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 –Yes, there is violence. Xena has, written into her contract, a clause that requires her to have at least one good, bloody fight every two days or so. Otherwise, all that energy gets pent up, and that's never a good thing. Xena also fights with a sword and a chakram, neither of which is a Nerf Bat. She slices, she dices, and she would probably like Julienne fries.

Subtext - Yes, there be subtext here. This story is based on the premise that it is about two women who are very much in love with each other. There is nothing more than PG-13 action, but there certainly is a lot of that. If love is illegal in your state, move. Now.

Let's see… we used Key Lime Pie last time.. so, I'll say, and if love offends you, then send me your mail address, and I’ll send you some angel food cupcakes with fudge frosting. Because if this kind of love twists your shorts, I really, really, do feel sorry for you.


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



Winter's Ending - Part 4

By Melissa Good

Granella pulled her cloak up around her ears, and glared at the slate gray sky, shaking her head to scatter the heavy rain droplets from the hair plastered to her head. "Getting dark." She sighed, feeling a dull ache in her gut begin to grow. They'd found no sign of the teaching party, and the scouts with her had grown very quiet and pensive.

They were exhausted, she realized, and had to stop for a while just to recharge, lest they miss some small sign, so she'd called a halt under a bare rock outcropping which afforded them at least a little shelter.

Granella let her head rest against the cold rock, considering her options. Earlier that day, they'd found the barest remnants of a rude overnight shelter, and she'd realized the small group had gotten caught out in the ice storm of a few nights previous. She knew they could keep looking all night, but she was tired, and she was so scared they might overlook something. "All right." She finally said quietly. Five sets of eyes turned to her. "There's a glade overlooking the river not far from here. We use that as a camp sometimes... let's look there, then we'll quit for the night and shelter in."

It was a surrender, and she knew it. They knew it, and shoulders slumped as they silently gathered their gear up, and prepared to move out. It was a very quiet journey to the camping place, the only sounds the rustle of leaves underfoot, and the incessant patter of cold rain on the forest canopy. Granella padded along in the lead, with Gelas next to her, and the rest strung out single file, eyes devouring the surrounding areas looking for signs.

"So.. what's the plan?" Gelas said, breaking the silence in a low tone.

"You guys will go on searching." Granella muttered, pausing and peering closely at a piece of bark. She reached out and plucked a long strand from it, holding it up to the meager light. "Horse." They all clustered around and examined it. "There aren't any wild around here... and this isn't exactly a well traveled area." A chill ran through them. "We're just at the edge of our range..." She went off the path, and deeper into the brush, kneeling beside a slate outcropping where she brushed her fingers over the rock and touched a fresh nick in it. "Shod horse."

Gelas knelt beside her, and sniffed. "Wonder who had the guts to be wandering around in this weather in our territory."

Granella looked up at the lowering sky and felt her guts tighten in anger. "Maybe they ran into Ephiny and the kids."

"Come on." Granella said, standing and heading back towards the path. They found the glade easily, and dropped down into it, stopping short and freezing as soon as their eyes focused on the contents.

"Twisted tail of a Centaur." Gelas cursed softly, as she moved cautiously into the cleared area. There was a positive remnant of a campfire there, hastily put out, and other indications of rapid flight from the area. "Gran, look." She pointed, and they all focused on the rain-darkened fabric spread over a nearby branch.

Granella took a deep breath, and approached the item, circling around it before reaching out a tentative hand and touching the fabric. "Arneta, come here." She quietly said, waiting for the grizzled scout to come close and peer over her shoulder. "Help me spread this out."

They spread the woolen shirt open, and stared at it. "Big." Arneta grunted, examining the shoulders. She held the shirt up and measured it against her body. "Gods." An unpleasant picture started to form in Granella's mind, of a shadowy dark figure, on horseback, finding Ephiny and the girls.. Her heart started to pound. Ephiny was a more than competent warrior, she'd faced her on the practice grounds more than enough times to know that.. but the person who wore this shirt would top her by a hand and more, and outweighed the Queen by a considerable amount.

"Spread out." She ordered quietly. "Let's search this glade." All tiredness now gone, as adrenaline replaced the sodden despair, and the group started to search with a grim intentness.

"Gran." Gelas called, in a low urgent voice, as she knelt by the drowned fire. She held up something, and Granella felt her heart sink. She walked forward and took the cloak clasp, turning it over in her fingers. Ephiny's.

"Oh gods." Arneta said softly, from behind her.

"All right." Granella said, grimly. "Let's just stay calm, and keep looking. They aren't here, but they were, and they had to go somewhere because there's no blood, and no bodies."

They spread out, searching intently, and slowly found indications that the party had, before they left, been intact. They had left hastily, though the fire had been secured.

Gelas went to the edge of the clearing and knelt, where a patch of ground had been protected by a thick overlay of leaves, and she brushed them aside gently to reveal the bare ground. "Granella." She called sharply, and waited for the slim dark haired Amazon to come to her side. "Here's our horse again." Her fingers traced the marks. "And here's our friend." Boot prints in the mud, showing a long but narrow foot and braced a good space apart from each other.

Both looked down the path. "They're headed downrange." Granella said quietly. "Towards the river basin.. good.. " She gave Gelas a grim look. "Let's get going."

Darkness had fallen by the time they reached the pass, after which it was all downrange towards the flood plain. They passed through the densely wet foliage without a sound, cold, angry eyes scouring the surroundings for the faintest trace of their missing friends. Suddenly, Gelas stopped, and held up one large hand. "Wait." The tall ginger haired woman tilted her head. "Horse."

A thrill ran through them. "Either side of the path, three and three." Granella snapped. "I don't care who it is, we stop them."

Silence then fell, as the sodden muffled sound of hoofbeats continued towards them. They crouched down in the twilight, shivering a little in the damp cold, and waited.

