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 It's a Xena story. There are forest dwellers, bad guys, pregnant bards, sly Amazons, several troublemakers, and one very persistent mincemeat pie. Of course there is violence. Not too much though. Maybe one head, maybe two.. it depends on how it goes.

Subtext - I'm not disclaiming subtext anymore. If you've gotten this far in the series, you know what it's about. I don't personally think there's anything in their relationship that needs disclaiming. It's not like they're vegetarians, or something.

This is, of course, PG13 level involvement here, no more. That never changes.. for those of you who are waiting for me to stick in a rip roaring, no holds barred graphic orgy scene, make sure you have plenty of coffee and doughnuts handy. And a comfortable chair. And a good book. I can recommend some excellent altfic bards for you if you drop me a note.

If you read this story, and are offended by the love portrayed within, too bad. No raspberry brownies for you.

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

Circle of Life - Part 5

By Melissa Good

"Y'know, Gabrielle.. I never really did like sheep." Solari commented, as they edged their way across the close, noisy chamber towards where the village women had set up a food distribution area. "They're just so… so.. " She nudged an ewe aside with one booted foot. "So.. sheepish."

Gabrielle eyed a ram, who was eyeing her back. "No.. it's just that they look so cute, but they aren't. " The bard told her. "Potadeia mostly lives on sheep, you know… and let me tell you, they're nasty guys and girls."

"Yeah?" Solari encouraged her. "Did you ever ride on one?"

"Ride.. on a sheep?" Gabrielle laughed. "No.. but my parents had one, named Whistler because she'd always make this little whistling sound as she walked. " The bard demonstrated. "Anyway… Whistler used to wait for me to get involved with something.. like pulling up water, or collecting stuff under the porch, when my back was turned, and she'd come up and butt me."

Solari regretfully discarded the first three responses that came to mind and gave her queen a sympathetic look. "Ouch."

"Yeah.. but I got my revenge." Gabrielle chuckled softly. "I sheared her."

Brown eyes blinked at her. "Remind me never to piss you off."

They both laughed, and Gabrielle was still chuckling as she came up to where Sarah was sorting roots. The slim woman glanced up as she approached, and her brows knit. "Hello… how are you doing?"

"Fine, thanks." The bard replied. "We came over to see if we could get a couple of pieces of fruit"

Sarah spread her hand out. "Isaac has said you are to get anything you need.. please.. take what you wish." She half turned. "Wait.. I have some soup here.. would you like some of that?"

"Uh.. " The bard gave her a polite smile. "No.. that's okay.. just some fruit, and some bread if you have it." She glanced around. "It's a little too hot for soup." The cavern's closeness was almost cloying, and the bard could feel a sheen of sweat forming on her skin. So many people and animals together, along with the torches that were sputtering fitfully in their wall sconces made for a very uncomfortable living space. They'd checked out the back part of the cavern, and found, much to Xena's relief, a tall, crooked chimney that let in air, and sucked a bit of the smoke from the torches out.

The bard suddenly sniffed the air. "What is that smell?"

Solari looked at her like she was crazy. "WHICH smell is that, your majesty?" She inquired wryly. "Sheep, sweat, or wet blankets?"

"Oh.. you must mean the incense." Sarah laughed gently. "Tonight starts our festival of lights…they're just preparing." She indicated a group of men in the rear of the cavern. "We celebrate for eight days… and even though we're stuck in here, we're alive, and we thought it would be very appropriate to keep everyone's mind off things."

"Oh?" Gabrielle looked interested. "Tell me about it… is that like the harvest festivals we have?"

Sarah wiped her hands off, and looked around. "Matthias tells this usually.. but.. .not exactly." She picked up a bowl of thick, white substance she started mixing with her hands. "A great leader of ours once defeated an enemy, someone who had invaded our homeland and desecrated our temple. After we cleaned the temple out, we found there was only one cask of consecrated oil to light the sacred lamp with.. only enough for one day. But we had to celebrate the Sukkoth, which is the harvest, to insure good crops for the next year."

"Mmhm.. " Gabrielle studied her intently, trying to imagine the scene. "So what did you do?"

"Well, by a miracle, the lamp burned on that one day's oil for eight days, long enough for a new supply to be obtained, and for us to properly celebrate the harvest… since then, we've celebrated that as our festival of lights." She mixed her hands in the bowl. "We tell that story, and the children get little gifts of nuts, and a coin or two, so they'll remember."

"That's really nice." The bard smiled at her. "We have our Solstice celebration coming up very soon… and we give little gifts then, too." She glanced at the bowl. "What is that?"

Sarah had relaxed a bit. "We make tiny fried cakes from this.. it's traditional this time of year." She explained. "I’m sure you'll like them." She glanced up as another woman called her. "Excuse me." She put the bowl down and moved over to where several other workers were clustered around.

Gabrielle glanced at Solari, then leaned over and took a bit of the mixture on her finger, and tasted it. Her brows creased. It had a mealy texture, but the taste wasn't bad, a mix of onion and garlic, with a nice, almost nutty under taste. "Mm… sort of like those ground bean cakes Cyrene makes." She commented. "C'mon.. let's get some bread, and see if we can rest for a while.. my back's starting to bother me."

Solari took the basket from her hands, and selected a loaf of bread along with some fruit. "Considering what you've been doing all day? Artemis' bright blessings, Gabrielle… you really are something else." She shook her head at the bard in mild amazement. "I mean, I've lived with bearing women all my life, but not one in ten dozen stayed as active as you have, even with them being Amazons."

Gabrielle paused a moment, then smiled. "Thank you." She tucked an affectionate arm through Solari's as they walked back across the crowded cavern, nodding pleasantly at the women who crossed their paths.

"How many will this make?" One asked, standing up and wiping the sweat off her brow. She too, was pregnant, a month or two less than Gabrielle was.

"Just the one." The bard answered quietly.

"Oh.. " The woman dried her hands off and gave the bard a sympathetic look. "I’m sure your husband will make it up to you now that you've started."

Gabrielle smiled kindly at her. "Actually… I've spent the last four years in the company of a bloodthirsty ex warlord, traveling around the world and fighting evil kings, gods, and monsters to help people.. I kind of just didn't find the time until now." She commented. "But thanks for asking."

The woman gazed at her, speechless. Then she edged off. "Excuse me."

"Bye." The bard waggled her fingers, and continued on, her green eyes twinkling despite the sheepy atmosphere and the constant yells of playing children.

"You're bad." Solari solemnly shook her head, then she glanced around, "Speaking of.. where's tall, dark and deadly?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Last time I saw her, she was coming back from that back section.. I think she's trying to persuade them to take these blasted sheep back there and get them out of our faces."

"Convince them?" Solari laughed. "Why not just tell em? She's supposed to be their mucky muck, right?"

The bard winced. "Don't start with that… she's not happy about that whole thing." They reached the far wall, where the Amazons had set up camp, and were now clustered around, resting against the wall, smudges of mud, dirt, and sheep crud dusting their skins. "Hi."

"Your majesty." Feldan sighed, resting her hands on her legs, which were extended out before her. "I think we've done what we could… gotten things organized as possible. It's just a mess."

Gabrielle settled slowly down on a rock outcropping, and leaned back. "Your right.. it's a mess.. you guys did a great job of getting our little space setup here.. "She gazed approvingly at the corral of boxes and barrels, blocking out some of the noise, most of the eyes, and all of the sheep, and creating a tiny oasis of almost calm in the chaos. Her gear, and Xena's, was tucked in the corner around the outcropping she was sitting on and she gave the thick bedrolls that Feldan had rescued a wistful look. They'd been in the bottom of the wagon, and she'd considered them gone before the tiny Amazon had turned up with them. "Okay… Xena says she's not sure how long the water will be blocking us in here.. though she hopes, and so do I, that it won't be long."

Cesta nodded tiredly. "Second that."

"They're having some kind of a celebration.. it's something from their culture, so if they want you to participate, just go along with them.. I don't think it's dangerous." The bard eased her back against the cool stone, and braced one booted foot against the a lower part of the rock she was sitting on, taking the pressure off her lower back muscles. They ached, and she was glad to be sitting, as she watched the comings and goings idly across the cavern. "They give kids small gifts… it's tied into the harvest somehow.. so just go with it."

Aileen rolled over and started rummaging in her pack. "Hey.. I have some little carved acorns I was doing.. we could give them to some of those kids.. they're kinda cute." She nudged Feldan with a boot. "Didn't you have some rag dolls you were fiddling with the other day?"

The tiny Amazon nodded. "You're right.. I think I have those… I was going to put them out on our table at the fair, but it would be fun to give em to the kids here.. let me look."

Gabrielle smiled benignly at the Amazons, lifting an eyebrow at Cesta, who sighed, and shook her head.

"Nope.. not me.. I've got a knife, three pairs of leggings, an extra bracer, and some leather lacing."

The bard was about to answer, but a flash of dark leather caught her attention, and she fastened her eyes on the tall, dark haired woman emerging from around the far corner of the cavern accompanied by several men, by their hands arguing. Xena was listening, by her demeanor with at least a minimum amount of patience. Gabrielle could see the faint limp, though, and she studied her partner with worried eyes. As if on cue, the warrior looked up, meeting her gaze and letting a quick smile cross her face. Gabrielle lifted a hand and curled a finger at her, and the smile widened a bit, then Xena held up a hand and turned to her companions.

