle of underbrush, and Eponin was standing on the path, hands on hips, glaring at her. "Stopping for a rest?"

I have nothing to prove to anyone. Xena smiled at her. "Yep." She rummaged in her pack, and motioned the Amazon over. "C'mere." The Amazon was wearing a winter version of their leathers, which covered her upper body, and ended at mid thigh, with a tight fitting pair of leggings and her usual boots. The cold air had brought red patches to her cheekbones, and she had her hands tucked under her arms for warmth.

Eponin narrowed her eyes, then sighed, and threw up her hands, walking forward and shaking her head. "What?" She growled, stopping in front of the seated warrior.

"Siddown." Xena indicated the rock next to her. Xena herself was wearing a thick burgundy woolen shirt over her dark blue leathers, grey leggings, and a light pair of lined gauntlets against the frosty air. She felt, and looked, infinitely more comfortable than her Amazon counterpart who had sniiffed at her offer of warmer clothing. Had said it was an example of how home life was softening Xena up, something which the warrior had surprised Eponin by cheerfully admitting. Now she smirked as Eponin rubbed her arms in the chill, as she sat at her ease on her rock.

Eponin sat down, resting her elbows on her knees, and propping her chin on her hands.

"Look." Xena unwrapped the package she'd pulled out of her pack, and offered it to the Amazon. "Here… meat pies. Take one."

Eponin hesitated, then rolled her eyes and complied, taking a delicate bite and chewing. Antagonism or no, she wasn't going to turn down Cyrene's cooking. None of the Amazons had.. not a surprising reaction considering what Xena remembered of their adequate, but hardly interesting meals.

"Look." Xena started again. "Can we cut out the ambushes?"

The Amazon's eyebrows rose. "S'matter, Xena.. we getting too close?" Her dark eyes held a sparkle of competitive humor. "You slowing down a little?" Her eyes studied the warrior's relaxed form critically.

A shrug "Maybe.'" Xena answered quietly. "I've tried to take things a little easier lately." She gazed at the startled Eponin. "Listen..I let my guard down when I'm here… I just don't want any accidents happening."

Eponin gazed at her for a long moment. "So.. you're afraid you won't react in time?" She asked cautiously, a surprised note in her voice.

Xena shook her head. "No." A brief smile. "I'm afraid I won't not react in time." She met the Amazon's dark eyes steadily. "You come from around a blind corner and surprise me, and my body will react all right.. only I may not be able to stop that before someone gets hurt." C'mon, Pony.. remember who I am, all right? Even if I am.. Her mind hesitated, not wanting the admission, but she forced it on. Slowing down a little, you're still playing a very, very dangerous game.

A flicker of motion, and she was reaching behind her, long fingers grabbing thick leathers, and pulling with an overhand motion. In a clatter of limbs, one of Eponin's companions was pulled completely over Xena's head, and dumped unceremoniously on her behind, and lay there gasping, blinking at Xena in startled disbelief.

Eponin sighed. "You take all the fun out of things, Xena." She gave the warrior a wry look. "I haven't had a challenge like you in I can't think how long." She peered off into the brush. "Ellis? Get out here before you get a broken arm."

Xena tapped her on the leg, and the Amazon glanced over. "She's over there." The warrior grinned impishly, pointing with one finger. They both watched the underbrush, and slowly it parted, and Ellis' freckled face peeked out.

Eponin rubbed her temples, then gave Xena a look. "Slowing down huh? "

The warrior shrugged modestly.

"Xena, they'd have to encase you in a sack of honey to slow you down enough for anyone to put a finger on you." The Amazon burst out laughing, and gave the warrior a little slap on the leg. "All right.. all right.. a truce."

Ellis rose to her feet and came closer, holding out a hand to help up her fellow Amazon. "C'mon Raina." The brown haired girl stood and dusted herself off with a wince. "Ouch"

"Sorry." Xena's lips twitched. "Here." She handed around the packet of meat pies.

"I shouldn't." Ellis sighed, patting her belly. "Between this weather and my appetite, I've about outgrown these leathers. " But she took one anyway. "Guess one more won't kill me." The redhead perched on a rock behind Eponin and thoughtfully took a bite, her eyes surreptitiously studying the tall, dark haired form relaxing in their midst. Even then.. Ellis noted, there was a sense of.. fine alertness to Xena, as her senses kept watch on their surroundings at an edgy level just below her casually offhand demeanor. Like a wild animal, almost.. like the wolf curled in apparent sleep at her boots, whose ear tips flicked at every gust of the wind. Senses tuned to such a high degree, they needed no conscious thought.

She was feral. She was dangerous.. Ellis could almost feel the thrumming waves of energy coming off her that made the Amazon's nape lift, and her skin tingle. She thought, not for the first time, that Eponin was crazy to keep pushing at her, trusting the warrior's instincts to be able to stop herself before one of them got really hurt. Glad, now, that Xena herself had recognized the danger and called a halt to the game. She herself had caught a light, pulled kick on her upper thigh from the warrior during their sparring, that still ached, and she'd felt in the blow the knowledge that, at full speed, and strength, the kick would have broken her leg like a piece of kindling.

They said she'd come back from the dead. Ellis believed it. They whispered that she was more to Ares than a protégé, and Ellis believed that too. She was afraid of Xena, and knew most of her companions were, also. But.. there was Gabrielle, their gentle and sensitive queen, whose eyes bestowed nothing but adoration on this dark creature, who fearlessly tugged her around by the shirt, who drowsily cuddled against her. And whose presence caused Xena's ice blue eyes to gentle, and soften. Who received from the daunting warrior the same look of unstinting devotion that she, herself gave.