The path was wreathed in mist and shadowy darkness and slowly, steadily, a form started emerging. The horse was chestnut, barely discernable in the gloom. "Blond mane" Arneta breathed in Granella's ear. "And look at that rider.. would fit that shirt."

Granella nodded, shivers of excitement warming her body. "Get ready.. weapons out." She muttered, feeling her whole body tense.

Swords loosed from sheaths, and she heard the sensuous whine as Lena cocked her crossbow. The rider was almost even with them, and Granella could see the tall form crouched in the saddle, saw them lean forward and pat the horse's neck, and murmur something to the fretting animal. "Male." Lena's bare whisper.

"Now." Granella said, and hurled herself onto the path.

The chestnut reared, as the six Amazons surrounded him, swords pointed inward. "Hold!"

The tall, dark figure on the horses back pulled his mount to halt, and slowly, carefully spread his hands outward, showing his lack of weapons.

"Get down." Granella ordered, moving a step closer, and shifting her sword to the side. "Move!!"

The man freed his foot from his right stirrup, and swung his leg over the horse's neck, then slid down and landed on the muddy earth. "All right." He said, his voice low and steady. "I'm not your enemy."

Granella straightened up, the familiarity of his voice tickling her memory. She stared at him, trying to make out his features under the hood of his cloak.

One long arm slowly, cautiously moved up and swept his hood off, exposing his face in the dim twilight.

Granella dropped her sword, and closed her eyes. "Toris." She shook her head. "It's all right. Stand down. I know him." She walked forward and sheathed her sword, waiting for the rest of them to cluster near. "What are you doing here?"

Toris ran his hand through his dark hair. "Looking for someone named Solari or Eponin." He held up his hand, and showed her the signet. "Official business, I guess."

"Granella, who is this?" Arneta asked, scowling at him.

The slim Amazon sighed. "This is Toris. He's Xena's brother." She looked up at him. "Toris, we're looking for some friends of ours that went missing. We think ...they might have gotten into some trouble."

The tall man smiled. "Well, I guess I can tell you, then.. if it's Ephiny you're looking for.. " He glanced around, seeing the brightening faces. "And I guess it is, then she and the others are safe in Amphipolis."

A chorus of voices surrounded him. "Where.. why?" "What did they.. how.." "What happened?" This last from Lena, who fixed Toris with an intent stare.

"Look." Toris said, glancing up. "Is there someplace we can get shelter? I'd be glad to tell you the whole story, but I'm freezing."

They found a small thicket of trees, which afforded some protection from the rain, and built a quick branch shelter, enough to afford them space for a small, cranky fire.

"Better." Toris said, rubbing his hands. He looked around the circle of faces, all of them intent on him. "Ok.. where do I start..." His face went still for a minute. "First of all, I have to tell you something.. " He hesitated, seeing the tension race around the circle. "All of them are safe, but not exactly sound."

"Artemis." Granella breathed from right next to him. She put a hand on his arm. "Did they get attacked, Toris? What happened?"

He sighed. "No.. it was.. well, let me just tell it. We got word, night before last that a rider was inbound.. on Argo, but it wasn't my sister. " He glanced down. "I don't need to tell you how nervous that made us all."

Murmurs ran around the fire, and Granella passed him a cup of hot mulled wine that she'd been fixing. "Here."

"Thanks." He took a sip. "So Argo comes in, and she's got our Cait up, with Ephiny." He glanced at Granella. "She'd fallen through the ice into that river not far from here, apparently."

"Eph had?" Granella blinked. "Damn... was she.. "

Toris shook his head. "I won't go into details, because I wasn't there, but apparently my sister was nearby, and heard her yell. She got her out of the water, but it seems Ephiny had been sick before she fell in and.. well, she wasn't in good shape when she got to our place."

Silence, then Lena sighed explosively. "Hades." She paused. "Is she ok now? You have a healer there?"

Toris smiled. "Well, no.. we didn't at the time, but you may or may not know that Xena's a pretty fair healer herself, and when she got back with the rest of your party, she pretty much knew what to do. We.. that is, Gabrielle and I, went out with horses and met them to speed things up a bit."

Granella nodded. "Well, that's not good news, but it's far from the worst I've heard." She broke off some trail rations and offered it to Toris. "Hungry?"

The tall man smiled. "Uhm... actually.. " He rummaged in the bag he'd unslung from his horse and pulled out a fair sized package. "Maybe I can share with you." He opened the package, and handed out the meat pastries inside. "My mother made them." He took one, and munched contentedly, watching the surprised, then pleased expressions around him as they sampled the offerings. "Xena asked me to pass the word up to you all.. she knew you'd be worried."

"Xena did?" Arneta asked, in a cool tone. "Why not our Queen?"

Toris raised an eyebrow at her in an expression weirdly familiar. "Because Gabrielle would have insisted on coming herself... and one of your Queens in danger at a time was enough for her." The same blunt statement Xena had given him when she'd asked him to go.. and he knew she was right, because Gabrielle was just like that.

Granella laughed softly. "She's right." She gave the circle a wry look. "Remember who ran down to the Centaur Village alone." Her expression sobered. "How is Ephiny?"

Toris studied his hands, then looked up at her. "Xena says.. she'll probably be all right." He took a breath and released it. "She got water in her lungs, and she's pretty sick right now, but my sister says she's strong, and she thinks we got to her in time."

"She thinks.. probably.. " Arneta leaned forward. "Then she doesn't really know."

Startling blue eyes focused on hers. "No.. she doesn't. She thinks, she hopes.. she's doing whatever she can... my sister doesn't pull her punches." A pause. "Any of them. " His voice took on a tinge of anger. "She had to break through a foot of ice to get to your Regent, and risked her own health pulling her out and getting her to safety.. so what's your problem?"

"Toris." Granella put a hand on his arm. "Please.. there's no criticism intended.. we're all just really tired. We've been searching nonstop since yesterday." Then she smiled a little. "Your sister has quite a defender, I see."