What was apparently one long sentence, and three sharp hand gestures ended the conversation, and Xena gave them all a nod, then she started to make her way across the cavern towards where the Amazons had set up camp. She evaded collisions smoothly, and dodged several sheep before she made it, entering their small haven with an almost imperceptible sigh. "Hey."

"Hey." Gabrielle patted the rock next to her. "Any luck?"

The warrior sat down next to her, leaning forward a little and resting her weight on her elbows. "Yeah… I have them convinced they have to move those damn sheep back where they had Jessan… they were afraid the things would panic and start crashing into the walls. "

Gabrielle put a tentative hand on her back. "How are you feeling?"

Blue eyes flicked to the pretending to be not watching Amazons. "Fine."

"Mmhmm." Gabrielle picked up a slice of bread and offered it. "Hungry?"

Xena hesitated, then shook her head. "No.. I’m.. not really." She replied offhandedly. "You doing okay?"

One thing she'd learned about her stubborn soulmate… when she was in pain, the first thing that went was her appetite, which was otherwise very healthy. Gabrielle knew the warrior hadn't eaten since breakfast, and it was, if her reckoning was right, after dark. She sighed, and realized the presence of the Amazons as well as their uneasy allies was forcing the I'm too tough for my leathers attitude past it's usual boundaries with her present And she saw no quick or easy way of getting around that, short of a major confrontation.

Unless… "I think it's time I change your bandages a little, Xena… but this is really awkward…" She shifted around a bit. "Listen.. if I sit down on our bedrolls, and you get over on your side, I think I can do it."

The warrior hesitated, then sighed. "Well, I can't change them myself." She commented wryly. "All right.. " She helped Gabrielle settle down on the soft furs, then eased down next to her, resting on a hip and one elbow. "Go ahead."

Gabrielle pulled her kit over, and stretched her legs out, gently unhooking the strap holding her partner's leathers on and pulling the surface back, exposing the linen bandages she'd put on earlier. They were stained with dried blood and gore, and she eased them away from the cuts gingerly.

Not a sound came from her soulmate, who gazed across the circle of boxes at the Amazons with a quiet, noncommittal expression.

"Um… Xena.. can I ask you a favor?" The bard inquired innocently.

"Sure." The warrior turned her head. "What's up?"

Gabrielle winced a little, as she turned her body. "It's kinda tough to do this from this angle.. " She laid a hand on her belly and gave the warrior a rueful look. "Could you put your head down here. " She patted her thigh. "Make it easier for me?"

One dark eyebrow lifted, but Xena did as she was asked, settling her head down on her partner's leg and rolling mostly onto her stomach.

"Thanks." Gabrielle undid the other strap and went about her task, watching her partner's shoulders relax and feeling the warmth as a long exhale eased against the skin of her thigh. "You pulled this big one out, I need to restitch it." She told her quietly, stroking a gentle thumb against the raw skin. The blood was oozing from the one cut, and she carefully cleaned it off, and restitched it, feeling the sensitive skin twitch under her needle and wincing herself every time the sharp instrument pierced the wound. A glance up revealed the healthily respectful looks from the Amazons, both at her steady handedness and her soulmate's stoic and silent suffering.

She dusted the cuts very liberally with a dried herb Xena used for wounds, and made new bandages, pulling the leathers up into place to hold them securely. "There… how's that?"

She sensed her partner's reluctance to move, and felt the deep breath she drew in before she forced herself to ease back up onto an elbow and flex her shoulders. "Better.. thanks." Xena admitted, wishing she could simply put her head back down and let herself drift off. The constant ache, and the shooting pains from the large wound near her spine had been wearing on her all day. The noise, and the smells were making her nauseous. With a sigh, she started to sit up, then she stopped, chewing her lip. What in Hades do I care what those damn Amazons think? "You going anywhere?" She asked the bard quietly.

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Um.. actually, no… I'm really kind of tired.. why?"

Xena let herself back down, resuming her spot and curling her hand around the bard's knee, stroking the soft skin with her thumb. After a startled moment, she felt fingers running through her hair and she closed her eyes wearily, simply absorbing the bard's nearness. The warmth of their connection washed through her, blocking out the discomfort for a long, blissful moment.

Gabrielle felt slightly shocked, but she took a breath, and gently ordered Xena's hair, peeking up to surprise envious looks on the Amazon's faces. She watched the warrior close her eyes and felt the tense muscles under her fingers relax. "Hurts, huh?" She murmured.

Xena nodded. "Like hot pokers going down my back and into my legs." She confessed very softly. "That piece of rock must have gotten a little deeper than I thought."

"Ow." The bard winced, a bolt of worry coursing through her. "Anything I can do?"

The warrior considered the question, smiling a little as she felt a gentle movement against the back of her head, which was pressed up against the bard's belly. "No… I feel better already." She reassured her partner. "Feels good just to be quiet for a bit." Another motion, and she squirmed a little closer, pressing her ear against the rounded surface, and trying to convince herself she could hear a faint heartbeat.

"Felt that, huh?" Gabrielle asked, in a teasing tone. "See? She feels bad too.. she wants to make you feel better."

"Just like her mother." Xena responded wryly. They sat quietly for a bit, just watching the activity in the chamber. The sheep were finally being moved back, and that had cleared a little space around them and lessened the almost ceaseless bawling of the animals. "Jessan and Toris found a rockslide in the back.. they and a bunch of the younger guys are trying to see if it leads anywhere."

"Ah… like a back way out?" The bard inquired hopefully.

"Yep." Her partner agreed. "Better than waiting for that water to go down."

"You bet." Gabrielle snorted. "Besides.. it's almost Solstice.. and I have no intention of spending it in this cave, partner." She twirled a lock of dark hair around her fingers. "Lot of things to celebrate."

Xena gazed ahead of them. "Mm… you know, I'd pretty much decided…when I was alone.. that I'd spend the whole day so drunk I just wouldn't remember any of it." A pause. "If I lasted that long."

Gabrielle felt her breathing catch at the words, as she studied the dark head under her hands. "Xena…. " She hesitated, then went on. "If I had… died… I want you to know something, okay?"

The warrior shifted, and glanced up at her, blue eyes violet in the dim light. "Hm?"

The bard ran the backs of her fingers across the soft skin on Xena's cheek. "There is no way.. no matter what it took, no matter who I had to convince, no matter what price they asked… there is no way I would have let you be alone on that day." Her eyes glistened. "Do you really think something so insignificant as death could keep us apart?"

Insignificant? Xena blinked a few times. "Maybe that should have clued me in to the fact that you weren't…" She lifted a hand and curled her fingers around the bard's. "I had… no sense.. of you anywhere…and I thought.. " She remembered standing on a lonely, windswept ledge, and feeling emptier than at any other time of her life. "I guess that's why I went to find you."

Gabrielle gazed down at her. "Do you know… when I woke up, in that hospice.. the very first thing I thought about was you? Not what happened to me, not where was I… " She stopped, and swallowed. "Then I remembered your face when I was going into that pit, and it was one of the worst moments of my life." Their eyes met. "I'm so sorry…Xena…I knew that was going to hurt you." She uttered softly. "I just couldn't let you die before my eyes.. not that way."

The warrior sighed. "I know." She laid her cheek on the bard's thigh. "There were no good ways out of that cave, Gabrielle… and I knew that." Her thumb brushed against the bard's belly. "I'm glad it's behind us." She looked up. "We do have a lot to celebrate in a few days, huh?"  She wanted to get away from the subject of Gabrielle's dying. Her stomach hurt enough already, and that was just making it worse.

The bard smiled sadly at her. "Yes, we do… is it okay if I give you an early birthday present?" She was already reaching for her bag, and tugging it over.

Xena chuckled wryly. "Sure."

Gabrielle pulled a linen wrapped object from her bag, and looked at it. "I brought it, because I was kind of finishing it up.. at least for now." She unfolded the linen, revealing a small, leather bound set of neatly cut scroll pages and handed it to Xena. "I know you keep those little… um… the notes and stuff and I.. " She watched the warrior slowly finger the small volume. "I thought maybe you'd like everything in one place. " She said quietly. "So.. that's a collection of all the poems and notes and… I kind of borrowed the ones you had and copied them over… and put some little notes on the back because of stuff I remembered.. and.. um.. " A pause. "There are some new ones at the end.. and you have to let me take it back once in a while to add things." Another pause. "Okay?"

Xena lifted herself up onto one elbow and studied the book, running her fingers down the leather surface before she opened it up, revealing page after page of a familiar, neat script, forming words that somehow she wasn't able to read at the moment. "Gabrielle, this is wonderful." She breathed, looked up at the bard with a genuine, open smile. "Thank you."

The bard grinned back. "You're welcome." She was very happy to see the sparkle of surprised pleasure in her soulmate's face, worth the effort it had taken to borrow Xena's carefully hoarded collection of small, many times folded pieces of parchment, a few at a time during the month they'd been at home. Xena was already bending her head over the book, studying the first few pages, and leafing them over to glance at the back, at the wry, sometimes surprising, sometimes humorous notes she'd scribed in, memories of when the poem had been written, or her thoughts as she'd written it. It felt really good to see that. She thought Xena was going to enjoy it very much, and she sighed happily as she stretched her legs out a little.

