The Apprentice

by Bel-wah

Disclaimer: Xena, Gabrielle and any other characters featured in the actual TV series are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures while the rest of the story and other characters are my own.

Chapter 1

Xena had not always enjoyed life on the open road. Oh, there were times in her past when she’d convinced herself that she did, times that she wished she could forget. Then, travel had been a means to an end: strike, take what you wanted, and move on to the next target. The stinking heat, the bitter cold, the raging emptiness she’d felt - she adapted to it. Learned to welcome it, even, as a sign that she was still alive - in spite of the death and destruction around her. For to feel the loneliness, to feel the pain, to feel anything - made that tiniest part of her soul believe there was hope. That maybe, someday, she could turn things around.

And then Gabrielle came into her life. Gabrielle, for whom an existence of moving from one town to the next was as alien to her as the heartbreak Xena had dealt to others at the point of a sword. Amazingly, impossibly, Gabrielle had followed her. Silly little girl. She had no idea what she was in for. Xena had tried to shake her loose, but the girl was like a puppy with a bone, and she would not be denied her big "adventure."

Finally, Xena gave up. And in that giving up, allowed herself to make a friend. To be a friend. And she had watched Gabrielle change and grow into a self-assured, determined young woman who dared to do what no others had done before, and lived: she bossed Xena around. Yelled at her, even. Not that Xena minded. No, not at all. Especially on days like today, when the poppies were in bloom, the lupine flowering, and a golden Grecian sun smiled down upon them. Gods, how she loved traveling with the bard. How her companion made her laugh!

"I do not have flat feet, Xena."

"All right, you don’t." With a light hand, Xena tugged on the reins she held, leading Argo behind as she walked along at the bard’s side.

"Fine!" Gabrielle said. She pushed determinedly forward, head held high, with an indignant flush to her cheeks.

Xena smiled to herself. She could not help but notice the slight rocking motion in Gabrielle’s stride, and the small puff-clouds of dust that bloomed each time a trailing flap of her boot leather tapped the road. "So then why have your boots worn out so quickly, eh?"

Gabrielle drew up short and whirled sharply around, so quickly it was all Xena could do to keep from running into her. The bard was furious now; she supported herself on her staff while she reached down to tighten a strip of hide that fastened her sole to her boot. "Because," she yanked so hard she nearly pitched over, "YOU said you’d buy me the best pair of boots you could find, and when it came down to it, you obviously skimped on a few dinars!" And with another sharp tug, the strip broke and she lost her balance, tumbling to the ground in a dusty heap.

Xena shook her head and, with an arch of her eyebrows, stooped down to the girl’s side. She picked up the leathered strip, and dangled it in front of her. "Noooo..." she said, watching Gabrielle blow wayward strands of hair from her face, "It’s because YOU..." she reached to help her stand, "...have flat feet!"

"Oooh!" Gabrielle was livid; she spun away from Xena and continued to hitch up the road.

"Well, why else do you think you wore out your boots so fast?" The warrior called after the bard’s retreating back. She tossed the broken strip of hide up in the air, caught it, and with another small smile, followed.

Gabrielle was right, she had promised her a new pair of boots, and Xena had been only too happy to deliver on that vow. Though it was a bright spring day, a cloud passed over her sky-blue eyes when she recalled how, for a time, she’d feared Gabrielle would never live to see the next day’s dawn, let alone replacement footwear. That stifling barn... the Persians... so many soldiers. They kept coming. And coming.

All the while, Gabrielle had been growing weaker and weaker, thanks to an arrow’s poison. The Persians, at least, Xena could do something about, and the warrior squeezed her eyes shut at the memory of how many she’d dispatched to Tarturus that day. At the very last, when she’d nearly reached her limits, she’d been able to scavenge the antidote from a dead Persian. Found hope. Found a reserve of energy she didn’t know she possessed, and turned the Persians away. All for Gabrielle. The bard had lived. And so renewed in Xena, her reason for living.

No, Xena had not skimped on the cost of the boots. Gabrielle had flat feet. She was sure of it.

"Xena!" the bard suddenly called out, shooting a fearful look at the warrior, "Trouble!"

In that same instant, Xena saw it too. In the road ahead of them, a scuffle was taking place. There were two men: one middle-aged, short of stature and stocky, stood with a gangly young man - little more than a boy, really. He looked as if he’d barely seen 18 summers, and his shoulder length black hair glistened in the midday sun as he defended himself. They battled another a group of five men. Xena noted that there didn’t appear to be an expert fighter among the lot of them. Still, it didn’t matter. Five against two was bullying, in her book. And she always had liked betting on the underdog. The decision was made, even as she watched the stocky little man hit the deck after taking a rap on the side of his head.

"Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!!" Xena efficiently executed a series of backflips that landed her in the center of the fight, ready for action. The bard, gripping her staff in a neutral posture, followed close behind. All thoughts of boots and bickering were forgotten.

"Hi, boys," Xena’s eyes narrowed, taking in the gang who had momentarily ceased their attack and were gazing - stunned - back at her. "Mind if I drop in?" In a blur, too quick for the men to react to, Xena drove the heel of her hand up into the wide-open chin of the man nearest her. With her left elbow, she quickly reversed an sharp thrust into the soft gut of another scoundrel.

"Ah--" he barely squeaked out as he slipped to the ground, incapacitated.

"Xena, behind you!" Gabrielle was occupied with her own fight, swinging her staff against a ruffian who wielded a short-sword against her.

Xena knew that the bard could hold her own against this crew; she was not surprised at how quickly the ill-trained men succumbed. Indeed, she’d already detected the clumsy approach of the fourth man behind her, before Gabrielle’s warning. With a wild "Yah!" she kicked out and spun her leg in a wide, dangerous arc. The man never saw the booted foot that connected solidly against his jaw, and he too crumpled to the ground.

Her blood was racing through her veins like a flooded river; she had to admit it, she relished a good fight. Particularly one like this, where she took up the side of the ‘little guy,’ and didn’t even need to draw her sword.

Xena paused to take stock of the bout. Glancing towards Gabrielle, she watched her bard deliver one last thwack! to the sword-arm of her challenger. His weapon clattered to the dirt. He stood helplessly, wobbling for a moment, trying to anticipate her next move. She twirled her staff and his confused eyes followed it, mesmerized, until she ended the game by directing a sharp poke to his forehead. With a dazed "uuuh!" he was taken out of the contest.

Gabrielle stood above her fallen victim, still pointing her staff at him, daring him to rise. He did not. "Gotcha!" she said, and she turned an eye towards Xena and smiled. The warrior nodded back her approval. Gabrielle had made it her business to learn the staff as a pupil of the Amazons. She’d been taught how to use it to defend, and to protect. But never to kill. That was the bard’s personal code, and one not as easy to adhere to as she once thought. Gabrielle had found that out the hard way. Still, Xena was proud of the fighting skills the girl had learned. It had come in handy more than once.

