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 5

By Melissa Good


The wind had died down, leaving the dark mountainside an eerily silent place, as day creatures slumbered, and the night creatures sensed the passing of two humans and horses and held their peace. Even the owls were quiet, their round, solemn eyes following the steady pace of the forest intruders with a stolid disinterest.

Xena took a deep breath, and stretched in her saddle, relaxing back into Argo's comfortable pace with easy familiarity. The forest gave up it's scent of pine and dirt into the cold air, and she could now detect a hint of moisture. With a sigh, she glanced up, to see the clouds covering the star strewn sky, and nudged Argo closer to Iolaus's gray. "Looks like we've got bad weather rolling in again."

Iolaus looked up, and groaned. "Great.. just great." He gave her a sideways look. "You know, when we get through all this, he's gonna owe me big time."

Xena chuckled. "I'd say a weeks vacation somewhere nice, right?" She registered the darting glance with a vaguely puzzled expression. "I mean.. you guys like to.. " Her mind searched for a likely entertainment. "Go.. tavern crawling in Athens, or whatever." She paused, aware of some kind of strange undercurrent coming from Iolaus. "Right?"

"Uh.. right." Iolaus agreed quickly. "We love that.. you know, a few drinks.. a few dances..."

The warrior hid a grin. "A few girls.." She drawled, cocking her eyebrow at him.

"Well.. no.. I mean.. uh.. not really... uh.. not usually.. " He ran out of protests, and just looked at her. "Ok.. sometimes."

She chuckled, and shook her head. "C'mon, Iolaus - I used to run an army, remember? Just a thousand guys and me." She pointed a finger at her chest. "I bet I’ve been in more alehouses than you have."

The blond man gave her a curious look. "So.. what was that like? Must have been kind of...I don't know.. exciting?"

The warrior leaned back in her saddle, and crossed her arms on the fur wrapped leather tree. "Mostly it was.." A light shrug, almost unseen in the darkness. "Hard work.. strategy.. planning.. administrating.. keeping discipline.." Xena paused, and thought. "Parts were really boring, parts were really frightening.. mostly it was in between."

"Do you miss it?" The words were out before he could censor them, and he bit his lip. Dumb.. very dumb... But the answer was fast in coming.

"No." Xena replied. "Leading men into battle.. that was.. the part I liked best. " She admitted frankly. "But the screams of the wounded men after a battle...I still hear them."

"Oh." Iolaus muttered. "I didn't think you'd have to deal with that part."

Xena turned her eyes on him, and he saw the deep shadows there. "Where do you think I learned my healing skills, Iolaus?"

They rode on in silence for a short time, immersed in thought.

Y'know, I really don't miss it. The warrior mused. I found something that fills me in all the places that never did.. but I was always hoping it would.

Suddenly her hearing picked up two sounds out of place, and she stiffened, reaching out to Iolaus with one hand. "Trouble." She muttered, in a low, sibilant voice.

"How.. who.. where.." Iolaus whipped his head around, searching the dark underbrush.

"Eight men... in front of us and to the left." The warrior replied, sitting forward and tightening her knees around Argo's warm sides. The mare reacted to her alertness, and sidestepped, as Xena focused her senses around them. "Not mounted.. crossbows.. swords... and a mace."

Iolaus goggled at her. "You can tell all that?"

"Yeah." She spared him a brief glance. "You up for a fight?" She drew in a sharp breath as she heard the distinctive rising whine of a crossbow gut under pressure. "Don't answer that." She whipped a hand out and caught the quarrel in front of his nose. "Just move."

She drove Argo forward, towards the now dimly seen figures running towards them, and drew her sword, letting out her wild yell and swinging down, slamming her hilts on top of the closest man’s head. The second unlucky enough to reach her got a boot in the face, which snapped his head back and sent him down without a word, and she then slid off Argo’s back, and faced the third and fourth with a grin and a swinging blade.

Iolaus jumped off his gelding immediately, and caught a rushing raider with a quick jab, then grabbed his arm and tossed him to the side, against a nearby tree. Then he grappled with his next opponent, as the man swung a mace at him, and ducked as the weapon skimmed over his head. He heard a solid thunk, and glanced to his right to see one of the attackers physically lifted in mid air and tossed across the path, and heard a low laugh follow him.

Xena was having.. fun. Actually. She kept her sword more as a battering device than a slashing one, using it to put additional weight behind her blows, and giving the occasional hard whack with the flat of it. She had just slammed her elbow into the nose of one of the few remaining raiders when a sudden wave of chilling panic took her.

Confused, she stepped back, and glanced around, shaking her head hard to clear it, then felt it intensify, then just as abruptly as it came, it disappeared. Her opponent took advantage of the momentary lapse, and hurled his body on top of her, bearing them both to the ground. Xena let her automatic reflexes take over, as she felt her heart begin to calm, almost absentmindedly dislocating the raider’s arm, and slamming his body over hers to the hard ground.

Damn.. what was that? She surged up into a half crouch, and caught the last raider in the gut with a knee, eliciting a high whine from the man, and putting him out of action.

A hand on her elbow almost got a similar response, but she recognized Iolaus’ touch before she decked him, and just let her hands drop. "Don’t do that." She cautioned him. "Not in the middle of a fight."

"Sorry." The blond man grimaced. "Are you all right? Did that last guy tag you or something.. I thought.."

"I’m fine." Xena cut him off. "Just caught my foot on a root." She dusted her hands off and looked around, mentally counting. Yep. .got them all. She tentatively let her guard down, waiting for a repeat of the panic surge, and relaxed a little when it didn’t come. That.. almost felt like Gabrielle. Her mind gingerly probed the thought. But it’s gone now.. maybe she just got scared.. or .. whatever.

This time of night, the bard would have been safely in Amphipolis, either finishing up a bardic session at the inn, or snuggling down to sleep, neither of which activity would cause that kind of… She paused, and let a slow breath out. Unless she was having nightmares.

A scene flashed into her memory, of a night a week or so back, when she’d been out late checking out a report of scavengers around the edges of the village. She’d left the sleepy bard tucked into bed, brushing the soft fair hair out of her face and receiving a gentle kiss on her fingertips in return. "Be right back." She’d promised, as Gabrielle wrapped her hand around the fastening belt of her leathers, and tugged.

"You’d better." The bard had warned. "Don’t let them talk you into spending hours out there telling gory stories, OK?"