Toris gave her a level stare. "Both of my sisters do." He stated in a milder voice, taking a sip of the wine. "So don't you start on Gabrielle either."

Granella outright grinned. "All right.. point taken." She leaned back. "Ok.. we'll send one of us back to the village with the news.. Solari and Eponin must be about chewing their arms off by now." She considered. "Then the rest of us can just head on down to Amphipolis.. if that's all right by you, Toris."

The man nodded. "Sure.. I'd be glad to get home. I've had about enough rain to last me a lifetime." He yawned, then passed out another round of meat pies, which no one turned down. "Here seems as good a place as any to get some rest."

Granella eased the kinks in her back, and sighed. "All right." She glanced outside the shelter. "And the rain's stopped for a minute. Let's get a better roof over our heads, and bunk down."

They did her bidding, as she sat quietly next to Toris. "Hey.. sorry about that." She said to him. "Arneta's just… kind of touchy about tradition.. and it got stepped on a lot with that whole Right thing."

Toris turned his pale eyes on her. "They're supposed to be friends of the Amazons." He studied her critically. " Now I understand the look my sister gets when you all are mentioned."

Granella winced, picturing in her mind the very look Toris was referring to. "Hey.. don't judge us all by one little remark, ok?" She scowled at him. "After all, Gabrielle is our queen, right?"

The tall man leaned back on his hands, and blinked at her. "She's not like you. She not like anyone else I know."

Ahh.. Granella sighed inwardly. So.. it runs in the family, does it? She leaned closer, and lowered her voice. "Toris, tell me.. how is Ephiny really?"

He straightened, and rested his forearms on his knees. "She's.. very sick, Granella." He answered quietly. "I could hear her coughing through the walls in our inn.. and Xena's using some pretty strong stuff on her to keep her knocked out so her body can fight this.. without her having to waste a lot of energy." His eyes found hers. "Xena's worried.. she said she had to dive under the ice to pull her out, and that she'd stopped breathing."

The slim dark haired Amazon gasped softly. "Is Xena OK?"

That got a grim smile from Toris. "Yeah.. you know her. Tough as the day is long. She had a fever the first few hours after she got back, but she was fine before I left."

Granella sighed. "Well, Eph's tough… if anyone can pull through this, she can. I mean, Hades.. the woman birthed a centaur." She shook her head, giving the returning Amazons a nod. "Come on.. we'd better get some sleep."

"Gabrielle?" Cyrene's voice slowly burrowed through her thoughts. The bard turned around from the window she was leaning against, and shook her head a little. Whoops.. day dreaming again…

"Hi mom...what's up? I was about to.." She looked around, and realized it had been quite a few minutes since she'd come in. "Uh..."

Cyrene patted her cheek. "It's all right honey." She gave the bard a fond look. "I've got some broth for your friend."

The bard smiled at her and took the container. "Thanks.. I'll go give it to her.. " She took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes a little. "Hope I'm not coming down with something myself." Uh.. yeah. Coming down with a case of the I'm missing my warrior blues, I think… She rolled her eyes at herself.

The innkeeper put a cool hand on her forehead. "No.. you don't feel hot..." Then her eyes twinkled. "But you do look a little frazzled.. let me get you something cold to drink." She walked over and poured a short glass of ale, and walked back over. "Here.. "

Gabrielle took a deep swallow, feeling the cold liquid roll down her throat with a familiar tingle.

"Wow.. that's nice." She complimented the innkeeper, as the coldness of the ale spread into a lingering warmth in her belly on her second mouthful, and sent a relaxing wave through her. "That feels better." The bard grinned, as she drained the glass. "Thanks."

"Anytime, cutie." Cyrene chuckled, and took the glass back from her. "Here, let me get you some more."

The bard regarded her thoughtfully, and remembered Xena's gentle warning. "No.. thanks mom, but that's enough for me." I could get to like that too much.. that's kind of scary. A lingering memory of her father sent a sobering thought through her.

"Let me go take this in to Ephiny." She strode across the floor, glancing around at the sparse crowd on this cold and rainy day. Everyone's inside.. probably sleeping. She reasoned, as she pushed the door open to the Amazon's room.

Ephiny was groggily awake, and hitched her body up a little when Gabrielle approached. "Hey." She forced her pale eyes open wider and stifled a cough. "She off OK?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Fine, if a bit damp. Now sit back." She pushed Ephiny's shoulder. "I've got some soup for you here." She settled on a small stool she dragged close to the bed and put the warm soup pot on her lap.

"Ungh." The Amazon groaned, pulling herself up a bit. "Gods, I'm so tired." She rolled her head towards the bard. " Was it like this for you?"

Gabrielle waggled her hand. "Well… " Thinking of the long hours spent resting quietly in Xena's arms, as the warrior made sure she ate and slept in turn, rocking her gently when she was racked with coughing. "Kind of… I know it's really tough."

"Yeah." Ephiny sighed, reaching out with both hands. "Here.. let me see if I can handle this for a little while." She took the soup pot, and rested it against her chest, taking small sips with the spoon Gabrielle handed her. "Wow.. this is good." She mumbled, glancing up. "This Xena's mom's stuff?"

A nod from the bard. "Sure is." She replied cheerfully. "She's a great cook, isn't she?"

"Mmm…" The Amazon agreed, gazing at her appraisingly "Looks like you've been enjoying her skills." She teased gently. "You look great… you had me worried when we had you by us." And had the cooks frantic, thinking they just couldn’t please our young queen…

The bard chuckled. "Yeah, Xena gave me a hard time about that too.. " She sighed. "I was just… I don’t know. I had an upset stomach most of the time. Kind of puts you off eating, you know?" She stretched. "It's been great being here… " A grin. "I'd forgotten what it felt like to just.. have a regular schedule for a while."

Ephiny smiled. "So I see… it's done all right by you." A sideways glance. "How's Xena taking all this enforced rest and relaxation?"

