An Awakening part 2 by Hunter Ash

Children of Gods

Part 2 of the Awakening Saga

Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle must find a way to deal with Ares now that they’re back in Greece with Sasha, the daughter of Ares and Xena. In doing so, Xena discovers some truths about her parents and faces her own darkness and Gabrielle must face it with her.

“Xena!” Cyrene yelled with a grin as the warrior approached the inn with Gabrielle in her arms. Xena returned the grin and Gabrielle smiled at her mother-in-law.

Hercules hugged Iolaus and Sasha and ruffled the smaller man’s hair.

“How long have you been here?” the demi-god asked.

“About a candlemark. I was telling Cyrene about the last two years.”

“I’ve been worried sick!” Cyrene commented, moving aside so Xena could move inside with Gabrielle. The older woman’s quick eyes had taken in the bard’s pale and drawn skin and bandages on her wrists, matching ones of her own daughter.

Xena was grateful that there were only a couple of farmers sitting at the tables and sat Gabrielle down carefully into one of the chairs at a table near the fire. Gabrielle smiled as Cyrene came in, followed by Hercules, Iolaus and Sasha. Iolaus let Sasha down out of his arms and the toddler squealed in delight in seeing her mom, Xena and rushed into the dark warrior’s arms. Xena grinned and hugged her daughter tightly and looked at her mom.

“You’ve met your granddaughter,” Xena grinned.

“Granma!” Sasha grinned as well and Cyrene reached out her arms and took the toddler.

“So Iolaus introduced us. Are you okay?” the innkeeper sat down at the table with Gabrielle, holding Sasha in her arms.

Gabrielle nodded but Cyrene thought the bard looked very tired and sick.

“What happened?” Iolaus asked as he and Hercules also sat down.

Xena’s eyebrows raised in question as Torris, her brother, came out from behind the bar, carrying a tray of goblets.

“Hey, Xena. Hi, everyone,” he said simply and walked back into the back room.

“Don’t mind him, he’s still adjusting,” Cyrene said with a shrug, reminding Gabrielle of her mate’s habit of shrugging.

“I noticed he didn’t make it to the wedding,” Xena muttered, pulling up chairs for her and Solan.

“So what happened in Rome?” Iolaus demanded.

Gabrielle nodded to Xena when a coughing fit took her breath away. She was grateful that her mug was filled with cider and not the port that Xena favored. Cyrene frowned at the depth of the cough, noting the sounds of fluid on the lungs.

“How far did you get Iolaus?” Xena asked.

“I told your mom how Gabrielle was captured and sold to slavers and I was hurt. How she ended up in the Arena as a gladiator and got back to us with help from Brutus. About you having a baby in the middle of a skirmish and I got as far as Artemis showing up on the road and zapping us all over the known world.”

“Artemis told us the Amazons and Centaurs had been attacked by the Romans. Gabrielle’s idea was to go to Rome and exchange herself for the prisoners while I killed Caesar.”

“Xena,” Cyrene whispered, the worry showing on her face.

“I know, Mom, but he was worse than Cortese and he had our family.”

“Was?”

“The heralds haven’t reached here yet? Caesar is dead, assassinated in the Senate of Rome by the Senators themselves. Marc Anthony has taken power.” Hercules stated simply.

“You didn’t kill him?”

“No, he caught me when I tried to get to him. He was expecting me.” Xena answered with a grim smile. “Gabrielle traded herself for the Amazons, leaving us with Caesar.”

Cyrene glanced over as Gabrielle coughed again, the coughs deep and wracking. Xena pulled her chair next to her bard’s and held her mate. Gabrielle leaned heavily into her shoulder.

“We found out that Brutus and some of the other Senators had a plot to kill Caesar and once he was dead would accept a treaty with the Amazons. Caesar put us in the Arena to fight.” Xena suddenly found it hard to continue, remembering the terror when Caesar had announced that the Queen of the Amazons would be crucified and Xena forced to watch during the night while she died. The would-be emperor planned on killing the warrior the next day by beheading but not before she watched Gabrielle suffer and die.

“Caesar crucified Gabrielle and forced Xena to watch,” Hercules continued for his friends.

Iolaus turned very pale and Cyrene thought she was going to be sick. She reached out a comforting hand to Gabrielle’s shoulders, who attempted a small smile.

“How long was she there?” Iolaus asked quietly.

“From sundown to midday,” Xena answered, fighting back tears.

That answered the bandages on her daughter’s wrists, Cyrene reflected. She knew Xena must have gone insane watching her mate dying while chained. The mother was surprised that her daughter hadn’t ripped her own hands off to get to Gabrielle.

It also explained the bandages on Gabrielle’s wrists, the innkeeper knew about crucifixion. Seven inch spikes driven through the wrists and ankles, leaving the body hanging in an unnatural position, unable to breathe fully. Eventually the body would break down and the victim would die, suffocating to death. Fluid on the lungs or heart collapse.

Gabrielle coughed again and whimpered, closing her eyes as she curled into Xena’s arms.

“Brutus got us out of Rome and back to the Amazons and then Artemis zapped us here in reward,” Xena finished.

“Take her up to the room on the right, I’ll heat some bath water and some herb steam water to help break up the lung fluid,” Cyrene ordered as Gabrielle kept her eyes closed.

“Here, I’ll take her up, Xena.” Hercules offered, gently taking the bard into his arms. She whimpered slightly, drawing her hands in close to her body. Xena’s face reflected her worry as she followed her friend and mate up the stairs.

“Gods, will it never end for those two?” Iolaus muttered.

Cyrene grinned at Solan. “Glad to see you again.”

He grinned back and reached out to tickle Sasha. “Hi, I’m your big brother.”

******

Xena was surprised to find the person knocking on their door the next morning was Torris and not her mother. The warrior had already dressed and was getting Sasha dressed while Gabrielle slept. Torris looked at the sleeping bard on the bed and looked uncomfortable, bringing a frown to Xena’s face.

“Can we talk, Xena?” he asked simply.

“Let me get Sasha’s boots on and I’ll be down. I want to let Gabrielle sleep as long as possible. A bed is a definite change from the back of a wagon.”

“All right, I’ll be downstairs.” He left without acknowledging the conversation.

“I wonder what’s crawled under his skin, as if I didn’t know,” she muttered as she struggled with a squirming toddler. She grabbed Sasha into her arms and leaned over to check on Gabrielle’s breathing and frowned at the rasping sound.

Xena grinned at the site of Iolaus waiting by the fireplace, showing Solan a knife trick. The warrior thought it was a good sign that the small Greek wasn’t suffering from the nightmares as much, especially since Hercules had taken to sharing his bed and soothing away all the nightmares.

Xena caught site of the demi-god sitting at one of the tables watching Iolaus and her son and her grin grew wider at the look of affection on his face. Hercules caught her watching him and blushed. She walked over to the table and sat down.

The serving girl, Aglaea, brought over food for both mother and daughter.

“Morning.” Xena grinned at Hercules and he grinned back, reaching out and tickling Sasha’s chin.

“Morning. Why don’t I take her, your brother is waiting outside,” he suggested and Xena handed over her dark haired daughter with a frown.

“I wonder what is so damned important I can’t feed my daughter first?” she muttered, grabbing her bowl and eating quickly as she headed for the door.

Outside the inn she found Torris standing under a nearby tree, leaning against it with his arms folded. Xena fought down the familiar feeling of irritation. He looked so much like he did when she was young, foreboding and unforgiving. Xena placed the empty bowl and spoon on a bench and walked up to her older brother, trying not to let her body betray her irritation.

“Torris, what’s up?” she asked in an even voice.

“I, uh… I’m sorry about Gabrielle’s injuries, I heard you telling Mother about the crucifixion and Caesar’s assassination.”

“Thank you, Torris.” Xena could sense there was more and wasn’t giving an inch to her older brother.

“I know Gabrielle’s been good for you and I’m grateful for that. I’d like to ask that you not be affectionate in public. It’s just that it’s awkward for me as a Council Elder.”

Xena clenched her jaw and made an effort not to throw her older brother through the tree he was standing against.

“What makes you think anyone even notices, Torris, and what business is it of yours?” she growled, eyes narrowing in anger. Xena was just grateful Gabrielle wasn’t there to hear this.

“Xena, you come in every few months or years but I’m the one who stays, damnit, and puts up with your reputation, good and bad.”

Xena was amazed that he actually looked angry. “Torris, which Xena would you rather deal with? The Warlord I was or the woman I am now?” she decided to try reasoning rather than bashing his head in.

“What does that have to do with this?” Torris frowned.

“Gabrielle is responsible for the difference. She is the light in my life and has saved my soul on several occasions. Accept her as my soulmate or not, I don’t care.”

“Selfish as usual,” he growled and Xena stopped herself after taking a menacing step forward.

“I don’t know why I’m even discussing this with you except to tell you this,” she grabbed him by his tunic and pulled him close to her. The anger in his eyes was flashing but he didn’t resist. “You had better not treat Gabrielle any differently than before you knew we were lovers or the Council will be looking for another Elder, got me?”

“Why do you even come back here?” he demanded.

“Certainly isn’t for you! I don’t want Gabrielle hearing about our conversation either. She’s been through enough as it is.” Xena released him and started to walk away.

“Afraid she’ll be ashamed of being your bed mate?” he taunted and found himself on his back in the dust with Xena sword at his throat.

The warrior blinked and stepped back, sheathing the sword with trembling hands.

“Torris, you have no idea how close I just came to losing it with you. I watched Gabrielle crucified in front of me, do you think I’m going to let you hurt her?” she demanded, spinning on her heel and heading towards the woods at a trot and then broke into a run when she reached the treeline.

******

Cyrene frowned, watching the interplay between her offspring from the kitchen window. She couldn’t hear the words exchanged but the rage on Xena’s face and Torris’ disdain had been very clear. The mother’s heart skipped several beats when she had seen her daughter throw her son to the ground and draw her sword, faster than the eye could follow. For a moment Cyrene had been very scared for both of them, knowing what a death like that would do to Xena and the family.

Cyrene cursed her only living son for whatever he had said to set Xena off that much. She smiled as Hercules walked into the kitchen with Sasha in his arms.

“Hey, where’s Xena? I think Gabrielle is awake, I heard her coughing.”

“I’ll take care of her, Xena’s off in the woods for a bit.” Cyrene tried not to let the demi-god see her worry. He caught sight of Torris dusting off his clothes and the man’s scowl.

“I see the discussion didn’t go well with your kids,” he said with a sad smile.

“No, Xena almost killed him.” Cyrene agreed.

“What?” Hercules whispered.

“Seems Torris upset my daughter about something and I’ve got a good idea what about. I’ll take care of Gabrielle, let Xena cool off for a bit. Can you and Iolaus handle Sasha?”

“Yeah, not a problem. Solan is going to take her for a walk around the village. He hasn’t been out of the Centaur village much and wants a look around.”

“If he’s anything like his mother one village won’t hold him long. What happened to his adopted Centaur father?”

Hercules frowned. “Killed by the Romans. That’s how Solan got that cut on the head, trying to protect him.”

“Gods, when will it end?”

“I don’t think it ever will,” he said sadly.

********

Gabrielle tried to keep her cough quiet but found it impossible. She hated to be sick and she hated feeling as weak as she did. Having the bandages on her wrists and her hands practically useless didn’t improve her mood either.

Cyrene cautiously opened the door as she heard a wooden cup go sailing across the room with a growl. Gabrielle sat back on the bed with another round of coughing, blushing in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry,” she said between coughs.

“Don’t be. Remember who my daughter is? I’ve seen temper tantrums before.” The older woman grinned and picked up the cup, setting her tray down on the bed next to the bard. She frowned as she felt Gabrielle’s forehead. “You’re taking a fever.”

“I know. Next comes the healer and lots of foul tasting teas.” Gabrielle complained, taking a drink of the soothing hot tea.

“And weeks of recovery,” Cyrene predicted. “Want me to send for Hecuba and Lila to visit?”

Gabrielle looked at Cyrene with a grateful expression.

Cyrene smiled, “Consider it done.”

*******

Xena’s mom had been right about the long recovery but it wasn’t the weeks that they had all feared when fever and fluid settled into the bard’s system. Xena figured that it must be the fact of who Gabrielle’s true father was, Apollo, God of the sun and of healing. It was only two weeks before the bard was back on her feet, slowly rebuilding her strength.

Gabrielle’s mother Hecuba and her sister Lila visited the inn for several days, bringing overwhelming joy to the little bard as she recovered. The warrior bard still shook her head, so much had happened over the last two years.

Her mom looked older but her eyes lit up when she talked about a neighboring farmer who was also a widow her age. Gabrielle had grinned when her mom blushed at the bard’s teasing about romance.

Then there was Lila, married and with a small infant at her breast. Her little sister had married the local blacksmith and was happy with the match. Her son, already big for an infant, threatened to be his father’s size. Gabrielle grinned though, being married and a mom hadn’t tamed Lila’s stubborn streak or her quick tongue. Hecuba confided that the big blacksmith was like a puppy dog around her sister and absolutely doted on her and their daughter. Gabrielle was thrilled, knowing how rare love matches could be.

Her mom and sister had also been delighted to see the bard, even if she was wounded and sick. Gabrielle had toned down the dangers and horrors she had faced as a Roman slave and then gladiator but they could both read between the lines, especially when they saw Xena’s jaw tighten. The bard hadn’t been able to tone down the suffering she had gone through on the cross though, they could see the results.

Countering that horror had been Solan and Sasha, their new adopted grandkids and cousins. Solan had taken with his little sister and was a wonderful big brother, playing with the toddler for hours on end. Hecuba had been pleased with the family her daughter was building and told both Xena and Gabrielle so, bringing a happy grin to the bard’s face and an embarrassed blush to Xena’s.

******

Hecuba, Lila and son had just left Amphipolis and Xena suggested a walk to the little bard and was pleased when Gabrielle felt up to it. The warrior led them to the small stream just behind the inn and picked a grassy spot and welcomed Gabrielle into her arms as she leaned against a tree.

“What would you think about settling down here?” Xena asked softly, wrapping her strong arms around Gabrielle.

“What about dark and war-like?”

“We’ll have to face it someday, maybe if we can appeal to the gods through Hercules, Zeus can get fuzz-face to leave us alone until Sasha is of an age to decide her future for herself.”

“Won’t be easy, he’ll keep bothering us.”

“Yes, either that or settle in the north with Axel. We need to settle for a couple of years and I’m tired of you being in danger,” Xena whispered in her mate’s ear and Gabrielle leaned back further into her warrior with a happy sigh.

“I’m not happy about it all the time either. There’s something that Apollo told me that’s puzzled me.” Gabrielle frowned in thought and Xena could sense Gabrielle gathering her thoughts.

“What was that, little one?”

“He said that when I was ready to call on him, that I had inherited certain giftings from him and to especially call when you began questioning your parentage.”

“What could he mean by that?” Xena countered with a question of her own.

“I don’t know. That’s just what he said.”

“Maybe it’s time for some answers before Ares gets word about Sasha,” Xena frowned.

“How do we do that?” Gabrielle asked, running her hands playfully over Xena’s arms, marveling at the small scars that matched her own from numerous cuts. The bandages had finally come off the bard’s wrists but she still wasn’t used to the ugly red wounds on both sides of her wrists. She was grateful she still had use of her hands, they were improving every day.

“I guess I start with Mom.”

“What about your brother? He wouldn’t be too happy to have us around.”

“Has he said anything?” Xena demanded and Gabrielle could feel the warrior’s muscles tensing.

“No, my love, but it’s obvious how he feels about us.” Gabrielle smiled a sad smile.

“He can go to Hades for all I care,” Xena muttered. “I need to talk to Mom.”

“Until then,” Gabrielle purred, suddenly distracting the warrior from the mystery by nibbling on her earlobe. Xena growled and felt an answering growl from her bard as Gabrielle turned in her arms and slowly forced the warrior from leaning into the tree onto the grass. Xena moaned softly and held her bard close, having no choice since Gabrielle refused to release her hold on the warrior’s clothes or her lips.

“This….. isn’t… exactly private!” Xena protested between gasps as Gabrielle’s teeth found her neck and her hands worked their way under Xena’s tunic top to grasp her breasts, causing her nipples to beg for more attention.

“Then I guess I can’t strip you naked, can I?” Gabrielle grinned and then laughed as Xena yelped at the thought of being naked by a not-so-secluded stream in her hometown.

Before the warrior could struggle out from under her, Gabrielle slipped a hand under Xena’s skirt and past her undergarment. Xena moaned and threw her head back in sudden passion as the bard discovered how wet the warrior was.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle whispered, always amazed when she touched her lover. It always felt so wonderful, like touching the power of the gods, the bard thought. “You’re so wet and so beautiful,” she whispered, bringing another moan from her warrior.

Realizing the public situation they were potentially in, Gabrielle quickly entered her mate and attacked Xena’s neck again with her teeth. Xena moaned and grabbed Gabrielle’s shoulders tightly, biting her lip.

“Anyone could….walk….” Xena tried to protest and lost coherent thought as Gabrielle added more of her hand to her attack and increased the speed and depth.

“Then you’ll have to keep quiet,” Gabrielle smirked in the warrior’s ear.

“Arrrgghhhh! I’ll….get you…..oh gods, don’t stop, please!” Xena found herself begging as her body rocked with Gabrielle’s rhythm. The bard’s thumb found Xena’s clit, and the warrior stifled a scream.

“Never, my love.” Gabrielle bit down again and felt Xena’s fingertips digging into her shoulders and the warrior’s body shuddering as waves threatened to overtake her. “Now, my love.”

Xena bit into Gabrielle’s shoulder as the waves overcame her, stifling a scream.

The bard straightened Xena’s skirt and lay next to her gasping warrior, gently playing with Xena’s hair, an amused look on her face.

“Oh you are so in trouble,” Xena gasped and smiled when Gabrielle’s eyes and nose crinkled in amusement. Xena moaned deeply as the bard brought her fingers to her mouth and gently licked them.

Before Xena could recover her breath the bard had leapt to her feet and grinned down at her mate.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Xena demanded, sitting up on her elbows.

“I promised to help your mom with setting up for dinner,” Gabrielle said, trying an innocent expression.

“Oh no, you don’t!” Xena threatened, starting to her feet. The bard giggled and danced away towards the inn with Xena hot on her heels.

Cyrene grinned as the two dashed into the kitchen area of the inn. Both suddenly stopping and looking like two kids who had been caught skipping school. Gabrielle glanced back and saw her mate’s playful expression turn serious and nodded to her warrior and moved towards the other room.

Gabrielle stopped and kissed Cyrene’s cheek and then went out of the room, leaving mother and daughter alone.

******

“Mom?” Xena asked softly as her Mom walked out of the back room with an armload of carrots. Her mom looked up and grinned and handed her daughter a knife. Xena settled into peeling and cutting the vegetables for the evening meal.

“What’s up, little one?” Cyrene asked as her quick hands made short work of the vegetables.

“I don’t know how to ask it,” Xena complained.

“Direct questions usually work best,” Cyrene commented with a smile.

“Gabrielle and I want to stay on here for awhile and to do that I have to face Ares. I want the backing of the gods to keep him out of our lives and Apollo hinted to Gabrielle that there was something mysterious about my parentage.” Xena held her breath, trying to control her shaking hands.

“Wow, definitely a direct question. I’m glad you two would like to settle down here. I can certainly use the help around here and you know I love Gabrielle very much.”

“Mom?”

Cyrene sighed heavily and closed her eyes. “Yes, there’s more about your heritage than you’ve been told. I guess I just hoped it would never come up. A mom wants a normal life for her children.”

Xena nodded, understanding that one. She knew having the daughter of a god was going to add additional burdens to being a parent and no one knew what those were yet. Then again, Xena’s life hadn’t exactly been “normal” either.

“It’s not Ares is it?” the warrior whispered, shuddering a little.

“No!” Cyrene said quickly, thinking the same thoughts as her daughter. Even for Greek Gods that would be just a little too close to home.

“Come on, Mom,” Xena urged.

Cyrene sat down at the table and motioned Torris back out the door when he poked his head in. He disappeared with a scowl. Xena sat down across from her.

“This isn’t easy, Xena.”

“I know and I really don’t care but it might be important in dealing with Ares about Sasha.” Xena reached out and placed her hands over her mother’s and Cyrene sighed again.

“When your father was away I was approached by a woman, a stranger. She revealed that she was the goddess Hecate.” Cyrene hesitated, remembering how scared she had been to face the dark goddess.

“Hecate?” Xena whispered. Hecate – the goddess of the dark moon and of magic?

“Yes, I am part of her worship in this area. We gather and hold suppers in her honor and we exchange knowledge of magic and secrets.”

Xena raised her eyebrows, she had never known her mother to be particularly religious and this secret worship of a dark goddess of magic was a surprise.

“What did she want?” Xena asked.

“She was running from Hera, seems she had an affair with Zeus and Hera was fit to be tied,” Cyrene grinned.

“Figures, he gets around almost as much as Apollo.” Xena shared the grin.

“You know how Hera feels about Zeus’ offspring with mortal women, Hecate asked if I would help them.” Cyrene hesitated.

“Help? As in how?” Xena urged her mother to continue.

“She asked if I would take her child, we would both be mothers and I would raise the child.” Cyrene said softly, not looking Xena in the eye.

Xena felt a chill travel over her body and a roaring fill her ears. What? She shook her head.

“What? Are you trying to say that I have three parents and two of them are gods?” Xena whispered.

“Yes,” Cyrene tried to pull her hands away from Xena but the warrior resisted, holding her mother’s hands tight.

“But I’m human.” Xena protested. She had died, come back to life and had suffered enough wounds to prove to anyone that she wasn’t a god, she thought.

“That was Hecate’s gift, that you would inherit my human side. I carried you and gave birth to you and we hoped that you would live your life without attracting the attention of the gods,” Cyrene answered.

Xena surprised her mother by laughing and sitting back in her chair.

“Then along comes Ares!” Xena smirked and Cyrene had to smile with that twist of events as well.

“Not only do you take up with him, now you’ve got a daughter by him to deal with,” Cyrene smiled ruefully.

“I know, I know, wouldn’t have been my choice for father if I’d been in my right mind,” Xena complained.

“She’s beautiful,” Cyrene countered, bringing a big grin to Xena’s face.

“That she is. Gods, what in Tartarus do I do with this information? Hera would still probably kill me just out of spite.”

“I don’t know, little one. You know Ares is going to cause you problems if you don’t find a way to keep him out of your life.” Cyrene mentioned.

“Ack!”

**********

“Well that might explain why you’re drawn to the shamanism,” Gabrielle ventured as they sat under the same tree by the stream, bard in the warrior’s arms.

Xena didn’t tell her bard that it was also probably why Alti was drawn to her energy. The daughter of the Dark Goddess, gods, Alti must have been drooling to get a hold of that energy, Xena thought. No wonder she wanted me to kill the Amazons, she knew I had the power and the darkness to do it and harness it, she thought to herself, once again cursing herself for her past. She shook those thoughts aside.

“Yeah, what do we do about Ares?” Xena complained.

“Haven’t a clue yet, lover.”

“Maybe I can help.”

Both women jumped to their feet and had weapons in their hands when with a flash of light Ares stood in front of them. Xena moved to stand beside Gabrielle, a snarl on her lips.

“What do you want, Ares?”

“I sense a mystery that needs solving. Why do you need to ‘do’ anything about me? And why was Aphrodite dead set on keeping me away from you two?” he asked with a smug grin.

“Maybe because she thought we needed a day off from you?” Gabrielle asked with an innocent smile, causing Ares’ to snarl back at her.

Ares closed his eyes and Xena felt a chill run up her spine as he concentrated. The warrior felt a sense of dread as he opened his eyes with a grin.

“A child? We have a child?”

“Get out of my head, damn you!” Xena snarled with an overhead swing which he quickly blocked with his own sword, appearing in his hand with a flash.

“Is that anyway to treat the father of your child?” he grinned, blocking another blow and spinning out a side kick as Gabrielle sprinted forward with her sais, kicking her in the chest and sending her flying back into the tree.

“Gabrielle!” Xena cried out, managing to land a blow on the side of Ares’ head with her sword hilt but took a backhand from the God of War, sending her flying back next to the bard who was shaking her head and holding her chest.

Ares grinned and disappeared.

“Gabrielle!”

“No, go – Sasha!” Gabrielle gasped and Xena was gone at a run towards the inn.

Xena rounded the corner of the inn only to be stopped short by the sight of Ares flying through the door, landing on the door and his backside. The God of War shook his head with a snarl. Hercules stepped out of the doorway and grinned at Xena.

“Hi, we had company,” he merely said. He turned back to Ares. “I told you at their wedding that if you didn’t leave them alone I was going to keep pounding your head into things until you couldn’t remember your own name.”

Ares disappeared as Hercules reached for him. The demi-god turned to Xena, taking in her bloody lip and drawn sword. Xena suddenly turned and began running back towards the stream with Hercules following.

They found Gabrielle standing by the tree wincing and cursing. Xena quickly examined her mate and smiled. “No broken ribs but you’ll have quite a bruise there, love.”

“I know, is Sasha all right?”

“Hercules sent him scurrying away.”

“This time,” Hercules said grimly.

“I know, we’ve got to find an answer.” Xena muttered as they began walking back to the inn to find Solan and Torris lifting the door back to the doorway. Hercules shrugged his shoulders with an embarrassed grin at Solan.

*********

Xena smiled as she opened the door to their room and found Gabrielle playing with Sasha on the bed. She also nodded approvingly when she saw the sais in the bard’s hand. Gabrielle sat it down next to her.

“He’s not likely to come through the door,” Xena grinned.

“No, but he’s been known to send goons on his dirty work.” Gabrielle grinned back.

“Momma!”

Xena grinned even wider and opened her arms as she approached the bed and grabbed her daughter up in a hug. Gabrielle smiled and leaned back against the wall, watching her mate and daughter interact.

“We need to figure something out because I could get used to this,” Gabrielle commented.

“So could I,” Xena agreed.

“Really, Miss Never Settle Down in My Life? You barely even stop anywhere for more than a day.” Gabrielle teased, causing her mate to blush.

“Well, I think motherhood this time around has gotten to me.” Xena admitted. “What about you, my love. Ever want to have one of your own?”

“As long as I’m with you. I’m not sure how we’ll arrange that one. I am NOT sleeping with Ares!” Gabrielle grinned.

“Oh you are so in trouble!” Xena growled as she sat down on the bed, sitting Sasha down. “Get her, Sasha! Tickle fight!”

The bard squeaked and tried to keep a pillow between herself, her mate and her daughter as everyone began tickling each other, bringing tears of laughter to their eyes. No one was ever sure who won that fight.

A short time later found Gabrielle reciting a tale to Sasha and her warrior. Snuggled in Xena’s arms with Sasha between them. After awhile Xena reflected once again that she could get used to this as the bard and daughter slept curled up next to her, the bard wrapped protectively around Sasha.

******

The next morning Gabrielle found Xena unusually quiet over breakfast while Solan chattered away with Sasha and Iolaus.

Torris, bumping into Gabrielle coming down the stairs, merely mumbled something and left the room. The bard rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“I wish he would get over it,” she muttered.

Gabrielle sat down, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She smiled at her mate’s blue eyes and Xena reached out to hold her hand.

“This is the first time you’ve slept past dawn.” Xena commented. “Like old times.”

“Told you I could get used to this,” Gabrielle smiled back.

It had long been a joke among them that Gabrielle was not a “morning person.” Nope, no way. Not only difficult to wake up at times, but she usually fought for every extra minute asleep she could get. Unless it was Xena’s lips waking her up, the warrior smiled to herself.

Then the bard had been taken as a slave gladiator and hadn’t slept past dawn since, until now. Xena reflected that her mate must be healing in spirit as well as body.

“Any ideas, Xena?” Gabrielle brought the warrior back to the present.

“Actually, I do. I need you and everyone else to guard Sasha while I make a short trip to the mountains.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Not without me, no more separations, remember?”

“I need to do this alone and I know Sasha will be safe with you and Hercules.”

“What are you planning? You’re not going to take on Ares by yourself!”

“No, I’ll be fine, my love.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed, she hated it when Xena kept things to herself but merely nodded. “When are you leaving?”

“Right away.”

Xena was surprised to find her mom waiting at the stable with Argo and another horse already saddled. Xena’s quick eyes noted her mother’s riding clothes and the packs on the back of the other horse.

“What’s up, Mom?” Xena asked cautiously.

“I figured you’d want an early start to get to the mountains.” Cyrene answered simply.

“How did you know?” Xena grinned as she mounted Argo.

“I know you, my daughter. I’ll help you.”

“Mom, I didn’t want you to think….”

Cyrene held up a restraining hand. “I love you and I understand. Let’s go.”

Xena gave silent thanks for the Mom she had as she followed Cyrene out of the stable.

********

Xena was content to let Cyrene led them once they got to the mountains. Her mother seemed to have a destination in mind and Xena didn’t ask. Her mother had refused to answer any questions during the trip, frustrating her daughter to no end.

Cyrene carefully walked her horse up a narrow trail to a cave Xena had spotted earlier. When her mother dismounted Xena followed but Cyrene turned and stopped the warrior.

“Wait here for awhile. I’ll call for you.”

“Mom, what do you have planned?” Xena demanded.

“The same thing you do, I’m going to talk to your other mom.” Cyrene answered with a smile and then disappeared into the cave.

Xena sat down on a rock with an impatient growl, noting her mom had taken the heavy pack with her.

To the impatient warrior a candlemark seemed twice as long but she held her place. She knew from working with Alti that magical rites could take awhile and that her mom probably needed absolute concentration. The warrior shook her head, still having problems imaging her mom as a magician.

“Xena,” her mother called softly after the sun had gone down.

Xena turned and found her Mom standing at the mouth of the cave with a torch, her body and face hidden by a hooded cloak. As the warrior approached her mother held a finger up to her lips indicating silence and then pointed to Xena’s weapons. The warrior quickly placed her weapons on the blanket she had been holding around her.

The priestess motioned Xena to follow her into the cave. Xena could pick out the scent of incense, a combination of spices and herbs, she thought. Also candle wax and fresh water. The warrior figured there must be a stream at the back of the cave.

The priestess placed the torch in a holder in the wall and motioned the warrior closer, around a corner of rock. Xena wasn’t surprised to see a stone altar with several items on the smooth rock. The warrior waited as her mother, the priestess moved past her and stood behind the altar.

On the altar stood a golden wine cup and in front of this was a plate of bread, fish, eggs and fruit. Additional items included a rope, a dagger and a pair of keys and an offering bowl. To the far left and incense bowl.

“Welcome, Seeker of the Night. Here, hidden in the darkness you shall find what you seek. But before you take one step further, be warned; this place is sacred to She Who Shows the Way and She Who Commands the Nightmare. If you have been called her by Our Great Queen, be you welcome. If you intend to profane this place in word or deed, then a curse be upon you for all your lifetimes.” Cyrene intoned in a powerful voice and Xena felt a chill go up her spine. Her mother wasn’t just part of the local worship of Hecate, she realized, Cyrene was the priestess.

Xena moved forward slowly and reached into a belt pouch and dropped several coins in the offering bowl, poured a few drops of wine on the floor of the cave and added incense to the bowl. Cyrene nodded approvingly and motioned her daughter to stand in front of the altar.

“The rope symbolizes the cord of life and it also represents what binds you from the truth.” the priestess picked up the rope and approached the warrior slowly and Xena extended her hands behind her, sensing what was expected. Cyrene quickly bound her daughter’s hands and motioned Xena to her knees. “The crossed keys represent the crossroads where we leave offerings for the Dark Mother, to bring the wisdom that allows us to make the right choices when faced with them.”

The priestess picked up the dagger and walked around the altar again to face her daughter. “The dagger expresses the desire to cut away the darkness so that wisdom might arise. Is this what you seek?”

“Yes,” Xena answered simply.

With quick strokes the priestess cut a small “x” at Xena’s left breast, just below where her armor would cover. The priestess then quickly held the chalice to catch several drops of the blood and then returned the chalice and dagger to the altar.

Cyrene walked behind the altar and raised her hands in invocation.

“Hecate the Beauteous, you I invoke
You of the roads and crossways,
Of heaven, of earth, and sea as well.
You, among the tombs, dancing with dead souls the Bacchic rite.
You, daughter of Perses, lover of desolation,
taking joy in deer and dogs, in the night.
You, terrible Queen! Devourer of beasts!
Ungirded, possessed of form unapproachable!
You, bull huntress, universal sovereign Empress:
You mountain roaming guide, and bride, and nursemaid,
I entreat, O Maiden, your presence at these sacred rites.
With grace to the oxherd and a joyful heart eternal.”

With another quick movement the priestess had taken up the dagger and sliced a cut across her palm and let some of the blood drip into the wine. She raised the chalice high in offering and poured several drops onto the cave floor and then walked around the altar and presented the chalice to Xena’s lips. The warrior drank several swallows easily and the priestess moved back behind the altar and drank several swallows.

With a start both women realized that there was another figure in the cave with them as a hooded figure stepped out of the shadows from the back of the cave. Cyrene quickly went to her knees with her head bowed and Xena bowed her head as well.

“Rise, Cyrene.” a strong and musical voice ordered. The figure pulled the hood back and Xena was surprised to see a woman that looked very much like Gabrielle, only slightly older. “Relax, I appear as one you would trust. You have done very well, Cyrene.” Hecate commented, walking over to Xena and around her. Xena raised her eyebrows, feeling like she was in a market place being judged for a sale. Hecate then laughed and pulled the warrior to her feet and Xena blinked, the rope was gone.

“I know the problem with Ares, I’ve been keeping an eye on things since you got back from the North.” Hecate said simply.

“What do we do about it?” Xena asked bluntly.

“I would suggest that you not rely on the gods to protect you or yours. Hera could cause problems at any time, Ares could get even more demanding, Zeus could change his mind about protection at any time.”

“That would suit me fine, I hate depending on the gods for anything.” Xena agreed with a growl, bringing a smile to Hecate’s face.

“Even though you’re mostly a god?” Hecate countered.

“I prefer the human part, thanks.”

“Xena!” Cyrene squeaked but Hecate merely laughed again.

“It’s all right, Cyrene, it’s what we had hoped for.” Hecate contemplated the warrior for a moment. “So you don’t want to be a godling, that’s all right with me and I’m sure Zeus would rather you stay a secret from Hera as well. She’s finally settling down about Hercules but that can change at any moment. The need then is to level the field between you and Ares.”

“How do we do that?” Xena asked, curiously. “Hind’s blood? Dagger of Helios?”

“The only things that can kill a god by a mortal? You forgot the bones of Cronos. No, I don’t think so. The threat would work for awhile but how long could you stay by Sasha’s side every minute of the day?”

Xena frowned.

“Then how?”

“A gifting from me. What gives Ares an advantage over any mortal?” Hecate questioned.

“Besides his immortality, the fact we can’t hurt him.”

“If I give you and Sasha that gift, that any weapon you take to hand could hurt him?”

“Again, I’d have to protect her every minute of the day until she was older.” Xena continued frowning.

“It would even the balance between you and once I threaten him with my own magic, he’ll back off.” Hecate promised. “Most of the Olympians don’t like to cross me.”

“He’ll hurt Gabrielle,” Xena suddenly looked concerned only to be confused when Hecate smiled.

“He can but he probably won’t try. She already has the gift from her father.”

“What do you mean?” Xena whispered.

“Warrior daughter, Gabrielle died on that cross.”

Cyrene moved quickly around the altar to help support her daughter as Xena’s knees went weak. They both looked at Hecate who had a sad smile on her face.

“What?” Xena whispered.

“Apollo brought back the spark of life to her and Gabrielle herself fought to keep it alive on that cross. Her love for you kept her alive and fanned that spark to a flame. That’s why her recovery was hard, death was fighting hard to take her. She won’t be sick again, any wounds that she gets will heal quickly and it will take more than any other human can take to kill her.”

“That’s why Ares took her out so quickly and why I know I heard her ribs crack but they were fine when I checked on her,” Xena muttered and Hecate nodded.

“Yes,” Hecate confirmed.

“What is the cost of such a gifting for Sasha and me?” Xena asked, eyes narrowing.

“You have to die,” Hecate answered simply and Xena heard Cyrene gasp beside her.

“Again?” Xena asked with a rueful grin and both warrior and priestess were surprised when Hecate laughed again.

“Afraid so and this will require you to do something that might be impossible,” Hecate warned.

“What’s that?” Xena demanded, she hated dealing with the gods, damnit!

“Trust me to bring you back.”

Xena frowned, eyebrows furrowing. She turned and began pacing. Trust? Trust a goddess? Trust anyone but Gabrielle? The warrior turned to face Hecate and Cyrene, her two mothers, still frowning.

“If you can’t, I understand. I’ll take you, Gabrielle, Solan and my granddaughter to the north.”

Xena began pacing again. She finally stopped and faced both older women.

“All right, let’s do it,” she said simply. Hecate looked pleased and Cyrene looked fearful.

“Goddess, sometimes the initiates don’t survive,” the inn keeper said softly.

“They were either ready for death and not for life or their faith wasn’t strong enough. Is yours, warrior?” Hecate suddenly demanded, her eyes hard.

“You know I’m not one for worship of the gods,” Xena countered.

“How is your faith in life and love?”

“What do you mean?” Xena questioned.

“There was a time when you would have welcomed death, a time when you thought you deserved it. Even now you doubt whether you’ve made up for your past. You still carry that guilt.”

“After all I did, how could I not?”

“If you carry that with you there is a chance you won’t cross back over, even with my guidance. Your love of life, for Sasha, Solan and Gabrielle must be enough to resist the darkness,” Hecate warned.

“For Gabrielle and my children I would fight Hades himself!” Xena hissed and Hecate nodded.

“Then at dawn it begins, my daughter.”

********

Xena wasn’t surprised when, just before dawn, Hecate sent her hunting in the woods, the blood of life needed for the cross-over ritual into the dreamscape of the soul. Then the warrior was to climb the mountain, to go as high as she could and spend time meditating and purging her soul and mind of her guilt for the day. To eat nothing and drink little. Having some shamanism training from Alti, the meditation and lack of food was normal for a beginning journey, the warrior knew.

The hunt went well, a deer practically standing still for her arrow shot and the warrior made the climb easily. What didn’t come easy was facing her past again. With an irritated growl she threw a small rock bouncing down the cliff as she sat on the edge. How many times would she have to face this, she thought. Then she corrected herself. Had she ever really faced it?

With a sigh the ex-warlord closed her eyes and forced her breath to steady out and let her mind take her back.

By three candlemarks the warrior was bathed in sweat even though it was quite cold on the mountain top. She had completed the chanting and connecting with the spirit of the deer and mixed her blood with that of the animal.

Then the warrior drank the blood and felt herself slipping through the confusing, terrifying and weird space between the worlds and crossing into the dreamscape. Xena turned to face her past.

The warrior saw her childhood, remembered the feelings of being different from the other children of the village and nearby villages. The only one accepting her Lycius, her beloved brother. Her mind forced her to relive their weapons practice, he was the only one that tolerated her desire to learn how to fight. Then the images of going into battle against Cortese, watching her brother fall to an arrow and then to Cortese’s sword. The horrifying sight of her brother’s body being dragged behind a horse, mutilating his body.

The only sign of the warrior’s torment on the outside was a small whimper escaping her lips.

Her mind continued. Xena rallying the men and boys of the village to fight back and avenge their dead. Being bested by Cortese, being abused by him and his men and left for dead. With another whimper Xena watched her younger self swear revenge by her brother’s blood and her own, her eyes flashing, bordering on insanity.

The older warrior wishing she could go back in time and tell the young girl not to accept the hand of the stranger appearing in front of her. The stranger that promised to help her in her revenge, to show her how to fight and conquer the world. Promised her power, enough power so that her violation would never happen again. The young girl had felt the hairs on the back of her neck standing up and sensed that this wasn’t no ordinary mortal and took his hand.

Xena forced her mind to slow down. Always, since giving up the Warlord, her mind tried to travel quickly over the next ten years, blurring the images together. This time the warrior forced her memories to slow down. The battles still blended together but her brutality didn’t. Those who stood in her way, those who had something the Warlord wanted, or those who simply annoyed her – Xena remembered them. Not their names and not many faces but she remembered the tortures, the deaths, the humiliation people suffered at her hands.

Xena could feel the heat of the day, smell the blood and gore, feel the tension on the battlefield. How many battlefields? The cries and screams of the warriors was deafening but the hardest was watching herself. The warrior was forced to watch as the Warlord took delight in the slaughter, in the power of her skills and sword. The maniacal grin and eyes as she took out opponent after opponent. A cleaved skull here, a warrior trying to hold his stomach in place after her sword had ripped it open, another grasping at his throat after her chakram had flown by. The older Xena felt the tears streaming down her face as she walked among the battlefields, seeing the wounded and dead. The warrior in her still knew that sometimes a battle couldn’t be avoided but a lot of those on the field were simple farmers that had gotten in the Warlord’s way. These weren’t soldiers, they were victims. Her victims.

One by one the voices of the dead began to curse and berate her until it was an overwhelming roar in the warrior’s ears, sending Xena to her knees, covering her ears in an useless gesture.

Xena closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing, accepting that the voice were right. She let the pain wash over her and through her and the voices disappeared.

Xena then turned to the darkness in her mind and soul. The warrior wasn’t surprised that her mind struggled against her and fought against the resistance. Xena felt a growl deep in her throat and struggled with herself.

Finally the images began coming, trying to rush over her. With more effort she slowed them down until some of the faces came into focus. Then the events took shape and Xena whimpered with shame.

The sight of Amazons impaled on tree limbs, broken bodies, broken limbs. Of Alti’s power crazed face. Xena kept her breathing normal as Alti’s voice whispered in her ear, seductive, powerful. Her lure of power was almost more alluring than Ares’, the warrior reflected. The warrior’s own inherited shamanic talents drew the evil sorceress like a wolf to a wounded lamb. The Amazons had paid for that power, they had become the lambs under Xena’s hands and Alti’s desires.

Xena let each face appear before her as her astral body shook and cried with regret and shame. She silently begged each for forgiveness as they faded from her sight.

The rush of the blood after a battle, after a slaughter, hit her like a force, knocking her astral body backwards. Sending the warrior to her knees shaking.

The faces of the women and men she herself had brutalized as Warlord, to satisfy her bloodlust after a battle. The barmaids, the female slaves, prostitutes – how many had felt her fist along their jaws and then inside their bodies? How many still carried the scars from her whip or dagger? She knew all of them carried the emotional and mental scars. How many had shed countless tears as they serviced the Warlord, tongues at her sex and shame on their faces at being forced?

Which was worse: the slaughter or the rapes? Xena howled as her guilt overwhelmed her. How could Gabrielle touch her if she ever knew this side of Xena?

Xena fought to maintain control and face the demons. When did she lose the will to live? The ex-Warlord could almost pinpoint when revenge and justice no longer mattered, when all that mattered was power. When did that power become empty? Is that why she brutalized her sexual mates? Was she trying to feel something, anything?

Is that when it all slipped away from her? No, she admitted to herself. It all slipped away when the young girl took the hand of the God of War and welcomed his training and promises.

How many died at her hands merely because she couldn’t feel anything?

Xena felt the tears streaming down her face and released her body and mind, collapsing backwards. Her mind came back to her physical body with a shudder and a scream of grief.

The warrior pulled her fur cloak around her as she curled into a ball and let the tears flow, occasionally smacking the rocks with her fists or palms, trying to release the pain.

********

The sun was in the afternoon sky when Xena sat up and rubbed a handful of snow over her face. She felt exhausted but knew she wasn’t finished. With a sigh, the warrior sat back up and concentrated on her breathing again. Her body screaming in protest as she pushed the physical aside and went back into her mind, drinking the deer’s blood again.

The warrior forced her mind to bring up the memories of Cirra, of losing control over her army. Xena almost was grateful for the memories of the gauntlet her men had forced her to endure when they threw her out. It wasn’t punishment enough for what she had done. The irony was that they were punishing her for not being brutal enough in those last days. Xena winced at the blows, almost physically remembering them as her younger-self struggled through the line of men intent on killing her.

Then the warrior was remembering how lost she had felt without her men, without the power. Trying to attack Hercules again only to be shown compassion. The older Xena felt a whimper of sympathy for her younger self, running around the countryside, totally lost with herself. No longer the Warlord, no longer with purpose and no longer empty. Instead a feeling of shame and guilt were beginning to gnaw at the warrior, causing more pain than the gauntlet had.

Why had she saved the baby from Cirra? What did she care anymore? The answer was in the question. If she had to ask the question then the answer was that she did care.

Xena remembered being so scared right then. Nothing made sense anymore, she couldn’t be the Warlord and care about anything. Hercules wanted her to stay with him and work through it. Work through what, the young Warlord demanded.

The guilt had been like a heavy mantle on her shoulders and the warrior was determined to walk away from it. The older Xena now knew how foolish that idea had been. As if burying her weapons and walking away from the Warlord would have changed what Xena was – a warrior.

The very still body of the meditating warrior smiled slightly as the first memory of Gabrielle came into focus. The brave young woman trying to bargain to save the women of her village from slavers, even offering herself in exchange.

Xena forced these memories to go as slow as her painful memories had. To force herself to remember all the good things she had done. How many people had they actually helped along the way to this point? Not just the major events like Cecrops and defeating Bacchus, but just stopping some robbers on the road? Stopping wars and battles? Even saving Joxer’s life a couple of times. That ought to make up for some of the bad stuff, Xena smiled to herself.

Not giving into Ares all those countless times. Always at the center of everything was Gabrielle. Even when the warrior had been forced to travel without her, always waiting for her had been Gabrielle.

Until Perdicus. Xena forced her mind to continue on, wanting to turn away from the painful memories but determined to face everything. Her jealousy over Gabrielle leaving and marrying the soldier. Her pain because Gabrielle had been willing to leave her and her own guilty pain for letting the bard go without telling Gabrielle how she felt.

Her own guilt for not protecting Perdicus from Callisto and the guilt for her relief when he was dead and Gabrielle came back to her. It only helped a little that she now knew that Gabrielle had also felt guilty about the relief the bard also felt over Perdicus’ death.

Then the overwhelming joy when the two women had finally faced each other with the truth about their feelings. Xena couldn’t describe how different her heart felt from the Warlord after she and Gabrielle finally kissed.