Xena had laughed. "No chance… " She twitched the blankets into place, snuggling them up under the bard’s chin. "Not in this weather."

And that had been true - she’d examined the evidence, and given terse advice, and headed back home, Argo as willing as she to return to the warmth of a snug bed. After settling the mare, she’d moved through the fitful moonlight, stepping up into the cabin and sliding the door shut in total silence, trying not to wake her partner up.

Three steps in, and she’d heard Gabrielle cry out, though.. and all thoughts of stealth vanished as she bounded to the bedside, and settled on it’s edge, reaching for the restlessly twitching bard.

"No.. no… " Gabrielle whispered, in a broken mumble, then woke as she felt Xena’s hand on her shoulder. "No… " Her eyes popped wide open, and fastened on the warrior’s concerned face, going from anguished to utterly relieved in less than a breath. "Gods." She got out, untangling her hands from the covers and reaching for Xena, who pulled her into a secure embrace.

"It’s all right.. I’ve got you." Xena had felt the body in her arms shaking. "Just a dream, love… it’s all right now." She stroked the bard’s hair gently, and felt her hands tighten, bringing them closer together. "Shh.. it’s all right."

Gradually, she had felt Gabrielle stop shaking, and her breathing calm. "That was a bad one, huh?"

"Yeah." The bard mumbled against her chest. "Something from a long time ago."

Xena had felt a tiny relief that this wasn’t something she’d caused for a change. "Your father?" She asked gently.

The bard nodded. "Don’t know why that got dredged up.. I was… " She nestled closer. "Some of the kids decided to.. they didn’t like something I’d said, and…"

"Shh." Xena hugged her. "You don’t have to tell me."

"No.. it’s OK." Gabrielle settled her head onto Xena’s chest, and sighed. "They started to beat me up.. and then Father walked in and saw ." She stopped, and closed her eyes against the remembered pain of the moment. "He let them finish."

Xena had felt an upwelling of rage so stark and so fierce that it forced a low growl from her unwilling throat.

Gabrielle had looked up, with a tiny smile. "My protector of puppies… and other helpless things…take it easy, OK? It was a long time ago." She sighed. "I haven’t thought about that in a long time.. I think it was more the feeling of.. " She shook her head a little. "Disappointment.. betrayal.. I don’t know… " Her eyes had found Xena’s. "It hurt more than the actual beating."

Xena had swallowed a few times before she answered. "It always does." She’d rubbed the bard’s back gently. "You all right now?"

Gabrielle had gazed up at her and smiled. "I’m always all right when you’re here."

Damn. Forgot about that. She wakes up in a panic, I know…that would account for that.. though.. damn… didn’t think it would be so strong.. I guess we got more sensitive to each other over the last few months. A tiny smile crossed her face. Wish I was back there. She sighed, and continued flipping over the raiders, tying them loosely with bits of their clothing she ripped off. "That’ll keep em for a while." She commented to Iolaus, who was following her lead.

"Right." The blond man agreed. "Well, that was fun."

Xena looked up at him. "Yeah, it was." And gave him the barest ghost of a wink.

They remounted, and continued on their way, passing into the darkening night under the rising sound of the fitful wind.

Cyrene stood at the window of the inn, staring out with unseeing eyes. "Where in Hades are they." She whispered, mindful of the straggling patrons around her. It wasn’t like Gabrielle, to leave them worrying like this.. especially with Xena gone.

"What’s wrong?’ Johan said, slipping up next to her and peering out the window.

"Gabrielle and those girls haven’t gotten back yet." The innkeeper murmured. "I’m getting.. a little concerned."

"Which way did they go?" The stocky ex merchant asked. "I’ll send some of the watchers out."

Cyrene slowly nodded. "I’m.. not sure. Maybe that Amazon knows." She turned on her heel, and strode across the inn, pushing the small door open and slipping inside.

The Amazon was sleeping, but half woke on her entrance, warrior’s instincts struggling to respond even when her body was obviously incapable of it. "Uh.." She mumbled, blinking foggily at Cyrene.

The innkeeper seated herself on the low stool next to the bed, and studied her drawn face. "Ephiny… "

"Wha’s wrong?" The blond woman asked, forcing herself to alertness. "Where…"

"Shh." Cyrene put a hand on her arm. "It’s… probably nothing. But.. did Gabrielle say where she was taking the girls out to?"

Ephiny’s already pale face blanched white. "Gods.. not back?" She half rolled over onto her side, and groaned. "Knew I should have… " She broke into a rattling cough. "Damn." She sighed. "They were going to the river." She looked up at the window. "Time?"

Cyrene gave her an unhappy look. "Fair to midnight."

Ephiny cursed in a steady, hoarse voice for a minute. "Damn woman attracts trouble like bees to honey." She looked up. "Gotta find her."

"We will." Cyrene assured her, pressing her shoulder back down on the bed. "You lie down… we’ll find her, don’t you worry." She stood, and hurried out the door.

"Little late for that." Ephiny muttered, staring at the ceiling and running through a series of calming mantras. Oh… gods… Gabrielle… please.. just be caught up doing something… telling some wild story, or stopping to help some damn sheep give birth to a lamb.. I know you’d do that, right? Lose track of time… all those kids cooing over some little scrap of white wool…

Her gut told her otherwise. That Gabrielle, highly conscious of her responsibility with the young girls, would have rather have carried the damn sheep home on her shoulders than send everyone into a panic. Especially in chancy, unsettled weather, when her main source of security was days away from here, and headed in the wrong direction.

"Damn it." Ephiny closed her eyes, then opened them again, and with a grimly determined look, pulled herself upright, and held on, as a wave of vertigo washed over her. "Teach me to just laze around, right?" She waited for her head to stop spinning, then swung her legs over the edge of the bed, and let her feet rest on the floor. Then she slowly, cautiously stood up, holding onto the bed rails for support, and paused there, swaying slightly until the dizzy feeling subsided again.

"Right." She borrowed Gabrielle’s fluffy shawl, and wrapped it around her, then walked slowly and unsteadily to the door and peeked out.

"Psst.. Cait.." A grubby hand shook her shoulder, stirring her to wakefulness. She let her eyes crack open, and saw Sharra’s worried face above hers. "You awake now?"

The slim blond winced, then rolled over onto an elbow, and felt her skull. "Ow."