"A lot better than I'd expected." Gabrielle paused, and gave Ephiny an honest look. "I think she actually likes it." She added with a little laugh. "She's loosened up a lot."

Ephiny grinned back. "She looked pretty healthy." She commented, then sighed and put the spoon down. "Gods.. I can hardly lift this." She commented in disgust, as she took an ill-advised deep breath. Her body seized up in a fit of coughing, and Gabrielle swiftly grabbed the soup back from her just in time, putting it on the table and reaching over to steady the Amazon by her shoulders. "Ugh" She sighed, as the coughs trailed off, and she could lie back down, trying to ignore the unpleasant gurgling in her chest.

"You should try to get some rest." Gabrielle advised, pulling the blankets up around her. "Do you want me to let you be?" Not that I want to leave but…

Ephiny shook her head. "No." Her voice was hoarse. "Rather you give me something else to think about." Her eyes looked exhausted. "Like what you've been up to.." A tiny smile quirked her lips. "Y'know.. you coulda told me you and Xena were an item before you came by us… woulda saved me a lot of lectures and worrying." I know she's kinda shy about that… but gods

"We weren't." Came the quiet reply, then Gabrielle got up from her stool, and moved it aside, walking over to the high backed chair and dragging it with her back to the bedside. Damn… She glanced at the window, rattling under the onslaught of the wind outside. A chill passed through her, and she briefly wished she'd… Her eyes fell on the seat of the chair, where her cuddly forest green shawl was neatly folded. She picked it up and removed the scrap of parchment tucked inside a fold.

Thought you might want this. X

A warm smile crossed her face, and she looked up, to see Ephiny staring at her.

"What you do you mean, you weren't?" The Amazon coughed "I don’t'… I thought… but.."

Gabrielle sighed, and sat down, wrapping her shawl around her shoulders and relaxing into its comforting warmth. She waited for Ephiny to stop spluttering, resting her head against the back of the chair in resignation. I hate talking about this… I could just tell her to mind her own business.. but I know she means well. Kind of. "Just as simple as that, Eph. We weren't.. I mean, we were moving in that direction… and the last couple of weeks before we met up with you.. " Her body flushed warm with remembering. "But no.. that little.. " Her eyes rolled. "exhibit.. in the Centaur Village was.. well.. a first."

"Great Hera's breastplate." The Amazon sighed, slapping herself weakly in the forehead. "I can't believe it… you two were so comfortable with each other.. I thought.. we all thought.. I don't understand.. you didn't act much differently than… I mean…"

"Ephiny, take a breath, OK?" The bard chuckled, a little embarrassed. "It's not like we both woke up one morning and realized.. well, you know." She handed the Amazon back her soup. "Here.. try and get a little more of this down." She waited until the blond woman took the soup from her, giving her little disbelieving looks before she continued. "We just… it was.. " she sighed. "Gods. I held back because I thought she couldn’t possibly be interested in me. She held back because she though I was a young, innocent, hero worshipping kid."

Ephiny sipped her soup, eyes wide and fascinated. "And you weren't?" A blunt question, around a mouthful of the rich stock. "So what happened?"

Green eyes caught hers, in remembered sadness. "She died." She swallowed. "And it was more than if I'd lost a friend, Ephiny. Even a best friend."

The Amazon put a hand out and patted her knee. "I know that was a really rough time for you.. and we didn't make it any easier." She glanced down. "I thought.. it was.. going to help." Her eyes darted back up and searched the bard's. "But I knew you were hurting pretty bad."

Gabrielle nodded slowly. "I was." And now I know why.. but I can't really explain that to her. "And then she came back.. after we left the village, we stopped, and she… it was like a dream, almost. I closed my eyes and she was just.. there."

Ephiny had stopped eating, and was just watching her. "Y'know, that's pretty extraordinary, what she did."

The bard glanced at her. "No kidding, really?" She said, in her driest tone. "Anyway, at the temple, she had to.. use me.. to defeat Velasca. And so she got to see just.. exactly.. how I felt about her." Her smile turned a bit wry. "Things started to change a little after that." She shrugged a little. "It just took a really long time.. mostly because we were scared, I think.. at least I was.. because her friendship means everything to me. I didn't want to risk that.. and I think she was reluctant to move forward just because she is who she is."

The Amazon nodded quietly. "I can see that." She studied Gabrielle's face. "So what.. pushed you on?"

The bard flushed a little. "Oh well.. I can't say really.. it just sort of.. we were at Cirron, and Xena said later that she really just got tired of fighting.. uh.. it. And she started to let things go after that." She shifted in her chair, and tugged the shawl around her. "Things kind of progressed from there.. and then we got your note."

Ephiny nodded, as she finished off the soup, and let her head fall back. "Thought there was something different about you two then.. just couldn’t put my finger on what it was." Then her eyes took on a gentle twinkle, and she turned her head to gaze at her friend. "No wonder you had such a rough time."

Gabrielle blushed a deep crimson. "Here, let me get some of that herbal mixture on you.' She changed the subject, and plucked the covered dish from the table, scooping out some of the salve and trying to ignore Ephiny's mischievous grin. "Hold still." She worked the salve into the Amazon's skin for a bit. "Yeah, that made it tough." She finally admitted. "I missed her so much, on top of everything else that it just… made everything twice as hard."

Ephiny sighed, and clasped a hand over the bard's. "Gabrielle, you should have told me. I knew there was something really bothering you.. but I never guessed…" She studied the gentle profile of the bard's face, outlined in the golden glimmer from the fireplace, seeing lines and planes that had not been there before. "I wouldn’t have asked that of you if I’d known."

Gabrielle looked up, meeting her eyes with the direct, powerful force she was capable of when needed. "You were right to ask.. I have a responsibility to the Amazons, remember?"

Ephiny's pale eyes returned her look for look. "So do I, Gabrielle. And that responsibility includes your safety.. and I failed you that day." The air intensified between them. "You would have died, if Xena hadn't performed some physical miracles that I still can't believe I saw." She paused. "I have nightmares thinking about what I would have said to her.. if that had happened."

The bard's eyes dropped, and she nodded a little in resignation. "I know." She said quietly, shoving aside a bleak mental picture of that herself. "So do I." She took a breath and looked up. "But it didn't happen.. she didn't let it." Now a tiny smile etched it's way across her face. "That was really something, wasn’t it?"

A driving rain, and the water fogged her vision so badly she had to keep shaking her head to clear it. The path was muddy, and kept slipping from under her boots, but she kept running at full speed anyway, wrenching muscles as she tried to stay upright along the endless, sloping path.

Finally cresting the rise, and seeing down into the Centaur Village, where blood and rain and mud made it hard to see the difference between attackers and defenders. Where the lightning flared, shocking the view into stark black and white shadows.

Holding her side, and trying to catch her breath, as she peered down into the savage mess, and feeling her heart stop as the fitful light showed her a nightmare beyond her imagining. Arella's tall, blood spattered form, rising triumphant in the driving rain, aiming a crossbow at a kneeling, battered Gabrielle, arms outspread to protect the cowering Centaur children huddled around her.

Ephiny had screamed "No!" And hurled herself down the path, ignoring friend and foe alike, driving relentlessly towards a scene she knew in her depths she had no chance in Hades of stopping. Was close enough to see Arella's finger tighten on the trigger, and see the small, infinitely courageous lift of Gabrielle's head as she looked her killer unflinchingly in the eyes.

Close enough to see the sudden intake of breath as the bard steeled herself for the shock of the arrow.

Close enough to tear her eyes from Gabrielle's face, when her peripheral vision caught a dark, irresistible, moving force, as the arrow released from the crossbow, and a flash of lightning outlined a tall, blood spattered, mud covered, dauntlessly moving body that dove into the path of that arrow with a speed, and a power that went beyond the merely human.

She'd fallen then, dropped to her knees, trying to tame her ragged breathing as she watched the most powerful Amazon warrior she'd ever known batted aside as though she were only a child by a snarling Xena, who stalked her like a big cat would a deer and who picked her up and threw her around like a sack of wheat.

Her biggest surprise was that Xena had left the woman alive. Her second biggest surprise was all that dark, primal power tamed to gentleness in Gabrielle's welcoming arms, as the sheer joy of that reunion echoed across the battlefield, so strong, and so profound that even the most hard hearted amongst them had felt it. .

"Yeah." She finally answered Gabrielle. "It sure was something." She dredged up a smile for the worried looking bard. "Hey.. did you have to show her that note? She's gonna kill me over that old war horse thing. So much for confidentiality."

Gabrielle's body relaxed, and she leaned back into the chair, snuggling into her shawl. "Oh, chill out Eph. She's not mad.. she can take a little teasing." She thought about that for a minute "Most of the time." She amended with a wry smile. "So.. how was Kaleipus?"

The Amazon cocked her head, and regarded her with some interest. "He's.. fine. I didn't know he knew you both that well.. and that kid of his too. " Her curiosity was perked, and had been since the Centaur's odd reaction to her news, and the boy's enthusiastic sending of greetings.

Gabrielle stood, and walked over to the worktable, assembling the ingredients for another draught of medicine. "We met them the last time we… when we helped defeat the Great Centaur.." She kept her back towards Ephiny, feeling the eyes on her. "Solon got kidnapped.. Xena rescued him." She turned around, bringing the cup back with her, stirring it a little. "You know, the usual."

Ephiny nodded slowly, studying her closely. "Uh huh… I see." She accepted the cup, but kept her eyes on Gabrielle's face, and noted the faint flush creeping up her neck. Hmm… something's up… "Cute kid." She drawled, getting a notion in her head. "Just hitting that growth spurt.. has that dusty blond going dark kind of hair, and really nice eyes." Saw the blush intensify, though the bard gave no indication she felt it. "He's going to be tall."

Now Gabrielle's eyes met hers, sea green depths reflecting back the burnished glow of the fire. "He's a very nice kid, Ephiny. I'm looking forward to seeing him again if they do decide to show up." She paused. "I know Xena would like that too." Her voice closed with a note of finality in it, which warned off the Amazon from further probing.

All right.. my bardic friend.. I know a 'back off' when I hear it. "Well.. should be a good party, then." The blond woman smiled, toasting the bard with her mug of medicine, and taking a sip. "Ugh…" She winced. "But I guess it's helping, isn't it? I feel.. lousy.. but.."

"But without it, you'd feel a lot lousier. Trust me." Gabrielle assured her, tucking the blankets around her shoulders. "Listen.. I've gotta do some staff practice.. then I'll be back. I promised you some stories, right?"

Ephiny's eyes darted to the window, then back at her. "In this weather? Gabrielle, are you nuts?"

Gabrielle laughed. "Rain or shine, Eph… Xena taught me that." She stood and stretched, feeling the familiar move of muscles up and down her body. "Hard work.. keeping up with her. I gotta stay in shape." She winked at the Amazon, then laid one hand on her flat stomach. "Besides.. it's the only way to stay ahead of Cyrene's cooking." She added with a rueful smile.

The Amazon chuckled a bit. "Well.. just don't you get sick too, OK?" She stifled a yawn. "Sides.. I think this damn stuff's putting me to sleep again."

The bard took the mug from her, and set it on the table, arranging the covers and fluffing Ephiny's pillow for her. "Good." She said quiet. "Let your body rest, Eph." She patted the Amazon on the shoulder. "I'll be back later."

"Night.." Ephiny's voice trailed off as the drugs took her under, and her face relaxed into sleep.