Xena watched the bard’s self-satisfied grin turn to into a "Nooo!" and the warrior spun around to follow her gaze. The dark-haired youth was kneeling over his now prostrate-attacker, with a knife poised at this throat.

"I’ll show you!" he harshly threatened.

"P-p- please... don’t..." The attacker played the victim now. But the youth raised his knife, preparing for the final blow.

It never came.

In a whoooosh, a metallic disc - Xena’s chakram - took the knife right out of the boy’s hand, never slowing in its circular return path back to the tall woman. She swiped it cleanly from the air, and calmly replaced it at her hip.

"We were trying to make this a fair fight," she said. "Let him go."

The youth eyed Xena carefully, and knew he’d more than met his match. With a disgusted shove, he released the man and stood.

The hapless would-be attacker quickly scrambled to his feet, grabbing for a flattened black cap that had fallen from his head during the scuffle.

"Get out of here, NOW!" Xena commanded, nodding towards the road behind her. "And take your friends with you!" The man didn’t need to be told twice. He rousted his groggy compatriots, and they limped and stumbled their way down the road, throwing nasty looks back upon the warrior princess and her friend.

The man Xena had spared paused, and released a hoarse, defiant shout, "You won’t get away with this - you thieves!" He shook an angry fist at them. Then, perhaps recalling Xena’s recent pyrotechnics, he scuttled off with his cohorts.

"He’s a liar, Xena." The squat, balding man was only now just rising up from the dusty ground. He coughed, slapped the dirt from his clothes, and warily began massaging the side of his head.

"It’s nice to see you, too, Leonidas," she said, and she smiled.



Gabrielle knew that the warrior princess had led a full, if harrowing life, long before she’d taken up with her - the little girl from Poteidaia. But she still was amazed at how no matter where they traveled to, Xena always stumbled across someone she knew. Or else they knew her, even if only by reputation. And that was not always a good thing. Luckily, over the past several years, Xena had put a lifetime’s worth of effort into turning her name into one that symbolized justice, and truth. Something, finally, worth fighting for.

Now, Gabrielle listened as the balding little man chattered excitedly to Xena. He seemed friendly enough - not one of Xena’s past warlord acquaintances. The man was scarcely taller than Gabrielle, with more dark-ish gray hair on the sides of his head than on top of it. Though his boots shone like blackened pearls, he wore the well-traveled clothes of a common man: fawn colored pants and shirt, with a dark leathered vest over-top. At one time, Leonidas might have been in shape; his arms and shoulders seemed well-muscled enough. But now, Gabrielle doubted whether the vest he wore would be able to button-up over his middle. And she had no desire to be in the vicinity when he tried it. The man’s hands fluttered nervously as he profusely thanked the two friends, and Gabrielle found her attention wandering towards his traveling companion.

The youth - Timos - stood silently off to one side, sullenly staring at her and Xena. The look of him - two deep brown pools for eyes set into a pale, pinched face, highlighted by hair darker than Xena’s - unsettled her. And why should she feel threatened? He was not quite a man, yet no longer a boy, but he wore the bitter mantle of one who has been through much, with nothing to show for it. She sensed he would not want her pity; how even now he turned his head sharply at Leonidas when the little man introduced the boy as his apprentice.

"Apprentice of what?" Gabrielle asked.

"Shoes, boots, you name it," the round-faced man replied. "I’m a cobbler."

Xena chuckled, and turned to Gabrielle, "And a good one, at that. I can vouch for the quality of his services! Maybe..." She gestured towards the bard’s poor boots.

Leonidas instantly grew concerned. "How rude of me! Here, let me help--" He waved at Timos, "Bring me my bag," and he began to kneel at Gabrielle’s feet.

"Not now," Xena said, holding him off. "Not until you tell us why those men picked a fight with you!"

"They called you thieves," Gabrielle added, leveling her eyes at Timos. She did not flinch at the hard glare he returned her way.

"Oh... no, no, no!" Leonidas shook his head in dismay. "It was all a mistake, I tell you! Those men were from the last town we passed through. They followed us, and accused us of stealing money from the inn. Ridiculous!"

"Why would they think that?" And for the first time, Xena addressed Timos.

"Why not?" he sarcastically replied, turning his back on them.

Xena’s face grew hard. She took a step towards the young man, about to say something else, when Leonidas jumped between them. "What Timos means, Xena," he gave his protégé an angry look, "is that... well... we did stay at the inn. We were the only strangers in town. If money was stolen - what else might they think? I guess it was easy enough to blame us..." his voice trailed off.

"Uh-huh." Xena was listening to Leonidas, but she kept her eyes on her friend’s apprentice. She’d seen his kind before. Young, angry, disenfranchised - it all spelled trouble. How well she knew it.

"Maybe we could try going back to that village - straighten it all out?" Gabrielle offered. Frankly the idea of walking much farther on her floppy-soled boot did not appeal to her, but if Xena thought it was a good idea, she’d be willing to try.

"No!" Leonidas quickly replied. "I -- I just want to forget about it. Leave it alone." He placed a hand on Xena’s arm. "Please?"

"Well..." she considered for a moment, glancing towards Gabrielle. The bard shrugged indifferently, and Xena made up her mind for the both of them. "All right."

Relief flooded across the cobbler’s face. "Thank the gods!" he said. "I’ve had enough of that place."

"We’d better get moving, though," Xena said, whistling for Argo. The big war-horse came trotting up to her side, and she gave the animal a soft stroke on the side of its neck. "Those men might pay us another visit, and bring some of their friends along besides."

"I can handle them!" Timos said sharply.

"Like you were when we got here, right?" Xena gripped Argo’s reins, and shoved past the young man. "Let’s go. We’ll travel as far as we can before nightfall, and make camp."

Gabrielle quickly fell into step next to her, with Leonidas not far behind, but Timos did not move. Instead, he bored two dagger-eyes into the back of the warrior princess. His face was flushed with anger, his fury rooted him to the spot. Leonidas drew up next to him, picked up their traveling bags, and shoved them into Timos’ middle.

"What?!!" He gasped, the wind temporarily knocked out of him.

"She said," Leonidas’ voice was low and even, "Let’s go." He took Timos by the shoulders and gave him a push towards Xena. "That way," he said tightly.

It took the youth only a moment for the fight to leave him. And together, the master and apprentice followed the warrior and the bard.

"Now Gabrielle," the cobbler’s voice was light-hearted again, "when we stop for the night, I insist on taking a look at your boots!"

Chapter 2

Gabrielle fancied herself a fairly good cook. Her mother had taught her well, and gods knew that Gabrielle herself had a healthy appetite. From her very first day on the road with Xena, she had taken over the cooking, and the warrior hadn’t complained. In fact, just the opposite. And, from the taste of the few meals her companion had prepared since then, it was easy for Gabrielle to guess why. Xena had many skills, but food preparation was not among them.