"Shh.. " Elianas hissed, from next to her. "They’ll hear. Be quiet."

Cait blinked her eyes, and forced them to focus, staring at their surroundings with a sinking dismay. They were in a cage, of sorts. Hefty wooden supports bound with thick vines, to form a roofed enclosure about three of her body lengths square. The cage was to one side of an open area, that had low roofed huts around it, and a campfire lit in the very center. A low murmur of voices told of extensive occupation, and she could see dim forms moving about, and rough horseplay going on. "We’re in trouble, right?" She whispered to Sharra. "Where’s the queen?"

Sharra put her hand over the Cait’s mouth. "Shut up.. I don’t think they know who she is.. she’s over in that corner. She’s been out cold since they brought us here. .she’s got a horrible bump on her head and looks very pale."

Cait cursed softly, startling them. "I didn't see what happened.. they knocked me out." She slowly sat up, and took a deep breath. "Who are they?"

Megan slid closer. "They grabbed all of us.. but you and the queen were the only ones they clobbered.. I think.." She hesitated, glancing around. "I think they're slavers… there are more cages like this in the trees there."

"Ares balls." Cait groaned. "That's bad news…"

Sharra peered at her. "Wherever did you learn that one?" She peered off into the gloom. "What are we going to do?"

Cait carefully pushed the hair back off her forehead, avoiding the painful lump. "First off, let's see how Gabrielle is." She crawled across the leaf-strewn floor, and settled herself at the bard's side, putting slightly shaking fingertips at her pulse point. Then she sighed in relief. "That's all right then… I think she just took a bad hit." She gently lifted an eyelid, exposing a lightly glazed pale green eye, which reacted to the low torchlight. "That's good." Then she did the other, and sighed again. "That's bad." She glanced up. "Looks like she's gotten a concussion."

Megan scrambled over to her. "Where did you learn all that? I haven't seen you hanging around the healer's hut." She looked at Cait curiously.

The blond girl gave her a brief smile. "From watching Xena.. I got to see quite a bit of her when she was home.. she knows an awful lot about all sorts of things."

They both turned as Gabrielle moved, and let out a hissing groan. "Shhh." Cait said, putting a hand on the older woman's arm. "Gabrielle.. we're in trouble here."

The green eyes fluttered, then blinked open, and Gabrielle's brow contracted in pain. "Gods." She muttered, raising a hand to her head. "What fell on me?"

"Lay still." Cait cautioned. "I think they gave you a concussion." She looked around. "We're in a cage kind of thing.. in what we think is a slaver's camp." She saw a handful of emotions cross Gabrielle's expressive face, then it went grim.

So this is what a concussion feels like. The bard mused. Ok.. ok.. my respect for Xena just jumped another several notches.. she just carries on when she gets one. It feels like my head's going to explode. She moved her neck slightly, and felt an uncomfortable popping as her vertebrae slid back into place. Ugh. Fuzzy feeling, she said, right? Xena, you idiot.. this does not feel fuzzy. This feels like death warmed over.

Slaver's camp.. gods. We're in real trouble here love.. and there's no chance of you bailing me out of this one… what am I going to do? These kids are depending on me. On me. The weight of that responsibility settled on her, and she forced her foggy mind to start thinking.

Then footsteps came close, and she turned her head a little, sensing the sudden fear around her.

"Well, well… little queen's awake then, eh?" The voice was smoothly satisfied, and deeply male.

Rurik. Gabrielle's mind identified it immediately. I should have realized he was.. not what he seemed. Oh Xena.. I should have let you… Her mind cut that thought off. "Hello Rurik." She said calmly, not looking at him.

"So you remember me then lass.. that's good." Rurik laughed. "Fondly, I hope. Then you'll make this little interlude a nice one.. don't worry.. you won't be here for long." He crouched down, and put his hands on the cage supports. "You'll be on a boat soon, my lass, on your way to a new life as someone's scuttle then… won't you?" He reached through the bars, and tugged a lock of her hair. "And we saw your cousin ride off.. no rescue for you, little queen. Not in time.. and you'll draw me enough to last this damned winter out. I thank you for that…"

"You'd get more if you ransomed me to the Amazons." Gabrielle said quietly, glancing over at him, letting him feel her gaze. She kept her expression gentle.

He laughed. "Oh no.. you lovely thing." He waggled a finger at her. "And have those wild women descend on us? No thank you. " He shook his head. "Same for your family there.. I don't want your cousins riding up on me, no thanks… we've got a man coming night after tomorrow, he'll take you out then. And pay me, and then…" He tugged her hair again. "You'll be going where that smart mouth of yours will get you what it should."

My cousins. Gabrielle caught that again. So he doesn't…know. "Maybe." She said softly. "But when my family.. " she paused and smiled. "finds out, they'll come after you anyway." She looked up at him and spoke with all the conviction she could muster. "There won't be anyplace you can hide that she won't find you." She, not them.

Rurik laughed again, and stood. "I'm not worried, lambkin. We've been foresters all our lives.. and this be our home. She won't find us." He glanced at the girls. "And what a nice bounty you brought me too.. such lovely girls.. ah, lass.. you've made my fortune, you have."

Then he was gone, and a long silence settled over them. "Gosh." Cait said finally, letting out a long held breath. "We are in trouble."

Gabrielle rolled very slowly over, and rested her weight on her elbow, forcing down the nausea from her injury. "We'll get out of this." She said quietly. "We have to get away from here."

A whine interrupted her thoughts, and she looked over to see Ares trying to get his head between the bars. She sat all the way up and put a hand to him, scratching his nose. Then her eyes fell on the glint of gold on her hand, and she bit her lip.

What if we don't? I don't want… Oh, Xena.. as soon as they get a good look at this thing, they'll take it, and I can't.. stand that thought. And they'll hurt Ares. Forgive me for this, love. .I hope it’s just a precaution. Closing her eyes, she reached up, and unclasped the silver necklace she was wearing, and took it off, gazing at the crystal for a long time. It’s just a symbol, Gabrielle. What it represents you can’t ever take off. Just remember that.

It was harder to remove the ring, not because it fit tightly, but because removing it… made her face the possibility that she might never put it on again. That this situation could end badly, with her ending up headed for who knew where, or dead. It hurt, that taking off, in a way she hadn't expected.

She threaded the ring onto the silver chain, and moved closer to the bars, letting Ares’ nose press close against her chest. "Here boy.." She said softly into one dark ear, carefully fastening the chain around his thick, furry neck.