Gabrielle stood there for a long moment, regarding her, then sighed and turned for the door, slipping her cloak over her shoulders, and glancing out at the weather.. wondering how Xena was enduring it, every step taking her further from home. "Take care, love." Her voice whispered to the uncaring wind. "You know my thoughts are with you."

Iolaus huddled down into his cloak, glad beyond measure for the long tunic he'd borrowed from Xena's brother. The cold damp wind cut into him remorselessly, whipping the hood back from his tousled blond hair, and blowing the mane of his horse back against his hands with a harsh sting.

They'd been riding all day, and well into darkness, and now were just starting into the foothills of the range which divided the fertile area Amphipolis lay in from the high craggy peaks where the castle was nestled, protected by sharp drops.

Xena had said little all day, maintaining her glowering aura with little effort, and muttering to him only when necessary. Which wasn't a bad thing, he thought grimly. As he had no idea what to talk about with her anyway. So.. Xena.. just how many left handed bald men have you killed? His tired mind imagined the conversation. 824, Iolaus, why? Would have come her growled answer, he was sure.

He looked up at Argo's returning hoofbeats, and shivered as the golden mare materialized out of the foggy gloom like some wild specter, her coat eerily reflecting the few slivers of moonlight that got through the fast chasing clouds. "There's a cave, just south of here. We'll be sheltered for the night." Xena's voice was calm. "Come on."

"Sure.." Iolaus sighed, stretching painfully in the saddle. Gods.. the woman was inhuman. They'd been riding all day, and he'd had to actually ask her to stop twice, much to his own embarrassment. Was he ever going to be sore tomorrow.. but the thought of all the ground they'd covered, bringing them back closer to his best friend.. made him feel it was worth it. He guided his mount after Argo, and sighed in relief as they came to the dark opening to the cave barely a candlemark later.

He dropped off the horse with a feeling of utter relief, flexing his aching knees, and rubbing his hands, raw from the cold. "I'll see if I can find some firewood." He offered, reaching for the ax tied securely in his pack.

"No." Xena answered, her form barely visible in the dark. "I'll do it… you go on in, Iolaus." A sliver of moonlight caught her blue eyes, and danced off the barest hint of a smile on her face. "Go on.. take Argo in there too. It's big enough for all of us." She unslung a wickedly curved hand ax from Argo's saddle pad, and moved off into the gloom, leaving him with the horses and a feeling of distinct gratitude.

"Well, how do you like that?" He remarked, conversationally to Argo, who poked him in the belly with her nose and whuffled. "Doesn't talk to me all day, then does something nice like that." He captured the mare's reins, and led both horses into the large cave which was, as Xena had said, more than large enough for them, their horses, and all the Furies and Fates, in fact. He lit a torch, and studied the place with a feeling of minor satisfaction. It looked like it was used as a hunter's camp frequently, as there was a fire circle already marked with blackened stones.

"Very nice." He sighed. "For a cave, anyway." He muttered, as he led the horses to one side, and found a crevice to wedge his torch into . Turning to his horse, he unslung his pack from the animals haunches, and tossed it towards the wall, then unsaddled the gelding and used a bit of linen from his bag to rub him down. "Hang on.. I don't know if we.."

Bootsteps at the entrance to the cave interrupted him, and he looked up to see Xena entering, a large load of wood balanced on one shoulder. She spared him a brief glance, then dumped the wood in the fire circle, dropping to one knee and arranging it with expert hands. "There's a bag, on Argo's back that has grain in it for the horses. Help yourself."

He stood quietly, watching her for a minute before he moved towards Argo's warm side. The flickering torchlight outlined her powerful body and threw highlights that glinted off her dark hair, and he realized she had a sheer physical presence that went beyond her reputation that intimidate him more than he cared to admit. "Thanks." He took a deep breath, and found the bag, with two feedbags clipped to it. "Do you think of everything?" He laughed a little, holding up the extra feedbag.

Xena gave him one of those raised eyebrow looks. "Pays to be prepared, Iolaus." She stated, turning back to the fire and striking sparks to light it.

They got camp set up, and he was grateful just to sit quietly on his bedroll, munching on the travel rations they'd brought, facing Xena's shrouded eyes across the fire. "We made pretty good time." He ventured, more to hear noise than anything else.

Xena considered this statement, then gave a judicious nod in agreement. "Not bad." She commented, leaning back against the wall, stretching her long legs out and crossing them at the ankles. She'd taken off her armor, and was now occupied with sharpening her sword, a thin rhythmic scraping that jarred his nerves. Hercules didn't carry a sword.. though he knew how to use one, as did Iolaus.

"Tell me about the castle layout." Xena's low voice broke the uneasy silence, as she finished her task and sheathed the long sword with a slithering of leather and steel. She watched Iolaus shift uncomfortably, and with a sigh, took a little pity on him. "Look, Iolaus.. " She waited for him to look up, and he did. "We'll find a way through this, all right?"

"Oh.. yeah… well, I know we will, Xena.. it's just that.." He hesitated, wishing he were anywhere else, she made him so nervous. "I.. I don't…"

The warrior suddenly realized what his problem was, and mentally chastised herself. "Hey." She said, letting her voice warm perceptibly. "Wait.." She pulled a bag close to her, and rummaged through it, finding a package she suspected would be there. And a tiny one that she hadn't, which she pulled out curiously and examined. A slow smile crossed her face, quite without her permission. She set the small item aside, and unwrapped the larger, exposing some of her favorite pastries. "Come here." She gave Iolaus a stare, which caused him to scramble to his feet and trot over, kneeling at her side. "Here…"

Iolaus couldn't hide his surprise. "Uh.. wow.. uhm. . thanks!" He carefully selected a pastry, and retreated to his bedroll, munching absently on it, while giving her curious looks. "Your mother is really a great cook, Xena." He ventured conversation again, emboldened by her offer.