"Delicious stew, Gabrielle," Leonidas said, "May I have some more?" And he gave her a hopeful look. His bowl was picked clean.

"Please--" Gabrielle waved him towards the pot, and the cobbler served himself another generous portion. She was comfortably full, but she’d already decided that Xena’s friend must have a hollow leg. Where was he putting it all?

The fire crackled brightly, casting a warm glow over the campsite. Xena inhaled deeply of the fresh night air, relishing the scent of the spicy rabbit stew and the light, smoky odor wafting from the fire. She took a sip of wine and smiled to herself, as she watched Gabrielle pretend not to notice how much Leonidas was eating. Her old friend had changed; Xena remembered when he’d had not an ounce of fat on him. Whatever Leonidas had been eating lately, Xena thought, he must not be sharing much of it with his pupil. Timos was as tall and lean as a young sapling.

Timos.... Xena eyed the young man across the fire. She didn’t trust him. Not for a minute.

"I’m going for a walk," Timos said flatly, and he tossed his empty bowl to the ground and left.

"You’re welcome," Gabrielle muttered.

"No offense, Leonidas," Xena said, "but where did you find this guy?" She struck a thumb in the direction he’d gone.

"You know how it is," the cobbler forced himself to put down his spoon, "good help is hard to find..."

"Oh, I don’t know about that!" Xena cast the bard a mischievous grin. The blonde silently shook her head and rolled her eyes skyward. She would make Xena pay for that remark.

"More to the point," the warrior continued, "what are you doing, traveling so far from home?" She took another sip of wine, and carefully watched her old friend. Pain flitted across his face, and he needed to gather himself before answering.

"You knew that Miranda died."

"Yes. I was so sorry to hear it," Xena said, sharing his sense of loss. "She was a good woman."

"Miranda?" Gabrielle asked.

"My wife," came the sad response from the cobbler. "After she was gone, one day seemed to bleed into the next - spring, summer, fall - I didn’t care. What was the point? I think," he said softly, "a part of me died then too." He paused to wipe a stray tear from the corner of his eye.

Xena turned to Gabrielle. "Miranda and Leonidas saved my life, a few years back," she explained. "There was a battle, I was injured, and somehow I was separated from my army. When I came to, I was in Leonidas’ hut."

"My Miranda found her," he said, "passed out near our well. We took her in and patched her up."

"In more ways than one," Xena smiled. She looked down at her feet, remembering. "The boots I wore then were pretty-well the worse for the wear!"

"That’s for sure," the little man said, cheering up. "If that sword wound hadn’t nearly killed you, then those boots of yours would’ve for sure!" and they all laughed.

After the laughter faded, Leonidas expelled a sharp burst of air, pushing himself back against his bedroll. He linked his fingers, folding them across his belly, and soberly eyed the two women. "Timos is more than just my apprentice. He’s like the son I never had."

"You’re joking, right?" Gabrielle was skeptical.

"If you could have seen him when he crawled into our village early one morning, just a waif of a thing, and a runaway slave at that."

Xena stiffened at that bit of information. She had little tolerance for slavers. "From where?"

"Lord Centacor," the cobbler replied.

"Centacor..." Xena thought out loud. "I’m surprised. I’d heard he was a fair man..."

"But NOT to my Timos!" Leonidas’ voice was harsh. "The things that boy lived through..." he wagged his head. "Well, I took him in, fed him, and before I knew it, he was working alongside me in my shop."

"Leonidas," Xena softly pressed, "What brings you here?" She knew that years of enslavement might go a long way towards explaining Timos’ attitude. But an understanding of why her friend and his apprentice were miles from home still escaped her.

"It’s for Timos," he said. Anger crept into his tone. "He has an inheritance that was stolen from him by that fiend Lord Centacor. And I’m going to help him get it back!"


Xena put another log on the fire and listened as Leonidas recounted the tale of how Timos’ father had been killed and the boy and his mother enslaved by Lord Centacor. An inheritance of precious gems belonging to Timos’ mother were claimed by the despot as his own. Seasons of hard labor in Centacor’s fields quickly wore down the resistance of the delicate woman, and one winter she took ill with a fever and did not recover. The boy was shattered. The following spring, Timos could take no more. One dark night he slipped away from the castle, away from the evil lord, preferring death in the unknown to the hopeless existence he’d lived for so long.

In his flight, Timos had literally stumbled across Leonidas’ doorstep, and he’d taken the boy in. Much like another hapless traveler she knew, Xena reflected. Knowing the cobbler as she did, she was not surprised that he’d reached out to the boy in his distress. Obviously, having the apprentice around had helped to heal Leonidas’ heartbreak at Miranda’s death. But as Xena’s eyes periodically scanned the surrounding forest, searching for Timos’ return, she knew that whatever wounds the youth bore ran deep, and had yet to heal.

"I know Timos isn’t satisfied just being my apprentice, " Leonidas was saying. "I think the only way he can get on with his life is if he sets things straight with Centacor. Reclaims his inheritance. For himself, and for the memory of his mother and father."

"You’ll never get into the castle," Xena protested. "It will be heavily guarded."

Leonidas did not respond at first. Instead, he reached for his cobbler’s sack and motioned to Gabrielle. "Off with your boots, dear lady."

Quickly, Gabrielle tugged off one boot, then the other. "I don’t know whether it’s a question of quality or workmanship," she said, "but they wore out awfully fast," and she gave Xena a silencing look.

"Sure there will be guards, Xena." He continued, holding the soles of the boots towards the firelight, feeling them over with his callused, expert hands. "But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try."

Xena sighed and shook her head. "You don’t stand a chance, my friend. And I hadn’t thought vengeance was your style."

"What you call vengeance, Xena..." he paused in his examination and gave the warrior a steely-eyed glare, "... I call redemption."

The two old friends locked eyes for a time, and Xena tried to interpret what she saw in his. Vengeance, yes. She was sure of that. But there was something else. Redemption? Maybe. Perhaps this exercise would help Timos to finally find his way, if he weren’t killed in the process. He was lost, Xena could see that. Leonidas was willing to help him. It was good enough for her.

The soft pops and crackles from the fire were punctuated by the mournful hoot of an owl not far away. Xena thoughtfully weighed Leonidas’ words, watching as her friend returned his attention to the bard’s boots.

"We’ll be leaving in the morning," he said.

"That’s right," the warrior confirmed. "We’ll be leaving in the morning."

"Xena?" Gabrielle had heard that tone in her voice before. It usually meant a change in plans.

"We’ll head out at first light," she said, unfolding her bedroll.