Gabrielle let the pendant and ring rest in the palm of her hand for a long moment, then she closed her fingers around them, and felt her jaw clench hard. "Find her, Ares." She whispered, hearing the break in her own voice. "Find Xena, OK? "

Golden eyes gazed up into her own, ears pricking up on the familiar sound of Xena's name. A pink tongue caressed her face, removing the moisture leaking from her eyes with delicate precision. Then she released the chain, and he backed away, giving them one last long look, and disappeared into the darkness, his midnight coat blending into the gloom like a ghost in fog.

Gabrielle stared after him, taking a moment to compose herself before turning and facing the girls, who were watching her with intent expressions. "All right." She said with quiet determination. "How far did they take us?"

Silence from the girls, then Sharra cleared her throat. "Not that far.. I think we're just north of Amphipolis." She looked around. "We went through the forest quite a ways, though." She hugged herself then. "It's almost dawn."

In the old forest, then. Gabrielle sighed to herself. Not an area she knew well at all, though Xena surely did. She leaned stiffly back against the cage bars, and slowly stretched her legs out in front of her. "Let's see what the place looks like in daylight then… and what kind of chance we have to escape."

"Looks like a mess." Xena muttered low, into Iolaus's nearby ear. They'd made it to the outskirts of the castle with hours to spare before dawn, and were perched in an escarpment, looking down at the shabby village that nestled below the stone structure.

"Well, it's not a vacation village on the Aegean, that's for sure." Iolaus muttered back, adjusting his belt for the sixth or seventh time. They had left all their weapons and Xena's armor back amongst the trees, where they'd also picketed the horses against their return. He glanced around and sighed, as the wind picked up and blew it's cold, wetness against his face. "Great. Rain. Again."

Xena sighed, and settled back against the rock, folding her arms across her wool covered chest. Looking down into the village had started a vague uneasiness in her gut, and she probed it, trying to figure out why. It looked like an ordinary, if somewhat run down village… maybe it was the specter of something there affecting Hercules?

The gnawing grew as she considered that, and she took a deep breath to settle herself. What's the matter, Xena? Don't think you can handle this or something? Damn.. I haven't felt like this since… Her thoughts trailed off. Since Gabrielle was with the Amazons.

Then the feeling came full force, and made her nauseous, as she focused on it. Her heart started pounding, and the cold wind receded in her awareness as she turned her attention to that part of herself she knew was also part of Gabrielle.

It took every ounce of self-control she had not to just get up and leave, right then. Instead, she concentrated on the vague apprehension, and felt it lessen, and calm.. and subside to a low uneasiness. So.. she guessed. Something was wrong. Ephiny? Possibly?…Probably. Gabrielle's close to her. The Amazon could have taken a turn for the worse.. with this kind of sickness, that was always possible, and the reason Xena had sent Toris when she did. Damn…

Two days and more from there… she'd never be able to get back in time to do anything if that was the case. And their healer, while a trifle unimaginative, was more than competent. Quietly, she cursed their connection, which gave her this reason to worry without explanation. She studied the feeling intently, ignoring Iolaus's curious stare. No.. the sharp fear wasn't there.. so Gabrielle could handle whatever was happening.. she was just very worried.

All right then.. Xena decided. She'd finish up here, and then get back. The bard wouldn't want her to stop in a mission this critical.. that she was sure of. Not unless it was a dire emergency, and it didn't feel like that. Yet.

"Xena?" Iolaus touched her arm. "Something wrong?"

She looked up at him. "Nope. Just thinking." She took a deep breath. "Let's get down there.. it'll be less windy to wait."

Xena scrambled over the edge of the rock, and started down, feeling a sudden lightness without the weight of her armor on. Guess I got used to it again.. she mused, with a rueful smile. But there's no chance they'll take us in with me wearing that.. even the leathers are a stretch. Maybe they won't look too close. She resettled her belt pouch before she took another step, feeling the gentle curves of the remaining three packets she'd patiently dug out of her saddlebags, ignoring Iolaus' curious stare. Hang in there love.. this won't take long. I won't let it..

They got to the bottom of the hill, and crept close to the slumbering village, find a sheltered spot outside a rundown barn to settle in and wait for the dawn.

Xena snugged her cloak more firmly around her throat, and sighed, gazing up at the fast racing clouds overhead. She leaned her shoulders against the rough wood of the barn, and chewed absently on a trail bar, more because she knew she should then because hunger drove her, that vague anxiety in her gut ruined any chance at that. A glance towards the huddled Iolaus told her he had fallen easily asleep, and she wished she could too.. but her mind was busily racing, chasing itself around in circles with worry about Hercules, about Gabrielle…

That's what happens when you let yourself care about people, remember? She reminded herself with a wry thought. It gets you in ALL kinds of trouble. She smiled ruefully to herself, letting her head rest against the barn wall and allowing her thoughts to drift a little.

She'd never intended on falling in love again. Nope.. not after that last time, after Marcus, whose passing had left her devastated. She'd stay safely aloof, and if that meant she was lonely a lot, well, that's the breaks. Better than being in pain.

Then she found Hercules, and that.. made a chink in that armor. Not a big one, because their relationship had been mostly superficial.. mostly a physical attraction more than anything. But that chink had been widened by her own mental state after her army rejected her.

Then she'd met Gabrielle. Oh.. gods. If she'd only known what trouble that was going to cause.. she laughed helplessly. Unknowingly, unintentionally, that girl had found every single crack and chink in her defenses and just..

It had been like water running over limestone. Until one day, she'd been sitting there across the campfire from the girl, and looked up.. and their eyes had met.. and she'd felt.. something give. Something shatter, in the depths of her heart which had given a little lurch.

And it hadn't been like any other time, she'd long since realized. Every other time she'd been in control. Had allowed herself the luxury. Had a plan for it.. had a reason for it.. but not this time. This time it had hit her in a place so deep, it went far beyond her defenses.

So she'd tried to fight it - scared out of good sense by the thought of losing control of this, because this young girl was in no way a fit person for her to feel like that about. She told Gabrielle more about who she really was.. intending to scare her off.. push her away.