This time the warrior opened up a little, and gave him a more peaceful look. "Yeah, she really is." That came with a gentle chuckle. "I missed her cooking, all the years I was.. " She paused thoughtfully. "Away from here." She paused again, then picked up a small item next to her and regarded it. "Though, Gabrielle's not bad herself."

"Really?" Iolaus commented, feeling a little better. "And I guess you don't.." He left the thought hanging.

"Not one of my many skills, no." Xena responded, with a quirky grin. "I can do the bare basics." She idly unwrapped the package in her fingers and removed the shiny stone it held, running her fingers over it. "On the other hand, Gabrielle hates hunting.. and she's really lousy at it. So.. it works out."

Iolaus laughed. "We try to stay in villages, to avoid the question." He looked up and caught an unguarded expression on her face, as she studied the small piece of parchment in her hands. Her face had relaxed into a warm smile, which lit up her dark features as though she was touched by sudden sunlight, rather than lit by the ruddy flickering of their fire. What on earth… he wondered, as he watched her tuck the small piece of paper away.

Gabrielle.. her mind caressed the name, imagining the bard writing the words, her fire tinged golden head bent over the task, with just the tip of her tongue sticking out in concentration as it always did when she wrote. It brought on a warmth inside her that dismissed the cold, and the day's long journey, and her body's protesting over the sudden abuse after a month of decadent comfort. She realized abruptly that Iolaus was calling her name, and looked up, giving her head a little shake to clear the pleasant fog. "Yeah?"

Iolaus stared at her, a puzzled frown on his agile face. "Are you all right?"

The warrior glanced down, then back up, with an odd, half smile on her face. "Yeah.. sorry. I just.. um " She bit her lip. " Was thinking for a minute. About the best route to take tomorrow. " C'mon, Xena… this isn't the place, and certainly isn't the time for this stuff. Get a grip on yourself. "You were saying you and Herc stay in villages all the time? " She crossed her arms over her chest. "We do sometimes, but there's lots of nights we're not near any inhabited places."

"Ah. Well, yes.. and as long as we're talking about Gabrielle.." He started, figuring his angles out.

"Were we talking about Gabrielle?" Xena asked, all innocence. Her eyes took on a mischievous glint that Gabrielle would have recognized immediately. "She kind of likes being outdoors."

"Oh.. " Iolaus said, taking a breath. "Really? Well, you know, Xena.. um.. she's a very talented girl."

Xena's jaw clenched as she tried to keep a grin off her face. "Yeah, she's a great bard." She agreed solemnly. "You should hear her tell your stories."

"Uhm.. mine.. ours…really?" Iolaus said, allowing himself to be sidetracked for a minute "Right.. uh.. well, I'm sure she does a great job."

"Mmmhmm." Xena intoned seriously, giving him her best judicious ex warlord look. "She does a great imitation of you."

"Uh… me?" Iolaus squeaked. "She does?" Trying to imagine that, and utterly failing. "I don't see how…" He recollected himself with a shake. "Anyway, that's my point. She's a very, very talented girl."

"You said that." Xena commented, drawing her breast dagger and starting to clean her nails with it. "And Iolaus?"

"Yes?" He responded, furiously trying to marshal his tactics.

"She's not a girl." Xena replied, studying the dagger, then glancing up at him. "She's a woman."

Silence from Iolaus. She looked up at him, to see him gazing at her in bewilderment. "Would you like me to call you a boy?"

He shook his head, then nodded at her. "Ok.. ok.. yeah.. I see… well, she has grown up a lot lately."

"She certainly has." Xena replied, returning her attention to her dagger, and biting her lip to keep from laughing. Oh.. I wish Gabrielle were here to hear this.. she'd love it.

"Right." Iolaus agreed hastily. "Uh.. you know, Xena.. a woman.. a person.. as talented as she is.. well, you know there are schools in Athens that would just love to have her." There.. it was out. He mentally wiped his brow, and glanced over at her, to see if she'd taken his meaning.

"Yes, I know." Xena answered, unconcerned. "But she doesn't want to have them." And how damned long did it take me to understand that? No.. to believe that.

"She doesn’t?" The blond man asked, nonplussed.

"No." Xena answered, putting the dagger up, and stretched, swearing in silent disgust at the stiffness after one measly day of riding.

"Oh." Iolaus sighed. "Well, I mean.. no offense to you, Xena, but I'd think she'd want to pursue her talent.. I don't see…"

The warrior rolled over onto her side, and propped her head up on one hand, gazing at him in mild amusement. "I dunno, Iolaus. Maybe she just likes my jokes."

Pale eyes blinked at her. "Your… jokes.?"

"Yeah." Xena intoned, deadpan. She held out the package to him again. "Cake?"

Iolaus gave up. "Sure." He quipped, with a grin, scuttling over and snagging two of them. "Sorry..I don't mean to butt into Gabrielle's business, Xena.. but I like her.. she's almost like a little sister to me."

That got a relaxed grin from the fire-shadowed face across from him. "Yeah, Toris feels the same way about her." Her eyes danced, but he didn't know her well enough to see it.

"Ah.. really?" Iolaus chewed that over for a bit. "It's nice that your family kind of adopted her, Xena… I know she appreciates that."

"Iolaus.. " Xena said softly, watching his eyes glance at her. "She is part of my family. There is no 'kind of.'"

"Oh.. right." He nodded. "Sorry." He paused, drumming his fingers on his thigh. "But.. is that fair to her?"

Xena's finely drawn eyebrow inched up. "Is what fair to her?" Y'know, I think old Iolaus here has been hit on the noggin once too many times.. gotta talk to Herc about taking some time off after this and just letting him relax for a while.

The blond man sat forward, knotting his hands together. "Well… keeping her.. um.. attached to you that way now before you start yelling Xena I know you said not to mention it again but… " he stopped and drew breath. "She's in love with you." He presented his case triumphantly. "And she wont' go out and find herself because of that."

Xena tilted her head, and gazed at him, with a gentle smile. "Iolaus, you're such an idiot."