"What are you saying, Xena?" The cobbler ceased his work on the worst of Gabrielle’s boots.

"I’m saying we’re going with you to Lord Centacor’s castle. We’re going to help you."


"Don’t argue with me," she said, holding up a palm. "You’ll just get yourselves killed if you go it alone. You need our help, Leonidas." She caught the bard’s eyes with her own, looking for support. She didn’t have to wait long.

"Xena is right, Leonidas. Let us help."

The cobbler laid a hand above his prodigious stomach, seeming to aim for his heart. "I - I don’t know what to say. Other than - thank-you."

Xena nodded at the portly little man, and a silent understanding passed between them. "That sound all right to you, Timos?" The apprentice had been standing in the gloom outside the firelight for some moments. The warrior’s uncanny senses had instantly detected his earlier return; she simply had not felt the need to draw attention to his presence until now.

He stepped out of the shadows. "Do I have a choice?"

Xena was about to respond when Leonidas interceded. "No," he said in a voice that would brook no argument. "You don’t. Now get some sleep," he added. "We’ve alot of ground to cover tomorrow." He ignored Timos’ violent unfurling of his bedroll. The youth pointedly settled it at the edge of the clearing and hunkered down.

"And I’ll just finish up here with these boots..." He inserted his hand inside the foot of one. "Hey Gabrielle," he said absently, "Did you know you have flat feet?"

Chapter 3

The little group struck out early the next morning, after a quick meal of bread and cheese. Timos took the lead, some distance ahead of the others, and Xena was content to let him do so. The youth was doing everything he could to push people away, even Leonidas. Pain made you do that, Xena knew from experience. Unfortunately, that same pain sometimes blinded you to what you needed most: companionship and understanding. Nothing she could do or say would make Timos see that right now. He’d have find his own way, to arrive at that conclusion himself. She only hoped, for his sake, that it was sooner rather than later.

Leonidas walked more quickly than Xena might have guessed; he’d obviously adapted himself to life on the road. When had that happened, she wondered. The cobbler obviously had not had an easy time of it since Miranda’s death.

"We should be at the edge of Lord Centacor’s lands by midday tomorrow," Leonidas said.

"Sounds about right." Xena turned an eye towards the orange sun overhead. "And it looks like the weather will hold." Spring rains were not unusual in these parts, the warrior knew. For the four travelers, with Argo trailing behind, a good soaking could slow them down considerably. Xena had no desire to have this mission last any longer than necessary.

"Tomorrow, next day - it doesn’t matter," Gabrielle said. "These boots were made for walking!" She paused and kicked up one booted foot, happily wriggling her toes. "Thanks, Leonidas!"

The cobbler blushed at her praise. "My pleasure!"

The warrior opened her mouth.

"DON’T say it," Gabrielle warned, pointing a finger at her friend.

"Touchy!" Xena arched an eyebrow at the bard as they moved along. "I was just going to say," and she turned to Leonidas, "that tomorrow afternoon Gabrielle and I will slip into the castle... do some reconnaissance."

"NO!" The rotund man’s response was sharp and immediate. "What I mean is..." he fumbled upon seeing the confused look that passed over Xena’s face, "Timos can tell us all we need to know about the layout. Our plan is to enter the castle at night, and retrieve the jewels while everyone is sleeping. It’ll be easier that way..." he softened.

"Either way, it won’t be easy," Gabrielle observed.

"Each time we try to penetrate Lord Centacor’s defenses, we increase our chances of discovery!" The cobbler pressed his case. "The fewer times, the better. The castle is heavily guarded. I say once in - and once out."

"Well..." Xena didn’t like it, but Leonidas had a point. The question was, could they trust Timos’ memory? In any event, she had heard worse plans in her day. Leonidas’ just might work. With a sigh, she deferred to her friend. "Okay, but we’ll have to be careful. You and Timos both must do as I say."

Leonidas silently nodded his agreement.

"But will Timos?" Gabrielle swung her eyes ahead, to where the apprentice was barely in view. "Somehow, he doesn’t seem the listening type."

"Oh, he will," Leonidas’ voice was grim. "I assure you of that."

Gabrielle turned back to the cobbler, surprised at his stern-ness. Just what was the relationship between those two? She wondered. Oh, she understood all about their master/apprentice history, and she’d heard Leonidas’ repeated assertions of how he thought of the troubled youth like a son. But there was something missing here, and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Not yet, anyway.

Gabrielle was drawn from her thoughts by a high-pitched whinny from Argo. "What is it, girl?" She patted the mare, taking care to avoid its hooves prancing nervously in the dirt.

"Sssh - listen!" Xena said, loosely wrapping the reins around a nearby tree. "Steady, girl," she whispered in the horse’s ear, and the animal immediately calmed.

Shouts came from up the road, and a gang of swarthy-looking highwaymen burst into view.

"What is it with this road?" Xena shook her head wonderingly. She and Gabrielle started running up the path towards Timos, with Leonidas puffing behind.

"Give it up!" Xena heard one of the highwaymen threaten, jabbing a sword towards the sack Timos carried.

"Funny," Xena said as she came upon them, "I was about to say the same thing to you! Whaddya say?" she challenged them. There were four men that she could see, and they’d obviously thought Timos alone was easy prey. Now that the odds were even, they were hesitant. Looking at the tall, dark warrior princess, bathed in the sunlight’s glow, they waffled. Until the moment when Timos took advantage of their distraction and drew his sword.

"Yah!" he shouted, driving forward towards the closest robber. The fight was on.

"Grrrr! Xena growled. Stupid boy! Didn’t he know that the best fighters made it their business to avoid a battle in the first place? He had much to learn. Reluctantly, she plunged into the fray, with Gabrielle at her side. "Stay back, Leonidas!" she warned.

Xena quickly dispatched one man with a head butt, and turned to confront another. She was forced to draw her sword against him and, as they parried, she saw Timos finish off his attacker using the hilt of his blade against the other man’s head. He fell bonelessly to the ground.

There was a renewed commotion, and Xena picked up two additional highwaymen emerging from the nearby wood. Great! Xena thought, and she resolved to finish her duel in a hurry.

It happened quickly. The bard had just taken the legs out from under her opponent, and assured herself that he would stay down with an extra tap of her staff to his head. She swung around to take in the new arrivals and took a step backwards, stumbling over Timos’ victim.

"Gabrielle!" Xena shouted, but she was too far away, and her current opponent would not go down easily. She angrily pressed her advantage, desperately keeping one eye on her friend.

"Aah!" The young woman hit the ground hard, and became entangled with the unconscious robber. She struggled to find her feet. "Get off of me!" she mumbled, flinging the dead-weight of his arm from her chest.

And in a nightmare vision, Xena saw one of the new arrivals raise his sword above the bard’s unsuspecting, golden-haired head.

"Noooo!" In a single sweeping motion, Timos was there, running the highwayman through the middle with his sword. A shocked, questioning look passed over the thief’s face, and he looked down to examine the blade which held him fast. Timos gave his sword a yank, releasing the robber, and he collapsed, dead.

"Whaaa..." the bard slowly regained her feet, gulping. Her face reflected a look of horror and of understanding too, at what had just occurred. It had been close.

Timos simply stood there, impassively, examining his own bloody weapon.

Relief washed over Xena, and she was able to seize advantage of an opening her opponent gave her. She finished him off with a sharp uppercut to his jaw. The warrior turned her back on him then, knowing he was unconscious, but would live.

She moved towards Gabrielle, but was completely unprepared for what she saw next. The last highwayman stood alone at the side of the road, near Leonidas. A jagged scar ran along his arm from shoulder to hand, and his dark eyes were rounded in surprise. He obviously was stunned at how quickly his compatriots had been decimated. He turned and focused his attention on the nearby cobbler, and finally a look of recognition passed over his face.

"YOU!" he said, grabbing for his sword.

The thief was quick, but Leonidas was quicker. From somewhere inside his leathered vest, he produced a small dagger. In a flash, he plunged it into the chest of the man.

"Leonidas!" Xena’s voice was raw. "What are you doing?"

"He... he drew his weapon... I was worried for Gabrielle!" the cobbler tried to explain his actions.

"I’m all right," the bard said, moving next to Xena. "Thanks to Timos."

The apprentice had drawn a cloth from his bag, and was slowly wiping down his blade, staring at his master.

Xena wrapped an arm around the bard, as if to assure herself that her words were true. "You’re sure?" she asked, searching her friend’s green eyes. She fought to steady her galloping heart.

"Yeah," Gabrielle confirmed in a shaky voice. "But I’m not so sure about Leonidas.

They both gazed at the squat little man. He’d plopped himself down on the ground, shaking his head at his bloodied hands. Softly, he began to sob. "Gods help me..." he cried. "What have I become?"

Chapter 4

There wasn’t much conversation around the campfire this night, and their appetites seemed to have deserted them too, Gabrielle thought, as she watched Leonidas listlessly toy with his food. Timos had given up all pretense at eating, again stalking off into the woods. Xena, she knew, took comfort in the simple routine of things, and so she sat by the fire calmly honing her sword. The bard felt a warm flood of love and affection for her friend. Whatever happened tomorrow, she knew, Xena would be ready for it.

Gabrielle could tell that Leonidas was distraught over the events of the day. He’d killed a man needlessly, whether in a panic or confusion, she wasn’t sure. What she did know, was that the result was the same. A man was dead. And from what little discussion there was over dinner, it was clear to the bard that now, more than ever, that the cobbler wanted to see the mission through. "For Timos," he’d said.

Funny, it occurred to her. I wonder if anyone’s asked Timos what HE wants?

Gabrielle stood and smoothed out her skirt. "I’m going to talk to Timos."

She took off into the forest, ignoring Xena’s questioning stare and Leonidas’ "I don’t think that’s--"

It was easy for the bard to guess where the apprentice had gone. A small lake lay not too far from their campsite; they’d drawn water there earlier. A half-moon hung in the sky overhead, and Gabrielle was able to make out the shadow of the young man sitting on a large rock at the water’s edge.

She announced her presence well in advance - she had no desire to startle the quick-tempered youth. "Hi there," she said simply. She paused a few paces from him, awaiting a response, but there was none. He kept his eyes glued to the lake. A soft breeze caressed the surface, guiding one small swell after another against the shore.

Undeterred, the bard went for broke and sat down next to him. "Nice night." Still, nothing. At least he hadn’t moved away.

"Look, Timos... I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’ Thanks for saving my life, today." And at that, his dark eyes swung towards her. The intensity she saw there startled her, but she did not move away.

"He was going to kill you," his eyes shone in the moonlight. "What else could I do?" And he turned back to the water.

"Oh... I don’t know," Gabrielle replied. "Nothing, maybe? Some people would have. You didn’t. I’ll never forget that." She too turned to gaze out over the undulating lake, feeling the tension leave the air around them. They were talking now, at least. "Timos... about tomorrow... taking your inheritance back from Lord Centacor... is that what you want?" she wanted to know.

"YES!" he insisted, drawing up his knees against his chest. "Leonidas says it is."

"What about you?" Gabrielle placed a light hand on his shoulder, and was relieved to see he did not move away. "What do you think?"

"I - I guess so," he stumbled. "And even if I didn’t, does it matter?"

Gabrielle could see the young man’s jaw muscles clenching in the moonlight. How innocent he looked! She could scarcely believe that he had killed a man today. For her. "Of course it matters! " He slowly turned to her. "Timos," she bored her eyes into his, "would your mother want--"

"Leave my mother out of this!" he shouted, and he pushed himself off the rock. When he spun to face Gabrielle, a dark storm-cloud had etched its way across his features. "You don’t know... you don’t understand!" Angry tears spilled from his eyes. "I owe Leonidas! He took me in... trained me...." he waved his arm back towards the campsite. "I - owe - him," he repeated slowly, deliberately.

The bard slid off the rock and sighed, gazing out at the deep water for a moment, before returning her attention to the young apprentice. "It’s never too late to change your mind, Timos. Take it from me. It’s easier to solve the problems you have first, before inviting a whole new set of them in."

"Life doesn’t always go the way you want it to," the young man countered in a trembling voice. "It’s too late. Leonidas and me-- we’re in this together."

"In what--? Timos, listen to me!!" The bard’s voice was passionate now. "It’s never too late. People can change, if you have reason enough, if you want to enough. But it has to be because you want to. Not because people tell you to. Believe me..." her thoughts briefly skipped to the warrior she’d left by the campfire, "I know."

Was Timos listening to her? Was she getting through? She hadn’t a clue. The youth gulped hard, walked back to the rock again, and perched himself upon it. Gabrielle realized she’d done all she could for now, and so she started back to the camp.

Passing by Timos, she gave his arm a quick squeeze. "You can’t be an apprentice all your life," she said. "You have a choice."

She did not see the silent tears that continued to stream down the young man’s face long after she’d gone.


Gabrielle did not know what caused her to wake. The raucous call of a mockingbird? A cloud passing over the light of the moon? Or, the sensation that her other half was no longer close by? She pushed herself up on her elbows, stifling a yawn, and swung her eyes around the campsite. The fire was banked for the night, Xena had seen to that. It gave off a small, diffused light, by which she could make out the huddled, sleeping forms of Leonidas and Timos. Gabrielle was not surprised to see that the apprentice again slept on the periphery of the camp, setting himself apart from the others physically, if not symbolically. She turned to look at the bedroll to her right. It was empty, though Gabrielle could detect the faint impression of the form that had recently lain there. Xena was gone.

"Xena?" she whispered softly into the night. No response.

Gabrielle heaved herself to her feet. Xena often laughed at how the bard slept like a stone, but it was really the warrior princess who was all business come sleep-time. Although the tiniest alarm could rouse Xena from her slumber, normally she would fall asleep the moment her head touched down, and not rise again until just before dawn. In sleep, as with nearly everything else she did, the warrior was efficient. She rarely roamed during the night. And if she did, it meant something was bothering her.

Instinctively, Gabrielle knew where she’d find her friend; for the second time that night, she made her way along the darkened path to the lake-shore. She took no care to conceal her approach, and even if she had, there was no sneaking up on the warrior princess. She came out of the forest near the same rock where she’d found Timos hours ago. Xena sat upon it now, gazing out onto the open expanse of water.

Gabrielle walked slowly to the edge of the lake, saying nothing at first. Xena simply looked at her and smiled, and she returned the silent greeting. The earlier breezes had died down, and now the surface of the lake was as smooth as glimmer-glass. Gabrielle knew that Xena was a woman of few words, a woman who needed her solitude at times. But as she looked upon her friend, and saw the barely controlled emotion there, she resolved that this time, she would not let the warrior get away with it.

"Dinar for your thoughts!" she said, moving next to the rock.

"Speaking of Dinars..." Xena threw a stone into the lake, "...when I went to check on Argo, I accidentally nudged open one of Leonidas’ bags.


"Some dinars fell out. He’s got enough in there to choke a pig." Xena’s tone belied no judgment, rather, she calmly stated the facts. "And that highwayman today... he recognized Leonidas."

Gabrielle shook her head. "Xena - what are you saying?"

"That’s just it - I don’t know!" Now the warrior’s frustration was evident, and she angrily tossed yet another stone into the lake, watching the ripples make their way to the shore.

"I’ve known Leonidas for a long time," Xena continued, "and I trust him with my life. I owe him my life. But there’s something going on here. Something’s wrong, I can feel it!" She hopped down from the rock onto the soft beach, and stood close by Gabrielle. "How did your talk with Timos go? DID you talk?"

"He’s hurting Xena," the bard replied, "More than we even know, I think. He’s so young, and so confused and--"

"So dangerous," Xena finished. Her voice was hard. "For all we know, he could’ve robbed the inn!"

"Maybe," Gabrielle said slowly, thoughtfully. "But I don’t think so. Say what you like but... I trust him."

Xena turned to her then, with blue-diamond eyes that cut into her soul. "Well, I don’t." She hesitated, and then touched the bard’s shoulder. "But I DO trust you Gabrielle." The smaller woman looked up at her warrior and smiled.

Xena sighed. "So if that’s what you think..."

"I do!"

"... then we’ll go ahead with our plans tomorrow. But we’ll have to keep our eyes open.

I don’t want any more surprises."

Gabrielle put her arm around her friend’s leathered waist, leaning into her, and they both stood there for a time, quietly staring out over the water. The clean, fresh scent of it healed them both.

It was Xena who at last broke the silence. "I could’ve lost you today." She struggled to keep her voice even and hold her eyes straight ahead. But Gabrielle could hear the tremor in her friend’s words, and feel the quickening of the pulse beneath her bronze skin as the warrior fought to control herself.

"It’s not like that was the first time, or will be the last!" Gabrielle tried to side-step a potentially awkward moment by making a tired joke, but Xena would have none of it.

"No!" The ragged ache in her voice was like an open wound.

Gabrielle instantly regretted her jest. She reached up, and turned the warrior’s face to her own. "Oh Xena," she said, seeing her friend’s eyes glistening with tears in the moonlight, "I - I’m so sorry... I didn’t mean to.."

"Ssssh!" Xena sighed, pulling her bard close, "Don’t apologize... it’s just me getting silly, I guess." She placed a reassuring kiss on top of the bard’s blonde head, while Gabrielle herself allowed her fingers to travel up and down Xena’s broad back, dispensing a delicate massage.

Xena cupped the bard’s chin in her hand. "Promise me you’ll be careful tomorrow, will ya?" Her blue eyes searched Gabrielle’s emerald green ones, awaiting an answer.

"I will if you will!" she replied, leaning up to meet the warrior’s lips in a light kiss.

"Always," Xena said, deepening the embrace. They dropped to their knees in the moonlight, hands reaching out for each other, and quickly fell back upon the beach. The sands still retained heat from the day’s sunshine, and Gabrielle could feel the warmth radiating up from beneath her body. But that heat could not compare with the fire that assailed her from the blue-eyed warrior hovering above her, like a torch in the darkness.

Gabrielle could taste the warrior’s urgent hunger, and she felt it too, that need to reach out and possess; to take, and to give back in kind. This was a wildness she had no desire to tame, a fever for which she sought no cure. This was her life. Her love. Her all.

Chapter 5

As Leonidas predicted, by noon of the following day they arrived at Lord Centacor’s lands. From that point onward they proceeded cautiously, taking care to avoid detection. In a secluded, heavily wooded swale near the castle, Xena tied off Argo, and the group traveled the rest of the way on foot. It did not take long, under Timos’ leadership, to reach a hill that looked upon on the castle from the southwest.

They crawled on their bellies to the crest of the rise, and peered down. The sun had already begun its inexorable descent, and the shadows of the day were growing long. Xena had already pushed aside any thoughts of uncertainty that she might’ve had. To cling to them now would only distract her focus from the mission. For the operation to be successful, she had to go out full-bore. Or else not at all.

In a hushed voice, Timos was pointing out the features of the castle, and where they might best penetrate its defenses. Perhaps it was merely the fact that he’d at last arrived at his former home, but Xena thought now that he seemed more sure of himself than he’d ever been. Maybe Gabrielle’s chat with him last night had helped, after all. The bard would be pleased to know it, Xena smiled to herself.

Leonidas had been quiet much of the day, and this Xena attributed to his fear over plunging headlong into a situation for which he’d had very little training, and even less desire to ever find himself. Perspiration dotted his brow and stained his shirt after his scramble up the hill, and his breathing was labored. Gabrielle silently offered him a waterskin, and he eagerly drank from its contents. When he was finished, she sealed the skin and crawled around him to get next to Xena and Timos.

"So we go in through the scullery entrance, right?" She shielded her eyes from the glare reflecting off the blanched stones that comprised the complex. Fields were to the north and the forest lay behind them. There was no moat, but sentries patrolled the perimeter constantly. Even under cloak of darkness, gaining admittance would be tough.

"Looks to be our best shot," Xena said.

"It is," Timos confirmed.

"And on the second level, in the center of the keep, is the bedchamber where the jewels are," Leonidas breathlessly added.

Timos lowered his head. "Yes. Lord Centacor’s bedchamber."

"It won’t be long now," the cobbler said, giving his apprentice a hesitant slap on the arm. "You’ll get back what was taken from you--"

The youth wrenched away from his master, and skittered back down the hill.

"Well, "Xena said to no-one in particular, "Until tonight, then."


The moon was draped in a blanket of clouds, Xena observed as she gazed up at the night sky, and she was not sorry to see it so. They would serve as an added measure of protection against being detected. It had taken an hour of Xena’s watching and timing of the guard patrols before she was satisfied. At last, with a soundless motioning towards the steep hill, she beckoned the little group to follow her down. They did so with a minimum of disruption, and before they knew it, they were all pressed against the castle wall adjacent to the scullery door.

"So far, so good," Xena said, and she cast Timos a warning glare. The apprentice held her gaze, and for the first time, Xena saw a profound sadness there. Regret, even. Had she misjudged him? Now was not the time to worry about it. "Follow my lead. When we get inside, stay behind us," she nodded at Gabrielle; the bard gave her a tight smile in return. "Above all... do what I say!" She swept her eyes around the entire group with that last warning.

"Ready?" And at that, she rapped softly on the door.

"Who’s there?" came a hollow, male voice from within.

"Wine delivery for the master!" Xena replied, in her best slatternly voice.

The man was obviously annoyed. "At this hour? Lord Centacor is asleep!"

"That’s not what I heard, dearrie!" Xena teased. She smiled as she saw Gabrielle roll her eyes.

"I don’t know..." the servant was wavering. He wasn’t looking for trouble.

Xena persisted. "Do us a favor, luv. Open up the door, we’ll get the master his wine, everybody’s happy..." She lowered her voice to a purr, "...and then how’s about you and me do a little samplin’ of our own?"

That did it. The door opened. "Come on in, wench!" He’d barely gotten those few words out before the heel of Xena’s palm made contact with his nose. "Sorry!" she whispered, dragging him inside and laying his body behind an oaken barrel.

"Okay, let’s get going. We want to stay out of sight as best we can, and we don’t want to hurt anybody if we don’t have to!" She looked meaningfully at Leonidas and Timos. While the apprentice’s pinched face was unreadable, it was apparent to Xena that Leonidas was on adrenaline overload. That could be dangerous.

"We’re with you, Xena," the cobbler replied in a barely hushed tone. "Lead on!"

Xena quickly and efficiently led them through the castle; Timos’ memory had been picture-perfect. Odd, she thought, considering how she’d assumed his time had been spent in the fields. As Leonidas anticipated, they made contact with only a minimum of guards at this late hour, and Xena dispatched them all to unexpected slumbers.

At last, they turned the final hall corner that led to the Lord’s bedchamber. There were sure to be guards there. "Wait for my signal!" Xena said, and she crept ahead.

Gabrielle lowered her staff across the corridor, blocking the way, and leaned back against the cool stone wall. So anxious was Leonidas that the bard feared he might burst ahead and reveal their presence. She wasn’t as worried about Timos, but the apprentice had drawn his sword and was poised for action. Unlike Leonidas, however, his heart didn’t seem in it. "Put that thing down!" Gabrielle hissed, and she turned back to watch for Xena’s sign.

After a few moments and some muffled grunts coming from up the hall, a rattling, metallic sound fast approached them. Gabrielle stiffened, prepared for anything - and then she relaxed. Xena’s chakram rolled into view. "Let’s go!" she said. She swiped up Xena’s weapon, and led the group down the corridor.

There, outside what must be the Lord’s bedchamber, Xena was putting the finishing touches on binding and gagging two guards. The bard chuckled to herself when she saw that Xena had used their own leggings against them for that purpose.

Xena straightened up and acknowledged her group’s presence. "Last stop," she said grimly, and with a "Yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!" crashed through the door.

They broke into a large room, sparsely furnished, with an ornately carved bed in the center of it. Wall sconces dimly illuminated the chamber, and a gray-haired older man sat up in bed like a shot, startled to within an inch of his life. He clutched his blankets to his neck. "Who dares to assault the private chamber of Lord Centacor?" His voice was thin but firm as he confronted his intruders.

"Don’t you worry about us!" Xena said, striding up to the man and dragging him out of bed. "We’re just looking for some misplaced property." She motioned toward Timos. "An inheritance of precious gems that you stole from this boy’s mother."

The apprentice took a step closer to the old man, and the candlelight from the wall fell upon his pale young face.

"Give us what we came for," Xena squeezed the old man’s thin arm, "and we’ll leave peaceably."

"What? Stole?" Centacor’s confusion was plain. "How dare you!" He finally swore at Xena, and in his outrage he turned his eyes towards Timos for the first time. "No... it can’t be... Timos? Timos!!"

What was happening here? Gabrielle wondered. It looked to her as though the old man was about to swoon.

"Thank Artemis!" Centacor cried, "You’re alive!" And with a choking sob, he took a faltering step towards the apprentice.

"The jewels!" Leonidas jumped in. "Where are they?"

Xena’s eyes swung back and forth from Lord Centacor to Timos. She was beginning to put the puzzle pieces together, and she wasn’t much liking the picture coming into view.

"Give them to me now, father!" Timos demanded, moving closer to the feeble old man.

"They always were yours, my son. Yours for the taking, whenever you wanted!" He pointed towards the far side of the room where two candles burned along-side the portrait of a beautiful woman. The bejeweled subject was dressed in a lovely lilac gown, and as Gabrielle gazed at the image, she knew with a dawning sense of recognition where she’d seen the woman’s dark eyes before. The apprentice. The woman was Timos’ mother. Beneath the portrait stood a small table where a gem-encrusted jewelry box sat. Gabrielle was stunned.

"My dear boy!" Centacor cried.

Gabrielle feared the old man might pitch forward at any moment, and so she rushed over to support him. "Take it easy..." she said, lowering him to the side of his bed.

With one bony hand, he reached out for his son. "Timos..."

The young man turned his back to his father, his shoulders stiff with tension. "My father died long ago," he said tonelessly.

Meanwhile, Xena watched Leonidas fly to the table and scoop up the jewelry box. Quickly, he tried to scuttle out of the room. Her shock at his duplicity did not prevent her from acting. A strong arm reached out and snared the portly man by the nape of his neck. "Not so fast, my friend," and her voice dripped with bitter sarcasm, "Give it to me." She forcibly twirled him around.

"Xena... I can explain!" Panic seized him. He darted his eyes about the room, searching for an escape. There was Timos, just standing there, with his sword lowered at his side. He would be of no help now, the fool.

"GIVE it to me!" The warrior princess’s voice boomed.

Leonidas quaked in the face of her fury. Worse, he could see the anger, the disappointment in her eyes, as she held out her hand for the box. How dare she judge him!

"He-- here... take it!" His Adams apple bobble furiously as he reluctantly handed the gem-encrusted box over to her.

With a disgusted sigh, Xena turned to restore the treasure to its proper resting place.

At that same moment, Gabrielle looked up from tending to the old man. And in a scene that played out in her mind like slo-motion, she saw Timos lunge for-- Xena?"

"XENA!" she cried out. The bard half-stood, her heart leaping into her mouth. The warrior’s back was to the apprentice, she could never adjust in time to defend herself - but in the last instant Gabrielle saw Timos’ trajectory deviate towards the cobbler.

"Nooo!" the young man bellowed. Xena whirled around just in time to see Timos’ sword pierce his master’s chest.

It was only then that Gabrielle saw the shiny glint from the little man’s dagger as it clattered to the floor. The danger to Xena had passed, and she sagged back with relief, allowing herself to breathe once again.

"Leonidas!" Xena’s face blanched as she grasped what had just happened. She flung the jewelry box away and caught the cobbler as he began to fall, gently easing him down.

"Why?!" The warrior stroked stray hairs back from his forehead. "I don’t understand..."

She grieved as she saw the clammy gray pallor of the cobbler’s skin... helplessly, she tried to stop his life’s blood from spilling upon the floor.

"Don’t bother, Xena," he grabbed her wrist and she raised her eyes to his. She recognized what she saw there. She’d seen that look before on many men. More times than she cared to remember. His time was near, and there was nothing she could do about it.

"Why?" She asked again.

"People change Xena..." his voice was barely a whisper now. "Just look at you..." He slowly shook his head. "After Miranda died... I wondered what point there was in living, when the only good thing in my life was gone? To take a little of this on the side, grab a little of that - even if it wasn’t yours - it made me feel good. Helped to take away some of the pain... for a while."

"You became a thief," Xena said.

"And a murderer too, don’t forget that!" There was a proud irony in his voice.

"No..." Xena could not believe it.

"I didn’t intend to use the boy..." Leonidas weakly continued. "He was just a runaway. But after he’d been with me for a while, he told me about his family... how he blamed his father when his mother caught the fever... and then there were the jewels..." Xena lifted his head slightly as he coughed, allowing him to clear his throat. "I figured one last heist and I’d get out of the game... retire...."

"You used me and Gabrielle to get to Centacor..." Xena thumbed away a streak of blood that trickled from his mouth.

"You weren’t supposed to know... you weren’t supposed to find out!" he protested, using up the last of his reserves. "I was so ashamed... I couldn’t bear the thought of you knowing what I’d become!"

"So it was easier to try and kill me instead?" Xena’s lower lip trembled. "If only you’d told me," she clasped his hand tightly in hers, "I could have helped you!"

"No Xena... you couldn’t have." There was an ominous rattle in his voice now. "People can change... only if they want to. And I was lost long ago." His eyes began to glaze over. "Tell Timos... I’m sorry." He coughed again. "Miranda..." he said to a ghost, "Forgive me...." And then he was gone.

Xena reached out and closed his eyes, allowing him that small dignity in death. She swept her gaze up and down his familiar form; how strangely still it now appeared! And she found herself oddly focusing on how brightly the candle flames flickered and reflected off the shinny blackness of his boots.


"I’m so disappointed you won’t stay a while, it’s the least I can do to show you my thanks for bringing my son back to me!" Xena and Gabrielle stood at the castle gates with Lord Centacor and Timos. The morning sun was sweeping towards its midday zenith, and the warrior was anxious to be moving on. She’d caught the scent of rain in the air, and she wanted to be well on their way before any storm hit. If only she could outrun the tempest in her heart.

"I don’t deserve your thanks," Xena said, more harshly than she’d intended.

The bard looked up at her, and placed a steadying hand on the taller woman’s gauntlet.

"But... your good will is appreciated." the warrior recovered. "Besides, you two should have some time alone to get to know each another again."

The group exchanged hasty good-byes, indicative of the tense air which surrounded them. Xena and the bard passed through the gates, and started out towards the steep hill they’d charged down not too many hours before. How much had changed since then, Xena thought.

"Wait!" Footsteps raced up behind them. It was Timos.

"Xena... Gabrielle..." he breathlessly drew up next to them, his dark hair flying. "I... I owe you both an apology."

Xena sighed, and turned to face him. "Timos, you don’t---"

"Please," he begged, "Hear me out! I’d been traveling with Leonidas for so long, running cons, stealing - it was hard for me to tell after a while who the good guys were." He paused, desperately searching for the right words, shifting his gaze to the hill behind them. "I’m going to stay here with my father for a while, but then I’m going to head out again - on my own this time. I have alot to make up for." He looked at Gabrielle and Xena, struggling to work up a small smile.

"You will, " Gabrielle took up his hand in hers, "if that’s what you want!" She gave him an encouraging grin in return.

"I know trying to change won’t be easy." He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.

"Nobody said it was, " Xena spoke. "But if you can find someone who’s willing to give you a little help along they way, take ‘em up on it." And she gave Gabrielle a secret, sidelong glance that nearly melted the bard’s heart right then and there.

"I’ll try," Timos said firmly. "I owe it to myself to find out."

"Good-bye, then!" and with a final, unspoken nod of thanks, Timos was off.

"Safe journey," Xena called after him. Lord Centacor waited at the gates with his arms opened wide, and the two friends watched father and son embrace as the portal closed.

"Think he’ll make it?" Gabrielle wondered.

The women turned their backs on the castle, and Xena released a heavy sigh. "I hope so."

Gabrielle could see that her warrior was troubled. And no wonder, after the events of the last several days. They walked nearly to the base of the hill in silence, until the bard finally could bear it no more. "I’m sorry about your friend Xena - I know he meant alot to you."

Xena stopped short and shook her head. "I didn’t see it coming," she said, almost to herself. "I thought I knew him."

"Don’t blame yourself Xena." The bard planted her staff in the sandy earth. "You know that people can change. It’s just not always for the better."

"I didn’t see it..." Xena repeated.

"No!" Gabrielle said fiercely. "Don’t do this to yourself. He had a choice, and he made it."

"You’re right..." Xena relented, "but that doesn’t make it any easier." Together, they resumed their course for the hill.

"Well," Gabrielle said slyly, linking her arm through Xena’s, "As wise friend of mine said very recently, nobody ever said it would be. You’re just lucky you have someone around who can help you along the way."

"You?" Xena cracked a wry half-smile at the bard.

Gabrielle stopped and dramatically waved her arms at the vast expanse of land around them. "Do you see anybody else standing in line, oh great warrior princess?"

"You’re hired," Xena laughed, and they began trudging back up the hill, with Gabrielle struggling to find her footing on the loose, rocky slope. "Now," the warrior said, giving the bard a poke in the ribs, "about those flat feet of yours..."

The end.

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