Strength of Souls

by Cat

(All standard disclaimers apply. This story is not meant to infringe on any known or unknown copyrights. Please don't sue, I know for a fact that the author doesn't have any money. Xena and company belong to MCA entertainment and Renaissance Pictures. This story is copyright of Cat. Please do not archive or publish or reproduce without her approval. You may download this solely for your own personal enjoyment. Mail Cat showing praise, asking questions, or asking permission. (Or nagging her to write more.)

Xena and her companion picked their way slowly through the forest, taking their time and admiring the beautiful scenery that lay before them. The warrior princess led her horse by the reins, allowing her to walk beside her friend. Gabrielle sighed contentedly. It had been a long day but the mighty fire chariot was finally ending its daily journey across the sky. Both were quiet, knowing that they would have to make camp for the night soon and then they would talk about hopes, dreams, thoughts, and the days events in general. Not that there were many as they were simply traveling to the village of Monania to meet some friends and have some much deserved rest. Protecting the known world from beasts, demons, and evil warlords was hard work even for the famed warrioress and her brave companion.

For a change, Xena was the first to break the silence. "Let's camp here for the night," she said, pulling Argo to a stop. Here the trees thinned to form a small clearing in the woods. It had a good view of the surrounding woods and was easily defendable, everything they could ask for Gabrielle silently noted. Xena had a knack for finding places like this wherever they went. A habit left over from days when she was hunted like the evil warlords she now fought.

They began to get ready for a nice peaceful evening. Gabrielle gathered surrounding twigs and branches that lay on the ground around them and started a small fire while Xena untied the packs from the horse and checked the area for any sign of unwelcome guests. Convinced it was safe, she came back and sat down next to her friend. "You're quiet today," she commented as she handed her an apple that had been in one of the packs.

"Just thinking," she shrugged.

Xena smiled knowingly at the look on her face. "About one of your stories?"

The bard brushed away a loose strand of her long blonde hair from her face as her green eyes set deep in concentration. "I'm trying to figure out exactly how I want to say something."

"Ah," Xena said in understanding. "Sometimes its best just to say it and move on," she suggested, knowing it was not as simple as that for the little bard.

"You're probably right," she smiled, much to the larger woman's surprise. "Besides, there's berries to be picked," she laughed.

Xena couldn't help but smile. That girl's stomach was amazing. It could pick out food from miles away and tell you exactly what it was. She hadn't even seen the berries at first, but now that she thought of it there had been a lot of low-lying bushes close to the road a ways back.

"I'm going to go get some," Gabrielle said as she grabbed her bag and her staff. "I'm dying for some blackberries right now. You want any?" she asked looking back.

"Sure," she laughed, knowing that her friend's question was only an after thought. She would have gone anyway and probably picked enough for five people let alone just the two of them. "Be careful though, it's almost dark," she added, noting that the sun had nearly set and the wood around them was primarily lit by their small campfire.

"Come on, Xena, it's not like I've never been alone in the woods before. If I get lost I'll just stop for the night. I'll meet you by the road in the morning. Okay?"

Xena could not complain, Gabrielle had a point. As much as she hated to leave her alone, she knew that she could more than take care of her self. She watched as the smaller woman walked into the darkening woods and sighed. She didn't want to tell her friend that she was more afraid of the road than the woods. In the woods you could trust the animals to follow their instincts; on the road you could trust no one, anyone could attack and rob you as soon as you turned your back. It was amazing, she thought to herself, how much that young girl had come to mean to her in such a short time. She was more than a friend, closer than a sister. The bond they shared was deeper than blood and both knew the other would do anything in their power to help them when the time came.

Gabrielle wandered through the forest, picking her way along with her staff. She munched on nearly as many berries as she placed in her pouch to share. As she walked, she thought once again about how to phrase her latest tale, like she would have anything to write it down on if she ever came up with anything. She was down to half a scroll, and that was if she wrote small. She still had to finish her other story before she could actually write this one she reminded herself. Shaking herself out of deep thought, she realized she had no idea where she was. She was lost. Great, she thought to herself. I'm trying to prove that I can be off on my own and here I go getting lost. Then she remembered what she had told Xena about meeting her at the road. If she could last a night alone without her best friend and find the road, she could redeem herself. She sat still for a moment and remembered that the road lay towards the north. It would be easy to figure out where to go from there. She looked through the tree branches and saw the one star that never seemed to move. She picked her way carefully though the woods until she could just make out the road. There she stopped and sat down with her staff at her side. She knew it was not safe to be alone and too close to the road, especially at night. She braced her back up against a tree and opened up the pouch of berries. At least she had food.

She was lost. She knew she should have gone with her. Something told her something bad would happen, but no, Gabrielle had to have her way, again. What was it with that girl? Xena sighed. Why was it that she could face the toughest biggest warlords and stare them down, but couldn't say no to a girl half her size? She could go looking for her, she mused. No, she thought, Gabrielle could fend for herself once in a while. In fact, it was good for her. How was she supposed to grow if she stood in the way? Xena sighed once again. She was not upset with her, a little annoyed, yes, but not upset. It was just that she had hoped to surprise her tonight, the way Gabrielle always did. She was always giving her little gifts when she least expected it. Things like her favorite fruit or a new honing stone for her sword, little things she wanted but never got around to getting for herself. Now it was her turn. She knew Gabrielle was almost out of the paper she used to write down her tales, and she had picked some up in the last village while the girl had been bartering with a local merchant for a deal on that nights dinner. She was hoping to surprise her with it tonight. There went that plan. She consigned herself to sleep and hoped that her friend was at least comfortable. Neither slept well that night.

Gabrielle awoke in the morning with the strange sense of someone watching her. She sighed and stretched lazily, assuming it was her good friend come to find her. She had to hand it to Xena, she managed to find her pretty quick; the sun had barely peaked above the horizon yet. She looked around and realized that something did not feel right. She didn't see Xena, or Argo for that matter, anywhere near by. Normally Xena made a point of rousing her at first light, especially if she wandered off somewhere. She finally stood, her tired muscles complaining. She noticed she was in a dense patch of trees. Maybe Argo couldn't get through so Xena left her at the roadside. Or, maybe it was another one of her tests. You never could be sure with her. No matter what, Argo had to be around somewhere and the road was the best bet. She left her pouch of berries at the base of the tree, planning on coming back for them once she found her friend. If it was a test, the last thing she needed was to have her hands full of food trying to combat the great warrioress. With staff in hand she gingerly picked her way back to the road.

"Xena," she called softly, knowing that if it were a test she would not answer. She repeated her call, this time a little bit louder. Her eyes caught movement in the bushes across the dirt path. She stepped out fully onto the road. "I see you, you know. You don't have to hide," she said boldly, placing one hand on her hip and using the other to lean on her staff.

"Oh, we don't plan on hiding, at least not for long," a distinctively male voice called back from the bushes. A large man dressed in a leather jerkin and trousers stepped out from behind the bushes.

We? She thought to herself quietly. Since when did Xena ever have a we? Or at least a male one? Come to think of it, where was Argo anyway? Placing both hands on her staff and readying for battle, she spoke again. "I only see one of you. Or is there some invisible being with you I don't know about?" She tried to sound nonchalant, but she could hear her voice waver slightly with fear.

"I'm far from invisible," she heard a second voice say as another man stepped out from behind her. She had been right; someone had been watching her. She knew to keep her attention on the first man. If she flinched now, they had her.

"I'm just a peaceful traveler on my way to Monamia," she started, knowing that it would most likely make no difference to them. "I have friends there who are expecting me." It was lame and she knew it. She was a bard; she should have been able to come up with something better than that.

The two men began to move closer, and she did not like the look on the first one's face. She definitely did not like it when she heard him say, "You may be a little late."

She knew that she could most likely fight off the two men if she had to, it was just that she really did not want to. Aside from the possibility that she herself may also get hurt, she was not quite fully awake and did not feel like beating the stuffing out of two petty thieves.

"I'm warning you that I can fight, and I will if I have to." The men continued to move closer. "I have no money with me anyway, it would all be for nothing," she added wearily.

"Who said we wanted money?" She wasn't sure which on of the men said it, but she had no time to worry about it as they both advanced on her.

She lunged at the first one, hitting his solar plexus and knocking the air out of him. As he bent over involuntarily, she spun around again and hit his head, knocking him to the ground. The second man came at her and managed to dodge her blow to his side, only to have her come around again and get him in his other side. "I warned you," she told them. She was feeling quite pleased with herself right now. She had managed to fend off two men who were both more than slightly bigger than her.

The first man pulled himself off the ground and looked up at her. "But I didn't warn you, my dear," he said breathlessly. Gathering as much strength as he could, he shouted, "Attack!"

At least five other men appeared from the bushes, all heavily armed, and began to converge on her. She whispered helplessly, "Xena." She knew her friend would never hear her, lest the gods intervened, and she knew the chances of that happening. She tried desperately to fight off as many as she could, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. When her staff was torn from her hands and landed at the edge of the roadside, she knew it was over.