"Huh?" He said, not expecting this reaction. "I am not.. tell me it's not true, Xena. Tell me she's not hopelessly in love with you."

"Oh, I hope she is." The warrior said lazily.

"Huh??? You do? Why??? " Iolaus demanded, leaning forward.

"Because I'm hopelessly in love with her." Came the quiet answer.

Silence dropped over the cave, invaded by the dull stamps of the horses, and the faint, far off rattling of small pebbles falling down somewhere deep inside the mountain.

Iolaus opened and closed his mouth a few times, and rubbed his temples hard. "uhh… uh… ab.. du…" Was all he managed to get out, when he was startled by an unfamiliar sound. He looked up, realizing he'd never heard Xena laugh before. Not like this.

Before his eyes, the warlord disappeared, to be replaced with this smiling young woman, whose eyes sparkled with humorous intelligence. He felt his entire world go upside down, as he struggled to cope with his changing perceptions. Finally, he looked up, tentatively meeting Xena's patiently waiting gaze.

"You all right?" The warrior asked in a faintly amused tone.

"Hmm yeah. " Iolaus rubbed his head. "I didn't.. expect that.. sorry. " He gave her a chagrined look. "I didn't think… I didn't know you… I mean, you've…"

"Yeah, I know. " Xena sighed ruefully. "It was kind of a surprise for me too."

They looked at each other. "Wow." Iolaus finally said, breaking into a relieved chuckle. "Well.. that's great!" He smiled. "Wait till Herc hears…" Then his face fell, and he glanced away. "Yeah."

Xena gazed at him with those penetrating blue eyes, which seemed to see right through him. "Iolaus."

Reluctantly, he met her glance, flinching only a little.

"It's going to be all right." The warrior stated firmly. "I promise you."

This was the woman who had seduced him.. and tried to destroy Hercules. Who was Ares' Chosen one. Who killed people with no more regard that he would an ant. Whose potential for destruction was so great, she'd held the land under terror for years. And she was asking him to believe in her promise.

Strangely, impossibly, he was shocked to discover he did.. because there was a kernel of something in her that was very familiar to him. A spark in her eye, maybe, that brought to his mind a certain tall, brawny, impossibly noble friend of his.

"Thanks." He said, with a smile at her. "Ok.. that wore me out.. I think I need to get some sleep now."

Xena gazed at him with a quirky smile. "Goodnight, Iolaus."

He rolled over on his bedroll, and cast a last look at her, outlined in the flames. "Good night, Xena." And he was instantly asleep, giving his thoughts up to Morpheus' realm, and his physical safety up to Xena's watchful senses.

The warrior watched him for a minute, then rolled over onto her back, and gazed at the ceiling with a satisifed grin. You'd have been proud of me, my bard. The bard was still getting used to this new facet of their complicated relationship.. and the growing notoriety she had in her own respect.

It was on their way out from Potadeia… and they'd stopped in a small village for a night's rest off the hard, cold ground. Xena had walked Argo to the lone stable, and made her comfortable while Gabrielle had gone inside to negotiate room and board. She'd taken her time with the mare, currying her, and picking a few pebbles out of her large hooves, then picked up their bags, and sauntered inside.

And heard raised voices from the front, one of which being Gabrielles. She'd walked up to see the innkeeper arguing with an obviously angry bard, in time to hear him answer her.

"Look, I'm not having two women stay alone here. It just causes too much trouble." He'd seemed an honest sort, his voice was not vicious, just frustrated.

Xena had walked up behind Gabrielle, and settled her arms around the bard's shoulders, resting her chin on her partner's pale head. "What kind of trouble?" She' d asked, watching his eyes bulge. She felt Gabrielle giggle. "Don't tell me this is one of those places I have to promise not to beat anyone up."

"You should have just said." The innkeeper mumbled, not meeting the ice blue eyes gazing at him. "Thought you were…"

"What?' Gabrielle asked, now annoyed. "Thought we were what??"

"Traveling prostitutes." Xena answered calmly, with an amused grin. "Right?"

His pale brown eyes darted to hers. "Uh… well… " he paused. "You're Xena, right?"

She'd nodded. "What tipped you off, the leather or the attitude?".

He blushed, then looked at the fair haired woman she had her arms wrapped around. "Then you must be Gabrielle, the bard."

Xena had felt the intense blush heat her partner's skin and smiled. "Two for two."

The innkeeper grinned. "You should have just said who you were." He shook his head. "Trade you a room and dinner for some stories then, all right?"

Xena had enjoyed the moment thoroughly, glancing down at Gabrielle's profile, which was edging into a delighted smile despite herself. "I'd say you'd get the better part of that bargain, innkeeper." She'd drawled, watching the bard's blush deepen.

"Sometimes, you just get lucky." The innkeeper agreed with a cheeky smile. "Besides, I can guarantee myself at least one night without any trouble in the place." He put out a huge hand. "Hector."

They'd both shaken it, and gone up stairs, silent until they were behind the door of the small, but pleasant room he'd given them. Then Gabrielle had turned, and put her hands on her hips. "Traveling prostitutes?"

Xena shrugged, and tossed their bags on the bed. "Well… " She'd crossed over to her partner, and gently traced the outline of her face with a knowing finger. "It's not a totally unbelievable conclusion.. seeing you, anyway." She'd smiled at the bard's exasperated expression. "And, it's how some make a living, my bard. Bearing no other skills." She'd shrugged. "You should have just told him your name."

"I'm not used to that meaning something to anyone." Gabrielle had muttered, blushing again. "Yours, sure But not mine."

"Better get used to it." She'd informed the bard, with a sympathetic smile. "Besides, I'd rather them know yours.. and not mine."

Gabrielle had looked up at her, and given her a gentle smile. "Oh no, Warrior Princess. If they know mine, rest assured, they'll always know yours."

Continued - Part b of Part 4