Instead, that bound them closer. That night after meeting Callisto.. she'd admitted to torching an entire village.. and Gabrielle had just.. accepted that. Had comforted her.. gods, she could still feel the warmth of the bard's chin resting on her shoulder as they'd gazed into the fire together. She'd told Gabrielle more than she'd intended that night… "If anything ever happened to Hercules.. or mother.. or you.." She wondered if Gabrielle had guessed.. then… just how important she was to her.

Then there was the night she'd thought she'd lost her for good. After that long, lonely ride away from Potadeia, leaving her in Perdicus' loving arms. Letting go of her hurt so bad, it was like taking a sword in the gut.. but she'd done it.. knowing in her heart that the bard was better off there.. she'd be safe, and loved.. and… Xena had swallowed, and tried to think about something else.

She'd made a small camp, just a picket for Argo, and a tiny fire, hadn't unpacked her gear, hadn't eaten.. just sat down, and pulled her knees up to her chest, and hugged them. And let the emotion she'd been damming up all day out.

She'd cursed her heart that night. Cursed it's weakness, and the way she'd let the bard into it. Grieved the loss of that close friendship more than anything else.. because despite her protests to the contrary, she knew she'd never go back there.. never visit… she'd disappear from Gabrielle's life like the morning fog under the sun.

Gods.. she’d forgotten just how lonely she’d been.. just how large a hole there was now without Gabrielle there. Knowing she’d never look up across a campfire again and see twinkling green eyes looking back at her. Or hear the bard’s voice practicing a story.. or asking a question.. or feel her familiar presence just being there.

She'd spent that night remembering all the times they'd had, good and not so good. And by morning, had decided to ride back by Potadeia, to say a quiet goodbye to the bard, because she deserved that. Deserved not to be waiting for a visit from a friend that would never come.

And because she wanted to look into those eyes one last time, now that it was safe, and speak the words her heart had been saying to her for a while now.

Could she have stopped Callisto? The question had sounded in her mind since. She'd never made the conscious decision not to… that she knew. But her skills were part honing, and part instinct, equal halves training and natural ability. Her reactions were fueled partly from her subconscious.. and that subconscious had been in deep turmoil that day.

No. She’d drive herself crazy thinking like that. She’d miscalculated Callisto, that was the problem.. who had seen the opportunity to destroy the two of them from within. Which would have been a lot more satisfying to her.

But they’d survived that, somehow. It had taken time, but there was something between them, even then, that fiercely resisted their parting, and that something held them bound together long enough for their minds to start on the journey their hearts had begun long before.

Some things were just meant to happen. It had been a turning point in both of their lives, one that they were still feeling the repercussions from, but she couldn't honestly look back at it, and wish it had happened differently. Not then, and especially not now.

An owl hooted, jerking her attention away from her memories, and she cast a cautious glance around, lifting her head and scenting the wind, detecting the distinctive smell of the barnyard, and the rain on the wind, and the rich scent of the earth she was sitting on. Almost dawn.. and once they got into the mining camp.. misbehaving shouldn't be a problem.

Then what? She wondered. Ok.. so we get taken into Hercules' little playroom. If he didn't recognize Iolaus, he surely wasn't going to recognize her. Guess I'll play it by ear. She sighed silently. I just hope I can do something.

The clouds cleared the full moon for a short time, sending a cascade of light across her face, and she bit off a grin, taking one of the remaining packets from her pouch. Mushball. She unwrapped it, and raised the piece of stone to her lips, then smiled when the sandstone gave off a gentle scent of leather and ink. Gabrielle must have stored the things in her scroll pouch, she mused, as her eyes traced the letters on the paper.

This isn't a poem.. it's just a note.. cause by now you're probably sick of the poems, and wish I'd send along something useful. Like helpful hints on the weather, or how to get stains out of leather, or the best way to cook trout. But no.. instead you get mushy poems. Just be glad I didn't put in the ones about your eyes, OK? Oh.. I can see you rolling them right now. Just for that, if you turn this over, you'll get a poem anyway.

I love you.


Xena smiled, and idly reread the note a few times, hearing it in the bard's voice effortlessly, then she turned the paper over in gentle fingertips, and tilted it to the moonlight

If I could ask for anything on earth,

And have it granted just for my wishing,

I'd ask that my wish be given to someone else.

Because there is nothing I could want,

That I don’t already have.


What in Hades does she see in me? Xena shook her head in wonder. Gods.. love must be blind.. just how did I get off being this lucky? She resettled her shoulders with a sigh, and let her fingers idly play with the pendant hanging from her neck, and waited for the dawn to come.

Toris yawned, as he led his amiable chestnut along the road, sensing the beginnings of home. "Not far now." He commented, to the mostly silent Granella who walked beside him. The rest of the Amazons were spread out along the path, watching for trouble. The weather had held, luckily, and they'd made good time back towards home, but it had been a long walk and he'd be glad to see the end of it.

Granella had sent a runner back to the Amazon Village, so by now, he knew they would have their news, and be relieved of worrying about their queen and the girls. He was glad for that.. he knew from the expressions on their faces when they'd met him that they'd been very worried.. something he could understand.

The crossroads home fell under his steps, and he let out a sigh of relief, and he grinned at his silent companion. "Bet you'll be glad to get under a roof."

Granella spared him a glance, and smiled. "Yeah.. and I'll be glad to see Ephiny.. she had us really worried for a while." She looked ahead. "Are those your fields? "

"Amphipolis' yes." Toris answered, now hearing the first signals from the guard post, and he stiffened. "Hold on.. " Hearing the warning notes. He sent back a query with pursed lips, and then a trotting figure broke cover, and headed in his direction. "Uh oh."

Granella looked at him. "What?" She felt a chill of fear travel down her, and sensed the other Amazons moving up on either side of her.

"What's up?" Lida whispered, watching the villager approach.

"I don't know." Granella answered softly.

"Ebris.. what's wrong?" Toris questioned the man, who came up and set a hand on his arm. "Is it our guest?"

Ebris shook his head, out of breath. "No.. it's.. Gabrielle."

Toris turned white so fast Granella grabbed his arm. "What happened?' The Amazon asked crisply.

The villager sighed. "We don’t know - she took that bunch of girls out before sundown to the river.. hasn't been back, and we've got searchers out."

"Where's my sister?" Toris asked quietly, staring intently at him. "Why isn't she here?" Gods.. no.. don't tell me she was that sick after all, and never…

Ebris took a breath. "She got word a friend needed help up to the north.. been gone for two days.. left the morning after you did." He hesitated. "A rider came in that night.. little fellow, a friend of Hercules, they say."