"This is fant.. " Xena started chuckling, then stopped, as a long, low rumble rattled through the cavern. "Uh oh."

The sound of scrambling, running feet cut through the nervous mutterings, and the rumbling grew louder, now interspersed with a weird, thrumming sound. Xena sat up, and peered around the curve of the chamber wall, to see her brother, and Jessan hauling bare and furry butt across the rocky ground, followed by the small group they'd been exploring with. "Jess.. you find anything?" The warrior yelled, getting to her feet as she saw the pace of the runners.

"Oh yeah." The forest dweller hollered. "Another cavern."

"Yeah?" The warrior started walking toward him. "So.. what's the rush? You knock down some rocks?"

"Bats." Toris yelled, redoubling his pace, as the thrumming sound got a lot louder, and a high, keening sound was added to it. "Coming after us."

"C'mon, Toris." Xena laughed, putting her hands on her hips. "Bats won't hurt you.. they eat fruit."

A dark cloud suddenly filled the end of the chamber, and Xena's senses got a powerful jolt as the scent of old blood filtered to her sensitive nose.

"Not these bats…" Jessan panted, as he ran past her and skidded to a halt. The sheep caught the scent and now started milling around in panic. "They're bacchae bats."

The dark cloud headed towards them, individual red eyes now seen in a sea of black, flapping wings.

Xena stared at them. "Oh boy…" A wave of sheep headed their way, stampeding in panic. The bats caught the scent of the wooly animals, and dove for the attack, tiny fangs exposed.

They were in trouble.

Big, big trouble.

Xena whipped out her sword, shoving the pain into the back part of her mind reserved for that kind of thing, and neatly sliced three bats headed her way into messy black ribbons. Her eyes searched the interior of the cavern frantically, trying to come up with a plan. She spotted a pile of green branches to one side, and considered. "Jess!"

"What?" The forest dweller was alternating sword swipes with claw swipes next to her. "Ew… I hate when that guck gets under my nails." He shook a hand rapidly, sending globs of gore through the air.

"Get a hold of those branches.. and get them into the fire." The warrior yelled. "The smoke will stun the bats." She ducked a flying mammal, which made a beeline for her soulmate's unprotected chest, then grinned nervously as Gabrielle neatly whacked it out of mid air with a rolling pin she'd captured.

Men and women were running and screaming across the floor, and the sheep were stampeding back and forth. Jessan cursed, then ducked under a persistent cloud of the beasts and grabbed an Amazon along the way. "Give me a hand!"

Cesta left off slicing bats and followed him, hurdling sheep as she got to the branch pile, and helped the taller Jessan drag the green, fragrant limbs into the cookfire that had been carefully prepared to one side. The leaves began smoking immediately, giving up their moisture into the already close air, rising to envelope the clouds of circling, angry, hungry bats. "Well.." Cesta coughed, as a bat veered off, and headed away from the smoke. "Smells better than those damn sheep."

Jessan sniffed it, then rubbed his nose. "Uh… " He watched a bat fly into the wall, and flutter to the ground. "Hey, Xena??? " He turned, to see the warrior standing on a rock, weaving a net of flashing steel around her, and protecting a group of children who had thrown themselves under the dark haired woman's considerable shield.

"Yeah?" Xena barked back, ducking and slashing another handful of angry bats from the sky. The smoke was starting to put a gentle blue tint into the already reddish air, and she blinked as she glanced over at him. "What?"

"Did you know what those leaves.. uh… were?" The forest dweller inquired, hopping out of the way of a determinedly charging sheep.

Xena paused in her attack, and sniffed gently at the air. Her shoulders slumped and she breathed out several virulent, half disgusted curses in a language she was fairly sure the children had never heard. "No… but I do now." Of all the things… the leaves were a fairly potent narcotic, though fortunately they weren't dried, which would have concentrated the strength. As she watched, the bats stopped diving, and started aimlessly flapping around, chirping and banging into other bats.  "Oh brother."

"You called?" Toris asked, amiably, as he hopped up on her rock, balancing carefully. "Hey sis… that was one wild idea… get everything breathing crocked, and the problem goes away.. nifty."

Xena sighed ruefully, feeling a certain loosening in her own perceptions. "Wasn't really my intention." She turned and watched the now smoke filled cavern, which was much less frantic. Bats were settling in small alcoves on the walls, since the roof was fairly smooth, and the sheep were blinking stupidly at her, quiet at last. "Not that I'm complaining." She added, gazing at her brother's slightly glazed eyes.

Then she remembered the secondary effect of the leaves, and her eyes widened. "Aw… Hades in handbasket…"

"C'mere.. " A shepherd ran by, chasing a frisking eye. "I won't hurtcha… "

"Hey… " Toris watched amiably, then tugged on his sister's leather skirting. "Did I ever tell you how cute I think you are?"

A murderous blue glare didn't even distract him for an instant. "Toris.. cut it out."

"No.. really.. " Her brother answered earnestly. "You've got the nicest smile."

Xena picked him up and dropped him off the rock.                          

"And the sexiest biceps." The man continued without a pause. "I even like your kneecaps."

Xena sighed, and sheathed her sword, the bat danger apparently over. Then she turned as another tug came on her leathers. "Wh.. oh."

Dusky green eyes were devouring her intently, and she felt her knees almost give out. "Uh.. hi." She realized the drug was really irrelevant, where Gabrielle was concerned, and she stepped off her perch at the bard's gentle tug. The children she'd been protecting were blinking sleepily, unaffected by the leaves, and she'd forgotten completely about Toris.

"Hi." Gabrielle ran her hands up the smooth leathers, tracing the body under them. "Was that planned?"

Xena enjoyed the subtle chills that chased her partner's fingers. "Not entirely." She admitted, turning her head and reviewing the cavern. "I think it loosened them up a little, though."

"Mm." The bard agreed, moving closer. "How's your back?"  She leaned forward and nibbled the warrior's bare neck.

"What back?" Xena asked, in a puzzled tone, as her hands found warm, familiar spots on her partner's body. Guiltily, she glanced over her shoulder to find her brother, startled to see him being led off by Cesta.

Well, maybe not so startled. She snorted in laughter, and realized the smoke, and the lowering torches obscured most of the other activities going on. She had no idea what this was going to do to the community's structure, but… well, it wasn't like it was on purpose, right?

At the very least, they'd figure out she wasn't no damn messiah.  Fingers tickled her neck, and she felt a faint dislocation in her senses, as the drug got into her blood, and her body started to respond to the close proximity of her soulmate. Then a thought occurred to her, and she looked up, over Gabrielle's head, her eyes searching for Jessan.

Poor guy.  Then she spotted him curled in a corner, peacefully asleep.

Whew. One less complication.

Insistently, her body recalled her attention to the distraction at hand, who was easing the laces out of her leathers, and exposing warm skin to the hazy air.  She felt the worries and concerns weighing on her slip free, as she focused on the here and now, relaxing tense mental barriers she'd put desperately in place months ago. She cupped the bard's face in her hands gently. "You are so beautiful." Xena told her, offering up her heart simply, and totally. Forgetting everything else. "You're the best thing in my life."

A tear slipped loose, and trickled down Gabrielle's face, dampening a path across her cheek. "I love you." The bard answered very softly. "And I always will.. now, as long as I live, and as long as my soul lasts in the realms to come after."

The warrior's lips trembled a moment, then parted. "Forever."  And gave herself up in the belief, again, knowing it's potential for her destruction.

Gabrielle felt the acceptance glide gently into place, as though something long missing had been given back to her. Lips brushed lightly, teasingly against hers, and she smiled, believing again at last. In herself. In Xena.

In the incredible power their love bestowed on both of them, that no evil could destroy.

They'd proven that.

Xena gently lifted her up, and the next thing she felt under her boots was the softness of the bedrolls. She let her lips explore the warm, musky scented skin as they eased down together, pausing for a fuzzily startled moment as a set of squeaks alerted them to an intruder.

Xena scooped the bats up and flipped them over her shoulder.


Then all they knew was each other. .


It was very dark when Gabrielle felt herself nudged up to consciousness, only a few of the torches guttering fitfully in their wall sconces, the air mostly clear of the cloying smoke. She nuzzled her head into the comfort of Xena's shoulder, breathing in a lungful of the familiar scents that clung to her, of leather and warm skin, and the sweat that covered both of them. Her body was curled into the security of the warrior's arms and she felt a pleasant moment of utter peace as she shifted her head to regard her sleeping partner.

The disheveled hair brought a wry smile to her face, and she lifted a hand to push it back, exposing the well-shaped forehead. Then the pale blue eyes fluttered and gazed at her, with a complete openness she hadn't seen there in months since her return.

How many chances at this am I going to get? Gabrielle asked herself silently, as she brushed her fingertips over the high cheekbones. She's always so worried about hurting me.. how many times is she going to put herself right out there in the open for me to rip her apart? "Hi." She let her lips curve into a smile. "We now have a true, honest to goodness mess, right?" She indicated the cavern over her shoulder with a glance.