Xena awoke with a start. Something was wrong. She looked around her and realized that her companion was still gone, but it was something more than that. Something was seriously wrong. Looking for the sun, she saw that she awoke at her usual early time. Gabrielle was usually still asleep now, so what trouble could she have gotten into? She knew her well enough to know that she wouldn't sleep close enough to the road to attract unwelcome visitors, so what could be wrong? She knew it was foolish to worry, but she also knew never to ignore her gut feeling, and right now that feeling was telling her to find her friend and quick. She didn't bother breaking camp, but grabbed her sword and her chakram that lay at her side and headed off into the woods towards the road.

As she neared the road, she moved silently, slipping through the trees without a sound. She saw something at the next tree, Gabrielle's pouch. She glanced at it quickly, hoping to see some sign of where her companion had gone. All she found were a hand full of berries and the two spare quills she always carried with her. At least she had eaten, she sighed. But where was she? It was obvious that she had camped here for the night, so Xena looked around carefully until she saw tracks leading to the road. She followed them without a sound until she reached the roadside. There, her heart stopped as she saw her friend's staff, lying kicked off to the side in the tall grass. Her mind filled with rage at the possibilities of what had happened. If anyone, and she meant anyone, had harmed her friend, they would pay dearly.

She looked around through the dirt for tracks that might lead her to her friend. She found the distinctive tracks of Gabrielle, with her staff at her side, and those of at least six other people. From the sight of it, she fought a good battle, even past the point where her staff was taken. In the end though, she was outnumbered and defeated. Xena followed the tracks off the other side of the road and into the woods again, where they became a jumble of past tracks, wiped out footprints, and generally impossible to follow from there on. From the relative lack of blood and lack of a body, Xena surmised that her friend might still be alive, at least for now. If she didn't find her soon though, there was no telling what might happen.

Gabrielle awoke in a daze. Her head throbbed and she couldn't quite remember what had happened. She slowly rolled over onto her back, but didn't try to sit up yet. A quick look around to regain her bearings and everything came flooding back to her. She was in a cage, in the camp of the men who had attacked her. She slowly raised a hand to her head, gods it hurt, and when she lowered it she found her fingers sticky with blood. That explained the pain, and why she still couldn't see quite straight yet. She also noticed the heavy metal shackles around her wrists.

"She's awake," she heard a voice whisper. It was definitely female, and close by. As her eyes cleared, she noticed that there were several more women in the cage along with her. Most were huddled in the far corner, but a few ventured to where she had been thrown. She tried to sit up, but a striking pain in the back of her head stopped her.

"Slowly," another voice said. Hands helped her into a sitting position, this time much more slowly and the pain was not so bad. "They certainly seemed to take a liking to you," a voice, she thought it was the same one, said.

Gabrielle shook her head to clear it, then noticed who was talking. "Aurouren?" she asked incredulously. What was she doing here?

"Yes, princess, it is me," was the response from the dark haired Amazon. "Actually, it's queen now, isn't it?"

"Only on special occasions," she joked. She tried to smile, but it hurt too damned much. "What are you doing here? I thought you were still with Ephiny and the others." She was curious as to what brought her friend that she had not seen since Velesca's rampage out this far. Were there problems she should know about?

"I was going to see my brother, I have not seen him in many years. I assume I was taken the same way you were, by force?" she glanced at her friend for confirmation. Receiving a slight nod, she continued. "It was early in the morning when something woke me, next thing I knew I was in battle. I took several of them down with me, but there was just too many of them. Every time I was about to get away, more showed up."

"Do you have any idea what they are going to do with us?" Gabrielle asked, growing more coherent by the moment.

"Slave markets, I guess. They keep on saying what a price they can fetch for an Amazon. I tell you one thing though, as soon as we're on the road, we're out of here, all of us. They are going to learn the hard way that young girls shouldn't be bought and sold like pieces of scrap in the markets."

Gabrielle sat silent for a moment, a rare occurrence for the bard. How were they going to get out of this mess? Aurouren wore the same heavy metal shackles on her wrists, as did all of the girls in the cage, and they had no weapons. She winced at the memory of her staff being torn from her hands. Then, she remembered her friend. "Xena," she said out loud.

"What was that?" Aurouren asked, overhearing her.

"Xena," she repeated, a new sense of hope in her voice. "She'll find us, she always does. She'll get us out of here." Her voice was full of conviction, but her mind began to whisper of doubt. Where was the warrioress anyway? She should have realized that Gabrielle had gotten lost and come to look for her by now. Unless, gods forbid, something happened to her as well. She tried to block those thoughts, but they couldn't help coming to the surface. It had never taken Xena this long to find her before. Of course, she had been taken early in the morning and Xena could have still been asleep. She tried to look to the sky to see what time it was, but the dense forest surrounding them blocked her view. She shifted her gaze to the trees around them; maybe Xena was hiding near by, waiting to strike. She saw nothing, and her heart began to sink again. She had to find them, she just had to.

"Let's hope so," Aurouren spoke, breaking into her thoughts. "Amazons don't take lightly to being chained and caged."

Xena sighed in aggravation. Yet another dead-end trail. That was the third one, and there was countless more to follow. It never took this long, but all the tracks looked the same and all headed off into different directions. Some led in to the rocky terrain and were therefore impossible to follow. Some doubled back on themselves and ended up back at the road again. And some just mysteriously ended, she couldn't find any trace of them past a certain point. She was beginning to get slightly more than a little upset. She had to find her friend, and soon.

Gabrielle and Aurouren began to talk about strategies of escape and what to do with the girls trapped with them. Some of the other girls, less frightened now, began to come closer and soon were sharing their own stories of capture and want for escape. All were surprisingly similar, though less violent than the two Amazons. They were confronted on the road and then the next thing they knew they were in the cage. Not one could remember how they actually got to the camp. Their conversation was interrupted when they heard two heavy male voices getting closer.

"Which one?" one of them asked.

"That one," the second said, pointing in what seemed to be the group's general direction. "The blonde. You know, the one that gave you the fat lip," he added with a deep laugh.

"Very funny. You didn't exactly get away without a scratch either, you know. What does he want with her?"

"How am I supposed to know? All I know is that he asked for her, and what he wants he gets. Never question one of his orders." His last words sounded more like a warning from experience than anything else.

The two men entered the cage, weapons drawn, looking suspiciously at the unusually complacent Aurouren. In case there was any doubt who they wanted, Gabrielle felt the large hands of one of the men grab her around her upper arm and drag her towards the door of the cage. "What are you doing?" she asked, struggling in vain to escape. Aurouren started to get up to help her friend, but a blow to the side of her head with the hilt of the other man's sword knocked her down long enough for the men to get out with Gabrielle. By the time she got back up to attack, all that met her was the locking door and a maniacal grin from one of the men.

"What are you doing?" Gabrielle asked again. "Where are you taking me?" she demanded. She struggled to get out of his clasp, but knew even if she did, there would be no escape. She was brought to the center of the camp where other men, dressed similarly to the ones with her, watched her like an animal with a piece of meat dangled in front of it.

Warlord's Minions; they were always the worst. Her fears of being offered to them as a treat for a job well done were settled as she was thrown into the tent in the center of the compound. She landed unceremoniously in a heap on the floor. The guards left, leaving her with three men who looked a little less than friendly. As she looked around, she had new fears; this was the warlord's tent, their leader.

"You know," she told them authoritatively, "You really don't want to do this." It was truly comical; her, a little unarmed, shackled girl threatening three rather large, armed men.

"Now would that be because of your friend Xena, or your friends the Amazons?" the largest man sneered. He was taller than the average man with a massive build. His long black hair was tied back loosely from his face with a small leather strap, leaving only shaggy strands hanging down around his scarred face. He looked of almost Asian decent, but there was something different about him, something she could not place. She did, however, know that he was not someone to be taken lightly. He was most definitely the warlord; the others dared not to speak before him. Before she could answer, he continued. "I have been told that you called out the warrior princess's name in battle and I saw the way that Amazon treated you. Either you are an Amazon, or a friend of them. I'm betting the second, as you seem a little small to be a great warrior; but Solis here believes that you are. He claims that you fought before and that others called you an Amazon in front of him, apparently one of some import if I am to believe him."

Gabrielle looked over at the man he motioned to. He looked vaguely familiar, but she could not place his face. "I am just a simple bard, really. I don't know where you are getting such ridiculous stories," she lied, stumbling over her words.

"A simple bard? Who took out several of my men with a staff? I did not know they taught battle skills at the Athens Academy," he laughed at her attempt. "No, I feel that there is more to you than that, and I'm going to find out how much more." At that, Solis and the other man, whom she assumed to be his second in command, each grabbed one of her arms and lifted her to her feet. She felt a hard fist smack her jaw and tasted the small ribbon of blood that formed at the corner of her lips. "Now," he continued, "What do you know about Xena?"

"Nothing, I swear," she managed to get out before he caught her throat in his grasp. She struggled to get the life sustaining breath into her lungs.

"Don't lie to me, child," he threatened. "You really don't want to know what will happen if you do." He released her from his hold, and if it had not been for the men holding her in place, she would have collapsed to the floor once more. He motioned to his second in command who, once certain Solis had a good grip on her, retrieved a small box from the back off the tent. He knelt down on one knee before his leader, opening the box ceremoniously. The dark haired man carefully selected a long, thin, sliver looking piece of metal from the box, slightly longer than Gabrielle's hand. He waved the needle in front of her and asked his question again, "What do you know about Xena?"

Gabrielle's eyes widened in fear. She tried to swallow, but it became stuck in her throat. "Okay," she said, forcing herself to speak. "So, I've run into her a few times. She liked my stories. Sometimes we'd talk." She knew in her heart that he would not be satisfied with that, but she prayed to the gods that he would.

"You lie! You do not want to do that with me." He slowly began to move closer to her. He talked quietly, methodically, as if reciting some ancient verse. "There are certain points in the body that respond strongly to outside actions," he began. That much she knew, she had seen Xena put the pinch on people often enough to figure out that if you put pressure in certain spots, they're going to have a reaction. "Inserting the needle in or near these points causes the body to experience pain," he continued, inching closer. Gabrielle's eyes grew larger. Inserting? She had never seen Xena do anything like that before. When he finished, she had trouble swallowing the breath of air she had just taken in. "Pain like never before."

What seemed like hours later, he was tiring of her antics. All that he had gotten from her was that she had sometimes run across the warrioress in her travels and was known to the people of the Amazon nation. The closest he had of a description of Xena's whereabouts was that she was supposed to meet her in a nearby village, and that the girl assumed she would run into her in the woods. He looked down at the blonde, now lying on the floor of his tent. She had withstood his "interrogation" better than most; she was still alive and conscious. He knew she knew more, but she wasn't telling him. This did not happen. No one defied him, and lived. It was time to change tactics. He kneeled down beside her and grasped her leg above the knee at the base of her now torn skirt. She winced slightly at the tightness of his grip. He slowly began to move his hand upwards. "You will tell me everything you know, and you will tell me now."

Xena had made her way back to the road once more, hoping to find some vital clue she had missed in her search before. Her body snapped to attention as she heard voices approaching. Two men and a young woman came into view from around the bend in the road. They stopped in their tracks when they saw her. After a quick whisper discussion, they began to move towards her once again, with the men taking defensive positions around their companion. When they came close enough, one of them spoke. "What do you want?" he asked, eyeing her armor and decidedly defensive stance.

"I am looking for a friend," she told him honestly. "The last I saw her was last night. Do you know anything about where she might be?" She carefully watched his body for any sort of reaction, any sign that he was lying or hiding something from her.

All she saw was sorrow. "Then they have got her too," he said sadly. "You have my condolences." He looked sincere, but she had to question him more. He might know something that could help.

"Who?" she demanded. "Who is this they? I must know. I must find her." She was nearly pleading now, not something the Warrior Princess was accustomed to. She cared so much for the girl, and if anything had happened to her, she didn't know what she would do. She made a promise once that she would not turn into a monster, would not lose control, if Gabrielle should be killed, but right now she was having a hard time believing in that promise.

"They call him Samir. He is a warlord not to be reckoned with."

The second man spoke up. "For two months time now, he has been stealing girls from nearby villages as they walk through these parts. He sells them to the slave markets. One man was lucky enough to find his daughter and managed to buy her back, but most aren't that lucky."

"Hasn't anybody tried to stop him?" Xena asked incredulously. Surely somebody had tried. She couldn't imagine anyone just letting their children be stolen.

"Many people, but they were outnumbered and out-weaponed by Samir's men. We found that simply walking with the women seemed to deter them," he paused and sighed. "At least in the past. Recently even that has failed. They take on the men, steal the women, and disappear. Twice they have been followed into the woods, but they disappeared right before the others eyes. One man said that he saw them enter Tartarus itself, disappearing into the ground without a trace."

"That's it!" Xena exclaimed, interrupting him. She saw the confused looks on the others faces and knew they didn't understand it. In fact, they were looking at her as if she was down right insane. "You said that they disappeared in to the ground, right?" she didn't wait for the nod that signified a yes. "And I saw tracks that just suddenly ended. I think I know how they're doing it. If I'm right, I should be able to find the missing girls." And Gabrielle, she thought to herself. She only hoped she wasn't too late, and that they had not gone to the slave markets yet. She couldn't bear to see her friend living a life of slavery, again.

"I don't follow you, but if you could find the girls, our village would be most thankful," the first man said. "And if you could show us a way to destroy that warlord and his men, we would repay you," the second man cut in.

"Don't worry yourselves with that," she told them, hoping to keep them away from her plan. "Worry about protecting the women you do have left for now. All of you better get to safety, before they attack again." She turned and began to walk back towards the woods. She was stopped when the woman called out to her.

"What is your name?" she asked, timidly.

"Xena," the warrioress replied.

"Thank you, Xena."

She turned once again towards the woods; this time stopped by the second man. "And why haven't they come after you yet?" he demanded.

She shrugged. "I guess they're just not up to the challenge." With that, she turned and walked away, leaving them to figure out what she meant. She looked up at the sky as she went. It was already late afternoon. She would have to move quickly if her plan was to work.

She followed the tracks once more, this time deliberately choosing the ones that suddenly ended. When she reached the point where they disappeared, she began her search. After a few minutes, she found it. It was well hidden, but there. It was ingenious really, the way the leaves were attached, the door seemed to blend right in with the forest floor. She cleared off some of the loose leaves to find the handle. She opened it slowly, expecting a guard at the entrance. She found none. Samir's men were cocky, they assumed no one could find the entrance, so why guard it? She entered the tunnel cautiously, still expecting a guard, a booby trap, or something to stop her. After a quick search, she found nothing of the sort. She did, however, find a discarded torch and flint.

She took those with her. She was going to need them in the darkness of the tunnel ahead. Or tunnels, she corrected herself. The single passage branched off into several ahead of her. She couldn't help the sigh that escaped her. What did she expect, she thought to herself, this to be easy? One more thought came to mind. "If I don't make it there in time," she said quietly, to herself. "Hermes, protect her."

"Anything?" Samir's second in command asked. Gabrielle had learned that his name was Balin, but not much more than that as she was still struggling to remain conscious at this point. She hurt, that was all she cared to know at this point. She was lying on the floor of the tent once more, bloodied and bruised and in pain. And where in Tartarus was Xena right now? she thought to herself. She was angry. She was angry with Xena for not finding her, she was angry with Samir for finding her, and most of all she was angry with herself for allowing herself to be caught. She tried to clear her head. She couldn't afford the energy it took to be angry right now. She had to remain conscious, that was the most important thing. She shuddered to think what would happen if she did not.

"Nothing worth while," she heard Samir say. He had tried everything he could think of. Maybe she really did not know more than what she was telling him. The only thing additional he had found out about her was that she really was an Amazon, as Solis had believed, and supposedly one of some import, though he did not know why. "I think that's all we're going to get out of her," he sighed. He laid back on the pile of cushions in the center of his tent. "Tell Solis he can have her."

Balin was surprised at his request. He rarely was so generous. Samir continued, "I hate to give up a prize such as an Amazon, but he has a score to settle with her and I don't have the time to let her heal before I sell her. Let him dispose of her as he sees fit."

"Yes, Samir," he said, bowing slightly in respect. Gabrielle could hear him as he walked by and opened up the tent flaps. The cool breeze that came in chilled her to the bones. She tried not to shudder, but found it hard to restrain herself when she heard him call out, "Solis, she's yours." He turned towards the two guards that stood outside the tent. "Take her to his tent. Stand watch until you know that she'll be no trouble."

She felt two pairs of rough hands grab her by the arms and yank her abruptly to her feet. Gods, it hurt to stand again. They tried to lead her, but mostly dragged her out the tent flap and across the compound. She realized that it was nearly evening already. How long had she been in there? She tried to see Aurouren, to let her know that she was still alive, but the world was a blur to her. She looked over in what she could remember as the general direction of the cage the others were being held in. One blur seemed closer to what she assumed was the door than the other blurs. Her assumption was correct as she heard a familiar voice call out, "Gabrielle!" As much as she cared for her friend, that was not the voice she wanted to hear right now. Where was Xena?

She was thrown roughly into a tent on the far side of the camp. She was lucky to have landed on several pillows that formed a sort of couch on the floor. The guards left, but she could here them outside the tent flaps making lude comments about her and her fate. The man who had stood by Samir in his tent earlier knelt down beside her. At least she was pretty sure it was him, her eyes still hadn't come into focus yet. When she heard the voice, she knew it had to be the one they had called Solis. "So, you're my prize, ay? I get to do with you as I wish. How fitting. The woman who once held my life in her hands, now has her life held in mine. Are you going to try to attack me or run away?" She flinched as he pushed a strand of hair back from her face. She knew he wanted an answer. She could barely move right now, let alone attack him. She shook her head. "Good."

She heard him get up and walk to the tent flap. He was talking to the guards, but she couldn't quite make out what he said. One seemed to question him. She heard him use the name Samir, and then the guards walked away. He came back in and sat down beside her once more. "I like my privacy," he explained nonchalantly. He reached behind him and grabbed a sack of something. He tossed it into her hands. "Drink this," he ordered. Seeing her hesitation, he added, "It's water. I assumed you would be thirsty after eating and drinking nothing all day." She struggled with the cork for a second, then took a tentative sip. It tasted fine, and she could not help herself as she drank more, gulping down as much as she could. She finally stopped when she began coughing. She had drunk it too fast and she knew it. She glared at Solis as he laughed at her. "Careful, or you're going to kill yourself," he laughed.

"And that would take all the fun out of your job," she spat back at him, regaining her voice. She wiped the water from her lips with the back of her hand, hating how the heavy manacles made even that simple task difficult.

"I don't plan on killing you," he said, much quieter this time, as if afraid of being heard. He took the flask from her hand and replaced it with an apple.

"Then what? Are you just going to make me your slave? Believe me, if that is your plan, it would be best for both of us if you just killed me now." As much contempt as she felt for this man, she couldn't help biting into the apple. He was right, she was starving, and it was food, and she was not going to turn it down. Zeus only knew when she would be given the chance to eat again.

"You honestly don't remember me, do you?" he asked.

She looked down at the little piece of apple she had left. Much to her surprise, he offered her another one. After accepting it, she answered his question honestly. "No, I don't. Should I?"

"Remember back during the Thessalian war?" he began. She nodded her head in response. It was hard to forget almost getting killed. "You ran out in the middle of the battle to find a lost boy. I assumed you were the enemy, knowing you were not from our army. We fought until you knocked me out. You were hurt pretty bad yourself. The next thing I remember was coming to in the Temple of Asclepias. Many people were worried about you, thinking you were dead. I heard the priest say that, had you hit me one inch lower, you would have killed me. At first I thought you had made a mistake, until I heard your friend reply that you knew that and that's exactly why you did not." He paused in his tale to look her straight in the eyes. "You gave me back my life that day. Now this is my chance to give you back yours."

"How?" she asked, wanting to believe him. "By letting me go? You would be killed if you did that."

"That's why I have to kill you," he said calmly, as if it all made sense.

Her eyes grew wide in fear. "I thought you said you were going to give me my life back," she said, fighting back the emotions.

"I am," he insisted. He then realized that she didn't understand. "You are not the one who's going to die. It's only going to look like I killed you, but it's not going to be you."

Her faced turned into one of horror. She would not kill anyone to save her own life. She could not. She would rather die instead. "I, I can't," she stammered. "I can't let another die in my place."

"Oh, no, no," he said, trying to calm her. "She's already dead." He thought that would explain it all, but saw that it did not. "Samir killed a young slave two days ago for angering him. He threw her body in the woods behind the camp. She was a little different in size than you, but not much. If we wrap up the body and put it out on the funeral pier, no one will no the difference. I will tell him that this is how I thought best to dispose of your body. Simple as that."

"But won't he want proof that it's really me? You're saving my life, I don't want it to cost you yours." She couldn't believe herself. She was actually worried about someone who, just a few minutes ago, she wanted dead. How much more weird could her life get? "Forgive me for seeming rude, but I will need to cut out the girl's heart and give that to him. I will also need a lock of your hair to make him believe it was really you. I know it's not the best burial she could have gotten, but it's better than the one she has now." He seemed sincere, and he had a point, as much as she disliked it. It would save her own life and cost no one their own. It was a choice she could live with.

"And what would happen to me?" she could not help but ask.

"You would be set free the same way I am going to sneak the body in, through the back of the tent. I do ask that you stay here while I go get it though, in case somebody comes to check on you. Just try to look unconscious or beat into submissiveness or something, okay?" he asked. It appeared he was going to do the hard work, and she would get to stay here and gather some of her energy back. She was beginning to think that maybe he was not so bad of a guy after all, except for the whole hanging out with a warlord thing. She nodded her head in agreement.

As he was beginning to make preparations, she decided to ask the question that was growing in her aching head. "Why are you here in Samir's camp? You don't seem like the 'let's kill everything in our path or at least enslave it' kind of guy."

"I'm not," he said, unwrapping a bundle of rags in which to wrap the body. "After the war, my path crossed with his. I am a good strategist, and he was in need of one. I help him plan out things, but rarely participate in them. He lets me go because he needs me alive anyway. When I plan things for him, I try to find the way the least people will get hurt, and he doesn't mind as long as it is still profitable." He finished what he was doing. "I need to go out now, but I'll be back in a little bit. You should be fine here, but remember to act beat if anyone comes to check."

"That shouldn't be hard," she quipped. She was ready to pass out as it was, and the pain didn't seem like it would be going away any time soon.

As he started to sneak out the opening in the back of the tent, she realized she had to say one more thing, in case she forgot later. "Thank you." He smiled, and slipped out into what she now recognized as the night.

When he returned, they began their less than pleasant task. Gabrielle was surprised at how young the girl was, then remembered that she herself was not much older. She found herself wondering what her life had been like up until its death at such an early age. She stopped herself; she didn't have time for thought like that. They finished wrapping the body, and she realized that there really was no way anyone could tell it wasn't her. Wrapped in rags as the body was, you could only tell that at one time it had been a young girl. They would be safe, as long as no one unwrapped the body.

"Go now," Solis told her, moving to lift the back of the tent to make it easier for her. "But" she objected, she wanted to make sure he was going to be okay. "Look, I'm sorry I don't have the keys for those things," he said, indicating the manacles that were still around her wrists. "But if you don't go now, we'll both be caught." He lifted the tent one more time and this time, she went through. She knew she only had moments to cross the few feet to the woods, but she turned back and smiled a weary smile at him.

"Thank you," she whispered before she disappeared into the darkness of the woods.

Solis picked up the body and dragged it to the funeral pier. He looked back once to make sure she couldn't be seen escaping. With a sigh, he whispered to himself, "May Hermes protect you and get you home safely."

As she began to make her way through the woods, she realized how dark it truly was, and that she had no idea where she was going. "If I keep going straight, I should be able to meet up with a road somewhere," she mumbled to herself. "As long as I don't pass out first," she added in reference to the pain and tiredness that had now sunk in to her bones. If only she wasn't alone, maybe then she could make it.

Xena exited the tunnel a few yards away from the camp, protected from view by the surrounding woods. She had taken the wrong tunnel one too many times, and almost ended up right under Samir's tent. It was easy to recognize it for what it was, an escape route. If the compound was ever attacked, he would disappear before anyone knew the wiser. She would have to remember that for future use. Her eyes quickly searched the area for any sign of her friend. She saw the cage with several girls in it on one side if the camp, but Gabrielle was not with the others. She would free them later, but for now, she could not ignore the growing pit in her stomach that told her something had happened, something she would not like, to her friend.

Something across the compound caught her eyes. A funeral pier, and there was a decidedly female body atop it. The pit in her stomach grew. A man she did not recognize lit the fire that soon engulfed the body. On the other side of the camp, Aurouren cried out. Xena heard her cries, but prayed to the gods that she was wrong. It could not be her. As if in answer to her fears, Samir came up to the other man and was handed a small box. He looked in it and smiled. She could hear him congratulate the other man. As he walked back to his tent, she could hear him clearly.

"When Xena sees that her friend is dead, she will be vulnerable for attack. The advantage will be mine and I will be known as the man who killed Xena, Warrior Princess. Excellent work." When she heard the laughter that followed, she could not control herself.

She leapt out of her shelter, crying her warrior wail. She charged ahead, straight for Samir and the heart of the camp. No matter what she did, she knew she could not save her friend's body, it was too late for that. Instead she focused on revenge, vengeance for the wrongful death of the one person who meant so much in her life. Samir turned around, looking straight in the eyes of the warrior woman. He showed no surprise at her sudden appearance; he had been expecting it, though perhaps not so soon. She expected him to turn and fight, but he did not. Instead, his men came out of nowhere and advanced on her. She easily dispatched some of them and edged her way closer to the central tent. More men came, more men fell unconscious to the ground. She entered the tent to find him smiling, waiting for her. She came nearer, but he did not move to defend himself. To her surprise, he offered out the box he held in his hands.

"A gift," he said, laying the box on the ground in front of him. "To a worthy adversary." He smiled again, a wicked, dark smile, as if it came from the depths of Tartarus itself. "Relax, it's not the end of the world, just her life." As she moved to attack, Balin came from behind and began an attack of his own. They parried briefly, but within a few blows she had him unconscious on the floor like the men outside. She turned back to face Samir, but he had disappeared into the tunnel below. She knew she would be outmatched down there; he had designed them and doubtless knew them blindfolded. At least she would be able to free the other girls, she thought to herself, preparing to fight her way to them as she stepped out of the tent. They were gone. Not just the girls, but the cage, the men, everything. Everything except the few unconscious men laying in the center of the camp and the funeral pier still burning at the end of the camp. The men had distracted her long enough for the others to escape. She should have known that, she should have expected that. What was wrong with her? She knew the answer to that. She had let her grief get in the way. Samir, the cunning warlord that he was, had expected that and used it to his advantage. She had been so blind, and for what? She didn't bring Gabrielle back, and she was unable to help those who needed her. She had failed.

She turned back to the tent and picked up the small box that lay before her. She opened the lid carefully, expecting everything and nothing at once. What she found was a human heart, with a single strand of golden hair across it. She let out a wail that would have scared the Bacchae to their very souls, had they had any, and then collapsed to the ground on her knees and wept. For this one moment, she was no longer the mighty Warrior Princess, but simply someone grieving for the one person who had meant the world to her.

In the darkness of the woods, Gabrielle thought she heard Xena's battle cry. She shook her head; she was imagining things. She had to go on. She had to get to safety. She had to stay conscious for just a little while more. By the time Xena's wails reached her again, she had passed out from the pain.

Hercules and Iolaus made their way quickly through the brisk morning air down the dirt road that stretched out before them. They had a mission. The people of the town they had just came from asked them to try to stop a warlord that had been terrorizing their town, taking young girls and selling them to the slave markets. They were always attacked along this portion of the road, the only way to reach the town they did much of their trading with. This is where the famous friends had decided to begin their search.

"Selling girls into slavery, how low can you go?" Iolaus asked, more to himself than to his large companion. "I thought this region outlawed that a long time ago."

"If there's a way to make a dinar, some people will do it, regardless of the laws," came the reply.

"Yeah, well it still sucks," Iolaus spat back, not knowing what else to say, but feeling, like always, like he had to say something. He looked down at the ground as he walked, and nearly ran into the larger man as he suddenly stopped in his tracks. "What is it, Herc?"

"More like who is it," he corrected, staring at a spot in the woods just off the side of the road. "The answer being the last person I expected to run into out here."

"Who?" Iolaus asked, still not seeing whom he meant. He figured it was another one of those 'you have to have the blood of a god to see it' things. There seemed to be more of those than he would have expected, but hey, he didn't expect his best friend to be the son of a god either and look how that turned out.

Hercules walked up to what looked like just another spot in the woods and addressed it. "Hermes, what are you doing here? I thought Zeus would have you running some errand or something."

At the sound of his name, the messenger God and God of travelers coalesced before the two men. "Hercules," he said in greeting, but did not move from his post. "It is good to see you again." Iolaus finally moved around his friend to get a better view. It was definitely Hermes. With his winged sandals and scepter, and the thin band he wore around his head mounted with two golden wings, it was hard to mistake him for anyone else. He wasn't quite sure what to do in front of him, so he did nothing.

"Good to see you as well, but you still haven't answered my question," came the reply. He was used to dealing with his family. You had to keep them on the subject if they were going to tell you anything. "What are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere?"

The God shrugged. "Two changed souls asked me to protect this one. I figured she was worthy of it, she's lived a good life." He stepped to the side so the others could see who he meant.

"Gabrielle!" Hercules called out. She still lay where she had fallen the night before, not knowing how close to the road she really had been. A couple of steps more, and she would have made it. At the sound of his friend's name, Iolaus rushed to the side of the little figure laying in the dirt. He checked for a pulse, and found one. He silently thanked the gods for this blessing.

"She's alive," he reported. He carefully turned her over and examined her bruised face. "What happened?" he demanded. It didn't even cross his mind that he was demanding information from a god, only that he needed to know what had happened to his friend.

"You know her?" the God asked. He nodded his head vigorously. "Then my job is done." He turned and looked as if he was about to leave, but Hercules stopped him.

"Hermes," he called. "What happened?" It was not a question; it was a flat out demand.

To his surprise, the God decided to answer him, cryptic as it was. "She escaped."

All kinds of thoughts ran through Hercules' and Iolaus' heads. Only one made it out coherently. "And her companion, the one she traveled with? Where is she?"

"She traveled alone last night," came the reply. Knowing that they wanted more, he continued. "However, the one she normally travels with is through the woods, down the road a bit. She may be thankful to see you." With that, he took a few steps down the road and disappeared into nothingness.

"Something must be wrong," Hercules said, more to himself than to his friend.

"You're telling me," Iolaus looked up from trying to assess Gabrielle's wounds.

"Why would Xena let something like this happen to her?" he continued.

"Unless there was nothing she could do to stop it." He looked back over to where his one friend was trying to help his other. He noticed the heavy manacles she still wore on her wrists. "I have a bad feeling about this." He knelt down beside her and broke apart the chain that held the two heavy wrist pieces together. That would have to do for now. He wanted to find Xena, and some answers. Satisfied that there was nothing broken, he carefully lifted the still unconscious Gabrielle into his arms and headed back down the road, with Iolaus close behind. If what Hermes said was true, she shouldn't be too far away.

Xena knelt down beside the makeshift grave she had formed. Without a body, there really was not much more she could do. She had buried the box Samir had left her, marking it with a small squarish stone. She hung Gabrielle's pouch over the stone, and leaned her staff across the small grave. It crossed her mind once more that she had to tell her friend's family what had happen. What happened is I failed, she thought to herself. She didn't want to face them, not yet. She wanted justice to be served first. No, she knew herself better than that. She wanted revenge. And she would get it if it was the last thing she ever did. That was a promise she had made to herself last night, and she intended on keeping it.

She wiped back the tear that kept on forming in the corner of her eye with the back of her hand. She wanted to sing the song of mourning, but her voice wouldn't come to her. No matter how hard she tried, it wouldn't come. "Gabrielle," she whispered, her voice hoarse and filled with pain. "I'm sorry."

"Xena," a voice came from behind her. She recognized it, but did not move to face it.

"She's gone," was all she said, knowing that her friend would understand.

"No, she's not," Hercules told her, taking a step closer.

She figured he was talking about her new existence in the Elysian Fields. "She's gone," she repeated. "She's gone and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I failed."

He knelt down beside her and took her into her arms as he would a child, not a great warrior. Despite herself, she leaned into him and let him comfort her. "No, she's not," he repeated. "Iolaus and I found her. She's alive." She turned around in his arms to face him. A thousand emotions ran through her.

"But, I saw" was all she was able to get out. He looked her straight in the eyes as he said his next words.

"Whatever you saw was not her. She did not die. She is alive."

She pulled herself free from him and stood up, looking in the woods around her. "But where is she? Why isn't she here? What happened to her?" she demanded. So many thoughts, so many questions, crossed her mind. He pulled himself up beside her and tried to calm her down.

"She's at your camp site, Iolaus is with her. She is hurt, but she is alive." He tried to keep his voice calm and reassuring, but as soon as she heard her friend was hurt, Xena took off at a near sprint to the campsite. He made it there mere seconds after her, but she was already kneeling down beside her friend, brushing her hair back from her eyes like a mother with a sick child.

"Gabrielle," she murmured, trying to look her over, hold her, and care for her all at once.

At the sound of her name, the small body moved slightly and groaned with pain. "Xena?" she asked groggily, slowly trying to open her eyes.

"Now there's a sight I like to see," Iolaus said, leaning in closer from the other side and looking into her beautiful eyes. She blinked those eyes several times, trying to clear the blurriness and see her surroundings. She tried briefly to sit up, but the pain in her head and the insistence of the others made her rethink her decision.

"How did I get here?" she mumbled, not really sure if she was asking a question or not. She looked over to Hercules and Iolaus with confusion. "And when did the reinforcements arrive?" Not that she wasn't glad they were there, it was just that too many things had changed since she had last opened her eyes.

"We found you by the road side," Iolaus told her. "We brought you here. The question is, how did you get there?" They all wanted to know, so he didn't see the harm in just coming out and asking. He looked to Xena to see if she approved, but her attention was solely on the girl lying before them.

Gabrielle searched for the words, but her mind wasn't all together yet. What was wrong with her? She normally bounced back much quicker than this. "Shh," Xena whispered, still smoothing the loose strands of blonde hair away from her face. "Take your time, it's okay." She wasn't sure who she was trying to calm down, her friend, or herself. She still couldn't believe something had happened to her.

Gabrielle licked her lips, trying to get the words out. She was quickly offered water by all three of her caretakers. She took it gratefully, though slowly, not wanting to choke on it. When she was finished, she spoke, though it seemed to make no sense to anyone but herself at first.

"Solis helped me escape," she told them. She saw the confused looks on their faces and continued. "He's the one I fought in the Thessalian war. He wanted to give me my life back the way I gave him back his."

"But I saw the funeral pier, I saw them light it. Samir gave me your heart," Xena stammered. It wasn't that she wanted her friend dead, or that she didn't believe she was alive, it was just hard for everything to fit together and make sense. Gabrielle's heart went out to her friend. She had thought she was dead. The plan was to fool Samir, not Xena.

"It wasn't me," she said, stating the obvious. "Another girl died and he used her body to fool everyone into thinking I was dead. It was the only way for me to escape."

"It looks like he was a good friend," Hercules commented. No matter what else he had done, he had helped a friend; he couldn't be all that bad.

"Some friend!" Iolaus cut in. "Is he the one who did that to you?" He asked, outraged, motioning to her bruises. How could anyone beat someone and still be their 'friend'? If he could get his hands on that guy right now.

"No, it wasn't him," Gabrielle tried to explain. Her head was clearing now, but the rest of her still hurt and it was affecting her. She had dipped into her reserves of strength some time ago, and she wasn't sure if her reserves had reserves of their own. She just had to ignore the pain and explain, before Iolaus did something stupid while trying to help her.

"He helped me. Samir did this to me. He wanted to know about Xena, and the Amazons. He figured out I knew about both. I think it was me calling out for you. I thought it was you testing me, not some men trying to attack me. Well, at least at first. I figured it out really quickly though," she managed to say. The most coherent thing she had done to that point. She felt better. Enough even to try sitting up again. She moved carefully and slowly, reluctantly accepting the help of Xena and Iolaus. Sitting up brought a new vision to things, and a whole lot of blood to her brain. "Wow," she said quietly, but loud enough for the others to hear and warrant their concern yet again.

"Gabrielle," Xena said after a pause. "I know this is hard, but I need to know something." Her friend looked at her expectantly, knowing she would answer any question the warrioress asked. "I need to know exactly what he did to you. It's the only way I can help." She added the last part as if to explain away the fact she wanted to know exactly how badly he had hurt her friend. She had seen the remnants of the manacles laying besides her, where Hercules had hastily disposed of them. No matter how hard she tried to push the thoughts away, she still imagined all the possibilities, none of which were pleasant.

"I can leave if you feel uncomfortable," Iolaus added, looking at Hercules to confirm that he to would leave if needed.

"No, that's fine," Gabrielle told him. She looked back to her friend and answered the question asked of her. "He did the usual using me as a punching bag thing, then he did something else. He used these long needle things. I'm not sure what he did, but it hurt. A lot worse than sticking yourself with a normal needle." She took another long sip of water while she waited for her friend to reply.

"Did he do anything else?" she asked.

Gabrielle paused for a moment, knowing the true question she was asking. "No," she answered finally, quietly. There were some things she thought best to keep from her friend. Some things she thought best to never tell another living soul. This was one of these things.

Xena thought there was something more, something her friend wasn't telling her. She would not pry. As much as the back of her mind pressured her to ask, to find out if her fears were true, she would not. Her friend's secret would be safe. She cleared her throat and continued as if never asking the question. "The thing he did with the needles, it's called acupuncture. It's sort of like the thing I do with my hands, only the needles directly stimulate the pain nerves. As long as he didn't do it in just one place for a long time, there should be no permanent damage," she explained.

"Then why does it still hurt so much?" the smaller woman asked, unconsciously rubbing the spot on her arm he had taken a liking to. Gods, she ached all over. "Sometimes, there's not much pain, but if I move the wrong way, it's like I'm back there again. I've never had anyone do anything like that before."

"It's not just from the needles, but I should be able to help a bit," she answered with a slight smile. She didn't want Gabrielle to know how unnerved she had been, and still was, about what had happened. At least now, she had something to concentrate on.

As Xena worked to treat her friend, the others began to talk. The atmosphere became more relaxed, but there was still an underlying tension in the air. Hercules and Iolaus told them about what had brought them out this way. As expected, they realized that both happenings were connected. The topic soon turned to what they were going to do about it now.

"The first thing we have to do is try to find them," Hercules said decisively. It was common sense, but he was basically just thinking out loud. Gabrielle and Xena knew where the old camp was, but doubtless they had moved. The question now was how were they going to track down the new camp.

"Oh yeah, that should be easy," Iolaus cut in sarcastically.

"Actually, I think I know where they might be," Gabrielle told him. She was now up and walking around, though still a bit cautiously. Her spirits improved drastically as the pain had all but withered away. She was sitting down beside the fire, a now empty bowl of food in her hand. When her spirits picked up, so did her hunger. When she realized how little she had eaten in the past two days, she saw no problem in helping herself to some food. The others had even encouraged it.

"What do you mean?" Hercules asked, himself now munching on an apple across the fire from her. He, like the others, still watched her carefully, as if she was fragile enough to break in a strong wind.

"Aurouren and I were talking before" she paused, not really wanting to say it. "Well, just before everything else happened. She said that some people had come close to the camp only a few days before. They took everything underground, to some huge tunnel system for a day. When they were sure that the people had left to look elsewhere, they pulled everything back up again. They didn't even take the girls out of the cage, they just moved the whole thing," she explained.

"So you're thinking that they'll do the same thing again," Xena finished for her. "They'll hide in the last place we would think to look, right back where we started."

"Sounds like a good place to start," Hercules said, hopefully. They had no other leads to go on thus far, and this one didn't look so bad. "Let's wait until morning. If what you say is true, by then, they should have returned." Xena and Iolaus agreed. They would attack the next morning. Samir would not go free.

Gabrielle awoke with a start. The nightmare she had just awoken from was so real, it was frightening. As she took in her surroundings, she realized that it had not just been a dream. It was real. She was reliving everything that had happened to her just a day before. As she looked around her, she realized the perils of being with three warriors. All three woke up when she did, though she swore she only made the slightest sound. Iolaus watched her from his bedroll across the fire from her, his eyes were full of concern, but he said nothing. Hercules propped himself up on one elbow to see what was going on, taking in the entire campsite before settling his eyes on her. Xena came over and sat down beside her. "What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," her friend replied after a long pause. She didn't even sound convincing to herself. She looked to Xena, then to her hands, then to the ground. If she didn't have to look her in the eye and tell her, maybe she wouldn't be so afraid. "It's just" she started. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she couldn't seem to hold them back any longer. "Everything that happened, everything he did I close my eyes and see it all happen again." She wiped the tears away angrily, but more came to take their place.

Xena took her into her arms and held her tightly. She needed this, they both did. "Shh," she said, brushing strands of blonde hair away from her friend's face. She unconsciously began to rock, slowly, giving as much comfort as she could, but wanting to give more. She became like a mother to an injured child. She knew that the pain had gone away, but also knew that it was still there, lingering deep inside, and would perhaps always be there, in the background for the rest of her life.

Gabrielle looked up at her and asked a question she knew the great warrioress could not answer. "Why?" she asked with such soulfulness, it tore at the other woman's heart. "Why did it have to happen? When is it going to go away? When will I be able to forget all this? When can I go back to just being me?" As much as she wanted answers, she knew they didn't exist. That's what made it all the more painful, for both of them. Gabrielle lay in Xena's arms until just before sunrise. Neither slept, but just sat holding each other, gaining comfort from the closeness of a friend. Finally, she broke the bond, and got up to fill the water bags, needing something to focus her mind on. She noticed that both Hercules and Iolaus were also awake, and suspected that both had been for some time. They showed signs of not having slept much the night before, and a slight pang of guilt shot through her. They were good friends and had been concerned about her, that she could understand; though she wished it had not cost them a good night's sleep.

As she filled the water bags, her mind kept wandering to the same thing, no matter how hard she tried to stop it. Things had changed. They would never be the same. How she saw herself, how she saw others, was now changed. Would she be able to trust herself in a fight again knowing that she failed before and paid the consequences? Would she be able to trust that there would always be someone there for her, knowing that at one time there was not? Would Hercules and Iolaus treat her the same as they always have, knowing what happened? More importantly, would Xena? Xena. Would she ever trust Gabrielle to go off on her own again? She wanted to do something, had to do something; but just what that something was she did not know.

When she returned, they ate their breakfast in relative silence. No one said more than they had to, not wanting to accidentally upset anyone. The silence was driving her insane. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore. "Somebody say something! Please!" she pleaded, putting her food down for a moment.

They looked at her strangely, not knowing what to make of her comment. They didn't think they were behaving any differently than normal, or at least that's what they told themselves. Iolaus finished swallowing the bite of food he had just taken, then asked, "What do you want us to say?"

She stood up and began to pace, barely noticing her slight limp. "Anything. Nothing. I don't know! Just say something; I can't take the silence. I'm not so fragile that a single word is going to break me! When are you going to stop treating me like some helpless child and start treating me like Gabrielle again? What happened, happened. You can't help that, you can't undo it. Not talking about it is not going to make it go away. All of you have been hurt before. Did that change things? Yes. Did that change how we treat each other now? No. Why is now any different? I am still me. You are still you. No matter what happens, that will not change. Just, just stop treating me like I'm different. I am not." She finished her outburst and turned away from the camp feeling surprisingly better. She angrily ran her fingers through her hair, pushing back the loose strands from her face. She immediately wished she had not done that as pain shot through her temples where her hand brushed the massive bruises caused by the one thing she wanted more than anything to forget. She knew she couldn't forget, and probably never would, but that didn't stop her from wanting it with all her mortal might.

"Gabrielle?" a voice cut into her thoughts. It was Xena. She was standing mere inches away, but Gabrielle had not even realized she was there until she spoke. The dark haired woman reached to put a comforting hand on her friend's shoulder, but Gabrielle shrugged away. "I'm sorry."

"For what?" the blonde exploded, turning around to face the larger woman. "You didn't do anything. You didn't make me wander off. You didn't make me outnumbered by those men. You didn't do this to me." She turned around again, away from the warrioress. "You didn't come for me," she finished, quieter this time.

"Gabrielle, I tried" her friend began, moving to face her, but was cut off.

"Not hard enough!" She ignored the shocked look on her friend's face. She didn't care anymore. She was so full of anger, of frustration, she needed an outlet, and this one was right there in front of her. "Where were you when I cried out your name in battle? Where were you when I was caged and manacled like an animal? Where were you when Samir beat me because I wouldn't tell him about you? Where were you when a soldier, one of his men, helped me escape because you were no where in sight? Where were you when I wandered the woods in a daze, not knowing if I was going to live through the night?" She was crying again, hitting Xena with each question asked. She didn't know if her friend could even make out a single thing she was saying, but she didn't care. Finally, she stopped and looked her straight in the eyes. "Where were you when I needed you?"

Xena took her into her arms again, her superior strength stopping her friend from running away this time. Gabrielle stopped struggling after a while and just let herself cry. "I'm sorry," Xena kept on repeating, softly, not sure if she was saying it to herself or her friend. In her mind, she made herself a promise: It would never happen again. Gabrielle pulled away slowly this time, not saying a word. She walked quietly back to her spot near the fire and sat down, wiping the tears away with the back of her hands. She ignored the others, knowing this was just proof to them as to how fragile she was. The back of her mind told her the one thing she didn't want to admit to herself: She would never be the same in their eyes again, and she hated it.

Iolaus walked over to where Xena was standing. She was staring off in to space, not moving from where Gabrielle had left her. He could tell she was running over what had just been said in her mind. She felt guilty. She had wanted to do more, but couldn't. She failed her friend twice. "Xena," he said softly, catching her attention. "She didn't mean it." She just nodded in acknowledgment. Gabrielle had been angry; it would be easy to dismiss her words as that. But in her heart she knew that her friend had been right. That was something she would have to live with for the rest of her life.

She walked away from him and over to where her sword and chakram lay. Once they were stored in their proper positions, she said, "Let's go." She waited as the others gathered their things. Gabrielle picked up her staff and moved as if to follow. "But" Hercules started. He immediately wished he had not said anything. She looked at him with a more determined look in her eyes than he had ever seen before. "I'm going," was all she said. He looked over to Xena, who nodded nearly unperceptively: she was going. He stood aside and motioned for her to go ahead of him, and then followed the others to the camp.

What would be there, no one knew.

Gabrielle had been correct. By the time they reached the outskirts of where the camp had been, it had returned. Everything was exactly as it had been before they went underground. Hercules shook his head in disbelief. How self-assured did someone have to be to return to the exact same spot only a day after being discovered there? He looked around and took in the entire camp quickly, assessing its defenses and planning a possible attack strategy. His eyes narrowed as he saw the cage that held the young women. He hated slavery, the entire idea of someone owning someone else. He turned to Xena, "Ideas?" he asked, waiting to hear her plan of attack. She looked at him with eyes that meant only one thing. She ran forward into the midst of the soldiers, screaming her warrior wail. "I thought so," he said under his breath as all strategies flew out the proverbial window. He ran forward from the edge of the woods, advancing on the soldiers that seemed to be appearing from every corner of the camp. Gabrielle and Iolaus followed close behind, though it was obvious the young man was watching her every move and would be there if needed.

The two sidekicks edged their way around the center of the fight, taking on only the few soldiers that happened to notice them. The majority of the soldiers, however, were dealing with Xena and Hercules, and not exactly very well either. There were nearly as many unconscious men as there were conscious men fighting, and the two warriors had just gotten started. Gabrielle was holding her own just fine, but Iolaus was always right there, just in case. In one instance, she nearly hit him with her staff when aiming for an advancing soldier because he was too close. She had to admit though, it was sort of comforting knowing he was there. Another soldier came from behind her, and before she even had a chance to turn around, Iolaus had already knocked him out. She nodded her head in thanks, but said nothing, knowing he was just doing what he thought was his job.

They reached the cage that held the women, and were surprised to see that the two guards were already disposed of, their bodies lying near the door. Aurouren was trying in vain to get the door open, but the heavy metal lock hindered her efforts. When she saw her friend, she stopped, her face betraying her disbelief. "Gabrielle?" she asked, her hands falling to her sides. "Is it really you?"

"It's me," she assured her. She turned to Iolaus. "Get the lock," she ordered. He grabbed his sword and hefted it at the large metal contraption. It took a few tries, but it fell to the ground with a resounding 'thud'.

Aurouren pushed the door open and rushed to her friend, trying to hug her through the manacles she still wore. "I thought you were dead. I saw the fire, and prayed that Artemis would take your spirit with her. How did you manage to escape?" she asked, knowing that she wasn't exactly showing reverence towards her queen, but not really caring.

She started to answer, but was cut off by a deep voice from behind her. "With the help of a traitor." Iolaus whipped around, sword in hand, ready to attack the figure advancing from the shadows. Gabrielle readied her staff in a battle stance, but relented when she saw who it was. As the figure drew closer, Iolaus raised his sword in attack. Gabrielle blocked the blow with her staff.

"No," she told him. "He's a friend. This is Solis." She turned to look at the mysterious man. "Have you come to help us?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I thought I would give it a try. Here, you might need these," he said, handing her a set of keys. "This time I managed to get them." She handed the keys to Aurouren, who immediately unlocked her manacles, then preceded to unlock those of the now advancing group of young women.

"He's the one who knocked out those guards, I figured he was with Xena," Aurouren told her, motioning for the last of the girls to come forward. When she finished, she threw the keys to the ground and put her hands on her hips. "Now, how can I help?"

"I need you to get these girls to safety," Gabrielle instructed.

"But" the Amazon began to object. The smaller woman looked at her sternly. "I know you want to fight, but this is just as important. I need you to make sure that they get back safely. Samir may have guards that we don't know about, I want to make sure they get home." Iolaus was surprised at the command in her voice. He was even more surprised when the larger warrior bowed slightly before her and proceeded to follow her commands, gathering the girls together and heading towards the woods.

"I'll go with you," Solis told them, picking up one of the fallen guard's swords. "I know the quickest way back to the road." Iolaus watched them for a moment as they disappeared into the woods. He still did not trust that man, but knew that an Amazon could probably easily take care of him if need be. He looked back to where Gabrielle had been, but she was gone. He quickly searched the area around him, but could not find her. He had lost her. His sense of honor demanded that he find her. He thought of himself as her caretaker, and would not accept just losing her. Besides, how would he explain that to Xena?

She had seen him across the way, watching her in disbelief as she freed the others. He had not yet escaped through the tunnels. She had to get to him before he had the chance. Besides that, she wanted him. He was hers. She snuck away from her friend, and stealthily advanced towards the tent. She hated leaving him this way, but she knew he would not let her go if he knew her plans. This was something she had to do.

When she reached the tent, he was pulling open the trap door that led to his escape route. "Leaving so soon?" she asked. The warlord spun around in surprise. He had not even heard her come in. It was no bother though; she was just that annoying pest he thought had already been disposed of. No matter, she would only cause a slight delay, and this time he would have the pleasure of killing her himself. She stood at the ready, staff in hand. Aside from the telltale cuts and bruises, there was no way he could have been able to recognize her as the heap of rags he had thrown out just over a day before. She was ready for him.

"I should have known Solis didn't have it in him to kill you," was his reply. He walked forward, casually picking up a weapon of his own as he approached. "Now I'll have the pleasure." He attacked, and she blocked and countered with a strength she had not known she possessed. It was not going to be as easy for him this time; it was one on one combat with no guards and no shackles, and this time she had a purpose in mind. He took a step back to reassess his opponent. He expected to see her shake, or show some sign of fear. She did not. She just stood there, waiting for his next move. She would not attack first herself, but waited, watching his every move, countering each in her mind. She would learn his strategy, and thus have a chance at evening up the odds. He saw that as her weakness. If he could continue changing his styles and making the first move, he could catch her off guard and defeat this slave once and for all. He moved. She countered. He moved again. She countered again. He was beginning to get flustered with this girl. He began to move faster, the sword becoming a near blur in his hands as he advanced. She deflected the blow, and hit him in the stomach with the staff, catching him off guard. She followed through with a blow to the back of his legs just below the knees. He stumbled slightly, losing his balance and falling to the ground. She moved to strike, but he managed to kick her, placing his foot squarely on her stomach and sending her reeling back. She recovered, but by that time he was back on his feet. She had learned something very important though. Though he was excellent at intimidation and fear when the victim was helpless, his actual combat skills were weak. He had been in control for too long, and used his talent for intimidation to the point no one challenged him. He had a weakness.

She moved in on him, initiating the attack for the first time. She hit fast and hard, not giving him time to react. She landed several blows before he was able to counter, and she blocked that easily. He moved fast, she moved faster. She was able to protect herself and weaken his resolve at the same time. She surprised herself, but more importantly, she surprised him. He tried to reassess her once again, but this time she didn't give him the chance. She advanced on him, and continued to advance, forcing him to back away from her. He backed into the table that stood in the room, stumbling for a moment. A moment was all she needed. She hit him once in the arm, then in the hand, sending his sword flying out of his hand. She heard it clatter to the floor. He moved away from her, positioning the table between them as a barrier. He lunged at her, attempting hand to hand combat, knowing his strength would be superior to hers. She stopped him, throwing him back with her staff. She advanced once more, striking him. She struck him again, then again. Everything he did to her, all of her anger came flooding back to her. She hit him again. Every time her staff hit him, she thought of every time he hurt her, and of what he most likely did to the others. "You Will Never Hurt Anyone Again!" she told him, accentuating each word with another blow. He fell before her, holding his hands up in a vain attempt to protect himself. She knew all it would take was one more well placed blow, and he would never harm another living soul. She raised her staff...

Iolaus was going insane. He could not find her anywhere. He had searched all around the perimeter of the camp and found no sign of her. The only place left to look was the center. That was ridiculous, he told himself. How could she have gotten through there with out being seen? He looked to where his other two friends were fighting. Xena was busy with three men at once, a smile playing on her face. She had just taken down two more of their comrades. Hercules was taking on four others, easy work for him. In fact, it was a relatively normal battle for both of them, but it did explain their failure to see anything outside the little battle circle they had formed. They were a bit busy to notice anyone who wasn't coming at them with a sword. Still, he thought, wouldn't they notice someone taking Gabrielle? Unless, she was not taken. It began to make sense to him now. She had gone after someone, but whom? His eyes immediately traveled to the center tent. It was obviously Samir's, but he had yet to make an appearance. She wouldn't have gone after him, would she? He then remembered what she had looked like when they first found her, and the intense anger she had barely contained inside of her. It all made sense. He hated it, but it made sense.

His attention quickly shifted to someone else. There was a soldier slowly sneaking around to the front of Samir's tent. He had stayed away from the battle, hiding in the shadows, until now. Iolaus recognized him instantly from the description Gabrielle had given them. It was Balin, Samir's second in command. As he began to pull back the tent flap, Iolaus noticed a blade in his hand. He knew immediately where his young friend had gone. He also knew that he had to stop Balin if Gabrielle was to live to see tomorrow.

Iolaus ran to the tent, knocking out a stray soldier with a single punch. He jumped on Balin from behind, attempting to wrench the blade from his hand. Balin threw him off and came at him with the sword. He parried the move, throwing the larger man off balance. While still forcing the blade away from him, he kicked him hard in the rib-cage, feeling several crack beneath his boot. His opponent reeled back in pain. Iolaus took the advantage and whacked him over the head with the pommel of his sword. Balin fell to the ground in sweet unconsciousness.

The action in the tent caught his attention. He heard Gabrielle's voice, and rushed inside. What he saw was the last thing he expected. Gabrielle had managed to disarm the warlord, his weapon lying on the floor near an overturned table. She continued to advance on him, eventually knocking him to the floor. He watched, helpless, as she raised her staff above her head. He knew that one more blow could kill the warlord that was now lying on the floor begging for his life.

She paused. He could only imagine the thoughts running through her head. "No," she said, lowering her weapon. "Not even you. After all you did, I can't do it. I won't do it. Justice will deal with you." She looked down on him with disdain. He truly looked like a pathetic creature right now. He had finally had a taste of what he did to others. He had to beg for his life like so many of his victims had. Iolaus sighed, releasing the breath he did not even know he had been holding. Samir visibly relaxed, lying back on the floor. Gabrielle shook her head, not sure if she felt disgust or pity for this man. Suddenly, he reached up to grab her in one last desperate attack. Before Iolaus could react, she had swung her staff around and knocked him unconscious. He quickly checked to make sure that he really was just knocked out, and not dead, then turned to face his friend.

"He's alive," she said quietly. She wiped a tear from her face with the back of her hand. She did not even remember it falling. Iolaus took her into his arms, and she did not resist. He tried to say something comforting, but knew all she wanted right now was to be with somebody. She pulled back after a moment and looked at him. "Thank you," was all she said. He smiled, and led her out of the tent, away from the memories, his arm still wrapped around her tightly.

They surveyed the damage they had done, as Xena and Hercules walked up to meet them. They had taken care of all of the soldiers that had been willing to try to stop them. The rest, they let run into the woods. Xena looked at Balin, still lying unconscious next to the tent, then to Gabrielle, still held tightly by Iolaus. "Where's Samir?" she asked.

"Inside," Iolaus answered. He looked to Gabrielle to make sure she was all right before releasing his hold on her. Xena looked at her and saw a flash of guilt in her eyes. She started to open her mouth to ask the question she did not truly want an answer to. "He's alive. Unconscious, but alive," he cut in before she could ask. Hercules took a quick check inside the tent, then nodded to Xena in confirmation. She looked over to the woman she regarded as more than a friend, closer than a sister. The young bard looked up at her, brutal honesty in her eyes. "I almost did it, but I couldn't. After all he did, I still could not take his life," she admitted quietly. She looked down away from her friend in shame.

Xena wrapped her arms around her and pulled her near. "It wouldn't be you if you did." She pulled back and examined her friend's face, noticing her words had no affect. "Gabrielle, you took on a warlord and won. After everything that happened, you still let him live. You should not be ashamed. You did a good thing."

"But" the smaller woman began. She looked up into her friend's eyes. "I thought about it."

"But you didn't do it. That's what makes you better than him. Your heart is so filled with good, it didn't let you." Xena looked at Gabrielle and saw her expression change slightly. The darkness still hid in her eyes though, and she knew she would be haunted by memories for a long time to come.

"She's right, you know," a voice said from behind them. All four turned to see Hermes approaching from nothingness. Gabrielle looked at him strangely. Something told her she knew him from somewhere, but from where she did not know. Iolaus and Xena looked at him quietly, not knowing what to say. It's not everyday that a god appears of his own accord without some other purpose in mind.

Hercules stepped forward towards the god. "Hermes," he said in greeting. "What are you doing here?" He put his hands on his hips, an unconsciously challenging gesture.

Hermes ignored him, walking around him to face Gabrielle. He looked at her, but spoke to the others. "Even gods feel for mortals sometimes." He focused all of his attention on the small woman who stood before him. "Your soul is too pure to carry such a stain," he told her, passing a hand in front of her face. Instantly, all of her injuries seemed to disappear. She continued to stare at him, not moving from where she stood.

"What did you do to her?" Xena demanded. He turned to face her, and she realized that Gabrielle was not staring at him, but at the space in front of her, her gaze unchanging.

"You were right, she has a good heart. She should not have to live with the nightmare of what happened for the rest of her mortal existence. She will remember only what you choose to tell her," the god explained. "Every trace of what happened has been wiped from her body and memory. The darkness will haunt her no more." He turned as if to walk away, but Iolaus called after him.

"But what about the others? The people that saw what happened to her. She's going to see Aurouren and Solis soon, what if they tell her?" He wanted to make sure there was no chance of her being hurt again, even if it was just stories of what happened.

"That will be taken care of," was all the god said as he faded back into nothingness.

Several hours later, the group of friends sat at a table in the center square of the village. Solis had disappeared, feeling awkward about being so near people he had hurt. He had promised them before he left that he was done with warlords and was going to find some way to help the people instead of hurting them. Aurouren sat with them at the table laden with food. It was the villagers' reward to them for freeing their daughters and sisters as they had refused any form of monetary gratitude.

"This is so weird that I don't remember what happened clearly," Gabrielle was saying, shaking her head. She took a bite into the delicious piece of fruit that was placed in her hand.

"What do you remember?" Xena prodded gently. She wanted to know if Hermes plan had worked. She had dealt with gods enough to learn to doubt their promises. His seemed to be valid though. For that she was thankful.

"Well," the bard began. "I remember getting ambushed after wandering away from our camp. I remember getting thrown into some sort of cage with Aurouren. Someone, I think it was the warlord, asked me about you. Someone else, Solis I think, was afraid that I might get hurt, so he snuck me out. I ran into Hercules and Iolaus, and we met up with you again. Then we all went back to free the others. What I still don't understand is why everyone thought I was dead." She scratched her head thoughtfully, trying to figure that one out. They had thought it best to tell her that, as otherwise there was some major holes in the story that would be rather difficult to fill.

"Solis made it look that way so that Samir, the warlord, didn't go after you," the warrioress explained. Hercules and Iolaus quickly nodded in agreement, hoping that was a satisfactory explanation.

"You had me worried for a while. I thought you were dead. Can you imagine me having to try to explain that to Ephanie? The entire Amazon nation would have been in mourning for a long time," Aurouren added. Exactly what she remembered from the ordeal was unclear, but she seemed to be going along with what they had told Gabrielle. They didn't need to worry about her slipping up and the memories coming back, and that was all that mattered to them.

"Sorry," the blonde said. "But it did work out in the end though. We managed to get everyone back to where they're supposed to be." She paused for a moment, then looked back at the others. "I've got to ask. Did I really beat a warlord? Or did you guys make that up? I kind of remember fighting him, but I don't remember why. Are you making that part up just to make me feel better?"

"Nope," Xena answered truthfully. She had wanted Gabrielle to know that she beat Samir. That was one victory that wasn't fair to take away from her. "You beat him. Because of you, he's on his way to the prison right now."

Gabrielle smiled. She couldn't stop herself from saying one of Iolaus' favorite sayings. "Cool." He broke out laughing, never hearing her say anything like that before. Hercules soon joined in. She joined in as well, and he had to smile. It was good to see her laugh again. To him, it meant that everything was behind them. She was going to be okay.

Xena smiled. The Gabrielle she knew and loved was back, and that was all that mattered to her now. They would go on, and things would return to normal again. Well, almost normal. She knew in her heart that she would not let Gabrielle out of her sight for a while. She would seem overprotective, but that was okay. She would keep the promise she had made to herself. This would never happen again.

The End.

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