Toris closed his blue eyes. Hercules.. of course. If he was in trouble Xena would have gone without question.. but what… "All right.. so they can't find any sign of Gabrielle or the girls? They must not be looking hard enough.. they'd have no reason to cover their trail."

"Damn.. damn.. damn.." Granella cursed. "Just when I think things are getting better.. well, we'd better help look."

Toris shook his head. "Let's go to the inn first. We'll get the latest news there, then we can spread out. "

They all turned abruptly, as hoofbeats sounded on the road behind them. The darkness broke as the moon shone briefly through, and reflected off the new traveler, an odd silhouette to be sure. Man's body and horses back, who was trotting briskly in their direction.

"Centaur." Lida breathed. "Now what??"

"Ho.. " Granella stepped to the center of the road and held up a hand. "Hail, traveler."

The Centaur stopped, and bent his head to see her better in the pale silvery light. "Ah.. I believe I know you. Is it the scout Granella?"

She stepped closer. "Yes.. it is. You were at the Village the other day. " She cocked her head, thinking. "Kaleipus, right?"

The centaur nodded. "Yes.. " Then his eyes caught Toris' and he stared. "I beg your pardon.. but.. who are you?" In typical centaur bluntness, as he arched his back, and sidestepped closer to the tall man.

"My name is Toris." Came the slow answer. "And if you're Kaleipus.. I think you know my sister Xena."

"Your sister." Kaleipus shook his handsome head slowly. "Gods." He sighed. "Am I going in the right direction then.. because it's Xena I'm looking for."

Toris studied him quietly. "In the right direction for her home, yes. But she's away right now, apparently. Is there something.. " He stopped, and gestured to himself. "What can we do for you?"

Kaleipus sighed. "It's my son, Solon. He's gone missing.. and I thought he might be headed this way.. he wanted to visit."

They all looked at each other in consternation. "Can this possibly, in any way, get more complicated?" Granella complained. "Let's all go back there, and take stock of what's going on, then we can decide what to do. " And I can talk to Ephiny, and we can try to make sense of all this. Gods.. Gabrielle missing, and Xena not there.. Ephiny must be going mad.

Toris started walking, and found himself next to the centaur, who trotted along and gave him side glances. He'd never seen a centaur before.. and he would have been intrigued if he wasn't so worried about Gabrielle.. how could she just go off.. no. He was sure the bard was just late.. they'd find her. They had to..

"So.." Kaleipus murmured. "You're Xena's brother, are you? I didn't know she had any family."

Toris sighed distractedly. "Yeah, she never tells people about mother and I.. mostly so we don't become targets of old enemies of hers. Of which there are apparently legions."

The centaur hid an amused smile, having been one of the legions. "Well, that sounds like her." He paused. "You look like her." And I guess that's what my Solon will look like in twenty years or so.. I would think.

"Thanks." Came the absent minded answer. "Why was your son coming here?"

Complicated question, unless he gave a very simple answer, and he didn't know just how honest Xena had been with her family. "He's very fond of your sister, and of Gabrielle." He answered carefully. "He heard they were wintering here.. and was bugging me to come visit." He pondered a moment. "I don’t know if Xena ever told you.. she saved him from a bad place once upon a time." And he never forgot that.. or her. So much so that I've wondered.. if he suspects the truth. He's not a stupid lad.

The tall dark haired man smiled. "She's made a habit of that lately.. but no, I haven't heard that one specifically." He glanced ahead, seeing the lights of the inn, far brighter than the should be at this time of night and grimaced. "Looks like everyone's up."

They headed into the courtyard, getting the attention of a small group standing on the porch. Toris recognized Cyrene among them, her strong voice carrying out over the darkened ground. Alongside her were Johan, and a group of the most proficient of Gabrielle's students, who were garbed for travel.

"Toris!" Cyrene called, seeing him. "Get over here, we've…" her voice stopped, as she took in the group surrounding him. "What in .." She strode forward.

"Mother." Toris said, then took a breath. "We've heard the news.. this is Granella, who was out looking for Ephiny.. I found her partway to the Village. And this is.. Kaleipus, a centaur who's looking for Xena."

Cyrene looked from one to the other. "Hello." She gazed at Granella. "Your queen is, against my better judgment, sitting up near the fire inside." She gave the Amazon a jerk of her head. "I guess you want to go say hello." She watched the Amazons file past her and up the stairs, then turned her attention to the centaur. "What do you want with my daughter?"

Kaleipus smiled his gentle smile, and bit a bearded lip. "Actually, I was hoping I'd find my son here… he's also missing, and he wanted to come see her, and Gabrielle, very badly. But I can see he isn't… I have to search elsewhere."

Cyrene sighed. "We've got groups out searching the entire river area. If he's here, they'll find him too. " She paused. "Would you like some.." Unsure of whether to offer ale or hay. "thing?"

Kaleipus shifted his weight and let out a breath. "A drink would be nice.. thanks.. and I'll wait for your hunters to come back.. so I don't have to duplicate their efforts." He paused. "Did I understand right.. that the Amazon queen Ephiny is also here?"

"Long story." Cyrene and Toris said in concert. They looked at each other. "But yes." Cyrene added, with a little smile. "Why don't you come.. inside?"

Kaleipus regarded the door thoughtfully. "I think I'll fit." He gave them a strained smile. "I know you must be worried about your missing friends."

Cyrene glanced at him. "Gabrielle is a second daughter to me… you bet your centaur tail I'm worried." She looked off into the darkness. "I just wish Xena were here."

They moved up onto the porch, and entered the inn.

The morning sun woke Gabrielle, and she opened her eyes reluctantly, hoping what she was remembering was a bad dream. The bars inches before her face dashed that hope, however, and she groaned softly. Her head pounded dully, and she still felt sick to her stomach, but she knew she had to get moving, and be a good example to the girls. Who were probably scared to death, never having been held captive before. Well, she had. More times than she really wanted to think about.. only this time, she knew she had to get out all on her own. There would be no miraculous last minute rescues by her partner.

Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself up, wincing at the sudden throbbing in her skull, then leaned her head against the bars, and looked out over the compound.

A hunter's camp, she realized, and rougher than she'd first thought last night. Tiny wattle huts covered with thatch for shelter, and five or six of the crudely made cages scattered on the far side. In the center, the dully glowing firepit, and the lumps of sleeping inhabitants clustered around it. The stench was… She wrinkled her nose. Impressive.

She rolled over and sat up straight, running her fingers through her hair to straighten it, and regarded the sleeping girls. They were huddled in one corner, giving her some space by herself at this end. She couldn’t help but smile a bit at that, but continued her sweep and let her eyes catch the short, bandy legged figure who was going from cage to cage with something in a dirty looking pot. "Oh.. great." She muttered, then called out to her companions softly. "Hey.. "

Cait's head came up first, her pale gray eyes blinking open and darting around the cage, then settling on her with unnerving brightness. "Gosh." She sighed, and shook her mates. "Come on.. " A glance towards Gabrielle. "You're looking better."

"I feel like centaur poop." Gabrielle confessed. "But they're bringing around what passes for breakfast, and I think we'd better have some if we can." She turned her head, and watched the little man go to the cage next to theirs, and bang on the wooden bars. Dark forms within stirred, and stumbled forward, standing before the bars with small bowls held out. Gabrielle's hackles rose at the sight, and she was about to turn her head, when one of the small forms caught her attention.

She studied it, then blinked, then grabbed the bars next to her, and pulled herself to her feet, ignoring the nausea and dizziness to walk to the very far edge of her prison and peer out. No. It can't be.

He turned, and saw her, and his mouth dropped open. "Gabrielle!" He yelled out, a smile crossing his dirty face. "Boy am I glad to see you!"

"Ah.. you know him then?" Rurik's voice floated over to her, as the man neared their cage. "Noisy brat.. always causing trouble." He stood and regarded the now scowling boy. "I was going to have him killed this morning.. think you can keep him quiet? I'd rather get my price of him." He looked at her. "Hey, little queen.. did you hear me?"

"I can keep him quiet." Gabrielle said in a toneless voice, not looking at him. "Bring him here."

"That's my little lass." Rurik laughed, and patted her head through the bars. "Hey.. Kefric! Bring that brat over here and put him in with this lot." He gave Gabrielle an approving look. "There, I knew you were going to be a cooperative one. So sensible."

They watched as Kefric drew the struggling boy from his prison, and pulled him over to where Rurik was standing. The tall trader grabbed the boy's jaw, and forced him to look up. "Here, now you little bastard…you've got a second chance, see? You be nice to this pretty lass here, and maybe I'll let you play with my boots later, get me?"

The boy glared at him, unrepentant, pale eyes boring through the trader. Rurik laughed, and opened the cage door, shoving him in, and closing it roughly behind him. "There… and you're all nice looking lasses too.. he should be thanking me, I'm thinking."

Gabrielle grabbed the boy as he hurtled past, and pulled him close. He abandoned his tough attitude, and wrapped his arms around her. "Solon.. what in the name of Hades are you doing here?" She whispered fiercely into his ear.

Embarrassed, he released her, and backed away a little, blinking, and casting a shy look at the Amazons who now clustered around both of them.

Gabrielle took the opportunity to study the boy, having not seen him for over a year. Eph was right.. he is growing up. She mused, seeing the added inches of height. His hair was now darkening, though she doubted it would ever be as dark as Xena's, and his face was lengthening, and acquiring those high planed cheekbones that, along with his pale blue eyes brought her partner strongly to mind. Now she understood Ephiny's veiled comments - Solon was becoming his mother's son, and in a very short time, a look in the mirror would render moot any further attempts at disguising his parentage. She couldn't help but smile at him.

"I was.. coming to visit you." He answered softly, glancing at the Amazon girls. "And I guess I got lost… I thought I knew the way but.. I ended up in this forest, and then these guys found me."

Gabrielle sighed in vexation. "Kaleipus let you come by yourself?"

A long pause, then he shrugged a little, and gave her a very, very familiar sheepish look. "I didn't ask him." He spread his hands out. "He never lets me do anything… and when we found out you guys were.. " Here he blushed. "You know.. then I thought it would be great if I could just.. come and say hello."

"Excuse me." Cait's soft voice interrupted them. She stuck a hand out. "Hello, I'm Cait."

Gabrielle gave them all a look. "I was going to introduce you." She admonished them. "This is Solon.. his father is Kaleipus, of the Centaurs." She indicated the girls with a hand. "This is Cait, whom you've met." The girl blushed. "And Sharra, Megan, Lista, and Elianas. They're Amazons."

"Well, almost." Sharra grinned, and stuck her hand out as well. "But any friend of our queen is a friend of ours." She paused and glanced around. "Right?"

"Right." Came the answer.

"Queen?" Solon turned and gave Gabrielle a look. "You are? Nobody tells me nothin." He scowled. "I feel like I live in a stable out in nowhere sometimes."

Gabrielle laughed wearily. "Don't worry, Solon.. we all feel like that sometimes." She glanced over, to where the bandy legged man was standing, watching them and licking his lips. Her nape lifted again, a curious feeling that she suspected she'd caught from Xena. "Well, let's get some breakfast, right?"

She walked over to the edge of the cage, and looked out at the man, pinning him with a sea ice cold gaze. "Are you going to give that to us, or just stand there?" She asked quietly.

"Oh.. you're a nasty one, are you?" The man cackled, shaking his ladle at her. "Careful, missy… or you'll end up with nothing from me."

Gabrielle kept her stare up, until he looked away, and fidgeted nervously. "Alright.. get em up here."

The bard called them over, and passed them filled bowls, watching them back away before she took one of her own. "Thank you." She said politely, meeting his eyes. He took one long look at her, then scuttled off.

They all sat down in a circle, and ate the tasteless cereal in silence. Gabrielle mostly played with hers, only taking a mouthful when she could no longer avoid it.

Solon leaned closer to her, and whispered in her ear. "Where's Xena?" He glanced around. "An.. what are YOU doing here?"

Gabrielle sighed. "She's away north.. helping out an old friend of ours. We were just out taking a walk when these guys jumped us."

"So.. she doesn't know?" Solon questioned, getting to the heart of the matter.

"No." Gabrielle answered softly. Well.. by now she might know something.. but even if she does feel.. this.. it would still take her too long to get here. "We're on our own, unfortunately."

"Are we gonna escape?" The boy asked, glancing bright eyed at the listening circle of girls.

"We're going to try." Gabrielle answered. Then she gave up on her cereal and handed it to Cait. "Here.. you divide this." Then she stood up and walked over to the bars, putting a hand on them and looking out. Oh Xena.. now what? I've got your son here, love. Now the stakes just got even higher.. because I gotta get him out of here along with us. I don't know how to do this, Xena.. I can't even begin to know.. I usually depend on your brilliant tactical mind for this sort of thing. Gods… I wish you were here.

The rising wind brought no answer, just a heavy wet coldness that ate away into her very soul.

"Iolaus." Xena called softly, as the sun's first rays trickled across the sad looking village. Would have looked better in a rainstorm. Xena mused, as she checked the clouds above. Whoops.. shouldn't have said that. Someday, Xena, you'll learn not to tempt the Fates that way.

Iolaus' eyes blinked open, and he yawned. "Morning." He sighed and looked around. "Nice place…I think I liked it better in the dark."

That got a snort of laughter from the warrior, who stood up, and offered him a hand up. "Yeah…I was thinking that myself." She smiled inwardly as Iolaus grabbed her hand without hesitation, and she hauled him to his feet. "Won't be sunny long, though."

"Hey.." Iolaus brushed himself off and grinned at her. "You have the same kind of tug as Herc does… what, do they issue that to you hero types or something?"

Xena moved forward, heading towards the central area of the village, where several people were assembling. "Oh.. yeah.. right along with our etiquette manuals."

Iolaus glanced at her, and raised an eyebrow.

"Threw mine away." Xena deadpanned, giving him an eyebrow right back. She studied the small group forming, apparently local inhabitants who were grumbling to themselves. She gave the nearest one a quiet nod, not missing the not so subtle once over she was getting from the rest of them. Ok.. so maybe it isn't the leather. She sighed to herself. "What's going on here?"

The older villager spat on the ground. "New here?"

She nodded, and so did Iolaus. "Just passing through, really." Iolaus said, with a friendly smile. "Thought we might be able to pick up some supplies."

The man snorted. "No extra here, bucko. And if ye're not wanting to stay here for a spell, ye'd best be on your way." He gave Xena a long look. "They won't turn down likely looking folks such as yourselves."

"They?" Xena quietly asked, feeling a trepidation start deep in her gut. Mine? Or hers… "Turn us down for what?"

The thunder of hooves interrupted their discussion, and they turned to watch a small group of horsemen enter the square, spreading out and surrounding the gathered villagers. The riders were dressed in leather and bronze half armor, and carried pikes, maces, and short swords.

"All right.. all right.. we lost three last night, so we need replacements." The man in front called, uncoiling a long whip and snaking it around his horse's nervously moving legs. "Not that there's much to choo…" His eyes fell on the newcomers, and a gap tooth grin appeared. "Ho ho ho.. what do we have here? Some visitors, I see.. "

He nudged his mount closer and peered down at Xena, who met his gaze with as unintimidating a look as she could muster under the circumstances. Iolaus nudged her in the ribs, so she supposed it wasn't very effective. She sighed and dropped her eyes. "Well well.. we'll take these two, and that oldster - you've got some life left in you, right?"

"Where are you taking us?" Iolaus interrupted. "We're just passing through.. what do you think you're doing???"

A boot caught him in the head, and Xena caught his falling body with a little sigh. She glanced up at the horseman, who was grinning down at her. "What's the work?" She asked in a civil tone.

"Mining." The man tapped her head with his whip. "And that's a reasonable thing you are, eh?? More than your little friend there." Never knowing just how close to dying he was at that very instant, when all of Xena's considerable instincts were screaming to pull him down off that horse and break his ugly, stinking body in half.

"We get fed?" Xena pursued, getting Iolaus' arm around her shoulders and supporting him, shoving her intense desire to do damage down very deep. Oh.. Hercules… you owe me BIG time for this one, my friend…this will be twice I pulled your butt out of the flames, and that first time, all I had to do was trick Ares.

The man laughed. "A practical sort…I like you!!!!" He cracked his whip and motioned to his soldiers. "That you do.. though it's nothing like mama makes." He reversed the whip in his hands, and put the edge of it under Xena's chin, forcing her head up. "But you won't be complaining now, will you my lovely?"

Xena felt all of her muscles jerk hard, as her body fought against her mind's control. "Complain?" She laughed gently. "Nope." She started reciting the different ways she could kill this animal in her head, mostly to distract herself. "What're we mining?"

"Oohh.." The man leaned close to her, studying her face intently. "Gems, it is… though I haven't seen any to rival those eyes.. maybe I'll ask Croton if I can borrow you after work, eh??"

Oh yeah. Xena cheerfully drew and quartered him in her imagination, giving him a fond look as she pictured pulling his arm off with him still alive to feel it. "Looks like I'm gonna like it here." She wondered briefly if she could make him scream by breaking every bone in his body first.

The captain laughed in delight, and motioned for his troops to get moving. "Let's go then.. Croton'll be giving me a bonus for bringing you in, he will… and maybe a little thrown in for your little buddy there."

The riders clustered around, and herded the three of them towards the north end of the town square, giving them the occasional prod with a pikestaff. Xena strode along, trying to remember if it was appropriate to kill someone first, and then pull their backbone out of their throat, or was it better to do it the other way around. "Xena?" Iolaus' whispered voice reached her.

"Huh?" She said, gave him a distracted look.

"I can walk now. Thanks." The blond man replied, as she released his arm, and he used that hand to rub his head. "I'm not gonna ask what's going through your mind right now."

"Good." Xena muttered, concentrating on not reacting when the pike hit her shoulder blades. Gods.. this was harder than she'd thought.. she felt like she was in a constant battle with herself… keeping a clamp down tight on reflexes she usually didn't have to think about. And to top it off, the uneasiness in her belly was growing, and taking on a darker tone. Gabrielle… her mind fretted, almost causing her to lose control of her tightly wound body. I need to cut this short. She decided, then peered ahead of them, seeing the entrance to what must be the mining shafts.

Uh oh. Now her guts tightened for a totally different reason.

"Xena?" Iolaus touched her arm, causing her to start. "Sorry."

"What?" She hissed, giving him a look.

"You ok? You just turned white as a sheet." Iolaus' voice was low, but there was a true note of concern in it.

"Fine, thanks." The warrior replied, through clenched teeth. "Just trying to keep my temper."

"Oh." Iolaus grimaced. "Right.. sorry."

Continued - Part b of Part 5