The warrior let these memories flow over her and the healing feeling they brought with them. Gabrielle’s smile, her hair shining in the sun. The delight in watching the young teenager turn into a beautiful young woman. The joy in seeing those green eyes go from devotion to love to passion.

Then the mixed feelings and memories of their bonding. Of being accepted by the gods themselves, of being blood bonded, soul bonded for all eternity. The horror of Gabrielle’s poisoning by the Romans and the intense suffering no one could have survived. Even now it was too painful to watch her beloved suffering under the poison. Gabrielle’s body twisting and arching in unnatural positions as she screamed in agony. Xena brushed away the tears as her astral body rocked with the pain and the feeling of being helpless.

The time spent beginning to heal only to have Ares mess with their lives again, stealing Xena’s memories of Gabrielle.

The warrior resisted letting her body squirm from those memories. Spending a lust filled night with him made the warrior very uncomfortable to remember but she persisted through the memory. Forcing herself to remember almost killing Gabrielle under Ares’ influence, only the bard forcing her warrior to remember their blood bond saving both of them.

Xena had thought most of their troubles were over then. She mentally bit back on moving away from the next memories, bringing them to the surface.

Her joy and horror at discovering she was pregnant, with a child of Ares. Ack! That hadn’t been easy to deal with. Again it was her bard that saved her, welcoming the child and reassuring the warrior of her love and acceptance. Her joy at Hercules and Iolaus stepping in to lend a hand in getting them out of Greece and Roman territory – away from Ares and Caesar.

Then the day the warrior thought would cause her heart to break, the crippling of her friend Iolaus and the disappearance of Gabrielle for almost two years.

The warrior was horrified to actually be able to see the scene this time, not having been there to help her friend and mate. Xena curled into a small ball as she watched Iolaus fall to the swords and fists of the rogue Romans and Gabrielle fall under her horse, trapped. Xena screamed with Gabrielle as the bandits began hitting and then raping her until she was unconscious.

Xena still marveled at the changes in her little bard when Gabrielle had finally returned to them, a full fledged gladiator and Roman citizen. How good the bard had become at fighting now but still somehow the gentle spirit was still under there.

The memories shifted to Sasha’s birth, the joy in giving life to her daughter mixed with the bitter of Gabrielle not sharing that moment with her and of the death of her German friend Sasha for whom Xena’s daughter was named.

Xena let the feelings of warmth for their adopted Germanic family wash over her in healing and the joy of Gabrielle’s return and rediscovering of their love. The warrior let the recent memories flow a little faster, they were still very fresh in her mind. The crucifixion, her absolute terror as the bard died on the cross, then salvation.

Through it all was Gabrielle, always. Xena realized with a start that not even Solan came close to having that light in her life, maybe not even Sasha. This left Xena with a puzzle of how to feel. She knew she would die for Sasha and Solan, that she would take on the Gods, all of them for her daughter and son. The warrior also knew that Gabrielle would be right there with her without a question or hesitation. Xena also knew that she wouldn’t even consider facing anything ever again without Gabrielle.

With total acceptance the warrior realized that she did trust someone unconditionally and loved someone unconditionally: Gabrielle. When did that happen, she wondered? She had always held back from giving over every bit of herself to someone. Hades, she didn’t give much of anything to anyone before Gabrielle, she amended.

Somehow the small bard had gotten past those walls and now Xena had to accept the fact that she couldn’t live without the bard. She did want to live – both for her children and her mate.

The darkness no longer reached out to claim her for her sins. If she could have a love like Gabrielle’s in her life then the darkness couldn’t control her any more. Xena admitted that she had friends, true friends and family now. Something the Warlord never could. Her mind went back to her body.

As Xena stretched her cold and stiff body she sighed heavily and smiled.

The Warlord was truly dead.

******

Xena wasn’t surprised to see Cyrene and Hecate waiting for her when she returned to the cave just after dark but she was surprised to see Gabrielle there. The bard grinned and rushed into her lover’s arms, holding Xena tightly. Xena raised her eyebrows in question over the bard’s head at Hecate, who now looked more like an older Cyrene.

“You are blood bound together and you trust her unconditionally, she will be your anchor on your next journey.”

Xena frowned and pulled back to look into Gabrielle’s face. “If something goes wrong you could be pulled in with me.”

“I know, Hecate explained that to me. Do you even need to ask?” Gabrielle smiled and Xena shook her head, drawing the bard back into her arms.

“No,” Xena responded, kissing her mate gently. “What happens now?” she asked Hecate and her mother.

“You have done well, Xena. Now to reach the gift you must pierce the darkness I rule and grab it.”

“Not just your usual wave of the hand blessing?” Xena grinned.

“No, these are serious, your own bard had to die for hers.”

Gabrielle pulled out of Xena’s arms. “What?” she demanded, turning to the goddess. “What are you talking about?”

“Hmmm, I see your father hasn’t talked to you yet. You’ll have to trust me, warrior bard, and wait till I’m done with your mate,” Hecate said gently.

Xena spotted the clinching of Gabrielle’s jaw and waited to see which would win out, her bard’s stubbornness or her logic. The warrior knew how much Gabrielle hated mysteries, especially about herself. Finally, Gabrielle nodded acceptance but her eyes told everyone there they had better have explanations for her when they were done.

********

Cyrene and Hecate set up comfortable bedding for the two younger women to lay on and then Hecate drew several small vials and pouches of herbs out and began mixing them together with the blood from the deer. Gabrielle swallowed with a shudder as the goddess worked.

Cyrene sat next to her daughter as they chanted and began the meditations for crossing over.

“What’s in the cup besides blood?” Gabrielle asked.

“Several hallucinogenic herbs and some poisonous ones. Xena will come close to dying permanently, only the strength of her spirit and love for you and her children will keep that from happening,” Hecate answered simply.

Xena sat down on the bedding and smiled at her mate, trying to look reassuring. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in a disbelieving gesture and grinned.

Cyrene sat on one side of the couple and Hecate knelt at the other. Cyrene, the priestess, pulled the dagger off the altar and Xena held her left hand out and her mother quickly cut a line across Xena’s palm. Hecate quickly caught the blood in the cup with the other mixture. Then Gabrielle held out her hand and Cyrene repeated the motion and Gabrielle’s blood mixed into the cup as well. Xena reached out and grasped her mate’s hand, once again mingling their blood.

“Seems we do this a lot,” Gabrielle smiled and Xena smiled back and then grew serious.

“You’re my tie to this world, don’t let go of me.”

“Never,” the bard answered strongly.

Xena reached and accepted the cup from Hecate. The warrior hesitated a moment.

“Love is always the answer, my daughter, even in the darkness.” Hecate spoke calmly and Xena drained the cup.

Gabrielle resisted the panic that tried to grab her as Xena’s eyes rolled back in her head and the warrior’s body began to shake uncontrollably. The bard’s eyes quickly sought Hecate’s blue ones to find her seemingly unconcerned. Cyrene looked concerned but unmoving. Gabrielle tightened her grip as Xena’s hand relaxed in hers.

Cyrene leaned forward and helped lay her daughter’s body down on the bedding.

“Relax and close your eyes, Gabrielle. Lie next to her and let her feel your strength,” Hecate ordered. The bard quickly shifted her body to lie next to her warrior and closed her eyes.

Gabrielle suddenly felt like her world was spinning, even with her eyes closed. She resisted thrashing out, determined to hang on to Xena’s hand.

Gabrielle opened her eyes to find the sky a strange shade of blue and the trees were gray. The bard sat up and looked around slowly and saw Xena turning over and looking at her with astonishment.

“Gabrielle! What happened!?” the warrior demanded as she quickly scrambled next to the bard.

“I don’t know I closed my eyes and I was here, wherever that is!”

“Relax, children. You will face this together,” Hecate’s voice whispered to them.

“No! I don’t want her here!” Xena yelled at the air.

“Why?” Gabrielle demanded as they climbed to their feet.

“It’s dangerous enough on the other side being connected to this realm, being here is ten times more dangerous. This place can get rough,” Xena tried to explain.

“What’s the matter, Xena, afraid of what she’ll see?”

Gabrielle was stunned to see her mate’s eyes go wide with a touch of …. of fear? The warrior spun on her heels quickly, drawing her sword in a swift motion. Gabrielle peeked around her mate to see who was speaking.

Standing with her legs in a wide stance about a 50 yards away was a woman in Northern Amazon Shaman garb, totally in black with a headpiece of leather, beads and bones. She was older than Xena but it was hard to determine her age, Gabrielle decided.

The bard felt a chill at the look on the woman’s face and the madness in her eyes. Somehow this woman felt even more dangerous than Ares at his worst. Xena’s reaction didn’t reassure the bard.

The warrior let loose with one of her famous war cries and leaped into the air, somersaulting several times and landing right in front of the other woman, bringing her sword down on the seemingly unarmed figure in front of her.

Before the sword could strike the woman raised her hand and struck Xena in the chest. The bard was stunned when the light touch sent her mate flying backwards to land at her feet. Xena shook her head and regained her feet. Gabrielle drew out her sais in a defensively stance.

“Alti, what do you want?” Xena demanded.

The woman laughed and pointed her hand again and both warrior and bard found themselves at the base of some of the trees. Gabrielle groaned and shook her head, glancing over and saw Xena wincing as she stood up again.

“That’s Alti?” Gabrielle asked as the woman called Alti laughed at them.

“Alti, a sorceress from the Northern Amazons. She’s pure evil,” Xena said grimly, eyes narrowing.

“Oh, Xena, I’m hurt. Surely you give me more credit than I deserve. After all, I think you’ve killed countless more people than I have,” Alti protested with a smile.

With a wave of her hand the warrior went flying backwards again, landing hard, Xena’s eyes flashed as she regained her feet.

Gabrielle joined her mate as they approached cautiously and then separated, each approaching slowly, weapons drawn.

“At least I never tried to destroy their souls except through you.”

“Xena, maybe you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Have you told your Amazon Queen what you did to the Amazons of the North?”

Gabrielle saw Xena stop dead in her tracks, her jaw tightening. Xena felt a growl coming from her chest and exploded into a scream of rage as Alti laughed at her reaction. Once again the warrior launched herself into the air. Gabrielle quickly released one of her sais, hoping to gain a hit while the sorceress was detracted by Xena.

Alti flicked her hand and sent the sais flying back towards its owner. Gabrielle yelped and ducked as it came within a hairs width of her head. Xena found herself facing Gabrielle with Alti’s hand at her throat, her sword on the ground. Alti began squeezing and Xena’s eyes went wide with the realization that she couldn’t move her arms or legs in defense.

The bard screamed and rushed them, tackling both of them, freeing Xena from Alti’s grip. With the quickness of her gladiator skills, the bard buried her sais deep into Alti’s throat and stumbled backwards off the sorceress and almost over Xena as the sorceress laughed at her. Xena and Gabrielle regained their feet together as the shaman rose to her feet and removed the sais. She looked at the weapon with appreciation and then it melted like wax in her hand.

“Xena, I think we’re in trouble,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Uh huh,” the warrior agreed.

Alti casually waved her hand in the air and Gabrielle went to her knees as if backhanded. The bard tasted blood on her lips. Xena moved to stand in front of the bard.

“Leave her alone, Alti. This is between you and me.”

Another series of blows rocked the bard’s body back and forth. Gabrielle swayed heavily on her knees until a heavy phantom blow sent her backwards, holding her left eye.

“Xena, why can’t I play with your new little bitch? You used to share with me. Besides, didn’t she share you with Ares?”

Xena felt her insides go cold with rage.

“That had nothing to do with me and Gabrielle!” Xena shouted.

“Don’t you think it bothered her just a little bit for you to have wild and untamed sex with the God of War so soon after your wedding to her?”

Xena heard Gabrielle growl.

“Did you ever confront her with that one, bard?” Alti demanded.

“She wasn’t herself,” Gabrielle growled back.

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t drive you insane to think of her making love with him?”

Xena snarled but the shaman only laughed at her.

“Who do you think she prefers? A god or you? And a child she has to share with him, nothing to do with you?” the sorceress laughed.

“I love Sasha, go to Tartarus!” Gabrielle hissed.

“Tell her about the Amazons, Xena, or I’ll show her.” Alti threatened, changing tactics.

“When I was in the North I trained as a shaman under Alti. She was worse than Ares ever thought of being. She wanted the power to destroy a person’s very soul and steal that energy. I was drawn into that power and I betrayed the Amazons. I killed them, very brutally.” Xena growled.

Gabrielle closed her eyes, realizing now why Xena didn’t want to visit the northern Amazons.

“It was very brutal,” Alti agreed as Gabrielle got to her feet again. “She impaled a lot of them on tree limbs,” Alti giggled.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered and Xena struggled against the guilt tearing at her.

Alti flashed her hands again and the warrior fell back into Gabrielle’s arms, her body assaulted from numerous unseen blows. The bard whimpered as Xena’s head rocked back and blood began flowing from a vicious wound above the warrior’s eye. Then her body jerked and the warrior grabbed her ribs in pain.

“How did those broken legs feel, Xena?” the warrior screamed in pain and grabbed at her legs.

“Or how about that gauntlet?” Alti laughed and Xena rolled over in Gabrielle’s arms, blood flowing freely out of her mouth.

“Stop it!” Gabrielle shouted at the sorceress.

Alti merely laughed and shoved her hand forward, sending the bard falling backwards, choking on a bloody nose, a possible broken nose. Gabrielle sat up, her eyes blazing in fury.

“You’re good with that magic stuff, how about a real fight?” the bard demanded.

“Ah, what fun would that be? Tell me, how did those spikes feel on that cross?”

Gabrielle screamed in pain again and grabbed at her wrists as blood began flowing. Then the bard found herself face down on the ground as her body struggled for air, the body remembering what it was like to suffer on the cross after being crucified.

Alti laughed again. “A physical fight, I don’t think so. You see in this realm, the strongest mind wins, not the strongest body.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she concentrated, looking at the blood flowing out of her wrists. Focusing everything on the wounds, unaware that she was sending herself into a self induced trance, her breathing steadied and the blood stopped, the wounds closing into the healing scars that had been before. Gabrielle crawled quickly back to Xena, who was shaking her head, trying to regain her senses.

“Come on, warrior! Think! You trained under her!” Gabrielle shouted, lifting Xena up into a sitting position. “We can’t touch her, fight her on her level!”

“Oh, you are clever, bard. Xena, your taste in sexual toys is getting better. This is amusing, Xena could never beat me.” Alti grinned.

Xena closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing again. She quickly opened her eyes and held up her chakram, catching Alti’s next lightning bolt with it, sending it flying into the trees. Several more bolts followed the path of the first one. Xena grinned and stood up slowly with Gabrielle’s help.

Alti smiled and lowered her hands. “Very good, Xena. Are you ready to face everything now? Including Gabrielle’s price?”

“What are you talking about?” Gabrielle asked.

“Poor bard, no one’s told you yet what your dark price is, have they?” Alti asked with a sneer.

“What is she talking about, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“With every light there must be darkness. Xena already has her darkness, it’s the light she’s attempting to reach.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed as Gabrielle stood beside her, both of them watching Alti, wondering what was next in this mixed up world.

“You two are bound by blood and soul now, to reach the light Xena not only had to face her darkness but she has to face you with it,” Alti grinned.

“I faced my darkness,” Xena said flatly.

“Yes, and you faced it very well but you haven’t faced Gabrielle seeing it. Isn’t that what you’ve always feared, Xena, that she would see the truth as to what you’re really like?” Alti purred, moving a couple of steps closer but without overt threat.

Gabrielle stepped defiantly in front of Xena after seeing her lover begin to shake.

“I know what she was like. I know about the deaths and the slaughter and I know she’s not like that now!” Gabrielle hissed.

“Yes, but do you know about the rapes?” Alti asked, her eyes dancing with delight.

“Rapes?” the bard frowned. “I know what soldiers are like, she couldn’t control her men.”

“I’m not talking about the men. You know about the battle lust now, bard, ask Xena how she dealt with that. Ask her if all those young women were willing. Ask her how many of them were screaming or crying when she forced herself on them.”

Gabrielle felt like she had been hit with a maul. With a flash her body was remembering her own numerous rapes at the hands of the Roman soldiers, slavers and owners. The bard screamed and went to her knees as her body and mind protested the hands and fists and men thrusting themselves on her, forced by Alti to physically and mentally remember.

“You know what rape feels like, bard. You know what it’s like to be powerless over your own body as someone else claims it, didn’t you know that’s what excited Xena the most?”

Alti clapped her hands and laughed with delight.

“Tell me, Xena, have you ever used your whip on her? Or the handle end of your sword or dagger?” Alti laughed at them. “Which one of your rapists put those scars on your back, bard? Xena or the Romans?”

Gabrielle flinched as an unseen whip lashed across her back, ripping her tunic, spreading blood down her back. She focused again, bringing her breathing back to normal. Then Alti’s words sunk in about her beloved. Gabrielle turned to face her lover.

“Xena?”

As she slowly turned to face her mate Xena went to her knees in defeat. The warrior’s head dropped forward and her sword arm dropped as well.

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered, seeing the truth in the shattered spirit in front of her.

“Haven’t you ever told her how you like it when they scream in frustration and pain? How you loved forcing an unwilling victim to service you?” Alti purred softly.

Xena’s body shook as if being caressed by an unseen lover and she screamed in protest.

The bard’s eyes went hard as her jaw tightened.

“You bitch,” her voice hissed and Xena’s heart shattered.

Then the warrior realized that Gabrielle was spinning to face Alti. Which evil was she referring to, Xena wondered as her tears fell.

“I don’t care, damn you!” Gabrielle shouted at the sorceress. “She’s past that! That was your student, not my mate!” The bard spun and knelt in front of Xena, lifting the warrior’s chin until blue eyes met green ones. “Do you hear me? I don’t care about the past and I don’t fear you. I don’t fear your passion. I don’t fear your battle lust. I do not fear you!” Gabrielle stressed each sentence, trying to verbally pound it into Xena.

Xena clung to her mate as Gabrielle pulled Xena to her feet and held her tightly.

“But what about your darkness, bard?” Alti purred again.

“What do you mean? Xena knows I’ve killed and that I had another lover and why.”

“Xena might reach that light as long as you forgive her past and the potential of it returning again. She believes totally in your light, what will she think of your dark side?”

“What are you talking about? Quit dancing around it!” Gabrielle spun to face the shaman and felt comforting hands on her shoulders. She leaned back into her warrior, trying to calm her breath and heartbeat.

Alti seemed to have stopped shooting lightning bolts and throwing punches for awhile, and Gabrielle wondered if the sorceress was going to talk them to death.

“When Apollo pulled your spirit back into your body and lit that spark of life in you again on that cross, he had to accept that his gift of light had a balance of darkness that would eventually come to the surface.”

“Apollo? The cross?” Gabrielle whispered, suddenly feeling lightheaded as she glanced down at the healing wounds of her wrists. “I died?” the bard glanced back and Xena nodded.

“Hecate told me today.”

“Then what in Tartarus is this darkness business?” the bard demanded.

“She didn’t tell me,” Xena’s face was pained.

Gabrielle reluctantly turned back to Alti, her eyes on fire.

“All right, you’re dying to tell us. What?!”

“Did you ever wonder why all those village girls you saved from Bacchus had no memory of being bacchae but Gabrielle did?” Alti questioned, bringing a frown to both women.

“What?” Xena asked and the two women found themselves looking in on the scene of the Bacchae cave, like phantom spectators. The bacchae danced around the fountain of the blood of Bacchus, Gabrielle included. The bard felt her breath quicken.

“How did it feel to pierce Xena’s neck with your fangs?”

Xena felt her bard shiver. Gabrielle moaned as they watched the bacchae Gabrielle sink her fangs into Xena’s throat, holding the warrior close as she drank in the blood.

“To feel her warm blood flowing past your fangs? To feel her fear and desire in the blood, in her body. To realize that she wanted you right then and you terrified her at the same time? Do you hear her blood calling to you now? Can you feel your fangs aching to show themselves?”

A moan escaped from the bard and this time it was Gabrielle that sank to her knees, her hands and arms falling to her sides.

“No!” she whispered.

Xena knelt behind her mate and wrapped her arms protectively around the bard as Gabrielle began trembling violently. Alti laughed in delight.

“Yes, you weren’t totally successful in saving your little bitch, Xena. She tasted some of Bacchus’ blood on her tongue that night before you knocked the chalice away from her and then she tasted human blood – your blood.”

Alti laughed and Gabrielle wailed, falling into Xena’s arms.

“She could feel your terror, Xena, and it excited her! How she licked her fangs after letting you go.”

“No!” the bard screamed in denial but they could both see the delight the bacchae Gabrielle took in drinking Xena’s blood and the desire on Xena’s face.

Xena growled at Alti.

“Gabrielle, listen to me! Gabrielle!” Xena held the bard tightly as Gabrielle fought against the overwhelming darkness surrounding her spirit.

“This doesn’t change anything! It changes nothing between us!” Xena tried getting through and finally she felt the bard’s muscles relaxing a bit and she kept repeating it until Gabrielle finally looked her deep in the eyes. The warrior fought to open her heart totally, knowing that the bard could see into her soul right then.

“Doesn’t it, Xena? Are you sure?” Alti purred, moving around them and whispering in their ears. “Which will you feel when she begins to make love to you, fear or passion at the thought that maybe her darkness will surface and she’ll take your blood again, maybe killing you? Aren’t you afraid that darkness will spark yours again?”

Gabrielle shuddered again and struggled to break free from Xena’s arms but the warrior held her tight, refusing to let Gabrielle fall to the darkness.

“No, I’m not afraid of her,” Xena answered.

“Can either of you be open with each other after this? Both of you afraid of the other’s darkness coming over you in the heat of passion? You’ve never seen Xena whip the skin from a woman’s back and then shove her hand into that same woman, have you, bard? And you, Xena, does the thought of her fangs excite you? That she may seek others out for their blood? That Bacchus can now sing to her?”

Gabrielle sought her lover’s eyes again, the fear shining in her eyes brightly.

“No, I’m not afraid. We’ll face it together, we’ll face the darkness in both of us. You’ve lost, Alti. The light will always win out over the darkness. I accept the darkness in me and I accept the darkness in Gabrielle.”

Gabrielle buried her head in her warrior’s chest, sobbing in relief. After a few minutes she pulled up and wiped her eyes with a rueful grin for her lover. She looked up at the pacing Alti. The sorceress was no longer smiling.

“We’ll deal with it. I trust her with my life and my soul,” Gabrielle said simply.

With a scream Alti was gone.

*********

Gabrielle looked into Xena’s eyes and grabbed the warrior behind the head and pulled her into a passionate kiss. Xena moaned and responded freely.

They fell backwards with an electric shock, both realizing at the same moment that they truly didn’t feel any fear with each other, even with the dark revelations.

Gabrielle laughed and Xena grinned, leaning back on her elbows as she contemplated her mate.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed at the mischief in Xena’s eyes. “What?”

“Just remembering what you looked like with fangs,” Xena said with a smile and then a laugh as the bard tackled her, first tickling and then kissing her. The bard finally broke off the kiss, gasping for air as she laid her head on Xena’s chest. The warrior held her tightly.

“Time to go back, little one.” Xena said with a smile.

“This is the first time I’ve felt totally complete with you since the Romans. It feels like something’s fallen into place,” Gabrielle whispered and was relieved when Xena nodded.

“I know. I was always so terrified of showing you that side of myself. I know that’s not me; but it was.” Xena hugged her mate.

“It’s part of you, part of your history. We can’t change the past, my love.”

“Just like we can’t predict the future. I love you, little one.”

“I love you, warrior mine.”

*********

Xena wasn’t surprised to find her body aching when she opened her eyes. She sat up quickly, looking towards Gabrielle and found her mother and Hecate sitting with them. Xena sighed in relief as the bard started opening her eyes, moaning with the physical assault from Alti that carried over into their physical bodies.

“Easy, Xena.” Cyrene said softly, urging her daughter to lie back down as she applied a wet cloth to Xena’s cut forehead. Xena caught Gabrielle’s eyes as Hecate wiped the blood from the bard’s nose and mouth. The bard attempted a smile and they reached out for each other’s hands at the same time.

Hecate smiled at both of them.

“You have both done well. Spend the day here, resting and being with each other. Cyrene and I will pay Ares a visit.”

“What are you going to do?” Xena asked.

“Threaten parts of his anatomy that he’s rather fond of,” the older woman laughed. “He knows I can do it too. Once he realizes that you’re both on somewhat equal footing with him, he’ll listen to reason.”

Xena could tell her mom had been worried and now looked tired and relieved. Having seen shamanic journeys before, Xena could imagine how much pain her mother must have been in when her daughter and Gabrielle’s bodies starting showing the physical effects of Alti’s spiritual attack. Sudden cuts, bruises, broken bones, enough to terrify any mother, even a priestess of Hecate, the warrior thought and loved her mom even more for her strength.

Hecate stood and Cyrene joined her. Xena sat up on her elbows and noticed that the altar items had been packed away and there was a fire near the entrance of the cave. The smell of fresh meat cooking made her stomach rumble, reminding her that it had been over a day since she had eaten. Both mothers smiled.

“Food, water, comfortable bedding. Rest, both of you.” Hecate ordered and Xena and Gabrielle blinked, realizing that both older women were gone.

“Wow, I’ll never get used to that,” Gabrielle complained with a smile. With a groan of protest she slowly crawled across the small space and curled inside Xena’s arm, resting her head on the warrior’s shoulder with a comfortable sigh.

Xena smiled, enjoying the familiar feeling.

“So what do you know about the gift thing from Apollo?” Gabrielle asked after a few quiet minutes.

“Hecate told me that you won’t get sick again,”

“That’s a relief!”

Xena grinned. “That you’ll heal from wounds faster and that you’ll be hard to kill.”

“Hmmmm, what about you?”

“The same, I think. That we’re practically even with Ares except for the shooting energy bolts and transport thing.”

“Kinda like Hercules,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“Yes, exactly.”

Gabrielle grinned as her stomach rumbled and got up slowly and went to the fire to finish the meal. Xena walked up behind her and wrapped her arms around her mate as she knelt down. The warrior began nuzzling the blonde’s neck with a growl.

“You’ll make me burn this!” Gabrielle threatened.

“Hmmm, food, then you.” Xena relented, lightly nibbling on Gabrielle’s ear, sending a shiver of desire through the bard’s body.

“Oh gods,” the bard whispered. “Oh yeah, food, okay.” She quickly dished out the meat and vegetables and then giggled as Xena began feeding bits of the food to her. “You are such a romantic! Has anyone ever seen this side of you?”

“Nope, no one.”

“Good, I like that.” Gabrielle’s voice was husky and Xena felt the familiar fire spreading over her body when she saw the desire in Gabrielle’s eyes.

The rest of the meal went quickly and Xena gathered her mate into her arms as they relaxed by the fire, letting their bodies heal their various wounds. Xena figured they’d be bruised and cut for the next few days but already their broken bones were healing quickly.

“Gods, Xena. I don’t remember when I’ve felt this relaxed.” Gabrielle commented, lightly nibbling on her warrior’s hand as Xena’s other arm wrapped around her waist. She leaned back into Xena and smiled as the warrior nuzzled her neck.

“I agree. We’ve been on the move and under stress for over two years; ever since the wedding.” Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her mate’s and snuggled into her warrior.

“Even with the cuts and bruises,” Gabrielle added with a smile around the split lip.

Xena chuckled in agreement, trying not to rattle the loose teeth in her jaw. “Rest for awhile, little one,” the warrior was pleased when she felt Gabrielle’s body relax even further in her arms. Xena leaned back and let her eyes close as well, content to hold her mate forever.

The End
Even With Ares

Torris scowled as the two women walked into the inn just before lunch.

“What in Hades did you two do to each other?” he demanded as he took in their bruised and battered faces and bodies. Xena growled and Gabrielle’s eyes flashed angrily. Cyrene quickly stepped between her two children and turned to Torris, her oldest son.

“Torris, they did nothing to each other and they aren’t going to tell you what happened, so don’t ask again.” she ordered sternly.

Torris grumbled but moved off to help serve the lunch customers. Cyrene turned and smiled at her daughter and the warrior’s mate.

“Hi, Mom. Thanks.” Xena smiled around the swollen lips.

Cyrene took in the sight of her two daughters and smiled a rueful smile. Torris had been right, they were a mess physically but their eyes showed contentment, for the first time in a very long time, the innkeeper thought to herself.

“Go upstairs and change, Sasha is with Solan, running around somewhere in the village.”

Xena smiled at the thought of her toddler daughter and young teenager son, very pleased that the boy had taken to his half sister so well. Sasha just charmed everyone she came in contact with, her mother thought.

“Hecate?” Gabrielle questioned, bringing Xena’s mind back to focus.

“She had a talk with Ares. He grumbled a lot but agreed to back off until he talked with you.” Cyrene smirked.

“Gods,” Xena muttered.

“Come on, lover, let’s get changed and find the kids.” Gabrielle suggested.

As they climbed the stairs to their room, Xena reflected on how strange the last two days had been for the couple. To try and counter Ares’ godly advantages, Xena had gone on a shamanistic journey at the guidance of her goddess mother Hecate, goddess of magic and the dark moon. Both the warrior and Gabrielle had faced darkness about themselves and each other and embraced both the dark and light. Leaving them to put both halves together in their lives and in themselves.

The journey had been difficult and dangerous, especially when Alti showed up and attacked the couple, physically and emotionally. Making Gabrielle relive the pain of the crucifixion at the hands of Caesar, Xena to relive the pain of the broken legs, courtesy of Caesar, and both of them to face the emotional pain of their own dark sides.

For Gabrielle it had been facing Xena’s abusive sexual past towards women and men, for Xena it was facing Gabrielle’s potential bacchae blood coming to the surface.

Hecate had also promised to threaten Ares into leaving the couple and their children alone, even if he was Sasha’s father.

Xena shook her head as she closed the door behind them. She didn’t believe that Ares would give up so easily.
***

“What are we going to do about Torris?” Gabrielle asked, holding Sasha on her lap as they finished their dinner that night. The toddler was beginning to get tired and both moms were hoping she’d nod off soon. It had been an evening when the little one had been a bundle of energy after spending the day with her big brother and just watching her and keeping her out of trouble had worn both women down.

Xena smiled at her mate and daughter across the table.

“I’m not sure, my love. He feels displaced and his ego is bruised.”

“He also hates that we’re lovers.” Gabrielle observed.

“I know, I’ll try talking to him again. I’ve been thinking,” Xena said thoughtfully and blushed at Gabrielle’s raised and teasing eyebrows. “There’s a small house just outside the village at the edge of the woods, a good piece of land that could be for sale, if you’d like to take a look at it.”

Xena smiled at the excited look on her mate’s face.

Then Gabrielle frowned, “When did we get money? Mine went to buy the Amazon land in the north.”

Xena began blushing and stammering. “Well, I uh,” Gabrielle raised her eyebrows again. “I have several stashes around Greece.”

“From your Warlord days?”

“Some of it.”

“We’re going to talk about this.” Gabrielle promised.

The talk turned into a debate. The bard insisting that it was blood money and wanted nothing to do with it until Xena pointed out that Gabrielle’s money had also been blood money.

Both had been shocked at those words and the truth behind them.

Gabrielle had stormed out of the inn and had taken a long walk, debating with herself all the way. She could rationalize that she didn’t have a choice in becoming a gladiator and certainly didn’t have a choice whether she won those matches and the money or not. It was either win or die.

Then the other side debated with her. She had still bet on her matches and the matches of others and had used that money. It had been for a good cause, the Amazons needed that land to escape the Romans, she reasoned. But then, wasn’t securing a future for her and Xena a good cause, especially with the kids now?

When Gabrielle had returned to the inn she hadn’t mentioned the money again, just agreed to look at the house, to Xena’s relief.

***

With a smile, Gabrielle shook her head, as the crowd began gathering in the tavern, anxious for her to begin her storytelling. Had it only been a month since she and Xena had settled down?

The bard grinned and grabbed a fleeing toddler as Cyrene came pounding out from the kitchen, hot on the tail of said toddler. Sasha squealed and giggled in Gabrielle’s arms. The bard handed Cyrene her grandchild.

Cyrene grinned at the bard’s delighted face.

“Is Xena coming by tonight?” she asked.

“I’m not sure, I hope so.”

“Me too, I’m sending Sasha home with Solan now, maybe he can get her to calm down!” Cyrene complained with a playful smile.

The innkeeper noticed the bard’s disbelieving shake of the head as she handed Sasha to her older brother as soon as he walked through the door. The growing teen grinned and tickled his half-sister and kissed Gabrielle on the cheek.

“See you at home, Gabby Mom.” with a laugh he was out the door.

“He knows I hate ‘Gabby'” Gabrielle complained with a laugh.

“Hard to believe isn’t it?” Cyrene asked.

“What’s that?”

“You and Xena settling down, complete with a teenager and toddler.”

Gabrielle laughed easily, leaning against the bar as Cyrene joined her. “Yeah, I never believed Xena would settle down and I’m still not sure I believe it.”

“How’s it going with the blacksmith?” Cyrene asked, picking up mugs and placing them on a tray.

“Really well. I think she’s surprised at how much she’s enjoying working with Dexicreon. He feels she’s got a real talent for it.”

“I just worry about Ares, with Hercules and Iolaus gone.” Cyrene frowned and Gabrielle shared it.

“I know, he just gave up too easily for my comfort. Well, off to storytelling and earning my keep.”

Cyrene playfully swatted her daughter-in-law’s arm. “Earn your keep, my foot.”

The innkeeper was grateful for the help. Amphiplous was a growing town and it was all that she could do to keep up, even with help from Torris with the heavy stuff and one serving girl. Having Gabrielle helping with the serving and then bringing in customers with her bard talents was a godsend to Cyrene and both Xena and Gabrielle knew it.

It also freed Torris to devote more time to his growing feed grain storage and brokerage dealings and out of their hair.

A candlemark later and Gabrielle found herself grinning from ear to ear when her mate walked through the door and took a seat near the back, returning her smile. Several strangers glanced back, wondering who could ever have caught the attention of the beautiful and talented young bard. Several had confused faces when they spotted the warrior woman. Only one made the mistake of smirking. Seeing the coldness seep into the tall woman’s eyes and the deadly expression on her face, he quickly ducked his head back over his cup of wine and turned to listen to the bard. Xena growled and made a mental note to keep an eye on him when she and Gabrielle left.

Gabrielle never missed a beat in the rhythm of her story even though she caught ever nuance of the exchange between the drunk and her mate. She knew that only months before Xena would have simply walked over and pounded the man senseless. The bard wondered if the change was the result of motherhood, Xena’s desire to settle down, her trust in Gabrielle’s ability to take care of herself, or simply that she was getting more comfortable with her trust in their love.

Gabrielle made her own mental note: this one to tease and question her mate about it later.

Even though Xena wasn’t dressed in her usual leathers, she could still intimidate the best of them, Cyrene thought with a smile. She had also caught the exchange between the man and her daughter and breathed a sigh of relief when Xena merely glared. The barkeep stopped the serving girl and instructed her to keep an eye on how much the idiot drank that night. One of Xena’s unofficial jobs had developed into bouncing rowdier patrons out of the inn before they could do any damage and Cyrene really didn’t want it to come to that, especially if the man’s attention centered around Gabrielle. The older woman knew Xena was handling herself well but when it came to her beloved, well, Xena could be unreasonable, Cyrene chuckled to herself as she took a mug of port to her daughter, careful not to obstruct her daughter’s line of vision of both the man and Gabrielle.

“Don’t mind him,” Cyrene said easily as she placed the mug on the table.

Xena blushed and smiled. “That obvious?”

Her mother laughed. “Honey, why do you think everyone in Greece knew you two were meant for each other long before either of you did? Just don’t kill him.”

Xena grumbled but smiled as her mother moved onto her work. The warrior felt herself softening as she looked at her mate. She was always surprised at the jolt that settled around her heart when she looked into those green eyes. How could she have missed it for so long? she wondered and then answered her own question. Fear. She had been so afraid of losing the bard’s friendship that Xena almost didn’t risk finding the love hidden there.

It felt like a lifetime ago since they had visited Gabrielle’s family and the ensuing emotional battleground that led to the revelation that they were so head over heels for each other that they were hurting and Gabrielle was about ready to leave her.

Once again, Xena thanked the Fates for Lila, Gabrielle’s little sister, for her eavesdropping and confronting the warrior with Gabrielle’s feelings. Taking on Gabrielle’s father, sudden and unexpected acceptance from Gabrielle’s mother and sister and then, Gabrielle herself, it was all so unexpected and amazing.

Xena let her mind drift back to their first morning together as lovers. The memory of Gabrielle sunning naked on rocks next to a small river still took Xena’s breath away. The bard already had her heart and soul and by noon they had claimed each other’s bodies as well. They had been almost insatiable since.

Then the world had turned upside down in their lives. Their wedding had gone fairly smoothly, the warrior reflected. Well, except for Ares crashing the wedding night. Her bard still teased her about facing Ares in the middle of the common grounds with only a skirt on, bare breasts flashing, this never failing to get a blush from the warrior.

Then the public bonding and the Romans poisoning Gabrielle, her mate. Gods, Xena thought, it was probably only Gabrielle being the daughter of Apollo that saved her. The long and painful effects had taken a toll on the bard and had left Xena exhausted and emotionally drained. It left her open for Ares to fool the warrior into thinking he was Joxer, it was enough for him to trick her into an offering at one of his altars, giving him an opening into her life again and erasing her memories of Gabrielle.

Xena gulped down half of her port, trying to get past the memories of Ares. One week, she grumbled to herself, one messed up week and she almost killed Gabrielle. And then found she was pregnant with Sasha.

Gabrielle noticed the frown on her warrior and the second mug of port that her mate ordered. She hated when memories crowded Xena. She cursed the past once again, after all they had faced, the memories still haunted both of them.

Nightmares still plagued both of them, though not as frequently as they had. The worst was when the memories invaded their minds during sex, both cursing these memories the most as well as the guilty they each had to fight. Each tried to reassure the other that they each understood about the memories and didn’t take it personal but the guilt was still there.

Gabrielle despised those moments: her body writhing and responding to Xena’s hands, lips and tongue only to freeze, ruining the moment. The bard would find herself in Xena’s arms, trying to fight against the memories of the rapists, with Xena struggling to bring her bard back to the present, holding Gabrielle as the bard cried once again in rage and pain.

Xena’s memories were harder to deal with, those of the Destroyer of Nations and the faces of her victims – both on the battlefield and in the bedroom . Xena growled at the thought of how Gabrielle would have to hold her and coax the warrior back to the present. It shamed the warrior to know that Gabrielle knew what those memories were about. Xena shook her head, Gabrielle still accepted her and loved her, even though Xena had been an abuser like the men who had raped Gabrielle.

Once again Xena felt unworthy of her mate. Then she looked up into her bard’s eyes and felt that jolt around her heart again. Once more the warrior knew that she could never face life without Gabrielle again.

Nearly two years without her bard had almost killed her. Only Sasha’s birth had kept her going, and knowing Gabrielle was alive, the warrior hadn’t give up hope.

Xena smiled at her mate.

Gabrielle was relieved to see the smile on her mate’s face. She wasn’t worried about the two mugs of port, that was nothing for her mate. It was the memories that worried the bard. They could bring the warrior down for days if they took hold. The smile was a good sign. Gabrielle went into the last of the story she was telling, careful not to catch the eye of the man who had challenged Xena.

Xena loved watching Gabrielle weave her magic with a story. Those green eyes could come alive and dance, bringing each word to life. Xena had seen a room of men reduced to subtle tears at one of her bard’s tales.

Xena also loved the fact that Gabrielle was writing and telling her tales again. She hadn’t touched pen and paper after her slavery with the Romans for months, even when trapped inside by snow in the Northern country during the harsh winter. Xena had been worried that Gabrielle wouldn’t go back to it and despaired that the abuse and killing might have killed the sense of wonder the bard needed.

After buying the house and property, Gabrielle had started writing again and then offered to tell stories at the inn for Cyrene. Both the innkeeper and Xena had been holding their breath, hoping for that. Of course, Cyrene had readily agreed, insisting Gabrielle take a portion of whatever coin she collected and a wage for waiting tables during lunch and dinner.

Xena watched her mate finish her tale and then accept the applause and demands for more. With a tired smile she declined another story and the basket passed around the customers. Gabrielle walked over and handed the basket to Cyrene and turned to approach her mate when the man from before stepped in front of her.

Gabrielle shook her head.

“Do you have a death wish, friend?” she asked with a rueful grin as she peeked around his shoulder and saw Xena’s eyes flashing, the bard could almost hear the growl from across the room.

“I thought maybe we could have a drink together, a beautiful and unattached woman like yourself.” he grinned, legs wide and thumbs hooked in his belt, his stance challenging her to decline and try to move around him. Gabrielle knew that if she tried he would reach out and grab her by the arm or maybe even around the waist, thus ensuring his quick and maybe timely death from one very upset Warrior Princess.

“I am attached, I am very married.” she informed him.

“To who, a female? That’s not what a beautiful woman like you needs!” he leered.

Gabrielle quickly considered her options and, in effect, his future. She leaned in closer to him, bringing a surprised smirk to his face. With one quick movement she reached down slightly and grabbed the one sai she still continued to wear, even in the village, and brought it up between his undefended legs, hard.

The handle and her fist sank into his groin. She backed up as he doubled over and fell to the floor, gasping for air. The bard quickly sheathed the sai and looked down at the man turning several shades of red, blue and white.

“Cyrene, I think he’s had too much to drink,” she commented while Cyrene tried to keep from smirking. The man’s two friends quickly grabbed and picked him up.

“I think you should take him up to his room,” Cyrene suggested sternly as they began to drag him away.

Gabrielle tried to fake an innocent look and smile as she approached her laughing warrior.

“What?” she questioned and then squeaked when Xena stood up and embraced her in a passionate kiss. “Xena!” she protested when the warrior finally let her up for air. Good natured laughter surrounded them and then howls when Xena grabbed her and threw the bard over the warrior’s shoulder and headed for the door.

Gabrielle pounded uselessly on her warrior’s back, turning extremely red. Applause, howls and rowdy suggestions followed them out the door.

“Xena! You are impossible!” she yelped and tried to catch her breath as Xena let her down and continued walking towards their new home.

“Nice move with that idiot,” Xena commented, wrapping her arm around the bard’s shoulders.

“Thanks, good thing my over protective mate makes me carry a weapon even in town.” Gabrielle grinned, leaned up and placed a kiss on her mate’s cheek, causing Xena to blush.

“I love you, Gabrielle.”

“I love you too, warrior mine.”

The warrior closed the door to their new home with a slam and pinned her bard against the door with her lips and body. Gabrielle moaned and wrapped her fingers in Xena’s dark hair, holding her mate even closer as her tongue fought back for dominance.

Xena’s hands were all over her mate and one finally worked their way under the bard’s blouse to grasp her breast, playing over a sensitive and erect nipple. As Xena’s other hand grabbed her tight ass cheek Gabrielle moaned again and felt her knees go weak. The warrior growled and brought a thigh between the bard’s leg, keeping her pinned to the door.

Gabrielle finally broke free, gasping and clinging to her warrior.

“Bed! Now!” she demanded.

The bard yelped again as the warrior lifted Gabrielle over her shoulder and made her way through the darkened house to their bedroom. Xena dumped her mate onto the bed with a grin, trying not to laugh outloud at the bard’s indignant look.

Gabrielle couldn’t hold the look any longer and laughed herself. This playful side of her mate was something that had surprised and pleased her. It even surprised her even more when Xena was playful and affectionate in public.

Gabrielle lit the lamp next to the bed and looked over at her lover.

Xena’s eyes narrowed at the mischievous glint in her mate’s eyes and leaned back against the door as Gabrielle’s hand stopped her from moving.

Slowly, with maddening patience, the bard began unlacing her blouse, one lace at a time. Xena felt her face beginning to blush as the bard ran her hand over the material, revealing erect nipples underneath. Instead of removing the blouse the bard next moved to her belt and slowly unhooked the belt, dropping it beside the bed and unlaced her skirt tie. Xena’s breathing quickened as Gabrielle’s hips moved off the bed and her head fell back in exaggerated desire.

Then the bard moved to her boots, gently removing her sais and placing them on the table next to the bed. Her hands trailed over the supple leather of the boots and up her thighs, feeling the tight muscles underneath. Xena whimpered as the bard groaned when she ran a hand lightly over her own groin region. The warrior restrained herself back against the door with nerves of steel and the gritting of her teeth.

Gabrielle slowly unlaced the boots, again moving slow enough to drive her mate to a frustrated growl. Standing next to the bed, the bard grinned an evil grin and removed the boots.

With continued slow movements, Gabrielle stepped out of her skirt and revealed to her mate that she wasn’t wearing anything underneath. Xena’s breathing became even more shallow and rapid as her hands began to shake. She crossed her arms with, she hoped, a stern and strong expression but could tell from Gabrielle’s dancing eyes that the bard wasn’t fooled by her nonchalance.

The blouse followed the skirt and Xena tried to remember to keep breathing as the bard slowly approached her, body moving like a cat in the shadows.

Xena unfolded her arms and let Gabrielle begin unlacing her own tunic top, the bard moving much too slowly for the warrior. A small whimper escaped, bringing a smile to Gabrielle as she lifted the tunic off her mate and gasped at the sight of her lover.

The bard thought once again that she’d never get enough of Xena, even if they lived forever. She leaned up on her toes and kissed her warrior softly, careful not to touch her body to Xena’s, teasing the warrior. Her mate groaned and closed her eyes, knees almost buckling.

Gabrielle slowly unbuckled the warriors belt and let it fall to the floor, followed by the trousers. A warning growl kept Xena’s hands braced against the door as the bard went to her knees to remove Xena’s short boots.

Xena’s legs began trembling to match her hands as Gabrielle’s hands began caressing her legs, first on the outside of the thighs and then on the inside, just stopping short of her sex. This brought out a moan from the warrior and caused her to thump back against the door.

Gabrielle lightly trailed her hand between Xena’s legs and groaned at how wet her mate was as she and leaned on her warrior’s thigh. As her fingers parted her lover’s lower lips and began teasing Xena, Gabrielle blew lightly across the dark patch of hair in front of her, Xena’s legs almost buckled again and the warrior’s fingers interlaced through the blonde’s short hair.

The warrior cried out as the bard’s fingers entered her and her tongue found Xena’s clit. The warrior’s hand hit the door as she tried to steady herself.

“Gabrielle, please!” the warrior cried. The bard drew back and pulled Xena to the floor and quickly positioned herself between her lover’s legs again, pulling more cries out of her lover as Xena’s hips began to rock with the rhythm the bard’s hand and tongue were setting.

Gabrielle drew up for a moment and watched her lover’s face as Xena’s body began to climb higher and higher.

“Gods, I love you, woman,” the bard said softly and Xena’s blue eyes met hers with answering passion. Gabrielle interlocked her hand with Xena’s while she increased the speed and depth of her other hand and returned to worshipping her lover’s body with her tongue.

Xena felt her muscles contracting around the bard’s hand and her throat protesting as her cries began getting louder and stronger until she felt the beginning of the edge. Then her cries turned into whimpers as her body shook, begging for release.

“Let go, lover,” a voice whispered and Xena screamed her lover’s name and felt her body curl up around her bard’s hand. Gabrielle crawled up and took the warrior into her arms while Xena caught her breath.

“Goddamn cold floor,” Xena muttered as she snuggled into Gabrielle’s arms.

The bard laughed and pulled Xena to very shaky feet. Fortunately it was only a few feet to the bed.

Xena grinned and fell on top of her mate and began kissing Gabrielle passionately, bringing a leg between the bard’s and Xena, in turn moaned, at how wet her mate was for her.

“Oh gods, what you do to me,” she whispered in Gabrielle’s ear and then moaned as the bard bit down on her neck. Xena responded with a growl and thrust her hand between the bard’s legs and her own thigh. Gabrielle threw her head back with a cry of passion, sending a jolt through her lover’s body as their bodies connected together in the passion.

The warrior began a dance with her fingers and hand, taking her mate up and then backing off, again and again until Gabrielle was a mass of shaking muscles and nerve endings that were on fire.

“Please!” the bard finally begged, gripping Xena’s shoulders painfully.

The warrior grinned as she raised up from nipping lightly at one of the bard’s nipples. Xena slightly moved up the bard’s body and kissed Gabrielle again. The bard’s hands moved from the warrior’s shoulders to her hair and the back of her neck as their bodies rocked together.

“Now! Please!” Gabrielle begged again and sank her teeth into the warrior’s neck. Xena moaned and thrust hard into the bard, while her thumb found Gabrielle’s clit. The bard cried around her teeth but refused to release her hold on her lover’s neck, sending shivers down Xena’s entire body as she began to shake with her bard at the approaching orgasms.

How many waves shook Gabrielle’s body? Neither of them could tell, her cries followed by Xena’s and continuing as both shook out of control.

Xena opened her eyes and found Gabrielle curled up in her arms, both of them breathing heavily. Xena smiled and pulled the blankets up over them as Gabrielle sighed and nuzzled her way to her favorite position in the warrior’s arm, head resting on her shoulder.

Xena wondered if she should say anything to Gabrielle about the drop of blood on the bard’s lips as she kissed it away. The bard smiled and returned the light kiss, settling into sleep in her lover’s arms.

*******

Xena looked up from the anvil in surprise at the sight of her older brother heading her way, the anger on his face evident even across the village common. The warrior placed the horseshoe she was working on in the water bucket and walked out from behind the anvil, removing the leather apron and adjusting her sweat band.

Torris, she could tell, was so angry that he couldn’t even speak when he finally got up to his younger sister. His face was red and hands were clenched by his sides. Xena waited, willing herself not to narrow her eyes or provoke him in any way with her expression.

“What is it, Torris?” she asked in a non-stressed voice.

“What in Hades was that scene last night?!” he finally choked out.

“What?” Xena frowned.

“Gabrielle nearly castrates a customer and then you….. you!” he began waving his arms around as he shouted. Xena maintained a calm appearance, not giving into temptation to look back and grin at Dex, working the forge. She knew that would just send Torris right over the edge.

“Gabrielle did not almost castrate anyone. She took care of a potentially abusive situation and didn’t permanently damage anyone.”

“Turning his….. his… that into jelly wasn’t damaging?” he demanded.

“It was either that or face me,” Xena said simply with a shrug which only seemed to irritate her older brother even more.

“What do you call that scene you pulled?”

“Picking up my mate from work?” she teased and grabbed his fist as he attempted to swing at her. She easily held his hand in midair as he struggled to complete the blow and finally gave up, pulling back, sputtering in rage.

“I have to hear about it from the other Council Elders! My sister throwing her damned female sex mate over her shoulder! Like a customer buying a whore!”

Before Xena’s eyes and mind cleared, Torris found himself on the wrong end of Xena’s powerful fists and on the ground nursing a broken nose and bruised jaw. Xena struggled in Dex’s powerful arms which were wrapped around her. She finally tried to calm her breathing as she glared down at Torris’ bloody face and ripped tunic.

Dex relaxed his hold but didn’t let go as he felt the warrior’s muscles relax. Torris scrambled to his feet, holding his nose and glaring back at his sister. They both looked around at the small crowd gathering around, including Cyrene running from the inn with Gabrielle.

“Xena! Torris!” Cyrene yelled as she parted the crowd to get to her children with Gabrielle following. She turned Torris to face her and took off her apron to hold it up to his nose and glanced at Xena to make sure that her daughter was all right physically and mentally.

Gabrielle started to pass by Cyrene and Torris and was startled when Torris reached out and grabbed her by the collar and to pull her back.

“If you hadn’t come along she’d never have come back!” he hissed, pulling the bard off balance and stunning her with a fist just above her eye, sending Gabrielle to the dust. Cyrene and several villagers grabbed him and dragged him back several feet while Dex tightened his hold over an enraged Xena.

Cyrene quickly went to Gabrielle and helped the young woman to her feet as a couple of other villagers rushed to help the bard up. She attempted a smile, wiping at the blood flowing down past her eye. She quickly turned and went to her mate, taking Xena’s face in her hands and began talking to her warrior.

Gabrielle knew the look in Xena’s eyes. She had seen that same berserker madness in Xena’s eyes when the Romans drove seven inch spikes through the bard’s wrists when she was crucified by Caesar. It had taken Xena hours to come out of that rage.

Finally, Gabrielle saw Xena’s breathing begin to slow down and her eyes start focusing.

“Gabrielle?” she whispered and the bard nodded to Dex, the big man gently removing his arms from around the warrior. He gave her a quick squeeze on the shoulder and returned to the shop.

Xena looked around and noticed everyone had gone about their business but were still keeping an eye on the couple, seeing how the interesting afternoon was going to end.

Gabrielle smiled and nodded. “I’m here, my love, and I’m fine.”

“You’re bleeding,” Xena protested.

Gabrielle took her warrior’s hand and led her to the shade of a nearby tree.

“It’s nothing, my love.” Gabrielle said simply as Xena tried to wipe the blood away gently, to get a look at the cut above her eyebrow.

“Where’s Torris?” Xena growled.

“Inside the inn with Cyrene. Xena, promise not to hurt him.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena growled, warningly.

“Please, this is going to be hard enough to work around.”

“He hit you!” Xena hissed, her eyes narrowing and flashing.

“Yes, and he tried to hit you. You also broke his nose and maybe his jaw.” Gabrielle said simply.

Xena glared towards the inn.

“Pounding him anymore isn’t going to help,” Gabrielle argued with the silent warrior.

“Would make me feel better,” Xena countered and was surprised when Gabrielle smiled and took Xena’s face in her hands again.

“I love you, my warrior. The best thing right now is for both of you to avoid each other. I don’t know what else to suggest.”

Xena sighed, letting her anger flow away. “I don’t either. He’s not likely to move away and I’m beginning to like it here a lot.”

“Me too.” the bard slipped her hand into Xena’s and began walking her back to the blacksmith’s shop area. She leaned up and gave her warrior a quick kiss on the lips. “I don’t want you to go all stoic because of him either.” Gabrielle warned and started walking towards the inn.

Gabrielle frowned as she walked into the inn and saw Cyrene wiping away the blood from Torris’ nose with a wet cloth. Xena’s older brother caught her eye and looked away. Cyrene frowned at her son.

“Get in line, Gabrielle, I want a look at that cut.” Cyrene ordered.

“I’m fine, Cyrene.”

“I’m not going to lose a good bard to infection! Bad enough my son will now have a bent nose and his meals will be non-chewing for awhile.”

“Is his jaw broken?” Gabrielle asked, still keeping her distance.

“No, but it won’t feel good for awhile. Maybe it’ll keep his mouth shut!” Cyrene snapped and Torris growled, getting a slap upside the head from his mother.

“If you could talk I’d make you apologize! I know you and Xena used to fight all the time but you do not lay a hand on a woman! Even if she is your sister and especially Gabrielle! Do you realize how close you came to dying?” Cyrene demanded while Torris grumbled.

Gabrielle sat down at a table with a heavy sigh. Fortunately it was after the lunch rush and there weren’t any other customers.

Torris looked over and glared at her. Gabrielle finally snapped and she was standing over the man before Cyrene could move to stop her.

“Listen, damnit! I am not going away! I faced a lot worse than you to be with Xena, don’t make me show you what I learned from them! Find a way to deal with it already! I’d think you’d be happy for her.” she shouted and then spun on her heel and went to the kitchen to clean up.

After wiping her wound off, the bard found she was still pent up and went out the back and to head headed for the tree next to the stream behind the inn, a favorite place of hers and Xena’s. With an angry growl she began practicing a weapons routine with her sais, working out some of her anger.

She was always quick to try and calm Xena down, now she found she also had trouble dealing with her anger. With a shout she threw her sais, burying them into a nearby tree. Gabrielle grabbed them and spun in a complicated pattern, letting them fly into the tree again with another shout.

The bard attempted to smile when she saw Xena standing nearby, leaning against a tree. Gabrielle blushed and retrieved her sais and walked over to her mate.

“So much for the peacekeeper,” she muttered.

Xena drew her into the warrior’s arms, holding her close.

“I love you so much.” Xena said simply. “Mom told me you had words with Torris. Fortunately for his ass, he’d already left.”

“It was more a case of having words AT him.” Gabrielle grinned, nuzzling Xena’s chest, tightening her hug.

Xena leaned against the tree and slid down, pulling a giggling Gabrielle with her.
The bard snuggled into her warrior’s arms with a contended sigh.

“We need to go take Sasha off Mom’s hands for awhile before dinner.” Xena whispered.

“I know, I’m teaching her letters while your Mom makes dinner.” Gabrielle informed Sasha’s mom with a grin.

“Really?”

“Yup, she’s smart.”

“Takes after her Gabby mom.” Xena grinned.

“I’ll get you for that tonight,” Gabrielle promised.

“I hope so, little one.”

********

“Hey, beautiful, how about a kiss?” a male voice demanded from behind the bard one night and the speaker nearly got an elbow in the jaw. Gabrielle almost dropped her serving tray when she turned and saw Hercules and Iolaus standing behind her grinning.

The bard sat the tray down and leaped into the demi-god’s arms for in a big hug and then, with a grin, proceeded to hug Iolaus as well.

“It’s good to see you both! What brings you two this way?” she asked and then raised her eyebrows when she realized there was a figure standing behind Iolaus. She caught the eyes and shy grin of the growing boy.

“Ketli?” he nodded and then grinned when the bard hugged him as well, switching her greeting to Germanic.

Gabrielle’s grin faded when she saw the expression in Hercules’ eyes.

“Oh gods, it’s serious, isn’t it?”

“‘Fraid so, where’s Xena?”

“She should be here any minute for supper. Grab a table and I’ll join you in a bit.”

The warrior was also pleased when she walked in and to see saw her friends sitting at a table with Ketli, the young orphan from their adopted northern Germanic family, and her own kids. Then she also saw the tension in the men’s faces.

Gabrielle walked over with a mug of port and food for her mate and a quick kiss before scurrying off to finish serving dinner to the other customers. Xena made the rounds of the table, giving hugs to everyone and taking Sasha into her arms.

Xena caught the two men’s grins.

“What?” she demanded as Solan giggled and ate quickly to cover it.

“Just thinking how good motherhood and settling down have been good for you both. How long since we were here?” Hercules smiled.

“Five months.” Xena switched to Germanic. “You have grown, Ketli Axe Hand.”

The boy blushed and grinned. “Sasha is beautiful, Ylsa.” he answered, using her adopted Germanic name and watching the child. Xena nodded in agreement and sat her daughter in her own chair and took in the German boy.

The boy had grown from the seven year old she had last seen. Now he was taller and leaner with blond hair and flashing blue eyes that betrayed his northern origin. The warrior was glad to see his quick smile, though, he hadn’t exactly had an easy life, she reflected.

The dinner continued with small chatter, catching up on what had gone on between the friends, Solan discussing his continuing training in tracking and hunting with Xena, the warrior mother proudly discussing her daughter’s speed of learning, and Ketli’s impression of his travel to Greece with his adopted fathers.

Xena had raised an eyebrow at that one, getting a blush from both men and a laugh out of the warrior woman.

The warrior led her guests and family to the small house at the edge of the forest, knowing that Gabrielle would skip storytelling with Hercules and Iolaus in town. Both Greek men were impressed with the small home and the delight in which Xena took in showing them around and Solan’s pride in his growing fur collection from his hunts. They sat by the fire drinking port and cider while waiting for Gabrielle.

Xena could sense the tension in the room and was grateful when Solan volunteered to put Sasha and Ketli to bed.

***

Gabrielle sighed when she walked in the door and walked over to hug the men and Solan again. She settled in front of the fire between Xena’s legs, leaning back into her mate.

“This isn’t good, is it?” she asked, breaking the tension finally.

“No, it isn’t.” Hercules confirmed and stared into the fire. “Since Caesar’s death Rome has been in confusion and in an uproar. After the assassination, Brutus was given the governorship of Crete. Marc Antony tried to seize power but Caesar’s will legalized the adoption of adopted his grandnephew Octavian and gave him most of the estate. Octavian went to Rome to claim his inheritance, which includes all succession rights of Caesar, and has been courting the aristocrats but especially Caesar’s veterans.”

Hercules took a sip of his port. Xena began massaging the bard’s shoulders.

“Antony got his assignment changed from Macedonia to Gaul. Thousands of troops have been joining with Octavian, even though he doesn’t have the authority to raise troops. Antony is getting very worried and has been plotting with Brutus. That led to a temporary truce between them including an alliance. Brutus went to Gaul, in secret, to negotiate with Antony and raise public opinion for Antony. Nothing does that better than a battle victory.” Hercules said bitterly.

“Battle? In Gaul?” Gabrielle whispered. Frowning, Solan moved his chair closer to that of his moms.

Iolaus ducked his head, wiping away sudden tears.

“Oh gods,” Hercules muttered as he wrapped an arm around his mate’s shoulder. “Brutus led Antony’s troops right to the Amazons and Centaurs.”

“What?!” Xena whispered in disbelief.

Hercules nodded, fighting back his own tears. “Axel, Iolaus, Ketli and I went to visit them, to arrange trading for the winter furs just after the attack. We found three survivors, one burned beyond hope and two who are now with Axel’s tribe. They told us what happened.”

“Only two lived?” Gabrielle whispered, grasping Xena’s leg tightly as the room seemed to spin.

“Yes, a little girl named Tyro and an old woman named Sterope.”

“Ephiny, Solari?” Xena choked out, wrapping her arms around her mate’s chest.

“Brutus ordered their execution himself.”

The two women gathered Solan into their arms as his tears finally broke.

“How?” Gabrielle asked, eyes flashing brightly into Hercules’.

“Crucifixion. They said he questioned the Amazons and tortured them, trying to find out where you were.” Hercules said softly.

With a shout Gabrielle broke free from the embrace and dashed out the door. Xena hugged Solan even tighter for a moment and then pulled back, looking closely at her son.

“I’m okay.” he said simply. Xena nodded and grabbed her cloak and followed Gabrielle into the night.

Xena found her mate sitting by the same stream that ran behind her mother’s inn, rocking back and forth, her arms wrapped around her knees. The warrior knelt down and gently placed the cloak around Gabrielle’s shoulders and took the bard into her arms, both letting the tears flow.

***

The next day the small group of mourners rode up the mountainside until they reached a bare spot on top of one of the smaller ones.

Soon a huge bonfire was laid and ready and everyone gathered around. Solan began a drum beat with Iolaus keeping a base beat with him. Hercules handed a torch to both Gabrielle and Xena and then stepped back and bowed his head respectfully.

With an Amazon wail of grief, Gabrielle bent forward and threw her torch onto the bonfire. Xena followed with a howl of her own. Most of the next candlemark was spent with the two women dancing, singing and howling their grief while Cyrene chanted prayers to Hecate and Artemis.

As the fire began to die down, the two women and drummers were exhausted, having pounded and howled their grief to the sky and flames. Xena slowly wiped her face of the sweat and tears and approached her mate, who was kneeling on the ground near the fire, staring at the flames and breathing heavily.

Gabrielle stood as the warrior approached her and slowly removed her Amazon Queen mask. She picked up her staff and looked at it carefully and then threw it into the fire, surprising the warrior.

“My tribe is dead but the Amazon spirit will never be killed!” she vowed.

Xena nodded and waited, watching her lover’s blazing eyes, bordering on the berserker rage. Gabrielle walked to her lover slowly and reached to Xena belt and pulled out the warrior’s dagger. Xena didn’t move, even when Gabrielle sliced her hand open once again and gripped her fist around the blood.

“Ephiny, Solari – all of them, Brutus and Marc Antony will pay.” Gabrielle hissed and Xena closed her eyes, fresh tears escaping. She understood her mate’s suffering and the desire for vengeance but she also feared for her little bard. With a heavy sigh she took the dagger from her mate, cut her own hand and let the blood run onto the ground.

“For our family and our tribe, My Queen,” she vowed with her Queen and then drew Gabrielle into her arms again.

*********

“This could take awhile,” Xena warned as they sat around the table the next morning and Gabrielle nodded, her eyes still bright with grief and anger. It had been a rough night for both women, both plagued by nightmares again.

“I know, just as long as it happens someday.” Gabrielle stated.

“I’m not going to let you turn into an assassin, damnit!” Xena snapped and Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed. Hercules and Iolaus looked very uncomfortable.

“I’ve killed, remember?”

“Inside the Arena when you had no choice. Choosing to take someone’s life ahead of time is something totally different. That’s a line of darkness I don’t want you to cross, please.” Xena’s eyes were pained and Gabrielle’s face softened.

“I want revenge, yes, but most of all I want justice.”

Xena nodded. “Then we’ll figure it out. Right now I think we should wait and see how things develop between Antony, Octavian, Brutus and Cassius. I don’t want to get caught in the middle of a civil war unless we can use it to our advantage.”

“All right, you were the general, my love.” Gabrielle leaned back, finally her eyes easing up.

“Are you going to be okay, Dex wants me to go to Desume, a customer over there has a special order for us. I’d be gone two days.” Xena asked with a frown and Gabrielle attempted a reassuring smile.

“Actually, yes. I want to take a trip to the woods just north of here. There’s a shrine to Artemis I’d like to visit.”

Xena nodded, understanding. “I thought I’d take Solan and Sasha with me, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not, my love.”

“What about you three, my friends? What are you plans for the near future?” Xena asked their two best friends.

“We thought we’d stay here for a week and then head over and see our families to introduce them to Ketli.” Iolaus answered with his characteristic grin.

“Great, we love having you two here, I just wish it was under better circumstances.” Gabrielle said, wiping away a stray tear. She stood quickly. “I’m going to help Cyrene at the inn.” she announced and quickly kissed her mate and was out the door.

Xena struggled with her own tears.

*******

Gabrielle was a little disappointed that Artemis didn’t make an appearance at the shrine when Gabrielle visited and sacrificed to the Goddess in honor of her fallen Amazons. In fact, she reflected, she was very disappointed and wondered why the Goddess hadn’t been around at all to see her Chosen.

The warrior bard was pondering that and Brutus’ actions when she noticed a rider approaching her hard and fast. Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she reached down and drew a sai into her hand as her horse stopped, ready for whatever command she might throw at the mare.

The rider, a young girl in peasant clothes, stopped her horse far enough away from the bard to show she wasn’t dangerous.

“Are you Gabrielle, friend of Xena?” the girl asked breathlessly.

“Yes, what is it?” Gabrielle replaced the sai after determining that the girl was alone.

“My father found a young boy tied up in the woods, he’s been hurt bad and he’s asking for you. Said his name is Solan.”

“Lead me!” Gabrielle ordered and the girl turned her horse as the bard urged her horse to join the girl’s as they flew down the road to Myrcinus.

The girl’s house was on the edge of the village and they arrived quickly. Gabrielle was off her horse and impatiently waiting by the door for the girl to open it before her horse had even skidded to a stop.

“Father! I found her!” the girl shouted as she opened the door.

An older man, skin tanned and weathered by years in the field, stepped out from a back room and approached the bard with an easy smile.

“You are welcome in my home, I’ve sent for the healer.” he said simply and motioned for her to join him in the back.

Gabrielle whimpered at the sight of the young teen lying on the simple cot. He had a broken nose that was turning into two black eyes, split lips, an arm in a splint and he was deathly pale.

“Solan! Can you hear me?” Gabrielle asked as she knelt next to the cot, taking the boy’s hand carefully.

The teen opened his eyes with a groan, his body twitching in pain.

“Gabby mom?” he whispered.

“I’m here, Solan,” with experienced hands she quickly lifted his tunic and hissed at the bruising along his ribs and frowned at the knot at the boy’s stomach. He groaned loudly when she poked him. Internal injuries were definitely a fear.

“We were attacked, Mom said Ares warrior priests,” he whispered.

Gabrielle’s eyes took in the rope burns at his wrists and noted that he was able to easily move his legs until she tried to bend his legs into his stomach, again he groaned in obvious pain.

“What happened, Solan?”

“They hurt Mom really bad and took her and Sasha away in a wagon. They left me tied to a tree.” the boy began to cry and Gabrielle started talking, trying to ease his physical and emotional pain. Finally a young woman walked in with an older woman, both carrying satchels.

“I am Polyphonte and this Nomia, I am her apprentice.” the girl introduced herself.

“I’m Gabrielle and this is Solan. He’s been beaten badly, broken nose and bruises but I’m worried about his stomach. There’s a couple of lumps and they’re rigid and painful. It hurts him to bend his legs to his stomach and he’s very pale.” Gabrielle said quickly as the older woman moved forward and the younger one pulled up a stool for her mentor.

“You have training?” the older woman, Nomia asked.

“No, but I’ve seen plenty of wounds and beatings,” Gabrielle answered, watching the older woman’s hands fly over the boy, much as hers had done. The young woman, Poly went to a table and began pulling out herbs and mixing them in a mortar.

“You’re too young to have such knowledge,” Nomia smiled.

“So is he,” Gabrielle commented, wincing as he groaned in pain again.

“They always are,” the old woman agreed and took the cup that Poly handed her of the mixed herbs and wine. She held the boy’s head up gently and got him to drink most of the wine.

“Solan, do you know where they took Xena and Sasha?” Gabrielle asked, hoping to get more out of him before the pain herbs hit.

“Something about a temple,” he muttered, eyes closed.

“You are needed elsewhere,” Nomia observed.

“Yes, his mother and sister have been kidnapped.”

“Then go, we won’t know until tomorrow if there is bad bleeding inside.”

“Solan, I’m going to find them and get them back!” Gabrielle promised and dashed out of the back room. She approached the father and daughter.

“Thank you, I’ll pay for whatever cost the healer wishes. I have to leave for a bit, if I don’t come back within two days, send word to Cyrene in Amphipolis at the inn that Solan is here and hurt.”

“Don’t worry, he is welcome to stay here as long as necessary. You’ll be back.”
the farmer said optimistically.

“Thank you.”

***

Gabrielle cursed Ares with every curse she had ever heard of and invented quite a few along the way as she rode hard. How in Hades did Solan end up in Myrcinus, she wondered. It was north of Amphipolis and not on the way to Desume in the East. The only solution Gabrielle could see was that he was left as bait for her to find and attempt a rescue of Xena and Sasha. That meant the priest warriors must be headed for the temple of Ares at Crenides, north of Desume.

Gabrielle growled and urged her horse on faster. She knew she was heading into a trap but was determined to get Xena and Sasha back, she’d just have to change Ares’ plan, she thought as the wind whipped through her short blond hair.

The bard wasn’t surprised when she caught up with the small band of warrior priests late that day. She left the road, leading her horse deep into the woods next to the road and left the mare to take to the trees. Gabrielle was hoping that Ares hadn’t mentioned some of the bard’s Amazon talents when instructing his warriors.

Gabrielle moved through the trees with the grace of a stalking tiger and got close enough to see the camp they were setting up next to the road. She by-passed the sentries easily and slid into the shadows. The bard stifled a moan as she saw her lover in a hay filled wagon with Sasha next to her.

Xena was unconscious, hand covering an obvious wound in her side. Like her son, her face was bruised and cut and there was a bad gash across her left thigh. Her weapons were sitting on the bench seat of the wagon.

Sasha was quiet but it was obvious she had been crying and it broke Gabrielle’s heart to see the little one clinging to her unconscious mom as the men ignored her and Xena while they sat up camp.

Gabrielle turned her eyes from her mate and daughter and focused her rage down to take in the camp and its’ set up. Pretty basic, she thought. Men are so typical. Horses tied to a rope line, sentries positioned every so many yards apart, watching the outside of the camp, several others gathering wood for a fire while another prepared dinner for the group.

One leaned over the wagon and checked on the woman and child. He ignored the terrified cry from the child and felt Xena’s neck for a pulse.

“She’s still breathing but I don’t know how.” he yelled to the man preparing dinner.

“I don’t know either but I’m glad she is, Ares said not to hurt her!” the other one complained.

“Then he should have tried to take the kid away from her without hurting her!” another one snapped back, nursing a broken arm.

Gabrielle was pleased to notice three men lying on blankets and moaning in pain and most of the rest were nursing bruises and cuts. Two of the men weren’t long for the world, she thought as she watched them.

Xena and Solan had put up quite a fight. There were five horses without riders and Ares’ priests were known for their fighting skills and blessing from their God.

Gabrielle settled into the fork of the tree she was in, deep in the shadows and waited.

***

The figure moved through the shadows quietly as death. A hand reached up into the wagon slowly and removed the sword lying there without being seen or heard. The only indication that something was wrong was a slight thump near the horses. None of the priests even turned their heads in question.

***

When the sun finally rose the next morning the head priest groaned, grabbing at his ribs when he turned over. He stood up slowly and walked over to the wagon and blinked several times.

Every sleeping man found themselves jumping out of their blankets and cloaks, grabbing for weapons as he started yelling and kicking at them.

“Where’s the brat!?” he demanded.

“What?” someone demanded back, trying to untangle themselves from their blanket.

“The kid! Where’s the kid!?” he shouted.

“What are you talking about?” another man demanded and ran over to the wagon and was stunned to see the warrior woman still in the wagon but not the child. “Maybe she had to use a tree and climbed out.” he suggested.

“Then find her!” the leader shouted.

“The horses are gone!” another voice came from across the camp and the head priest began swearing as he trotted that way.

Nothing was left of the horse line except the cut rope. The guard was missing and so were the horses.

The priest screamed in anger and stormed back over to the wagon and noticed the missing sword.

“All right, damnit! Xena’s pet is somewhere around here and I want her found!” he screamed and the able bodied warriors scurried into the bushes and trees.

Gabrielle grinned, holding a wide-eyed Sasha high in a tree, hidden in the shadows.

“Something to remember in the future, Sasha,” she whispered, “men seldom look up.”

Gabrielle wrapped part of the horse rope around Sasha’s waist and secured the other end tightly to a branch. It was dangerous to leave the child but she needed to get Xena away from the warriors and there were still too many of them to take head on.

“Stay quiet for me and we’ll get your Mom back soon, okay?” she whispered and the young child nodded simply. With eyes wide she watched her Gabby Mum move from the tree into other trees and shadows.

A candlemark later, the priest called everyone back to camp and was enraged to find four men missing.

“Did any of you find the sentry from last night?” he demanded and they all shook their heads.

“Damnit!” he cursed, kicking at the body of one of the warriors who had died in the night.

“Why don’t you call Ares to help?” one of the priest warriors suggested.

“Because he can’t interfere with the brat, something about the other gods. That’s why he sent us on this job, moron” the high priest snapped.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed, that was good information to know. Ares wouldn’t be popping up out of thin air and getting in her way. She quickly counted and found six warriors left, including the priest. Ares hadn’t been taking any chances sending that large of a group out to kidnap Sasha.

She frowned, she needed to find a way to lessen the number somehow and didn’t want to wait until nightfall to do it. Then the bard grinned when she saw the bow and arrow next to the corpse. Gabrielle also spotted her mate beginning to regain consciousness and breathed a sigh of relief. Must be that healing god gift thing, she thought.

A well thrown rock sent the warriors dashing into the woods and the bard into the camp to grab the bow and arrows and then back into the trees. The high priest was an extremely bright red when he called everyone back to camp to find two more men missing, this time they found the corpses after some searching, each with an arrow through the throat.

Another well placed arrow in the thigh of a warrior sent him to his knees yelling in pain and dropping his sword.

Gabrielle dropped out of the nearest tree with Xena’s sword in one hand and a sai in the other. The high priest screamed in anger and charged the small woman.

Unknown to Gabrielle, Xena was awake and managed to pull herself up by the sideboards of the wagon and gritted her teeth as the bard grinned, facing the onslaught of the warrior priests.

The first man rushed the bard with his sword extended and Gabrielle easily parried the sword thrust with her sai and embedded Xena’s sword through the man’s stomach and out his back. She quickly yanked the sword free by placing her foot on the man’s chest and pulling, shoving him backwards as he clutched at his gaping wound. She quickly jumped forward as he fell and buried the sword in his throat as he fell, pinning him to the ground.

The warrior bard parried another sword with the sai as she pulled out the sword and lashed out with a quick sidekick into the chest of the man whose sword she had trapped in her sai. With a well practiced move of her wrist the man lost his sword.

Gabrielle switched her balance to the other foot and spun quickly, coming upright and placing the spinning foot along the jaw of another priest. She met the sword of the High priest head on.

The man’s rage gave him additional strength and Gabrielle found herself almost bending over backwards under the pressure of his sword against hers. She slashed out with the sai, forcing him to pull back to avoid getting the weapon in his stomach. Gabrielle pressed the advantage and broke the stalemate of the swords and flipped out of the way of his next thrust.

As the man, who she had kicked picked up his sword and charged her again, the bard spun, racking her sword along his stomach. Gabrielle switched her grip on the sword and thrust backwards, several times, sending the sword through his stomach three more times before switching the grip again and facing the last two fighters.

Instead of rushing her they stopped and began flanking her. The one was the warrior she had shot with the arrow and he wasn’t moving quickly, and Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed in concentration.

The bard spun rapidly, confusing the two warrior priests, especially the High priest who was blinking in confusion as he tried to speak and find his next breath as he couldn’t seem to understand the sai sticking out of his throat.

Gabrielle, taking advantage of the other man’s slowed responses, came out of her spin on the run and forward flipped under his guard to bury the sword in his chest. Before he could instinctively slash down with his sword, she kicked his legs out from under him and buried her other sai in his throat.

Almost growling with the onslaught of the energy coursing through her veins, the warrior bard blinked and sat down heavily on the ground, looking around her. Xena watched as her breathing slowed and the dazed look began to leave her mates’ eyes.

“Gabrielle,” Xena said softly with a groan.

“Xena!” Gabrielle jumped to her feet, ran to the side of the wagon and vaulted into the bed of the transport holding her mate, taking Xena into her arms.

Xena attempted a smile for her mate.

“Gods, I’ve been so worried!” Gabrielle whispered, brushing a lock of dark hair out of her warrior’s eyes.

“Guess it’s that god healing thing, that wound should have been fatal.” Xena agreed with a whisper. “Sasha?”

“Hang on, my love.” Gabrielle smiled and gently lowered her love back onto the hay and jumped out of the wagon. She looked back at her mate with a smile. “I’ll be right back.”

Gabrielle quickly climbed the tree and grinned at the smiling child sitting patiently in the high tree top, just where she had left her. She grabbed her daughter for a big hug.

“Guess what, little one! Your mom’s awake and asking for you, should we go see her?”

“Yes, Mum.” Sasha agreed with a grin. Gabrielle smiled and pulled out a harness like bundle of straps from a pouch she had left hanging on a branch near the child. She quickly harnessed the small child onto her back and climbed down carefully and then released the squirming little girl when they reached the ground.

Gabrielle was all smiles as she lifted the child into the wagon and watched Sasha lay down next to her mother, curling inside Xena’s arm. Xena smiled back at her mate and down at her daughter.

“You get to rescue me again, my love.” the warrior said softly.

“Yup, Solan is alive, with a farmer and healers.” Gabrielle stated before Xena could ask the next question.

“Is he allright?”

Gabrielle lost her smile and Xena closed her eyes in pain. “They didn’t know when I left.”

“I’m going to kill Ares this time!” Xena growled.

“No, my love, you’re too injured.” Gabrielle debated with her mate.

“He’s gone too far this time!” Xena protested.

“Yes, and this time he gets to answer to me!”

“What?”

“They were setting up a trap for me. They left Solan where he would be found. Ares wanted his priests to kill me and deliver you and Sasha to him at his temple where he thinks Hecate won’t interfere.”

Xena growled, not wanting to let loose with the string of obscenities in front of her small daughter.

Gabrielle nodded in agreement. “I’m going to get my horse and then we’re going to the temple. I’m going to have a talk with the God of War.” Gabrielle told her mate grimly.

Xena wasn’t sure she was strong enough to argue with the stubborn set of her mate’s jaw.

“Whatever Gabrielle wants, Gabrielle gets,” she muttered as the bard trotted away.

***

Xena sat up in the back of the wagon, chakram in hand and sword across her lap. Sasha sat next to her mom, eyes wide, sensing the seriousness in her two moms as Gabrielle pulled up next to the temple of Ares.

“Gabrielle,” Xena’s voice stopped the bard as she jumped down from the seat and faced the temple. The warrior knew the stubborn set of the bard’s jaw and frowned. “Let’s just go home and face this another day,” she argued with Gabrielle’s eyes and determined body language.

“No, my love. Not this time.” Gabrielle said flatly and then her eyes relaxed and she managed a small smile as she leaned over, kissed her mate and gave a quick hug to Sasha. “If something happens….”

“Nothing’s gonna happen!” Xena hissed.

Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment and then began strapping on one of the swords she had taken from the soldiers and followed that with a dagger at the small of her back. Xena was surprised when the bard pulled out a spike from her leather wrist bracer. Gabrielle smiled a quirky smile. “Never let them know all your weapons,” she quoted her former gladiator trainer and friend, Nikki.

“If something happens, get home. Do not come in after me. Promise me, Xena!”

Xena growled and grabbed Gabrielle’s hands into hers, trying to fight back tears and a wince of pain. “I can’t promise that, Gabrielle. I’m not leaving you!”

“You have Solan and Sasha to think of.” Gabrielle argued.

“I can’t live without you!” Xena protested.

“You’re a mom now, yes you can.”

“You’re as much their mom as I am so you had better come back, damnit!” Xena insisted.

“That’s something Ares and I are going to talk about.” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and Xena saw the mental shift of her little bard into hardened Arena fighter and realized that she was now looking at Dancer, the gladiator deadly enough to win the coveted wooden sword of freedom from Caesar’ s hands himself.

Xena released her mate’s hands with a sad nod, knowing that any further argument was useless. Dancer turned and sprinted up the stairs, hesitating a moment at the door and then going in.

Xena wrapped an arm around her daughter, trying to comfort Sasha and herself.

“It’ll be okay, Sasha. It has to be.”

“Gabby mum?”

“She’ll be back, Sash.” Xena promised and closed her eyes, offering a prayer to Apollo and Hecate to watch over their children. Xena knew that Gabrielle meant to pound it through Ares’ head to leave them alone or die trying to kill him to end it once and for all. The warrior knew her bard was willing to do just that if it meant saving Sasha and Xena from Ares.

***

Gabrielle spotted two priests and three worshippers in the temple as she looked around. She pulled up the hood on her cloak and entered quietly, sitting down on one of the benches as she took in the temple.

It was as she would expect of the God of War, fire blazing in the center of the room, a few benches for worshippers, an altar that was so stained with the blood of animal sacrifices, and maybe other sacrifices, she thought, that it looked like it had been painted a deep rust color. Behind that, up several stairs, was a stone chair.

Tapestries of various symbols and knotwork design lined the walls, mostly in reds and blacks.

Finally the three worshippers made their offerings and left, leaving Gabrielle and the priests. The bard stood slowly and approached the altar where the two men waited, watching her. As they realized she was female a puzzled and surprised look hit each of their faces. Before they could question her they found a sai under each chin, both froze.

“The God of War and I have something to discuss, get out.” she hissed, increasing the pressure on the sais, forcing the men’s heads back even further. They nodded agreement around the metal sticking into their jaws and Gabrielle pulled back slightly to sheath one of the sais and drew the sword. The priests rushed out of the door, slamming it behind them.

“ARES!” the bard screamed.

“You know it’s customary to offer a sacrifice when you want something in my temple.” a voice said in a bored manner and the God of War appeared on his throne, lounging across it rather than sitting in it.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed and she pointed the sword in his direction.

“I take it that you’re a little upset with me?” he grinned as he stood up.

“Your men almost killed my wife, kidnapped my daughter and possibly killed Solan. I also figure they were waiting to kill me. Not to mention tricking my wife into sex with you. Yeah, I’m a little pissed off at you.” she snapped, watching him carefully as he stepped down the steps, she kept the altar between her and the god.

“MY daughter, bard. Not yours.” Ares lost his bored expression and looked angry.

“You’ve got about as much claim to her as a stud horse to a colt.” she sneered and ducked as an energy bolt shot out of his hand. She grinned as she straightened up. “What’s the matter, Ares? A little too close to home?” She dived across the floor, rolling into a defensive stance with her sword and sai as she dodged another energy bolt.

“She’s my daughter!” he yelled.

“Not even close! Is that why you wanted me dead, because you know she’ll never be yours as long as Xena or I am alive?” she demanded.

“Xena’s been mine and will again.”

“Get over it!” she shouted back. “The only way you could even get close to Xena was to trick her. How does that feel? To know that she prefers me to you?”

The bard yelped as another energy bolt hit closer that time. She moved closer to Ares as he growled.

“With you out of the way, she’ll come back to me!” he sneered.

“Not a chance and you know it, that’s why you’re so desperate to get ahold of Sasha. You know Xena will never go back now that she has the kids and me. Even if I’m gone she won’t come back to you.” Gabrielle countered.

“How do you know that for certain, Gabrielle?” Ares lowered his hand and she moved a little closer. “Doesn’t it drive you crazy to think of her in my arms that night? To know that her body was all over mine and I was deep inside of her?”

“What kind of delusion are you under?” She demanded. “The only way you’ve ever had her is through tricks, what kind of power or love is that? Have you ever made her beg for sexual release? Funny, I never hear her scream your name.” Gabrielle smirked back and parried a sword slash as the God of War drew his sword and slashed at her with a yell of anger.

The bard found herself falling back as she quickly had to parry and block a series of blows that were almost too fast for her to counter. As she felt the wall behind her, the warrior bard wasn’t so sure about her skill in surviving a straight out match against the God of War. She became convinced when her sword was knocked from her hand and her other hand pinned to the wall and a sword at her throat.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and waited.

After a moment she opened her eyes and found Ares contemplating her, his face still angry.

“Why do you fight me? Join us! With Xena and you at my side, we could conquer the world! Xena and I could bring the world to it’s knees and you could bring order to it.”

“After you’ve slaughtered thousands, right?”

“What, still on the peace kick?” he demanded. “With a sword in your hand now, bard? Peace loving Gabrielle, now a fighter who can take out several of my best warriors, killing all of them?” Ares lowered the sword point but held her wrist to the wall and moved closer to her, almost pinning her body against the wall with his. “Tell me you don’t feel the fire now when you fight. That’s what Xena and I feel! I can make you feel like that everyday for the rest of your life.” he promised.

“You try to kill Xena, Solan may die, you try to kill me and kidnap Sasha and now you’re offering me…. what? The world, your body? I don’t think so!”

“Do you think you can just pretend that Sasha’s not the child of a god? Why do you think your friend Brutus was looking for you? He knows if he has Sasha he’ll have my favor and can control his own destiny. He wants Xena dead and he wants you either dead or in his bed, either way at this point.”

“No,” Gabrielle whispered in disbelief.

“Yup, he’s become quite ambitious since he killed Caesar and you, for some strange reason, drive him crazy.”

Gabrielle surprised the god with an upper cut of her palm to his nose, loosening his position against her body and effectively stunning him. Before he could recover he stumbled back a few feet and looked down at his ribs in disbelief. Gabrielle started to move forward to follow through with the stroke but he quickly recovered enough to hold his sword up in a defensive position as he looked down at the dagger sticking out of his ribs on the left side.

Ares raised his hand, staring at the blood with a stunned expression on his face.

Gabrielle couldn’t resist a smirk as he looked back at her. She switched the sai to her primary hand and circled away from the wall.

“How?” he questioned, pulling the dagger out with an obvious grimace of pain.

“A gifting from one of Xena’s parents. Xena, Sasha and I now have the ability to cause you pain. We can even kill you if we get in a good enough shot. Still think you’re invincible?” Gabrielle taunted.

He stumbled back a couple of feet, still looking at the blood on his hand when the bard shouted an Amazon warcry and the God of War found himself having to quickly recover as he had to block and parry strokes from the warrior bard’s sais, forcing him across his own temple.

Ares had to admit that the bard was good, as good as one of his warrior priests. This Gabrielle was new, before the bard had always been restrained, holding something back in her fear of killing someone. This Gabrielle let loose with all the anger of the last two years on the God of War and he found himself taking several blows from the blunt end of her sais and she took several blows from his fists without falling. Ares was impressed.

With a growl he attempted to recover and slashed out, taking a hit from one of the sais along his arm as his sword connected with the bard’s shoulder.

Gabrielle shouted in pain and dove backwards, off of Ares’ sword, raising a hand to her own blood as he growled, holding his own wounded ribs. The bard regained her feet and spun on one foot as he charged her, taking another sword slice along the arm but getting in a solid strike in his lower back with the sai.

The God of War howled in pain and rage as he hit the floor, holding his back and writhing in pain. Gabrielle also fell to her knees, holding her shoulder in pain. Both could feel the blood flowing from their wounds. Gabrielle could see that her sai had probably gotten a couple of good internal organs or a lung. She narrowed her eyes and struggled back to her feet, attempting to stumble closer to Ares.

“Listen to me, damn you!” she growled. “You’ve tried to take my mate from me one too many times. Tell me why I shouldn’t rip your equipment off right now!” she demanded and was surprised to see something she had never seen before in the dark eyes. Fear.

“Go ahead, will killing me make you feel better or will you be like me? Want to cross that line, bard?”

Gabrielle felt her fist clench in anger as she pictured the thought of Xena with him in a cave behind a waterfall, conceiving Sasha that night. She gritted her teeth as she remembered Solan’s battered body and Xena’s near brush with death. Then she screamed with rage at the thought of Sasha spending any time with him.

“Gabrielle, don’t, please.” a voice brought the bard’s eyes back in focus as she realized she was straddled across the god with her sai held high, about to strike for the chest or throat.

Gabrielle didn’t look up, knowing that Xena was in the doorway of the temple.

“After all we’ve been through because of him?” she demanded, noticing the blood slowly seeping from his mouth. A lung stab, the experienced gladiator noted, he would have to get some special healing from one of the other gods for this match.

“I know he deserves it but you don’t.” Gabrielle could sense Xena moving further into the temple. Ares didn’t look away, keeping his eyes on Gabrielle and the raised sai above his heart and throat. “Don’t become what I was, he’ll win. He won’t have me but he’ll have you and I couldn’t live with that.” Xena pleaded.

“I’m not the same innocent bard you first met, Xena. I almost lost you to him! How many times?!” Gabrielle demanded and her eyes narrowed as she felt muscles beneath her tense up. She let out a warning growl and tightened her grip on the sai.

Xena caught both moments from the fighters.

“Ares! Don’t move! Don’t push her, damnit!” she shouted.

“If she doesn’t kill me now I WILL kill both of you!” he promised, coughing on his blood.

Gabrielle hissed and her body tensed.

“Gabrielle, please! Don’t let it take you!” Xena pleaded, moving a little closer. “Come home with Sasha and me. Let’s get our son and go home.”

“You almost died, Xena. If it hadn’t been that you’re the daughter of a goddess, you would have died!” Gabrielle protested, feeling the strength beginning to ebb from her body as her wounded shoulder began pounding at her. The fighter knew that she was losing the energy of her anger and that something had to happen soon.

“Yes, but I’m alive and Sasha is alive and not in his hands.”

“Come on, damnit! Do it and claim your place as a fighter!” Ares taunted.

“She’s already a fighter, Ares, but she’s also a bard and she’s my wife, my Queen and my life. You’re not worth it.” Xena said simply and Gabrielle slowly began lowering the sai.

Xena bent down and helped her bard stand up and then steadied her as the blood loss began to take a toll. Xena looked down at Ares and drew her sword out and placed it at his throat.

“Remember, I’ve already crossed that line many times,” she hissed.

“Xena?” Gabrielle protested.

“Listen, Ares,” Xena growled. “We are now on a little more equal terms, remember that and stay away from me, my family, my friends, my children and my mate. Next time, I’ll cut off parts of your anatomy that would be very embarrassing for a god. Got me?”

Ares merely nodded and was gone in a flash of light.

Xena turned in time to catch Gabrielle as she stumbled. Together they managed to work their way out of the temple where the two priests were standing, wondering whether to try and enter or not. They took one look at the wounded women and decided not to approach their temple or god right then.

Xena helped her bard into the back of the wagon, quickly ripping away part of Sasha’s blanket into a bandage. She placed it over Gabrielle’s wounded shoulder as the bard closed her eyes.

“Sasha, can you do mommy a big favor and hold that there while I drive the wagon and take us to get Solan?” Sasha nodded and pressed down on the makeshift bandage but pulled back quickly when Gabrielle moaned in pain.

“It’s okay, go ahead and press.” Xena smiled reassuringly and the child smiled back and pressed down on the bandage. Gabrielle attempted a smile at her mate and daughter.

“Think he’ll leave us alone?” she whispered.

“For awhile. We know that he can’t touch us himself and he knows he’s vulnerable to attack from either of us or Hercules. He’s pretty much a coward when it comes to his own skin.” Xena grinned.

“Or parts of his anatomy.” Gabrielle smiled back.
***

By the time they got back to Myrcinus to the farmstead, Xena’s wound was much better and she thought that she might actually live. She grinned. Gabrielle’s wound had stopped bleeding and the bard was sleeping with Sasha’s hand holding the bandage steady in the moving wagon.

The healer’s apprentice was at the home of the farmer and quickly rebandaged Gabrielle’s wound and stitched up Xena’s, applying salve to prevent infection. They found Solan alive and awake though in a lot of pain from the bruised internal organs and broken nose. He winced more than smiled but managed around the pain when he saw both women and the little girl walk into the room.

“He needs to stay here for a few more days before he can travel and neither of you should travel either.” Poly, the apprentice instructed.

“You are welcome to sleep in my bed,” the farmer offered quickly.

“The barn would be just fine,” Xena said easily as she sat next to her son.

“Mom, are you okay?” he whispered.

“I am now. My kids are okay and my wife kicked Ares’ butt.” she grinned.

“Ares?” he questioned. “Wow!”

“Yup! I can’t wait for her to write that one down!” Xena agreed, sending a teasing look to her mate across the room.

“I’ll get you for that, warrior mine.” the bard promised.

“I’m counting on it.” Xena responded in a husky voice.

The End
Settling With Brutus
Joxer alert: he’s here but not as obnoxious as usual.

Storyline: Joxer returns after three years away on a job and Xena is forced to catch him up on all that’s happened in her and Gabrielle’s lives, including their marriage and birth of Sasha. Then Xena and Gabrielle go after Brutus after he kidnaps Sasha, their daughter.

Cyrene moved with the practice of a long time innkeeper through the dinner crowd of the tavern with her tray of mugs. She silently cursed as Torris dashed by with another serving tray of full mugs. Her one serving girl had decided to run off with her boyfriend and Gabrielle was off visiting her family.

As she wiped her forehead with her apron, Cyrene gave a thankful prayer that the bard was due back in a couple of mornings. It was summer and Cyrene could use the help. Xena’s mother hoped that her serving girl was going to be happy but she still cursed the fact that the girl left her without adequate help. Cyrene gave her son a smile of thanks as she moved to grab more empty mugs. He grinned a lopsided grin and then lost it as the door opened. Cyrene glanced over quickly and frowned.

Xena, once the Destroyer of Nations and Warrior Princess, entered the tavern with quick practiced glances, taking in all of the guests, her mother and her brother. She smiled at her mother but ignored Torris.

Cyrene again cursed under her breath. It had been months since Xena and her brother had come to blows over her relationship with Gabrielle and they still weren’t talking to each other. Cyrene was just grateful they weren’t trying to kill each other. Not many people tried to hit Xena and lived and no one except Torris had ever struck Gabrielle and lived, Cyrene knew. It was only because he was Xena’s brother that Torris had gotten away with only a broken nose and almost broken jaw. It had taken Gabrielle more than several minutes to calm her enraged lover enough not to kill her own brother.

The siblings had settled on an uneasy truce since then. Torris didn’t talk to Xena or Gabrielle and they responded in kind. Having to rely on Torris for help around the inn didn’t help but Cyrene had no choice. All the girls in the village were either married with children or had jobs of their own already and Xena had a full time position with the blacksmith.

Xena settled into a chair at a table near the door, her back to the wall. Cyrene smiled at her daughter’s habits. Even though Xena no longer wore her armor, she still wore her gauntlets and sword, now at her side for work, sword, now at her side for work, her mother didn’t think the warrior would ever lose her training and instincts.

Torris frowned but carried a dinner tray and mug of port to his sister without a word and moved onto the next table demanding his attention. Cyrene shook her head with an exasperated smile. Sometimes siblings were harder to deal with than feuding families.

Cyrene occasionally glanced over to her daughter, taking in the frown and the warrior’s quick eyes. Xena’s mother hated it when Gabrielle was gone, even overnight, it could send Xena back to her scowling warrior days. Then the former Warlord’s face lit up brightly when Solan walked in with Sasha in tow. Cyrene grinned at the sight of her grandkids as well. The small child and growing teen were a constant in the village and had won the hearts of everyone who met or saw them. Except Torris.

“Momma!” Sasha shouted and ran to the open arms of the warrior and Solan grinned and sat down at the table.

“Thanks, Mom,” Xena said as Cyrene brought their dinner and ruffled her grandson’s hair.

“Sure, how’s the training with the militia going?” she asked the young teen.

“Okay, I prefer the hunting, though.”

“My son, thankfully, didn’t inherit my warrior lust,” Xena grinned. “but he did inherit my tracking skills.”

She smiled as he blushed with the praise. In truth, she was very proud of Solan and his skills. He may not have inherited the blood lust but he had his mother’s skill with a sword and was even better with a bow than she was. He was kind, gentle and skilled, everything Xena could hope for in a son. She knew his father, Borias would be proud.

In addition to working with the local blacksmith, Xena also helped train the militia of the village and the village guards. No one could dispute the warrior’s skills in battle, tactics, and defenses. Even Torris had to admit that she was a natural for the training of their men and women.

A candlemark later, Cyrene smiled as Xena picked up a sleepy Sasha and placed an arm around her son’s shoulder. The warrior gave her Mom a smile as they headed out the door, heading home.

***

“Xena?” the warrior looked up from her work at the blacksmith shop and blinked in surprise.

“Joxer?”

The would-be warrior had at least replaced his home-made armor with a decent quality Byzantine-type with a chainmail shirt and a leather tunic vest over that. Heavy boots and an iron helmet completed his armor. His sword was also now of decent quality and his shield was of typical Roman design, wood and leather with metal reinforcement.

What hadn’t changed was his goofy grin, which was huge upon seeing the warrior female.

Xena dropped the piece of iron she was working on and came around the short wooden shelving that separated the working area from the selling area of the blacksmith shop. She grinned and hugged the young man tightly.

“Gods, it’s good to see you!” she said easily.

“You too, it’s been too long!” he agreed.

“What, three years?”

“Yup, I’ve been in the East, working as a guard for merchant caravans.”

“That explains the upgrade in armor,” she grinned.

“Yeah,” he looked around and then grinned at the warrior again. “Wow, I had heard you were settling down but I couldn’t quite believe it. Where’s Gabrielle?”

Xena felt her stomach tighten, Joxer had been out of the country for the last few years, odds were he didn’t know about the change in her relationship with Gabrielle and she’d have to be the one to tell him. This was not something she was looking forward to.

“She’s visiting her family and should be back either today or tomorrow. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Yup,” Joxer hesitated. “She didn’t get married, did she?”

Xena’s face didn’t change expression, only by years of self imposed training of controlling her emotions and expressions as a warlord.

“Joxer, wait until dinner. Go over to the inn and get yourself some lunch. I’ll finish up here in a bit and we’ll head out to my place. You’ll get to meet the Solan and Sasha.” Xena added with a grin, a sense of playfulness coming over her.

“Solan and Sasha?” he questioned.

“Yeah, the kids.”

Before the stunned man could ask any more questions, the warrior turned back to the blacksmith work area. She barely controlled her grin as he turned to wander towards the inn.

“Kids?” she heard him mutter.

Xena resisted laughing and then lost her smile. No, she was not looking forward to telling Joxer exactly what had been happening the last couple of years with her and his beloved bard. The one true love of his life, Gabrielle. The same one true love of Xena’s life.

***

Xena had to give her friend credit, he held his questions back over dinner, even after the stunned expression on his face upon seeing Sasha, with her raven hair and blue eyes.

The warrior handed him a mug of port as they sat down next to the fire while Solan put the little girl to bed with a story.

“Okay, talk,” Joxer ordered.

“Gods, where to begin?” Xena complained. Not only where to begin, how to tell him everything?

“Gabrielle’s married?” he demanded, eyes suddenly becoming bright.

“Joxer,” Xena began, trying to sort out her feelings and thoughts, “Gods, I wish Gabrielle was here, she’s better at the explanations.”

“You’re here, she’s not.” Joxer snapped.

“Joxer, Gabrielle and I were married in an Amazon bonding ceremony and a public one three Springs ago,” she said bluntly.

Joxer sat back in his chair, blinking in disbelief. Xena turned to watch the fire, giving him time to absorb the news.

“You?!”

“Yes, we finally admitted to each other how we felt about each other.”

“But,” he stammered, his eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Gabby doesn’t go for females?”

“She told me she’s always been attracted to females and males, mostly females.” Xena said softly as he shook his head again.

“You?” he muttered again and Xena resisted narrowing her eyes in growing impatience. She reflected that she and Gabrielle had been together three years, Joxer was just now finding out about it.

“I can’t explain it, she loves me.” Xena shrugged.

“She always did, I guess,” he admitted with a heavy sigh, trying to blink away tears.

“Joxer, we never meant to hurt you with any of this.”

“I never had a chance, did I?” he asked bitterly.

“Joxer, I’m not going to help you beat yourself up over this. Gabrielle loves you very much and I care for you too.”

The young man frowned and turned his eyes to the fire. Xena let him brood.

Solan came out of Sasha’s room and questioned his mom with his eyes, she motioned for him to join them.

“Solan is my son and Sasha is my daughter,” Xena began another track of conversation. “When I was a Warlord, I had Solan. I knew that was no life for him and I wasn’t fit to be a mother to anyone. I left him in the care of the Centaurs. I knew he’d be raised well and no one could use him against me or me against him.”

“Makes sense,” Joxer agreed. “And Sasha? She’s younger than three years.” he noticed with narrowed eyes and Xena blushed.

“When Gabrielle and I were bonded,” she began, holding up her wrist to show him the bonding bracelet the bard had given her and then opened her left hand to show him the scar running across her palm. “The gods themselves stepped in and gave their approval for a blood bonding, a soul mate match.”

Joxer’s head began reeling again. A blood bonding, soul match? Such a bonding was rare and it was unheard of for the gods to show approval.

“Oh gods,” he muttered, realizing the depth of a relationship required for a soul mate and blood bonding.

Xena and Solan let him struggle with the knowledge of the depth of her relationship to Gabrielle.

“Ares wasn’t amused,” Xena continued and smiled at Joxer’s goofy grin in agreement. “He crashed the wedding and Hercules chased him off after Solan here tackled him.”

“After Mom threatened him with only…..” Solan yelped as the warrior’s foot connected with his shin. He grinned but didn’t finish the sentence.

“With only a ceremonial sword, it broke. Hercules saved my life.” Xena continued for her son, glaring at him. Joxer didn’t need to hear that the warrior had stood up to Ares in the common yard of the Amazon village dressed only in her wedding skirt, Gabrielle having removed the tunic moments earlier. That was one image Xena didn’t want roaming through Joxer’s head.

“Hercules was there?”

“Yes, and Iolaus. They were and are our Kumbada’s, godfathers to Sasha.”

“Go on, about Sasha?”

“Some of the Roman delegates poisoned Gabrielle at the wedding.” Xena said flatly.

Solan caught Joxer’s mug as the young man dropped it, sitting upright in shock.

“Gabby?” he muttered as Solan handed him back the mug.

“Yes,” Xena looked back into the fire, tears springing to her eyes, remembering. “She almost died, Joxer, painfully. I almost lost her on our wedding day and for days after that.” she struggled to keep her voice from cracking.

“She recovered though,” he said, hopefully.

“With time.” Xena answered and Solan reached out and held his mom’s hand, his own face reflecting his own painful memories of that time. “When she was well enough to stand, I escorted our families back home. Along the way we ran into you.

Joxer frowned. “Me?”

“I thought it was you, but something was wrong. I was tired and not on top of things. Your look-a-like and I dropped Gabrielle’s family off and we stopped in the woods to make an offering at an old abandoned altar to Artemis. The problem was it wasn’t an altar to Artemis.” Xena looked away from his questioning eyes.

“It was Ares,” Solan said softly.

“Ares? Ares made himself look like me?” Joxer demanded.

“Yes, he tricked me into giving an offering to him at one of his altars and gave me enchanted wine. It made me forget the last couple of years. I forgot Gabrielle, I forgot that I had changed, I forgot all the good things.”

Xena jumped to her feet and began pacing behind the chairs.

“Ares tricked her into attacking and almost killing Gabrielle,” Solan continued.

Joxer’s face went pale and the young teen heard a growl come from him as he watched an agonized Xena pacing.

“What happened?”

“Gabrielle brought Mom back by their blood bonding and Mom told Ares to take a hike. Because of her lost memory, Mom was with Ares for a couple of days and Sasha was born later.”

Xena was grateful to her son and his understanding, the warrior wasn’t sure that she would have been able to finish that part of the story, she still carried guilt over that.

“You slept with him?!” Joxer demanded and Xena looked elsewhere, brushing away tears. “Gabrielle accepted that?”

“Not happily,” Xena muttered.

“She knew Mom wasn’t herself,” Solan protested. “Gabrielle’s sister, Lila, had followed them and saw what happened. Gabby Mom thinks of Sasha as her own.”

Xena placed her hands on her son’s shoulders to relax him and thank him.

“It’s okay, Solan,” she said softly. “It takes some getting used to.”

“Ares used me?” Joxer suddenly shouted. “After I’ve been devoted to him? All those offerings and prayers and he uses ME to trick you?! To hurt Gabrielle?” the young man was on his feet and had taken up Xena’s position of pacing.

Solan and Xena tried not to look amused. As Xena had pointed out to herself, they had years to get accustomed to the situation, Joxer hadn’t yet.

“Well, his goal was to get me back,” Xena said, “but yeah, he sent me to kill Gabrielle so she wouldn’t have an influence over me anymore.”

“I’ll kill him!” Joxer threatened.

“Joxer, calm down! Gabrielle and I have a beautiful daughter and found a way to keep Ares out of our lives, mostly.”

The soldier sat down with a frown and gladly held up his mug when Solan offered to refill their mugs with port.

“Okay, what else?” he muttered. “You know, you two may have settled with him but I haven’t!” Joxer warned and Xena smiled.

“Okay, I understand that.”

“What next?”

Xena felt her stomach tighten and her hands start to shake. Solan quickly hugged his mom and motioned for her to sit down.

“Mom and Gabrielle decided to get out of Greece when they found out Mom was going to have Sasha. They were afraid of what Ares would do if he found out about Mom being pregnant. Hercules and Iolaus went with them, heading for the northern tribes, to try to get away from Ares and Caesar,” Solan began explaining.

Joxer noticed Xena’s shaking hands and was astounded, he had never seen her shake before except when wounded. Or, when Gabrielle was in danger.

“Iolaus and Gabby Mom were attacked by bandit Roman soldiers,” Solan said softly, watching his Mom as she closed her eyes in pain. “Iolaus was crippled and Gabrielle taken and sold to slavers.”

“Romans? Slavers? Gabrielle?” Joxer repeated in a whisper. Solan nodded. Joxer saw Xena’s clenched jaw, hands clenched until the knuckles were white, and her face gone pale . The young man had become a soldier and knew what other soldiers were capable of, especially slavers. It hit him like a physical blow. He realized what his beloved bard probably went through and the soldier dived out of the house at a run, running blindly in the dark to a tree.

When he returned a few minutes later, his hands matched Xena’s shaking. He sat down unsteadily and quickly drank the rest of his port and held out his mug for more.

“What did they do to her?”

“They hurt her, Joxer,” Xena said softly. “Then she was sold to a gladiator school and became a gladiator. She was branded, raped and she had to kill.” tears began falling from Xena’s closed eyes.

Joxer fought to maintain the rest of his dinner down in his stomach.

“Gladiator? Gabby?”

“She became friends with an Amazon gladiator trainer and became a fighter,” Solan continued for his mom. “Gabrielle then won her freedom in the Arena in Rome from Caesar himself.”

Joxer’s head was reeling even more now. He shook his head to try and clear it. His Gabrielle a gladiator? Fighting to the death in the Arena? He couldn’t picture it.

Xena opened her eyes and watched the soldier struggle with the images and knowledge. She remembered feeling the same, going through the same struggle when she had learned where her beloved had been for a year and a half.

“She became a great fighter and got her freedom. The Roman, Brutus helped get her and the trainer, Nikki, back to Mom, Hercules and Iolaus at the northern border.” Solan finished.

“Sasha?” Joxer reminded the boy.

“Mom, Hercules and Iolaus traveled north with a tribe of Northerners, they were adopted into the clan and Sasha was born in the north. Iolaus and Mom stayed with them while Hercules and most of Greece was looking for Gabrielle. Caesar had heard Gabrielle was missing and so Rome was also looking for her.”

“Wait a minute!” Joxer held up his hand. “You said Gabby won her freedom from Caesar.” he protested, unable to tie all the threads of the story together.

“He didn’t know who Gabrielle was when he set her free. She kept her identity hidden while she was a slave.” Solan explained.

“Wow. So then you all returned to Greece?” Joxer questioned.

“No, we took some time to heal,” Xena continued. “Gabrielle had been gone a year and a half. Then we got word that the Romans had attacked the Amazons and Centaurs.” this time the mother watched the son’s face for the pained expressions of memories.

“Centaurs, where Solan was?” Joxer asked.

“Yes, some of the Amazons and Centaurs escaped but some were taken captive.” Xena’s face grew hard again. “Gabrielle and I went to Rome to settle with Caesar.”

“Oh gods,” the soldier muttered, causing Xena to nod in agreement.

“Yes, it was insane but we couldn’t think of any other way to save the Amazons he had. I tried to assassinate him but he was expecting me and I was caught.” Xena growled and started watching the fire again.

“Gabrielle traded herself for the Amazons.” Solan continued.

“What!?” Joxer sat up straight again, spilling his drink. “You let her?!” he demanded and Xena’s eyes narrowed.

“Do you think anyone could have stopped her?” she snapped back. “You know Gabrielle when she makes up her mind about something! We had seen Brutus and found out that a large group of Senators were planning on assassinating Caesar. She was counting on being crucified and surviving long enough for Brutus to save us.”

“She planned on being crucified!?” Joxer shouted in disbelief and Xena nodded unhappily.

“Caesar had them fighting in the Arena for the day and then crucified Gabrielle in front of Xena to torture them both.” Solan said softly.

“Oh my gods,” Joxer began to cry softly, matching Xena’s tears.

“Brutus got them out of Rome and back to the Amazons. Gabrielle made a deal with the Senate of Rome to take the Amazons and few centaurs left to the north where the Romans wouldn’t see them again. She forfeited the Amazon and Centaur lands to get them out.” Solan continued.

“Was she hurt bad?” Joxer whispered, wiping at his tears.

“Very bad,” Solan answered, standing behind his mom and placing his hands on her shoulders. “Recovery was fairly quick, though. Artemis brought Gabby Mom, Hercules, Iolaus, Mom, Sasha and me here and promised to keep Ares busy while everyone had a break.”

“I heard that the Romans slaughtered the Amazons, though,” Joxer said with a frown.

“They did. Brutus led Marc Anthony’s troops right to their new home. No one survived.” Solan said, choking back his own tears, not mentioning the little girl and old woman Amazon that were now living with the Germans. They had all agreed that no one needed to know that even one Amazon survived outside of Gabrielle.

“What about Ares?” Joxer asked.

Xena grinned at that one. “Ares did find out about Sasha and I found something out about my parents.”

“Like what? Don’t tell me Ares is your father?!”

“No, thank the gods! No, the goddess Hecate had a fling with Zeus awhile back and asked my mother to bear the child, me.” Xena said simply.

Joxer blinked several times again and Xena couldn’t help but laugh at his expression this time.

“You’re the daughter of Zeus AND Hecate?” he whispered.

“And Cyrene,” Xena added.

“And Gabrielle is the daughter of Apollo,” Solan threw in, getting in on the fun part of the story.

“Gabby? Apollo?”

“That’s what saved her when she was poisoned and helped her recover so quickly from the crucifixion.” Solan answered.

Joxer shook his head, regretting either that he had too much to drink or not enough, he couldn’t decide just yet.

“Ares?” he whispered again.

“He tried to take Sasha from me, he hurt Solan and me and set a trap for Gabrielle. She killed his warrior priests and then kicked his ass.” Xena answered with a grin.

Joxer hung his head, moaning with information overload.

“A gifting from Apollo and Hecate, we have the ability to injure Ares and when he hurt Solan and me, Gabrielle lost it and fought him. She injured him pretty good too.”

“He’s been a no-show since,” Solan added with a grin.

“Is there anymore?” Joxer whispered, almost afraid of the answers.

“No, just that we’ve bought this place and have settled down here. I work with the blacksmith and Gabrielle works at the inn with my mother. Everyone helps with Sasha and Solan is an excellent hunter and tracker.”

“I think I need to sleep,” Joxer muttered and yelped in surprise when Xena hauled him to his feet and kept him from falling over.

“Come on, Joxer,” she said with a soft smile.

Fortunately for his overworked brain, Joxer was asleep in minutes of hitting Solan’s bed. Xena and Solan helped get him out of his armor and boots, both grinning.

Xena knew that probably wasn’t the last of the questions or outrages from the soldier. It was a lot of information to absorb, especially about his beloved Gabrielle. A lot of painful images to deal with.

Not the least was that she was married to Xena.

***

Xena glanced up from her hammering and frowned and felt her heart skip a beat. Coming into town was a mandible of Roman soldiers. The ex-warlord watched the troops split apart at a trot, moving in all directions.

“Xena, quick!” Dex’s voice broke the warrior’s concentration on the soldiers. She turned to find him at the back of the shop motioning for her. Xena quickly grabbed up her sword from under the selling shelf and moved past her friend and boss into the back room. He quickly followed and surprised the warrior by moving several heavy chests out of a corner.

The large blacksmith took out his dagger and dug at one of the wooden boards to reveal a trap door.

“In here, quick!” he hissed.

Xena rushed over and was surprised to find a fairly good sized room under the blacksmith shop.

“What?”

“I keep the special weapon consignments in there. Get in, it’s well known that you’re not a friend to Rome.”

Xena grinned at that one and jumped in. The warrior fought down momentary panic at the thought of being locked in a darkened cellar with a heavy chest holding the only exit door down.

She knew Dex was right, she and Gabrielle were wanted by Brutus and possibly Marc Antony as well. Brutus wanted the warrior dead so he could have Gabrielle and he wanted Sasha to gain the favor of Ares, God of War. The father of Sasha.

Xena growled to herself and sat down on a chest to wait. The warrior didn’t want to take on 120 well trained Roman soldiers by herself without a plan and some backup.

She only hoped that Gabrielle wouldn’t be caught coming back to the village.

***

Gabrielle had heard the clank of the Roman armor and had left the road leading to Amphipolis. She hid her horse and took to the trees to get a better look, Amazon style.

The warrior bard growled and narrowed her eyes at the sight. Roman Legionaries were setting up road blocks while others set up a perimeter around the town’s edge. Gabrielle moved silently through the trees to get a closer look, and saw Legionaries rounding up villagers into the village common grounds, next to the well.

A quick scan of the villagers showed Cyrene, Torris and Dex in the group but Xena was missing and so were Solan and Sasha. Gabrielle figured the soldiers hadn’t reached the homes on the outer part of the town yet where Solan and Sasha probably were for lunch. She had no idea where Xena could be except to say a thankful prayer her mate wasn’t among the crowd.

“All right, Greeks,” the Centurion in charge yelled from his horse. “I am under orders to arrest the following citizens of Amphipolus: Xena, known as the Warrior Princess, her daughter Sasha and Gabrielle, bard. Where are they?”

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle whispered. This was not good.

No one answered or looked at each other.

“Just tell us where they are, none of you fit the description, so where are they?” the Centurion demanded.

Gabrielle felt her heart swelling with pride. It would have been a different story several years ago, she reflected. At that time the villagers would have gladly handed Xena over without even being asked, now they were protecting her and Gabrielle.

“All right, who is her family? Where’s the innkeeper?” the Centurion snapped.

“No!” Gabrielle whispered as Cyrene stepped forward to stand at the edge of the crowd. Torris quickly joined his mother, placing an arm around her shoulder.

“Where are they?” the Centurion demanded.

“Away from town,” Torris answered.

“Who are you?”

“I am Torris, one of the Elder Council of this town and Xena’s brother.”

Gabrielle was surprised, given the state of Xena’s relationship with her older brother, the bard was stunned he’d admit being related to her.

“I don’t believe you,” the Centurion responded.

“They aren’t here, you’ve already searched the town, they aren’t here.” Torris responded.

Gabrielle ducked further into the shadows at the sound of shouts off to her right. The bard almost fell out of her tree when she saw several Roman soldiers dragging an unconscious Joxer between them. Also among the group was Solan and Sasha.

A Roman soldier hit Torris across the back of the head and another grabbed Cyrene as they both shouted and tried to run to the children. The Centurion grinned at the older woman as she struggled in the arms of two of his soldiers.

Gabrielle fought very hard to control her emotions, trying to calm her breathing as Joxer was dumped in front of Cyrene and Solan made to kneel beside the unconscious soldier.

“Who’s this?” the Centurion demanded.

“He’s a friend of Torris’ and that’s a serving boy.” Cyrene answered.

“The child is Xena’s.”

Cyrene refused to answer.

Both the innkeeper and Gabrielle could see several wounds on Joxer, blood beginning to pool under his body.

“I’ll ask again, where is Xena and Gabrielle?” the Centurion demanded.

Cyrene and the villagers remained quiet. Gabrielle looked around desperately, trying to think of a way to break through and get to Sasha, Solan and Joxer. She knew that her bow couldn’t take down enough soldiers before the Centurion would find her or take off with Sasha. None of the villagers were armed and they were surrounded and so was the village.

“Soldier, take your dagger and blind the boy at my command,” the Centurion ordered.

“No!” Cyrene screamed and struggled against the soldiers holding her. Several villagers surged forward but were driven back by the Roman javelin spears.

“Then tell me where they are!” the Centurion shouted.

“They aren’t here! Xena left on business yesterday and Gabrielle is off visiting her family!” Cyrene cried, desperately reaching for Solan.

Gabrielle could see the young man trembling as soldiers tied his hands behind his back. The bard couldn’t get a clear shot at the soldier with the dagger on Solan.

“We’ve been watching this village for three days and Xena did not leave here! Blind him!”

Gabrielle let her arrow fly just as Solan screamed. She had already notched another arrow as the Centurion realized that he had an arrow sticking through his neck. As the next arrow flew and buried itself in the eye of the soldier who had just attacked Solan, the Centurion dropped from his horse.

As the Roman soldiers looked around, the villagers took advantage of the distraction to rush the soldiers guarding them.

“Retreat, reform!” a sergeant ordered, grabbing up Sasha as he grabbed the reins of the Centurion’s horse.

He kept the horse between him and the direction of where the arrows had come from as he and the rest of the soldiers trotted towards the north end of town, the ones in the rear keeping the unarmed villagers back.

***

Gabrielle dashed for the village, having to fight through three soldiers that had been on the perimeter watch. They had proved no match for the trained gladiator who was also enraged.

As she skidded to a stop next to Solan, Joxer and Cyrene, Dex ran towards the blacksmith shop.

“Oh gods, no!” she cried as she saw Solan’s face. Cyrene quickly took off her apron and held it to the boy’s eyes.

“Hold that there, Solan,” she instructed and moved to Joxer. Together, she and Gabrielle pulled the leather tunic vest and chainmail shirt off of him and found that a Roman sword had managed to get through the excellent protection into his ribs, shoulder and he had a bad gash on his head. Cyrene quickly tore strips off the end of her skirt, folding them into bandages. Several villagers ran up.

“They’ve taken the child and are heading north.” one said, trying to catch her breath.

“Get a couple of the men and take Solan, my son and Joxer here into the inn. Moria, get the healer, quick!” Cyrene ordered.

“Where’s Xena?” Gabrielle demanded as she applied pressure to Joxer’s wounds.

“I don’t know, I was in the tavern when they came.” Cyrene answered.

The bard breathed a sigh of relief as the warrior came running at full speed, sword in hand. She quickly lifted the bandages up on Joxer and then turned to Solan. Gabrielle’s heart wrenched almost apart as the warrior turned pale looking at her son.

Several other villagers moved forward to carry the injured into the inn. Xena quickly cleared several tables and then she and the healer were barking orders to several pairs of helping hands.

Dex pulled Gabrielle aside, “I hid her in the shop,” he explained. “What do we do?”

“We make sure our friends and family will live and then we get Sasha back!” she hissed, green eyes flashing brightly.

“I’ve sent one of the militia to follow the Romans and leave trail markers.” he said.

“Thank you, Dex. They would have killed her.”

***

It was a couple of candlemarks when Gabrielle looked up from her chair to see a bloody and exhausted warrior standing in front of her. Xena knelt down and buried her head in the bard’s lap, body shaking from tears. Gabrielle held her warrior close, stroking Xena’s hair. She looked up into Cyrene’s tired and suddenly aged face.

“How are they?” she asked.

“Torris will be fine, he’s already awake. A major headache but he has a hard head. Solan is blinded, his eyes can’t be saved.”

“Oh gods, no!” Gabrielle whispered, tears falling again.

“Joxer might not live, Xena did everything she could and the healer is still working on him.”

“What happened, Cyrene?”

“The Romans marched into town, rounded everyone up and demanded you, Xena and Sasha. Apparently they didn’t know about Solan. He says that Joxer fought the Romans and killed four of the soldiers when they reached your house. Solan killed two, himself.”

“Joxer, oh gods.”

“He came in yesterday and spent the night with me and the kids,” Xena said softly. “He’s been in the East working as a caravan guard.”

“He’s awake!” the healer called.

The three women quickly moved to Joxer’s side. Gabrielle took his hand in one of hers and gently stroked his cheek. The soldier attempted to smile when he focused on her.

“Hey, your hair got short,” he whispered.

Gabrielle smiled through her tears and looked at the healer.

“I don’t know, Gabrielle.” he said with a shrug.

“Are the kids okay?” Joxer whispered.

“Yes, they’re fine. You helped save them.” Gabrielle reassured him.

“Guess I did something right for you,” he whispered, closing his eyes again.

“Joxer?”

“Let him sleep now. I’ve given him some sleep herbs, the boy too.” the healer instructed.

Gabrielle laid the soldier’s hand back down and lightly kissed his forehead. She reached out and grabbed Xena’s hand and let the warrior lead her outside into the darkening village. She turned and buried her head into her warrior’s chest as they held each other.

***

Gabrielle raised her head from the table and looked up to see Xena’s tired face, the warrior’s hand on her shoulder. Xena sat down in the booth across from the bard. Gabrielle could see that it was early morning and that Cyrene was asleep in a chair near the fire and the healer was changing Joxer’s bandages.

“He’s ready to be moved to a bed here in the inn, Solan’s already in one and Torris went home.” Xena said simply.

“What’s the plan?” Gabrielle muttered.

“I’ve been talking to some of the traveling merchants and catching up on the latest news from Rome and the Roman Empire. Seems that Marc Antony and Brutus are at war with each other. Brutus is in Macedonia with Crassius and Marc Antony and Octavian are moving to battle them. They’ll probably meet somewhere near the Macedonian border.”

“That’s why Brutus wants Sasha, he wants to gain Ares’ favor before facing Antony and Octavian.” Gabrielle noted and Xena nodded in agreement.

“Now we’ve got to get her back before Brutus or Ares gets her. Then we settle with Brutus.” Xena said grimly.

“We can catch them easily on horseback.”

“They doubled back and set sail on the morning tide. I have no idea where they intend to land, I’m betting somewhere close to the Macedonian border.” Xena said.

“Then we have to be there when the ship lands,” Gabrielle said simply.

“Yup. I’ve been looking over the maps of Macedonia and I know where I’d want a showdown if I were Antony or Octavian. Somewhere near Philippi, it controls a mountain pass that is perfect for a battle. That’s where we’re headed, hopefully to head off the soldiers before they can turn Sasha over to Brutus.”

“What about Joxer and Solan?” Gabrielle asked, standing up and trying to stretch out the kinks from sleeping in a booth with her head on the table.

“Joxer will live but it’ll take awhile and Mom can take care of Solan while we’re gone. I just hope Torris doesn’t give Joxer or Solan a hard time.”

“Xena, there’s something you should know about Torris.”

Xena’s expression was one of surprise after Gabrielle described Torris’ actions to the Romans.

“Wow, he didn’t turn me in?”

Gabrielle shook her head. “He tried to get through the soldiers to protect the kids.”

“I need to talk to him,” Xena said, standing up.

“I’ll go pack our bags.”
Xena found Torris in the kitchen helping two of the village women prepare breakfast for the guests and travelers.

“Torris,” Xena called softly and was pleased when he didn’t scowl at her. He wiped his hands on the apron of one of the women with a comfortable gesture. Xena suddenly remembered that the woman was widowed and had been hanging around the inn quite a bit. Her brother approached her cautiously.

“I wanted to thank you for yesterday. Gabrielle says you tried to help the kids and you had a chance to turn me into the Romans.”

“Xena, I may not approve of your choice of gender when it comes to bedmates but you are my sister and they are my blood. I’m your brother, I’m the only one that gets to hit you.” he suddenly grinned.

Xena found herself grinning as well. “Thanks, can you help Mom while Gabrielle and I are gone?”

“Of course,” he said with a shrug.

***

Compared to other travels, the ride to Philippi was short but not fast enough. Xena cursed for five minutes after finding the Roman maniple had landed and already joined up with Brutus and Cassius’ forces on the outskirts of Philippi. The curses were enough to even raise the eyebrows of several of the dockworkers nearby as Gabrielle led her warrior away.

“Okay, he has Sasha, now what?” Gabrielle demanded, trying to get Xena to focus.

“I go in and get her out,” Xena said simply.

“Oh no, I don’t think so,” Gabrielle protested as they walked along the docks. “He’ll remember you tried to assassinate Caesar and how talented you are. Sasha will be well guarded and they’ll be waiting for you.”

“What would you suggest?” Xena asked in a flat voice.

“He wants me, trade me for Sasha.”

“Won’t work,” Xena said simply. “One, he can’t be trusted, he’s already betrayed our friendship. Two, he needs the blessing of Ares, there’s a good chance Antony and Octavian can beat him and Cassius. Three, I’m not letting you fall into Roman hands again.”

“Then what do you suggest?” Gabrielle demanded, trying to keep her voice low.

“I help Antony and Octavian and let Brutus see me in battle. While he’s distracted, you sneak into the Roman camp and get Sasha out with help from some of Octavian’s troops.”

“We’re siding with Octavian?”

“I’ve been watching all of them. We owe Antony and Brutus for our Amazons and Centaurs and I think Octavian is the best choice for Rome and Greece. He’s young but a good choice. Antony is brutal and won’t hesitate to kill anything in his way and Brutus is no better. Some of Octavian’s ideas are good ones.”

“Even if he is related to Caesar and Caesar’s choice?” Gabrielle smiled a quirky smile at her lover.

“Especially because Caesar picked him,” Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s raised eyebrows. “One thing Caesar was always very clear about, Rome came first and foremost to him. His problem was that he thought he was Rome. I would trust his judgment in choosing a successor. Caesar intentionally didn’t adopt Brutus or name either him or Antony.”

Gabrielle shook her head, “Never thought I’d hear you praise Caesar for anything.”

“I may have hated him but I have to admit to his genius.”

“So, how do we get close to Antony and Octavian?”

Xena grinned.

“Uh oh,” Gabrielle muttered.

“One thing the Romans can be counted on, they are very predictable. I could tell you easily which tent is Octavian’s and Antony’s without looking at the camps.”

***

Marc Antony grabbed for the dagger under his pillow as a hand clamped down over his mouth but found a heavy weight bearing down on his chest and pinning his arms. He stopped struggling when he felt a blade at his throat.

“Be quiet and live, I’m not here to kill you unless you make me.” a voice ordered him and he nodded around the hand over his mouth.

Someone struck a light and then lit a lamp. Antony’s eyes went wide at the sight of Xena, the warrior woman, straddling his chest with a dagger at his throat. Part of him knew that he was dead and another part was thrilled to see her up close and personal. She was magnificent! he thought to himself.

Xena held up his knife to inform him that it was no longer under his pillow and sat back on her haunches and removed her other hand from his mouth. She moved off of him and stood at the end of the bed. Antony had no doubt that he would be dead long before his guards could ever get in the door.

He frowned when he looked around and saw a blond woman holding a gagged and bound Octavian across the tent from him. She reached up and removed the gag from the handsome young Roman and sat him down in a chair.

What was that she was holding on the other Roman? Antony questioned, some strange weapon he hadn’t seen before. Still, it looked deadly in her hands, even if she was a small thing.

Xena snapped her fingers to get his attention again.

“I didn’t have time to go through the usual channels to see you two. Sorry about waking you both up in the middle of the night.” she said easily. She stuck Antony’s dagger into her belt and held up her chakram. “See this?” Antony nodded, “You know about it? It’s my chakram, it can cut your throat and be back in my hand before you hit your bed. Understand?” Antony nodded again.

The Roman General was impressed, somehow the two women had gotten into the Roman camp, kidnapped Octavian and got him across the camp and into the second Roman camp and into Antony’s tent without being seen. Very impressed.

“I thought your war with Rome was over,” he stated. The first time he had seen the Warrior Princess she was in the back of a wagon after spending a day in the Arena and a night chained like an animal watching her lover die. Was the blond the same woman? he wondered.

“Brutus has a member of my family as a political hostage. I want five of your best recon soldiers, in exchange I’m going to help you defeat Brutus and Cassius.” Xena offered.

“You have to tie me up and gag me for that!?” Octavian demanded, his eyes flashing angrily.

“Quiet, pup!” Antony snapped. “Why do you need the recons?” he asked Xena.

“To go with my friend and get my family out of the camp while we’re slaughtering Brutus and Cassius.”

Antony looked over at Octavian, both glaring at each other for a moment. Finally, Octavian looked at Xena.

“I’ve heard of you and your talents and I also know that you have no love for Rome.”

“I have no battle with Rome, that was with your uncle specifically.” Xena corrected.

“Brutus saved your life, if I remember right,” Antony commented.

“He also betrayed us by slaughtering the Amazons.” Gabrielle spoke up finally.

“I was there too,” Antony said simply.

“We’ll deal with you some other day,” Xena promised.

Antony laughed. “How refreshing! An enemy who admits it! I like that. I have your pledge that you won’t stab me in the back until after Brutus is dead?”

“Yes, we defeat Brutus and get my family back and we walk away.” Xena agreed.

“What makes you think that we need your help? Romans are experts at war.” Antony countered.

“You’re fighting Romans. Both of you need to think, how did I know where to find both of you in the dark among hundreds of tents?” Xena urged.

Both men frowned. “By the banners?” Octavian guessed.

“No, you can’t read banners in the dark, even among torchlight we’d be roaming around the camp forever trying to find you.” Xena shook her head.

“Because a Roman camp is set up the same every time, no matter where we go,” Antony smiled.

“Exactly, you Romans are very predictable. Once you find something that works you stick to it until the end of time. Fortunately for you, no one has figured out how to counter that.”

“What do you mean?” Octavian asked, suddenly curious.

“When you’re marching it goes something like this: cavalry and auxiliary units scouting ahead, then comes the vanguard of a legion and cavalry, then camp surveyors and pioneer troops up next. Next comes your baggage and mounts, then the two of you and your bodyguards. Next comes more cavalry and siege engines on mules. Senior officers next, then the legions with their standard bearers and baggage. Auxiliary cohorts and then the end of the column, both light and heavy infantry and some cavalry. Bringing up the unofficial rear would be merchants, common-law wives, slave dealers and prostitutes.” Xena rattled off easily.

Octavian snapped his gaping mouth closed and Antony grinned.

“She’s right, she does know us.” Antony grinned.

“So will your enemies eventually. Brutus and Cassius already know how you will attack under each situation. I can be unpredictable.”

“Believe her when she says that!” Gabrielle grinned.

“All right, you’ve got my curiosity. What do you say, Octavian, want to hear more?”

“Yes, now untie me.” he ordered. Gabrielle looked over to Xena, who nodded. The bard pulled out a dagger from her belt and cut the ropes holding the Roman General. He glared at the young woman and crossed the tent to the tent flap.

“Guards! Bring my maps from my tent in the other camp and have my aides bring my clothes. Don’t ask questions, do it!” he ordered.

With the one lamp, the young Roman lit two other lamps at a table covered with maps, documents and other such items. Antony wrapped his sheet around him like a toga and joined the other General. Xena grinned at Gabrielle and joined the Romans.

Antony then moved to the tent flap.

“Guards, bring food and wine, I have guests here. Also, wake my officers and send for Octavian’s. We’re having a planning session.” the handsome Roman ordered.

He walked up to Gabrielle and smiled at her.

“If you’ll hold up the blanket, I’ll get dressed behind it.” he offered and laughed when the bard blushed but grabbed the blanket up. A moment later a voice caught her attention from behind it.

“Are you the same woman I saw in the wagon? After Caesar was assassinated?”

“Yes, I think so. Xena told me that you helped convince the Senate to accept the proposal to move the Amazons out of Roman territory and release Xena and me.” she answered.

“I thought you had died from your wounds, Brutus said you had.”

“Brutus wants me for himself.” she said simply.

“At least he has good taste,” Antony said as he lowered the blanket.

A candlemark later and Gabrielle settled into a comfortable chair after eating a wonderful selection that Antony had ordered brought to the tent. She grabbed up the blanket Antony had dropped and pulled it over her as she threw her legs over the arms of the chair.

By the sounds of the arguments coming from various officers, Antony, Octavian and Xena, it was going to be a long session.

***

“Gabrielle,” a voice brought the bard upright in the chair, sai in her hand. “Easy, little one, it’s me.”

“Xena, what’s up?” the bard asked as she looked around. It was just at dawn and several officers and Antony were still debating over the maps and Octavian was no longer in the tent.

“Let’s take a walk,” Xena suggested, helping the bard to her feet.

Neither woman were surprised by the activity going on in the camp at this hour of the day. Everyone had a job and seemed to be doing it or getting to it. Gabrielle was surprised that no one challenged their presence in the camp as they walked along.

“Octavian had the guards spread the word about our being here,” Xena answered Gabrielle’s confused looks.

“What was decided?”

“I’ll lead several ambushes once Brutus and Cassius begin to move and then Antony will lead the main battle while you sneak into Brutus’ camp and grab Sasha and join me at the docks.” Xena said simply.

“Where’s Octavian in all of this?”

“He’s going to be very sick, he just doesn’t know it yet.”

Gabrielle noted her warrior’s clenched jaw and placed a hand on Xena’s arm. The warrior’s face softened and she smiled down at her mate.

“Octavian and his generals couldn’t see it but Antony has set him up to take the worst of the fighting. Either Antony is hoping that Octavian will be killed or, at the least, most of his troops will be and he’ll lose a lot of support he’ll need later when he and Antony fight.”

“When they fight?”

“It’s coming, Gabrielle, and everyone knows it. Two strong willed and powerful men. They’ll work together for awhile, maybe even divide the Empire among them but eventually one will break and force the fight, probably both of them. Everyone knows that Antony desires Cleopatra and Egypt.” Xena talked easily as they walked, careful not to talk when anyone was close.

“But Antony is marrying Octavian’s sister,” Gabrielle protested.

“Roman political marriage. It’s more like a hostage situation than a marriage. Antony ties his power with Octavian and they both tie each other’s hands with the marriage, forming a stalemate. Antony wants Rome, Cleopatra, and the Empire.”

“Will he kill Octavian to get it?” Gabrielle asked with a frown.

“The first chance he gets,” Xena said grimly. “He’s brutal and wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone. I’ve heard of his revenge against Brutus and others involved in Caesar’s assasination. Friends of friends have been killed in revenge. Distant cousins have been killed because they might be related to the assassins.”

“When will the battle take place?”

“First thing in the morning.”

“Terrific, a day with the Romans, just what I always wanted.” the bard muttered and Xena wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders, noticing the bard trembling a little at the sight of all the Roman soldiers.

Neither of them had good memories about Roman soldiers.

“Do you think Brutus already handed Sasha over to Ares?”

“No, he’ll keep Sasha until after the battle to ensure Ares’ cooperation. That’s why we have to get Sasha out of there during the battle. Ares will turn away from Brutus and it might turn the battle to Antony and Octavian’s favor.”

“Count on me,” Gabrielle said simply, reaching up to kiss Xena’s cheek.

***

Less than 24 hours later found the couple separated and both tense as stalking tigers.

Gabrielle stumbled as she was shoved into the main tent of the Roman camp. One of the soldiers pushed the bard to her knees. She looked up into the hostile faces of Roman officers, her green eyes blazing.

“What’s this?” one of them demanded.

“Lord Cassius, we caught this woman trying to sneak into camp. Lord Brutus said to watch for a tall dark haired woman or a shorter blond.” one of the guards answered quickly.

Cassius looked down at the bruised face and short blond hair.

“You must be Gabrielle, gladiator, bard, Amazon Queen and Xena’s playmate.” he grinned.

Gabrielle’s eyes blazed but she kept silent.

“Brutus!” Cassius yelled at the group of officers bent over the map table. Gabrielle watched as Brutus approached slowly.

“Gabrielle?” he muttered. “I didn’t think you’d actually try it.”

“You killed my Amazons and kidnapped my daughter, what did you expect?” she snapped.

“You’re right. Unfortunately, I don’t have time for you. I’ll deal with you after I kill Antony and Octavian once and for all.” he started to turn away and then turned back with a frown. “Where’s Xena?”

“Go to Tartarus!” the bard snapped.

A fist from Brutus sent the bard to the ground. With her hands tied behind her back, she had difficult time getting back on her knees.

“You’ve already had a sample of our crucifixion punishments, Gabrielle, don’t make me send you to the torturers, they’re very good at what they do.” Brutus threatened.

Gabrielle merely glared at Cassius and Brutus.

“Would she join with Antony or Octavian?” Cassius asked, kicking the bard in the ribs and sending her onto her back, painfully on the tied hands. She resisted crying out as a guard pulled her back to her knees.

“No,” Brutus answered. “She hates us as much as some of those northern Gauls do. She’s probably sneaking into the camp from another direction. Take this one to my tent and alert the guards. You four,” Brutus pointed to the guards accompanying Gabrielle, “join the guards in my tent watching this prisoner and the child.” he ordered.

“Yes, sir.” they responded.

Gabrielle was pulled roughly to her feet and dragged out of the tent.

“Brutus, I’ll see your head on a pike!” she yelled.

“And I’ll see you in my bed!” he yelled back to the cheers of the officers present.

***

Xena and a small troop of Roman soldiers, from both camps of Antony and Octavian, had been working all night under Xena’s direction. Now she waited patiently on a mountainside, overlooking a pass. The one pass Brutus and Cassius had to go through to reach the open fields to meet Antony and Octavian.

Xena shook her head when she saw the marching Romans in the distance. This pass was perfect for a major ambush but Brutus and Cassius were expecting to fight Romans. She and the other soldiers ducked out of sight as the recon soldiers of the enemy Romans came through the pass, barely looking up the sides for traps or the enemy.

Xena and her soldiers let the scouts move ahead of them and waited until the cavalry and foot soldiers came into the pass. Xena motioned with her hand and was pleased to see the soldiers under her command move quickly and efficiently.

The warrior woman waited until the cavalry and foot soldiers were directly in line with her and her troops and then let loose with her famous battle yell.

The startled Romans below looked up the mountainside in time to see flaming logs hurling at them, picking up rocks and other debris as they flew down the mountainside towards the troops. They looked to the otherside for escape only to find another set of flaming logs coming at them from the opposite direction.

Then began a rain of arrows that took out horse and man alike.

The Romans began to run either forward or back. Those running forward found their way blocked by falling trees and those running back ran into their officers and more troops behind them.

Officers were shouting conflicting orders, men and horses were screaming, and the fire logs hit the pack of soldiers with an awful crash. The screams became higher pitched and horrible.

Xena raised her hand in a signal and her soldiers melted away. She followed on Argo, face grim as the screams of the injured and dying and the enraged officers filled the pass.

It didn’t take long for Brutus and Cassius to regain control of their troops once the arrows stopped and the logs were no longer falling down the mountain. The dead, both soldier and horse, were tossed to the side, the logs hauled next to their victims. The dying were put out of their misery and the injured taken to the rear for transport back to camp in wagons.

The officers re-formed their troops and waited for Brutus and Cassius in the pre-dawn hour.

“Brutus! That war cry, that was female! Was it Xena?” Cassius demanded as he rode up to his fellow Roman General.

“Yes,” Brutus answered with a curse.

“Then she’s joined with Antony and Octavian!”

“No, this was probably her own attack. She could care less about Rome and she despises both me and Antony.”

“I hope you’re right, I don’t want any more surprises!”

***

When Gabrielle was led into the tent it took her a moment for her eyes to adjust but the first thing she saw was Sasha sitting in a Roman chair. The child also saw her.

“Mum!” the child cried out and ran to Gabrielle as the woman knelt down. “Mummy! I knew you’d come!” Sasha cried as she clung to Gabrielle’s neck. Then Sasha noticed that her Mum wasn’t hugging her back and looked at the tied hands. “They hurt you!”

“No, it’s not bad, Sasha. I’m okay. Are you okay?” Gabrielle reassured the child.

“Yes, but they won’t let me see you or Mom.”

“I know, but I’m here now. Let’s go sit down, okay?”

One of the soldiers accompanying the bard, reached down and pulled Gabrielle to her feet roughly and shoved her towards the other three guards.

“Lord Brutus says we are to join you to watch the woman and child.”

“Good,” one of the guards grinned as Gabrielle stumbled into him. He caught her easily and looked her up and down. “Too bad we can’t have any fun with this one.” he commented.

“I don’t know about that,” Gabrielle muttered.

The soldier suddenly looked pained and glanced down to find a dagger sticking between his ribs. Gabrielle, with eyes flashing brightly, twisted the knife while the other guards took out Brutus’ other guards.

Gabrielle swept Sasha up into her arms, hugging her tightly.

“Let’s go see your Mom,” Gabrielle suggested, trying to keep the child’s mind off the slaughter she had just seen.

Sasha nodded eagerly as one of the guards handed Gabrielle her sais and a sword from under his cloak.

The warrior bard grabbed a cloak from near the tent opening and threw it over her shoulders and Sasha.

“Sasha, I need you to keep quiet until we get to the woods, okay?”

The child nodded and laid her head on Gabrielle’s shoulder.

Gabrielle nodded to the soldiers with her and they separated once outside the tent, grabbing torches up and each of them began setting tents on fire. Gabrielle waited a moment until they had scattered a good distance in all directions and had dropped their torches.

“Fire! Fire!” she began screaming. Within moments the camp was in an uproar, especially with the soldiers away for a battle.

Gabrielle began moving through the camp with Sasha as the guards rejoined her one by one.

***

Brutus cringed when he heard the dreaded war cry again and ducked instinctively.

“Shields! Shields!” officers were shouting as arrows began raining down on the soldiers from both sides of the pass. In a moment it had stopped and there was no sign of the enemy. Moans and screams plagued the Roman General as soldiers scurried about, tending to the wounded and the dead.

“Damnit, Brutus! She’s slowing us up!” Cassius shouted.

“I know, I know. Move the troops up, no delays, no matter what comes at them!” Brutus ordered.

“Lord Brutus! Lord Brutus!” a mounted officer was shouting as he rode towards the two generals.

“Yes, what is it?” Cassius demanded.

“At the front, my lords. Our recon soldiers have been ambushed and slaughtered. The officers have been crucified!”

Brutus went pale and Cassius turned beet red. “Crucified?!” he demanded. “She dared to crucify Roman soldiers!?”

“Take them down, don’t let the main troops see them.” Brutus ordered.

“But, sir, they are on exceptionally high crosses, it will take time to get them down.” the officer protested.

“Then cut the crosses down!” Brutus shouted and the officer turned his horse back towards the front, shouting directions at several soldiers.

“Damn your personal war with her, Brutus!” Cassius cursed and moved his horse towards the front of the line.

“I probably am damned, I agree.” Brutus muttered.

***

Gabrielle jumped down off the horse and let Sasha down gently. She looked up at the four soldiers who had helped her.

“Thank you. I don’t even know your names.” she complained.

“I’m Cyprian, that’s Barita, Mikolaj, and Rianorix.” the sergeant grinned, clasping Gabrielle’s hand in a warrior’s handshake.

“I’ll remember those names. Xena and I are grateful.”

“Thank you, MiLady. Vale!”

The soldiers turned their horses back towards the battlefield.

Gabrielle picked Sasha up in her arms and moved towards a tavern to get Sasha and herself some food and wait for her mate.

***

Xena watched the battle from the top of the pass, fighting the urge to join the battle, reminding herself that this wasn’t her fight except to ensure the death of Brutus. The warrior and her troops moved down to the back of the battle when the day wore on and it became clear that Brutus and Cassius were losing In part due to Xena’s planning with the generals of Antony and Octavian and some in part to the demoralizing Xena and her small band of soldiers had inflicted on the enemy troops.

Xena and her band made sure their white headbands were in place. The troops of

Antony and Octavian knew that a small band of Roman soldiers were fighting in skirmish actions without helmets and wearing white headbands. Xena didn’t want her temporary soldiers getting killed by their fellow soldiers.

With a war cry she led the way into the battle with her small band from the rear. Her strategy was simple, hit and run. Hit and retreat, keeping the rear guard off balance and cutting off any escape route for Brutus and Cassius.

A rumble behind her told the warrior that the engineers assigned to her had completed their task, a rockslide now blocked the pass and Brutus and Cassius had nowhere to run. With a signal she pulled her troop back and watched closely.

***

The battle lasted well into the afternoon, the slaughter going on forever, it seemed. Xena’s troops were better rested than the soldiers they were fighting and they began making headway into the rear guard troops and Xena was pleased with the skills of her soldiers, they were good fighters.

The warrior’s eyes narrowed as she spotted the fancy helmet of a Roman General and realized it must be Cassius. Before she could move her horse through the fighting she spotted Antony’s flashing helmet and sword working his way to the other General.

Cassius also saw Antony heading for him through the sea of soldiers. The Roman General jumped off his horse and looked around him, seeing defeat.

Antony roared his rage when Cassius turned his sword to his chest and fell on it. Xena merely watched, her face expressionless.

It turned to one of rage when she saw Brutus, however.

The Roman General turned very pale when he heard the warcry of the warrior woman. He had seen Cassius go down under his own sword and knew his time was done. Either he’d be captured or killed by Antony to face the executioner’s block in disgrace, or he’d face the warrior woman.

Brutus jumped off his horse and quickly turned his sword to his chest. He heard Xena’s scream as he fell forward.

Xena leaped off her horse and turned the general onto his side and glared down at him. He was still alive but she knew it wouldn’t be long.

“Brutus! Do you know what your soldiers did to my son?” she hissed, bending over him. She vaguely noticed one of her soldiers standing at her shoulder, holding off any enemy soldiers from her and Brutus.

“Son?”

“I have a son and they blinded him!”

“And I killed the Amazons and Centaurs and I kidnapped your child, don’t expect me to be remorseful at this late time in the game, Xena,” the Roman General coughed around the blood flowing from his mouth.

“You’d better pray I don’t end up in Tartarus with you!” Xena growled.

“I have Gabrielle and your child, orders to be killed if I die. I’ll see you in Tartarus, Xena.”

The warrior screamed in rage as Brutus closed his eyes.

After a few moments the soldier guarding her back placed a hand on Xena’s shoulder.

“Listen to me, Greek!” he shouted in her ear.

Xena turned to look at him, eyes blazing in berserker fury.

“Can you hear me?” he shouted again.

Xena’s eyes calmed after a moment and she nodded.

“I have orders to kill you, we all do, from Antony. All the soldiers with you have decided to be elsewhere, get out of here before the regular troops get here.”

“Thank you, I expected something like this. What’s your name?” she asked.

“Lycius, warrior.”

Xena was stunned but grabbed his forearm in a warrior’s handshake and mounted her horse again. The same name as her beloved dead brother. The Fates were strange, she thought, fighting her way past the soldiers towards the mountains.

***

It was almost nightfall when Xena walked in the door of the inn, her eyes bright from the battle. Her dented, dusty and bloody armor hidden by her cloak. The barkeep and the locals quickly turned away from the sight of the woman warrior’s eyes. They had all known of the battle raging around them in the Pass of Philippi but most didn’t care either way about it and decided that if this soldier was involved, they didn’t want to know about it.

Xena spotted Gabrielle and Sasha in a booth at the back and quickly made her way to them, grabbing the small child up in her arms, the warrior’s eyes softening for the first time during the day. She frowned again when she took in the various cuts and bruises on Gabrielle’s face and arms.

“I’m okay, we had to make Brutus think I had put up a fight.” Gabrielle explained, standing up. “I have a room and have ordered a bath and dinner for us.”

“Good, Antony will expect us to head straight for Amphipolis. We’ll stay here overnight and travel by boat tomorrow at tide.”

“Brutus?” Gabrielle asked, her eyes becoming as intense as the warrior’s.

“Dead by his own hand but I was there.” Xena frowned.

“Let’s get upstairs, away from eyes.”

***

Once inside the room both women began to relax a little and, after sitting Sasha down in a chair, Gabrielle grabbed her mate for a rough kiss and embrace that left both women breathless.

Both could feel their hearts pounding, blood lust still lingering with both of them.

“Oh gods, Xena, I will never get enough of you!” Gabrielle whispered, bringing a moan from her mate at the husky tones of her bard’s voice.

“Bath, food and bed.” Xena said simply.

“You bet. Sasha, time for a bath! I bet your hair hasn’t been properly brushed for days! Guess what? I brought your brush,” Gabrielle said as she dug into her packs, smiling at the look of delight on the child’s face. Sasha loved to have her hair brushed, especially when Mum or Mom brushed it.

A couple of candlemarks later Gabrielle watched the warrior and child with devoted eyes. Xena was leaned back in a chair while Sasha sat on the floor playing with a toy wooden horse and soldier Xena had carved for her at Yule. Gabrielle smiled and Xena looked at her mate with raised eyebrows.

“Just thinking how much I love both of you.” Gabrielle answered.

“Back at you, little one.”

“Was it bad today?” the bard asked, having noted the condition of Xena’s armor and leathers.

“No worse than any other battle. Men killing each other on the orders of men playing politics.”

“You once lived for that,” Gabrielle mentioned.

“Yes, I know but I couldn’t do that anymore. Not for power or politics.” Xena said softly, watching Sasha play, grinning when the little girl rubbed at her eyes with her fists, trying to hide a yawn.

“Was Octavian sick today?” Gabrielle asked with a smile.

“Yes, seems he has a sensitive stomach. Antony was forced to split the victory with Octavian’s troops and take most of the battle himself. He wasn’t happy that Cassius and Brutus both fell on their swords before he got ahold of them. He probably wasn’t happy that I escaped either.” Xena grinned.

“He did plan on killing you,” Gabrielle was aware of Xena’s suspicions and the warrior’s plans on leaving the battlefield before Antony could get ahold of her.

“Yes, only the troops he assigned to me decided to look the other way when I rode out.”

“So did my soldiers, I think Antony’s troops were ordered to kill me, Sasha and Octavian’s soldiers.”

“It’s hard to kill the mother of a child, especially with the child there, even for some Romans.” Xena commented.

Gabrielle grinned and picked Sasha up from the floor and dumped the child on the bed, Sasha squealing with delight as Gabby Mom began tickling the little one. Xena jumped up and launched herself onto the bed to get in on the action. In moments the bed was a mass of giggling females.

Within minutes Sasha was sound asleep between her two moms.

“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Yes,” Xena answered and untangled herself from the bedding and pulled Gabrielle to her feet and into her arms.

Gabrielle felt her knees go weak at her warrior’s lips on hers and Xena’s strong arms holding her. She broke off the kiss with a gasp.

“Gods, even after all this time, I still can’t stand when you do that!” she muttered, nuzzling Xena’s chest.

The warrior reached over to the bed and pulled a blanket off, still holding tightly to her bard. She gently lowered Gabrielle to the blanket, following the smaller woman down to the floor.

Gabrielle wrapped one arm around Xena’s back and the other through the warrior’s raven hair and pulled Xena close for another kiss. Both women moaned as their bodies touched, Xena’s leg coming up between Gabrielle’s legs.

The bard could almost feel the heat radiating from her warrior and knew what Xena was still feeling. Even after a bath and meal, she knew they were both still on fire from the fighting energy, the blood lust running through their veins and bodies.

Gabrielle shifted slightly and grabbed Xena’s neck with her teeth as she impatiently pulled at Xena’s leather shift. Xena moaned loudly and managed to raise up enough for Gabrielle to remove the shift, barely letting go of Xena’s neck long enough to slip the material over the warrior’s head. Somehow Xena helped the bard remove the warrior’s undergarments but Gabrielle was too impatient to wait for the warrior to strip out of her leather skirt.

The bard let one hand run softly over Xena’s nipples while the other began a familiar exploration between the warrior’s legs. Xena growled and threw her head back with the sensations running through her body. Gabrielle increased her pressure on the warrior’s nipples, bringing a hiss from her warrior.

Gabrielle knew that it was difficult for Xena to maintain her position over the bard on her arms when Gabrielle was doing various things like this to the warrior’s body. The conflict between the sensations running through her body and the demand on her arm muscles was enough to heighten the sensations and pleasure and Gabrielle knew it.

The warrior cried out as one hand pinched one of her nipples and the other sank several fingers into her. Xena pulled Gabrielle’s head back by her hair and looked deep into the heavy lidded green eyes of her bard. The warrior began kissing her mate roughly as her body began to rock back and forth on Gabrielle’s hand.

Gabrielle relented and rolled Xena over onto her back and sat up between the warrior’s legs, amazed always at how wet Xena was for her. Xena’s eyes begged for release as she clutched at the blanket below her.

Gabrielle took a quick moment and pulled her tunic shirt off over her head and then pulled Xena’s leather skirt off her. She leaned over Xena’s body and slowly lowered herself onto her warrior, both groaning together at the feel of naked skin. Then Gabrielle crawled down the warrior’s body, kissing her way down every inch of the way.

Xena was writhing on the blanket, one hand clutching the blanket and the other laced through Gabrielle’s short hair, urging her bard lower.

“Please!” she moaned and then groaned as the bard chuckled at her mate’s impatience.

Xena jumped as Gabrielle’s tongue darted over her clit a couple of times and then stopped. Two fingers lingered at her opening, just enough to tease. Xena growled loudly and started to sit up to face her bard when Gabrielle’s tongue and hand claimed whatever complete thought the warrior just had. Xena’s back arched and both hands were clutching at the blanket, her body beginning to rock again.

“Oh gods, Gabrielle, don’t stop!” the warrior whispered desperately.

Xena could feel Gabrielle working her body like it was a fine lyre or harp, pulling more and more out of the warrior than anyone had ever gotten close to reaching. The warrior felt herself giving over control to her bard and letting her body follow wherever the bard was leading.

Only Gabrielle could do that, she thought.

The warrior found she couldn’t control her shaking hands and legs and was almost to a screaming point of frustration when she felt Gabrielle’s small hand totally claim her. It was the most incredible sensation the warrior had ever felt and, again, only Gabrielle had ever been able to get Xena turned on and relaxed enough at the same time to do that for her warrior.

Slowly, Gabrielle began moving her fist slowly within the warrior, pulling back to rub against the pelvic bone and then deep again, rocking the warrior’s body. When Xena began climbing even higher and higher to the point of climax, Gabrielle whispered to her warrior.

“Let go, my love, I’m here.” and returned her tongue to Xena’s clit, sending the warrior crashing over the edge. The warrior always fought against giving up total control to anyone, even Gabrielle.

The bard knew it was the ultimate trust Xena could give her. The warrior grabbed Gabrielle’s tunic and bit into it to keep from screaming loudly as waves of orgasm swept over her again and again.

***

Gabrielle crawled up along Xena’s body again and began kissing the warrior before Xena had totally gotten her breath back, surprising the warrior as their tongues began dueling for dominance over each other’s mouth.

Xena reached between Gabrielle’s legs and quickly entered the bard, pulling a groan out of her bard. Xena’s thumb began stroking the bard’s clit and caused Gabrielle to give up the fight of tongues to grab Xena’s shoulders as her body reached for more of Xena’s hand on it’s own.

The warrior obliged her mate and bent forward slightly to grasp a nipple with her teeth and then the other, pulling the bard into a sitting position. Gabrielle clung to her warrior’s shoulders, sinking her teeth back into Xena’s neck to keep from screaming.

Gabrielle was so turned on by her mate that she knew it wasn’t going to take long on this night. Feeling the bard’s rising energy level, Xena increased the depth and intensity of her stokes, feeling Gabrielle’s body begin trembling all over.

“Oh gods, little one, you are incredible,” she whispered in Gabrielle’s ear as she trailed a kiss along the bard’s neck and back down to Gabrielle’s full breasts.

Gabrielle moaned again, feeling the scream building in the back of her throat. Xena felt the bard’s body stiffen in her arms and around her fingers and felt the scream being muffled by the bard’s teeth at the warrior’s throat. With another muffled scream and then a whimper, Gabrielle collapsed into Xena’s arms.

The warrior somehow managed to lift Gabrielle in her arms and placed the bard on the bed with Sasha and then crawled in beside her mate, pulling the blanket up over them and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s waist. The bard mumbled pleasantly and interlaced her fingers with Xena’s and was fast asleep.

Xena began to drift into sleep and noticed the pain at her neck. Curious, she untangled her fingers from Gabrielle and touched the spot where Gabrielle had screamed and bitten at the same time. The warrior was surprised to find blood on her neck and some tender skin.

With a frown she interlaced her fingers back with Gabrielle’s hand and drifted into sleep.

Xena decided that they needed to deal with other things first rather than the bard’s sharp teeth. A wounded Joxer, a crippled son and a life to rebuild.

The End
Darkness Awakening
Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle are struggling to settle down and deal with Solan’s injuries and darkness from their own past.

“Solan?” Xena spoke softly, not wanting to startle the young man lying on the cot in her Mother’s backroom.

“Mom? Mom!”

Xena was across the floor and holding the young teen in an instant. She held the young man while he cried.

“Are you okay?” he finally asked, wiping the tears from his face.

Xena thought her heart was going to break, her son was lying there with a bandage over his shattered eyes and he was asking about her.

“I’m fine, so are Gabrielle and Sasha.” she choked out.

“Really?” he insisted.

“Really. We got Sasha back and Brutus is dead. I was there when he died.” Xena explained simply.

Her son merely nodded at the information. It was on orders of the Roman General that Sasha had been kidnapped and Solan was blinded for trying to protect his sister and his mom.

“Is Sasha okay?” he asked about his younger half sister.

“You bet. Gabrielle went in and took her right out of the Roman camp while Brutus was busy fighting Antony and I.” Xena knew he couldn’t see her grin but she hoped he could hear it.

“Great! The healer says the pain should be gone in a couple of weeks.”

“Good, good.” Xena suddenly didn’t know what to say or do. How to handle your son being blinded protecting you? A born hunter and tracker, now blinded. “Listen, I want to go see Joxer, I’ll be back in a little while, okay?”

“Sure, Grandma has me putting in a half day helping in the kitchen but she lets me rest during the afternoons, the headache gets bad by then.” Solan said easily, laying back down.

Xena squeezed his hand and left the room quickly. She bit back a sob as she dashed across the tavern and out the door.

Cyrene, her mother, watched her daughter rush out the door and turned to Gabrielle. The bard was holding Sasha and looking after her mate. Neither of them were surprised by the warrior’s reaction.

“Some tree is really going to pay for Solan’s injuries,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Mum?” Sasha asked.

“Yes, little one?” Gabrielle asked the small child in her arms.

“Is Mom okay?”

“She will be. Your brother was hurt, remember me telling you about that?” the youngster nodded. “Well, your mom is really upset because he was hurt bad. We’re going to have to help him a lot now and teach him how to do things a little different.”

“How come?” Sasha asked.

“His eyes were hurt and he can’t see anymore.” Cyrene noticed the tears filling the bard’s eyes as she tried to explain a crippling injury to a small child.

“Oh,” the child said simply, eyes wide, trying to comprehend what Gabby Mum was telling her.

Gabrielle empathized, she didn’t understand it herself.

“Can you keep an eye on her, Cyrene? I want to see Joxer.”

“Of course, she can help me fix dinner. Come on, little one.” Cyrene took Sasha’s hand and headed for the back.

Gabrielle climbed the stairs towards the rooms of the inn.
***

Joxer grinned and tried to pull himself up but Gabrielle quickly crossed the room and sat next to the soldier, placing a hand on his chest, stopping him.

“Gabrielle, good to see you! Cyrene told me that you and Xena went after Sasha. Everything okay?”

“Yes, Brutus and Cassius are dead and we got Sasha back.” Gabrielle smiled.

“You’re beautiful,” he muttered.

“Thanks, you’d probably be looking good too if you didn’t have several holes in your body.” Gabrielle grinned and Joxer blushed. “Thank you for protecting Solan and Sasha.”

“It was nothing,” he muttered.

“It was more than nothing, Joxer.” Gabrielle insisted and reached out to hold his hand.

The soldier began blushing again.

“Xena told me about your wedding, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there. I bet you were beautiful.”

“Thank you. Joxer, we didn’t want to hurt you.” Gabrielle said softly.

“I know.” Joxer shrugged. “Gabrielle, are you happy with Xena? Is this what you want?”

“I know the last few years have been rough and Xena and I have been to Tartarus and back, but the answer is ‘yes,’ I’m very happy with Xena.” Gabrielle moved closer to the soldier, noticing the tears welling up in his eyes. “Joxer, I love you and I always will but not like with Xena.”

“I’ve been trying to understand, I mean, she slept with Ares!” Joxer growled, struggling to a sitting position.

Gabrielle moved his pillows behind him to help him sit up better and easier.

“I know. I’ve forgiven Xena for that because she didn’t know what she was doing. Living with it wasn’t as easy as it sounds, I’ll admit that. I don’t doubt that she loves me, Joxer. Even with her memories missing she couldn’t hurt me and came back to me.”

Joxer was quiet for a few moments.

“Sasha is cute,” he conceded.

Gabrielle grinned. “I’m glad she looks more like her mom than her father,” the bard confessed and Joxer smiled.

“Xena told me about the gladiator stuff,” the soldier said softly.

Gabrielle sighed and drew off her leather bracers and held up her wrists. Joxer turned pale at the sight of the scars.

“Caesar’s dead, Brutus is dead, the Amazons and Centaurs are dead. So much loss, Joxer.” Gabrielle’s eyes filled with tears and tiredness. Both were surprised when Gabrielle laid down next to the soldier and curled into his arms, surprised by the action and by the fact it didn’t feel awkward.

Joxer frowned as he felt something shift in his heart and soul and held the small woman as she cried for all the loss and her exhaustion. He fell asleep puzzling over the change, he couldn’t work it out. Something had happened and it felt different.

***

“Gabrielle,” a soft voice caused the bard to open her blinking eyes. As she raised up on her elbow she realized the shadows in the room had lengthened a bit and that she had fallen asleep.

Asleep. Joxer. What? With a startled expression she sat up on the edge of the bed, looking up in the blue eyes of her warrior.

“Easy, don’t startle him.” Xena said with a smile in a soft voice.

“What? We were talking,” Gabrielle muttered.

“You both fell asleep while he held you,” Xena concluded for her confused bard.

“Xena,” Gabrielle began but Xena held up a finger on the bard’s lips.

“No big deal.” the warrior reassured her. “I know how you feel about Joxer.”

“We were talking about the crucifixion and the Amazons,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Help me wake him up for dinner. The healer says that he’ll be all right eventually but it’ll take time. Lucky for him, he’s got a hard head and that was the worst blow.” Xena grinned.

Gabrielle also grinned. “Good thing he upgraded that armor of his.”

“Yup, and improved on his skills. Come on, Joxer, time for dinner.” Xena grinned and lightly shook the soldier’s shoulder, bringing his head up from where it had fallen on his chest while holding Gabrielle.

He began blushing when he realized Xena was in the room with him and Gabrielle.

“Time for dinner, hero.” Xena grinned, going to the table and retrieving the tray she had brought up.

“I, uh, hi, Xena,” he muttered.

“Eat your dinner,” Xena grinned and led her bard out the door for a much needed hug. Gabrielle took in the rough condition of her warrior. Xena was covered with dust and had been working out, hard. The bard frowned, her warrior’s eyes were still haunted.

“Mom offered us a room for the night, complete with a bath. She knew we’d be too tired to go home.” Xena said, leaning into Gabrielle’s hand as the bard stroked her cheek.

“Great, we can face all of this in the morning. Let’s get you into a tub, my love.”

Later that evening Gabrielle held an emotionally worn out warrior in her arms, gently exploring Xena’s body with soft touches of her tongue and fingers. Tonight was one of those nights when they both surprised each other with how gentle they could be in their lovemaking.

***

“Hey, Mom,” Solan said with a wide grin when the warrior walked into the kitchen the next morning.

The warrior was stunned speechless and Gabrielle ran right into Xena’s back when the warrior suddenly stopped.

“How did you know it was me?” she asked, moving further into the kitchen, standing back to watch her son.

“I heard the chakram against your leathers,” Solan answered as he began chopping carrots, using the side of his finger to guide the knife.

“You must have inherited my hearing,” Xena grinned.

The boy grinned.

“He’s got a talent for cooking, would you believe it?” Cyrene said as she walked into the kitchen with an armful of a basket of fish.

“THAT he didn’t inherit from you,” Gabrielle muttered and got a playful whack on the arm from her warrior and a grin from both Cyrene and Solan.

“We’ve only been gone a few days,” Xena commented, watching the teen move around the kitchen with an ease that was reassuring to the warrior.

“He catches on quick,” Cyrene commented as she began chopping the fish up and handing the pieces to Solan who quickly seasoned them and prepared the pieces.

“I can’t be a hunter any more so Grandma, Joxer and I talked a lot about different jobs and how easy or difficult they could be for a blind man. I kept coming back to cooking. I like it.” Solan explained with a shrug, once again reminding Gabrielle of her warrior and his mother, Xena.

“He’s already improved one of my recipes,” Cyrene bragged.

“No way!” Xena’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Solan blushed and grinned.

“Yup, a natural,” Cyrene confirmed.

“Now we get Joxer healed and maybe we can get back to settling down,” Xena muttered.

***

A week later, Gabrielle grinned at the progress that both Solan and Joxer were making in their individual recoveries. Solan’s headaches had diminished enough to where he could work a full day in the inn’s kitchen and not require any pain herbs in his tea at night.

Gabrielle had thought of teaching him to find his way around with a staff and soon he had memorized the route between their home and the inn and several buildings around the village. Everyone in village were more than eager to help the boy out, giving him space to work it out and quick to give information about what was where.

Joxer had recovered enough to start working out with the militia, slowly regaining his strength and skills. Xena was pleased to find he had improved on his skills over the couple of years she hadn’t seen him and was now an adequate soldier. She also grinned at how he blushed under her praise and encouragement.

Xena had also noticed something about Joxer and had a suspicion that he had noticed it about himself and was confused as she was. Joxer no longer had that puppy dog look around Gabrielle. Xena had frowned when Joxer had shown up in the village, especially because Gabrielle had been away and Xena was the one that had to break the news to Joxer, that his beloved bard had married someone else while he was gone. The news that Gabrielle had married Xena.

Xena stood next to the training area and watched as he lightly sparred with sword and shield against one of the villager militia volunteers and reflected that the would-be warrior had taken the news well. He had shouted, cried, gotten drunk, threw up when he heard about Gabrielle’s assaults by the Romans and slavers, dry heaved his guts up at the description of her crucifixion and then passed out when his mind couldn’t process anymore.

Now Joxer seemed more at ease than he ever had with Gabrielle and Xena. Both Gabrielle and Xena were at a loss to explain it, they had even caught Joxer looking confused when he was with them.

It was like he had turned into Gabrielle’s brother or best friend.

Xena decided that it was definitely a weird change but maybe not unwelcome.

The warrior grinned when she spotted Gabrielle and Sasha walking towards her, the bard carrying a basket and holding Sasha’s hand. Both were chattering back and forth rapidly, probably sharing a story, Xena thought with her heart overflowing.

Given the circumstances of Sasha’s conception, Xena had worried slightly that Gabrielle might hold some resentment. The bard had forgiven Xena for sleeping with Ares, pointing out that Xena wasn’t exactly in her right mind and had no memory of her life with Gabrielle, but still, it was a fear the warrior had. Especially since Gabrielle hadn’t been with her for Sasha’s birth and first few months of life.

Xena needn’t have worried, the bard’s anger was still at Ares. Even after confronting him, fighting him to a draw, wounding him badly, and basically getting in his face, Gabrielle still growled deep in her chest whenever his name was mentioned and her green eyes flashed with anger. With Sasha, Gabrielle was a wonder and both Solan and Sasha were both delighted that Gabrielle was in their lives.

Xena was beyond delighted, she had no idea what she would do without her warrior bard. Watching Gabrielle walk across the common made Xena’s breath quicken. The bard was dressed as any other village woman these days, it was the way she moved that caught the eye of most everyone, men and women. She still moved like a dangerous wild cat.

Xena grinned to herself, what always amazed her was that Gabrielle wasn’t aware of it. She really didn’t realize how cute and irresistible she was.

The night they spent waiting to enter the Arena of Rome and fight for their lives, the night before Gabrielle had been crucified by the Romans, they had spent the time talking. Gabrielle had surprised the warrior by thanking her for the life they had led together. Xena had shaken her head in amazement. How could Gabrielle thank her for leading her into constant danger, slavery, assault and death? The bard had tried to explain that before she had met Xena she had felt invisible and that no one but Xena saw what she could be, no one but Xena had given her that chance.

Once again the bard had amazed Xena. If it hadn’t been for Gabrielle, Xena knew that she never would have managed to stay on the path towards the right side of things. The warrior had tried to tell Gabrielle that, how the bard was her light, her source. Many people thought Xena was the stronger one but the warrior knew they were wrong. She had given into the darkness for ten years, darkness that had consumed everything about her. Gabrielle had faced darkness and hadn’t given in, even when fighting for her life in the Arena as a gladiator and she never let Xena fall too far either.

Gabrielle smiled as she looked up and spotted Xena watching her, her face blushing at the adoring look on her lover’s face, feeling heat spread throughout her body. They had been lovers for awhile and married, yet still, just one look from the warrior could cause her body to tremble with desire.

Sasha grinned and rushed into her mom’s arms. Xena grinned back and picked up the child and placed her on the fence to watch the militia practice, including Joxer. Gabrielle walked up and placed an arm around her warrior’s waist while Xena placed an arm comfortably around her shoulders.

“Joxer’s doing well,” Gabrielle commented after watching for a few minutes.

“Yes, he’s recovering nicely,” Xena agreed. “What’s in the basket?”

“Lunch, Sasha and I thought we’d surprise our hard working warrior with a picnic. Your mom says things are slow enough that she and Solan can handle the lunch crowd.”

“I love you,” Xena answered, placing a kiss on the top of Gabrielle’s head.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle answered back, leaning her head into Xena’s chest.

“Let’s go. Come on, Sasha, let’s find a nice tree by the creek for your surprise picnic.” Xena smiled, helping the child down from the fence.

Gabrielle sat with her back against a tree with Xena’s head in her lap while they watched Sasha splashing in the water at the edge of the creek, both watching closely. Sasha knew how to swim but both women were also protective moms. Xena looked down at the bards hand that was interlaced with hers, looking at their bonding bracelets and the scars on both their wrists. Scars from Gabrielle being crucified and Xena’s from fighting against chains on that day, watching her mate being tortured.

Gabrielle looked down and took in Xena’s glance and frown. She squeezed her hand with Xena’s and smiled as the warrior’s blue eyes met hers.

“I love you,” Gabrielle said simply.

“I’ve been thinking,” Xena hesitated and Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in question. “I’d like to travel north for a visit.” the warrior said softly.

“To visit Axel and the clan?”

“Yes, and to the Northern Amazons.”

Gabrielle was stunned.

“Xena, when Ephiny suggested we go to the Northern Amazons for protection from Ares and Caesar you said that you couldn’t go because of what you did to them in the past.”

“I know, but you’re the one that keeps reminding me that I’ve been different for a long time now and that others will accept that. I know that the Amazons are important to you and I want you to reconnect with them, even if it is a different tribe.”

“Xena, if there’s a chance that they wouldn’t accept you, then I can live without that.” Gabrielle said softly, stroking her warrior’s jawline tenderly.

“I know that before our Amazons were killed that you wanted to present Sasha as your adopted daughter and for her to be accepted into the tribe. I know that was important to you, to both of us.”

Gabrielle felt tears coming to her eyes as Xena opened hers and looked into the bard’s green eyes.

“It’s not necessary, Xena. I feel like she’s my daughter, I don’t need a ceremony to feel that way.” Gabrielle said softly.
“I know and I love you for it, but as your daughter it is part of her heritage and her right. I know you want to help keep the Amazon soul alive and maybe it’s time I make some amends up north.” Xena looked away from her bard, watching Sasha cashing a frog across the watergrass next to the creek.

“Xena, do you need to talk about it?”

The warrior sat up and pulled herself next to the bard, still keeping her eyes on her daughter.

“I’ve told you a little bit about Alti,” Xena began and Gabrielle nodded. “She came to me as a shaman and offered me power, more power than I had ever seen. I was ruthless and power was like a drug to me, I couldn’t get enough of it. She promised to make me the Destroyer of Nations.” a tear escaped the blue eyes and Gabrielle resisted reaching over to wipe it away, giving her warrior space. “Gods, you think you’ve seen darkness with Ares, it was nothing compared to Alti. Ares is power and madness but it’s power, that’s all. With Alti it’s evil, she wanted the power to destroy someone’s very soul, not just their bodies. I think she sensed my inherited powers from Hecate, my natural gift for shamanism and wanted to tap that power.”

“Ares wants your natural fighting ability, Alti wants your natural shamanism, and Callisto just wants your blood.” Gabrielle complained.

“And you, little one?” Xena suddenly teased.

“Your body, your soul, your heart, and your love,” Gabrielle answered back, intertwining her fingers with Xena’s and bringing the warrior’s hand up to her lips.

“You’ve got all of them,” Xena answered.

“Alti,” Gabrielle prompted.

“You know what happened, Alti threatened to show you when we crossed over.”

“Yes, when you claimed your goddess gifts from Hecate and we found that Apollo had gifted me as well. She said that you had killed the Northern Amazons and had been brutal about it.”

“That’s an understatement, most of them were impaled on sharpened tree branches. I used their own reliance on the trees to trap them. I sharpened tree branches and had spike traps all through the trees. Some were impaled, others fell. I killed the leaders for her.” Xena closed her eyes, her body beginning to tremble with the memories.

“Xena,” Gabrielle didn’t know what to say or how to comfort her mate. “Do you need to face them?” she finally asked.

“I know you’ve forgiven me and I’ve mostly forgiven myself. That spiritual journey we took and when we fought Alti, that took a lot of it away for me, but not all of it. I don’t think I’ll ever finish paying for those years.” Xena looked down at her hands, almost expecting them to be covered in blood.

“Xena, you can’t go on killing yourself with guilt for the rest of our lives!” Gabrielle urged, watching her warrior and also keeping an eye on the small child nearby. “Look at the last few years! All the good you’ve done throughout the land. Look at the kids. Solan is becoming a fine young man, some of the local girls are beginning to hang around your mother’s inn, you know.”

Xena’s eyebrows went up at that piece of news. Solan? Girls? Well, he was very handsome, gentle, intelligent and going to be a good man. When did he grow up, the warrior suddenly asked herself. Hades, he’s almost old enough to think of shaving – what fourteen, fifteen summers?

Xena shook her head in wonderment and looked over at Sasha. The small child was already four Spring seasons old. She was a bright and cheerful child who made everyone she came in contact with smile.

“I know you’re right but I never made any kind of retribution to the Northern ones,” Xena said simply.

“Then we’ll go and present Sasha as an Amazon Princess and you will be accepted as well,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“They may want revenge,” Xena ventured slowly.

“You are the Consort and Champion of an Amazon Queen, they won’t have a choice. We will however, try to make amends and find a way to make peace with you and them.” Gabrielle said.

“Might not be easy, little one.”

Gabrielle laughed, “When is anything easy with us, lover?” she grinned as she stood up and trotted over to where Sasha was picking wildflowers and grabbed the child in her arms and began tickling the little girl.

Xena smiled at the hug fest that ensued between two of the most important people in her life.

She definitely didn’t deserve the bard, she thought.

***

That night over dinner at her mother’s inn, Xena talked with Joxer.

“Sure, I’ve had some blacksmith training, not much but enough to help Dex out while you’re gone. You are coming back, right?” he asked quickly.

“Yes, our home is here now. I’m going to ask Solan if he wants to come or not, he’s definitely of an age to make up his own mind about things.” Xena grinned. Everyone was pleased at the rapid recovery the boy had made and how well he had adjusted to losing his eyesight. Cyrene took such an immense pride in his accomplishments in the kitchen that she took every opportunity to praise him and tease Xena about her lack of cooking skills. A constant joke between Gabrielle and the warrior.

Gabrielle came out from behind the bar and approached the two warriors with a pitcher to refill their mugs. Joxer smiled and Gabrielle grinned back. For her warrior, Xena was met with a look that could melt ice.

Gods, would they ever get enough of each other, she demanded of herself and then decided probably not, she hoped not.
“You looked good today, Joxer,” Gabrielle commented and smiled as Joxer blushed, looking much like his old self.

“Uh, thanks. Xena was telling me about your trip. I’m going to help Dex out at the blacksmith shop while you guys are gone.” Joxer grinned, pleased to be helpful.

“Great! Listen, I’m getting ready to tell some stories, I’ll meet you at home.”

“Okay,” Xena leaned up for a quick kiss from her bard and blushed as Joxer grinned at her.

“Xena,” Joxer frowned and ducked his eyes. Xena waited for him to continue, curious. “I’ve watched Gabrielle with you since you two have been back and I just want to say….. that is…. I, uh, thanks,” he stammered.

“For what, Joxer?”

“Making her happy,” his face turned very red.

“My pleasure,” Xena grinned and laughed as he blushed even more and looked at her with that old goofy grin of his.

“I still love her but….., it’s not like it was. It doesn’t feel like an ache that will never end.”

“I’m glad you stuck around to rediscover your friendship with her,” Xena said simply.

“Both of you, I hope.”

“Yes, both of us. I just wasn’t sure if you were mad at me for marrying her,” Xena smiled.

“Nah, not anymore. Laying in that bed with blood everywhere kinda put some things in perspective, I guess. I love her and if I love her then I can’t be mad at her being happy.” Joxer tried to explain.

“I actually followed that.”

“You’ll keep her safe on the trip?” he demanded suddenly.

“Or she’ll keep me safe. That’s something I’m still getting used to, Joxer,” the warrior admitted. “she’s more than a good warrior. She was always astounding with that staff of hers, with those sais, she’s amazing.”

“We’ve all grown a little, I guess,” Joxer commented.

“Yeah,” Xena agreed, watching Gabrielle approach the raised platform at the end of the room and everyone quieted down. Gabrielle’s reputation was known throughout Greece and several other countries and Amphipolis counted itself fortunate that such a talented bard had settled in their town. Xena also knew that Potedaia inhabitants would probably never forgive the warrior for luring their own bard away from her home village. Not that they paid attention to her when she was there, Xena thought.

Both warriors settled in for an evening of Gabrielle’s bardic talent.

“You know something funny, though?” Joxer commented, watching Gabrielle.

“What’s that, Joxer?”

“The hair makes her look a little older but there’s no gray in yours or hers. My mom starting complaining about gray hair at 28,” he muttered and then went quiet as Gabrielle began her tale.

***

Gabrielle walked along the road towards home with a confident gait. The story telling had gone well, with several merchants in the audience who showed their appreciation in coin, always pleasing both Gabrielle and Cyrene.

The bard instinctively ducked, reaching down to her boot and pulling up one of her sais as a body landed behind her from a tree. A strong arm went around her waist and another grabbed her wrist as she started to bring the sai back in defense.

“It’s me, little one,” a familiar voice whispered in her ear.

“Gods! Woman!” Gabrielle squeaked, attempting to turn around but found Xena holding her firmly in an embrace. “You scared the Hades out of me!”

“Sorry, guess I was feeling a little playful.”

Gabrielle could just imagine the lopsided grin on her warrior’s face and leaned back into Xena’s strong arms, lowering the sai back to her boot.

“Found dead on the road in Amphipolis, one bard of a heart attack,” Gabrielle complained with a smile.

“I wanted to walk you home,” Xena grinned, releasing her bard so Gabrielle could turn around in her arms. She was rewarded with an embrace and kiss that took her breath away and weakened her knees.

“To walk me home you have to hide in the trees and leap out at me like some stalking tiger?” Gabrielle demanded when they could both breathe again.

“Sorry,” Xena grinned and bent to kiss her mate again, running her hands up Gabrielle’s back under the cloak the bard was wearing.

“Oh you might be sorry later, warrior mine,” Gabrielle threatened, fire dancing in her eyes.

“Really?” Xena’s voice dropped a notch, signaling to her mate that the thought was intriguing to the warrior.

Gabrielle laughed and began walking along, holding Xena’s hand.

“Where are the kids?” she asked.

“Joxer claimed Uncle rights with Solan and Mom is watching Sasha tonight. Seems we wore her out with the picnic and Solan didn’t want to wake her to bring her home.”

“Then I’ve got you to myself tonight, eh?” Gabrielle questioned, eyes dancing.

Xena felt a shiver run over her body at the husky tone in the bard’s voice.

“It has been awhile,” Xena mentioned.

“You are insatiable!” Gabrielle teased.

“Since we got back,” Xena countered.

“I know, with both of us catching up on missed work and teaching Solan how to do things differently, I guess we haven’t taken the time for each other.”

Xena stopped her bard and lifted Gabrielle’s chin until green eyes were looking into her blue ones.

“Don’t apologize, little one, no one’s fault. Just life, I love how much time we’ve been spending with the kids.” she bent forward for another kiss that weakened Gabrielle’s legs in turn. “Now, let’s take advantage of an empty house,” the warrior suggested.

Gabrielle laughed and dragged the warrior the rest of the way, both women grinning.

Once inside the door of their home Gabrielle turned and pinned Xena against the door, holding the warrior’s wrists against the door at shoulder level and attacked the warrior’s neck with an intensity that surprised the warrior and buckled her knees.

“You seem to like me falling against doors, my bard,” Xena commented.

“Hmmmm,” was the only verbal response she got for several moments as Gabrielle’s teeth found one of Xena’s most erotic spots on her neck. Gabrielle brought a leg up between her warrior’s, pinning Xena totally to the door as the warrior whimpered, unsure whether she’d go over that edge right there.

Gabrielle pulled back slightly to look into Xena’s eyes, still keeping her body against the warrior’s and her hands on Xena’s wrists. “I think you should get some special attention after scaring me half to death!”

Xena felt a shiver run over her body, this was a new side to her bard and the warrior was finding it exciting. From the beginning the bard had surprised Xena with her energy and ferocity in bed but after her return from slavery Gabrielle had held back somewhat. That hadn’t surprised Xena. It had taken Gabrielle a bit of time and persuasion to let more and more of Xena’s lusts come out in their lovemaking. The warrior had been terrified of hurting Gabrielle and that the bard would be afraid or disgusted and turn from Xena. Instead the bard had drawn more and more of her warrior out until Xena was comfortable and more trusting with her bard than with anyone she had ever known.

Xena had tried to get Gabrielle to face the lust that could hit after a fight or battle and had succeeded once, just after Gabrielle the gladiator had returned to her. Since then, the bard had held back and Xena knew that the bard was afraid of giving into those feelings again, no matter how much Xena tried to reassure Gabrielle that she would welcome and accept that side of Gabrielle.

Gabrielle hadn’t been ready to accept that in herself yet.

Now the bard was attacking Xena with an intensity that was exciting and surprising.

Xena refocused on her bard as Gabrielle snapped her fingers in front of Xena’s face. “You haven’t answered me,” Gabrielle demanded, her eyes dancing.

“Uh, what did you have in mind, little one?” Xena asked with a smile as Gabrielle’s hand began to lightly play over Xena’s nipples through her tunic top. The bard shoved Xena back against the door when the warrior tried to lean forward into Gabrielle’s body.

Xena’s eyebrows shot up but she stayed against the door.

“I love you so much, I need you so much!” Gabrielle hissed and showed Xena her trembling hand. The bard leaned her forehead against Xena’s chest.

“What is it, Gabrielle?” Xena asked softly, wanting to take the bard into her arms but one hand had a wrist pinned to the wall and the bard’s leg kept her body back.

“It’s like there’s a building hunger in me, an energy,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Then give into it, my love. I’m here, I trust you and I love you,” Xena whispered back.

“It’s nothing like I’ve ever felt, Xena,” Gabrielle dropped the hand holding Xena’s wrists and wrapped her arms around the warrior, suddenly holding herself close to her warrior.

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle and held her, feeling the bard trembling in her arms. After a moment Xena lifted the bard into her arms and carried Gabrielle through the house to their bedroom and surprised Gabrielle by dumping her onto the bed instead of gently placing her there. Gabrielle lay on the bed, on her elbows, looking at the warrior in surprise.

“Nothing you could do, say, or want would make me love you any less,” Xena promised, noting the fire still in the bard’s eyes.

Gabrielle turned and sat on the edge of the bed, watching Xena warily. Xena approached her mate slowly and knelt down at Gabrielle’s knees.

“Close your eyes,” the bard obeyed, hands still shaking. “What do you want from me? What do you want to do?”

“I, uh, don’t know,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Yes, you do. Keep your eyes closed and tell me what you see,” Xena encouraged.

“You,” Gabrielle’s breath quickened. “under me, begging for release.”

“Go on,” Xena said softly.

“Begging me to take you harder and deeper,” the bard’s face was flushed.

“Go on, am I tied up?”

“What? Uh, I don’t….,” the bard hesitated, her face turning very red. “yes,” she admitted.

“Okay, what are you doing to me?” Xena asked softly.

“Xena, I can’t!” Gabrielle protested, but kept her eyes closed, the warrior noted.

“Yes, you can. I love you.”

Gabrielle grew quiet as her hands gripped the blanket under her.

Xena got up quietly and went to one of cabinets and pulled a couple of things out of her bags and walked back to the bard and knelt down again.

“Gabrielle, open your eyes,” Xena ordered.

The bard opened her eyes and was shocked to find Xena hold a long strap of leather, Gabrielle’s eyes went wide.

“Xena?”

The warrior stood up, went to a chair, removed her boots and then knelt in front of Gabrielle again. Gabrielle looked dumbly at the dagger Xena placed in her hands.

“I’m yours, totally, my bard. Any way you want me,” Xena said simply and held out the leather strip.

“I can’t!” Gabrielle protested.

“Really, don’t think you can handle it?” Xena suddenly taunted and wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle growled and pulled her up onto the bed and on top of the bard, silencing Xena’s taunts with her lips. Xena moaned, her leg coming up between Gabrielle’s and discovering how wet the bard was already.

Gabrielle growled and flipped Xena over onto her back attacking the warrior’s neck again with a vengeance and grabbing Xena’s wrists. The warrior didn’t resist when the bard pulled back and wordlessly tied the wrists together and then tied the strap to one of the bedposts.

Gabrielle stopped, looking confused and looked into Xena’s blue eyes.

“It’s okay, I trust you,” she whispered.

The bard looked almost like she was in pain.

“Gabrielle, part of you is still Dancer, the gladiator. Let it out.” Xena encouraged. Still the bard hesitated, eyes closed. “I want you, very badly. I want your teeth in my neck, I want your hand inside of me, your lips everywhere, your teeth biting my nipples, your tongue inside of me and stroking me. I want to feel my body trembling and bucking under you, I want to scream your name.”

Gabrielle growled and grabbed up the knife from the bed and quickly cut the tunic from Xena’s body with a swiftness that surprised the warrior. Next her trousers were off and she was tied to her own bed, naked. Gabrielle removed her own clothing and knelt between Xena’s feet and began slowly working her way up the warrior’s legs with her lips and teeth.

“Oh gods,” Xena said softly, pulling against the leather in reflex. The sight of her bard, eyes blazing, nibbling her way up the inside of Xena’s legs was enough to set her body trembling right away.

Gabrielle continued working her way up the warrior’s body but skipped Xena’s sexual area, bringing a frustrated moan out of Xena. Gabrielle continued nibbling, kissing and licking her way up Xena’s abdomen and then breasts.

The warrior arched her back as Gabrielle lightly flicked her tongue over the nipples, lightly teasing and offering no release. The bard kept her body just hovering over the warrior, not quite touching except an occasional brush of skin.

Xena resisted bringing her legs up around the bard’s hips, not wanting to give Gabrielle any ideas about tying her legs at this point, thank you.

Gabrielle moved up Xena’s chest to her shoulders and lightly nibbled, hitting pressure points that Xena had shown her over the years, making the warrior’s body begin to squirm under her. The bard surprised Xena by not attacking her neck again, instead only lightly kissing both sides and then leaning on her arms to look down into Xena’s face. This confused the warrior, she knew how much Gabrielle loved to bite, remnants of Bacchus’ touch on her life and soul. To resist that pleasure probably meant the bard planned on dragging this out.

Xena moaned as Gabrielle straddled her hips, feeling how wet the bard was against her skin. Her hips jerked up, trying to meet the bard but Gabrielle moved up on her knees slightly, denying Xena the contact, making the warrior whimper.

“Wanting something, lover?” Gabrielle whispered, a dangerous edge in her voice.

“You, always you and only you!”

How long Gabrielle tortured her, Xena didn’t know.

Gabrielle kissed, licked, nipped and teased every inch of her warrior until Xena was mass of writhing muscles under her. Again and again the bard’s hands or tongue would take Xena almost to the point of release and then back away, at first bringing moans of frustration and then cries and whimpers.

All Xena knew was that she was begging for release, begging for her bard’s body.

She was almost in tears when the bard’s fingers finally entered her again and stayed there, beginning a rhythm. The warrior’s hips began rocking to meet the bard’s hand, begging for more. Slowly the bard’s hand claimed Xena totally, both women stopping for a moment with the wonderment of the feeling of it. When Gabrielle began moving her fist slowly, Xena bit into her lip at the sensations, already on overload. Then Gabrielle’s tongue began to stroke Xena’s clit and the warrior screamed, her back arching. The bard placed her arm across Xena’s abdomen, trying to maintain control of her warrior as Xena trembled uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face as her body shook with wave after wave.

Xena opened her eyes to find herself in Gabrielle’s arms, being rocked softly, the leather strap still tied to one of her wrists. Gabrielle’s face was one of worry.

“Are you okay, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” she whispered.

“Shhhh,” Xena managed to whisper. “Wonderful, no apologies.”

Gabrielle got up and came back into the bedroom carrying a mug and a towel. She crawled back into the bed and took Xena back into her arms, raising the warrior up until Xena could drink the wine being offered her. Then the bard began toweling Xena’s hair and face dry and then her own.

Xena wasn’t surprised at how wet their hair and faces were. After that workout they were both covered in sweat and their own juices. Xena laid her head against the bard’s chest as Gabrielle held her close.

“You sure you’re okay?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“Woman, you just sent my body into total melt down, had me screaming your name and begging on my knees. I have no energy left, my muscles have turned to jelly and I have no voice left. Of course, I’m okay. More than okay.” Xena smiled as Gabrielle blushed.

“What came over me? I had to possess you totally until you were helpless.”

“You’ve been fighting battle lust ever since you came back to me, you just finally snapped.”

“But I didn’t feel like that after that mess with the Romans kidnapping Sasha, it wasn’t like the battle lust that hit after a match in the Arena,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully, snuggling down into the bed, keeping her arms around her exhausted warrior.

“It’s been under the surface all this time,” Xena said simply, nuzzling Gabrielle’s neck. “Just like the Warlord is always in me and sometimes comes out sexually. You now have Dancer and Dancer’s anger and fury.”

“You’ve never let anyone tie you up like that, have you?” Gabrielle whispered, a tear escaping her eyes, Xena softly wiped them away with her lips.

“No,” she answered easily, “I told you, I’m yours always and I trust you.”

“I’m not sure I totally trust myself,” Gabrielle answered.

“I know that, that’s how I feel when that hits and you always reassure me that you trust me and love me,” Xena said sleepily.

“When we go north, can we avoid the Bacchae forest?” Gabrielle asked, her voice becoming small, surprising the warrior.

Instantly, Xena was awake, senses alert. Her bard was disturbed and worried about something and the warrior came to life. She quickly turned the situation around and reached out to hold her bard.

“Of course, my love.” she answered, pulling Gabrielle close. “What is it?” she asked.

“There’s more darkness, it hurts,” Gabrielle whispered, voice growing faint and small.

“Tell me, Gabrielle,” Xena insisted.

“I’m afraid I’m close to losing it with you sometimes.”

“What is frightening you?”

“My teeth,” the bard confessed, curling almost into a ball next to her warrior.

“You’ve drawn blood before,” Xena confessed and wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle’s eyes snapped open in fear, suddenly very awake. Xena held on tight and wouldn’t let Gabrielle back out of the embrace. “I didn’t say anything because, one – we were busy with other life crisis, two – I don’t care if you nip me, and three – I love you and trust you.”

“I thought I had tasted blood,” Gabrielle frowned.

“We knew this was there as well as the battle lust. It doesn’t worry me, little one.”

“It worries me,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Why, is it getting worse?” Xena frowned.

“Yes, it’s like it’s building up, like water behind a dam that has nowhere to go,” the bard snuggled back into Xena’s arms, her panic momentarily eased.

“Rare meat?” Xena suggested.

“Been there, done that,” the bard said weakly.

“Shhh, go to sleep, little one. We’ll deal with it, and we won’t go near the forest,” Xena promised as she felt sleep overcoming both of them.

***

Gabrielle had taken the day off from the inn to help Torris inventory some of the goods he was thinking of buying from a merchant passing through town. At first the bard had been surprised by the request but had accepted readily, knowing that it was probably a first step for Torris in making amends in how he had treated her and Xena.

The bard had taken advantage of the slow business day at the inn and had dressed in her familiar travel clothes to spend some time running through the woods. She practiced with her sais and warrior moves when she had finished with Torris. Dressed in a leather top that held everything in place without covering much skin and a leather skirt-like wrap with knee high boots, sais in place alongside those boots.

After a good run through the forest and time spent in the woods that Artemis (her patron goddess) loved, Gabrielle felt much better than she had in days.

It had been difficult to tell her warrior about the fears, the dark desires starting to plague her but she had also remembered the promise she had made Xena make: no secrets between them. Letting her instincts take over in the forest and connecting with everything around her had helped calm those down a little.

The bard was still worried, the craving was still there. Ever since the crucifixion it had been there.

Gabrielle was deep in thought but her eyes scanned the town common square quickly as she left the edge of the forest. The bard stopped, eyes going wide as her hands instinctively began reaching for her sais.

In the common was a small band of Roman cavalry soldiers, all off of their horses and hanging around outside of the inn, their horses taking water at the fountain in the center of town.

The bard attempted to calm her rapidly beating heart back to normal. The soldiers were laughing among themselves and lounging around, none of them on alert, most of them barely looking around at the villagers or the village. Gabrielle realized that they were probably just passing through and weren’t looking for her or Xena.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and tried to calm her expression as she slowly began walking across the common towards the inn.

The bard walked past the soldiers without catching any of their eyes even though she could feel their attention on her the moment they had caught sight of her. The bard fought against blushing, knowing that her outfit tended to attract attention, usually not the kind she wanted.

Gabrielle opened the door and was about to step through when a voice cut through the good-natured talk among the soldiers and low muttered cat calls.

“Hey! Slave!”

Gabrielle frowned and turned to see a Roman soldier getting up from one of the benches outside of the tavern, a sergeant.
“Were you talking to me, soldier?” she asked.

“Yeah, what is a slave wearing weapons and where’s your collar?” he demanded. The rest of the soldiers had gone quiet, serious looks on their faces.

“You’ve made a mistake, Sergeant, I’m not slave,” Gabrielle stated flatly and turned to enter the inn when the soldier thrust his arm in front of her across the door.

“That brand says you’re a slave and it’s illegal for a slave to carry weapons. I know lash marks when I see them!”

A couple of the soldiers had also gotten to their feet and moved around the smaller woman. Gabrielle began to feel a sense of panic and fought it down.

“I am free and a citizen of Rome herself, let me by,” she demanded calmly.

“I know that brand, no one gets out of that school alive,” he growled, leaning over Gabrielle.

The bard’s hands ached to grab her sais and shove at least one end of one of them either in his face or another part of his anatomy but Gabrielle fought to stay calm. The other soldiers had moved in closer.

“I am no longer a slave,” she hissed, eyes beginning to flash in anger.

The Roman laughed and Gabrielle felt rough hands grab her as she started to reach for her weapons. The bard reacted without thought, bringing an elbow back into the ribs of whoever was holding her and yelping when she encountered a Roman breastplate. Before she could stomp on his foot the soldier had twisted her arms behind her and held her tightly.

“Rewards for runaway slaves are high,” the Sergeant commented, stroking her face and quickly withdrawing the hand as the bard snapped at his fingers with her teeth. The Roman drew his hand back to strike Gabrielle as she bared her teeth angrily.
“Touch her again and you die, Roman,” a voice said calmly.

The Romans turned to see a very tall female standing near the fountain. Dressed in simple trousers and cotton tunic with leather bracers, she normally wouldn’t have looked imposing, but something about the woman caused the soldiers to hesitate. Especially the sword in one hand and a round strange looking thing in the other.

“Who are you to interfere with business of Rome?” the Sergeant demanded.

“You are assaulting a citizen of Rome, one that has the favor of Octavian and Antony. Want to continue on this track, Roman?” Xena demanded.

The Roman frowned. The names of Octavian and Antony were enough to cause doubt in any soldier. They were the most powerful Generals in the Empire.

“She bears the mark of a slave!” he protested, trying to regain the advantage of the situation.

“Let her go, now!” Xena demanded. “She earned her freedom from your damned Arena!”

Several of the soldiers shifted uneasily on their feet. Freedom won in the Arena meant gladiator and that meant a fighter and usually a favored one of the Empire.

“Arena? This female?” the Sergeant demanded.

Gabrielle shook herself loose from the soldier holding her, feeling his grip loosen on her arms as he began to lose his enthusiasm and doubts plagued all of them.

A sai was suddenly at the Sergeant’s throat and green eyes were blazing into his hazel ones.

“I am Dancer,” she hissed, “Citizen Brie of Rome and gladiator of Caesar’s games. Want me to demonstrate how I won that wooden sword?” she demanded.

The Roman hesitated and saw doubt in his men’s eyes.

“Dancer was the female who won the sword in the Arena of Rome, Sergeant.”

one of them muttered. “She ran off North with one of the Senator’s wives after winning her freedom.”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows rose but she kept the sai in the throat of the Roman.

“I have made a mistake, citizen. I apologize.” he muttered and she removed the steel from his jaw. She glanced around, eyes still blazing and the soldiers backed off and went back to their benches or towards their horses.

Xena walked slowly past the soldiers, glaring at them and satisfied when they wouldn’t meet her eyes. She slowly sheathed her sword but kept the chakram in her hand as she approached the inn and her bard. The Roman sergeant mumbled something and moved away from the door as the two women glared at him. Xena gently encouraged her bard through the door and then shut it behind her.

Xena wasn’t surprised when she found Gabrielle trembling from head to toe, hands shaking badly. The warrior slowly took the sai from the bard’s hand and led Gabrielle towards the kitchen. Torris and Cyrene looked up, both suddenly concerned at the trembling bard as Gabrielle turned and hugged Xena tightly, tears beginning to fall.

“Xena, what’s going on?” Cyrene asked, quickly crossing over to the couple.

“Gabrielle just had a run-in with the soldiers outside. They mistook her for a slave.” Xena said softly.

Torris swore a curse Xena wasn’t sure she had ever heard before and threw down the ledger he was working on.

“You didn’t kill any of them did you?” Cyrene whispered as Xena moved her bard towards a chair.

“No, just threatened them a little,” Xena grinned.

“Torris, I would like your help in serving tonight. That bunch is staying the night and I don’t want Gabrielle near them again,” Cyrene said simply.

“Okay, Mom,” he agreed quickly.

“Xena, you take Gabrielle out back and take some time. Then I’d like you to hang around tonight, drunken Roman soldiers can get out of hand.” Cyrene continued.

“Any drunken soldier can be a problem,” Xena commented, sitting Gabrielle down in a chair and kneeling between her mate’s knees and holding her bard tightly. “Is that okay, little one?”

“Yeah, I don’t think I can do any bard stuff tonight,” Gabrielle wiped at the tears on her face. “Damnit! I cannot let the sight of a Roman soldier paralyze me all the time!”

“It won’t, you were still thinking on your feet. It’s just going to take time,” Xena said softly.

“Xena, I can’t ever go back to that!” Gabrielle whispered and buried her head on the warrior’s shoulder.

“I know, little one, I couldn’t take it either.”

***

After Gabrielle’s tears had finally ran out, the couple took Cyrene’s advice and went down to the creek running behind the inn to their favorite tree. Gabrielle settling into Xena’s arms with a sigh of contentment.

“One thing guaranteed to always make me feel safe, your arms,” she muttered, laying her head on Xena’s chest.

The warrior smiled and hugged the bard close.

“What set them off?” Xena questioned after a few minutes of watching the creek stream by.

“That damned brand on my shoulder! And the scars from the lashings!” Gabrielle snapped, eyes blazing once again.

“Maybe we need to find something that covers your shoulders,” Xena suggested.

Gabrielle merely growled and snuggled back into her warrior’s arms.

After a moment she raised her head and looked into Xena’s blue eyes. “Wait a minute, aren’t you supposed to be working?”

“I saw the soldiers come into town and Dex and I grabbed weapons. When they didn’t make any threatening moves I figured they weren’t after us but I was keeping an eye on them while I worked. I saw them starting to hassle you and decided to see what was up.”

“Thanks, I wasn’t reacting quickly enough,” Gabrielle whispered with a frown.

“Hey, it’s normal after all you’ve been through. The first time I faced Cortese after he killed Lycius and raped me, I froze. Then I snapped.”

“I could get you killed if I freeze like that,” Gabrielle complained.

“Or yourself,” Xena agreed. “Gabrielle, you’ve faced it and gotten through it. It’ll get easier.” The warrior hugged Gabrielle close. “By the way,” she began slowly, causing Gabrielle to look up at her warrior. “what’s this about a Senator’s wife?” Xena grinned.

“Oh Gods, Brutus told Caesar I was leaving his celebration party to be with one of the Senator’s wiveswhen we were really getting out of Rome, but I had no idea that would spark a rumor like that!” Gabrielle growled.

“A Senator’s wife, eh?” Xena grinned.

“Seems that as the top gladiator in Rome I could have had my pick of anyone, male or female,” Gabrielle grinned back.

“I still can’t believe how good you are sometimes,” Xena admitted.

The bard simply shrugged and then grinned an evil grin, “In bed or in the Arena?” she questioned.

The bard laughed as Xena blushed and then blushed herself as Xena joined her laughter. “Both, woman!” Xena stated. “I love you, little one,” Xena whispered.

“I love you too, warrior mine,” Gabrielle responded back by leaning up and meeting Xena’s lips. She was finally smiling when she snuggled back into Xena’s arms.

***

Xena had just finished helping her mom shut down the common room of the inn for the night when she felt a familiar raising of her hackles at the back of her neck. She went behind the bar and picked up her sword and started for the door.

“Xena?” Cyrene called out, suddenly concerned about the weapon in her daughter’s hands and the narrowing of Xena’s eyes.

“It’s okay, Mom, just going to take a look around outside before closing up,” Xena answered, going out the door.

Xena moved into the common area near the fountain, spinning her sword over her hand a couple of times, eyes taking in everything about the village.

“All right, Ares, I know you’re there. Show yourself,” she demanded and wasn’t surprised when he appeared in front of her, out of reach of her sword.

“I hate how you can do that!” he complained.

“What do you want?” she demanded, sword at the ready.

“Xena, do we have to go down the laundry list every time I visit?”

“Sure, passes the time,” she countered. “You want me back as Warlord and in your bed. You want Sasha as your daughter and heir and you want Gabrielle dead. Does that cover it?”

“I don’t care if Gabrielle lives or dies, although I do admit that I owe her for that little stunt in my temple,” he growled.

“Oh, you mean when she stabbed you twice and almost killed you?” Xena grinned and was pleased when he grumbled. “You already know that none of the above is going to happen, so what do you want?”

“Xena, let’s put our differences aside. We have a child together, I am her father. I’d like to get to know her,” he said easily.

“Never! Just because you happen to be the seed donor doesn’t mean a thing to me!” Xena snapped. “Besides, you all ready have more children with mortal women than you can count! Even the bards can’t keep up with you and Apollo!”

“Xena, I’m hurt. Besides, none of those women are you. Just think, you never really knew your father. Think of Sasha growing up not knowing her father. Is that fair?”

“Having you for a father isn’t fair,” Xena grumbled.

“Don’t push me, Xena,” Ares warned. “I’m trying to be civil about this.”

“Don’t bother.”

“She’ll know me eventually, Xena,” he stated.

“Hopefully before then she’ll be old enough to know what a lying, deceitful, power hungry bastard you are.”

Ares took a step forward as his eyes flashed with anger and stopped as Xena’s sword was pointed at his chest.

“Remember, I can hurt you now,” Xena grinned.

“Don’t turn your back to me, Xena,” Ares warned. “I don’t have a lot of patience.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just go away, Ares.”

With a flash he was gone and Xena sighed with relief.

“Will he ever leave us alone,” she grumbled to herself as she walked back towards the inn to gather Solan up and head home to her bard and daughter.

***

Xena was surprised to find Gabrielle awake and sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of tea in her hands. Solan gave his “Gabby Mom” a hug and headed for bed and Xena sat down at the table with her mate. Gabrielle pushed the mug towards Xena who took a sip of the warm liquid. The bard’s eyes were troubled.

“What’s up, little one?” Xena asked softly.

“I went to the woods today after helping Torris. I was hoping to work off some of whatever is pent up inside,” Gabrielle started and Xena nodded, understanding. The warrior had often found herself running just to work off pent up energy, anger or confusion.

“Did it help?” she asked simply.

“Yes, until those damned Romans,” Gabrielle frowned.

“Now you’ve got all kinds of pent up energy. You know that’s common after an encounter, Gabrielle. Especially since you didn’t get to bash heads. That flight or fight energy is suddenly pumping through your veins and there’s nowhere for it to go since things calmed down.”

“I know that, we deal with that all the time on the road. This is the other thing,” Gabrielle said softly, dropping her eyes.

Xena reached across the table and lifted Gabrielle’s chin until the bard’s eyes met hers.

“Damnit, Gabrielle, there is nothing to be ashamed of! It’s part of you and we’ll deal with it. Whatever it takes,” Xena said simply.

A tear escaped out of her bard’s eye and the warrior softly wiped it away and smiled at her mate.

“You accepted my past, including how I hurt others,” she reminded the bard.

“How can I accept it about myself?!” Gabrielle demanded. “We fought against the bacchae! What if Alti was right and Bacchus now has a hold on me again?”

“No! You are not a bacchae and you have control over your will. This isn’t a whole lot different than my dark side that comes out occasionally. Ares doesn’t have me and Bacchus doesn’t have you!”

Gabrielle merely nodded, looking very tired.

“Come on, my love, let’s go to bed. Those damned Romans should be gone tomorrow.” Xena suggested.

The warrior wasn’t surprised when the bard thrashed most of the night, held in nightmares. Xena held her mate and soothed her as best as she could.

As much as she tried to reassure Gabrielle, Xena was worried. This was really tearing at her bard and beginning to affect her mate.

The warrior thought that a trip just might be good for them. Give them some time on the road again and some bonding time with Sasha.

***

“Xena, can I talk to you?”

“Sure, Mom, what’s up?” Xena was surprised when her Mom had come up to her at the blacksmith shop just before quitting time. Dex grinned and waved Xena off. The warrior grinned her thanks and pulled the leather apron off and grabbed her sword and sheathed it, walking with her Mom. The warrior was even more surprised when her mom turned their direction away from the inn, towards the stream behind the inn.

Xena was quiet, letting her Mom gather her thoughts and pick the moment to begin whatever was on her mind.

Cyrene sat down on a rock next to the stream and Xena sat down on the grass beside the rocks, both watching the water fall as the sun began to set.

“You know I’m the Priestess of Hecate for this area,” Cyrene began.

“Yes,” Xena nodded.

“I have some shaman training and insight. I usually don’t say anything to anyone about it other than those in my worship group. Prophets, oracles, and seers aren’t exactly welcome in most villages.”

Xena nodded, she had seen followers of Hecate stoned or hanged as workers of evil, something Xena knew wasn’t true of the dark Goddess but it didn’t change a lot of people’s opinions. Most weren’t brave enough to face the darkness and feared it and they feared those who dealt with it.

“Xena, has Gabrielle talked to you?” Cyrene looked troubled.

Xena sighed. The warrior suddenly felt very tired and nodded.

“Are you talking about that darkness she’s feeling?” Xena asked, suddenly getting very worried for her bard.

“Yes, I was hoping that she had noticed it and talked to you about it. I can feel it falling and rising in her and it’s getting worse. It’s a good sign that she’s talking to you about it. What has she said?”

“You mean instead of keeping it inside and brooding about it, like I do?” Xena smiled a rueful smile. “She feels a craving for blood,” Xena was surprised at how simple that sounded when it didn’t feel simple at all. How could such simple words describe something that was beginning to eat away at her mate?

“How does she describe it?” Cyrene asked softly, watching the play of emotions on her daughter’s face, trying to gauge how it was affecting both Xena and Gabrielle.

“Like a buildup of water behind a dam, to use her words. She’s afraid of the craving overwhelming her during, uh, intimate moments and hurting me.” Xena was surprised to find herself blushing and then scolded herself. Talking about sex with your mom was guaranteed to make even a brothel worker blush, she kidded herself.

“That’s probably a good description. Has she come close to biting you?”

Xena found her blush turning even more red, she could feel it.

“Uh, yes,” she whispered, watching the water flow, not meeting her mother’s eyes. She could sense they had gotten wider.
“Xena, how bad?”

“Bad? It’s not like she grows fangs and drains me dry!” Xena protested. “She’s always been attached to my neck and she’s drawn blood a couple of times.” the warrior frowned.

“Was it intentional?” Cyrene asked.

“No, she wasn’t even aware it had happened. I found some blood on my neck and sometimes on her lips.” Xena muttered.

“What is she doing about the cravings on a conscious level?”

“Rare meat and reconnecting with the forest, trying to work off the energy.”

“That explains the bit yesterday and her forest clothes.” Cyrene nodded, putting pieces together. “It also explains the heightened energy I’m getting from her with the darkness.”

“Mom, explain, please,” Xena asked. “we’ve dealt with my darkness and learned to handle it mostly, what do we need to do for Gabrielle?”

“I’m not sure. I think it’s going to get worse when Fall begins to come around because of the harvest time. The bacchae get worse during that time because of all the harvest, especially the grape harvest. Bacchus is in full power.”

“Bacchus is dead,” Xena said flatly.

“No, daughter,” Cyrene said softly.

“What? I drove the dryad bone into his heart myself, as a bacchae.” Xena protested and wasn’t surprised when Cyrene went very pale.

It wasn’t something that Xena and Gabrielle talked about a lot, especially to others. Xena sighed.

“Bacchus had injured Orpheus so he couldn’t play and keep the bacchae calm. Orpheus came to me for help and Gabrielle was bitten and turned into a fledgling bacchae. You know this.” Xena began explaining, leaving out the part that the only thing left of Orpheus was his living head. The warrior didn’t think her mom needed to hear that image.

“Yes, from your shaman journey together but I don’t know the story,” Cyrene encouraged.

“Joxer, Orpheus and I went into Bacchus’ lair to stop him from turning the fledgling bacchae he had been gathering into becoming full bacchae when they drank his blood, Gabrielle included. I fought Bacchus and thought I had kept Gabrielle from tasting his blood. I beat him and stabbed him with a dryad bone only for him to pop up again and tell us that only a bacchae could kill him.”

“I can see how that could be a problem, bacchae are mentally under his control so they wouldn’t turn against him but only one of them can kill him. What happened?”

“I let Gabrielle bite me and turn me,” Xena whispered.

“Oh my gods!” Cyrene whispered, clutching at her skirt.

“I changed and there was just enough of me and Gabrielle left for us to attack Bacchus and ram a dryad bone into his chest. He exploded and everyone changed back. He died.” Xena finished.

“He didn’t stay dead, Xena.”

“What?” Xena felt her breath quicken.

“He’s the God of wine, celebration, harvest, and all that stuff. He regained enough power to come back into the world. He hasn’t gathered bacchae around him yet but he probably will someday. That’s why I’m worried about the Fall season, his power is at it’s height and Gabrielle might be more sensitive to the darkness during that time.”

“Then we’ll deal with it,” the warrior said simply.

“I’ll try and find some answers on my end,” Cyrene reached down and squeezed her daughter’s shoulder reassuringly.
“Thanks, Mom.”

“I’m not sure what to tell you, Xena. Rare meat, even drinking animal blood might not be enough at times.” Cyrene frowned.
Xena felt a shudder. “You mean she might need human blood?”

“I don’t know. You know the bacchae need blood to survive but it’s not just the blood. If it were they would feed on animals.” Cyrene noted.

“It’s the sexual energy that goes with the blood, the arousal and fear of a bacchae feeding.” Xena whispered.

“What do you remember about it?”

Xena began blushing again, suddenly embarrassed to be talking to her mom about it. This was something she shared with Gabrielle, something they shared as fantasy during sex.

“I, uh…,” she stammered.

“I understand, Xena, but I need to know what to expect and what Gabrielle is going through. I’m not sure how serious this could be. I don’t want any of us to lose Gabrielle to Bacchus on any level.” Cyrene stated, letting Xena see the concern in her eyes and face as her daughter looked up at her.

Xena closed her eyes and sighed.

“I realized I would either have to kill Gabrielle to save her or risk being able to kill Bacchus as a bacchae myself. Bacchus sent Gabrielle after me, knowing I couldn’t kill her. I lowered the dryad bone and…. and told her to do it.” Xena hesitated, “I was so afraid, Mom. If we lost it meant Gabrielle’s soul would be lost.” Xena whispered.

“And yours,” Cyrene noted, taking in the tears falling from Xena’s closed eyes.

Xena opened her eyes and grinned a lopsided grin. “That never really meant a lot to me, you know.” Then her face grew serious again. “I felt her at my neck. I was so scared and I felt her body behind me, her hands pulling my head to one side,” Xena closed her eyes again, feeling her face blushing. “Fear and arousal are a lot alike and sometimes go together. They’re hard to separate and define. Her fangs pierced my neck.”

Cyrene watched Xena struggle to put into words the incident, taking in Xena’s shaking hands.

“I, it was incredible. Part of the bacchae magic, I know. When it’s happening, all you want is for it to continue. It’s such a sexual rush that not much compares. Well, except Gabrielle.” Xena muttered the last part and blushed even more, causing Cyrene to grin at her daughter’s discomfort.

“Yes, that’s part of the dark magic they have. Their victims will come back for more and more, even to the point of death if the bacchae don’t turn them.” Cyrene agreed.

“I couldn’t believe it, how it felt, especially that it was Gabrielle. I already knew I was so head over heels in love with her that it hurt, having her at my neck as a bacchae was beyond belief.” Xena stated.

“Yet you fought against the bacchae magic enough to attack Bacchus,” Cyrene reminded her.

“Yes, I thought of losing Gabrielle to that darkness and turned and dived at Bacchus and Gabrielle found the strength to join me.”

“Gabrielle couldn’t fight Bacchus alone, though?”

“No, she hesitated when he ordered her to drink his blood but she almost followed through twice. I stopped her with my chakram the first time and then Joxer began playing the lyre and Orpheus began singing the second time, causing her to drop the chalice. She was his though.”

“That’s when she tasted some of the blood, even though none of you realized it at the time,” Cyrene said thoughtfully.
“Yes.”

“When Bacchus calls the Bacchanalia, Gabrielle might not be able to resist and he might try and claim her as bacchae again,” Cyrene warned.

“Damn, when will the gods leave us alone!?” Xena growled.

Cyrene smiled. “I have a feeling that’s not going to happen in your lifetime, Xena.”

“Yeah, well, I’m tired of it. Maybe the trip up north will do us some good and get her away from Bacchus’ influence.”

“I think that might be a good idea, even though I’m going to miss all of you terribly.”

“We’ll be back, this is home now, Mom.” Xena grinned.

Cyrene brushed a tear away as Xena leaned on her mom’s leg. “I’m glad you’re home.”

“Me too. Mom, we’ve got to find a way to help Gabrielle face this. She’s everything to me.”

Cyrene knew that this was a difficult admission for her warrior daughter to make and stroked her daughter’s hair gently.
“I know, Xena. We’ll figure it out.”

Cyrene watched the water flow by in the river, pondering how to help her daughter and daughter-in-law.

The End
Amazons Of The North
Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle travel North to the Siberian Amazons to make amends for Xena’s past history concerning Alti and discover that things aren’t settled.

Xena pulled Argo to a halt and let Gabrielle move her horse closer to her.

“Why don’t you take Sasha for a bit?”

“You’re afraid of being recognized and attacked before we can say anything?” Gabrielle frowned as she began unhitching the small child from her harness at her mom’s back and moved the child in front of her, taking the opportunity to hug Sasha and get a giggle from her adopted daughter.

“Something like that,” Xena said, eyes darting around.

“I don’t know why we haven’t been challenged yet. It’s been two marks since we passed the boundary markers. I know they’re out there.” Gabrielle complained, looking around the forest they were traveling deeper into.

“I know. You okay, Solan?” Xena glanced back at her teenage son on a horse just behind Gabrielle. Her heart always gave a painful jerk at the sight of the band of cloth covering his eyes.

“You bet, Mom.” he answered easily but Xena could tell from his body that he was tense.

The family had only gone a few hundred yards when arrows landed in the ground in front of their horses. The women stopped their mounts and raised their hands in a symbol of peace.

“Solan, Amazons!” Xena said loudly and the boy followed the example of his mothers.

Several figures appeared from behind trees and out of them, surrounding the family with notched arrows and drawn swords.

The leader demanded something in a language Gabrielle didn’t recognize but Xena did and answered and the scout leader switched to Germanic, enabling Gabrielle to follow.

“Who are you? You know the Amazon sign of peace.” the obvious leader of the Amazon scouts and guards demanded from behind her mask of leather and fur.

“I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Amazons and this is my Consort and family.” Gabrielle answered easily. “We wish to visit your village.”

“The Southern Amazons were killed,” the leader stated flatly.

“Not all of them, I am alive and so are two others of my tribe. They survived the attack by the Romans, Brutus and Antony.” Gabrielle responded, slowly lowering one hand and reaching into the pack nearest her and pulled out her Queen mask, showing it to the band.

“We heard the Southern Amazons joined with the Wine Country Amazons and then went north and were still killed.”

“And you are?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Svetlana, Scout Chief.”

“I have identified myself as Amazon, are we welcome or not?”

Xena heard the frustration in Gabrielle’s voice and resisted grinning. As an Amazon, especially as royalty, the Amazons should have acknowledged the family and extended a welcome by this point. Xena knew that her bard wasn’t comfortable with the royal treatment her rank meant but this behavior was bordering on rudeness.

“If you are Amazons,” Svetlana said sullenly.

“If?!” Gabrielle shouted and handed Sasha quickly to Xena as she leaped off her horse. “If?”

The bard stomped right into the face of the Scout leader and Xena bit her lip to keep from grinning as the smaller woman got right into Svetlana’s face and the tall Amazon backed up two paces.

“I have identified myself as an Amazon and one of royal rank, either take us to your village and your Queen now or we turn and leave!” Gabrielle demanded, her green eyes flashing.

Svetlana slowly removed her mask, showing downcast eyes.

“I apologize, my Queen,” the Amazon stammered. “We never get visitors from the southern tribes.”

“Enough! Lead us!” Gabrielle demanded and leaped back onto her horse, grabbing up Solan’s reins.

Xena resisted grinning as the Amazons quickly began leading them down the trail. A quick glance towards her mate’s direction confirmed that Gabrielle was still fuming. Xena decided it might be better to keep quiet for awhile. This was Gabrielle’s territory, after all.

A short time later Solan waited outside the Queen’s Hut while Gabrielle and Xena went inside to meet with the leader of the Northern Amazons. Unlike the Scout leader Svetlana, the Queen was an older woman of probably 45 winters with gray hair but dancing blue eyes that showed lots of life left even though her legs were twisted and crippled.

“I am Arja, Queen of the Amazons of the North.” the Queen said in Germanic.

“I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Amazons and this is my Consort.”

“You are welcome, Queen Gabrielle, to my tribe and my home.”

“Just Gabrielle, please.” Gabrielle smiled, a familiar request whenever she was with the Amazons.

“I understand, please just call me Arja,” the older woman smiled. “Why have you come to us?”

“Several reasons, Arja,” Gabrielle hesitated as another young woman entered the hut. Both Xena and Gabrielle figured the intense looking woman as the shaman by the way she was dressed in leather, bones, feathers and fur and her headpiece was of leather, beads and stag horns.

“This is Yakut, our shaman,” Arja introduced.

“I am Gabrielle of the Southern Amazons and this is my Consort,” Gabrielle stated. She glanced over at Xena, noting the warrior’s clenched jaw, and reached out to hold her mate’s hand. “Many Summers ago my mate wronged your tribe. Since that time she has become a champion of the Amazons throughout the Southern countries but we haven’t made amends to your tribe. That’s one of the reasons we’ve come.”

“And the other reasons?” Arja asked.

“There are two survivors of my tribe, they are with a friendly Northern family. I would ask permission for them to join your tribe. They are an older woman who is a trained baker and a small child. I would also ask an Amazon recognition and bonding ceremony for the child of my mate as my legal heir as an Amazon.” Gabrielle said simply.

“You are not an Amazon, warrior?” Arja asked Xena.

“No, I’ve been asked to join several tribes over the years but that would always mean taking a Goddess as a patron and I’m not much for serving the gods.” Xena responded.

Gabrielle resisted grinning at that understatement. Xena was notoriously known for her dislike of dealing with the gods.

“And how would you make amends, Consort?” Yakut asked.

“My crime against your tribe was great, maybe beyond forgiveness. I’ll leave that to your Elder Council and my mate,” Xena said softly.

“Your crimes are great, Xena, but you are protected by your status as Consort to a Queen. You would turn yourself over to our judgment?” Arja asked.

Xena’s eyes dropped. “You know me.”

“Yes, I was waiting to see your business with us.” Arja said simply. “Your answer, Consort?”

“I submit,” Xena answered.

“Xena,” Gabrielle growled and Xena squeezed her hand.

“We knew there would be a price,” Xena said softly.

Gabrielle turned to the Queen. “And what would that price be?” she demanded.

“That will be determined. The child you wish named as your heir is the daughter of Xena?” Arja asked.

“Yes, she is our daughter,” Gabrielle stated.

“I know of you and your reputation as a Queen, Gabrielle. I will petition the Elder Council myself for this acknowledgment. It will also go far in your behalf, Xena.” Arja stretched one of her legs out in front of her. “You have become a champion of our sister Amazons, would you protect us as well?”

“Yes,” the warrior answered easily.

“Think carefully,” Yakut advised. “We knew it was you, Xena. Even if Arja didn’t recognize you, I saw of you in a vision and your journey here.”

“You recognized me,” Xena repeated softly.

“Yes, I was a seasoned warrior at the time. My legs were shattered when I fell to one of your traps in the trees that day you slaughtered most of the fighters and leaders of this tribe. I lived.” Arja answered.

Gabrielle tightened her grip on Xena’s hand as the warrior’s head dropped.

“I know that telling you that I’m sorry for that isn’t enough, Arja, but I am,” Xena looked up, fighting back tears.

“I believe you and I accept that. I am no longer the same person I was on that day, Xena, and I believe that you aren’t either. Others may not be as quick to forgive you though, understand that.” Arja warned.

“You shouldn’t forgive me,” Xena said grimly, looking at the shattered legs of the Queen.

“Forgiving you is easy, Xena. Forgiving yourself will be the hardest for you, I think, if I read your character right.” Arja smiled.

“You do, she has changed.” Gabrielle stated firmly.

“You mentioned a vision, Yakut?” Xena prompted, anxious to turn the conversation away from her and the changes.

“Yes, Xena, there were two visions. The first vision was of you killing the Amazon leaders of this tribe so long ago and of their spirits. The second vision is of you fighting our greatest enemy and freeing them.”

Xena and Gabrielle frowned. “What do you mean, freeing them?” Gabrielle asked.

“All the Amazons who died that day are trapped in the Land of the Dead,” Yakut answered. “They are unable to cross over into Eternity. Our most sacred word isn’t enough to free them.”

“Cyane?” Xena whispered.

“Yes, and those who were injured that day, when they die their spirits are also trapped.” Yakut answered, looking at Arja.

“When you die, your spirit will be trapped as well?” Gabrielle asked, turning to Arja.

“Yes, so it seems.” the Queen answered easily.

“Who can do this?” Gabrielle frowned.

“Alti,” Xena whispered and Yakut nodded.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered. “Didn’t we have enough of her already?” the bard complained.

“You’ve dealt with her before?” Yakut asked sharply.

“When I went on a shaman journey Gabrielle somehow connected with me and we had to fight Alti in the spirit realm,” Xena explained.

“Think carefully of this, Consort, would you fight to free our sisters?”

“I don’t have to think about it, Arja. I caused this mess, I’ll fix it.” Xena answered easily.

“Xena, we’ll fix it,” Gabrielle corrected.

“Not this time, little one.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle growled.

“First things first,” Arja suggested. “Yakut and I will approach the Elder Council with your presence here, Xena, and your agreement to help with Alti. Then we’ll decide which comes first, battling Alti or welcoming your daughter as a member of the tribe and heir to Gabrielle.”

“Just understand, Xena, some of us will accept your help but we will remember that it was you who put them there in the first place,” Yakut growled and left the hut.

“Her mother’s spirit is trapped in the Land of the Dead and is being used by Alti,” Arja explained.

Xena nodded, understanding. After a moment she rose and helped Gabrielle to her feet.

“The guards will show you and your family to the guest hut. Your son will have an escort, even though he is blind, he is a male on Amazon land.”

“Of course, Arja. He was raised by Centaurs, he understands Amazon custom.”

********

The family was served dinner just after dusk by non-talking Amazon tribe members. Sasha chatted away about the wonderful fur and leather of the Northern Amazon clothing and Solan kept her occupied as Xena was quiet and withdrawn. Gabrielle, knowing her warrior, merely curled up in her lover’s arms while they waited.

It was a candlemark after dark when Arja and Yakut entered the hut with three other Amazons, all armed with drawn swords.
Gabrielle felt her warrior growl behind her and squeezed Xena’s hand reassuringly.

“Sasha, look!” Gabrielle said cheerfully, “they have swords like your Mom’s. Solan, want to put Sasha to bed soon?” the teenager nodded, sensing the tension in the room and the reason for it. “Sasha, we’re going to go visit with these Amazons for a little bit, okay?”

The youngster nodded and ran into Solan’s welcoming arms. The small child accepted Gabby Mum’s cheerful words but she had grown quiet and thoughtful, much like her mom.

Gabrielle stood up and lent a hand to her warrior.

“Gabrielle, only Xena is requested at the Council,” Arja stated.

“You think I’ll stay behind?” Gabrielle asked with a rueful smile and Arja nodded in understanding and stepped aside for the two visitors to join them outside.

Once outside the hut Xena turned and handed over her sword and chakram. Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in question to the other Amazon Queen.

“No, we don’t need your weapons, Gabrielle.” Arja answered the unspoken question.

“I’ve died for my Amazons before but that doesn’t compare to what I would do for Xena,” Gabrielle answered, handing over her sais. Arja nodded and accepted them.

Inside the meeting hut, the two women sat down on the furs indicated, facing a semi circle of grim faced Amazons.

While Arja and Yakut settled into their positions in the circle, Gabrielle took the chance to look around. The huts were made a little differently than in the South, she reflected. Of large chunks of earth, hides and wood, unlike the wood of the south. Circle in design with a smoke hole in the center of the roof, a fire blazing in the center of the room. Instead of chairs and tables, these Amazons preferred sitting on furs mostly, although some of the older women sat on small stools.

The tension in the room was thick and Xena shifted in her position. Gabrielle once again reached out and held her warrior’s hand.

Xena looked over at her mate and gave the bard a small smile. Under different circumstances, the warrior would have trouble concentrating on anything other than her mate. Gabrielle had worn her Amazon royalty clothing, which always caught Xena’s attention. The bard carried her mask, waiting to see if formality would be needed before donning it.

Arja sat down in the center of the semi circle and faced the two women.

“We of the Northern Amazons are honored to welcome Queen Gabrielle of the Southern Amazons. We are especially pleased to learn that your tribe is not dead and the spirit of the Amazons live on in you and that you wish to pass this along to your adopted child. We would be honored to assist in this and accept your mate’s daughter as your heir and as an Amazon.” Arja said.

“Thank you, Queen Arja, I am grateful for this welcome and your acceptance of my child.” Gabrielle said carefully, not bringing Xena into it yet.

“Consort,” Arja turned her attention to Xena. “You would normally be as welcome to our village and our tribe as Queen Gabrielle but you have a past history with this tribe that must be addressed.”

Several of the women shifted on their furs.

“Many Summer seasons ago you committed the ultimate crime against our tribe by killing an Amazon.”

Xena’s eyes dropped.

“This was made worse by the fact that you killed quite a number of our leaders and best fighters. Normally, nothing could make up for this crime other than your death at our hands. To make the situation worse, we discovered that our beloved tribe members are held in limbo in Tuoni, the Land of the Dead and not permitted to reach Manala, the Isle of the Dead, Eternity. This is because of your slaughter of them for the evil shaman Alti and her power over their souls. Does this state the facts fairly?”

Xena looked up, the struggle evident on her face.

“Yes, Queen Arja, the facts are stated fairly,” she said firmly.

“Since that time I have stated to the Council that you have changed drastically and this should be considered. Queen Gabrielle insisted on being here, so I would ask her to speak on these facts.”

Gabrielle squeezed her mate’s hand again and began telling the Council the shortened version of Xena’s abandonment of the dark side of herself and her struggle towards the Light. Xena reflected that her mate was a truly gifted bard, her words having the power to enthrall most any audience, even the rowdiest of drunken soldiers.

Xena listened as the bard weaved her tale of a reformed evil Warlord into a warrior seeking redemption. From the first time that a young girl from Potedaia saw the Warrior Princess, when Xena saved Gabrielle and the other females of her village from slavers; from their exploits in rescuing Prometheus, and thus saving mankind; rescuing Death herself; stopping the war between the Centaurs and Southern Amazons, preventing many deaths and forming a new alliance between the two tribes; saving Helen from the fall of Troy; getting the Helm of Invisibility back for Hades; returning the sacred casket to the Children of Abraham.

Xena did note that her bard skipped over the telling of their first meeting with Callisto and agreed with her mate. Bringing up one of Xena’s victims who had turned killer probably wouldn’t help her case with the Northern Amazons, she thought.

The bard continued with how Xena had used her battle learned medical skills to help save soldiers and victims from both sides of a war and ended up stopping the senseless fighting; then fighting and defeating Bacchus, saving Gabrielle and risking her own soul in the process. The bard speaking eloquently about saving the Princess Diana from assassins and helping end slavery in that kingdom; helping Ares get his sword and his godly powers back and of Xena’s death and her fight to return to Gabrielle, even before they were lovers. The bard especially focused on defeating the Goddess Velasco and saving the Southern Amazons again and of Xena risking permanent blindness in order to rescue Gabrielle. The tale of Xena facing her dark self when they faced the Horde.

Gabrielle gave a summary of all the bandits, slavers, and assassins they had stopped during their travels.

Then Xena heard the bard’s voice catch and Gabrielle described how they had hid their feelings from each other, each afraid of rejection and pain. Especially of Xena thinking she would never be good enough for Gabrielle because of her past, no matter what she did to make up for it.

The Queen of the Southern Amazons went on to tell of their Amazon marriage and how Xena nearly went insane with berserker fury when Gabrielle was poisoned by the Romans and how the warrior resisted giving into the darkness even when Gabrielle was in agony from the poison.

Gabrielle hesitated again and looked at her mate for a moment and Xena nodded, sensing the question.

“When Xena was in the darkness, she belonged to Ares, our God of War and Chaos. When she left those ways he became enraged and has worked endlessly to get her back as Warlord. Like Loki of the North, Ares doesn’t play fair. He has framed Xena for murder, hoping she would turn to him to get her out of the mess; he has disguised himself as her father to reawaken her warrior rage; he attempted to kidnap me the night of our wedding and kill Xena when she stood in his way; he has also tried to turn me to his cause. The worst was when he took the form of a trusted friend and tricked Xena into sacrificing at one of his old altars and gave her drugged wine. The wine was enchanted and my mate lost her memory of the last two winters and all memory of me.”

Xena felt Gabrielle’s hand tighten in hers. She knew this was difficult to talk about, especially with strangers.

“He convinced Xena that I was sent by the gods to seduce her and turn her away from her destiny as ruler of the world at his side. He sent her back to me to assassinate me.” Gabrielle smiled at her mate for a moment before continuing. “She wasn’t able to do it. Even with her memories gone she wasn’t able to kill me. Given the chance, I was able to re-establish our blood bond and her memories returned. Nine months later she gave birth to Sasha and I accepted the child as ours.”

“May I speak?” Xena asked as Gabrielle hesitated. Xena could feel Gabrielle tense up.

“Yes,” Arja answered.

“I lost Gabrielle while I was pregnant with Sasha. She was kidnapped by slavers and a good friend was crippled by them. The only thing that kept me alive was our blood connection, I knew Gabrielle was alive and I would find her. That, and the birth of Sasha. I was almost insane with grief and worry but I still refused to give into the darkness. I credit Gabrielle with it always.”

“I got back to Xena and accepted Sasha as my own. Then, even with all the sacrifices we made and the well made plans, our Amazons were killed. Even after we got them out of Italia.” Gabrielle’s head dropped as she fought back against the tears, remembering her friends and family: Ephiny, Solari, Eponi, Nikkita, all the others. “Xena was beside me during all of that, risking certain death to try and free our Amazons being held captive by Caesar. We went on a suicide mission to free them and she wouldn’t turn away from it, even though it meant leaving Sasha without parents.”

Gabrielle raised her head to look at the Elder Council. She slowly removed her leather bracers and held up her scarred wrists for them to see.

“I was crucified by the Romans to save my Amazons. The only way I had the strength to face that was because Xena was beside me.”

Gabrielle replaced her bracers and held Xena’s hand again.

“I ask the Council to consider all of this. I know Xena’s past crimes are serious but I believe that she is making up for them every day that she resists Ares and the darkness that enveloped her for so many years. She has saved Gods, Amazons, Kings, Princesses, Kingdoms and common people since that time. She is also my Champion and my Consort and the mother of my adopted children. She’s my life.”

Gabrielle grew silent and wiped away a tear quickly.

“Thank you, Queen Gabrielle. I state that the Council will fairly consider all that you have said. Yakut has asked to speak on this as well.” Arja said simply.

“You know me, my sisters. My mother was one that fell on a spiked tree branch and died painfully because of Xena. You also know I am your shaman and have found that the souls of our dead are not traveling onto their Eternity. They are being held in captivity in the Land of the Dead by Alti, the evil shaman that turned Xena away from being a friend to this tribe to its murderer. I publicly forgive Xena for her crime against my mother and our sisters. I also state that I believe Xena may be the only one who can help me free the souls of our sisters from Alti’s control. I sense that Xena has shaman abilities, that’s probably what drew Alti to her, besides her darkness.”

“The Council knows that I became crippled because of Xena that day. I was one of the survivors. I also publicly forgive her this crime against me. I have discussed the situation with Alti and the warrior has agreed to fight against Alti to save the souls of our sisters, have you not, warrior?” Arja asked.
“Yes, no matter what you decide my punishment to be, I would ask that you give me time to face Alti and be given the chance to defeat her.” Xena said firmly.

“You would face Alti at the risk of your life and possibly your soul to help us and then still face whatever punishment we decree?” one of the Council asked.

“Yes, I gave Alti the power to capture the souls of your sisters. This is my doing and I want a chance to free them and stop Alti. After these years she’s gained a lot of power and needs to be stopped,” Xena answered.

“And you, Queen Gabrielle? Would you face this danger for strangers?” another asked.

“Xena and I face danger for strangers all the time. This is even more important, as Amazons, you and those trapped are my sisters. I died once for my tribe and I’m willing to face that for this tribe and I’ll face anything with my mate.” Gabrielle answered strongly.

“The Council will discuss this and make a decision. Since you came willingly to face us, I suggest that the warrior be allowed to return to the guest hut with Queen Gabrielle to await our decision in the morning. I don’t feel the need for chains or guards.” one of the Elders spoke and the others nodded.

“Thank you for addressing the Council, Queen Gabrielle. Xena, thank you for facing this with the same bravery that Cyane once saw in you. I’m glad you’re living up to the potential she saw in you.” Arja said and Xena nodded, not trusting her voice.

***********

Entering the guest hut once more the warrior hurried over to her children.

“Solan, we’re both here,” she said softly, taking Sasha into her arms and giving the youngster a hug.

“Without your weapons,” the teenager commented.

“How can you tell?” Xena asked with a smile.

“Your chakram isn’t rattling against your leather tunic,” he answered.

“You’re the only one who can hear that,” she grinned and hugged him with a free arm.

“What happened?” he asked.

“They’ll tell us in the morning,” Gabrielle answered. “We’ll go up against Alti and that’ll probably square things.”

“How will you fight Alti?” Solan asked.

“I’m not sure, we need to find out how strong she is and what her plans are. She’ll know we’re here and I expect some kind of move from her soon.” Xena said simply, setting Sasha back down on the sleeping furs as the little girl yawned, drifting back into sleep.

“We know that she can hurt us on the spiritual plane,” Gabrielle commented, beginning to unlace her boots.

“And we have no idea what she’s capable of on the material plane now, either.”

“What about attacking her body while she’s fighting on the spiritual plane?” Solan asked.

“That’s definitely an idea but one she’ll be expecting. We’ll talk with Yakut in the morning and see what she knows of Alti’s powers.” Xena suggested, kneeling in front of her bard and beginning to help Gabrielle off with her boots.

Solan shifted on his own furs. “I’m going to sleep,” he announced. “Goodnight, Mom, night Gabby Mom.”

Gabrielle grinned and threw a rolled up rabbit fur at him. Watching him settle down, the bard smiled. His smile was a lot like his mother’s, she thought.

Xena sat next to her bard and let Gabrielle begin to unlace her boots in return.

“Thank you,” Xena said softly, surprising her mate. Gabrielle smiled and continued unlacing the boots.

“No thanks needed, my love.”

“Yes, there is. I don’t tell you enough how important you are to me. I love you so much, Gabrielle.”

“You’re my life, Xena,” Gabrielle responded, leaning up to kiss her mate. “Let’s try and sleep.”

“Not sure I can,” Xena muttered, a frown crossing her face.

Gabrielle gently caressed Xena’s cheek. “I know, my love. I’m worried too and I am so proud of you for this. You didn’t have to do this.”

“Yes, I did. If we ever want any future with any other Amazon tribe, it needed to be done.”

“Come to bed and let me hold you for once,” the bard offered.

The warrior didn’t snuggle in her mate’s arms often, her warrior instinct raging against being in a vulnerable position, but when she did, Gabrielle was grateful to be shown that level of trust and Xena welcomed the comfort of her mate’s arms and soothing touch.

Both women slept restlessly that night.

**********

The two women found they had little appetite for breakfast and waited impatiently for the Council meeting. Solan raised his head and Gabrielle noticed Xena’s head turning as well.

“With you two around, no one will ever sneak up on us,” she teased the two of them.

Solan blushed and Xena shrugged.

“I have many……”

“Ack! Don’t say it!” Gabrielle begged with a grin and then lost the grin when two Amazon warriors entered the hut. Everyone noticed that they didn’t have their swords drawn this time.

“The boy is allowed outside with the child, several Amazons would like to meet them. The Council has asked to see both of you, Queen Gabrielle and Consort Xena.” one of them announced.

“Great, how would you like to look around, Sasha? Meet some new people?” Solan said enthusiastically, letting his sister take his hand and grabbing his staff in the other. Sasha led him to the door and one of the Amazons led the children out of the hut.

The two women followed the other warrior towards the meeting hut.

Gabrielle was hoping that it was a good sign that they were being treated with respect and that the guard used Xena’s title of Consort. She hoped it was a step forward.

She reached for Xena’s hand as they sat down on the furs to face the Elder Council again.

“Queen Gabrielle, our tribe would be grateful to accept your help in dealing with Alti and would be pleased to welcome you and the children into our tribe as Amazons.” Queen Arja stated.

“Thank you, we would be honored,” Gabrielle answered easily.

“Consort Xena, it has been decided among the Council that we accept your offer to help fight Alti. It has also been decided that this will be acceptable as repayment for your crimes against this tribe. Because you helped cause the situation, if you are successful in defeating Alti, your final punishment will be that you will not be asked to join as a full Amazon of our tribe at this time. Your rank of Consort to Queen Gabrielle will be honored and acknowledged but you will not become a full sister to us at this time.”

Xena dropped her head and then looked up at the Council.

“I thank the Council for this opportunity to try and make some amends to this tribe and I won’t rest until the danger from Alti is finished. I thank you for honoring my bonding with Queen Gabrielle, as well.”

“Then it is settled, you will be considered a guest of this tribe and treated as such. Yakut and I want to meet with both of you immediately to decide upon a course of action. The Council meeting is ended.”

Both sighed with relief as they left the meeting hut while the meeting broke up. Xena pulled Gabrielle into her arms for a quick hug and kiss. Gabrielle held the warrior’s head, capturing the warrior’s lips, turning the quick kiss into a passionate one that surprised Xena. Gabrielle broke the kiss and leaned her head against Xena’s shoulder.

“I love you, Xena,” she said simply.

“I love you, my Queen,” Xena smiled.

They turned at Yakut’s call and re-entered the hut and sat across from Arja and Yakut and two of the Amazon warriors, one of them Svetlana.

Xena was amused to see the Scout leader treating Gabrielle with a little more respect than the day before.

The next two candlemarks were spent discussing Alti and the situation. It included a basic crash course in shamanism and fighting on the spiritual plane for the two Queens and Amazon warriors from Xena and Yakut. In turn, Yakut caught Xena up on Alti’s rise to power in the region over the years.

“She’s got about 75 men and women under her and a number of slaves. The number rises and falls and we can’t keep track of how many she has, especially young women.” Yakut informed Xena and Gabrielle.

“Why up and down?” Gabrielle asked and noticed Xena’s jaw clenching.

“She prefers using the blood of young women and children for her shaman working,” Xena muttered. “She wanted me to murder a young Amazon girl named Otere for the shaman journey working, Borias stopped her.”

“Otere still lives, she’s on scouting patrol on the northern border.” Arja commented.

“What else?” Gabrielle asked, eyes narrowing.

“Any Amazon getting close to her territory falls ill until they can’t move and die.” Yakut continued.

“How far does her territory extend?” Xena asked, looking at a map on the back of a deerhide. Yakut pointed to a darkened area.

“It grows each winter season.” Arja commented.

“It’s said that Alti has been seen in two places at once, I believe it is her loyly.” Yakut said.

“Loyly?” Gabrielle questioned.

“The part of yourself that is separate but together. It is the part of you that goes traveling when you sleep or enter trance. The loyly of a powerful magician can become powerful itself and is called a varjohaltia.”

“Shadow Ruler,” Xena whispered.

Yakut nodded. “Yes, it can act as a spirit guide and helper. To an evil magician, it helps attack your enemies and drains their life force.”

“She’s using the haltija of the dead Amazons to power her magic here on the physical realm,” Xena commented.

“Haltija?” Gabrielle again questioned.

“Everything has a haltija, a spirit. The life force that defines us.” Yakut explained.

“How do we defeat her?” Svetlana asked.

“I don’t know, we’ve been trying to figure that out for years,” Yakut complained. “Any warrior sent against her is defeated by the berserker.”

“Berserker? She has a berserker warrior with her?”

“Why do I feel like I’m in school?” Gabrielle muttered, “I remember Axel saying something about berserkers. Fierce Viking warriors who can turn into bears or wolves and are impossible to defeat in battle, right?”

“Yes,” Arja answered.

“I’ve met all types of warriors before and Gabrielle has fought all types in the Arena as well, what makes the Berserker different?” Xena asked.

“I watched one of the fights, Erkka, our best fighter in years. She trained for over a year to face Alti and her soldiers. When she went against the Berserker, she did well.” Svetlana said. “Then something happened, she was knocked off her horse but the Berserker was more than an a spear throw away. When she stood up to face him, she had blood at her mouth. The Berserker charged her and she knocked him from his horse. When she rushed to finish him she stopped suddenly and grabbed her stomach, falling to her knees in pain. When she looked up, blood was pouring from her nose and then she went flying backwards, as if something hit her. The Berserker walked over and cut her head off with one stroke.”

“She was hit by something, Alti.” Xena muttered, her eyes narrowing. The others looked at her closely. “Gabrielle and I fought Alti in the spirit realm when I went on a shaman journey to settle something with the gods. Alti used her powers to attack us in the spirit and our bodies took the hits in the physical.”

“You mean, if she hit you in the spirit, then your body in a trance was hit?” Yakut questioned closely.

“Yes.”

“How did you defeat that?” Arja questioned.

“By focusing our minds. Alti slipped and said that it wasn’t the strongest body that won in the spirit realm but the strongest mind. By focusing, we were able to turn her power away and not let it affect us.” Gabrielle answered.

“That’s it! If we all work together, we could combine our strength in the spirit realm and defeat her there. She can’t be strong enough to take on the whole tribe!” Yakut suggested excitedly.

“There’s just one problem with that,” Xena stated. “We could take Alti that way but she’s protected on the spirit realm. We didn’t try to fight her, just keep her from hurting us.”

“Who would protect her in the spirit realm besides her varjohaltia?” Yakut questioned.

“Your Amazon sisters are held by her. She uses their haltija’s power and she uses them as soldiers in the spirit realm.” Xena said sadly.

“Our Amazons would fight us?” Svetlana asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” Xena’s head dropped and her fists clenched.

“How can we get enough warriors focused enough in trance to fight our sisters in the spirit realm, have enough warriors to fight through her soldiers and attack her physical body?” Arja thought outloud.

“We don’t have enough warriors talented enough in trance working to accomplish that,” Yakut complained.

“May I suggest that beginning with the New Moon that everyone be taught the basics of trance working beyond just celebration dance ritual?” Gabrielle smiled.

Arja nodded in agreement. “I know, something that should have been done long ago.” she muttered.

Gabrielle frowned, noticing Xena’s withdrawn look and drawn eyebrows.

“What is it, love?” she asked softly.

“Yakut, you said that Alti holds prisoner those that I killed that day and any who were there at the slaughter? What about those who have died since?” Xena asked, eyes flashing.

“They have passed on to Eternity without any problems. Some stayed behind in the Land of the Dead with their sisters or mothers.”

“What are you thinking, Xena?” Gabrielle asked.

“How to defeat an enemy on a two front line,” Xena muttered.

“You divide your forces, taking the best and putting them where they’re best used.” Svetlana prompted.

“Exactly, the problem is that Yakut and I can’t be in two places at the same time like Alti can.”

“What are you thinking, my love?” Gabrielle asked again.

“We need several fighters to take on the spirit Amazons and keep Alti busy in that realm. I’ve done that before but I need to be in the physical realm to take on the Berserker, fight through her troops and get to her body and end it. For that I need a lot of fighters,” Xena explained.

“How many of your warriors are trained in trance working?” Gabrielle asked the Amazons. Yakut frowned and looked down.

“Not enough, I would risk six of them,” she answered softly.

“I killed more than that on that day. How many have died since?” Xena questioned.

“There are at least two hands each,” Svetlana answered.

Xena quickly translated the Amazon’s difficulty with Germanic from the Amazon’s native language. “At least 20,” she frowned.

“Cyane is a legend among our tribe, she was a great warrior. None of our fighters could take her.” Arja commented.

Xena noticed Gabrielle’s pensive look and silence. “What is it, little one?” she asked in Greek.

“You sometimes forget I’m a skilled fighter now and I’ve faced Alti,” Gabrielle answered in Germanic.

Xena turned pale. “Face Alti on the spirit realm? No, please.”

“I won’t be alone, I’ll have the other Amazons with me. You take the rest of the fighters and get to her physical body and we’ll end it.” Gabrielle suggested.

“You’d still need more warriors than this tribe has trained in trance.” Arja frowned.

“Others can still cross into the spirit realm,” Yakut said softly.

“How?” Arja continued frowning.

“Those recently dead would cross over into the Land of the Dead and could join us,” the shaman whispered.

“You would ask our sisters to kill themselves?” Arja demanded and Yakut blushed. The Amazon Queen got to her feet and began pacing on her crutches, muttering in her Siberian native tongue. Everyone was quiet as they pondered the prospect and the problem, looking for other solutions.

Arja threw her crutches down with an obvious curse. “Any other way around this?” she asked the group.

“How many fighters do you have in total?” Xena asked.

“We can send to the other smaller tribes, they’ve already pledged aid against Alti. A total number of 50 warriors,” Svetlana responded.

“I think I have an idea, can you get Otere here as well?” Xena asked.

“Yes, easily, why?” Arja asked.

“A way to fulfill a prophecy and help us at the same time,” Xena’s eyes narrowed again and a smile played across her face. “I suggest a break while I work out some details in my head. And send for Otere.”

“Good idea, I’m getting a headache,” Arja agreed, climbing to her feet once again with the aid of her crutches.

“Gabrielle, go grab some lunch with the kids. I’m going to grab some cheese and bread and take a run. I need to clear my head.” Xena suggested.

“You’re not keeping anything from me, are you?” Gabrielle demanded in Greek.

“No, little one. No secrets. I just need to stretch my muscles and the mind a bit.” Xena grinned and helped her mate to her feet and kissed the bard.

“All right,” Gabrielle agreed reluctantly.

*******

Gabrielle was pleased and surprised to find Solan with several of the Amazon scouts and they seemed to be training him on something. When the bard got closer to the training area she was very surprised to find a bow in his hands. She looked down the field and saw an Amazon scout by a hay bale.

The bard stopped short of joining the small group as she watched the young teenager pull a notched arrow back. Everyone grew very quiet and still. Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she stopped breathing for a moment.

The Amazon at the hay bale yelled something three times with small pauses between the words and at the ending of the last word, dropped to the ground and lay flat. Solan released his arrow as the word died.

Gabrielle tried to remember to breath as the arrow landed dead center of the target above the Amazon. The Amazon scouts around the boy began cheering and clapping him on the shoulder. The bard smiled widely as the boy grinned and blushed.

Then the Amazons spotted Gabrielle and went to their knees.

“Okay, let’s get this out of the way,” Gabrielle smiled. “No kneeling unless it’s an official function and call me Gabrielle, not Queen Gabrielle or Your Highness. Okay?”

The Amazon scouts got to their feet slowly and then grinned. The bard hugged Solan around his bow. Sasha was sitting on a log nearby and clapping at Solan’s achievement.

“Solan, that was great!” Gabrielle exclaimed.

“Thanks! I think with the hearing I got from Mom that I could turn this into a talent,” he said excitedly.

“Looks like it. How about some lunch and then you can continue. Come on, Sasha, lunch!” Gabrielle scooped up the smiling youngster into her arms and walked with Solan and the scouts to the food hall.

“A couple of the scouts want to teach me to throw daggers, too,” Solan said as they walked.

“That’d be great. How’s the language thing?” Gabrielle grinned.

“Not easy, especially since I can’t see what they’re pointing at and trying to explain,” the teenager complained. “You guys spent time in the North and picked up the Germanic stuff, I didn’t.”

“It’ll come,” she reassured him.

“Where’s Mom?” he asked, nose picking up the scents of the food hall.

“Out for a run, thinking,” Gabrielle answered, grateful that the warrior’s weapons had been returned to her. Even out for ‘just a run’ could lead to trouble for Xena, the bard knew.

***********

Gabrielle grinned when Xena entered the bath hut. The warrior stopped just inside the doorway, taking in the sight of her very naked mate in the hot springs fed water, a smile beginning on her face as well.

“Get in here, lover,” Gabrielle ordered as she lounged back against the edge of the pool.

“Yes, my love,” Xena grinned, stripping off her deerskin leathers and boots. “You know me too well, sometimes.”

“Yup, and I never get enough of you,” Gabrielle smiled. “How was your run and swordplay?”

“Good,” Xena responded and sighed with pleasure as she lowered her body into the water. Even in summer the air was a little cool to the Greeks and the warrior had cooled down quite a bit after her run and workout and the hot water felt like paradise on her skin and muscles. Xena opened her eyes and saw her mate’s heavy lidded eyes and flushed face and went to Gabrielle to embrace the Amazon Queen, drawing Gabrielle’s naked body against hers, both moaning in pleasure with the contact.

When both women broke contact, trying to remember to breath, Gabrielle turned her warrior around and began to run soap over the warrior’s back and taking advantage of the situation to nibble at Xena’s neck as well.

“This is going to be hard, isn’t it?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes, not only are we risking our lives but our souls as well. The only time that’s come close was with Bacchus. I’m not sure which would frighten me more, to be a slave to Bacchus or Alti.” Xena muttered.

“You have an idea though.”

“Yes, but it’s dangerous for everyone,” Xena said, leaning back into her bard’s arms.

“Well, Solan has a surprise for you when we get out of here and Otere came in from scouting just before you got back.” Gabrielle informed her mate.

“Great, what’s the surprise?” Xena asked, beginning to moan as Gabrielle’s hands moved from her back, moving under her ribs and over the warrior’s breasts.

“Can’t tell you that, it wouldn’t be a surprise.” Gabrielle grinned, nuzzling Xena’s neck.

“I hate surprises!” Xena growled and then gasped as Gabrielle’s hand moved lower and she added teeth to Xena’s neck. “Oh gods, you keep that up and we aren’t getting out of here before dinner!” Xena warned.

Gabrielle laughed but moved her hand back up to hug her mate.

“I can’t help it, you’re irresistible!”

“So are you, little one.”

“We need to get out, don’t we?” Xena could feel Gabrielle’s mood change.

“Yes, Alti knows we’re here. I tested the talismans and charms at the border nearest her and she’s pushing and testing them. I could hear her laughing at me.” Xena muttered, turning around to hold her mate. “We need to start planning.”

“Damn,” Gabrielle muttered, running a hand lightly over the warrior’s shoulders and down the arms holding her, delighting in the passion building in Xena’s eyes.

“Gods, woman!” Xena complained and quickly released her mate and turned Gabrielle around in the pool. “Out! I can’t think when you touch me!”

Gabrielle giggled and crawled out of the water, reaching for the towels, her nose and eyes crinkling in amusement as she handed a towel to her mate.

*********

Once again the two Greeks found themselves sitting in front of Arja, Svetlana, two other Amazon warriors and now Otere as well.

Xena looked closely at the young woman. “Do you remember me?” she asked softly.

“Yes, warrior. Borias turned me over to the Amazons after I was orphaned.” Otere answered.

“Do you remember Alti?” Xena asked.

“Yes, she wanted you to kill me but I knew you wouldn’t.”

“Do you remember why?”

“She said I would steal your power from you one day.” Otere answered, her face puzzled.

“That day is here, young one.” Xena answered cryptically.

“What is your plan, Xena?” Yakut asked.

“Time moves differently in the spirit realm. It’s possible for several warriors to be almost killed, fight in the spirit realms and come back before their bodies are gone too long.” Xena tried explaining.

“How would they cross over?” Yakut asked.

“The Pinch. I learned how to use pressure points, both to heal and kill. When used a certain way a couple of nerve pinches can kill someone by cutting off the flow of blood to the brain. If the pinch is removed quick enough, the person lives, coming back from unconsciousness.”

“But you need to lead the physical warriors against Alti’s soldiers to reach her body while she’s in trance,” Arja questioned.
“Exactly, that’s why Otere is going to learn my skills and take my power,” Xena grinned.

“Okay, out with it, love of mine,” Gabrielle insisted.

“Otere and Gabrielle will lead the spirit warriors on the spirit realm. Otere and Gabrielle know enough of journeying and Otere will temporarily ‘kill’ the fighters they need. Some of the Amazons will watch over them and be their link to the physical world. Svetlana and I will lead the Amazon warriors against Alti’s soldiers. I’ll get to Alti’s body and kill her and end this once and for all.”

“Sounds simple,” Yakut commented, “it’s also extremely dangerous for everyone.”

“Yes, if Alti wins on any level, she’ll have our souls captive. That’s not how anyone wants to spend eternity.” Xena agreed.

“Anyone else have a better idea?” Arja asked, knowing that they didn’t.

“Looks like you’ll be learning the ways of the Shaman before I expected,” Xena said softly to Gabrielle.

“Where do I fit in, Xena?” Yakut asked.

“You’ll be the messenger between the worlds. You’ll travel both roads, shaman.”

The next candlemark was spent working out the details and some advice from Yakut on what Otere and Gabrielle needed to learn quickly.

It was almost sundown when the Greeks stepped back into the common area of the village. Xena stretched and looked around.

“Where’s the kids? I want to spend some time with them,” Xena said.

“You mean before we start preparing tomorrow?” Gabrielle asked, dreading the coming fight.

“Yeah, before we get wrapped up in this thing.”

“Solan and Sasha are with the scouts at the training yard,” Gabrielle answered, reaching out to hold Xena’s hand and lead her warrior.

“Training yard?”

Gabrielle was delighted with Xena’s stunned expression when the scouts spotted them and got Solan on his feet and a bow in his hand. Gabrielle halted Xena just short of the group as the Scouts set up the demonstration with the hay bale and Amazon sounding out the call for the young man.

Xena’s face broke into a wide grin when the arrow hit dead center in the target.

Solan began blushing and grinning when he heard his mom’s voice cheering and whistling off to one side. Sasha ran over to her mom’s arms as the warrior and bard walked up to the beaming group.

“That was amazing, Solan,” Xena commented, noticing all the Scouts looking pleased with their teaching and the praise from the warrior.

“Thanks, Mom. Might come in handy,” he shrugged.

“I hadn’t thought of archery,” she muttered.

“They want to teach me to throw daggers next,” he said proudly.

“Good,” the proud mother grinned and hugged her son close and began thanking the scouts. Xena knew how hard it was for the young hunter to lose those skills when he lost his eyesight. This just might make up for it in a small part.

***************

The next two days were spent preparing for battle on both sides. The Scouts reported that Alti’s soldiers were seen heading for the main camp throughout the region and the Amazons spent hours training and preparing their weapons and bodies.

Gabrielle and Otere spent hours with Yakut and Xena, preparing their bodies, minds and spirits. Solan practiced his new skill and Sasha began learning both Germanic and the native Siberian language of the Amazons.

Xena wasn’t surprised to find Gabrielle and the kids asleep when she entered the hut on their third night there. Gabrielle had spent the day learning trance working, dancing to induce trance and chanting in Siberian. Xena had split her day between helping Yakut teach Gabrielle and Otere and the rest of the day with the Amazon warriors, helping prepare them and their weapons for the fight against Alti. Everyone was tired and tense.

On the fourth morning, the day and night of the New Moon, Gabrielle and Otere left the village before dawn. Xena and Svetlana watched them go, both with worried looks on their faces.

“They’ll be fine,” Svetlana said simply.

“Yes, a simple hunting task,” Xena agreed, still frowning.

Several candlemarks later both warriors breathed sighs of relief when they spotted the two would-be shamans entering the village, Gabrielle carrying the body of a freshly killed and gutted deer across her shoulders.

Both women had deer blood markings on their faces and hands. Xena noted the flash in both their eyes and nodded. The bard and Otere headed for the hut of the shaman, Yakut.

Xena turned to Svetlana. “The fighters start out just before dawn. Have Arja gather all the tribe, tonight we chant and dance Gabrielle and Otere to the spirit side.”

The blond warrior nodded and dashed off.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered. “I wish I could think of another way.”

**********

“Don’t let go of me,” Gabrielle has asked.

“No, never!” Xena had promised. Now the warrior watched worriedly as her bard lay on the ground, eyes staring at the pre-dawn sky but not seeing it.

Yakut placed a hand on Xena’s shoulder and squeezed, trying to reassure the warrior.

“Kilpa will watch over them, we need to go,” the shaman said softly.

Xena looked around slowly. A large number of Amazons waited near the end of the village, waiting for her and Svetlana to lead them into battle against Alti’s soldiers. Another group of warriors sat around the three fires, waiting.

Xena stood, she and Yakut approached Otere. Xena reached down and picked up the bowl of deer’s blood while Yakut began chanting and the drummers picked up the beat. Otere took the bowl from Xena’s hands.

Xena went to stand next to Solan and leaned towards his ear, whispering.

“They’re going to invoke the sacred gods and goddess of the North. It is thought that Otere will be taking on the spirit of their sacred Warrior Goddess, the Virgin. A lot like our Artemis,” she explained.

“O Virgin, unsheathe your mother’s sacred sword. Take up the breastplate of your ancestors. Take up your powerful helmet. Bring forth your steed of black. Fly to the open field there where the great army with countless weapons is found.” Yakut chanted. “O Virgin, cover me with your veil. Protect us against the power of the enemy, against sword and arrows, warriors and weapons, weapons of wood, of bone, of copper, and iron and steel.”

“O Neitsi, utupp sinu ema puha mook. Votma ules seda rind talkdrik ara sinu ode. Votma ules sinu voimas kiiver. Tooma edasi sinu hobu must karbesel seda avameelne olema, seal seda suur armee gaarvutu relv be rajama. O Neitsi, katma mind sinuga loor. Kaitsma mind vastu seda voimas vaenlane, vastu mook ja nool, sõjamees ja relv, relv puit, kont, vask, ja raud, ja teras.”

Solan frowned. “That isn’t Germanic, that’s their own language, isn’t it?” he questioned.

“Yes,” Xena whispered back. “Yakut is going to form the sacred circle that separates those inside the circle from the rest of the world. The circle helps protect those inside and creates a doorway to other realms and makes it easier for the gods and goddesses and such to interact with those in the circle.”

Yakut went to the east of the circle the warriors and shamans had formed.

“Mother Earth, subdue every evil and unclean being so that he may not cast a spell on us or do any harm,” she chanted as she poured out honey mead in offering. “Ema maa, alistama iga paha ja määrdunud olemine niisiis on sellega asjal tema mai ei heitma a haigushoog.”

Then she moved to the west. “Mother Earth, engulf the unclean power in your boiling pits, in your burning fires,” she chanted as she poured out honey mead in offering. “Ema maa, ümbritsema seda määrdunud voimas sisse sinu keetmine kaevand, sisse sinu tuline tulekahju.”

Then she moved to the south. “Mother Earth, calm the winds coming from the south and all bad weather. Calm the moving sands and whirlwinds.” Again the offering of the mead.

Then she moved to the north. “Mother Earth, calm the north winds and the clouds, subdue the snowstorms and the cold.” Again the offering of the mead.

Xena knelt down by Otere.

“Give us a candlemark and then cross over. Gabrielle is in a light trance now, you’ll find her waiting just at the twilight of the spirit realm and the physical one. You’ve practiced the pinch enough and know how to use it, don’t be nervous.”

“Count on me,” Otere said firmly.

“We all are,” Xena responded and stood up, nodding to Yakut and the shaman began walking towards the waiting warriors with the horses. “Yakut will go between the worlds when I get close to Alti’s physical body. Watch for her.”

Xena hugged Solan, “Take care of Sasha for me until we get back.”

“Count on it,” he said firmly.

Otere nodded and watched the warrior look down at her mate once more, her face pained.

“Gabrielle, if this doesn’t work, you won’t be trapped there alone,” Otere heard Xena whisper and the warrior was moving towards the horses.

Otere sat waiting patiently.

************

Gabrielle knew that Xena had wanted her in the twilight before the others so the bard could adjust to the strangeness of the spirit realm. When she had accompanied Xena on the warrior’s spirit journey, they hadn’t taken much time to look around and hadn’t fallen under the spell of the uniqueness of the place.

Time moved differently, Gabrielle learned, when it moved at all. Birds stopping in midflight, leaves suspended in air, sound trapped in nothingness. Nothing seemed “normal” any longer, colors shifted as they pleased.

Gabrielle spun one of the sais in her hand, its weight reassuring the bard. She knew that it would be useless against Alti but against the other Amazons trapped in this realm, the weapons should prove effective.

Gabrielle frowned, something she had neglected to ask Xena and Yakut. What happened if your spirit died in this realm? Gabrielle knew that if the spirit died in this realm then the living body on the physical realm died, but what happened to the spirit?

The bard knew what Xena and Yakut didn’t want to think about, let alone talk about, the spirit died a sort of death and became a slave to Alti. Gabrielle realized why Xena was so distressed that it was the bard facing Alti on the spirit realm while Xena attempted to attack the physical body, if anything went wrong, Gabrielle’s spirit would be captured by Alti as either a slave or be destroyed forever. After facing Alti before and standing beside Xena, Gabrielle knew that neither option by Alti’s hands would be pleasant.

The bard stood up when Amazons started appearing around her on the ground. With surprised looks they began sitting up, rubbing their necks.

“Well, looks like Otere learned enough of the first part of the pinch, anyway,” Gabrielle muttered, standing up from the rock she had been sitting on, totally focusing on the spirit realm, pulling the other sais from her boot sheath. Alti would sense the large disturbance on the spirit realm. The bard knew the spirit Amazons would be coming quickly.

“On your feet, defensive positions,” she snapped as the Amazons helped their sisters to their feet. The coherent ones quickly moved into a circle around Gabrielle and the ones still waking up.

The bard smiled and felt her body and mind shifting into fighter mode as Otere appeared on the ground next to her. She reached down and helped the Amazon to her feet.

“Glad you could make it,” Gabrielle, once known as Dancer the Gladiator, smiled, eyes darting around.

“Let’s just hope we get back,” Otere responded, pulling out her sword.

“We don’t have a choice if we want any kind of future and I have a wife and kids to get back to,” Gabrielle grinned. “You’re the Scout, where will they come from and how do we fight them?”

“Xena suggested to out Amazon the Amazons,” Otere said simply.

“The trees.”

“Yes, Sisters – move! You know the plan!” Otere shouted and the group moved quickly towards the grey trees, away from the general direction they could sense Alti’s power coming from.

Within minutes ropes were flying through trees, branches were being broken and sharpened. Each of the Amazons worked quickly and tried to avoid thinking too much. Gabrielle winced at the progress they were making, shaking her head. Otere landed on the branch next to the warrior bard.

“What is it?”

“We’re planning on killing Sister Amazons the same way they were killed in the first place. This is madness,” Gabrielle muttered.

“I know, we just have to keep reminding ourselves that it’s necessary if we’re going to defeat Alti and save their souls.” Otere said grimly.

“Are the rest up to this? It’s one thing to kill an enemy soldier, it’s another to kill one of your ancestor sisters.”

“They have to be,” Otere stated.

“Who is the Goddess of your tribe?” Gabrielle asked.

“Pieve, she is the Sun.”

Gabrielle smiled a small smile. “In the south the Sun is male and the moon is female.”

“Here she is female. We also honor Metsola of the forests.” Otere answered.

“Then say a prayer to them, I think the others are coming.”

************

Xena gripped the reins of Argo tightly as she took in the approaching army in the valley below. Her band of Amazons were outnumbered and the soldiers below were wearing light armor while the Amazons wore their usual leathers. More of it than the Southern Amazons, but it was still leather. The women would be superior in movement and possibly fighting skill but not in protection.

“Svetlana, you know the plan. I’m going to take the first group in, let the leaders see me and then drop back. You bring in the two flanks in the pincer move while I work my way around and try to get to Alti’s camp.” the Amazon leader nodded and moved her horse off. Xena turned to Yakut. “Ready?”

“Yes, as soon as her camp is in sight I will find a place to trance out and try and help Gabrielle keep her occupied on the spirit realm.” the shaman stated.

“Let’s do it,” Xena said grimly and raised her hand, signals traveling down the line of Amazons in the tree line above the valley. Xena’s sharp eyes took in the soldiers, looking for the leaders and their battle plan.

With her famous war cry the former Warlord moved forward out of the tree line, letting the soldiers catch sight of her. Three lines of Amazon archers moved out of the tree line, the first line kneeling and firing while the next line fired over their heads. The first line dropped back while the second line knelt and the third line moved forward to shoot over their heads. A continual barrage of arrows met the front lines of the soldiers.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as the screams began to fill the valley and shouts and confusion. The warrior had noted that the soldiers didn’t have a large number of archers and she had the Amazons take advantage of their superior skill with the bow before signaling them to melt back into the trees as the soldiers tried to regroup and send their archers forward.

Xena grinned and turned Argo back into the trees as the soldiers sent a rain of arrows in their direction, almost uselessly.
The Amazon archers had moved into the trees, a very comfortable place for them to fight from, and began to pick off the soldier archers one by one.

Xena spotted the man who was obviously Alti’s general, moving his horse back and forth behind the soldiers, shouting orders and waving his sword. The soldiers pulled close together, huddled behind their shields, as they began to advance toward the Amazon’s positions in the trees.

Xena waited until the soldiers had reached the incline towards the trees and sent another signal along the lines of the Amazons. The warrior grinned as she watched the other General as he realized what was happening, too late to save most of the troops in the front of the advancing ranks.

The Amazons had quickly moved wagons onto the incline and set fire to the large loads of hay and then released the wagons. In moments the fire wagons had crashed into the front lines of the soldiers, again the valley was filled with screams of both men and horses. Most of the soldiers had seen what was coming but had no where to run, the ranks behind them pushing them forward, right into the fires.

The other General was shouting, his face bright red with anger.

Xena signaled again and moved out of the tree line and towards the front ranks with her famous war cry, several mounted Amazons following her.

The warrior felt the familiar blood rush as her sword began cutting through the resistance around her, Argo moving with her unspoken commands. Xena’s eyes danced as soldier after soldier fell to her sword or Argo’s hooves. A glance around told her that the mounted Amazons were also holding well in the confusion after the fire wagons.

Xena spotted the General shouting and trying to move his horse through the foot soldiers towards her. The warrior grinned and moved Argo back towards the front of the lines. The other Amazons followed her as the General regrouped his mounted soldiers, urging them forward.

Xena and the Amazons broke from the enemy’s ranks and raced toward the tree line again with the cavalry enemy close behind. The warrior and Amazons sped by other Amazons coming out of the tree line.

Before the cavalry enemy knew what was happening, the Amazons on foot grabbed up long, sturdy spears and braced them against the ground. The men couldn’t stop their horses in time.

Xena tried to drown out the screams of the horses and then the men as they fell.

By this point most of the foot soldiers were near the tree line and Xena saw Svetlana give a signal off on her far right.

The enemy soldiers stopped in their tracks as they heard Amazon war cries filling the valley from their left and right and from in front. Amazons poured down the valley wall from all three sides, flanking the soldiers and catching them off guard.

Xena spotted the General take in the situation and turn his horse, leaving the battlefield at a run.

The warrior’s eyes narrowed and she urged Argo and her mounted Amazons to follow.
***************
Gabrielle felt the branch under her snap and reached out desperately for the tree limbs unsuccessfully as she fell. The bard landed hard on the pine needles below, the wind knocked out of her, stunning her.

When the bard opened her eyes again, trying to get her lungs to fill with air again, she realized that Otere was standing over her, slashing at three Spirit Amazons. Gabrielle touched Otere’s leg and the Amazon moved slightly and reached a hand down, helping the bard to her feet. The bard was amazed that, somehow, she had held onto her sais. Gabrielle shook her head to try and clear it and took up a position next to Otere, helping in the struggle against the three Spirit Amazons.

Two Spirit Amazons went down, one under Otere’s sword and another to a well placed sai between her ribs. Gabrielle fought off the sorrow that tried to overwhelm her as she watched a sister fall to her hands. The other Spirit Amazon screamed in rage and went to the trees.

“How are we doing?” Gabrielle asked, holding her lower back.

“Better than I thought we would. We’ve almost defeated them all. Something is bothering me, though, I haven’t seen Alti,” Otere answered.

“Well, here I am, bitch.” a voice carried to the two Amazons. Gabrielle felt a chill run over her spine. She knew that voice, she and Otere turned and saw Alti standing in a clearing with a Spirit Amazon.

“Alti,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Well, Xena’s little bitch, I’m impressed. Thought after the last meeting, you’d learn your lesson and keep out of my playground,” Alti grinned.

“If I remember right, it was you who was screaming in frustration, just before you disappeared out of sight.” Gabrielle grinned, sais at the ready.

“Yes,” Alti hissed, anger flashing in her eyes.

Alti turned her head, taking in the figure of Otere moving slowly away from Gabrielle in a flanking move. With a gesture of her hand Alti sent the Amazon flying backwards into a tree. Otere shook her head as she regained her feet, watching Alti warily.

“Well, Gabrielle?” Alti asked.

“What?”

“How about Amazon Queen to Amazon Queen?” Alti purred, placing her arm around the Amazon Spirit warrior standing next to her. Gabrielle frowned, taking in the striking woman in front of her, the blond hair, cold blue eyes and bearing. The Amazon reminded Gabrielle of Xena, a lot.

“Cyane,” the bard heard Otere whisper.

The legendary Amazon Queen of the Northern Amazons. The only warrior to ever beat her was Xena and she had also beaten Xena before that. The Amazon Queen moved a couple of feet in front of Alti, twirling her sword, just like Xena.

“You know I can’t beat her,” Gabrielle growled.

“Well, it’s either that or this,” Alti grinned and motioned with her hands and Gabrielle screamed, dropping her sais and grabbing her wrists. Going to her knees with the pain as the blood began flowing from wounds in her wrists again. Then she felt her lungs beginning to constrict, laboring to gain breath.

“Gabrielle!” Otere cried, rushing to the bard and standing over Gabrielle with her sword drawn, once again acting as a protector.

“Focus, have to focus!” Gabrielle hissed and narrowed her eyes, holding her wrists in front of her, steadying her breathing. After a moment, Otere saw Gabrielle’s eyes go unfocused and the bleeding stopped and the bard’s breathing returned to normal. After another moment, Gabrielle reached down and picked up her sais and stood up to face Alti and Cyane.
“I’ve played your game before, Alti,” Gabrielle stated simply, eyes flashing with anger.

“Yes, but you haven’t played with Cyane here. Cyane, this is Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Amazons and lover to Xena, your murderer. Xena, the one who sent you here to do my bidding.” Alti purred and Gabrielle felt a chill, she could see the hatred building in the mostly lifeless eyes of the Amazon Queen in front of her.

“We have to buy time for Xena,” Gabrielle muttered, stepping in front of Otere.

“Wait, here,” Otere said, stopping the bard and handing Gabrielle her sword. “Don’t try and fight fair, Gabrielle. Cyane was deadly in battle.”

“I was a gladiator, I never fought fair. There’s no such thing,” the bard muttered, taking the sword and handing one of the sais to Otere.

Gabrielle moved forward into the clearing to face a legend.

***********

Xena yelled, urging Argo on as she kept the enemy General in sight, the rest of her small band of Amazons trying to keep up. At the edge of a small hill, Xena pulled Argo up and looked down at the encampment below as the General rushed into camp, shouting orders, sending the guards left behind scurrying.

The rest of the Amazons caught up with the warrior.

“Yakut, that main tent!” Xena pointed. “Alti should be in there, it’s heavily guarded and large enough. Your turn!”

Yakut nodded and moved off a little ways with another Amazon and they both quickly dismounted. The other Amazon, Metsa, spread out a fur and Yakut quickly sat down cross-legged as Metsa handed her a flask. Arja pulled up on her horse and joined Yakut on the fur, watching the shaman closely.

Xena watched as the shaman began drinking from the flask and Metsa pulled a drum off her horse and began drumming and chanting behind the shaman.

Xena looked at Metsa. “Alti’s General will try and wake her up, hope that Yakut, Gabrielle and Otere keep her busy in the spirit realm while we get to her.”

The Amazon nodded as Xena and the others turned with a shout and rushed down the horses, screaming war cries.
“Keep them off balance!” Xena shouted.

*********

Gabrielle’s lower spine felt like it was on fire and she limped heavily from a deep gash in her left thigh. Her skills had kept her alive during several clashes with the other Amazon Queen and the bard could see Alti’s eyes growing concerned and Cyane’s growing angrier. Cyane rubbed her jaw where the handle of a sai had connected, only her quick reflexes had saved her from a broken jaw or having her head removed.

Gabrielle stumbled backwards and fell heavily.

Cyane’s eyes flashed and she screamed a war cry as Otere cried out Gabrielle’s name. Everyone could see that Gabrielle was moving too slowly to parry the sword strike with her sword.

Yakut stood up next to Otere and resisted screaming herself as she took in the sight of Gabrielle on the ground and a Spirit Amazon closing in for a killing strike with Alti looking on and grinning.

*********

Xena growled with frustration. She had been pulled off Argo when she and the Amazons reached the edge of the camp and had gone under several fists, feet and sword butts. The Amazons with the warrior had been surprised when the group of soldiers were shaken off with a war cry and Xena stood in the middle of them, blood flowing from a cut above her eye and a slash on her sword arm.

Two of the Amazons rushed in to help and drew back at the look of fury in the warrior’s eyes. Xena drew her chakram and sent it flying as she launched herself in the air, hitting two soldiers on either side of her with her feet and landing back in time to catch the chakram that had sliced through the throats of two other soldiers fighting with the Amazons.

Xena began carving a path towards the tent with the two Amazons following.

The warrior growled and slashed out with chakram and sword, hands moving too fast to follow. The guards were thick and wouldn’t back off. Xena wasn’t surprised with the desperation they fought with, the warrior could well imagine the punishment they would receive if they displeased Alti. They weren’t only fighting for their lives, they were fighting for their souls, just like the Amazons.

That made everyone dangerous and unpredictable.

Xena took out three more soldiers and felt a hot pain at her side and struck backwards with her sword, impaling a soldier behind her. The warrior looked down and grabbed at the wound, blood flowing freely around her hand.

Before she could really take it in, the warrior was fighting again, ignoring the pain and the flowing blood.

*********

Gabrielle growled and turned slightly on the ground, taking the sword strike along her ribs and curled around the sword, twisting her sai around the blade and yanking hard, putting her weight behind it.

Cyane looked stunned when her sword snapped, never having seen a sword-breaker designed weapon before.

Gabrielle rolled back and flipped herself up into a crouch, bringing her sword up into Cyane’s ribs before the other Amazon could react to the broken sword.

“No!” Alti screamed as Cyane went to her knees, looking at the sword sticking through her body and the broken one in her hand.

Gabrielle felt tears streaming down her face as the life left Cyane’s spirit body and the warrior fell onto her side, curling around Gabrielle’s sword.

The bard growled and spun her sai at Alti, hoping to catch the evil magician off guard but the shaman merely gestured with her hand and the sai stopped in midair and then turned towards Gabrielle.

“Uh oh,” the bard muttered, attempting to scramble to her feet.

Otere screamed in frustration and rage again when Gabrielle stumbled back, clutching at the sai buried under her ribs. The bard fell back to the ground and growled when she pulled her weapon out, facing Alti.

“Xena’s taste in playthings has improved over the years. I am impressed!” Alti grinned. “Let’s see how you handle you own demons.”

“Been there, done that, remember?” Gabrielle muttered, trying to get to her feet.

“You merely faced the knowledge, not the actual power. Come to me on the dark side, my little one!” Alti began chanting and motioning with her hands and Gabrielle’s body jerked as if hit by a physical blow.

Otere and Yakut watched in horror as Gabrielle’s head was thrown back and her eyes closed, muscles twitching.

“What is she doing!?” Otere demanded.

“I don’t know! Distract her! Keep her busy, Xena is fighting her way to the tent.” Yakut said and disappeared.

Otere gave a whistle and one of her Amazons dropped out of the trees next to her. “Quick! Arrows!” the Amazon ordered and the Amazon fighter quickly drew several arrows out and began sending them at Alti.

The evil shaman merely looked in their direction and each arrow launched burned in midair. The shaman kept her attention and chanting directed towards Gabrielle.

Otere cursed and began running towards the bard.

*********

Xena was stunned, she and the handful of Amazons fighting beside her were actually being driven back through the camp. Several of their ranks had fallen and the soldiers were fighting back with a fury that had taken the Amazons by surprise.

The warrior glanced back up the hill and saw Metsa watching the battle. The Amazon didn’t send any signals. That meant Alti was still occupied in the spirit realm.

*********

Gabrielle collapsed just as Otere reached her. The Amazon drew the bard into her arms, quickly checking for a pulse as Alti’s laugh reached her.

“She’s mine, Amazon!” Alti laughed.

Otere found herself scrambling backwards as Gabrielle opened her eyes. The Northern Amazon found herself looking into yellow eyes lined with red and a bard with very long canines as Gabrielle sat up.

“Oh Pieve, save us,” Otere whispered. “Vampiir!”

Yakut appeared next to several Amazons at the tree line as they took in the sight of the bard rising to her feet, yellow eyes shining brightly with hunger.

“Mielikki, preserve us!” Yakut whispered. “Gabrielle, fight it! Fight back!” she screamed. “Sisters, surround her but don’t hurt her!”

Yakut disappeared.

*********

Xena and the Amazons had rallied and were beginning to push through again. The warrior glanced up and saw Matsa standing and helping Yakut to her feet. The Amazon shaman turned, spotted Xena and gave a series of hand signals.

“No!” Xena whispered, turning in time to slash another soldier across the chest.

“We’ve got to hurry!” Xena shouted, sending out a war cry and fighting back with a renewed sense of desperation.

The hand signals told the warrior that her bard was in trouble in the spirit realm and Alti was winning.

Yakut turned to Matsa and Arja.

“Gabrielle has been cursed by the vereimeja, the vampiir. If we don’t break the hold Alti has on her, we could lose her.” Yakut explained.

“It’s keeping Alti distracted and in the spirit realm, can we sacrifice Gabrielle for that?” Matsa asked.

Arja frowned. “Alti might just leave the spirit realm if she thinks we’ll be distracted by Gabrielle becoming a vampiir. We must find a way to break the hold and keep Alti frustrated and off balance there.”

“How? We can’t hurt Gabrielle and I don’t think of any of us can reach her?” Yakut asked.

“I don’t know, we have to find a way to keep her soul safe!”

**********

Otere and the other Amazons kept Gabrielle surrounded with spears and swords, not letting the bard get close to any of them or letting her break free from their circle.

Alti continued to laugh.

“I could kill you all with just a flick of my wrists!” she taunted. “I could release her and she’d rip your throats out! One taste of unwilling blood in this realm and she’s mine! Only blood can break it and only blood can seal it!”

Otere cursed over her shoulder at the shaman. “Is it true that your mother mated with a paha vaim, a demon?” she spat.

Otere turned with a muttered curse and sent her sword hilt along side Gabrielle’s head as the bard got too close. Gabrielle merely shook her head, yellow eyes glaring and fangs snapping.

Yakut turned from the scene and disappeared again.

Otere began cursing loudly when Alti also disappeared.

**********

Xena flipped over the heads of several soldiers and rolled under the material of one of the tents, disappearing out of sight. The warrior gained her feet and waited to see if anyone followed and grinned when they didn’t. She quickly went to the back of the tent and slit the material open with her sword and began working her way to the main tent, away from the fighting.

The warrior stopped outside, her ears picking up the sounds inside.

“Come on, damnit!” the warrior heard a male voice demanding. “Wake up already!”

“What is it? Merrick?” Alti’s dazed voice demanded.

“Xena! A handful of Amazons and Xena are fighting their way here!” he shouted.

“Then keep them busy!” Alti snapped. “I’m busy elsewhere. By the end of the day I’ll have enough Amazon souls to destroy, releasing enough power to blast the entire country to bits if I wish! You want to know the best of it?” Xena’s eyes narrowed as Alti giggled. “I’ve got Xena’s pet on our side. The Amazons will be forced to kill her or she’ll kill them. Either way, I’ve got them all! Xena won’t be able to live without her bitch and then I’ll have her as well!”

Xena felt her heart skip a beat. What could Alti mean, that Gabrielle was on Alti’s side? Gabrielle could never give into the darkness, that was Xena’s weakness.

“No,” Xena whispered, remembering Gabrielle’s fears.

“Now, go and keep them busy. I just need a little longer and Xena’s bitch will be mine totally and then I’ll deal with Xena out here.” Alti ordered and Xena slipped into the shadows.

Xena growled, waiting for Alti to slip back into a trance state.

*******

Yakut tried to sit up and fell back onto the fur. She looked up into Arja’s eyes.

“Gabrielle is vampiir and Alti isn’t going to be held long. Alti said the first unwilling blood she takes will seal her fate.” Yakut whispered.

“None of our Amazons can die like that! Their souls would be lost!” Matsa muttered.

“I know, if your soul dies to a vampiir you wander the land as a ghost spirit for eternity,” Yakut muttered.

“What would Alti do if the spell on Gabrielle was broken?” Arja questioned.

“Go insane, she wants to use Gabrielle against Xena.” Yakut whispered, trying to regain her strength. Going back and forth between the worlds was taking its toll on the shaman.

“It would keep her distracted,” Arja commented.

“Yes, my Queen,” Yakut agreed.

“Then a sacrifice is needed,” Arja said simply.

“What?” Yakut sat up suddenly, her eyes growing wide with horror as her Queen pulled out her dagger.

“No!” Matsa cried out and started to move towards the Queen. Arja held her hand up in a stopping motion.

“As Queen, this is my place. If we fail here then my soul is already lost to Alti. I give my right of succession to Otere.”

Before either Amazon could act the Queen slit long furrows up her inner arms and began chanting.

“No!” Yakut cried, attempting to grab her Queen’s arms. Arja grabbed the shamans weakened arms.

“Yes, this is my duty to my tribe and maybe our only chance. Get back there and guide me over.” Arja ordered.

“Yes, my Queen,” Yakut said softly.

**********

Alti grinned at the sight of the Amazons trying to keep a vampire bard captive without hurting her and without getting hurt. Two Amazons were sitting nearby, nursing broken arms and the others were getting tired.

“What’s wrong, Amazons? You know you’ll have to kill her eventually.” Alti taunted.

Otere was stunned to see Yakut reappear with Arja by her side. On the spirit side Arja’s legs were no longer crippled and she walked confidently towards the small group of Amazons.

“Oh goody!” Alti cried, “more playmates!”

Arja ignored the shaman and walked up to Otere, watching Gabrielle closely as the young woman growled, baring her fangs, her body bleeding from several wounds and cuts.

“We can’t keep this up, my Queen,” Otere muttered.

“I know. I order you not to interfere,” Arja stated simply.

Otere frowned, as did the other Amazons.

Before Alti could question the change in attitudes, Yakut surprised the shaman with an energy bolt that blindsided the evil shaman. Alti turned with a growl, releasing her own energy bolt, sending the Amazon flying backwards.

Yakut shook her head, getting to her knees. She released another energy bolt, causing Alti to growl in frustration.

Arja took advantage of the warfare behind her and Alti’s distraction to step forward into the circle of Amazons to face Gabrielle.

“Sisters, to break the hold on Gabrielle, willing blood must be shed. Do not interfere.” The Queen stated and grabbed Gabrielle’s hands in hers with surprising strength, forcing the bard to her knees. Arja went to her knees, focusing all of her will into holding Gabrielle’s eyes.

“Gabrielle, I know part of you can hear me! Alti doesn’t have all of you yet. I am Queen of the Northern Region Amazons and I offer myself for my tribe.” Arja said softly, slowly releasing one of Gabrielle’s hands. The bard cocked her head slightly, a curious expression on her face, her body tense, ready to spring.

Arja pulled out her dagger slowly and raised her hand, the one holding Gabrielle’s hand. Keeping Gabrielle’s focus with her eyes, the Queen opened her hand enough to slide the dagger between the palms of the two women, one Amazon and one vampire.

Gabrielle growled and attempted to pull away when Arja pulled the dagger down, slicing open both their hands. Arja surprised everyone by quickly pulling Gabrielle into her body, holding her other hand tightly against Gabrielle’s.

The bard responded by sinking her fangs into the Queen’s neck, taking the other woman over onto her back.

“Stay back!” Otere cried out as the Amazons started to rush forward.

“What!?” Alti suddenly screamed and Otere turned to find the shaman looking at Gabrielle and Arja, rage filling her face.

Otere saw Arja’s body go limp and Gabrielle fall away from the Queen. Otere knelt down beside the bard and pulled the woman into her arms. Gabrielle opened her eyes and Otere glared at Alti in triumph when she saw green eyes instead of yellow.

“She’s not yours!” Otere shouted.

Alti screamed and raised her hands, her face a murderous rage. Otere closed her eyes and twisted to shield Gabrielle as best she could. She could feel the other Amazons crowding around them as well.

*********

“Alti! Open your eyes, bitch!”

The shaman snapped her eyes open and yelped at the sight of the manic blue eyes staring down at her, with Xena’s sword raised above her.

“Xena!” Alti managed to cry out as the sword fell and impaled her through the chest.

Xena fell off the shaman as the woman struggled around the sword pinning her to the furs under her. The warrior drew a dagger from her belt and grabbed up a bowl. She nodded at the terror she saw in Alti’s eyes. Xena grabbed one of the shaman’s wrists and sliced it open and let the blood pour into the bowl.

“I’m going to let Yakut seal your soul with your blood, Alti. We’re going to seal your soul forever in the Land of the Dead, just like you did to the Amazons.” Xena muttered.

“You won’t win all the every time, Xena,” Alti whispered.

“Don’t bet on it,” Xena growled and watched the light fade from Alti’s eyes.

The warrior got to her feet slowly and looked at the sword sticking out of the shaman’s body.

“Glad I didn’t use mine on you, witch. You’d probably melt the damned blade,” she muttered and walked into the sunshine, watching with detached interest at the last of the fighting between the Amazons and the few remaining guards. The main force of the Amazons having caught up with the small band and finishing off the camp guards.

Svetlana ran up to the warrior and grabbed Xena as the warrior stumbled. The Amazon’s practiced eyes quickly took in the blood flowing down Xena’s leg and how much there was. She quickly lowered the warrior to the ground and ripped a tunic from a fallen enemy soldier and wadded it up against the wound.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood, Xena,” the Amazon frowned.

Xena merely nodded. “Alti’s dead, have Yakut use the blood.” she whispered.

“Yes,” Svetlana nodded, holding the makeshift bandage tight. She looked around at the warriors finishing up the fighting and tending to their wounded. “Make stretchers for the wounded. I need help here, Xena is wounded! Also, make a stretcher for Alti’s body! Yakut and Arja will want to bury her with special rituals.” she ordered.

“Gabrielle!” Xena attempted to sit up and was restrained by Svetlana’s strong hands.

“You won’t know anything until we get back to the village, so rest until we get you a stretcher.” the Amazon scout ordered.

“Yakut, Yakut will know, find her!” Xena hissed.

“You won’t rest until you know, will you? Linna! Hold this bandage in place, don’t let her move!” Svetlana ordered and quickly mounted a horse, heading for the small hill overlooking the camp.

“Goddess, no!” the Scout whispered as she slowly dismounted, taking in the scene of Yakut and Matsa sitting next to the very still body of their Queen. Matsa was rocking back and forth and Yakut had tears streaming down her face. The shaman looked up at Svetlana.

“Alti?” she asked.

“Dead at Xena’s hands. Xena is wounded badly and asking for Gabrielle,” Svetlana said softly, going to her knees beside her Queen. Her eyebrows furrowing in puzzlement at the blood and the wounds on the Queen.

“We’ll explain later. Tell Xena that Gabrielle lives and is in the village waiting. Take me to Alti and then see to your Queen,” Yakut ordered, standing to follow the Scout back to the camp.

**********

Xena opened her eyes and attempted to sit up quickly, only to be restrained by Yakut’s hands on her shoulders. The shaman pushed the warrior back down on the furs and then applied a cool cloth to the warrior’s forehead.

“Gabrielle!” Xena whispered, surprised at the harshness of her voice. Yakut reached over and held a cup of water to Xena’s lips.

“She lives, Xena,” Yakut answered.

“Where is she?” Xena demanded, her eyes narrowing at Yakut’s pained face.

“Let me tell you what happened in the other battle,” Yakut said simply and sat down next to the furs.

Xena closed her eyes and listened as Yakut told the warrior of the battle in the Spirit realm. Of what Otere had told them all about the battle, about Gabrielle fighting Atli’s influence and tricks, about Xena’s bard facing Cyane alone. Xena’s hands clenched at the furs under her at the description of the battle between the legendary warrior and her mate. A fierce grin coming over her face when Yakut described Gabrielle managing to defeat Cyane in battle. Then Xena’s hands began to shake as Yakut described Alti’s spell over Gabrielle, bringing her bacchae blood to the surface.

Tears escaped from the warrior’s closed eyes as Yakut described Arja’s sacrifice and how she broke the control Alti had over Gabrielle.

“What happened to her?” Xena asked.

“When we got back I found her withdrawn into herself, curled up. Otere said that when they came out of the trance Gabrielle screamed and curled up. She won’t come out of it, even when I told her you were in the village and wounded,” Yakut said.

Xena frowned. She didn’t think even Cerebus or Hades could keep Gabrielle from her side if the bard knew the warrior was wounded.

Yakut nodded, sensing Xena’s thoughts. “I thought that would bring her running, forgetting her own pain but it didn’t.”

Yakut hesitated, “Alti’s curse, it wasn’t just a random thing, was it?”

“What do you mean?” Xena asked, taking another drink of the water.

“It was already there, wasn’t it? Gabrielle is part vampiir already.”

Xena’s eyes closed again. “If a vampiir is like our bacchae, then the answer is yes. Several seasons ago we went up against Bacchus, our god of wine and bacchae. Women who are bitten by other bacchae, once they drink some of Bacchus’ blood, they turn into full bacchae and are his totally, mind and soul. They live forever, feeding on the blood of others and Gabrielle was turned. We thought we had defeated Bacchus before she drank his blood but she tasted a few drops without us realizing it. She has a bit of bacchae in her.” Xena tried to explain.

“Our vampiir are the dead who have been cursed to roam the night seeking the blood of others until they die and turn into vampiir too.” Yakut explained.

“Almost the same,” Xena commented. “How long have I been out?”

“Two days, we thought those wounds would kill you but you are recovering at a remarkable rate! You have surprised our healers.”

“Left over from being one of the gods’ favorites,” Xena shrugged. “Help me up, I’ve got to see Gabrielle.”

“Arja sacrificed herself to save Gabrielle and our tribe and Gabrielle can’t handle it. It was difficult enough for all of us to fight our ancestor Amazons but to take Arja’s life pushed Gabrielle over, especially the way it happened.”

“I know, it’s been a fear of hers, that she’d lose control over the bacchae craving and hurt me. She’s such a gentle soul, Yakut,” Xena brushed away tears as she sat up slowly. “Even as a gladiator in the Games of Rome, the killing made her sick. To be responsible for Arja, I don’t know what to do for her.”

“I don’t either, Xena. Arja knew what she was doing and did it willing but I don’t think that’ll be much comfort to your mate right now,” Yakut grumbled.

“Help me,” Xena asked and the shaman helped the warrior to her feet slowly and held her steady while Xena tried to regain her sense of balance.

As they walked towards the guest hut, Yakut turned her head to Xena.

“Why didn’t the Berserker show?”

“The Berserker was one of Alti’s soldiers being guided by her loyly, her spirit. She was too busy fighting on the spirit realm to send her spirit into a warrior. We managed to keep her from using that talent.” Xena smiled a grim smile.

The warrior felt her heart breaking as she entered the guest hut, taking in the sight of her son and daughter sitting next to Gabrielle’s sleeping furs, talking to the bard and holding her hand.

Xena could tell that the Amazons had taken good care of her mate while Xena had been unconscious. The bard was bandaged and clean and an Amazon sat just inside the hut, conscious of any of the bard’s needs.

“Solan,” Xena said softly and walked slowly to the sleeping area and knelt down next to the bard, reaching out to touch her son’s shoulder and hug her daughter gently.

“Mom, glad you’re up. They said you were starting to wake up earlier,” he said softly.

“How is she?” Xena asked, looking down at her bard.

Gabrielle appeared to be asleep with her eyes open slightly. Curled almost into a fetal position, hand drawn up under her chin, the other in Solan’s hands.

Xena brushed a lock of hair from the bard’s eyes and got no reaction. Xena looked up at Yakut.

“I don’t know how to reach her, Xena,” Yakut answered.

“Come on, Gabrielle, come back to me,” Xena said softly. After a few minutes Xena frowned and turned to Yakut.

“Can you put Solan and Sasha up in another hut for a couple of days?” she asked.

“What’s up, Mom?” Solan asked, taking Sasha from her mom’s lap and hugging the little one as she watched her mom and Gabby mum.

“I need some time with Gabrielle and it might get a little rough. I know we haven’t spent a lot of time with you two….”

“It’s all right, Mom. You’re the only one who can reach her and we want her back. We want Gabby mom not to be sick anymore, don’t we, Sasha?”

Sasha nodded enthusiastically, bringing a smile to the warrior.

“Thanks. Yakut, for a little while just have food and fresh bandages left outside the door, okay?”

“Yes, anything you need.”

Xena turned back to her mate as everyone began clearing out of the hut.

“Yakut,” the warrior suddenly called out, stopping the shaman at the door. “I learned a word stronger than your sacred word. Give it to your Amazons on the spirit side and they’ll be able to cross now that Alti is defeated.”

“The word of our Amazons is ‘courage,’ Xena. Can there be a stronger word for Amazons?” Yakut questioned.

“Yes,” the warrior smiled, stroking Gabrielle’s hair softly. “The word is ‘love.’”

Yakut nodded, her eyes dancing. If Xena was right, then the trapped Spirit Amazons would be freed.

Xena turned her attention to Gabrielle.

“Okay, little one, time to come back to me or take me with you,” Xena growled.

**********

Yakut had taken up a position just outside the guest hut and spent hours listening and chanting.

Well into the first night, Otere approached the shaman slowly.

“How goes it?” the new Queen asked.

“I don’t know. I’m hoping that the gods show a blessing on those two.”

“They’ve been through enough.” Otere shook her head. “You should have seen her facing Cyane. I’m not sure I could have done that. Doesn’t she realize that Arja knew what she was doing?” Otere frowned.

“No, Gabrielle is trapped in the memories of the blood. She took another Amazon’s life by draining her blood. Even if it was on the spirit plane, it was a death and she can’t handle that about herself,” Yakut responded.

“She’s killed before,” Otere continued to frown.

“Yes, only when necessary, usually to save others and herself only as a last resort. To willingly take a life because of a her craving for blood is too much.”

“Where has her haltija, her spirit, gone?”

“I don’t know, I can’t follow it. She’s either so far into her own mind that she can’t find her way out or her spirit has fled, maybe even snapping the cord holding it to her physical body.”

Otere shivered at the thought. The body would live for awhile but would be soul-less, empty. The soul would wander throughout the different realms, never finding peace and never finding its way back to her soul mate.

“I’ve seen victims of extreme trauma snap like this,” Otere muttered. “Sometimes they don’t come back.”

“I know.”

*********

The second evening sent Yakut jumping to her feet, eyes wide with surprise as another scream ripped from the guest hut. Several Amazons came running from all directions as the screams turned into howls of anguish.

Otere ran up and quickly put her arm across the door, barring the way.

“Those screams! We should see!” one of the Amazons insisted.

“No, we need to trust Xena,” Otere insisted.

Several women grumbled but eventually everyone moved onto their normal routine as Otere and Yakut sat down outside the hut, keeping an eye on everyone and listening closely at the hut door.

The howls subsided into sobs and both women hoped that was a good sign, either Xena was getting through to the bard or Gabrielle had passed over totally, leaving her warrior behind.

Yakut began praying and chanting softly.

It was the morning of the third day when the door opened more than just a crack to reach for food or bandages. This time the door opened totally and Yakut quickly moved to her feet, facing a very exhausted looking Xena.

The warrior smiled slightly. “We’ll be okay,” she said simply.

With a smile Yakut quickly uttered a prayer. “How can we help?”

“Help me get her to the bath hut, both our bodies are stiff as boards,” Xena suggested.

Otere trotted over upon seeing the open door and quickly offered her help. Together the new Queen and shaman managed to help the wounded warrior and bard to the bathing hut.

Yakut and Otere both noticed how pale Gabrielle was and that she wouldn’t meet their eyes yet. Xena just shrugged.

Both of the Amazons were just grateful that the bard was up and moving.

Gabrielle moaned as Xena helped her into the warm water. Most of the wounds had already healed over into light scars and the massive wounds along the bard’s thigh and ribs were closed over. Xena’s wounds also matched her bards in rapid healing. There were definite benefits in being the children of gods, Xena reflected.

Gabrielle began to softly cry as she leaned back in Xena’s arms in the water.

“Shhh, it’s all right, little one,” Xena said softly, holding her mate close, stroking her hair.

“I can’t face them!” Gabrielle whispered between her sobs.

“Yes, you can. No one blames you for anything.”

“I killed Arja! I killed their Queen!” Gabrielle protested, struggling in Xena’s arms but the warrior held firm.

“And I killed Cyane and their leaders and they’re willing to forgive that. Arja knew what she was doing when she cut her hand and offered you her connection and her blood. She figured out that a willing sacrifice would break Alti’s hold on you,” Xena said, once again going over it with the bard. After two days and nights, Xena was tired and mentally drained. It had taken all of her focus to get Gabrielle to work her way back out of the self-induced catatonic state. Hours spent talking, yelling, pleading and crying.

They had been over Arja’s sacrifice but Gabrielle couldn’t get past blaming herself.

“Look,” Xena said firmly, turning the bard around to face her. “We’ve been through a lot in a very short time and we’ve gotten through it. We’ll get through this.”

Gabrielle’s head dropped and then after a moment she raised her eyes to meet Xena’s.

“All right,” she said simply.

Xena drew her into a hug. “Don’t leave me like that again!” Xena whispered. “I couldn’t follow you!”

“I love you, I’ll always come back to you,” Gabrielle promised.

“Besides, little one, the tribe wants to welcome Sasha and Solan as members of the tribe, you too.”

Gabrielle shivered again. “They can’t want me after killing their Queen,” she whispered.

“Gabrielle!” Xena snapped, catching the bard’s eyes. “You fought Cyane, you risked your life and soul for them and they know that. They also understand that Arja sacrificed herself willingly to save them. They know the risks you took and the pain you went through.”

Xena caught a flash in the bard’s green eyes as Gabrielle stiffened and frowned.

“What is it?” Xena asked.

“I’m getting tired of dealing with that damned Bacchus thing!” the bard snapped.

“I have a feeling that we’re not done with it yet, little one.” Xena smiled a tired smile.

Gabrielle sighed and curled back into Xena’s arms.

“I know, me too,” she whispered.

The End
Amazon Darkness

Storyline: Xena, Gabrielle, Solan and Sasha are with the Northern Amazons for the winter when things get complicated.
The Amazon Shaman moved around the circle of dancers and drummers slowly, chanting and moving to the beat of the drums. Behind her was the Shaman apprentice, Ulrike, carrying the bowls of sacred ingredients.

Xena leaned over and whispered to her son, Solan, describing their surroundings and the actions to the blind teenager.

“Yakut is in traditional Shaman clothes,” she whispered as they sat outside the circle. “Leather headdress with beads, feathers, fur and shortened antlers. Her clothing is buckskin, fringed with fur and beads. Her face is streaked with paint, one side is the design of the sacred spiral of life and their Earth Goddess, and the other side is stripes, indicating the claws and their connection to nature.”

Solan nodded, quietly swaying with the drumbeat.

“She’s carrying a staff with intricate carvings, fur covering, beads, feathers and topped with a large crystal,” Xena continued. “Behind her is her apprentice Ulrika carrying wooden bowls of something.”

Xena found herself swaying to the intoxicating beat as well.

Yakut moved to the outside of the northern part the circle of dancing and sitting Amazons and raised her arms to the sky in invocation.

“Yakut is invoking the spirits of the Air to join the ritual and protect those here,” Xena whispered.

Ulrike moved forward with a bowl of burning incense and waved the smoke about and followed Yakut to the East, then the South, the West and finally back to the North. “Her apprentice offered smoke from incense to the Air Spirits.” Xena whispered.

Yakut raised her arms again in invocation and Ulrike poured fresh spring water on the ground. “Now they’re invoking the Water Spirits and offering fresh water.” Once more the circle was completed.

The Shaman again invoked in a loud and firm voice and Ulrike followed with an offering of honey mead to the earth. “Invoking the Earth spirits and offering mead.” Xena explained as the Shaman and apprentice completed another circle.

The final invocation and offering included a ritualistic dance with two torches woven in a complicated pattern and the circle was formed once again. “To the Fire Spirits, with torches.”

Yakut moved to the altar to the north of the fire pit and the drumming grew calmer and the chanting grew silent. Otere, the new Amazon Queen, moved forward from the crowd to stand next to the shaman and turned to face her Amazons.

“My Sisters,” she began, “Tonight we welcome new members into our tribe and celebrate!”

The Amazons cheered loudly and Xena felt herself grinning and saw Solan was doing likewise.

Yakut raised her arms and head to the sky.

“Taevataat, god of wisdom and life, be with us!

Ukko, God of Thunder; Akko, goddess of life, be with us!

Raunni, goddess of the woods, Paiva of the Sun, Kuu of the Moon, be with us!

The Great Bear Otava, Ilma of the air, Luonnota the sacred mother of Vainamoinen, be with us!

The daughter of the Moon, Kuuta; Daughter of the Sun, Paivatar, be with us!

Aske, god of the moon, Pellervoinen of the fields and plants, be with us now!

Metsola of the forests, Mehilainen, bee of messages; be with us!

Forest family: Tapio the father, Mielikki the mother, Nyrrikki the son, Tuulikki the daughter, be with us!

The water family: Ahti the god, Vellamo his wife, Vetehinen and Tursas the daughters, and the Veden Haltia, the water spirits. Turn your evil away from us and bless us with your good!

Metsola, protect us from Lempo, Paha and Hiisi!

Earth Mother, protect us, bless us and join us!”

Solan leaned closer to his mom. “They invoke male deities too?” he questioned.

“Yes, they see their deities as closer to each other and to the land and the people than the Greeks. You’ll notice they don’t have a god of Justice or Victory but more along the lines of many nature deities and they don’t have as much reluctance in dealing with male spirits.” Xena whispered.

“Maybe their male gods don’t go around acting like male jerks,” Solan suggested with a grin and bit his lip to keep from laughing as Xena lightly shoved him playfully.

The Amazons took up the chant to the deities of the Northerners and the drumbeat increased in speed and loudness. The dancers took up a frenzied dance as Yakut watched and judged the raising of the energy. Xena and Solan could both feel the energy flowing from the circle, their own breath and pulse increasing.

At a signal from Yakut the dancers dropped to their hands and knees, the drummers and chanters stopped cold. It almost felt like a physical blow to the warrior and her son.

After a moment, Otere raised her head and nodded to the shadows outside the circle.

Xena turned and saw a blindfolded and bound figure being led to the circle by two Amazon warriors with drawn swords. The Warrior Princess felt her heart skip a beat as she caught sight of the figure. Xena knew it was part of the ritual of the Northern Amazons for the binding of the initiate but it still made the warrior nervous to see her mate like that.

Gabrielle also looked stunning. The Amazon Queen was dressed in white leathers, designed much like her wedding tunic and the leathers were of soft deerskin and hugged the bard’s body nicely and was sleeveless, revealing the warrior bard’s well-developed arms. Instead of Gabrielle’s usual boots with sais sheathed alongside, tonight she was wearing white deerskin boots without the sais. Xena also knew that the bard wasn’t wearing her knife either.

The only adornment on her mate was the twisted metal of gold and silver at her wrist, her bracelet symbolizing her bonding to the warrior. Xena had a matching one on her wrist, usually tucked under her bracer.

Xena frowned slightly when two other warriors approached her and Solan. She stood up, her face questioning.

“We’re the escorts for you and the boy when it’s over,” one explained softly and the warrior nodded and sat back down on the log.

She leaned over to Solan and described how Gabrielle looked and about the two Amazons who had joined them.

“Still say you should be invited too!” Solan hissed quietly.

“No, I’ll probably never be invited to join the tribe and you know it,” Xena explained. “They’ve forgiven me for the murders all those years ago but it doesn’t erase what I did.”

“You and Gabrielle both fought Alti to fix that,” Solan insisted.

“Yes, that’s why they’ve forgiven me my crime and are honoring Gabrielle tonight. It’s alright, Solan, really,” Xena insisted.

“Still….”

“No, I understand it and accept it.” Xena said firmly. “I’m very glad that you and Sasha have been formally adopted as Gabrielle’s children and are acknowledged by the tribe.”

The Amazons led Gabrielle to the edge of the circle where Queen Otere faced them. Xena’s pulse quickened as the Queen raised a sword to the base of Gabrielle’s throat. Xena could see Gabrielle raise her head slightly, feeling the point of the blade.

“Gabrielle of Greece, you have been invited to join this tribe. You are an Amazon Queen and our Sister, will you join with us?” Otere asked loud enough for everyone to hear.

Xena held her breath. The debate over the last two weeks had been endless concerning her bard’s status in the village.

It had only been three weeks since the Greek family had traveled to the colder northern climate to visit the Northern Amazons. There had been two goals in mind for the family of Xena and Gabrielle, to make amends for what Xena had done to the tribe many years ago and for Sasha to be recognized as Gabrielle’s adopted daughter and accepted into the tribe. The tribe had readily agreed to the second goal, welcoming Sasha as Gabrielle’s adopted daughter and even accepting Xena as the Amazon Queen’s Consort.

The difficult part had been the first goal. Many summer seasons before had seen the army of Xena and Borias in the area and Xena intent on conquering everything in sight, including the Amazons. The Warlord met someone even more ambitious than she was, Alti. The evil shaman had shown Xena the power of darkness and used Xena to gain even more by persuading the warrior to slaughter the Amazon Queen and most of the Amazon leaders in a most brutal manner.

Xena and Gabrielle had gone to the Northern Amazons ready to face Xena’s past and make amends, whatever that meant. What had shocked the two women was finding out that Alti had captured the souls of the Amazons Xena had killed and held them prisoner in the Land of the Dead, not allowing them to move onto the Isle of the Dead. The evil magician used their never-ending energy to fuel her dark magics.

Xena and Gabrielle joined with the Amazons to defeat Alti, hopefully for once and for all. It had been a difficult fight and difficult choices had been made. The plan had been for Gabrielle to lead several Amazon warriors in the Spirit Realm against Alti and the tortured Spirit Amazons while Xena and the main Amazon warriors fought their way through Alti’s physical troops. Xena planned on killing Alti’s body while Gabrielle kept the Shaman’s spirit occupied in the Spirit Realm.

It had been a good plan until Alti used Gabrielle’s dark bacchae influence to surface, turning the bard into a full bacchae in the Spirit Realm. To break the spell, the Queen of the Amazons, Arja, had willingly sacrificed herself to Gabrielle’s fangs.

The distraction had been long enough for Xena to fight her way to Alti’s tent and slay the evil shaman, but only after fierce fighting and taking several serious sword wounds.

When Xena had regained consciousness she found Gabrielle catatonic from the shock of killing the Northern Amazon Queen. It had taken Xena over two days to bring the bard out of it.

Then the debate had begun, the tribe still wanted to invite Gabrielle in as a full member of the tribe and as royalty. Gabrielle protested she wasn’t worthy after killing their Queen, even if Arja had intentionally sacrificed herself. Otere, the new Queen, Yakut, and the Elders had all protested that it hadn’t been Gabrielle’s fault, that the bard was as much a victim of Alti as Arja was, but Gabrielle had been stubborn.

Finally, the Elders had won the argument by pointing out that Gabrielle had to be accepted into the tribe before Sasha could be accepted. Wanting the status for Sasha, Gabrielle had finally agreed but Xena knew that the bard still didn’t think it was right and was still feeling guilty about the death.

Now was the moment of decision for the bard and Xena held her breath and could feel the tension all around her. Every Amazon in the tribe knew how Gabrielle felt about the killing and her acceptance of it.

“I would join with my Sisters of the North,” Gabrielle answered firmly.

Xena felt her body relax as she began to breath again. She felt Solan’s hand reach out for hers and squeeze it encouragingly.

Yakut moved forward and walked behind the bard and cut her bounds.

“To join us, you must enter this circle that represents the never ending cycle of life, with a pure heart and with love for your tribe. Let there be no doubt of your commitment to this tribe. If there is doubt in your heart or soul, if you look there and find that you could not bring yourself to die for your Sisters, then fall forward on this sword or walk away. You are free to choose.” Otere challenged the young woman.

“I would gladly give my life for my Sisters of all the tribes.” Gabrielle answered, holding her place.

Otere sheathed her sword and stepped back. Yakut gently guided Gabrielle into the circle and to the altar, still leaving the bard blindfolded.

“Who speaks for this woman?” Otere demanded.

“I do,” Yakut stated and stepped forward to stand next to Gabrielle.

“You are recognized as an honored member of this tribe and as its shaman. Do you stand for this woman?” Queen Otere challenged.

“Yes, My Queen, I claim she is worthy to be our sister and challenge any who say otherwise.” Yakut answered easily.

Xena could see Gabrielle shift uneasily on her feet and the warrior could see the torment on the bard’s face. Xena knew that Gabrielle didn’t feel worthy at all, no matter who stood for her.

“Is there a challenge?” Otere asked.

Gabrielle began to reach for her blindfold.

“I stand for Gabrielle as well and claim her worthy!” a voice suddenly called out and everyone went silent.

Xena found herself on her feet as she took in the sight of the warrior standing in the center of the circle. The Amazons that were standing went to their knees, including Otere and Yakut.

Gabrielle’s face was one of confusion; she could sense the awesome silence around her.

“Remove your blindfold, Gabrielle, and face the truth,” the voice ordered.

The bard slowly removed the blindfold and blinked in the firelight, trying to get her eyes to focus. After a moment, Xena saw her mate’s face go pale and Gabrielle went to her knee and bowed her head.

“Queen Arja,” she whispered.

“Gabrielle, taking the blame for my death stops tonight. I claim you are worthy to be part of my tribe,” the spirit said simply.

“But….” Gabrielle started to protest but the Spirit held up her hand to stop any spoken protests from the bard.

“No, no challenges and no more blame. You are a worthy Amazon and you are a worthy Queen.”

Gabrielle and the other Amazons blinked when they realized that Queen Arja was no longer standing in the circle with them.

Yakut and Otere stood slowly and looked at each other and then at Gabrielle. The bard blushed under their stares of wonderment.

After a few stunned moments, Otere shook her head and continued.

“You have already faced spiritual testing, as attested to by our Queen and Shaman and the spirit of our Queen Arja. Are you ready to face the physical test?” Otere questioned the bard.

Xena frowned; Gabrielle hadn’t mentioned anything about a physical test.

“I am,” Gabrielle answered firmly.

Two Amazon warriors moved from the main body watching the ritual to stand on either side of the bard. From her position to the North of the circle, Xena could see into Gabrielle’s eyes very clearly and frowned when she saw concern.

The warrior started to stand, eyes narrowing, when a firm hand came down on her shoulder, restraining her. Before she could react, another hand came down on her other shoulder and a dagger was being held at her throat.

“Listen, Consort, we know that you can take us, just listen. This is Queen Gabrielle’s choice, alright?” one of the warriors whispered in her ear.

Xena struggled to maintain control and caught Gabrielle’s worried eyes and nodded slightly and watched the bard relax and nod to Otere and Yakut. Xena could feel Solan shift uneasily on the log.

“Solan, Gabrielle is going to go through a difficult part of the ritual and they want to make sure I stay quiet,” Xena whispered, trying to explain.

“It’s the pain part, isn’t it?” he whispered back.

Xena gritted her teeth. “I think so,” she whispered back.

“It’ll be over quickly, Consort,” one of the Amazons whispered only to be answered by a growl from the Warrior Princess.

“What do you know of it, Solan?” Xena whispered as her son reached out and took her hand in his again.

“I’m not sure about the Amazons, the Centaurs have a blood letting part of the ritual to manhood when a boy is officially recognized as a man or a new member is accepted into the tribe. We heard the Amazons had similar rituals,” he whispered back.

At a signal from Yakut the chanting and drumming began again and many of the Amazons began dancing around the circle. Otere handed Gabrielle a goblet and Xena watched as her mate drank the entire contents and then leaned back into the music and closed her eyes. It wasn’t long before the bard was swaying with the music with the other Amazons, her face taking on that trance look Xena knew well.

Gabrielle was susceptible to the hypnotic energy of music and altered easily to it. Xena also wondered what had been in the drink as she watched Gabrielle’s body relax for the first time in weeks.

The bard’s eyes didn’t even open when Otere moved closer and unlaced Gabrielle’s tunic and lifted it off over her head, leaving the initiate bare to the waist.

Xena’s felt her pulse begin pounding in her head and her heartbeat quicken. Solan, sensing the change in his mother, squeezed Xena’s hand reassuringly.

As Otere moved behind the bard, the two Amazons on either side took Gabrielle’s wrists in their hands as the bard went to her knees, her eyes still closed and body still swaying to the music.

The music picked up in beat and energy, tension filling the air and Xena felt her other hand tighten into a fist. The hands on the warrior’s shoulders tightened as Otere pulled an object from her belt and held it high for all to see. Xena felt a whimper escape her throat.

“What is it, Mom?” Solan whispered.

“A bear claw,” Xena answered, her voice strained.

The Amazons holding Gabrielle’s wrist stepped to the side, pulling the bard’s arms out to the side and tightened their hold as Otere approached the bard’s naked back, already lightly laced with scars from the lashings she had received as a Roman slave and the brand of a Gladiator slave.

“A tribal marking,” Solan commented and tightened his grip on Xena’s hand.

Otere leaned forward and whispered something in Gabrielle’s ear and the warrior saw her mate nod slightly. The Northern Amazon Queen stepped back slightly and lashed out with blinding speed with the claw, racking right across the brand that marred the bard’s shoulder from her time as a slave in Rome.

The chanting and music stopped suddenly.

The Amazons holding Xena used both hands each to hold the warrior down as she instinctively tried to jump up. The former Warlord whimpered at the sight of Gabrielle’s pain racked face as the bard bit her lower lip to keep from screaming. Sweat pouring off her body and face.

Yakut went behind the bard and caught some of the blood pouring from the four slashes along Gabrielle’s shoulder and went to the altar and poured the blood over it.

“Your blood has joined that of your Sister Amazons and you will carry those scars as a sign and reminder of your pact with us.” Yakut declared.

Xena could see the Amazons holding Gabrielle relax their hold and she could tell from Gabrielle’s eyes the bard was in an altered state from the music, the pain and the drink. The two Amazons helped Gabrielle to her feet, holding her steady.

They slowly led the bard through the crowd of Amazons and out of the circle towards the Shaman’s hut.

“They’ll tend to the wounds and make her comfortable for the night, she’ll have vision dreams tonight, Consort,” one of the Amazons holding onto Xena whispered to her. The warrior relaxed and the Amazon warriors removed their hands.

“Time for you and your son to retire to your hut, the Amazons will celebrate inside the sacred circle until dawn,” the other Amazon suggested and Xena nodded, pulling Solan to his feet.

The warrior felt drained and frustrated. She wanted to go and comfort Gabrielle but, having been through shaman rituals herself, Xena knew that wasn’t the best thing right then.

Xena knew it would be a long night.

Xena knew she wasn’t going to get much sleep but also knew that Gabrielle needed the space on this journey. Reluctantly, she let the warriors escort her and Solan back to their hut.

The warrior finally smiled when she saw Sasha curled up on the sleeping furs with one of the older girls sitting nearby, sewing some leather into something, keeping an eye on the youngster.

The girl, Lempi, smiled and went quietly out the door.

“Is Gabrielle alright?” Solan asked softly as he sat down on his sleeping furs and began to remove his boots.

“She will be, I think. It’s just hard seeing her hurt,” the warrior muttered.

“I know, like when I was hurt,” Solan commented. “I knew it almost killed you.”

Xena brushed away a tear. There wasn’t a day that she didn’t curse Brutus and the Roman soldiers who had blinded her beloved son.

“Yes, I would do anything to change that, you know that.”

“Yup, just like you’d take all the pain for Gabrielle if you could and we’d do the same for you.”

“I love you, squirt.”

“Back at you, Mom.”

Xena found herself outside her hut with chakram in hand when another scream ripped through the night. The warrior growled and rushed towards the Shaman’s hut when two Amazon warriors stepped out of the shadows with their swords drawn, blocking her.

“Xena!” Yakut cried out as she stepped out of the hut. “It’s alright, it’s only a nightmare. Gabrielle is fine!” the shaman attempted to reassure the warrior as Xena blinked rapidly, trying to think.

“She’s alright?” she demanded.

“I give you my word, it’s just the dreams.” Yakut said simply and Xena lowered the chakram. The two Amazon warriors melted back into the shadows.

“I’m sorry, automatic reaction,” Xena mumbled as Yakut walked up to her and began leading the warrior back to the guest hut.

Xena felt a shiver run over her body and looked down, realizing that she was only in her sleeping shift and nothing else, not even boots.

Yakut grinned. “You heard Gabrielle scream and was half way across the common ground before you even realized you had your eyes open,” Yakut guessed.

Xena blushed and smiled a small smile herself. “Yeah, that’s about it,” she agreed.

“I wouldn’t have expected less, Xena,” Yakut grinned and entered the hut with Xena.

“Mom?” she heard Solan’s voice in the semi-darkness. Sasha was still sleeping, fortunately.

“It’s me. Sorry about waking you.”

“I heard Gabby Mom,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair.

“She was having a nightmare, Yakut says that Gabrielle’s okay.” Xena turned to the shaman and nodded. “I won’t interfere or try and see her,” Xena promised.

“I know, a natural reaction for a blood bonded couple.” The shaman commented as she walked out the door.

Xena tried to settle back down into her sleeping furs, trying to get the sound of Gabrielle’s screams out of her mind. The warrior didn’t sleep well the rest of the night.

The next morning found Gabrielle waiting for her outside the Shaman’s hut. