~ Heart of Winter ~
by Psyk


Anyone you recognise aint mine, and never will be. I'm just letting them play a while before putting them back in the box.


I hope so...oops, no, that's not right...lets see...Yup, it's alternative, folks. Nothing graphic, but if you're squeamish about the thought of two women loving each other you may want to look elsewhere. Violence....well, this is Xena we're talking about here, not Oprah. There's a little gore, but if you can't bear it, just close your eyes - it soon passes.


My eternal, undying gratitude to my new - and first - beta reader, Ruth. Not only was she unstinting in her support, but she was brave enough to tell me when I was spiralling out of control. Thanks a million, mate! Oh, and I should mention my faithful hound, Mulder, who has spent many a night curled up on the floor beside me, keeping me company through the wee hours whilst my partner snored her head off in bed. Extra choccie drops for you, boy.

Final Disclaimer:

No people, horses or trees were harmed in any way throughout the production of this little piece. Stunt doubles, recycled papier-mache and gallons of ketchup were used, and all weapons were really, really blunt.

Right, folks, this is my first posting - I've been too shy before now to submit - so I'd really appreciate some feedback. Get me at dopam@aol.com, and please...be gentle, it's my first time .

Anyone still with me? Okay, on with the show.....

The innkeeper looked up from behind the bar as the door swung open, a blast of icy air heralding the arrival of yet another traveler seeking shelter from the winter's night. Snowflakes swirled randomly about the tall form swathed in furs, but there was no mistaking the bearing nor the jutting sword hilt at the stranger's shoulder. A warrior. The innkeeper tensed slightly, waiting, but the door closed again and the warrior stepped forward, throwing back the heavy hood of fur that obscured his features. Slate gray eyes scanned the room, taking in the assorted crowd of regulars and travelers, finally coming to rest on the woman behind the bar. She raised her chin; her territory this, and she refused to be intimidated. A silent acknowledgment, the barest inclination of his head, and the warrior approached the bar.

' I need lodgings, ' he said, his voice low and rich. She held his gaze.

' I have no rooms left. '

A muscle in his cheek twitched. ' I assure you, good woman, I will respect your establishment and your patrons. I do not come here to cause trouble.'

She poured warm port from a jug on the shelf beneath the bar, set the steaming mug before him.

' Drink; you look chilled to the bone. '

Surprised, but grateful, he took the warm drink, swallowed a long draught of it before setting the mug atop the bar and meeting her eyes again.

' The weather is bad. ' She said. ' I have more guests than rooms. I do not lie to you, warrior. '

He held her blue gaze for a moment, then sighed and lowered his eyes to his hands, resting loosely about the warm mug. ' My apologies, good woman. It would not be the first time I had been turned away for fear of trouble. '

She smiled, and absently he noted for the first time the beauty beneath the lines and gray hair of middle age.

' I've had my fair share of trouble from warriors before now. ' She responded. ' But I think I am a good judge of men. And all I see before me is someone in need of food and shelter. ' She nodded toward the back of the tavern. ' Go find yourself a seat. I'll bring you something hot to eat. You can sleep in my barn tonight - it's sheltered from the weather and there's plenty of hay to keep you warm. '

He found himself smiling back at her.

' Thank you. '

He seated himself at a small table at the back of the room, set against the wall. Other patrons had shunned it because of its distance from the fire on this bitter night, but the room was warm with the press of bodies and he was just grateful to be out of the biting wind. Within a few minutes the innkeeper was coming out of the kitchens, carrying a plate of meat and vegetables, and another with warm bread. She set them before him then straightened, looking at him appraisingly.

' You have enough dinars to pay for this? ' She asked softly.

His gray eyes met hers. ' I have some. There are things I can trade in the village tomorrow to make up what I lack. '

She nodded. ' There's a leak in the kitchen roof needs fixing. If you see to that tomorrow I can give you another night's lodging and your meals. ' Her lips twitched in a small smile. ' Save your money for the next village, warrior. '

He opened his mouth to say something but was silenced by the door being flung open once more, the cold breath of winter making the lamps and candles gutter and dance. In the portal stood a small figure wrapped in light brown furs, dotted with snow. The new visitor struggled against the wind to close the door, then stepped back, shoulders heaving. The innkeeper had frozen, and as the figure peeled back the furs, revealing the bright gold hair and fair skin of a young woman, she gasped.

' Gabrielle! '

The young woman's head whipped around and a smile as wide as the Aegean lit her face. The two women rushed to embrace, and he watched as the innkeeper held her young friend at arm's length, then began firing questions at her. He was out of earshot now, the noise of the tavern drowning out their quiet words, but he saw the young woman incline her head toward the door, and the relieved smile that washed momentary worry from the innkeeper's face. She led the girl toward the bar, sat her down on a tall stool whilst she poured warm port for her. As he ate the good meal he watched their conversation, noted for the first time the long staff the young woman rested against the bar beside her right hand. Amazon, he thought, by the look of the grips and carvings along its length. As the girl shed her outer layer of thick furs, revealing a trim, toned figure clothed in leggings and a belted tunic, he mentally nodded to himself. He picked up a chicken leg, was about to bite into it when the door opened again. This time the entrance was less dramatic, but the tall figure which slipped into the room drew the attention of every patron in the tavern. Icy blue eyes ignored them all, moving rapidly to rest on the two women at the bar. Thick dark furs were shrugged off, leaving the tall newcomer clad in leather breeches and a brass-studded leather vest, overlaid with armour. Long bare arms were protected by bracers and thick leather bands which circled toned biceps, and no-one could miss the sword hilt which jutted over one shoulder, nor the curious metal disc which hung at her waist. His eyes swept up the impressive body to her face, noting the dark fall of hair which framed high cheek bones and strong features, topped by those piercing blue eyes. He tensed, noting the tension in her stance, but suddenly she smiled and began crossing the room in long strides. The innkeeper hurried from behind the bar, her arms open, a laugh at her lips. He watched as the smaller woman was swept up off her feet, the tall warrior laughing as she spun her around before setting her back on the floor. Still curious, but reassured, he resumed his eating, and watched as the older woman ushered the two newcomers through the bar and into the house beyond.

' ..sent word that you were coming! I have an inn full of guests and my daughter shows up out of the blue and - '

' Mother, stop! ' Xena laughed, laying a hand on her garrulous mother's arm. ' We didn't send word because we didn't know we were coming until yesterday. '

Cyrene's brow furrowed slightly. ' Then...why are you here? '

Xena glanced at Gabrielle, and the older woman didn't miss the concern which showed in both their faces. At last her daughter turned to face her again.

' We heard there was trouble headed this way - an army. '

' But...' Cyrene shook her head, ' ...we would have heard. We have scouts, the people in the next village-'

' Scaella burned two days ago '

She stared at them both, her jaw working but no words forthcoming. Eventually she found a seat, collapsed into it. ' Gods....we knew nothing. How could we not know? '

Gabrielle's green eyes were dark with anger and sorrow. ' They left no-one to tell, Cyrene. The men were slaughtered, the women and children taken as slaves. '

A shaking hand moved to her brow, her eyes closing briefly. So many friends....

' They're coming here next? ' She asked, her voice hollow.

Xena placed her furs down on a low table. ' We don't know, Mother. '

' Xena...' she looked up into her daughter's eyes, ' ...you can't fight a whole army. '

She shifted uncomfortably. ' I may not have to. ' She said, her voice low. ' Their leader is...someone I knew in the past. Someone I used to command. '

' Then you can stop him! '

Blue eyes searched for green, holding fast. ' I hope so. ' Was the murmured response.

In the calm of her childhood bedroom, Xena paced like a caged animal. Gabrielle sat in silence on the edge of the narrow bed, her hands folded in her lap. For long minutes she watched her friend prowl the confines of the small room, her eyes veiled, her lips working as she muttered incomprehensibly to herself. At long last the fire abated slightly, and she turned to face the silent woman seated on the bed.

' What if I've led him here? ' She breathed, horror widening her eyes. ' Gods, Gabrielle, what if -'

' Stop it! ' She jumped to her feet, crossing the small space between them to rest a gentle hand against an arm that resonated with tension. ' That's enough, Xena..' her voice soothed, ' ..you can't second guess him. We only heard about this yesterday; Kresis was already in the area. '

The tall form before her seemed to sag slightly as some of the tension ebbed, but her eyes were still swimming with emotions barely held in check.

' Gabrielle, he's a monster. ' She said thickly. ' I exiled him for his crimes years ago. The things he did....the things from which he derived pleasure...' she closed her eyes briefly, reliving the nightmare. Even in the darkest days of her years as a warlord, even when she had allowed cruelty to rule her nature, she had never imagined anyone could inflict such pain, such suffering on others. She remembered finding the battered body of a young girl, fresh blood still marring cold skin, shallow cuts covering her arms, bite marks on her neck and breasts. Her face was beaten to a pulp, barely recognisable as one of the girls taken from a conquered village, her eyes frozen open in wide-eyed terror at the moment of her death. Her body had been hidden away from the camp, shoved roughly into a thornbush. One of her hunting dogs had led her to it, and she remembered the cold rage that had taken her over as she viewed the scene, took in the bruises, the cuts, the shredded clothing still hanging from her stiff limbs. Rape was something she rewarded with the whip, but this....

She had ridden back in a blind fury, tearing into the camp with a roar, her sword already in her hand. Only Borias' calming voice had cut through her bloodlust, reasoning with her to hold back. Kresis predilection for violence was well known, but never once had she found evidence of it before in such a way. He was well respected among some of the men, his battle prowess admired, his leadership skills unquestioned. Banish him, Borias had advised, and you only lose those loyal to him. Kill him, he warned, and you find yourself looking over your shoulder every night for the enemy within... She had given in to him, partly because of his gentle persuasion, partly because she knew what he said was the truth. Side by side she and Borias had watched as Kresis rode out of her camp, a handful of men following behind him. She had known then that it wouldn't be the last she saw of him, but the years had proved her wrong.

Until now.

She looked into Gabrielle's face, her eyes softening as she reached out to lay a calloused hand against her cheek.

' We may need help this time. ' She said simply.

Gabrielle nodded. ' I know. I think we should send word to the Amazons tomorrow, Xena. Their land is only a day or so's ride from here - this effects them as well as every other village near here. '

The taller woman sighed. ' Yes. You're right. Besides, we may need trained warriors. The men here may be willing, but they're farmers, merchants; they'd be no match for Kresis' army. '

Gabrielle lifted her hand, covered the larger one still resting against her face. ' I'll write a note to Ephiny. We can send a rider at first light. '

A nod, and Xena withdrew from her, moving to the small clothes press in the corner. She unbuckled her sword and armour, placing them on the smooth wooden surface. As she began to unlace her arm bracers there was a soft knock at the door.

' Come in. ' Gabrielle called.

The door swung open, and Cyrene entered carrying a tray piled with steaming dishes.

' You two must be ravenous, ' she said softly, placing the tray on the table by the window. ' Eat something; whilst you do I'll have a bath drawn for you. '

Xena nodded, her fingers fumbling with the half-undone laces. ' Mother, where's Toris? '

Cyrene blinked. ' At home with his wife, where he should be. '

Blue eyes widened. ' He's married? '

' Yes, last spring. ' She raised one eyebrow, and Gabrielle had to hide her smile at the familiar gesture. ' If you came home more often, daughter, you might know what was happening with your family. '

Xena shook her head, admitting defeat with the bracer. She held out her arm to Gabrielle who began to untangle the knots Xena had made.

' Who is she? '

' Melysa. Her father is a farmer - the family only moved here two winters ago. Toris and she have set up home in the farm that used to belong to Gregor and Hesta. It's been abandoned for years. '

' I know, ' Xena chuckled, ' Toris always said he wanted to live out there. Damned fool.'

' Fool or not, they already raised enough crops to sell some at market this fall. '

' Good for them. ' Gabriel stated, giving Xena a hard stare. The warrior feigned innocence.

' Xena...' Cyrene narrowed her eyes at her daughter, her hands resting on her hips. '..don't you go dragging him into your plans. Toris is no warrior. '

She shook her head. ' I was going to ask him to ride out with a message, that's all. '

' No. He won't leave Melysa, not now. She's just found out she's expecting their first child. '

Gabrielle laughed aloud. ' Xena, you're going to be an aunt! '

Xena grunted, dropping her now bare arm and offering the other to the bard. ' Okay ...we'll find someone else. '

Cyrene paused a moment. ' Well...there's a man in the inn, downstairs, came in just before your two. A warrior. He was paying for his food and lodgings by fixing my kitchen roof tomorrow, but I'm sure he'd rather be doing something a little more suited to his skills. '

Xena looked up sharply. ' He still down there? '

Cyrene nodded.

' Take me to him. ' The last bracer fell free, and she moved after her mother. At the doorway she paused, turning to flash a quick grin at Gabrielle. ' Don't you eat all that dinner. '

' Who, me? ' The bard's eyes widened in feigned innocence. ' As if I would...'

The stranger seated at the rear of the tavern watched from beneath hooded eyes as the two women approached him. The innkeeper stopped at his table, nodding briefly at him before speaking.

' I don't know your name, warrior. '

' Simeon. ' He said flatly, meeting her gaze.

' Simeon. This is my daughter. She has need of your help. If you are willing to give it I'll consider it payment for your board and lodging here. '

His eyes moved to the impassive face of the younger woman standing at her shoulder. He nodded once in greeting to her.

' Sit. Tell me what you require of me. '

Cyrene moved away as her daughter sat down. Xena leaned her forearms on the table, knotting her hands together.

' I've heard of you. ' She said, her gaze taking in his face. ' You fought with a friend of mine. '

His lips twitched at the corners. ' I've fought with many men. '

' You've only fought with one demi-god though. '

Simeon's eyebrow's lifted. ' You know Hercules? '

She nodded slowly. ' I know him. I also know you helped him when he needed it. Now I'm asking you to help me. '

He sat back, regarding her curiously. ' What is it you ask? '

' I need a rider to deliver a message. '

' Where? '

' Arborea. '

He laughed. ' The Amazon's? I'm a man - they'll kill me as soon as I set foot in their territory. '

' No, not as long as you respect their code. I'll tell you what to do. '

His eyes narrowed. ' You trust them? '

' I should. Their queen is upstairs writing the message I need you to deliver. '

Simeon nodded slowly. ' You're one of them. '

Her low laugh surprised him. ' No. I'm no Amazon. '

' Then why-'

' Because we need their help. Because there's an army on it's way here. Because these people need defending. ' She leaned in, resting her weight on her arms. ' This is my home village. I won't see it fall. Will you help me? '

Simeon thought of the kindness displayed by the mother of this warrior, of the warm light shining from the huts he rode by on his way into the village, the occasional snatch of children's laughter carried on the wind. He found himself nodding.

' I'll help. And when I return I'll stand with you. '

The tall woman's face relaxed slightly, and he noted for the first time just how beautiful she was. She sat back, rubbing absently at a fading scar on her wrist.

' Mother tell me you're sleeping in the barn tonight? '

' Yes - I think she's overbooked. '

A nod. ' The weather - only innkeepers profit in winter. '

He smiled, nodding.

' You have a horse? '

' Yes. Stabled at the livery. '

' I'll bring him to our stables, save your dinars. ' She pushed back her chair, rising to stand. 'I'll come to you at dawn with the message and instructions. Be ready to ride. ' With that she turned to leave, but he called her back.

' Wait....what's your name? '

In the dim light of the back of the tavern, her eyes and teeth glinted as she smiled, the rest of her face in shadow.

' Xena. ' She said, before slipping away.

Simeon watched her leave until she had disappeared through the doorway behind the bar. Well, he thought to himself, so that is the infamous warrior princess. He knew her reputation, knew from the horror stories still told in some parts just what she had been. But he also knew she held the respect of Hercules, and if the most respected man in all Greece held her in such high regard then it was good enough for him. And besides, he mused with a grin, anyone whose mother can cook like that can't be all bad....

Gabrielle felt goosebumps raise on wet flesh as the door to the bath house swung open, letting in a blast of chill air. Familiar footsteps approached then paused, and after a moment she heard the dull thud of leather hitting the floorboards.

' I'm not ready to get out yet. ' She warned, eyes still closed, her head resting against the lip of the tub behind her.

There was a low chuckle, then warm hands took her by the shoulders and propelled her forwards through the warm water.

' Then I guess we'll just have to share. '

There was a splash as a the body lowered itself in behind her, then long arms closed about her, pulling her into warm flesh. With a contented sigh she leaned back against Xena's chest, felt a kiss brush against the top of her head.

' Whassat for? ' She murmured, the warmth bleeding lassitude through her tired body.

' For leaving me some dinner. '

She smiled, raised her own arms to cover those wrapped around her waist.

' Didn't want an angry, hungry warrior princess on my hands tonight. '

' Yeah, well, ' Xena rested her chin atop wet blond hair. ' Tell the truth, I've kinda lost my appetite. '

Gabrielle opened her eyes, shifting slightly between the knees which poked from the water on either side of her hips so that she could turn and look into the face behind her.

' What's bothering you? '

Xena let her hands drop from about her friend's waist, leaning back against the tub with a sigh.

' I dunno....I just have a really bad feeling about all this, Gabrielle. '

She looked at her for a while, taking in the set of her features, the tension of her shoulders. Wordlessly she reached for the soap, then, scooting back as far as she could, she motioned for Xena to turn around. When she did so, Gabrielle placed a hand on her shoulder.

' Dunk. '

Xena slid down beneath the water to wet her hair, came up a moment later pushing water from her face. Patiently Gabrielle washed her hair, then her shoulders and back. Setting aside sponge and soap she worked the knotted muscles with her fingers, digging hard into the flesh until resistance became pliance beneath her hands and the warrior's head was rolling freely as she worked. She slowed her hands, resting them at last atop broad shoulders.

' You're very good at that. ' Came a soft voice, almost a sigh.

Gabrielle smiled at the compliment. ' I've had a good teacher. '

Xena leaned back, resting her head against the shoulder behind her. It was an unaccustomed gesture, and one which spoke volumes to the bard. So often she would lean against the warrior, drawing from her strength, trusting her, needing the reassurance such contact brought. But rare were the times when Xena sought such comfort from her, making moments such as this all the more precious. Gabrielle gently lifted one hand to smooth back wet hair, the other sliding about a well muscled waist, squeezing slightly. She felt such an upsurge of love and longing that it rocked her for a moment, taking her breath. Xena must have noticed the change in her demeanor for she tensed slightly, making as if to draw away, but Gabrielle tightened her hold about her, anchoring her to her.

' What is it? ' Xena asked.

She shook her head. ' Nothing. It's just..this is the first time you've needed me like that.'

Xena closed her eyes at the softly spoken words, willing the fires starting to spread throughout her body to die down. There's a good reason I don't allow myself to do this, Gabrielle, she thought bitterly, a damned good reason. It's called lust, and I don't want it to ruin the only true friendship I've ever had in my entire miserable life.

' But I do need you...' she found herself saying, despite the internal battle. She cringed as the words slipped from her mouth, but was surprised to find that the only response to them was the feather-light brush of soft lips against her forehead. Despite herself she smiled.

' What's that for? ' She asked, mirroring the bard's words of earlier as the gesture had mirrored hers.

' For not pulling away. For admitting that to me. I'm always here for you, Xena. I always will be.'

She wanted to stay there for ever, wrapped in the warmth of the woman sitting behind her, but she knew much more of this contact would result in her body betraying her. And so, after a few moments, she reluctantly drew away with a sigh and stood. Gabrielle looked up at her, water cascading from her body, and felt her throat go dry. Why can't she admit it, she wondered to herself, why can't she just come out and say it, that she wants me as much as I want her? Surely she knows how I feel by now? Surely it's written all over me? Doesn't she see the desire in my eyes as I see it in hers?

Xena stepped from the tub, reached for a soft towel.

' Come on, ' she said softly, not meeting the bard's gaze, ' we need to get some sleep. Tomorrow I want to ride out and get a look at that damned army. '

With a sigh of frustration, Gabrielle stood and got out of the tub.

They argued over the bed, but in the end Xena won, unrolling her bedding and settling down on the floor beside the narrow cot. Gabrielle lay awake for a long time despite the soft mattress beneath her, listening to the breathing of her companion as it leveled out in sleep. The tavern downstairs had been silent for a long, long time before sleep finally claimed her, bringing with it restless dreams.

Xena woke to the sound of a familiar voice sobbing and the thrashing of limbs from somewhere above her. She slid from her bedroll, raising herself to perch on the edge of the bed. Gabrielle had twisted the blankets about her in her sleep, her limbs trapped securely by them as surely as if they were ropes. With gentle hands Xena freed her, then reached for her shoulders, trying to still her. The sobs became louder, and she moaned something incomprehensible, tears slipping from beneath closed lids.

' Gabrielle...'

Another moan, ending in a wail. Xena stroked her face.

' Gabrielle...wake up...'

The bard's eyes snapped open, and her mouth opened in a scream that woke her. She sat bolt upright in bed, her chest heaving, tears still sliding down her face. Her eyes darted around the room, finally resting on the concerned face before her.

' Xena? '

' Yes. It's all right, you were dreaming. ' She smiled, stroking back tangled blond hair. 'What was it this time? '

She blinked. ' You. You were dead....oh, Gods...' She brought a hand to her face, covering her eyes. Xena slid closer, wrapping her arms about her, pulling her against her chest.

' Hush, love, it's okay. ' She murmured, kissing the top of her head, feeling hands gripping the front of her shift. They sat there, Xena gently rocking her, until she felt the stiff body in her arms begin to relax again, the fingers knotted in her shift flattening out to press against her abdomen. She leaned back a little, but the hands grabbed her again, pulling her back.

' Don't leave me. '

She buried her face in clean gold hair, shaking her head. ' Never. ' Gently she maneuvered them both until they were lying together in the small bed, Gabrielle tucked against her body, Xena's back against the wall. She managed to get them both covered up, then stroked the bard's soft hair, murmuring to her reassuringly. At last her breathing evened out and she slept. Xena remained there, contemplating slipping from the bed, but the soft warmth in her arms was too inviting, and before long sleep claimed her too.

Simeon was tightening the girth on his horse when he heard the stable door slide open. He turned to see the tall unmistakable figure silhouetted against the paling sky.

' Ready? ' She asked, stepping closer.

He nodded. ' I am. You have the message? '

She held out a rolled parchment, tied off with a strip of leather, sealed with wax. As he took it from her he caught a hint of something clean-smelling, lavender perhaps, from her skin, mingling with the smell of leather. She was dressed this morning in a different outfit, a leather tunic and short skirt, but the same armour gleamed over it, the same weapons resting in their accustomed place.

' You know the way? ' She asked.

' I know it. '

' Good. When you see the boundary markers raise your hands above your head until someone comes out to greet you. As long as you do this and don't touch your weapons, you'll be given safe escort. ' She dug into a pouch which hung from her skirt. ' If they question you, show them this - ' she handed him a medallion. On it was a relief of a eagle's head above two crossed swords. ' - they'll recognise that as mine. Give it and the parchment to Ephiny. She's the regent. '

He nodded, then secured the items in his saddle bag. When he turned to face her again she held out her arm to him. He grasped it, feeling strong muscle beneath smooth flesh.

' Tell them we don't have much time. ' She said quietly. Simeon looked deep into the twin blue wells of her eyes, and nodded in understanding.

' I'll ride as fast as I can. '

' Thank you. '

Then she was gone, and he was once more alone in the dim stable, with only his horse there to hear the quick prayer he offered up to the gods for a safe journey, and a swift return to this remarkable woman and the village she called home.

It was nightfall when Xena returned to the inn. Frozen with cold, and splattered with mud, Gabrielle took one look at her as she stepped inside the warm tavern and wordlessly ushered her upstairs. Whilst Cyrene had water heated for a bath, Gabrielle helped her remove her furs and leathers, alarmed at the unaccustomed chill permeating the warrior's usually warm flesh. Once Xena was naked she stood her infront of the fire, rubbing her skin briskly with a warm towel.

' You're frozen, ' she stated.

Xena nodded, her teeth clenched to keep from chattering. When she felt she could trust her voice, she spoke.

' Got caught in an ice storm. Nowhere to shelter. '

Gabrielle went to the clothes press and removed a clean shift. She set it on a chair before the fire for a minute, letting it warm through before slipping it over Xena's head.

' Sit there, ' she pushed Xena towards the chair, ' your mother's bringing some hot food for you. '

On cue Cyrene bustled in, carrying a bowl of steaming stew which she placed in her daughter's hands.

' Eat that then into a hot bath. ' She said in a tone that Xena remembered all too well from childhood. She grinned despite her discomfort. Her mother's face remained serious.

' What did you find? '

Xena lifted the spoon, took a mouthful of hot stew. ' Mmm..' she chewed, then swallowed before answering. ' They're camped about two days' march from here. By the looks of things they're not planning on moving until the weather breaks. '

Gabrielle felt the knot in her stomach tighten. ' How many? '

' Around a hundred, maybe twenty of those heavy horse. ' She took another mouthful, chewing steadily. ' The camp was badly sentried and poorly laid out. ' She sneered. 'Sign of a lazy commander. '

A hundred men...Gabrielle met Cyrene's alarmed blue gaze. There was no way Amphipolis could defend itself against so many....

Xena had wolfed down the rest of the stew, was scraping the last of it from the bowl. 'Mother, that was wonderful. '

' Gabrielle made it. ' She said absently, reaching out a hand to stroke her daughter's hair. ' Xena, do you think they'll come here? '

She sighed. ' I don't know, Mother. But given their movements so far, I'd have to say it's a definite possibility. '

Cyrene blinked, then shook her head. ' We have to warn the village. We need to be prepared. '

' I know. ' She reached up to lay her hand on her mother's arm. ' Tomorrow is soon enough though. I have a few ideas. '

' Come on, ' Gabrielle touched her shoulder. ' Get in the bath. Your brother's bringing his wife to meet you later. '

Xena smiled. ' I was wondering when he'd remember he has a sister. '

' You've been gone since first light! ' Cyrene protested, smiling for the first time since her daughter's return.

' Yeah, well, ' she rose wearily, running a hand through tangled wet hair, ' he used to be an early riser. Guess marriage has made him soft. '

Cyrene swatted at her as she passed, shaking her head and tutting. Xena grabbed her slapped arm, pouting childishly.

' Get in the bath, impudent child, before your mother reminds you you're not too old for a proper spanking. '

Gabrielle could barely muffle her laughter as the chastised warrior slunk from the room, grumbling beneath her breath.

After the bath Xena felt much more human. Gabrielle had put out clean clothes for her; a fairly new leather dress Eponin had gifted her with the last time they were in Arborea, black instead of her usual dark brown, and with a decorated Amazon-style waistband, but the design was her usual style and even sported a clever hook at the waist to hold her chakram. She left the armour off, along with her weapons, but pulled on the matching boots. After ruffling her hair infront of the fire for a few minutes she dragged a comb through it then glanced at herself in the small mirror set on the wall. The usual face greeted her, her earlier pallor melted away by the hot food and warm bath. She absently ran a hand through still-damp hair, looking for signs of gray, finding none.

' Must take after Father, ' she mused, before stepping back and running her hands over the cool leather that fitted snug against her body. She knew she was in good shape, but tomorrow, she promised herself, she would catch up on her sword practice and some sparring with Gabrielle. Neither of them had done much in the way of weapons training recently, thanks to the bad weather, but now they were here, with a nice, sheltered barn out back, there was no excuse. She grinned to herself, then turned and headed downstairs.

She spotted Gabrielle seated at a table in one corner of the tavern. With her were Toris and a young woman with long, curly red hair. As she approached they all looked up, and Toris grinned, jumping to his feet.

' Xena! ' He said, throwing his arms about her and enfolding her in a bear hug before she could protest. She smiled, slapping his back.

' Hello brother. ' She drawled, looking over his shoulder at Gabrielle, who gave her an admonishing look. At last her older sibling released her, holding her at arm's length and taking stock. ' You look well. ' He eventually nodded.

She took in his contented look, his simple but clean homespuns. ' So do you.'

His blue eyes, so like her own, moved to the woman seated beside him. 'Xena, I'd like you to meet my wife, Melysa. Mel, this is Xena. '

The young woman stared up at her, her expression a mixture of awe and timidity. She took in the towering, powerful figure, the heavy leathers that hugged muscular curves. At last her gaze came to the face of the warrior, flitting over strong features. When brown eyes met blue they softened slightly, and she managed a shy smile.

' H-Hello, Xena. Toris has told me so much about you. '

Xena smiled disarmingly. She leaned past her brother, taking the woman's small hand in her own, and raising it to her lips. ' Don't believe a word of it.' She murmured, before brushing her lips over Mel's knuckles. Mel blushed deeply, and Gabrielle rolled her eyes, but Toris slapped his sister's arm, grinning good-naturedly.

' Hey, no flirting with my wife!'

Xena smiled innocently at him, then slid into a chair beside Gabrielle just as Cyrene bustled over carrying a tray of mugs filled with port. For Melysa there was a glass of warm milk, sprinkled with nutmeg. She smiled gratefully at her mother-in-law, who rested her hand gently on her hair before turning to her children.

' If you want anything, ask Anya. I'm going out to visit Nikolaus. He has the coughing sickness. '

Xena put down her mug. ' Give him-'

' Coltsfoot and eucalyptus, I know, child. ' She smiled. ' I have learned a few things over the years. '

Her daughter raised an eyebrow. ' I was about to say give him my regards. ' She smiled slyly. ' But you might want to try a wintergreen in oil as a chest rub as well. '

Cyrene shook her head, grinning, then bustled off to fetch her cloak and basket. Xena watched her go, then turned her attention back to her brother and his wife. ' So...tell me about your wedding. '

Toris launched into a dialogue, interspersed by questions from Xena, that meandered into a discussion of the workings of the farm. Gabrielle listened, all the time noting how silent Melysa remained, how her gaze was fixed on the warrior all the time. When Xena got up to go check on Argo, Gabrielle was grateful that Toris decided to accompany her. She watched them leave, then turned and smiled at the quiet woman seated opposite her.

' She's really not the monster some make her out to be. ' She said softly. Melysa looked at her, horrified, then dipped her head as a blush crept up her cheeks.

' Toris has always spoken well of her, ' she said eventually, her gaze remaining in her lap, ' and yet...the stories I've heard...'

Gabrielle sighed. ' Melysa, it's true Xena once did terrible things. But the darkness in her was fed by grief and anger. You know about Lyceus? '

A brief nod.

' That kind of pain can twist a person's soul inside out. But Xena fought back. She realised that what she did was wrong, and she changed. She uses her strength, her skill, to help people now. And she lives with the guilt of her past every day of her life. '

Timid brown eyes came up to meet hers. ' That must be a terrible burden. '

' It is. ' Gabrielle smiled. ' But she's strong. And she's the best friend you could ever wish for. '

Melysa smiled a little. ' She seems to be a nice person...'

The bard laughed. ' She can be the nicest person on earth. So long as you don't touch her horse, or try and sneak up on her when she has a sword in her hand. '

At the woman's alarmed look, Gabrielle reached across the table to lay a hand on her arm. ' A joke, Melysa, really. '

Mel relaxed, leaning back in her chair. ' They look so alike. '

' That they do. Although they're such different people underneath it. '

' I wondered about that. Tell me, ' she leaned closer again, ' is it true Ares lent her his strength in battle? '

Gabrielle's eyes hardened slightly at the mention of the God. ' Xena's strength is all her own, Mel. Ares has tried to take it from her several times. He calls her his chosen, but even in her darkest days she never took anything from him. '

Brown eyes widened. ' She's seen him? '

' Oh, she's seen him. He pops up from time to time like a bad smell. '

' My...is he as terrifying as he sounds? '

She couldn't resist the urge to smile. ' Actually he's rather good looking...if you go for tall, dark and definitely dangerous. ' Realising what she'd said, she laughed. ' Gods, that sounds like Xena...I should write that down! '

Mel smiled. ' She's lucky, having a friend like you, Gabrielle. '

Green eyes misted over slightly. ' Actually I think it's me who's lucky. When I met Xena I was a naive village girl, yearning for something my life just couldn't give me. In the last three years I've traveled all over Greece and beyond. I've met kings and gods, told my stories in places I'd only ever dreamed of. And always she's right there beside me, encouraging me and supporting me. I'd walk through fire for Xena. ' She smiled. ' I even came back from the dead once because she asked me to. '

' As I recall, bard, I repaid that debt in kind. '

They both looked up to find the warrior and her rather bemused brother looking down at them.

' Um...hi. ' Gabrielle smiled disarmingly, but Xena shook her head.

' Gabrielle...as you're in the mood for telling stories, why don't you get up and entertain us all? '

The bard blinked. ' You think your mother would mind? '

' Mind? She'd be overjoyed. Nothing sells ale like a good tall tale or two. '

' Go on, ' Toris nodded encouragingly, ' I haven't heard a good bard since you were last here. '

She swallowed the rest of her port, then pushed back her chair and rose to her feet. Straightening her tunic, she nodded.

' Alright...now let's see... ' As she headed off for the front of the room, Xena called after her.

' Nothing too bloody! '

A brief backward wave of one hand was all the response she got. As Gabrielle reached the small dias Toris had built for her on her last visit, Xena and her brother took their seats again, listening as the room fell silent in anticipation. Gabrielle cleared her throat, puffed out her chest, and began.

' I tell the tale of the Thessalian War, and how the wisdom and bravery of one warrior brought peace from one of the fiercest battles ever known to man...'

Xena groaned, dropping her head into her hands.

As Gabrielle finished her tale to thunderous applause and shouting for more, Melysa looked at Xena with undisguised awe.

' You did all that? ' She breathed, her initial temerity now gone.

The warrior shifted uncomfortably in her seat. ' Gabrielle has a tendency to...exaggerate things. '

' But you cut off that soldier's leg? '

' Yes. '

' And delivered that baby centaur? '

She squirmed. ' Yes. '

' And brought peace between Thessaly and Mitoa by persuading the Thessalian leader that war was not the answer? '

' Well...essentially...I suppose so. But I had help. Gabrielle was very influential. '

' Gabrielle was out cold for the most part. '

She looked up into the grinning face of her friend. ' Don't be so shy, Xena. You're a hero. '

' Oh, Gods, Gabrielle, I wish you'd stop calling me that. '

She reached for the fresh mug of port waiting for her, took a long, welcome swallow. ' Shall I tell another? '

' Yeah, do a Hercules story this time. He's always doing heroic stuff. '

' Oh, yes! ' Mel nodded enthusiastically. ' I love Hercules tales! '

Gabrielle chewed on her lip thoughtfully, then nodded and turned to head back to her stage. Xena watched her fondly as her face began to brighten with the anticipation of her audiences reaction to her next story. As they looked to her expectantly, she lifted her chin, her eyes sweeping across the faces before her.

' Good people of Amphipolis, my next tale is of the heroic deeds of the mighty Hercules, and how he defeated the army of the evil warlord Dorfus, fighting side by side with the greatest warrior Greece has every known...'

Melysa frowned. ' Is that his friend, Iolaus? ' She whispered to Toris. He laughed, watching as his sister rolled her eyes, then let her head fall forward until her forehead hit the table with a muffled thump.

' I don't think so, love...'

By the time the second tale was ended, the tavern was alive with excited chatter as patrons discussed the stories, arguing over the finer points. Gabrielle stepped from the dias to the bar, taking a mug of cool water from Anya with a grateful smile, quenching her thirst in one long draught. She set the mug down, turned to move back to her friends at the table in the far corner, and found herself pressed up against a rather large man who was all but leering down her tunic.

' Can I buy you a drink, miss? ' He grinned.

She blinked. ' Ah...no thanks. I have one already. My friends - '

' Won't miss you for a while. C'mon, ' the smile widened. ' I won't bite. '

She made her face stern, shook her head firmly. ' No, thank you. ' She made to side-step around him, but he moved with her, blocking her movement. Gabrielle sighed.

' Look, I appreciate the offer, but really, you don't want to upset anyone...'

He held up his hands in mock supplication. ' I'm not upsetting anyone, am I? All I want to do is buy you a drink, maybe have a little chat...'

Across the room, Xena listened to Toris and Melysa talk as her eyes scanned the crowd for the bard. She was gone from the dias, and as her gaze tracked across the bar she saw a burly man standing over her friend. Gabrielle's face was set in a stern expression, but the man was grinning at her with barely disguised interest. Xena shifted slightly, angling herself away from the table.

' ...he really does. Xena, you know Hercules, what do you think? '

' Hmm? ' She never took her eyes from the scene at the bar. ' What about him? ' She asked, watching as the mans hands went up in the air.

' Hercules - has he really the strength of ten men? ' Her brother asked.

' Yeah, he does. ' The man's hands descended onto Gabrielle's shoulders. 'Excuse me a moment....'

Toris and Melysa watched as Xena shot to her feet and strode through the crowd toward the bar, coming to rest behind one of the biggest men they had ever seen.

' Oh Hades..' Toris murmured.

Mel looked at him. ' What? '

' Trouble...'

She followed his gaze to where Xena stood patiently behind the man whose hands were now gripping Gabrielle's shoulders.

' Oh Gods, he's huge! ' She gasped.

Toris nodded. ' Yeah. And very, very stupid....'

' Like I said, I just want to go back to my friends and - ' Gabrielle sensed the familiar presence of her companion, and raised apologetic eyes to the mountain of a man leering down at her. ' You might want to back off. Before you get hurt. '

He stared at her for a moment, then threw back his head and roared with laughter. ' My, you're full of surprises! ' He squoze her shoulders, the his face set in a determined mask, tinged at the edges with menace. ' Whose gonna hurt me, little girl? You? '

'No. I am. Infact, unless you take your filthy hands off her right now, I may just bypass the pain and kill you outright. '

He spun around, found himself looking into the brightest blue eyes he'd ever seen. The woman was half a head shorter than him, but still taller than most of the men in the room, and dressed simply in a snug leather dress that did nothing to hide a lithe, toned body. He smiled slowly.

' Ooh, two for the price of one. What's your name, princess? '

' Xena. ' She returned his smile, but nothing of the gesture reached her eyes; brief images of wild animals in dark forests flashed across his mind. ' And that's 'warrior princess' to you. '

His face mirrored uncertainty, then his cocky grin returned. ' You're no warrior. You're not even armed. '

The feral smile widened, then one arm shot out with a square blow to the jaw which rattled his teeth.

' You ought to learn how to treat a lady, ' she purred.

He swung blindly at her, pain from his jaw and rage fuelling him. The blow never connected, then his face exploded with pain again as she smacked him soundly in the nose. He felt hot blood gush, his head swimming with the force of the bow, and he staggered back, landing squarely on his ample behind.

Long arms whipped out and dragged him to his feet, then he found himself being shoved roughly through the door and out into the cold night.

' But...I have a room! ' He protested, his hand trying to staunch the flow of blood from his nose.

' Not now you don't. ' She snarled, before slamming the door in his face.

Melysa's mouth was hanging open when they returned to the table. Toris just sipped his drink as though nothing untoward had happened. When his blue eyes met those of his sister she shrugged.

' Someone has to take care of business.'

' Throwing out paying guests isn't good business, Xena. '

' Mother doesn't need that kind of business. Besides, ' she moved her head from side to side, and they all heard the crunch of her vertebrae snapping back into place, ' we'll need the room in a couple of days time. We're going to have am Amazon war party to house.'

Toris laughed. ' You can't expect them all to share one room. '

' No, they'll sleep in the barn, ' she explained patiently, as if to a child, 'but Ephiny is their regent. She deserves our respect. The least we can do is offer her a bed and shelter.'

Mel glanced from one to the other. ' A-Amazons? Coming here? '

Gabrielle layed a gentle hand on her arm. ' Mel, they're just women. '

Xena laughed aloud. ' Don't let them hear you say that! '

' But I hear they...that they...' she twisted her face in a look of disgust, '..that the way they live is unnatural. '

Xena frowned. ' What do you mean, unnatural? '

' Well...you know...they live without men, they have unnatural relationships...with each other. '

Gabrielle felt her companion's building anger, in truth felt more than a little of it herself at this naive village girl's narrow minded attitudes. But she swallowed her own instinct, and deliberately kept her voice soft.

' Mel....love is love, whatever form it takes. The Amazons are a proud and noble race, their courage unsurpassed. ' She released a slow breath. 'They're also our friends. '

The girl blinked. ' Oh...I'm sorry. I really didn't mean any offense. It's just...' she shrugged uncomfortably, ' ...I never met any of them. ' She finished, a little lamely.

Xena decided she's had more than enough of this conversation. She stretched her arms above her head, then climbed to her feet. ' I'm off to bed.'

Toris looked up at his sister's tall form. ' Xena, we'd like it if you and Gabrielle came to us for dinner tomorrow night.'

She glanced at Gabrielle, who nodded. ' Sure. See you then. '

The next day passed quickly. In the morning Xena addressed the village council, telling them of her findings the day before, and her suspicions that the army would be headed their way. They accepted her word - no-one was about to argue with a woman who had once commanded armies herself - and she left them discussing defense tactics. She and Gabrielle did a little sparring in the afternoon, glad of the shelter of Cyrene's large barn as the wind and sleet continued unabated outside. In the evening, despite her misgivings, they passed a pleasant few hours with her brother and his wife, who seemed a little more comfortable in her own home, and talked freely with the warrior and the bard until the late hour had them all yawning, and she and Gabrielle returned to the inn.

Thankfully the night passed without any nightmares. Xena woke in the hour before dawn, slipping from the room so as not to wake Gabrielle. She checked on Argo, then headed out for a run around the village perimeter. The wind had dropped, and the sky was clearing slightly. For once she was unhappy to see the weather break, but seeing sunlight for the first time in days raised her spirits despite her concerns, and when she returned to the inn she was in a good mood. After a quick bath she joined Gabrielle in the tavern for breakfast, laughing at the pile of food Cyrene had loaded before the bard.

' That all for you? ' she quipped, sliding into her seat.

Gabrielle looked up, her mouth stuffed with warm bread and honey. 'Mmff...why? '

' Nothing....guess we'll be traveling a lot slower when we leave. '

Fair eyebrows knotted together. She swallowed, licking honey from her lips. ' After the work out you put me through yesterday - are you kidding?'

Xena's face remained deadpan. ' I would never joke about food infront of you, Gabrielle.'

That earned her a glare, and as she reached out to snag a piece of apple from her plate she found her wrist slapped back.

' Hey! '

' Get your own!'

She opened her mouth to protest, but found a plate dropped before her, equally piled with goodies.

' Eat. ' Cyrene said firmly. ' You girls need feeding up. '

Xena rolled her eyes, but Gabrielle smirked, then smiled radiantly at Cyrene. ' Thank you. '

The older woman reached out and patted her head affectionately. ' My pleasure, child. '

As she went off back to the kitchens, Xena frowned sulkily. ' I feel a conspiracy starting here. ' She mumbled, reaching for a slice of bread thickly spread with butter.

Gabrielle chuckled around a mouthful of cheese.

They were just finishing up with breakfast when Toris and Melysa came in, both bundled in thick furs. Despite the clearer skies the air was still bitingly cold. They stamped frozen mud from their feet at the doorway, then entered the warmth of the tavern.

' How's it look out there? ' Xena asked, swallowing the last of her ginger root tea. Toris wrinkled his nose.

' More clouds in the east. Probably more snow. '

She nodded. ' Good.'

Mel frowned. ' Good? You like snow? '

Gabrielle shook her head. ' As long as the bad weather holds Kresis will keep his army in camp. It gives us more time to prepare. '

' Oh...'

Toris helped her shrug out of her furs, then pulled out a chair for her to sit down. As she did so Cyrene bustled over carrying two steaming mugs of tea for them. After setting them down, she looked to her daughter.

' Xena, are you starting the men on weapons practice today? '

' Yeah. Once that enormous breakfast has settled. ' She grinned at her. 'Mother, you'll have me as fat as a pig. '

' With all the running around you do - I doubt it! ' She laughed, resting a hand on her shoulder. ' Xena, go easy on them this morning. They're farmers, villagers, not soldiers.'

She grunted. ' Hmm. Still, they should be strong, and used to working with their hands. As long as they're willing I can teach them the basics. '

Gabrielle raised an eyebrow. ' Want me to teach some to use the staff? '

' Yeah...that's a good idea. Not everyone is suited to sword work. ' She sighed. ' I was hoping Simeon would be back by now with the Amazons. '

Toris warmed his hands around his mug of tea and shrugged. ' The weather will hold them back I expect. '

Noise from outside pulled Xena's attention from the table to the window. A slow smile spread across her face.

' Maybe not...' She rose to her feet, glancing at Gabrielle, who followed her to the door. With puzzled frowns the others trailed behind. Xena opened the heavy door, and stepped out into the weak winter sunlight.

The street outside was rutted with frozen mud and the remains of the recent snowfalls. Stamping in the quagmire, their breath steaming in the cold air, were a contingent of horses. Melysa stepped closer to her husband, eyeing the riders with trepidation. They were all women, all dressed in thick winter clothes that hid their forms. But there was no mistaking the feathers braided into their hair, nor the weapons strapped to their bodies and mounts. She watched as Xena and Gabrielle stepped forward, pausing just a few feet from the head rider. The women dismounted with fluid ease, their horses stilling beside them without need for tethering. They drew closer to the two waiting women, then the leader, a woman of medium height and a mass of dark blond curls, held up her hand. As one the troop dropped to their knees, heads bowed. Melysa gaped.

' What are they doing? ' She hissed to Toris.

He shook his head. ' I have no idea. '

The curly-haired blond raised her head. ' Greetings, our queen. '

Gabrielle felt the eyes of the assembled villagers on her, and willed herself not to blush. She stepped forward and laid a hand on Ephiny's shoulder.

' I thank you. ' She smiled. ' Now, please, get up out of that freezing mud.'

The Amazons rose, then the blond grinned broadly and threw her arms about Gabrielle's neck. The bard returned the hug.

' Good to see you, Eph. '

' And you. ' She stepped back, then held out her arm to Xena, who grasped it with a smile.

' Thanks for coming, Eph. '

' Our pleasure. ' She glanced behind her. ' Is there somewhere we can shelter the horses?'

' Sure - there's a barn around the back of the inn. It's plenty big enough. '

Ephiny called for three of the troop to take the horses, then turned to Xena and Gabrielle.

' Shall we go inside and you can fill me in on what's happening? '

They started for the door, and Melysa noticed a tall, dark haired woman break from the ranks and stealthily approach them from behind, her eyes glittering.

' Toris...'

He nodded. ' I see...wait...'

The woman was armed with a staff. When she was a few paces behind Xena she grasped it in both hands and raised it as if to deliver a blow. Quick as lightning, and without even turning around, Xena swung her arm back, grabbed the staff, and flipped the woman over her shoulder to land on her back right at her feet. All three stopped and stared down at the winded warrior. Then, to Melysa's absolute shock, the woman lying on the floor grinned broadly. Xena just shook her head.

' Will you ever learn? '

' One day, I'll get you. '

She sighed, and offered her hand to pull the woman to her feet.

' Good to see you, Eponin. ' Gabrielle smiled.

The Amazon brushed down her clothes. Xena smirked.

' Pony, I have a training session set up for later with the village men. Wanna give me a hand? '

The dark haired woman's smile widened. ' Sure - what weapons? '

' Oh, some basic sword skills, a little work with the staff. I was thinking of...'

Ephiny shook her head, then slid an arm about Gabrielle's waist. ' Come on, let's leave them to talk in the cold. I want a warm drink and a fire to thaw out infront of. '

It seemed the whole village had turned out to watch the practise session. Xena had chosen a flat tract of land on the edge of the village, and for the first ten minutes she lead the volunteers through a series of warm-up exercises. Once that was done, she split the group into two, sending half away with Eponin whilst she began sword drills with the remainder. Thankfully most of the Amazons had come out with them, so she had plenty of help with the group who made up with enthusiasm what they lacked in finesse. After an hour they were sweating despite the cold, and she set them to another series of stretches whilst they cooled down. Eponin jogged over, looking no less winded than Xena.

' You and me? ' she asked eagerly.

Xena nodded. ' What's your choice? '

' Swords first. '

She grinned, drawing her weapon. They circled each other, feigning a little, then with a whoop Pony rushed her, delivering a fast series of blows that rang out across the quiet fields. Xena blocked each with almost casual ease, then returned the attack. They continued on for a while, enjoying the work out, then Xena noted the impatient look on Gabrielle's face, and remembered she had promised some staff practice with the bard.

' Sorry, Pony, ' she said, shrugging apologetically, ' got to end it here-' She attacked again, and in three swift strokes had Eponin's sword out of her hand and driven blade-first into the ground. She stepped back, sheathing her own weapon as the Amazon pulled her sword from the earth and wiped down the blade.

' Good move. ' She nodded. ' Show me sometime? '

Xena grinned. ' Yeah, but...then I'd have to kill ya!'

Pony laughed good-naturedly, then glanced to the group of men and villagers, who had watched everything in stunned silence. ' Umm...I think we spooked 'em. '

Xena turned to regard the wide-eyed stares. ' They'd better get used to it,' she said softly, feeling cold fingers dance down her spine, ' they may be seeing the real thing sooner than they think. '

Pony slapped her on the back, noticing Gabrielle twirling her staff expectantly. ' Want me to herd them all back to town? '

' Yeah...thanks. '

She nodded, then marched towards the crowd. ' Okay, people, that's it for today. Let's all go get warm...'

Gabrielle stepped over to her as the crowd dispersed. ' She's a good match for you. ' She said casually.

Xena nodded, still catching her breath. ' Yeah...we're about the same height and weight, and she's good with the sword. ' She gave the bard a quick grin. ' You're better with the staff, though. '

' Really? '

' Really. '

A small smile. ' Want me to give you a few tips? '

Ice blue eyes twinkled in the late afternoon light. ' Don't push it, bard. ' She brought a foot down on the bottom edge of a nearby practice staff, snapping it upright into her waiting hand. ' Let's see what you've got. '

The inn was filled to bursting that night, the noise levels bordering on deafening. With a gang of villagers high on their first taste of steel, and a war party of ale-swilling Amazons, Cyrene was having the time of her life. Despite the hard work, she loved nothing more than a tavern full of merry customers; having her daughter home was the icing on the cake.

Xena sat at her usual table, her back pressed against the wall, surveying the scene. She was growing a little concerned about Simeon; Ephiny had told her that the warrior had left them the previous evening, with the promise he'd return to Amphipolis as soon as possible. Xena didn't doubt he could take care of himself, but with a hostile army camped so close by, she felt her concern was justified. The cacophony of raised voices all around her wasn't helping her nerves much either. After a while she nudged Gabrielle, who was discussing politics with Ephiny.

' How about a tale? '

Gabrielle blinked. ' Now? '

' Yeah...now. '

The bard smiled. ' Sure. ' She glanced at Ephiny, who nodded enthusiastically.

' Go for it. It's been too long since we heard one of your stories. '

As the story unfolded, Xena leaned back against the wall, enjoying the sound of her voice and the silence from the crowd. Ephiny saw the look of contentment on her face, and grinned.

' She really gets to them, huh? '

' Oh, yeah...' Xena smiled. ' She's a natural. '

' Hm. ' Eph traced a pattern with her fingertip on the tabletop. ' Xena...'

' Hmm? '

' Does she know? '

The warrior's gaze remained fixed on the storyteller. ' Know what? '

' How you feel about her? '

Her head snapped round, eyes widening. ' What? '

' Xena, ' Ephiny's face softened, ' it's obvious that you love her. It's equally obvious that she feels the same way about you. What's the problem?'

Xena stared at her for a long moment. She swallowed, then shook her head slowly. 'Eph, it's....it's complicated...'

' What's complicated about love? ' She sighed. ' Look, at least talk to her. Give her the chance to think about it....let her know what she means to you. '

Blue eyes tracked across the room again, coming to rest on the figure standing on the low dias. ' She knows what she means to me. '

' Does she? Can you take that chance? Could you risk another Perdicus coming along?'

Cold jolts of remembered pain shot through her at the mention of the dead man's name. The agony she'd experienced, watching everything she loved being snatched away from her, having to stand by and watch whilst Gabrielle pledged her love to another, knowing that she would never see her again...

' She loved him, Eph. ' She stated, her voice barely a whisper.

A warm hand covered hers. ' She loved you more. All you had to do was say the word, and she would have walked away from him without a backward glance. '

' You can't know that. '

' I can. She told me. '

Xena's gaze swung back to her, and she was staggered by the emotions roiling beneath the look.

' She told you that? '

Ephiny nodded. ' She knew you loved her, Xena. She just didn't think you wanted her. '

' By the Gods...' Xena dropped her face into her hands. After a minute, she chuckled softly. ' I'm such a fool...'

' No arguments here. '

She looked up, then laughed again at the placid look on her friend's face. 'Eph..'

' Yeah? '

Xena smiled. ' Thanks. '

They listened as the story progressed, becoming drawn in by Gabrielle's lilting voice and the tapestry woven by her words. It was the tale of Helen, and her own personal struggle against the controlling forces in her life. No-one in the room had heard the story of Troy told from the perspective of the woman the war was fought over, and it captivated them completely. So engrossed were her audience that only Gabrielle noticed the door open, but she continued with her thread, waiting to see who entered. It was the warrior, Simeon; she nodded briefly to him, smiling as she spoke. He returned the smile, moving to the bar. But the door didn't close; another figure, much larger, came in from the cold night. Her eyes widened.

' ...and Clytemnestra wielded the axe - Hercules! '

At their table, Xena and Ephiny frowned in tandem.

' He's not in this story. ' Xena muttered.

Ephiny's eyes wandered to the door. ' Uh...no...he's in the tavern. '

Xena stood even as Gabrielle was pushing through the tables full of confused patrons to fling herself into the waiting arms of the laughing demi-god. A low murmur spread through the room, all eyes turning to the two figures who had slipped inside. Gabrielle hugged both of them, grinning like a child at Solstice.

' What are you doing here?!' She laughed.

Iolaus nodded to the figure of the warrior standing at the bar. ' Simeon asked us to come. Said you could use a little extra help. '

' That we could. ' Said a smooth voice from behind them. They turned, to find Xena standing smiling at them.

' Hi! ' Iolaus held out his arm.

She grasped it, then allowed him to pull her into a brief hug. When she stepped back Hercules was smiling widely at her.

' You look good, Xena...but then you always do. '

She laughed, then offered her arm. He grasped it, then shook his head.

' C'm'ere..' He tugged her forward, and she found herself enveloped in his familiar warmth.

' Good to see you too. ' She murmured against his ear.

Gabrielle watched the exchange, feeling a pang of fear-tinged jealousy in her gut. She shoved it aside and grabbed both men by the arm.

' Come on, let's get you two something to eat. '

After some organising, Cyrene finally managed to get all the newcomers fixed up with lodgings in the village. Even Toris and Melysa were eager to help, and took home with them Hercules, Iolaus and three Amazons. Ephiny and Eponin remained at the inn, and Xena was gratified that there was another spare room now which she insisted Simeon took, stating that the once peaceful barn was now home to twenty five Amazon war horses.

At last the inn settled down for the night. Xena remained downstairs helping her mother to bag up the night's takings, and by the time she returned to her room Gabrielle was sound asleep on top of the bed, still fully clothed. Xena crossed the room on silent feet, pausing at the edge of the bed to look down on her. Her face, usually so animated, was relaxed in slumber, as smooth and guileless as a child's. Soft honey-gold hair fanned out over the pillow, lay in loose tangles across her shoulders. Xena watched the gentle rise and fall of her chest, the way that the hand splayed across her belly twitched slightly, then relaxed again. She felt her heart constrict at the sight of her, a wave of love and longing crashing over her, shaking her to the foundations of her world. Her hands ached to touch her, and she found herself perching on the edge of the narrow bed, reaching out to stroke a strand of hair from the sleeping woman's cheek. The flesh was warm and soft beneath her fingers, and as her hand lingered, the brush becoming a caress, Gabrielle shifted slightly, her lips parting, a small sigh escaping from between them.

' Gods, you're beautiful, ' she whispered.

Perfect lips lifted at the corners, and her eyelids fluttered then opened slightly.

' So are you. '

Xena smiled slowly. ' I thought you were asleep. '

' I was....until you touched me. '

The warrior shook her head. ' I'm sorry-'

' Don't be. ' Gabrielle lifted her hand to cover the one still at her cheek. 'I like it. I want you to touch me. '

Xena saw the meaning behind the words written all over the bard's lovely face. She felt desire flare in herself, knew there could be no mistaking the hungry look in her eyes as she gazed down at the woman lying beneath her.

' Gabrielle, ' she said, her voice low and husky with need, ' do you understand...do you really want this...'

The bard sat up so that their faces were mere inches apart. ' More than anything, ' she responded, then leaned in, closing the distance between them, and brushed her lips against Xena's. The contact was brief, chaste, but it shot bolts of desire coursing through the warriors's blood, made her heart hammer against her ribs like a caged beast. She reached out to cradle Gabrielle's face between her palms, pulled her in again to claim her mouth. She had intended it to be gentle, intended to take her time, but the kiss rapidly became demanding, searing, long reined-in desire fighting for expression in this initial sweet contact. When they broke apart they were both wide-eyed, both breathing heavily. With shaking fingers Xena traced the outline of Gabrielle's jaw.

' You have no idea how much I have wanted this...wanted you. '

The bard smiled slowly, and there was nothing of the innocent girl from Poteidaeia in that expression.

' I think I do. ' She murmured, pulling the dark haired woman in and claiming her lips once more. Xena desperately tried to hold onto her self-control, letting Gabrielle set the pace, but when she felt warm fingers slide down her chest to cup her breast she felt her willpower snap like a brittle twig. With a low growl in the back of her throat she pushed the younger woman down onto the bed, settling her body over her, pinning her to the mattress. Her mouth seared a trail of heat down her slender throat until she reached the tender spot between neck and shoulder, where she bit down hard. Gabrielle moaned, arching back against the pillow, her hands grasping at Xena's shoulders. The warrior kissed the brand, her breath hot against sensitized flesh.

' Mine. ' She stated.

Gabrielle could only nod. ' Always. ' Then all thoughts of words were abandoned as she felt long, deft fingers begin to unlace the ties between her breasts.

There was little sleep for them that night, but Xena was awake before dawn, senses on full alert. Reluctantly she untangled herself from the sleeping bard, bestowing a quick kiss to her brow before scrambling into her leathers. She pulled on a thick tunic over them against the cold, then grabbed her boots and headed downstairs.

Cyrene was starting a fire in the tavern room. She gave her daughter a smile as she entered, but the tense look on Xena's face caused a furrow to appear in her brow.

' What's wrong, child?'

Xena shook her head. ' I'm not sure. ' She perched on the edge of a bench before her mother and began to pull on her boots. ' I thought I'd ride out to meet the scout party Eph sent out yesterday, find out what's going on. '

' Well, ' Cyrene straightened, hands massaging the base of her spine. ' Let me got you something to eat first. '

Xena was anxious to be on her way, but she knew it would be a long ride, and a cold one at that. ' Thanks. ' She nodded.

Cyrene returned with a bowl of hot porridge laced with honey, and a plate of fresh, warm bread. As Xena hurried through her breakfast the tavern door creaked open, and a familiar face peered in.

' We open yet? '

Cyrene's eyes widened, and she smiled broadly. ' Come in, come in! ' She ushered Hercules into the warmth. He strode over to where Xena sat, took a seat opposite her.

' I'll fetch you something to eat. ' Cyrene said, bustling away before he could protest. Hercules watched her go, then turned his attention to his table mate.

' You're up early. '

She nodded, swallowing sweet porridge. ' So are you. '

' Yeah...' he rubbed his eyes, ' ...despite Iolaus keeping me up half the night talking about how great it is seeing you and Gabrielle again. '

Xena chuckled, pushing her plate of bread into the middle of the table. Hercules took a slice, biting down on it and chewing thoughtfully.

' I had a-'

' -strange feeling? '

They looked at each other, then laughed softly.

' Yeah...' he admitted, ' you too, huh? '

She nodded, frowning slightly. ' Something's not right. I was going to ride out to meet the Amazon scouts. '

' Want some company? '

' Yeah...I'd appreciate it. '

' Here we are...' they looked up as Cyrene approached, carrying another bowl of porridge, and two mugs of steaming root tea. ' This should warm you up. '

Hercules graced her with a broad smile. ' Thank you. '

' My pleasure. ' She eyed them both appraisingly. ' Do I need to prepare some food for you both to take with you, wherever you're going? '

They stared at her for a moment, then looked at each other and smiled.

' My Mom is the same, ' Hercules said, nodding understandingly, ' she can read me like a book. '

Xena shook her head, then eyed her mother. ' No wonder I never got away with anything as a child. '

Cyrene smiled, patted her shoulder. ' I let you get away with entirely too much, as I recall. '

Afraid of her mother launching into childhood anecdotes, she laid a hand over the one at her shoulder. ' Some food for the road would be great, thanks. ' She turned her gaze to the demi-god. ' You'll need a horse..'

He shook his head. ' I borrowed one from Toris' stable. He's in the barn at the moment. '

' Good. ' She reached for her tea, sipping the hot liquid. For a moment her mind wandered back to the previous night, and the taste of Gabrielle on her tongue. She shuddered slightly, heat coursing through her, wanting nothing more than to race back upstairs and spend the day in bed with her. But...she forced the thoughts down for now, dragged her concentration back to the matter in hand.

' You tell Iolaus before you left? '

Hercules shook his head, spooning up hot porridge. ' He was out like a light.'

She smiled. ' Just like a certain bard we both know. '

He laughed. ' Yeah...left to their own devices, they'd probably sleep all day.'

' We can leave word with mother. ' She drained the remainder of her tea, then stood up. ' I'll go saddle Argo whilst you finish your breakfast. '

Gabrielle woke to bright sunlight streaming through the window. She blinked, then stretched languidly; when her arm encountered nothing but vacant bedding she sat up, looking around the room. Clothes gone, saddlebags missing....

' Xena...' she growled to herself, ' I'm gonna kill you...'

She was dressed and downstairs in record time. Cyrene, serving breakfast to the Amazons, saw her coming and read the expression on her face.

' She's gone out to check on the scouts. ' She explained quickly. ' She said to tell you she'd be back by sundown. '

' She shouldn't have gone out alone! '

' She didn't - Hercules went with her. '

Gabrielle froze, her mind painting painful pictures. No, she reassured herself, she loves me, we made love last night. She squashed the unwelcome jealous thoughts, and wandered over to Ephiny's table, sliding into the seat beside the regent. Ephiny turned and stared at her. After long minutes of uncomfortable silence, Gabrielle frowned.

' What? Did I grow another head in the night or something? '

A slow smirk crept across the Amazon's face. She glanced across the table at Eponin, who was grinning like an idiot.

' No....you hurt your neck last night, Gabrielle? '

Green eyes widened as realisation dawned. She brought her hand up to cover the livid mark at the base of her neck. Eponin sniggered, but the regent blinked innocently.

' Those must be mighty big bed-bugs. '

' Eph..' the bard squeaked. Her eyes flicked from one to the other. When Ephiny's composure gave way to a knowing grin, Gabrielle couldn't help the smile that crept across her own features. Embarrassed, she covered her face with her hands, shaking her head.

' I'll kill her, ' she groaned. Ephiny laughed, patting her on the shoulder.

' Relax, Gabrielle. Just...wear a scarf or something. '

Eponin let loose another snort of amusement.

' S'not funny..' Gabrielle pouted.

' No...' Ephiny's face softened. ' I think it's pretty wonderful, actually. ' She squoze the bard's shoulder. ' And about time. '

' So..' they looked up to see Cyrene beaming down at them. ' What can I get our young bard for breakfast...oh my...' her eyes widened as they fixed on Gabrielle's throat.

' Bed bugs!' Three voiced chimed quickly in unison.

Cyrene let her face slide back into a neutral expression. ' Oh dear...' she said with concern. ' I'd better have Janus change the pallet...you want your usual, my dear? '

Gabrielle nodded. Cyrene turned and headed for the kitchens, a slow smile spreading across her face. Bed-bugs my ass, she thought to herself.....

Xena and Hercules were back by late afternoon, half the Amazon scout party bringing up the rear. They called a meeting of the village council, and told them the news. Kresis army had broken camp that morning and were headed for Amphipolis. At their pace, Xena estimated they'd be within striking distance by late the following morning. The remainder of the scouts had stayed behind to track the army's movements, just incase they changed tactics at the last minute.

' Less than a day! ' Dervis, the leader of the council moaned. ' we'll never be ready! '

Hercules glanced at Iolaus. ' You will. '

' We'll have to be. ' Xena said softly. ' Besides, we have a few plans. ' Gabrielle, standing at the rear of the room, let her gaze linger on her lover, wishing they had more time to explore this new facet of their relationship. She hadn't seen Xena alone since her return, and it looked like it wasn't about to happen any time soon either. As the meeting broke up, she threaded her way through the throngs of people to stand by Xena's side.

' Hey, ' she said lightly.

Xena smiled at her. ' Hey yourself. ' She reached up to brush a lock of gold hair back from her cheek. ' Sorry I ran out on you this morning. '

' You're forgiven. ' She leaned into the brief touch for a moment, then sighed. ' So, what are these plans? '

Xena shook her head. ' Later. Right now I need to get Argo settled. She's been running all day. '

Gabrielle linked her arm through the warrior's. ' Come on. I'll keep you company. '

The stable was warm and smelled of horses and hay. Gabrielle watched as Xena patiently rubbed down the mare, cooing softly to her as she did so. Argo calmed beneath her mistress's hands, her eyes drooping as Xena gently wiped the sweat from her flanks. I know how that feels, Gabrielle thought absently, watching the long fingers work their magic. When Argo was happily munching on warm mash, Xena looked over to the bard, smiling softly.

' What did you do today? '

' Oh...Eponin organised another practice session with the villagers. She took sword, I did staff maneuvers. '

' Good...how were they? '

She shrugged. ' They learn fast, they're strong. But against an army, Xena...' she shook her head, ' I don't know...'

' You'd be surprised what the threat of losing their homes can bring out in people. ' Xena stated flatly, knowing all too well; she'd witnessed it from the other side more than once. ' We at least have the advantage of preparation. '

Gabrielle rubbed absently at her neck. Xena followed the movement of her hands, and her eyes fixed on the livid purple-red mark.

' I guess our secret is out of the bag. ' She said dryly.

Gabrielle caught her eyes, and smiled. ' I think so. '

Xena crossed to her, her hands reaching out to rest against the bard's shoulders. ' I'm sorry if it embarrassed you. '

' To be honest, I really don't give a damn what people think. ' She smiled. 'Well, except for your mother, of course. '

' She ask you about it? '

' Um...yeah...I told her it was bed-bugs. '

Xena stared at her for a moment, then threw back her head and laughed. When she looked at the bard again there were tears of amusement shining in her eyes. ' Oh, Gabrielle...' she sighed. Then their eyes locked, and she found herself leaning in to kiss the tempting lips hovering so close by. Gabrielle murmured against her mouth, sliding her arms about Xena's waist. The kiss was slow, sensuous, and all too inviting for it to end there. After a while Xena lifted the bard up against her body, sliding her lips to the pulse throbbing in her throat.

' What are you doing? ' Gabrielle murmured, even as her legs wrapped around the warrior's hips.

Xena planted soft kisses against burning flesh. ' You really need to ask? ' She walked them to the back of the stall, then lowered Gabrielle into the pile of soft hay that stood against the wall. Settling over her, she reached for the bard's tunic laces, her hand sliding beneath the soft wool to caress her breast. Gabrielle arched into her touch, her eyes closing automatically.

' Ohhh...Xena, someone could come in...'

' Let them..' she tugged at the tunic, pulling it open to reveal soft, inviting flesh. Her head lowered to one rosy nipple, and Gabrielle gasped at the exquisite contact.

' Should I stop? ' Xena asked, her eyes meeting the bard's and twinkling mischievously.

The blond head shook decisively. ' Not unless you want one very frustrated bard on your hands...' And to illustrate her point, she laced her fingers through midnight hair and pulled the smiling warrior's face back to her task.

Ephiny circled the inn, looking for Xena. There were plans to discuss, things that needed clarifying. Her footsteps took her towards the stables, but as she reached for the door handle a low moan from inside brought her to a standstill. Her hand froze against the metal, a small frown furrowing her brow. Another moan, louder this time, ending in a gasp, then the murmur of a distinctive low voice from within. She smiled to herself, turning to leave, and almost ran smack into the broad chest of Hercules.

' Ephiny, ' he nodded towards the stable, ' Xena in there? I need to talk to her about-'

' Not right now you don't. ' She took his arm. ' She's otherwise engaged.'

He frowned at the cryptic comment. ' What with? '

' Gabrielle. ' She turned him, and began leading him back towards the inn. He frowned deeper.

' I'm sure she wouldn't mind if we interrupted - this is important. '

' Oh, ' Ephiny shook her head, grinning to herself, ' I think they'd mind. '

' What - wait a minute..' he stopped, turning to look her in the eyes. 'Ephiny...what's going on? '

She sighed. ' Hercules, are you blind? '

He stared at her, then shook his head.

' They're in love! ' She stated.

Brown eyes widened, his mouth opening. It closed again when no words were forthcoming. He looked so shocked Ephiny actually felt sorry for him. She smiled, patting his arm.

' Come on, big guy, lemme buy you a drink. You look like you need it. '

When Gabrielle and Xena returned to the inn both were smiling like contented cats. They sat at he bar and Cyrene brought them each a mug of warm port, not missing the looks that passed between them.

' Dinners in a couple of hours, ' she said, ' you have time for a bath if you'd like one. '

Gabrielle smiled. ' I think I need one. '

Xena nudged her with her knee, but Cyrene just drifted off to serve another customer.

' What? ' The bard asked innocently. ' All is said was - ' she turned, feeling a presence at her back. ' Oh, hi, Hercules. '

He grinned at the two of them. ' Hey there. ' His eyes fixed on the back of Gabrielle's head, and he frowned. ' Um...you have something...' his fingers brushed through mussed blond hair, withdrawing a piece of hay. He frowned at it. ' Huh...you been rolling around in the stables, Gabrielle?'

The bard blushed furiously, looking to Xena who shrugged innocently. Hercules switched his attention to the warrior, his frown deepening. 'Hmm...you too...' his fingers snagged a similar piece of hay from dark locks. She stared at him for a moment, but twinkling eyes gave him away. She shook her head, a small smile playing at her lips.

' Lemme guess...you've been talking to Ephiny? '

He smiled. ' Yeah....and just for the record, I think it's great. '

Gabrielle's gaze wandered across the room to where Ephiny was talking with Eponin and Solari. The regent caught her eye and smiled innocently. Gabrielle shook her head at her then turned her attention back to Hercules. 'Who else knows? '

' Iolaus...and I think Cyrene has guessed. '

Xena frowned. ' How? '

' I'm not sure...but she's got Iolaus and Janus trying to get a double bed into your old room. '

Xena rolled her eyes, groaning. ' I'm never gonna hear the last of this...'

There was a loud thud from the ceiling above them, then the sound of a familiar voice swearing loudly. Gabrielle giggled.

' Uh...I think you may be right...'

Dinner was a more subdued affair that evening. There were discussions of tactics, and throughout the meal there was a constant stream of villagers trailing in with news of the planned defenses. They intended to meet the army outside the village, and Xena had organised one or two surprises.

' How can you be sure he'll come in with horses first? ' Gabrielle asked, munching on venison.

Xena smiled slowly. ' Because I trained him. And because he's not smart enough to come up with anything new by himself. He sticks with what he knows, what works. '

' But...' Ephiny frowned. ' If he knows this is your village...'

She shook her head. ' No. I never told anyone where I was from. I wouldn't risk the information falling into the wrong hands. ' Her eyes drifted to Cyrene, standing by the bar talking to Toris and Melysa. ' They would never have been safe. '

Gabrielle sipped her wine, not missing the look that was painted across her lover's face.

' Xena? '

She turned to the bard, smiling softly. ' Hmm? '

' What if you're wrong? What if it's not enough? '

Those incredible blue eyes narrowed slightly, then her face settled into a mask of determination. ' Then I'll call in the right of challenge. Me against Kresis, one on one. '

' And...if you kill him? '

The silence around the table was deafening. ' Then his army becomes mine. ' She stated flatly. ' I become their commander. '

The topic of conversation was changed rapidly after that, but Gabrielle was well aware of the looks being cast toward the tall form seated beside her, and the cold sense of dread rapidly growing within her own heart.

The whole village retired early, having posted sentry guards at the perimeter to warn of early attack. None came, and Gabrielle was woken in the hour before dawn by Xena sliding from her embrace.

' Wh...' she yawned, ' where are you going? '

' It's time. ' Xena said simply. Gabrielle knew that voice, knew the steel that lay beneath it. Wordlessly she slipped from between warm sheets, her teeth chattering in the cold air. She pulled on leather trousers and a thick woolen tunic, stepping into her boots hurriedly. Xena finished tying of the laces of her battle dress and reached for her armour. She settled it over her shoulders, but as she moved to fasten the buckles Gabrielle stilled her hands.

' Let me. ' She said quietly.

She nodded briefly, allowing the bard to buckle on the heavy armour with practiced ease. Leather arm bands and bracers followed, then her boots and heavy leg armour. As Gabrielle straightened from her kneeling position before her, Xena pulled her to her suddenly, kissing her with hard passion. When she released her, Gabrielle blinked in surprise.

' Sorry...' Xena managed a small smile, ' battle lust.'

' But...you haven't fought the battle yet. '

Blue eyes twinkled in the darkness. ' Not yet, no. '

The bard smiled, then her face became serious again. ' Xena...be careful today. '

Long, gentle fingers caressed her face. ' I will, love. And you, try and stay out of trouble, okay? ' She leaned in to kiss her again, this time with such tenderness that it brought tears to Gabrielle's eyes. When they broke apart they rested their foreheads against one another, sharing the moment of peace before the nightmare began.

' I love you. ' Gabrielle whispered.

' I love you too, my bard. ' Came the response.

When they entered the tavern there was already a small gathering of people waiting. Toris and Melysa were sitting at a table with Hercules and Iolaus. At the table next to them were Ephiny, Solari, Eponin and Simeon. Cyrene had lit candles about the room, chasing away the pre-dawn darkness, but the shutters remained tightly closed. Xena had ordered that there be as little visible light as possible at the early hour, in case scout parties from the advancing army were watching the village. They needed the element of surprise on their side.

Gabrielle headed off to the kitchens to find Cyrene and help organise some breakfast. Xena made her way to the huddled group at the rear of the tavern.

' Morning. ' She said casually. They looked up at her, and she saw her own grim mood reflected in many pairs of eyes. The Amazons were dressed in full battle regalia, bristling with weapons. Iolaus and Hercules had donned protective leathers, and each carried a sheathed sword at their waist. Even Toris semed ready, dressed in leather breeches and a thick tunic, his plain, hardly used weapon hanging in a new scabbard at his side. Only Melysa appeared as normal, although in the midst of so many armed warriors she looked more than a little out of place. She stared up at Xena, seeing the Warrior Princess for the first time since they'd met. Polished armour glowed across her breast in the candle light, her chakram shining at her waist. Over her shoulder the hilt of her sword protruded, the intricately cast handle a perfect match for the warrior's long-fingered grip. She looked into fierce blue eyes, so like those of her husband and yet so different, and felt a shiver run down her spine. What it must be to see those same eyes staring at you over crossed-swords, she mused, and know that death is only a heart-beat away...

Xena slid in beside Hercules, nodding to the Amazons to her left. Eponin bowed her head briefly in greeting - no smiles this morning, no playful banter. She met the Amazon warrior's dark gaze. As much as she would have liked the reassurance of the skilled woman's sword beside her, she knew that Eponin was needed elsewhere, to lead and guide the group they planned to flank the invaders from the left, coming up from the river bank once the army had been engaged.

She just hoped they would both be there to discuss it afterwards.

Her gaze moved to Toris; her brother looked equally grim, but she could see the nervous twitch of a muscle in his jaw. Toris was no fighter - never had been - but he had more to defend now than just their mother's inn. He had a home, a wife, and a child on the way. She let her gaze rest on Melysa, saw the fear etched across her delicate features. Wide hazel eyes flickered to hers, and she smiled reassuringly.

' Mel, you haven't touched a bite. '

Melysa looked down at her plate. ' No...I can't. Not today. '

Her hand reached across the table to grasp the woman's slender forearm. 'You must. You have the baby to consider. ' She glanced upwards, saw Gabrielle moving toward them carrying two plates of food, and smiled. 'Besides, if you don't eat it, someone else will. '

There were chuckles from those seated around them, lessening the tension somewhat. As Gabrielle slid into place beside Xena, setting down the plates, several pairs of amused eyes turned to her. She frowned.

' What? What did I do? '

There was another round of sniggering; she looked to Xena, who shrugged innocently and picked up a slice of hot nut bread.

As they headed out in the first light of dawn the village appeared to be coming to life as normal. Xena knew though that those moving about with seeming nonchalance were in fact preparing for any raiders who slipped past the defenses and made it to the village. She also knew that those who couldn't fight and the children were, even now, being lead to the safety of the caves just a few miles away by the elders. Their small group walked slowly, almost casually, but every one of them was tense. Most of those preparing to meet the army were already in position, under orders to leave the village under cover of darkness. Her group was the last to leave. Hercules, Iolaus, a handful of Amazons and ten village men, including Toris, herself and Gabrielle.

Except Gabrielle would be staying behind, organising the village defenses with Solari.

On the outskirts of the village she slowed, eventually halting at the marker that signified someone's field. She turned to Gabrielle, her heart wrenching in her chest. This was as far as the bard would go.

' You'll be all right? ' She asked softly.

A nod. The bard gripped her staff more tightly. ' I will. Make sure you are. ' She looked to Hercules, her eyes betraying her. ' Don't let her do anything stupid. '

The demi-god smiled with understanding. ' I won't. '

Xena pulled Gabrielle to her, crushing her body against her in a fierce hug. She released a long breath, resting her cheek against sun-kissed hair.

' I love you, bard. ' She whispered.

Gabrielle leaned back slightly, then slid her free hand around Xena's neck and, oblivious to the silent regard of those around them, pulled her in for a gentle kiss.

' And I love you. '

Green eyes held blue for a long, lingering moment. Then there was only the road back into the village, and the quiet of a winter's morning.

' Hold.....hold....'

The armoured horsemen thundered closer, close enough to hear the snorting of the horses, smell the sweat on their flanks.

' Hold...'

Closer still, and now the riders were laughing at the stupidity of these villagers who were too terrified to run.

' Hold...'

The rumble of the earth now vibrating through their legs, the noise almost deafening. Every man tense, unflinching, waiting.

She waited until she could see the whites of the lead horse's eyes, see the red flare of its nostrils, breath pluming into cold air.

Waited until there was no chance it could be reined to a stop.

' Now! ' Xena cried, dropping to a crouch, grabbing the business end of a long, sharpened pike, cut from the forest yesterday like the nine others now being raised by those beside her, their blunt ends jammed against the earth by the men at their backs. She felt the jarr of both the end of the staff meeting earth and the wicked point meeting the breast of the horse simultaneously, the shock sending shooting pains through both arms as she gripped the rough wood hard, clamping her jaw shut as the force rocked her whole body. The horse was screaming, twisting against the cruel spike embedded in its breast; there were screams all around her, more horses rearing and writhing in their death throes. They dropped, their riders thrown or crushed beneath them, the horses bringing up the rear colliding with the fallen, tumbling to the frozen ground themselves, or shying away in panic, their rider's curses and attempts to turn them ineffective. The third rank of villagers came out from behind, swooping in to engage those still capable of raising a weapon, but the raiders were shaken, off guard, for once at the disadvantage. Xena had her sword drawn, was wading through the confusion, looking for one face, swatting aside anyone who attempted to stop her with almost casual ease. She saw the foot soldiers charging toward them, saw the lone figure on horseback behind them, surveying the battle.

She sneered Typical. Leading from behind. Had he learned nothing?

' Xena! '

They cry came from Ephiny; she whirled, in time to see the flash of steel as the man creeping up behind her brought his sword down in a rapid arc, the blow aimed for her head. Her sword arm came up instinctively, stopping the momentum of the strike, the force jarring her shoulder. She gritted her teeth, holding the two-handed blow off with one arm, repositioning herself so that her body bore the weight of his force with ease, her arm now a channel for her strength. She let her gaze move to the man's face, saw the shock and wonder etched across his features.

' Big mistake. ' She hissed, smiling ferally.

It was the last one he made.

Over in seconds, she tugged her blade free of his ribs, wiping the blood clinging to honed steel on his tunic sleeve. With a nod to the Amazon, who was standing over a downed raider, she continued on toward the small rise, and the mounted figure silhouetted against the brittle-blue winter sky. The battle raged on either side of her, raiders and villagers engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Though the raiders had the military advantage, the villagers matched it with their determination, their fierce need to protect what was theirs.

Men with everything to lose, even untrained men, were a force not to be taken lightly.

Eponin's troop had swept in from the river as planned, flanking the army from one side, spreading rapidly to cover them from behind. There were cries from the Amazons, the bird-calls and yells they used in battle to communicate ringing out across the field. With practiced ease they engaged their foe, weapons flashing in the mid-morning sun. The gleam of swords, the whir of the deadly and effective chobos, the spin and thrust of staffs. Xena waded through the melee, intent on her goal. She saw the horse shift impatiently, saw the rider tighten his grip on the reins. His posture was less confident now, uncertainty creeping into his gestures. She increased her pace, heard him call out for men to return to him, cursing when there were none who could. He began turning his horse, ready to flee. She broke into a run, but knew he was too far away, that the horse would outrun her. Snarling she whipped her head around, looking for a mount. There were several horses milling about on the edge of the fray, well-trained in battle never to leave the field. She changed direction, sprinting for the nearest, a huge bay stallion. She kicked another would-be attacker out of her way, not slowing her pace, then leaped for the animal, vaulting into the saddle and snagging the reins in her free hand.

' Ya!' She cried, digging her heels into the stallion's flanks. The great war-horse snorted, rearing at the unaccustomed rider on its back, but as it's hooves touched ground she dug in again, and with another indignant snort it leaped forward. A good choice, she mused, feeling the power bunched beneath her. She guided the horse after the lone rider, then gave him his head, feeling his pace increase, the frozen earth flying by beneath in a blur. Cold air stung her eyes, bit into her face and bare arms, but the fire of battle burned in her veins, making her oblivious to the discomfort. She bent low over the horse's thick neck, the reins loose in her left hand, her legs doing the work of steering and holding her in place. She could see her prey ahead, the distance closing by the second. Her horse was bigger, and Kresis was heavier than she, his mass added-to by the bulky armour he had always favoured. She urged her mount to go faster, and the horse responded to the familiar command, neck stretching out infront as he hit full gallop. No noise now but the pounding of hooves beneath her, the rush of breath from the stallion's flared nostrils. They were closing on him; she could see the foam flying from his horse's mouth, see sweat lathering it's flanks. The forest was rapidly approaching, and she scanned ahead, looking for possible routes he might take, looking for others she knew would allow her to outrun him. He chose the obvious - another lesson badly learned - and she smiled to herself as he disappeared between the trees. She guided her mount to the right where the path was narrower, but cut straight through the dense trees, rejoining the wider but more meandering small road Kresis had taken about a mile up ahead. She dipped lower as they entered the darkened forest, slowing the horse slightly to allow him to bypass raised roots and tangles of brambles. The stallion responded to her commands well, picking his way through the obstacles with speed and ease. Within a few minutes they were nearing the junction of the two pathways. Xena reined the horse in, slowing to a trot. She listened hard, but could hear no sound of approaching hoofbeats. Making a rapid decision she halted her mount, sliding from him before he had completely stopped. With a pat to his neck she tethered him to a nearby branch, still well out of sight of the other road.

' Stay quiet, okay, boy? ' She whispered, scratching him behind one ear. In response he nuzzled her shoulder, and she grinned.

' I know someone who's gonna just love you. '

Then she moved quietly forward, found a suitable tree, and swiftly began to climb.

Kresis spurred his horse onward, for once cursing his choice of armour. The damned beast was tiring already, but he had no intention of stopping until he was safely away from the nightmare pursuing him. He glanced back over his shoulder for the umpteenth time, but saw only skeletal trees and the empty road behind him. Still, he knew his adversary, knew she wouldn't be put off so easily. She would be there, somewhere; he had no desire to find out exactly where.

What in Hades was she doing in such a sleepy village anyway? Building another army? He'd heard that she'd changed, listened to the stories now being circulated about her, the ones which no longer portrayed her as warlord and ruthless killer, but defender, champion, hope. But some part of him refused to believe it. He'd seen her command armies, seen her burn towns, cities, to the ground they'd sprung up from. He'd fought by her side, seen the blood-lust shining in her eyes....

No. Nothing on earth could change what she was. Destroyer of Nations, Ares' chosen one.

He spurred his horse on harder, remembering the rage in her face as she banished him from her army, from her lands. One day, he'd vowed, he'd return and make her pay for that humiliation. One day....but not today. Not without the strength of his army at his back. His army....if there were any left standing they would surely be in chains by now. Defeated, by a rag-tag group of villagers and a handful of Amazons - just what in Tartarus were they doing there anyway? There had been no love lost between the Warrior Princess and the nation of women warriors in the past, although Xena had left them alone. Maybe they had a vested interest in the village - after all, it wasn't far from their lands. Perhaps they used the men there, or perhaps they had a trade agreement...

His train of thought was rudely interrupted by the dark shape which suddenly dropped from the trees above him. It landed squarely in his chest, bearing him from the horse which skidded to a halt. They hit the ground with a force that pushed the wind from his chest in a whoosh, his back screaming against the ground, the weight of his assailant pressing into his chest. Ice blue eyes glittered down at him, dark hair swinging about a face that had haunted his dreams and nightmares for years.

' Hello, Kresis. ' She purred.

He struggled to draw breath, and she leaned into him harder.

' Wassa matter? Cat got your tongue? Or don't you remember me? '

Absurdly, he felt aroused, despite his predicament. His tastes had always bordered on the extreme, and this was about as extreme as it could get. She straddled his waist, strong thighs squeezing his body, her weight centered just above his groin. She leaned over him, one hand pinning his arms above his head, the other holding a short dagger against his throat. He could smell her skin, smell the metallic tang of blood and sweat that shone on her flesh. His eyes travelled from her face to the swell of her breasts above her leathers and armour. He swallowed. The knife pressed a little harder against his throat, bringing his attention back to her face. She saw the darkened look in his eyes, and a slow smile crept across her face.

' Well....so that's how it is, huh? '

Maybe, just maybe, there was a chance. She hadn't killed him, though the gods knew she could have....and she looked more amused than angry....

' Yes, ' he whispered, his voice raw, ' You and I, Xena, we could have everything....we'd be invincible together. You know we could. Come with me, we can raise another army, we can...'

His voice trailed off as she let the point of her blade travel across his throat slowly, her face thoughtful.

' Do you know, ' she said softly, ' what that place you intended to take today is? '

Kresis gasped as the blade nicked his skin. ' Amphipolis. Just another village...just like the ones you once took, that we once took, together...'

' Just another village...'she nodded, ' but with one small exception...' her gaze came up to meet his, her eyes as cold as the sky. ' It's my village, Kresis. I was born there. It's my home. '

His eyes widened. ' I-I didn't know, Xena - how could I have known? If I had I would never - '

' Kresis, there are two things I remember about you. ' She let her eyes bore into him, drilling down into a place where fear blossomed and grew. ' One is that you're the sickest, most twisted bastard I ever laid eyes on. ' Her lip curled in a snarl. ' And the other is that you're a rotten liar. '

He felt the shroud of death beginning to close about him, and summoned strength back into his limbs. With a roar he twisted, bucking at the same time to throw her off him. As she toppled his hands came free, and be brought one fist down, glancing off the side of her head. She fell to the side, the knife drawing a thin trail of blood from his neck, but her weight was shifted enough for him to roll from beneath her. On his feet in seconds, he drew his sword, the sound of metal rasping against leather loud in the still clearing. Xena dropped the knife, springing to her feet and drawing her own sword in one fluid move. She shook her head, trying to clear the blurring of her vision that Kresis' blow had caused.

They faced one another across the distance between them. Xena felt the coursing of anticipation tingling through her veins. Her vision finally cleared, and she curled her lip in a sneer.

' It ends here, Kresis. One way or another, for you, it ends here. '

He grinned wickedly. ' You're wrong, Xena. The only end today will be yours. '

He lunged forward, slicing at her ribs with a two-handed blow. She stepped back, the edge of his sword barely grazing her armour, but he kept coming, rage lending renewed strength to his limbs. Xena blocked each blow, letting him tire himself in the onslaught, waiting for her opportunity. She kept moving, forcing him to circle her, making him do all the work. His anger was driving him, but it was also robbing him of thought. His only intention now, his only goal, was to slay her. Blow after blow, and still she blocked, side-stepped, dodged. Sweat began to bead his brow, and she could hear the ragged labouring of his breathing. One more blow, this one she blocked, and when she felt his arm shake with the force of it she pressed her advantage. Her sword was a blur in the weak sunlight, slicing through the air in a deadly arc. Kresis stepped back, surprised, and brought his sword up above his head to stop the blow. Metal clashed against metal, and the muscles in his arms screamed their protest, but he held.

Xena grinned ferally, then whipped her sword to the side, swinging it around toward his side. He blocked her again, his arms weakening, sweat now freely running into his eyes.

' Give it up, Kresis! ' she snarled, ' You couldn't take me then, and you won't do it now.'

Fresh anger boiled in him, memories of the past returning to him; her face as she exiled him swam before his eyes, merging with the face of the woman standing before him now. Those same blue eyes, mocking, taunting, blazing with self-assured arrogance...

He roared with rage, striking at her blindly, each blow fueled with the weight of years of anger, thoughts of revenge. With blow upon blow he forced her back, forcing her toward the trees at the side of the road. With no time to maneuver, no time to counter, Xena was forced to block each blow, the shock tearing through her arms, pulsing down her spine. She sensed the trees behind her, knew there was not much further for her to move. Another blow came the swords sliding together above their heads. She pulled down, hard, locking their hilts together, then rapidly stepped back as far as her reach would allow. Quickly she kicked out at him, her boot making contact with his belly. Kresis staggered, and she felt his weight through her arms as, for a moment, his whole body was held upright by the swords locked above them. Summoning her strength she shoved against it, then pulled her sword free, sending him stumbling backward. She moved in after him, striking out. The edge of her sword cut a neat slice through the leather encasing his upper arm, and she heard the hiss of his breath as it drew blood. Kresis regained some of his balance, thrust forward, but his feet were unsteady, and she easily knocked the sword from his grasp, sending it spinning into the trees. He stopped, blinked, then yelled at her and lunged forward, arms outstretched.

Xena side-stepped him easily and he stopped, panting.

' It's over, Kresis. ' She said quietly, sheathing her sword.

He looked at her for a long moment, then raised his arm, his fist clenched. Before he threw the punch she jabbed out at him, flat-handed, the side of her hand slamming into the juncture of neck and shoulder. Kresis froze, then his eyes rolled back in his head, and his body crumpled to the ground.

Catching her breath, Xena stood and looked down on him, shaking her head.

' Some people just don't know when to quit. ' She commented.

The trees, if they heard, chose not to respond.

The last of the shackled men were being dragged into the village. Gabrielle had met every person returning from the fields, her eyes searching beyond for the one figure she needed to see. Absently she counted them all back, relieved in part that only a handful had not yet walked or been carried by. She directed the wounded to be taken to the village hall where the healer had already set up a make-shift hospital, but he eyes never remained on the faces before her, constantly returning to the road that led beyond the village. At last she spotted the familiar large figure of Hercules, his arm wrapped about Eponin's waist as he helped the wounded Amazon toward the settlement. She let her gaze rake over the woman's tall form, saw the nasty gash in her side, the leathers punctured and stained with blood. But the dark-haired warrior was grinning, her eyes alight with their victory.

' Where's Xena? ' Gabrielle almost snapped. Hercules shook his head.

' She rode after Kresis - he took off when he realised he'd lost. '

' Alone? ' Her voice sounded strained, almost hysterical to her own ears.

' Gabrielle...' Eponin reached out a hand, laid it on her shoulder. ' She'll be fine. Xena can handle him. '

The warrior's words reassured her a little. She released a long held breath, and nodded, then her attention turned back to the wound at the woman's side. ' Pony, you need to get to the village hall, let the healer take a look at that. '

Eponin nodded, unwrapping her arm from about Hercules' broad shoulders. She flashed him a quick smile, then moved off to the large stone building at the center of the village. Gabrielle turned to Hercules.

' How bad was it? '

He sighed, running a hand through his hair. ' Intense, but quick. She had us organised so well they never knew what hit them. '

' Yeah, well, she has done this before, you know. '

Blue eyes met green, and they both smiled, some of the tension dissipating.

' I guess she has. ' He murmured. Hercules nodded to the village. ' What about here - anyone get through? '

Gabrielle leaned some of her weight into her staff. ' A small group - only six - came in through the back of the village. Kresis probably sent them to block anyone trying to flee. '

He raised an eyebrow. ' No problems? '

She shook her head. ' Only for them. Guess they weren't expecting a fight. '

' Yeah, ' he smiled, ' not to mention a couple of armed Amazons lying in wait, huh? '

Gabrielle smiled. ' I think that was a bit of a surprise. Solari and I had two of them down before they'd even drawn steel. '

The sound of hoofbeats drew their attention. Both turned to see a rider, mounted on the tallest horse Gabrielle had ever seen, galloping toward them. There was no mistaking the figure, black hair streaming out behind her, armour glinting in the afternoon sunlight. Gabrielle felt her heart speed up a little at the sight. Then she noted the other horse tethered behind, and the inert form strapped across the saddle.

' Looks like she found him. ' She murmured.

Hercules nodded, shielding his eyes against the low sun as the horses slowed and then stopped.

' Everything okay? ' Xena asked, her eyes moving from one to the other.

' Yeah. ' Hercules nodded. The man lying across the other horse's back groaned, shifting a little. Xena slid from her own mount, walked around and untied him, dropping him into the dirt at her feet.

' Get up. ' She barked.

He struggled to stand; she reached down and grasped him beneath the arm, hauling him to his feet. Without another look at him she propelled him toward Hercules.

' Do me a favour and get him out of my sight before I change my mind and gut him. '

The demi-god grabbed the man by the arm, then dragged him toward the rest of the now defeated army, sitting in shackles in the mud of the village square. Xena watched him go, then turned to Gabrielle. The ice in her eyes melted beneath the heat of the smaller woman's gaze, and her chest rose and fell in a heavy sigh.

' I'm getting too old for this. ' She said with a shaky laugh.

With a small gasp, almost a sob, the bard dropped her staff and rushed into her arms. For long minutes they remained, clinging to each other as if to life itself, breathing in the comfort of their union. Eventually Xena shifted position slightly to kiss the top of the golden haired head beneath her chin. The kisses continued, traveling down across a face salty with tears, finally centering on the trembling lips that whispered her name. She felt Gabrielle's hands tangle in her hair, felt the urgency of her response. When her own need, fueled by both the woman's proximity and her own battle-lust, threatened to overwhelm her she drew back reluctantly, her breathing laboured. Rough, blood-stained hands searched the smooth face before her, her eyes questioning.

' You weren't hurt? '

' No, ' the bard licked her lips, ' were you? '

Xena shook her head. Her eyes continued to drink in the beauty before them.

' Not a scratch. ' She smiled gently. ' Though I think I could use a bath. '

Gabrielle matched her smile. ' Come on; let's go get you cleaned up. '

After a bath that lasted until the water had long since turned cold, Gabrielle hauled Xena back to her room and they dressed quickly, both anxious to find out who was wounded, who hadn't made it home. The tavern downstairs was bustling with life, Cyrene and her staff rushing to provide warm drinks and food for the people flooding in. Xena spotted Simeon standing at the bar, nursing a large mug of ale. She promised to catch up with Gabrielle at the village hall, and as the bard continued on toward the door she changed direction and moved to stand beside him.

He looked up as she approached, then nodded his head in greeting.

' Xena. '

' Simeon. ' She held out her arm. He grasped it with his right, and she noted that his left arm was freshly bandaged. She nodded to the dressing.

' You were wounded. '

' Yeah...' he shrugged, ' ...nothing that won't mend. '

' Simeon, I wanted to thank you. '

The warrior frowned. ' For what? '

' For helping. This wasn't your fight; you could have walked away and no-one would have blamed you. '

A small, almost sad smile crept across his face. ' I learned a long time ago that walking away is often something you live to regret. '

Xena raised an eyebrow, sensing more to the man's comment. He sighed, then looked down into the mug of ale he once again held. ' Before I became..what I am...I once lived in a village, much like this. I was betrothed. Two nights before the wedding Kayla and I fought - it was nothing, but at the time it seemed so important. I stormed out of the house in a rage, took off into the woods with my dogs to hunt, to try and cool off. I was gone all the next day; when I returned...' he shook his head, ' the village had been sacked. I found her in our barn....she'd probably tried to stop them taking the animals. ' His eyes came up to meet hers, unveiled pain radiating from them darkly. ' They'd cut her throat. '

Xena stared at the man standing before her. She knew something of the pain she saw written in his face, knew what it could do. And yet, despite what he had suffered, this man had not given in to the darkness, had not succumbed to the need for revenge, hadn't lashed back at the world with rage as she had. She found herself shaking her head slowly.

' Simeon....I wish I'd had your strength. '

Gray eyes met blue, and something, some shared sorrow, passed between them.

' It's what she would have wanted. ' He said simply.

The village hall was crowded with the wounded, many of them wearing the armour of Kresis' army. Gabrielle picked her way through the low pallets and benches, looking for the healer. She spotted the middle-aged woman stooped over a prone form, deft hands lightly tracing the outline of a broken arm. As Gabrielle approached she noted that the patient was one of the raiders; his eyes were wide with pain and not a little fear, but the woman's actions were soothing, her face devoid of any emotion other than an inner calm.

' Corin? '

The healer looked up, smiling slightly. ' Hello, Gabrielle. Please tell me you've come to lend a hand - I only have two, and they're more than full at the moment! '

The bard replied with a nod and a smile. Corin gestured her to the other side of the pallet, then looked down at the man lying on it.

' Soldier, I have to set your arm. It will hurt, but it needs to be done. '

He nodded through gritted teeth. Gabrielle dropped the bag slung over her shoulder and settled herself on the edge of the pallet. The man whipped his gaze around to look at her. She smiled reassuringly at him, and gently took his uninjured hand.

' You just hold onto me; if it hurts too much squeeze my hand, okay? '

He blinked, eyes already clouded with pain. Gabrielle let her gaze wander down his body, noted the long wound, already stitched, on his left thigh. She brought her eyes back to his, remembering some of what Xena had taught her.

' What's your name? ' she asked softly.

' J-Joris...'

She nodded. ' I'm Gabrielle. Joris, listen to me. I want you to look right into my eyes. Right down into my eyes...' she waited until she had his attention, then continued. ' Joris, keep looking into my eyes, see nothing else but my eyes. There is no pain there, you feel nothing but calm. No pain, Joris, nothing...' she waited until she saw his face relax, his eyes intent on hers, then glanced swiftly at Corin and nodded. ' No pain, Joris....that's right, just my eyes...'

She heard the scrape of bones coming back into line as Corin deftly reset the arm. Joris flinched slightly, but his face remained slack. The hand still held in hers didn't even stir. She waited until Corin had splinted the injured limb before lifting her gaze to the healer, who was grinning broadly at her.

' That was some spell you put on him, ' she chuckled.

Gabrielle shook her head. ' Just something I learned from another skilled healer. '

Joris was blinking, a slight frown creasing his forehead. ' Wh...can't she do it? ' He asked, shaking off confusion. Gabrielle smiled, nodding to his splinted arm.

' It's done. '

He turned to regard his limb, then his gaze snapped back to Gabrielle. 'What did you do to me? I didn't feel a thing....I don't even remember...'

She released his hand, patting it reassuringly. ' Nothing, Joris, I just talked to you. '

' Yeah, ' came a droll voice from behind her, ' she has that effect on me too.'

Gabrielle gave the warrior a stern look. ' I'll remember that next time I'm stitching you up. '

Xena laughed, then nodded to Corin.

' You need some help in here? '

The healer gestured about her to the waiting wounded. ' What do you think?'

Xena bent and snatched up the bag. ' I'll start in the far corner. '

Gabrielle made to rise and follow, but Joris grabbed her hand, holding her back. He looked at her with fear in his eyes again.

' She...I saw her fighting, on the field...she's a warrior. She's no healer, she's come to finish us..'

Gabrielle shook her head, let her free hand wipe back sweat-damp hair from the man's brow. He was no more than a boy, really, she mused, not much older than Lila would be....

' Joris, ' she said softly, ' she is a warrior, a great warrior. But she's also a skilled healer. ' She raised one dark blond eyebrow. ' Who do you think taught me that trick I used to take away your pain? '

He twisted his head to look across the room, to where Xena was crouched beside a man with a sucking chest wound. The man wore the same armour as he, but the woman tended to him gently, her mouth working with quiet words of reassurance. He saw nothing but compassion in those crystal blue eyes. Joris turned his gaze back to the woman beside him, and shook his head.

' I don't understand...why are you helping us?'

Gabrielle smiled gently, then let her own gaze wander across the room to the dark haired warrior tending to an enemy's wounds.

' Because everyone deserves a second chance. ' She replied softly.

They worked well into the evening, until the wounded were resting peacefully and the dead were laid out for burial the following day. Xena felt pangs of guilt at the sight of the line of bodies, wrapped in shrouds, waiting to go to their final rest. Only four villagers, and ten of Kresis men, but still the price was too high. She stood in the darkness at the back of the hall, gazing at the pale shapes laid out on the ground, feeling a sudden rush of weariness. Would it ever end? Would there ever be a time when she didn't have to look upon this?

A small sound, then a warm hand slid into hers. She closed her fingers around it reflexively, squeezing tight.

' You okay? ' Gabrielle murmured.

She sighed, nodding slowly. ' I am now. ' She turned, looked into the face of her lover, her friend. ' Where is everyone? '

' The Inn. ' Gabrielle smiled slightly. ' I think they're waiting for you. '

Xena frowned. ' What for? '

' To say thank you. ' At the warrior's puzzled look, she shook her head. 'Xena, you saved the village. '

' Yeah...' her gaze travelled back to the shrouded forms on the frozen earth. 'But at what cost? '

' Hey! ' Gabrielle stepped around her, looking up into her face. ' Xena, if you hadn't taught them, if you hadn't lead them, many more would have died today. '

The blue eyes that held her soul were filled with pain. ' I could have stopped this before it began, Gabrielle. I could have challenged that bastard Kresis, I could have-'

' No! ' Gabrielle shook her head, her eyes blazing. ' Don't you dare start blaming yourself, Xena, don't you dare! ' She jabbed her finger into her chest, pushing her backwards slightly. ' These people chose to follow you, they chose to fight, to defend their homes. It was their right to do that! No body was asking you to go out there and handle this alone; no-one wanted you to challenge Kresis. '

' I know, Gabrielle, but only because they were afraid to see me in command of an army again! Don't you think I know that? '

The bard's eyes softened. ' You're wrong, Xena. They didn't not ask because they were afraid of you. They did it because they were afraid for you. ' She lifted her hand to place it against a burning cheek, stroking back loose tendrils of midnight hair. ' They knew what it would do to you, having that kind of responsibility again. They knew the pain it would bring to you, the guilt of remembering. ' She sighed. ' Xena, you have to start to trust the people who care about you. They made their decision, to fight with you; don't disrespect them now by questioning that. '

For a long minute Xena stared down into the earnest face before her, then her shoulders sagged a little and she released a long breath. She raised her arms, folding Gabrielle into her body, feeling some of the younger woman's warmth seep into her tired limbs.

' What would I do without you? ' She murmured, her lips grazing the top of her head.

Gabrielle stroked her back. ' I don't know, but it would be very boring, that's for sure. '

Xena laughed, the bleak mood lifting, dissipating like mist before the morning sun. She stepped back slightly, without releasing her, then dipped her head and captured her lips in a gentle kiss.

' Come on, bard, ' she said, taking her hand again and starting towards the Inn. ' let's see if there's anything left for dinner. '

Cyrene's Inn was bursting with people. Everyone who could walk was there, including it seemed most of the children. After eating a large dinner Gabrielle moved off to one corner of the room, gathering the youngsters about her, preparing to tell them a tale. Xena watched her go, a small smile tugging at her lips. Only when Ephiny dug her in the ribs did she turn and look at her table mates.

' What? '

' What, she says! ' The Amazon chuckled. ' Some mighty warrior - finally conquered by a slip of an innocent girl with a soft voice and a big smile. '

Xena's smile widened into an evil grin. ' She's no girl, Eph. And she's certainly no innocent. '

Hercules nearly choked on his ale. After several resounding thumps on the back from Iolaus, he gasped.

' Xena! '

' What? ' She feigned innocence. ' All I meant was that she's a grown woman. She's old enough to have been married. '

Melysa, coming back from the kitchens, took a seat by Toris and frowned. 'Gabrielle's married? '

' Was. ' Ephiny looked at her sadly. ' He died. '

' Oh, how terrible..' her gaze wandered across the room to the bard, now seated in the corner surrounded by enraptured children as she spun out a tale. ' Poor Gabrielle...still, she's young, and lovely...I'm sure she'll find another husband when she's ready. '

' She'd better not. ' Xena muttered. The whole table erupted into laughter, leaving Mel sitting with a puzzled look on her face. She turned to her husband.

' Tor..what did I say that's so funny? '

He shook his head, grinning broadly. ' Nothing, love. I don't think you understand...' he leaned in to whisper in her ear. Soft brown eyes grew wide, and a startling blush spread across her face and neck. When he sat back she gaped at him, then let her eyes wander to Xena. But the tall warrior was turning to Ephiny again.

' How's Eponin doing? '

The Amazon regent grimaced. ' She's like a bear with a sore head. I had to practically tie her to the bed to make her stay put.. '

Xena raised an eyebrow. ' Kinda stubborn, huh? '

' Yeah, ' Ephiny drawled, ' sound familiar? '

More chuckles from around the table; Xena slumped back in her seat, giving them all the hard stare.

Later, wrapped in tangled sheets and the warmth of Gabrielle, she let the events of the day wash over her. Her fingers absently playing with a lock of gold hair she stared at the ceiling, her ears filled with the ring of steel on steel, the cries of the wounded, the dying. Her blood had sung during the battle, firing her body with strength, determination, joy. But afterwards.....how unaccustomed the sense of weariness, a feeling that was all of the soul and nothing to do with the fatigue of her body. Since when had she started to feel this, this remorse, regret?

' Xena?'

The bard's soft voice tugged her back to the room, the bed in which they lay. She shifted, arching her neck to peer down into the face of the woman in her arms.

' What, love? '

The gentle light from the single candle guttering on the table wove a tapestry of gold and shadow across fair features. Green eyes shone as they looked up to her.

' What's wrong? '

Xena almost laughed. This woman held her heart, without question. Now, it seemed, she held the mirror to her soul also. With a small smile, she caressed her cheek.

' I don't know. ' She answered honestly. ' I've never felt like this before. '

Gabrielle shifted position, rising slightly to prop herself up on one elbow and look down into her face.

' You know what I think? '

Xena shook her head, hair rustling against the pillow. ' What? '

Small, strong fingers reached out to trace the line of her cheek bone. ' I think your heart is finally whole. '

She stared at her, understanding washing over her like a wave. Whole....is this what it felt like? To be complete? These feelings she struggled against - they weren't alien, they were born of a part of herself that she had kept hidden, locked away, for so long now she had forgotten it existed. The part of herself that she had allowed back into the light in finally accepting that she loved, and was loved in return. Sudden tears threatened to overwhelm her, filling her eyes, blurring her vision. Her hand trembled as she reached out to touch Gabrielle's face.

' Because of you. ' She whispered.

Golden hair whispered against her face as the bard leaned in to place a gentle kiss against her lips.

' Because of us. ' She murmured into her mouth, drawing the warrior home.

The candle flickered, then died, leaving two lovers to rejoice in the light of their souls.

Two days passed, and the time came to bid old friends good bye. The Amazons were to return to their homelands to the north, and with the break in the weather holding, Ephiny had decided to delay the journey no longer. At first light they gathered in the village square, their horses stamping impatient hooves against the frozen earth. After much hugging, and a formal thank-you from the village council, they were all finally mounted and ready to ride out. Ephiny threw one last smile at Gabrielle and Xena.

' Come home soon. ' she called out, then turned her mare towards the road out of Amphipolis. With a ringing cry that split the morning air, she spurred her mount onward, leading the Amazons toward home.

Xena and Gabrielle stood and watched them go, even as the villagers dispersed and went back to their own homes. When the last rider had disappeared between the trees Gabrielle turned to her, folding her arms across the front of her blue tunic.

' It was good to see them again. ' She murmured.

Xena nodded. ' It was. ' She smiled at the quiet bard. ' How 'bout we pay them a visit for the Spring Festival? '

Gabrielle's solemn face cheered immediately. ' Xena, I'd love to! Are you sure? '

The warrior shrugged. ' Why not? It's not as if we have other plans. And besides, ' she grinned, ' no-one knows how to party like the Amazons, right?'

Gabrielle laughed, then slipped her arm through Xena's and turned toward the Inn. ' Hercules and Iolaus are headed out later. I think Simeon is going to travel with them as far as Elessa. '

' Yeah, so I heard. ' Her face softened at the thought of the warrior. ' He's a good man, Gabrielle. I just hope he finds the happiness he deserves. '

They made their way back to the Inn, each lost in their own thoughts. At the doorway Xena stopped, turning toward her friend.

' Gabrielle...'

The bard smiled up at her. ' Yes, love? '

' I was thinking we should maybe head south for the rest of the winter, get away from this cold weather. '

Gabrielle nodded. ' It's a good idea. It'd be nice to see the ocean again. ' She grinned wryly. ' As long as I can do it from the shore. '

Xena laughed, knowing just how sea-sick the younger woman could get on ocean voyages. ' Don't worry, I was intending we stay by it, not on it. But...if we're headed south we'll be passing close to Potaideia. We could spend a few days there, if you liked. '

Gabrielle's eyes shone warmth. She knew her parents viewed Xena as little more than trouble; she also knew how uncomfortable that made her feel. But they were her family, and it had been so long since she had seen them...

' Maybe one night. ' She conceded. ' It would be good to know they're all right. '

Xena nodded, then pushed open the Inn door. Together they stepped into the warmth that was once the warrior's home.

After seeing-off Iolaus, Hercules and Simeon, Xena found herself yearning for the road. Gabrielle recognised the look of impatience and restlessness in her partner's blue eyes, and went to find Cyrene. The older woman was busy helping Anya prepare the meal for that evening; she looked up from the ball of bread dough she was kneading, flour coating her arms to the elbows, and smiled at the bard.

' Hello, child. You hungry again? '

Gabrielle grinned, shaking her head. ' No...I just thought I'd let you know that we'll be moving on soon. Probably tomorrow. '

Cyrene's face fell a little. ' Oh. ' She stepped back from the table, pushing back a strand of errant hair from her face with the back of her wrist, leaving a smear of flour across her brow. ' I had hoped you might consider staying a little longer. '

The bard shrugged apologetically. ' We..ah...had planned to travel the south, until the winter passed. And I really should call in on my family, let them know I'm okay. '

Cyrene nodded. ' Of course. I'm just being selfish, wanting to keep you both here. ' She smiled wistfully. ' Maybe your next visit won't be under such unfortunate circumstances. '

Gabrielle returned the smile. ' I hope not. And I'm sure Xena will want to call in here on our way north in Spring. I know I will. '

Cyrene looked at her for a long moment, then her gaze dropped to her floury hands. She wiped them absently on her apron. ' You know, Gabrielle, ' she said softly, ' I can't remember ever seeing her this happy. Not since she was a child. '

Gabrielle swallowed. ' I think she's finally realised that she can face up to her past, and still look forward to the future. '

' Maybe...but I believe she has you to thank for that. ' Cyrene's gaze came up to meet hers again. ' As do I. You did that for her, Gabrielle. You taught her how to love again. In doing that, you gave me back a daughter I thought I'd never see again. '

Gabrielle was, for once, lost for words. Instead, she crossed the distance between them and threw her arms about the older woman, drawing her into a warm embrace.

' Thank you. ' She whispered.

Cyrene held her tight, then chuckled. ' Here, now, you'll be covered in flour!' She laughed, drawing away.

The bard shrugged, then grinned and dusted herself down. ' I hope you'll make us some of those wonderful pastries you're famous for. '

' It's a promise. ' Cyrene waved at her. ' Now go on, or none of us will be eating tonight. '

With another smile, Gabrielle turned and headed out to find Xena.

Their last night at the Inn was peaceful and pleasant. With nothing to plan for except their forthcoming trip, Xena and Gabrielle spent a leisurely dinner with Cyrene, Toris and Melysa. Xena was surprised to see some of the soldiers of Kresis' army standing at the bar, sipping ale and talking with the villagers. She knew that the elders had offered amnesty to any but Kresis' generals who wished to remain in the village, but she hadn't expected their integration into society to run quite so smooth. She remarked on this, and Cyrene just smiled, shaking her head.

' Xena, look at them; most of them are barely out of boyhood - where do you think they came from, before Kresis forced them into service? Villages, just like ours.'

She turned her gaze back to the bar, looking at them in a new light. Gods, her mother was right. So young....how many just like them had ridden behind her? How many had lost their lives on fields far from home, dying for a cause they barely understood?

' Hey. '

She turned; Gabrielle was looking at her knowingly.

' Stop it. Now. Leave the past where it is. '

Xena smiled slowly, reaching our to lay a hand on Gabrielle's arm. 'You're right. ' She looked to her mother again. ' What of Kresis? Any news from Hortos? '

Hortos was the largest town that Kresis had raided. After their capture, the warlord and his generals had been taken to the jails there to await trial.

' Actually, yes, ' Toris answered. ' There's been talk of the trial being held in Athens. Kresis has upset a lot of people - perhaps sending him there will be the most fair option. '

She nodded, satisfied with the outcome. ' It's for the best. And besides, in Athens there'll be better security. Less chance for him to scheme his way out. '

Mel blanched. ' You don't think he could, do you? '

' Not really...but who knows what contacts he still has? '

There was a contemplative silence that stretched on a little too long for Gabrielle's liking. In the end she pushed back her chair noisily, and stood.

Xena frowned at her.

' Where are you going? '

' To earn our keep. ' She flashed a quick grin at Cyrene. ' This place is far too quiet tonight. What it needs is a good bard. '

She made to move away, but Xena's arm shot out, her hand grasping her wrist and halting her.

' Wait! '

Gabrielle looked down on her. ' What now? '

' Just....no war stories, okay? '

There were chuckles around the table, heads nodding in agreement. Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

' Okay, okay....no battles, no fighting. I get the picture. '

She headed off for the dias. Xena watched her, leaning back in her seat, her hand reaching for the mug of port by her plate. As Gabrielle took to the stage and her soft voice began to fill the room, she allowed herself to look about her, counting her blessings. Her mother, watching the young woman with a blend of pride and affection in her eyes, sitting to her right. Opposite her, Toris and Melysa, their chairs pushed back, sitting close, hands clasped together against Toris' knee; a new family, looking toward the future with hope. She felt a rush of love for these people, her people, her family, a sense of something lost finally returning to its home . Then her eyes wandered back to the front of the tavern, and the slender figure with bright hair and shining eyes who was holding the entire room captive with nothing but her voice and the words in her mind. Xena felt her heart swell to the point of bursting, felt every fibre of her being come alive with love, her soul singing with joy.

Whole, it sang.



And Finally...

Well, if you made it this far, it can't have been all bad. I'm a first-timer, so I'd really appreciate your comments. G'wan, drop me a line...please? dopam@aol.com


April '99.

The Athenaeum's Scroll Archive