"Mmmhmm." Xena agreed, wrapping a curl of pale hair around one finger and playing with it. "We sure do.. we've got bacchae bats, who are going to wake up hungry, possibly penetrated sheep, upright folks who certainly ended up in a non upright position, and my brother who very possibly just joined the Amazon Nation to deal with."

Gabrielle gently suckled on a nearby earlobe. "Coflf fibe wofs." She mumbled.

Xena disengaged her ear and applied her lips. "Shh." She silenced her partner for a very long moment. "Don't tempt the Fates, okay?"

"Okay." The bard conceded. "I wasn't in the mood to be giving birth right now anyway." She gave Xena an impish grin as the warrior lifted both brows at her. "I love when you do that."

"Do what?"

"That eyebrow thing." Gabrielle ran a finger along the dark hairs. "Your face is so expressive…you say things just by moving a muscle here. " She touched the side of Xena's mouth. "Or here.. " Her finger drifted to the edge of one blue eye, which crinkled as Xena smiled. "See?"  She chuckled. "How's your back feeling?"

Xena's gazed went inward for a moment, then she flexed her shoulders. "Fine." She shrugged, burrowing into the furs and stretching her body out. "Just needed a little rest."

The bard hitched herself up and pulled one of the warrior's shoulders towards her. "Roll this way."

Xena did so, finding a very tasty bit of skin to nibble.

Gabrielle muffled a giggle as she peered at her partner's smooth skin. The cuts were closed, and scabbed over, even the big one. A feeling of quiet relief flooded through her, and she gently kissed the shoulder she was tugging on. "Looks good." She patted Xena's side, and the warrior reluctantly rolled back over. "So. What's the plan?"

Xena lifted both hands and shrugged her shoulders. "I dunno." She grinned. "It's not like there's a section on being trapped in a cave under water with a herd of sheep and a village full of religious fanatics while under the influence of henbane in the Warlord's Guide to Conquering Greater Greece, Gabrielle." She remarked reasonably.

The bard burst out laughing, burying her face into her soulmate's chest. "Oh gods that was funny." She finally sighed. "Okay.. so we kind of play it by ear.. or..??"

The warrior stretched and yawned, then pawed into their bags for a shirt. "Well.. first things first.. lemme go check out that damned cavern they found… who knows.. maybe we'll get lucky."  She peeked at her soulmate. "See if you can find the Amazons, huh?"

"Oh sure." Gabrielle crossed her arms over her bare chest. "Leave me to do the squirmy stuff."

"Tch.. you are the Queen, kiddo." Xena reminded her. "They're YOUR Amazons."

"YOU are one of my Amazons too, love." The bard replied, with a  faint smirk. "Or did ja forget that?"

An eyebrow lifted. "No.. but you know where I am." The warrior answered practically, as she pulled on a boot. "Besides.. you're a lot more diplomatic than me." She poked the very tip of her tongue out at her partner, then stood up and tied the belt on her tunic.

Gabrielle leaned back on her hands and studied the taller woman. "You're in a good mood." She complimented her. "I like that."

Xena stopped in mid motion, considering, then smiled. "Yeah.. I am." She remarked, with a  tinge of surprise in her voice. She bent down and picked up her present, and tucked it inside her belt. "See ya in a bit." 

The bard watched her pace off, staying close to the wall to avoid bodies she could hardly see in the dimness. "Okay." Gabrielle sighed, pulling a fresh shirt out for herself and pulling it over her head. The linen smelled of home, and… she pressed it up against her face and breathed in. That faint tinge of leather and musk that came from close contact with Xena.

Of course… She sniffed her skin. She also carried that tinge. A grin crossed her face at just how appealing that thought was, and she hugged herself briefly before she stood, pulling herself up by a cleft in the rock face. A groan caught her attention, and she turned to see Solari stumble into the circle of boxes, and collapse, holding her head in her hands. "Hey."

Bleary brown eyes glared up at her resentfully. "Shh."

The bard cocked her head, and ran a comb through her hair. "You okay?" She asked, a little concerned at the moan she got in response.

"M'gonna killer." Solari mumbled.

Gabrielle perched on the box next to her. "Kill who?"

"Your blasted, Artemis be damned, centaur butted, pig headed partner." The Amazon moaned. "M'gonna kill her.. where is she?"

The bard neatly brushed her hair, and braided it to keep it off her neck. "Solari, you can't kill Xena." She told the Amazon. "And besides.. she didn't do anything.. so why do you want to?"

"Didn't do… wherintheHades were you?" Solari wailed. "Do you know who I ended up… oh wait.. let me guess… you two lovebirds had a grand old time, didn'ja?" She glared at Gabrielle accusingly. "Figures."

She got a kind smile in return. "Now, Solari… " Gabrielle patted her hand. "Xena just did what she could to fix our bat problem.. she didn't make everyone go goofy on purpose." The bard glanced around. "In fact… she's out looking for a way out of here right now."

A moan. "Why are you so damn cheerful?" Solari grabbed her head. "I feel like a centaur is dropping two stone poops on my noggin."

"Hm.. " The bard considered. "Well, Xena didn't seem to be feeling bad before she left.. and I don't.. maybe we were further away from the smoke or something… you guys were pretty close."  She looked up to see Aileen trudge in, holding a small ewe in her arms. "Uh…"

The younger Amazon plopped down. "She's cute, huh?"

Solari looked at Gabrielle, who looked right back at her. "Adorable." The both said in unison.

"Yeah.. I rescued her from that shepherd… " Aileen sighed. "I don’t' remember much after that.. gods.. my head is killing me."

"Whew." Gabrielle silently wiped her brow. "Well, Xena went to go check out that cave.. and see if there's another way out of here." A low wail made her look up. "Now what?"

Matthias staggered up, his clothing only minimally attached to his body. "You… are … demons!" He accused. "Isaac has been grossly tricked… you are of the darkness… all of you." He pointed a shaking hand at them, then keeled over, and thumped to a halt on the ground, squashing a bat flat.

"Hmm… " Gabrielle scratched her jaw. "Wonder who he ended up with?"  She peered off into the dim air, started to see Sarah's face anxiously appear. "Sarah?"

"Yes, have you.. oh. " She found her husband and sighed in relief. "Thank the Lord.. I was afraid he would do something foolish… he went off so angrily." She sighed, and knelt by Matthias, putting a hand on his head.

"Um… " The bard hesitated. "That was um… sort of unexpected, I mean… the bats, and then that smoke.. did you… uh… "

Sarah glanced up. "Very disturbing, yes." She sighed. "When Matthias came to me, I hardly knew what… well.. " She blushed delicately. "It was quite a surprise."

"Ah.. so you two.. um.. " Gabrielle waved a hand. "Ended up together?"

"Yes of course.. are we not husband and wife?" Sarah seemed slightly insulted, then her eyes drifted, and fell on some of the still sleeping bodies entangled around them. "Oh… good Lord…" Her eyes widened. "Wh…"

Gabrielle rubbed her temples. "Not everyone was in the.. um.. right place at the right time, so to speak."  She muttered. "But.. if you two.. then why was he so angry?"

Sarah tore her eyes from the unlikely pairing nearest them, and blinked. "Oh…well, he… Matthias feels an evil force came over us, because he enjoyed it." She informed the bard seriously. "The writings tell us this act was given to us by the Lord to allow us to be gifted with children, and so should be honored as a sacred obligation."

Solari goggled at her. "And… you think because of that you shouldn’t enjoy doing it?" The Amazon's voice was thick with disbelief.

The woman gazed at her. "If there is enjoyment, the temptation would be too great to use this act for one's own pleasure, and not for the glory of the Lord." She paused. "That would be evil."

Mist green eyes blinked at her. "You really believe that, don't you?"

"With all my heart, yes." Sarah answered seriously. "I know you think we're…backwards.. I can see it in your face… but the word of the Lord gives our lives structure, and stability, and I am at peace living under his guiding hand." She hesitated. "Even if I cannot read, as you can.. and I have never traveled outside the confines of my people.. as you have. I am happy. Can you say the same?"

Solari was silent, her eyes flicking from Gabrielle's face to Sarah's and back, curious as to what the bard would answer. There were so many layers to the complex person the young bard from Potadeia had become, she really had no idea what exactly Gabrielle would say to that.

But Gabrielle merely smiled. "Yes." Her eyes crinkled up around the corners. "I had a choice, Sarah.. I could have been like you."  She thought back in memory. "But I've been all over the world.. I've seen beauty, and horror… I've seen war, and peace, and life and death… I've met people whose lives have changed the world, and some who have just changed my own life… I've made good friends.. " Here, she put a hand on Solari's shoulder. "And collected a few enemies…and I've suffered pain, and sorrow.. and been gifted with the kind of love the poets only dream about." She exhaled. "So, Sarah.. yes. I am happy.. I wouldn't have it any other way."

The woman studied her. "I do not understand you."

The bard gave a little shrug. "That's okay. .I don't much understand you, either." She sighed. "You want a hand waking him up?" She indicated Matthias. "Honestly, we didn't do this on purpose.. Xena was just trying to pacify the bats."  Now she glanced uneasily around, as the small creatures were stirring. "And I hope they stay pacified." She peered at a nearby leathery ball, and the animal hissed at her, baring it's tiny fangs. "Yikes."

"Guess he didn't like who he ended up with." Aileen commented, petting her ewe complacently.

"Yuck." Jessan yawned, showing his huge fangs as he ambled into the circle, cleaning out bits of dead bat from under his claws. "Well, that was a nice nap.. remind me to thank Xena." He gave Gabrielle a look.

"Just be glad you missed it." Solari grumbled. "It got kinda squirelly in here."

Jessan glanced around. "Aren't they a little small for this?" He asked, puzzled. "Gosh."

The bard covered her eyes for a moment, then cleared her throat. "Jess, can you take Matthias over to his family? " Gabrielle asked him. "I'm going to try to find the rest of our group.. Xena went out to explore your cave."

"Oh sure.. she gets to do the fun stuff." The forest dweller grumbled. "Great Ares, he's about the size of that pig I had to wrestle down for dinner last year." But he stooped down next to Matthias as Sarah backed off, and lifted him in his arms. "Okay.. where to?"

Sarah made a face. "You eat swine?"

Jessan blinked his golden eyes at her. "We cook them first." He assured her hastily. "Honest."

"They are unclean animals." The woman shook her head. "We do not touch them."

"Lady, I've got news for you." Jessan chuckled. "All animals are dirty.. you gotta wash em first."  He stepped over a young man sprawled in happy abandon over a young woman. "My mother scrubs em with soap."

Sarah averted her eyes. "Dear Lord… what will their parents say?" She murmured, then her eyes fell on two slightly older men, curled into a happy ball. "Oh my." Her voice was shocked. "Matthais was right.. this is the worst of evil."

"No it isn't." Jessan disagreed. "If you belive that. you don't know what real evil is." He dodged a stumbling ram.

Sarah looked up at his seven foot furred height. "You cannot presume to tell me that." She answered. "The Lord has told us what evil is…his words are clear." She paused. "But you are not human… you cannot understand."

"No, I'm not." Jessan agreed, showing his fangs in a smile. "And boy, am I ever glad… you humans live in such tiny minds.. it's a wonder your heads don't explode."  He set Matthias down on the pile of skins tucked in one corner of where his family had put their belongings. "Don't worry.. you can always fall back on the comfort of knowing it was the smoke that caused all of this… right?" He straightened, and looked directly at her, one furry eyebrow lifted in wry knowledge.

She looked away from him, and stared off into the dim light.

Jessan sighed and shook his head, stepping out from their area and heading towards the back of the cave. "Humans." He rolled his eyes. "Only species on earth who thinks they're going to get punished for enjoying life." He hopped over  a couple of huddled figures, then stopped, and peered closer. "Oh boy.. that's gonna be a shock when they wake up." His fangs glinted in a grin, then he moved on.


The smell was… Xena sighed. Well, she should have been used to it, right? What was a little bat poop after what she'd just been through in that other cavern? Her stomach roiled anyway, and she took a moment just to swallow a few times, before she poked her torch inside the cave the rockslide had opened up into.

Flapping wings, startled into motion rewarded her action, and she ducked instinctively, feeling the unpleasant sensation as a bat passed over her head and into the other cave. "Great." She muttered, glancing down as she placed her boots carefully, not wanting to slip in any of the stuff.

A pair of eyes reflected her light, and scurried away, joined by several others. "Terrific. Bats and rats." The warrior sighed. "Two of my favorite things." A rat trotted over her boot and she jerked her leg in pure reflex, sending it flying into what seemed to be another group of them, judging by the outraged squeaks which followed. "Whoops."  A brief flash of white as Xena smiled. "Sorry about that."

She walked further in, relieved when the roof of the cavern lifted, and she could sense clear air around her. She held the torch up, and saw the barest reflection of the light against the rocks above, and numerous glinting eyes peering back at her. "Relax, fellas.. hopefully I'm just passing through."

A large splat of poop fell just in front of her, and she grimaced. "Thanks." She circled around it, then headed towards the rear of the cave, which narrowed back down again. If there were bats, she knew, there had to be a way out for them to hunt, she just had to find it. The walls came in closer, and she paused a moment, breathing evenly, then went ahead until it became obvious that she was close to the mouth of a tunnel.

She sighed. "It's just not my year, is it?" A fingertip against the rock came away with years of slick oil from the bat's wings as they went through the opening, and she knelt, peering forward into the dark hole with the torch held back a little to throw it's light ahead of her.

Wide enough for her to pass, if she crouched. Barely wide enough for Jessan, if he squeezed, she reckoned, then with a deep breath, she edged forward. Her shoulders rubbed up against the slimy surface and she grimly ignored that, as she kept going three or four bodylengths into the tunnel.

A strong flashback jolted her, and she tightened her jaw, forcing the memories of the rockslide that had buried her back, sucking in deep breaths and inching forward with her eyes closed tightly, until she felt a soft breath of fresher air stir her bangs. She blinked her eyes open, and detected a lightening of the gloom ahead of her, and expelled a sigh of relief.

It was another six or seven bodylengths, then the passage turned to the left, and she could see a definite hint of light, pouring through and catching glints off the stone she could now see around her. The breeze blew in again, bringing a hint of earth, and very strongly, water, which the warrior could now also hear, a restless sound that pulled her forward, until the passage opened into a much larger space.

Xena dropped out of the tunnel into an open cavern, whose walls rose up around her, and sloped down to a rushing stream that emerged from the rock, and exited through a chasm into a waterfall. Through the opening she could see the sky, and she threw back her head, pulling in a delicious lungful of fresh air. "Damn, that feels good." She sighed, and scrambled down the embankment, towards where the stream left the cave.

She jumped up to one small ledge, and then another, putting her boots carefully on the moss covered rocks, until she was at the lip of the stream, and one hand was on the rock edge. Xena peered out, drinking in the sunlight  with a feeling of utter relief, and examined their possible escape route.

It would be tough, she realized, and they wouldn't be able to take much of their belongings. The waterfall covered most of the rock face, but just where she was, a small, barely navigable path led down the side of the mountain. Tough, but doable, especially by her own people, who could go ahead and string ropes along to help the others.

Xena grinned, and put her hands on her hips, taking an extra moment just to enjoy being outside before she had to start the stifling journey back into the mountain.  She peered down at herself, seeing the dirt and mud and worse that covered most of her body, and eyed the water speculatively, then shrugged, and padded back inside, sitting down and pulling off her boots before standing up and removing her tunic.

The water was icy cold, and it's impact sent shock waves through her, making her breathing almost stop until she got used to it. She braced her legs against a rock outcropping, and lowered herself into the rushing water, allowing the cold, rushing stream to pour over her in a refreshing wave.

It felt wonderful, and she laughed a little, ducking her head back and rinsing her hair out before she spread her arms and just enjoyed the massage of the water. The sharp scent of the moss tickled her nose, and she closed her eyes, breathing it in for a long moment.

Then a soft curse made her eyes open, and she listened, a wry grin edging her face as she recognized the intruder. "Hey, Jess." She called out.

"Aw, Xena… you would have to find just the nastiest, grubbiest way out of here, huh?" The forest dweller complained. "I have things in my fur so awful my mother would shave me if she saw me."

Xena heard the scrabbled of his claws on the rock, and she eased to a sitting position, then pushed herself up, dripping and naked into the light streaming into the cavern. "Sorry.. if it's any consolation, I felt the same way."

"Well, I wo… Xena!" Jessan clapped his hands over his eyes. "For Ares' sake."

"C'mon.. I'm not that bad looking." The warrior grinned, as she made her way back towards him. "Am I?"

One golden eye peeked out from between furry fingers. "You know perfectly well that's not what I meant." The forest dweller scolded, pretending not to enjoy the smooth combination of beauty and strength that so totally characterized his friend. Human or not, she was sure good to look at, he sighed inwardly.

Xena chuckled, and pulled her tunic on, then sat down on a rock outcropping and shook her boots out, before she started tugging them on. "Found a way down.. it's tricky, but if we rig up some ropes, it's manageable."

Jessan ambled over to look, and peered out and down. "Nice." He complimented the view. "Great to get out of that place."

"Yeah.. " Xena agreed. "And we'd better get everyone else out of there before those bats start really waking up.. I have no intention of slicing my way through them."

The forest dweller turned his head, eyeing the vision of her sitting there in the sunlight, water glistening off her tanned skin, and cascading around her in a shower as she shook her head and pulled her hair back. "Those people are pretty ticked off in there." He offered, watching the light catch glints from her pale blue eyes as she looked at him. "Maybe you should just leave them."

The warrior shook her head. "No can do, Jess… I can't help what happened, all I can do is get them outta here, then let them get on with their lives." She stood up and walked over to him. "And I know you want to get back to Elaini and the kids."

"Oh.. you bet." Jessan sighed. "Listen.. I haven't taken the time to say thank you… for coming after us, that is." He put a furred hand on her shoulder, feeling the shift of muscle and bone under his fingers. "I really appreciated that."

A warm smile creased the angular planes of Xena's face. "C'mon, Jess… of course we came after you.. what are friends for, if not that?" She patted his side. "Let's go… I want to see the last of that damn cave sooner than later."

He nodded agreement. "Right…." Then his furry head cocked. "You're in a good mood."

Pale blue eyes flicked to his. "Is that a crime?"

"No no.. no.. " Jessan waved a hand. "I…" His brows creased, as he focused his Sight on her, seeing a burnished fire he'd mostly seen dampened since the bard had returned. "No crime… it's just nice to see."

Xena dropped her gaze to the rocks for a moment, then lifted her head again. "Been one Hades of a year." She admitted quietly. "I think I'm just glad it's over." A tiny shake of the head. "I realized last night that the nightmares weren't ever going to go away unless I made the choice to move on… and I did."

"I think you made the right choice." Jessan replied.

The warrior nodded a little, then her head jerked up, and she started for the tunnel, as a deep, frightening jolt of fear hit her in the gut. "Gabrielle's in trouble." She yelled back as an explanation, as she dove headfirst into the darkness without hesitation.

"And that's what you live for, isn't it, my friend?" Jessan replied softly, as he trotted after her.


"All right, now look." Gabrielle put a hand up, edging back to keep the angry crowd in her vision. "There's been a misunderstanding."

"No misunderstanding.. " The man closest to her shot back. "It's pretty clear to me… first you trap us in here, then you seduce us all with your tricks…now your so called sister and that creature are missing.. it seems very clear to me!"

A mutter of agreement traveled around the crowd. "Did you think we'd give up our faith so easily?" A woman challenged. "Our Lord is a stronger shepherd of our hearts than that."

"Look.. we're not trying to get anyone to give up anything." Gabrielle argued. "We're trapped in here too, remember? Xena and Jessan just went to try and find a way out." She felt Solari and Aileen move up next to her, the Amazons putting themselves into a position to protect her if things got ugly.

Uglier, that is. "Let's just calm down, and wait for them to come back."

"They're not coming back here.. surely you don’t' expect us to believe that?" The first man shook his head. "Except with that warlord maybe… now that we're helpless in here.. we'll be sitting ducks… and they'll get everything."  He lifted a scythe. "I say we take ourselves some hostages so we have bargaining chips when they get here."

"That's not a good idea." Gabrielle felt her heart start to pound. "They didn't go anywhere, and they'll be back here any minute.. let's just stay calm, all right?" A glance behind her showed Toris' towering form now just to her left with Johan behind him and Feldan's tiny pugnaciousness next to her. "We're not your enemies."

"Aren't you?" Sarah asked. "Do you think we didn't realize what you were trying to do with our children?" She pointed at the bard. "Undermining the words of the Lord? You all have been mistaken.. it's not Xena who is the danger to us.. it is this one."

Gabrielle's nostrils flared. "Danger? Because I told them a few stories?"

"Stories which turned their minds away from God, yes." Matthias shot back. "Sarah is right… you seek to poison us with your lies."

"I've told no lies." The bard responded softly. "But who are you to talk? You kidnapped my brother and my friend… because you thought they didn’t' follow YOUR teachings?" She took a step forward, and was aware of the Amazons and Toris shifting with her. "If you hadn't done that, we wouldn't ever have come here.. what gives you the right to try and 'cure ' them?"

A moment of silence. "The Lord has tasked us with spreading his teachings." Matthias said seriously. "We sought only to instruct them in the ways of the Lord."

"Oh.. so your lies are okay to tell.. but mine aren't right?" Gabrielle felt her temper snapping. "What makes your stories any more real than mine?"

"Our teachings come from God… yours come from the devil." Sarah accused. "We don't want our children having their minds twisted… our traditions distorted in them, because you think they need teaching… your thoughts.. your ways are evil to us." She pointed at Gabrielle again. "Look at you …all of you are like animals… and you.. that poor child in you.. born with no proper father, because no man would accept anyone like you."

Green eyes narrowed, and the bard took a deep breath, but hands dropped on her shoulders and she halted, as Toris took a step past her and faced Sarah down, his pale eyes fierce, and his hands clenching into fists.

"You will not speak to my sister that way, you piece of sanctimonious horse crap." His voice pitched down to a deep growl, so like to Xena's it was truly uncanny. "Or I'll take your Lord's teachings, and beat you over the head with them."  He turned and faced the assembled men. "That goes for any of you.. one step further, one hand raised to her, and I'll take you all on, and you better pray to your god after that."

Solari stepped up next to him, and drew her sword, catching firelight along it's silver length. "The Amazon Nation doesn’t take kindly to threats against it's queen… so if you're gonna do it, you'd better get ready to die." She told them firmly.

Johan put his arms around Gabrielle's shoulders. "What they said." He growled.

Gabrielle almost had to laugh, and she would have, if she hadn't been so mad. She wondered if Xena's over protectiveness was contagious. "You're outclassed, Matthias." She stated quietly. "And where is Isaac? Doesn't he have a say in all this? Xena saved his life.. .doesn't that count for anything?"

"A trick." Matthias shot back. "He was found, cold and dead after your drug had done it's work… messiah, he said? What a fool he was."

The bard winced. "I'm sorry." She said, softly. "But it really wasn't a trick."

"Lies." The man raised a hand. "Come forward… there are but six of them… with the power of the Lord behind us, we will take them."

"No you won't." The calm voice echoed across the cavern, acompanined by a low, rumbling growl.

Heads turned, to see Xena perched on a rock, with Jessan standing next to her, the forest dweller's fur almost standing on end, and his golden eyes on fire.

"I found a way out." The warrior continued quietly. "And we'd better take it, before either those bats recover, or that door gives way." She gestured behind her. "Through that cave, and down a small tunnel… there's a rock face we can climb down."

Frozen silence, then all eyes turned to Matthias. He stared at Xena, who was outlined in torchlight up on her rock, the shadows painting a threatening mask across her still features. "We will settle this on the outside." He finally decided. "Gather your things.. but this had better not be a trap."

Xena didn’t' even dignify that with an answer. She hopped off her rock and strode across the cavern, expecting people to get out of her way.

They did.

She gave Toris a smile as she got closer, and clapped her brother on the back. "Nice.. I don't think I could have done a better threat than that."

Toris groaned. "Not so loud, sis… my head's about to explode." He leaned against her. "And I am in one Hades of a bad mood… what happened last night?"

The warrior circled Gabrielle's shoulders with one long arm and sighed. "You don't remember?" She glanced around for Cesta, to no avail.

Toris shook his head. "No.. I remember the bats, then it getting all thick and smokey.. then I woke up with what feels a lot like a hangover."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances. "Well, everyone's in the same boat." The warrior brushed him off lightly. "Don't worry about it."

"You're wet." Gabrielle commented, touching her hair. "Does this escape plan involve swimming?" She looked over at the milling crowd. "Because I think that's gonna be tough with those sheep."

"No.." Xena gazed at her. "You okay?"

Gabrielle sighed. "Knocked down a peg or two, but otherwise fine… I guess you were right, Xena.. they really don’t' want our help."

The warrior kissed her gently on the head. "Just our being here changes things, Gabrielle… they can talk all they want, but those kids have seen us… talked to us… they'll remember that someday." 

"I guess." Gabrielle exhaled. "You know, I think sometimes people don't want to know the truth, Xena… it's much easier to believe a lie, if your comfortable with it."

They glanced at each other in joint understanding. "That's true." The warrior acknowledged. "Or sometimes it's just much less painful to cling to a belief instead of facing the truth."

A faint nod. "Do you think a lot of people will follow their way?"

Xena sighed. "I hope not." She moved to their gear, and exchanged linen for leathers, adding her armor in quick, practiced motions. "But the notion that there is someone up there.. taking care of you, and telling you what to do.. how to live your life.. that's very comforting to some people, Gabrielle… it's much easier to believe that, then to live with decisions you make that cause pain to yourself, and to people you love."

Gabrielle thought about that, as they made their way across the cavern, studiously avoided by the villagers who stared at them with frightened suspicion. Then her eyes fell on a small face, peeking out from behind Sarah's back.

Rebekah smiled at her, and put a finger to her lips, then ducked back behind her family.

Gabrielle smiled to herself.

The bats were starting to wake up and become active, and the sheep were restive, the shepherds having trouble forcing the nervous animals through the tunnel until Jessan got behind them, and let out a bass roar. Then they popped through quickly, and the rest of the people followed, letting out sounds of disgust as they headed through the now firelit bat's cave.

Gabrielle was glad of her partner's steadying hand on her back as they went through the dark, enclosed space, and she reached back to pat a muscular thigh in comfort. "Bet you loved this part."

"Oh yeah." Xena replied wryly.

They exited out into the outer cavern, where several men were already up near the mouth of the waterfall, peering down the path.  They appeared to be working on setting up a rope guide down themselves, so the warrior led her soulmate over to the water and sat down on a rock outcropping, helping Gabrielle as she joined her.

"Feels great just to breathe fresh air." The bard commented, as she leaned over, and dabbled her fingers in the water. "Whoa.. that's cold."

Xena cupped her hands and drew up some water, offering it to her.

Gabrielle sipped the icy fluid carefully, kissing the steady fingertips as she did so, watching the blue eyes gazing at her soften and narrow slightly as a smile crinkled their edges.  She let her mind drift ahead, to home, and she realized she was looking forward to the peace of it.

Now, more than ever. "This has been one of the weird ones, huh?" She asked her soulmate wryly.

Xena snorted, then ran a hand through her dark hair, pushing it back from her forehead. "To put it mildly." She remarked. "We need to find a wagon or something for the ride home."

"Why?" The bard asked, giving her a look. "Are you that tired?"

"Gabrielle." Xena's voice dropped low.

"Come on, Xena.. I just dealt with a flood, a sheep stampede, an attack by bacchae bats, and a near lynching… I can walk to Amphipolis, for Artemis' sake." Gabrielle retorted. "Get a grip, will you? I'm pregnant, not disabled."

The warrior sighed. "What am I going to do with you?"

A cheeky smile. "Anything you like."

"All right.. .then we have to find a wagon for Johan." The warrior thought fast. "He's getting on.. not fair to have him walking all the way home, is it?"

"Lemme go ask him." The bard countered, with a wicked grin. "See what he says about it."

"Gabrielle." The warrior sighed again.

"You're not going to win on this one, tiger." Gabrielle shook her head. "C'mon.. this is really my last chance to get some solid walking in… we'll take it easy." She reached over and scratched the skin on Xena's knee lightly. "Humor me?"

"One condition." The pale blue eyes regarded her wryly. "You gotta promise first."

Gabrielle nibbled her lip. Promising first was always risky, but she knew in her heart that whatever the darling overprotective stuffed leather pillow was asking, was probably for her own good. "Okay.. I promise." She folded her hands on one knee and raised her eyebrows. "What is it?"

A diabolical grin was her answer. "I don't know.. I haven't come up with it yet.. but don't worry, I will."

"Xena!" The bard protested. "That's not fair!"

"Remember, you promised." The blue eyes twinkled merrily. "C'mon.. they've got that rope strung.. let's get this parade moving." She got to her feet, and held a hand out to her soulmate.

"You rat." Gabrielle took the offered fingers, and allowed Xena to haul her to her feet. Then she jumped a little, as a rat ran between her boots. "Hey!"

Xena blinked. "Damn… " She watched the animal scurry away, then looked back over at the tunnel. "What on.. " A stream of rats were pouring from the opening, and heading out along the rock shelf. Then she realized. "Everybody hang on!!!" She yelled, at the top of her voice. "The door collapsed!!" She grabbed Gabrielle and pulled her towards the rock wall, kicking running rats out of the way as she picked up speed.

They reached the stone face just as a savage roar permeated the chamber, and a solid pipe of water exploded out of the tunnel, sweeping a wave of rats in front of it, and racing with lethal speed along the shelf they were standing on. "Hang on !!!!"  Xena hollered, grabbing onto Gabrielle with one powerful arm, and the rocks with the other. The bard wrapped herself around her partner firmly, and nestled her head against the warrior's armor.

Screams told of others, not as fortunate as she, swept off the shelf. She felt the water hit her like a sledge hammer, tugging fiercely at her body, but Xena's hold was like iron, and the warrior never wavered an instant.

Bodies went flying by, caught by others closer to the waterfall, then she felt Xena start to move as she worked her way along the rocks, bracing against the water's flow. Gabrielle simply concentrated on keeping her balance, trusting Xena's strength to protect her.

Sheep weren't so lucky. They flew over the edge of the falls, driven by the pressure of the water, and bawling. One shepherd went with them, his arms and legs flailing in the racing waves.

"Start moving down the path!" Xena yelled, her chest pumping powerfully, as Gabrielle ducked to avoid being deafened. "Get out of the water.. .hurry!"

Then Jessan was there, his long arms braced to either side of her soulmate, his body between them and the water. "The Zonnies are all up top already." The forest dweller bellowed over the crashing. "Your brother and Johan had gone down first… with the group running the rope.. trying to talk to them."

"Thanks." Gabrielle yelled back, since Xena was busy yelling instructions of her own."

A scream echoed, and past Jessan's arm she saw a small body go tumbling by. "Xena!" The bard caught her soulmate's attention "Look!"

The blue eyes flashed, following the tiny form. "Damn.. "

Time stopped. Xena felt it slow, as it always did for her… she raised her eyes, and met Jessan's gold ones, in a searing moment passing an understanding to him. Then she unclasped her arms from around her partner, and watched him take hold.  She brushed her lips over the damp, pale head. "Be right back. " She whispered, then ducked under Jessan's muscular wrist, and dove after the child, kicking away from the wall and extending her body, reaching out a hand for an ankle that was almost… within.. reach…

"No!" Gabrielle twisted in Jessan's grip and lunged, struggling against his hold.

Xena got him.. she felt her fingers close around living flesh, and she pulled back, but the surge of the water crested against her, and the rock she was holding pulled loose from it's perch.

Then the water took her, and she grabbed hold of the child as they both shot over the edge of the waterfall, and began the long journey downward.

"NO!" The rawness in the bard's voice sliced pieces out of Jessan's heart. He hung onto her with all his strength, barely able to keep her in his grasp. "NOOOO!!!!!"  The agony resonated through his skull and he came close to letting go.

To letting her go.

Understanding what she was feeling, like none of these other blindlings could ever, ever do.

"Let me go." The whisper was so low, he almost missed it. "Oh gods please… let me go."

His sight followed her down, feeling the power of her, so unique among her kind, breathing in it's fierce light. "She's still with us.. hang in there, little sister." He whispered back to the now limp, quiet figure in his arms. "Don't give up."

Fingers closed in his fur, and far off, he could feel the sudden, vivid presence of Elaini, no doubt responding to his distress.

A yell from the top of the path. He lifted his head, to see Solari's dark head.

Their eyes met.

The Amazon smiled, and shook her head, then gave him a thumbs up.

"She's all right." He whispered to his silent charge. "Gabrielle?"

Slowly, green eyes lifted to his. "I know." She patted his fur. "Sorry I got all crazy on you… it just happened so fast."

"It's all right." He relaxed his hold a little. "I'm glad I was here for you….that one of us was."

"I'm glad you were too." Gabrielle answered, as her heart began to slow it's pounding. "You understand." She looked to the top of the path, where a cluster of people were working their way down, out of the racing water. She could see Solari still standing there, to one side, watching her with a concerned expression, and she lifted a hand to wave.

The Amazon lifted a fist in return salute.

"C'mon… " The bard carefully began edging through the racing water. "I want to see what happened." And get my hands on a certain tall, blue eyed hero I know.


The water pummeled both of them, as Xena briefly became disoriented not knowing which way was up until she twisted in mid air, bringing the child close into her, and wrapping an arm around him.

They were falling, and she knew she had only seconds to make a decision, sensing the hard rock of the mountainside just behind her, and remembering the craggy boulders below.

Instinctively, she tucked her body in, then kicked outward, feeling the impact as her boots hit the rocks, and the sudden shock as they exploded out of the falling water and into misty air, traveling sideways for a long, arching moment.

A tree limb ripped by, and she grabbed at it, pulling them both into a tangle of hard branches that slammed into her, as she turned her body to protect the child tucked under one arm. "Don't move." She got out, as they bounced off a springy limb that almost knocked her unconscious as it smacked her in the head.

She gripped at the bark desperately, then felt a stunning shock as her boots hit a lower branch, stopping their motion momentarily. It was enough for her to grab on to a thicker limb as the ones they hit splintered under her, and she slammed against the tree bole with a gasp, wrapping her free arm around it and holding tight.

For a long moment, all she heard was her own heart beating, hammering in her ears with a force that felt like it was lifting her hair straight up with each thump. Her whole body was shaking and she took the precaution of locking her knees, her boots braced against a lightly bending branch that swayed in the wind caused by the waterfall.

Then the child sucked in a breath that was half sob and half cry, and she looked down, to see Ruben's terrified eyes fastened on her. "Hey… you okay?" She managed to mutter.

He clung to her desperately, wrapping his arms and legs around her body and shivering violently.

"It's okay.. you're all right." She reassured him, with a shaky breath, then she looked up, to see a line of shocked faces looking down at her from far, far above. "See? Wave hello at everyone, cause I can't, okay?"

The boy held tight for a moment, then he peeked upward, and slowly pried one of hands loose, to wave weakly for a very brief instant, before he reattached his hold on the warrior's neck.

Xena heard the shout from above, and she leaned against the tree bark, wanting to throw up more than anything else. Worse than the fall had been the sickening sensation of Gabrielle's terror, which had ripped through her with unexpected force, bringing back stark memories of her own emotions on seeing her soulmate's body disappearing down Dahok's pit.

Well, no sense in dwelling on that. She decided, concentrating on breathing and getting her body to stop shaking instead. They were all right, and that's what mattered. "You doing okay?" She asked Ruben.

The boy sniffled, then rubbed his face with the back of one hand and peered at her. "Scared."

Xena gave him a lopsided grin. "Yeah, me too." She glanced up. "That was some jump, huh?" She stretched a little, testing her limbs for damage, and was relieved to find only minor twinges. Lucky, again. How many times was that luck going to hold, she wondered briefly, as she carefully shifted her boots and flexed her knees, not wanting any surprises as they made their way downward. One of these days, she knew, her body was just going to throw it's hands up in disgust at all the abuse, and fall apart in pieces.

That would be ugly. Xena sighed. But for now, they were both intact. "Okay.. look, we're gonna get down from here, and go sit on that big rock." She told Ruben. "And wait for everyone else to take the slow route."

He sucked his thumb thoughtfully. "Okay." He agreed amiably.

Xena smiled at him. "Hang on now."  She gently hopped down to the next branch, and waited for it's swaying to steady before she continued down the tree, working around the bole in a circle until she was low enough to simply drop the remaining short distance to the ground.

It felt very good to have solid earth under her boots and she walked over to the rock she'd spotted, and set Ruben down, then she eased herself down onto it's sun warmed surface as well, and leaned back, listening to the rush of the water, and the soft rustle of the trees in the cool wind.  Her eyes drifted up the steep path, and she spotted Jessan and Gabrielle immediately, working their way downward, the forest dweller sticking close by her soulmate's side.

"Fuzzy." Ruben stated, also peering up where she was. "Bear." He looked at Xena. "Talkie bear."

"No.. he's not a bear." The warrior shook her head. "He's a people."

The small brow scrunched. "Bear."

"Nope." Xena assured him. "People."

Ruben poked his lower lip out, then he crawled over and into Xena's lap, and started playing with her armor. "Bang." He tapped on the shoulder piece, then his eyes drifted over and fastened on the sword hilt visible just behind  her head. "You fight?"

Xena studied him thoughtfully. She'd never known Solon at this age, and suddenly wished she had. "Yep." She answered quietly. "I fight."

He picked up her hand, and moved it, then flexed her arm and watched the biceps form with a serious, intent expression. "Pow." He concluded,  examining her loosely curled fist and tapping his palm against her knuckles. "Pow pow."

"Yeah." Xena agreed, with a wry chuckle. "I do that, too."

He scooted down onto the rock, and snuggled up against her side, laying his head on her thigh and closing his eyes. "You nice."

Xena ruffled his damp hair lightly. "Sometimes."  She acknowledged, leaning back and absorbing the sunlight that dusted both of them. The cool breeze blew her hair back, drying it and the heat got a start on drying her leathers, which always took forever.

She made a mental bet with herself that Gabrielle would insist on her changing when she got down here. And that she'd have to argue the bard out of it, because there was still dangers out there.  Gabrielle would grudgingly give in, but would get out her cloak, and make the warrior wear it.

Xena smiled at the puffy white clouds drifting across the sky. The predictability was as comforting as warm soup on a cold night. She exhaled, reviewing what was likely to be their last adventure for a while.

Certainly an interesting one, and she'd actually gotten out of it without fighting.

Well, except for those bats, but that didn't count. She mused. And a few threats, but those didn't count either. She glanced up as the first few people reached the bottom of the path, and recognized Toris' familiar form barreling towards her. She'd been so damn proud of him, earlier, when he'd stood up for Gabrielle. "Hey."

"Xena! Are you all right?" He skidded to a halt, and knelt on the rock "You scared the crap out of me."  He glanced behind him. "Not to mention Gabrielle.. great Hera!"

"Relax.. I'm fine." The warrior assured him calmly. "Didn't really have the patience to pick my way down that path anyhow."

He shook his head. "Xe…"

She chuckled wryly. "Toris, I didn't jump over the falls on purpose, okay?" She looked down at the snoozing boy. "It's become a sort of habit."

Toris sat down next to her, and propped a booted foot up on the rocks. "Does it feel strange?"

Pale blue eyes regarded the waterfall with a distant edge to them. "When I think about how many people I've killed, and how many lives I've ruined? You bet it feels strange."  She answered softly. 

Her brother regarded her. "Life has a way of maintaining a balance.. maybe it's part of that." He commented.

"Maybe." Xena replied peacefully. "Being evil gained me nothing… everything I strove for either disappeared, or fell short.. it was never enough.. never satisfying… " She exhaled gently. "Turning the other way has been a lot more painful, but in four years, it's brought me a more moments of pure joy than the all the years before it." Her eyes flicked to Toris'. "Not the least of which has been regaining my family."

Toris settled an arm over her shoulders. "Love you too, sis." He grinned at her scowl. "Don't hit me, okay?"

They both chuckled wryly, as footsteps caught their attention.

Matthias was stumbling over the rocks, his clothing covered with mud and stained by the moss which liberally covered the stones edging the waterfall. His eyes were on his son, curled up peacefully in the warrior's lap, with one of Xena's hands draped protectively over  him. He stopped a few feet away, and regarded her warily.

Xena returned his stare evenly, then gently shook Ruben's shoulder. "Hey… c'mon… your pappa's here."

The boy reluctantly opened his eyes, and rubbed them with one grubby fist, then peered up at his father. "Abba."

"Come here, Ruben." Matthas said, gruffly.

"Okay." The child got to his feet, then turned, and toddled forward, carefully putting his arms around Xena's neck, and kissing her cheek. "Good."  He uttered solemnly,  looking her right in the eye.

Xena felt a blush warm her neck, and she managed a half grin back at him. "Thanks."

He patted her on the side of the head, then he turned and sat down on the edge of the rock, pushing off it and hopping onto the path that led to where his father was standing.

Toris waited a beat, then turned to regard his sister. Ice blue eyes slid to his own.

"Not a word." Xena warned, lifting an eyebrow. "Or you're gonna be wet."  She turned her attention to Matthias, who had picked up his son and was hugging him. "You're welcome." She put a tiny, sarcastic bite in her tone.

He looked at her, his dark eyes haggard, the strain of the last few days evident in his face. "You are not the messiah."

Xena smiled wryly. "I never said I was."

Matthias was silent a moment. "And yet, you are somehow touched by the Lord… he has used you as his tool to save our scriptures, to guide us, and now to save my son."  A tiny shake of his head. "He does surely act in mysterious ways." A pause. "May he always hold such a hand of mercy over you."  With that, he turned and started to make his way back up to where Sarah and the two other children were waiting.

"Blind." Toris sighed. "Didn't it ever occur to them you might not need any help to do that stuff?"

Xena rested her head against the rock, her eyes fastened on a fair haired form almost at the bottom of the rocks, a line of villagers between herself and the bard preventing her from simply plowing her way up there. "Toris, if you didn't know me.. would it occur to you?" She folded her arms across her chest.

Toris remained silent for a long moment. "Interesting question." He finally muttered. "Listen.. " he changed the subject awkwardly. "Did I do.. anything… last night?"

Xena gazed at him "I have no idea, Toris.. I was busy." She told him, bluntly. "When I saw you last, you were being led off by Cesta, and then… let me tell ya, bro.. that cavern could have come down on top of my head for all I would have noticed." She replied honestly. "Where were you when you woke up?"

He paused thoughtfully. "In a corner… by myself."

Xena absorbed this. "Remember anything?"

He shook his head. "No.. not at all.. not even a glimmer.. just… I thought I… I remember kind of.. getting a little silly, and..I um.. seem to remember saying something stupid about someone's kneecaps."

The warrior chuckled softly. "That was me you were fooling around with." She reassured him.

"You????" Her brother squeaked. "Oh gods…you're kidding.. we didn't.. um… " He waved his hands vaguely.

"No." Xena snorted. "Gimme a break, will ya?"

He sighed. "Well… anyway, that's all I remember, so… I don't have to tell Gran that, do I?"

"What.. that you were coming on to your sister?" The warrior's eyes twinkled a bit. "Oh.. I'd say probably not… but I don’t' think it would hurt anything if you did… I'm kinda taken."

"Oh gods.. that's too embarrassing to even think about." Toris groaned. "First I Jessan, then you… my reputation's in tatters."

"You'll survive." Xena pushed herself up from her rock and jumped off it onto the ground. "Excuse me."  Gabrielle had reached the bottom of the trail, and she made her way quickly towards the bard, catching up with her just as she cleared the small break between the rocks that led to solid ground. "Hey.. sorry about that I.. "

Gabrielle just threw her arms around her partner, stopping her speech, and let out a shuddering sigh. "Gods."

Xena rubbed her back. "Yeah.. that was a toughie." She joked faintly. "Another one I owe to a tree." She released her partner and cupped her cheek. 'Sorry.. " She sighed regretfully. "I know that scared you."

The bard nodded a few times. "Yeah, it sure did…" She patted the warrior's chest. "I should have known better though… you're pretty well stocked in the impossible department." Now her brows quirked. "You're wet."

"Yeah." Xena agreed. "It's a waterfall. I fell through it."

"You should change." Gabrielle commented seriously.

"Too dangerous." Xena replied, just as seriously.

"I'll get your cloak." A tiny twinkle appeared in the green eyes. "We've got that one cut right down to essentials, don’t we?"

It got a wry smile from her companion, which quickly faded. "You all right?" Xena asked, in a lower voice, as she felt the tremors running through Gabrielle's body and pulled her closer again. "Hey.. "

The bard took a shaky breath, and stroked the damp leathers. "I'd.. kind of purposely forgotten what it felt like to almost lose you." She whispered. "I wasn't ready for that."

Xena rested her chin against her soulmate's fair hair. "Yeah.. I know exactly what you mean." She murmured. "C'mon…let's get out of here." She glanced up at Jessan, who had picked his way carefully down to them. "Thanks, Jess."

He nodded quietly at her. "Quite a jump."

She shrugged. "Had to give you a story to tell the kids, right?"

They turned and headed down the narrow, rocky slope towards a small clearing, where the village was gathered, taking stock.


Continued in Part 6