Love was, Ellis mused, a strange, and inexplicable thing. But she hoped that she would, someday, know it like those two did.

They all munched companionably for a short while, Then Eponin glanced up at the other two Amazons. "You lot go on back.. we'll catch up with you."

Exchanging glances, the two younger Amazons bit off brief grins, then started off, giving them a wave goodbye.

Xena finished off her snack, and dusted her hands off lightly, waiting. Ok.. ok. Eponin.. you've got something to say, so.. out with it. I've got a bard to hunt berries for. "What's up?" She queried, giving the Amazon a tolerant look.

Eponin studied the ground for a minute, then looked up. " Just wanted to say thank you."

Xena's brows creased. "For what?" She let her mind wander over the past few days, searching for some hidden favor she'd done the Amazon, and coming up empty. Then she caught Eponin's expression and mentally slapped herself. "Oh.. Ephiny. Right." She lifted a hand and let it drop. "Right place, right time, I guess. Glad I was there." Feels like it's been forever.. so much happened between then and now.

"Right place, right time, right person." The Amazon answered quietly. "I couldn't have broken up that ice, and sure as bees fly those kids couldn't either." She sighed. "Damn.. and I had a feeling something was wrong with her, too." She shot a glance at the warrior. "You ever get those?"

Xena couldn’t keep the sudden grin off her face. "Uhm…No.. no, of course not." The warrior lifted a hand. "That would take an imagination, and, well.. you know me

Eponin cocked her head. "What's that fox swallowed the hen's egg look for?"

The warrior bit her lip, and got her face under control, and shook her head. "Nothing.. "

The Amazon stood, and put her hands on her hips. 'Bears don't piss silently in the forest, and you don't smile for no reason, Xena."

"Hmm.. " Xena temporized, stuffing the rest of the package back into her backpack, and standing up, slinging the pack onto her broad shoulders and fastening the straps tightly. "Nothing.. really.. just thinking.. of those girls. They were.. really.. uh.. a handful."

"Uh huh." Eponin commented. "Well, I know they get a bit overexcited sometimes." She sniffed reflectively. "Except your Cait, that is." She paused. "You have loosened up a lot, you know."

"Have I?" Xena asked mildly.

"Yeah." Eponin gave her a brief grin. "You talk in full sentences now." Her eyes twinkled. "Took me a while to get used to.. Gabrielle must be rubbing off on you."

Xena snorted. "Uh huh." She rested one booted foot on the boulder and leaned on it. "I hear she had fun sparring with you all when she was out there." Completely unable to keep from tweaking Eponin, aren't you? I think we're too much alike.

The Amazon warrior folded her arms and glanced away. "She surprised me." Eponin admitted. "I didn't think she really had the aptitude for that." Her lips pursed. "But she's… really, really good." A sigh. "Guess she found the right teacher." Now Eponin looked direct at Xena. "I couldn’t believe how changed she was the last time I saw her. Like a different person."

Xena studied her face for a minute, then gave her a little nod. "Yeah, I know." She agreed quietly. "She's been through a lot."

"Haven't we all." Eponin sighed, rubbing her neck.

"Yeah." Xena ran out of small talk, and reached over, tapping Eponin on the shoulder. "Hey."

"What?" The Amazon asked, rubbing her arm. "Ouch."

"Race you." Xena winked at her, then took off jogging down the path, Ares bounding along next to her.

"Oh Hades codpiece." Eponin sighed, and took off after her.

It was almost noon before Xena hit the muddy road that led into Amphipolis. She'd lost Eponin some time before, when she'd detoured to a favorite spot locked between two sheltering bluffs, finding a small cache of elderberries there, and snagging them up with a satisfied grin.

The courtyard was packed, she noticed, filled with villagers and what looked like travelers, beaten by the weather and gathered in tight around the entrance to the inn. Xena was about to go around to the back entrance, when she heard voices begin to rise, and spotted the sturdy, fair haired form who was smack in the middle of the crowd.

A few steps brought her to the edges of the crowd, and she peered over the heads of the tired looking strangers, sensing no immediate danger. Gabrielle was standing by the inn door, her arms crossed over her chest, and her head tilted in a familiar gesture of listening. The woman who was facing her wore a battered woolen tunic, and was covered with mud, as well as a liberal scattering of bruises and scrapes. The bard was wearing one of Xena's heavier tan shirts, the oversized fabric gathered at her waist by a tooled leather belt that matched the russet dyed boots encasing her powerful legs to the knee, both recent gifts from her partner. Xena allowed her eyes to drink in the sight before letting the words of the woman facing her penetrate her mind, noting with pride the respect in the eyes of the crowd listening to the exchange.

"Murderers, they are!!" The woman stated, emphatically. "They don't let you live.. our village was pounded near flat by the storm.. could they spare it? No." She lifted her hands and let them drop. "Every last blessed thing they took, and beat us besides."

"So.. they chased you all the way here?" Gabrielle asked, gently, feeling her partner's presence, but keeping her attention on the woman.

"No." The man next to her gruffly asserted. "They broke off a ways back, soon as they seen we were on our way here." His gray eyes studied Gabrielle. "They say raiders don't come to Amphipolis."

Gabrielle took a quiet breath. "That's mostly true." She admitted. "We have a strong village guard, and we watch our borders." Unconsciously, her eyes slid to the right. And, of course, there's another reason. A grin tugged at her lips.

Xena slowly moved her way through the crowd, politely nudging aside the first few rows of onlookers, and then finding her way cleared as she made her presence felt. She stepped into the center of the crowd, and joined her partner, studying the refugees with a serious expression. She put a casual hand on Gabrielle's back, and felt the bard lean into it, her fingers sensing the warmth of her partner's body through the thick fabric.

"Looks like the situation out there is getting worse." The bard commented, "Josclyn is trying to find shelter for them." She waited for Xena to move closer, then leaned on the warrior's shoulder with a gentle familiarity.

Xena nodded quietly, and turned to the woman, who was gazing at her uneasily. "How far back did they leave you?"

"A day back." It was the man who answered, his scruffy beard bristling. "Been a long road."

Josclyn moved his way through then, giving Xena a brief nod, and winking at Gabrielle. "All right then.. we've got a small homestead just outside the pale here… it's been deserted since the woman who worked it died this past moon. If you're wanting to put some work into it, it's yours." He cast a quick glance at the bard, who smiled warmly at him. "It's not a prince's palace, but it's whole, and it's got a roof."

The woman smiled gratefully at him. "It's a gift of the gods." She shared a relieved look with the man, evidently her husband. "Mikae, we'll stay?"

The man let out a long sigh. "Aye." He took Josclyn's proffered arm, and shook it. "We're more grateful than I can say. We've got the children here.. " He jerked his head at the small, rough hewn wagon they'd been pulling by hand, where three small boys huddled. "And these few folk who managed to come with us." His look took in the two young women, who were clutching each other, and the older woman and younger man, evidently a mother and son who were watching with frightened eyes.

"There's room for the lot of you." Josclyn assured them. "I'll take you there." He glanced around. "Welcome to Amphipolis. This here is our inn.. we've been working with the innkeeper on kind of a joint larder this winter.. got some extra for you if you can use it. " He smiled at them. "And it looks like ye can." He exchanged smiles with them. "Come on.. I'll give you the tour on the way."

They moved off, not without several curious looks back at the grimly watching Gabrielle, and the tall, dark haired woman next to her. "Who were they?" Mikae asked Josclyn, as they rounded the corner of the inn. His wife leaned close, listening eagerly.

Josclyn smothered a grin. "The pale haired one, that's our storyteller. Name's Gabrielle.. she's a wondrous fair bard, and an even better bargainer." He cleared his throat. "The other.. well, that's Xena."

They stopped short, right there in the mud covered walkway. "Artemis' bright blessings." The woman exclaimed, shocked. "But I thought… you're harboring that kind here?"

Jos turned to face them, his hands on his hips. "Now look." He said, giving them a severe stare. "Ye asked why raiders stay clear of us….well, she's why." He paused. "We're not harboring anyone.. she lives here. It's her home."

Mikae held up a hand. "No offense intended, sir." He wiped the hand over his mud-spattered head. "I'll take any protection, at this fork in the road." He nudged his wife. "Right, honey?" He paused. "Leese?"

"Oh.. yes." The woman fluttered. "I'm sorry.. I just didn't.. well, I'm sure it's fine."

They trudged on, as a little silence dropped over them.

Gabrielle glanced up, as she felt Xena's arm settle around her shoulders, and slid a returning arm around the warrior's waist. "Hey." She sighed, staring after the refugees. "Those poor people."

"Mmm." Xena responded, grabbing the door to the inn and pulling it open. "They got lucky.. C'mon."

They entered the inn, and Xena released her partner as she turned towards the kitchen. "Hang on.. gotta drop this off." She muttered, pushing open the kitchen door and entering. "Hey, Eustase.." The cook turned round and smiled at her. "Some more additions to your stores." She slid the heavy pack off her shoulders, and onto a work table, as Eustase bustled forward.

"Goodness…" She tugged at the pack. "What in Olympus do you have in here, ma'am?"

Xena gave her a dark, intent look.

"Sorry." Eustase dimpled a smile. "Habit." She freed the leather straps and opened the package, peering inside. "Lovely." She pronounced, with a grin. "Thank you, Xena."

That got a grudging smile back from the tall, dark haired woman. "Anytime." She gave the cook a pat on the arm, then turned and walked back into the inn, where she spotted Gabrielle perched on a corner of the table where the Amazons had gathered. She studied the bard closely as she moved forward, relieved to see Gabrielle’s relaxed posture, and apparent freedom from the nagging pain of her recently fractured ribs. The bard had, only yesterday, resumed some very limited, and very light work with her staff, and seemed to have suffered no ill effects from the workout. However, the close quarters and incessant squabbling that everyone seemed to want the bard to solve had put Gabrielle on edge, and her injury hadn't helped.

"You’d think the weather would have kept down that kind of thing." Gabrielle commented, as her partner joined the small group at the table. "I don’t get it."

Xena chose a support post to lean against, and shrugged, exchanging knowing looks with Ephiny. "Probably more desperate than the villagers they’re after." The Amazon regent nodded in agreement. "They can’t have any settled hideout.. they’re more than likely using some of the caves in the low hills just north of here."

"They sound like they’re attacking the weakest victims they can find.." Ephiny commented. "They’re probably not much better off." The blond Amazon leaned back in her chair, and took a sip from the mug she held in one hand. "I don’t think we’re in much danger."

A chuckle traveled around the table, and Ephiny grinned, glad to be finally able to sit quietly and talk without being racked by painful coughing. She still felt exhausted, but she could walk around the inn by herself, and had even managed a few steps outside with Eponin and Gabrielle as hovering attendants earlier that morning. It had felt really good to see the sun, especially after the rough weather they’d been having.

Weather, she reflected, that had forced them all indoors, and half driven her fellow Amazons to distraction, until Xena had taken pity on all of them and took them on for some indoor sparring sessions that had relieved a lot of the tension. And provided her and the reluctantly sidelined Gabrielle with a memorable show, as the fitful lightning outside mixed with the ruddy torchlight in reflecting off the smoothly moving bodies, throwing sharp shadows against the walls as first individually, then as a group the Amazons pitted themselves against Xena.

Who had shunned her armor, and even her leathers, facing them in her padded gambeson that showed years of hard usage, and a pair of light, indoor boots that caused only minimal damage when the Amazons were incautious enough to be caught by one of her kicks.

She had been pulling her blows, Ephiny knew, and Gabrielle had pointed out in a soft whisper. And even so her deadly ability had been evident and caused long, late night conversations between the Amazon warriors that had even Ephiny rolling her eyes. But it had relaxed the tensions, and made the long evenings much more enjoyable, when they’d gather around one of the larger tables at the inn, and trade stories until the late hours. Except for Xena, of course, who would sit and listen, but prod Gabrielle into any storytelling that was required.

"No, probably not." Xena answered her droll observation. "But we should be careful anyway.. no sense in inviting trouble." Her eyes flicked to her partner, and a small grin crossed her face. "Not with you around, anyway." She gently bumped the bard’s shoulder, and got a mock glare in return.

A round of chuckles followed, and Gabrielle just shook her head in wry disgust. "Thanks." She muttered over her shoulder, then felt the warmth of Xena’s hand on her back, and the warrior’s closeness.

"Just kidding." The whisper gently gusted against her ear, and she allowed her annoyance to dissipate reluctantly, as she slid off the table and stood up, stretching a little and giving her partner a bump in the ribs in return.

"I’m going to get some lunch." The bard commented. "I have the villagers begging for a sparring session after that.. if the weather holds." She turned and headed towards the kitchen, aware of Xena’s silent presence next to her. She glanced up. "Don’t you dare."

The warrior blinked. "Huh?"

"You’re going to tell me not to do a session this afternoon." The bard said, flatly. "I can tell."

Xena gave her a look.

"See?" She commented, with a shake of the head. "I never realized why you hated people hovering before now. I’m fine, OK?" Gabrielle paused with her hand on the kitchen door, turning to glance back at her partner who hadn’t answered.

Found serious blue eyes soberly looking at her, glinting in the reflected pale light from the windows. "Actually, I was going to try and convince you to take a nice quiet walk up into the hills this afternoon." The warrior commented briefly. "But if you want to do drills with the villagers, that’s fine."

The bard had been showing signs of pent up tension, caused mostly by her injury, but also from being cooped up continually by the weather, and the constant toll on her diplomatic skills as she tried to keep everyone from snapping at each other. The drills, the warrior knew, would relieve some of that.

Gabrielle’s brow furrowed, and she let her hand drop to her side, as she studied her partner. "Are you saying you think I should do them?"

Xena nodded, and lifted a hand to gently straighten the bard’s collar. "Sure.. I think you’d feel better for it."

"What’s that supp…" The bard stopped, and crossed her arms, and looked down. Then she glanced back up and sighed. "So.. I’m in a really crabby mood and it shows, right?"

Xena smiled, and crossed her own arms, leaning back against the wall. "A little." She admitted.

Gabrielle let out a long breath. "Sorry… all these people.. and all the problems… and then with my side hurting.. I guess I just…" She gave Xena an apologetic look "And you were going to subject yourself to that this afternoon? "

The warrior shrugged lightly. "Well.. I found something I think you’d like.. and I thought it would be a nice change for you to get out.. it’s pretty nice weather."

"Something I’d like, huh?" Gabrielle felt an smile forming, unable to resist those twinkling blue eyes.

Xena nodded. "Yep."

"You won’t tell me what it is, I guess." The bard commented.

"Nope." The warrior agreed.

A long paused, as their eyes met. "I guess the villagers are going to have to wait until tomorrow." Gabrielle finally said, letting herself fall forward and lean against her partner’s warm body. "Can we go now? I’ll grab a picnic lunch."

Xena smiled, and slid her hand up, gently rubbing the back of the bard’s neck. "Sure… that sounds great." She felt Gabrielle’s body slump against her, and took a quick look around, and finding no one else near the entranceway, slid both arms around her partner and hugged her close. Not that anyone seeing her doing this bothered her, but they both took a lot kidding from the Amazons, who never lost an opportunity to tease when they could. No point in giving them yet more ammunition, she mused with a wry grin.

"Mmm." Gabrielle sighed. "Ok..Ok.. let me go get stuff, and pick up my staff, or we’ll never get out of here." Reluctantly, she separated from Xena, trailing her hands across the warrior’s body. Her eyes glanced briefly up at her partner’s. "Sorry I snapped at you."

Xena chuckled. "Gabrielle, after all the times you put up with my bad temper.. you’re entitled." She nudged the bard towards the kitchen. "C’mon.. I’ll go with you." She reached inside her pouch, still slung over her shoulder, and removed something, then circled the bard’s neck with one arm and offered her a berry. "Look.. I’ll even bring dessert."

Gabrielle’s eyes brightened, and she snapped up the berry with a flash of white teeth. "Mmm." She munched. "Where in Hades did you get that? With the weather we’ve been having?" She paused and looked back. "No.. let me guess. You have many skills?"

Xena raised an eyebrow and gave her a poke.

"Ouch." The bard poked her back. "Cut that out."

Not long after, they were quietly slipping out of the village, headed up a small, partially hidden path that led up into a gently sloping hillside covered with winter battered trees and foliage. The air was cold, but dry, and the fitful wind thrust the dried branches together, making a crisp background noise and scattering handfuls of dead leaves on the casually strolling pair.

"Think this weather will last?" Gabrielle commented, carefully using her staff to keep her footing on the steepening path. "I’d love to have a few days of sun for a change." She sighed wistfully, and tugged on her heavy tunic. "I’m getting tired of these."

Xena peered up at the sky, and sighed. "Maybe, for a little while." She glanced down at Gabrielle with a half grin. "Yeah.. I kinda miss sunning with you." She paused and studied the bard. "You doing OK?"

Gabrielle paused, and leaned on her staff. "Hurts a little." She admitted quietly, taking a deep breath and starting to walk again. "I can’t believe I’m this short of breath, though."

Xena moved closer and ruffled her hair. "Take it easy, OK?"

The bard gave her an evil look. "You are such a hypocrite, you know that?" But her expression was mild, and she didn’t object when Xena put a casual arm around her and gave her support on the upward climb. "Let me tell you, love, the next time I find out that you have this happen to you, I'm gonna stuff YOU in bed for two weeks."

Xena raised an eyebrow at her. "Who says I'd mind?" Her eyes glinted mischievously.

"Xena." The bard clucked at her, and poked her with an elbow. "I'm being serious."

The warrior shrugged. "So am I.' A quick sideways glance. "So long as you stuffed yourself there too." She grinned at the look on Gabrielle's face. "Besides, I kept you company, didn't I?"

"Mmm…" The bard smirked. "That's true." She snuggled closer. "And it was worth it.. to get you to actually sit in one place and translate two whole scrolls from Ardwyn's collection for me." She'd even managed to forget the throbbing ache for a while, listening to Xena's low, vibrant voice reading the stories from long past, with only a slight hesitation as she translated the Celtic language into Greek. They'd taken frequent breaks, for Xena to sip hot tea to relax a throat unaccustomed to such long use, and to listen to the harsh rattle of hail and ice against the walls of the cabin. "Hmm… was I complaining? Silly me."

Xena grinned down at her. "Uh huh.. how quickly you forget." She glanced up as they reached the top of the path, and motioned with her jaw. "There."

Gabrielle looked. "Xena, that's a cave." She commented.

"Yep." The warrior agreed.

"You .. dragged me up here to see a cave?" The bard gave her a look, then lifted a hand and felt Xena's forehead carefully. "No.. you feel cool."

"Come on." The warrior sighed, leading her towards the opening.

"Xena, what's this all about?" Gabrielle asked, ducking her head and following her partner into the cave, and glancing around as the warrior lit a torch.

"Come on." Xena repeated, and tugged her arm, moving down a long passageway that sloped lightly downward.

The bard strode along next to her in silence for a moment, then glanced up curiously. "You all right in here?"

Xena glanced at her. "Yeah. " She answered briefly. "I… I've been kind of.. practicing." Her eyes traveled around the passageway, then lit back on Gabrielle. "Little at a time."

Gabrielle linked her arm with Xena's and rubbed her cheek against the warrior's tall shoulder. "That's.. good to hear." She said quietly. "Now.. what's this all about?"

"Patience, Gabrielle." Xena admonished her.

"I'm crabby, remember?" The bard shot back, banging her head lightly against her partner's arm. "You're making me nuts… hey.. it's getting warmer."

"MmmHmm." Xena agreed.

"Why on earth would it be getting warmer inside this cave?" The bard wondered aloud. "I don't see the… oh."

They'd stepped around a final bend, and now Xena held out the torch, the flickering orange light outlining a roughly circular cavern, whose walls were patchworks of colors and stains. On one side of the cavern was a pool, which had steam lightly rising from it, and a sharp mineral scent floated over to them on the steam.

"Oooo." Gabrielle released Xena's arm, and walked over to the pool, kneeling, and testing it with a finger. "Xena, this is very warm."

Xena leaned back against the wall, and let a satisfied grin cross her face. "Uh huh.. thought you might appreciate a nice.. " She walked over and settled her arms around the bard's neck. "Hot.." She nibbled the bard's ear and got a soft giggle. "Mineral bath.'"

"Mmmm…" Gabrielle sighed happily. "You'd be right." She turned her head slightly and captured the warrior's lips for a long moment. "I don't suppose you have towels and stuff in that pack of yours."

Xena grinned, and unbuckled the belt on her tunic, and pulled it off, then folded the tunic neatly, and dropped it on top of the pack she'd eased off her shoulder and onto the floor. Then she stepped forward, and let her hands drop to the bard's' belt, and snugged her fingers in it. "Join me?" She unfastened the buckle, and let the ends drop, then unlaced the neck fastening and helped the bard ease the tunic off over her head, kneeling down to unlace Gabrielle's boots and sliding them off along with her leggings.

Gabrielle let her eyes close in pleasure, and reached for the laces holding Xena's dark blue leathers closed, untying the top knot and freeing the ties, tugging them loose. The warrior slid out of the leathers and the rest of her clothing, then stepped up next to the bard, sliding her hands across Gabrielle's body and pulling her close, lifting her gently up and walking into the steaming pool, not stopping until they were both submerged up to their necks in the warm, swirling water.

The pool had an underwater inlet, and the stained rock on the far end showed where the outflow trickled, disappearing into the rock and leaving behind a multicolored pattern on the stone.

"Ohhhh.." Gabrielle sighed softly. "Gods, this feels good." The warm, swirling water cascaded around her, and the rich steam invaded her lungs, relaxing every inch of her body.

Xena smiled, as she cradled the bard's body in her arms, running her eyes over the fading, yellowish bruise that still colored her partner's chest and sighing soundlessly. She moved to the far end of the shallow pool, and leaned against the rock, letting the warm water relax her muscles. "Yeah, it does." She murmured, watching Gabrielle's mist green eyes open and lazily track to hers. "Was this an OK surprise?"

The bard lifted one hand out of the water and ran her fingers over Xena's face, tracing the strong lines, and smiling as the warrior gently captured her fingers in her teeth. "More than OK." She answered, then slid her other hand behind her partner's neck, and pulled herself up to meet Xena's lips again. She felt the hands cradling her begin to move, and smiled at the knowing, gentle touch that traced over her sensitive skin. She let the warmth, and the familiar scent and their vibrant connection sweep over her and take her into a sensual oblivion.

"When did you find this place." Gabrielle asked, comfortably leaning against Xena's relaxed body, one of the warrior's powerful arms holding her securely in place. She nibbled a berry off the bunch Xena' had handed her, and chewed with evident enjoyment.

"This morning." Xena replied, keeping her eyes half closed, just enjoying the warmth and the bard's closeness. "I was looking for some of those herbs I used for Ephiny.. I'm out, and you never can tell when we might need them." She forced herself to straighten up a little. "There's a nice spot just outside.. overlooks a lake.. where we can have lunch if you like."

Gabrielle rolled her head to one side, and gently tasted a droplet of water that was coursing down her partner's chest. "I like." She responded, then gave Xena an impish look, as she let her head rest against the warrior's shoulder. "Thanks." She sighed. "I really needed this."

Xena laughed, and kissed her nose. "Well, after a week of Amazons jumping out at me from every corner, so did I." She admitted wryly. "I had to tell Eponin to cut it out this morning.. I was afraid one of her little cubs would try an ambush in the dark some night and I'd belt them into next week."

"Eek." Gabrielle laughed. "That must have gone over like a sand filled waterskin." Then she poked Xena lightly in the chest. "It's your fault.. you started it. You had to go tease her, right?"

Xena lifted a hand, and let it fall back into the water, making the warm liquid splash outward. "I know.. I know.. but it's been fun sparring with them."

The bard chuckled. "Fun for you, that is. You didn't see them all comparing bruises." She peered at her partner, examining her water shadowed form. "I don't see any on you, by the way."

That got a low chuckled from the warrior. "There aren't any." She answered smugly. "Couldn’t let those Amazons think your champion's out of shape now, could I?"

Gabrielle grinned, and let her fingers trace Xena's smoothly powerful body. "Well, they could have just asked me." She planted a kiss along Xena's collarbone, where her strong neck muscles attached to her shoulders. "I'd be more than glad to tell them what wonderful shape you're in." She moved her way up the warrior's neck and ended up nibbling on her earlobe. "Would have saved them some aches and pains."

"Nah." Xena let her hands lightly trace the bard's ribs and move down her belly, feeling the muscles contract under her fingertips. "I think they enjoy it."

"Oh yeah." Gabrielle replied, sliding a finger along Xena's shoulder and down the curve of her upper arms. "It's like a badge of honor. 'I was kicked around by the Warrior Princess.'" She watched Xena roll her eyes and giggled softly in reaction. "You should have heard them talking about you… they're worse than those girls were."

"Gods." Xena sighed, as she stroked the bard's body lightly again, feeling her breathing quicken in response. "Amazons." She shook her head.

"Mmm..Xena?" Gabrielle shifted her body, and let her hands wander again.

"Yeah." The reply was soft and husky, and Gabrielle felt the her heartbeat increasing.

"To Hades with the Amazons." She whispered, as her fingertips ran lightly down Xena's thigh, and felt the powerful muscles just under the skin tense.

Lunch, when it was finally arranged, was a leisurely affair. Gabrielle leaned back in total contentment, as she surveyed the winter bitten, but still beautiful vista below the grassy shelf they were snuggled on. The small lake below was choppy from the cold wind, and the colors were drabber, the trees barer than she was used to, but it had a wild beauty to it that appealed to her bardic imagination.

Or maybe it was just the fact that she was leaning back against Xena's chest, with the warrior's arms wrapped around her, munching on some of her favorite things, having had a long, luxurious, sensual bath that was putting her into a great mood. With a sigh, she crossed her legs at the ankles, and offered Xena a bite of smoked meat wrapped around a bit of cheese.

Xena neatly captured the tidbit with her teeth, and chewed it, then leaned her head against Gabrielle's and sighed quietly. "So.. I guess Eph won't bother going home.. Solstice is so close, it doesn't make sense to."

The bard ate another tidbit, then assembled and offered Xena one. " That's the plan.. and Eponin's gloating - because she gets to stay for the ceremony and Solari doesn't." She exchanged a knowing smirk with Xena over her shoulder. "We're going to start getting our other visitors soon, remember."

Xena nuzzled the back of her neck. "Uh huh.. all those people.. all in one place… are you sure this is a good idea?"

Gabrielle's mist green eyes glinted. "You getting nervous already?" She teased gently. "Come on.. they'll all entertain each other.. we can just sneak out.. no one will notice." She closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the tickling sensation of Xena's lips against her skin.

"Oh.. " Xena laughed gently against the bard's hair, nicely scented with the herbal soap they used. "But your parents, my family.. Amazons.. Jessan's people, Herc and Iolaus.. Gabrielle, you do realize something's gotta happen."

Gabrielle thought about that, and realized, with a rueful grin, that her partner was probably right. "Yeah.. you're right. Maybe we should just skip out, and let them party by themselves. Whadda you think?"

"Hmm." Xena considered. "I think we'd never hear the end of it."

"That's true." The bard laughed, then sobered. "Listen.. how far do you think those raiders are operating?"

Xena studied her profile, then brushed her fingers through Gabrielle's windswept hair. "I don't know." She admitted. Hades.. what .. oh. "You worried about your family?"

The bard sighed. "A little. Yeah." She stared pensively off towards the lake. "I mean.. I'm sure they're ok, right? They're so close.. we would have heard. If anything had happened.. they'd have tried to get here, right?"

Xena paused, thinking. Probably the bard was right.. if anything had happened, either her family would have made it's way here.. or Xena's ears would have heard something. But.. And idea started to form. "Hey.. you know.. they are pretty close."

Gabrielle turned her head and regarded her partner. "Yeah?"

The warrior nodded slowly. 'Yeah.. what do you say we take a quick ride down there and check things out?" She thought a minute. "We can give them an escort back here."

The bard let a grin spread across her face. "Whoa.. a few days alone with you on the road? " Never thought I'd miss that.. but Gods.. I really do. "I like that idea."

"Yeah?" Xena asked, a pleased look on her face. "Thought you liked it in Amphipolis."

Gabrielle fiddled with the collar on Xena's burgundy tunic. "I do." She answered quietly. "But.. I also miss being out there.. just the two of us.. doing stuff." I might as well admit it.

A slow smile crossed the warrior's lips. "So do I." She cupped Gabrielle's face and kissed her. "I was kinda hoping you felt that way."

"So.. after the weather settles down.. we can sort of…" Gabrielle mused.

"Uh huh." Xena agreed. "Then we can come back when we have enough of that for a little while. Sound OK?"

The bard grinned happily. "Sounds great." She took another tidbit and bit it in half, inviting the warrior to take the other half, which she did. "I like that plan." She considered thoughtfully. "You know.. we could even just walk over there.. let Argo relax here, being she's pregnant and all." And that will extend this little jaunt a few days… "I know I could use the chance to get some stamina back." She glanced over her shoulder, and saw the little quirk of Xena's lips that meant she was being seen through, but the warrior's eyes were sparkling with amusement.

"Well… that's true." Xena drawled. "If you promise to take it easy, and let me know when you get tired." Couple days walking couldn’t hurt either of us… she chuckled ruefully to herself. I think I'm liking this idea a lot.

"I promise." Gabrielle assured her, with a satisfied grin. "My parents will be surprised.. I bet.. but I'll feel better knowing they'll have a safe escort here." She nibbled another berry, and snuggled her shoulders back against Xena's warm chest. "And I can't think of a safer escort." She turned her head, and bestowed her best adoring look on her partner, who burst into laughter.

"Gabrielle… cut that out." Xena tweaked her nose.

"No way." The bard refused cheerfully. "I have a right to look at you like that, so cope."

The warrior rolled her eyes, but tightened her hold on her partner and let out a contented sigh. "We'll leave tomorrow morning, then." She confirmed, letting her gaze drift outwards towards the lake.

"A trip to Potadeia, huh?" Cyrene asked, looking over one shoulder at her daughter, who was busily collecting supplies. "If I didn't know better, I'd say a certain child of mine was just getting a little antsy about being cooped up."

Xena shot her an attempt at an innocent look. It failed miserably. "Gabrielle is worried about her family, mother. Really." She tucked some herbs into a small pouch and packed it in her bag. "Seemed like a good idea to me."

The innkeeper wandered over, and leaned against her. "Just kidding you, honey." She paused. "Is Gabrielle up to the trip? She still looks a little achy to me."

The warrior paused, and took a breath. "Yeah.. I think she'll be all right. We'll take it really easy." She gave her mother a fond look. "Just a quiet couple of days walk, that's all."

"Mmhmm." Cyrene murmured, studying her. "What if the weather goes bad again? I'd hate to think of the two of you stuck out there in a storm like we just had."

Xena finished packing away her supplies, and fastened the top flap of her saddlebag before answering. "We both know the area around here pretty well.. there are plenty of places to shelter in. We'll be fine, mother, really." She watched in wry amusement as her mother selected several additional packets and tucked them into the bag. "Mother!"

"Shut up." Cyrene advised her. "That's so you're prepared if you get stuck in the rain, and don't have time to hunt down some poor rabbit." She sighed. "You will be careful, right?"

Xena turned, and grasped her mother's shoulders, and met her eyes solemnly. "Mother… relax, all right? " She gave Cyrene a wry look. "We're just going on a very short trip, and we'll be back before the end of the week."

The innkeeper snorted. "You'd better be.. that's when all your guests are going to start arriving, remember?" She smiled at Xena's wince. "Come on.. chin up. You'll survive. " She fell silent for a moment, then put a hand on Xena's arm. "Listen.. I don't think I've told you just how glad I am you're doing this, have I?"

Xena just looked at her.

"Making Gabrielle family… legally, I mean." Cyrene continued quietly. "Because I think she's been that to you for a long time, hasn't she?"

Blue eyes studied her. "Once.. she was the only family I had." The warrior answered softly. 'But yeah.. she's been that for.. quite a while."

Her mother smiled, and gave her arm a little pat. "It's been good for my heart to see you so happy, Xena."

The warrior's eyes dropped, and studied the powerful hands resting on the leather saddlebags. "Thanks… " She replied softly. "After all I've done.. sometimes I wonder how I could deserve this." She paused. "Or what price there'll be that I just haven't paid yet."

Cyrene moved closer, and took a hold on her arm, a very concerned look on her face. "Xena.. you can't think that way.. sometimes things just happen because they happen." She searched the shadowed profile intently. "Happiness isn't something that's earned.. or expected.. when it happens, you just have to hold onto it for as long as you can."

Her daughter took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, finally meeting her eyes. "I know… sorry. I'm not sure where that came from." She gave Cyrene a tentative smile. "Hey.. do you have any of those stuffed nut things? I know she really likes those.. "

Cyrene nodded, and smiled back, obviously relieved. "Sure, honey. Hang on a minute, and let me pack some up for you." She padded over to a covered wooden case, and opened it, setting down a piece of cloth to wrap the goodies up in. "You know.. it's really funny, Xena… " She gave the warrior a half amused half embarrassed look. "I know you. I know your capabilities.. and yet I can't help worrying about the two of you out there alone.. isn't that silly?"

The warrior crossed over, and put her hands on her mother's shoulders, giving her a squeeze. "No.. it's not silly. And thanks." She chuckled lightly. "We’ll be fine.. I’m going to go by the river path, and I’m not going to let Gabrielle over do it."

Cyrene turned and pushed the bundle into her hands with a grin. "All right.. and I put a few extra in there for you, too." She gave Xena a gentle poke in the ribs. "So you two don’t fight over them."

Xena attempted another innocent look. "Fight? Us? Over these? Never." Her blue eyes sparkled. "Thanks, mother." She tucked the package into the saddlebag, and slung the strap over her shoulder. "Let me go finish packing, then we’ll be back.. Gabrielle’s promised to tell a couple of stories during dinner tonight."

Cyrene waved her off. "Go ahead… I’ll see you later. I have, totally by coincidence, mind you, made one of your favorites tonight." She grinned at her daughter’s indulgent expression. "And if you don’t mind.. I’ve got a little list to give you.. some herbs I saw in Potadeia that we just don’t have around here."

"Shopping?" Xena teased. "Oh.. I’ll give that to Gabrielle.. I’m sure she’d love to." She headed out the door, still with a grin on her face, and almost collided with the refugees from the morning. "Sorry." She apologized, stepping back and letting them pass, noting the half frightened, half fascinated look she got from them. Gods.. they always expect me to have blood dripping off my shirt.. or be gnawing someone’s ear, don’t’ they? "Hi." She commented, studying the man and woman quietly. "Sorry you had such a rough time."

The man nodded nervously at her. "Thanks." He took a firm grip on his wife’s arm, and gave Xena a nod as he tugged her further into the inn. Xena sighed, and shook her head as she pushed the outer door open and slipped out into the cold, sunlit courtyard.

"D’you suppose she’s a slave?" Leese whispered to her husband, as they huddled around one of the rearmost tables in the inn that night. Her eyes were fastened on the bard, who sat comfortably on a tall chair, reciting a light, but interesting tale.

Mikae gave her a look. "Don’t be silly.. Leese!" He whispered back. "She doesn’t look like a slave.. what makes you say something like that?"

His wife’s eyes flicked over his shoulder, coming nervously to rest for a bare instant on the silently watching face of the dark haired warrior sprawled in an armchair against the back wall. "I thought all warlords had slaves." She muttered.

Mikae let his stubbled chin rest in his hands and grunted. "You heard what the reeve said, lovey. She’s not a warlord anymore." He found his eyes glancing back at Xena as well, though, and forcibly turned his attention back to the pretty young bard. "They all seem pretty friendly with her here.. an it makes sense as to why the other lot leaves them alone."

"Hmph." Leese grumbled. "She makes me nervous.. and what about the boys?" She leaned forward. "Do you know what kind of stories I’ve heard about what her type does to innocent young things like that?"

They both watched as the bard finished her story, took in the resultant applause and hollers with a gentle smile, then held up her hand, and apologized, saying she had to rest for a while. She made her way through the crowd, stopping here and there to talk to people who held out a staying hand to her, and her soft laughter tinkled above the room’s buzz of talk like a bell.

Then she eased her way past the crowded tables, and pulled a chair out from the table where Xena was seated, and dropped into it, reaching a hand out and pulling the just set down plate from in front of the tall dark haired woman, and attacking it’s contents.

"Look at that!" Leese fumed. "Don’t tell me she’s not a slave.. she’s tasting all that food for her. I’ve heard stories about that… so that one can keep from being poisoned."

Mikae studied the two covertly, and noted that the warrior’s benign expression hadn’t changed, except that a smile was edging it’s way across her mouth. "You’ve got too much imagination, lovey." He disagreed, but there was doubt in his tone.

Across the room, the two newcomers were likewise being studied, by pale, Amazon eyes. "Hey Xena." Ephiny leaned over, and nudged the warrior. "You see those guys staring at you?"

Xena flicked a glance over, then pursed her lips and nodded. "Yeah."

"What’s up with that?" The Amazon muttered.

Continued - Part b of Part 1


The Bard's Corner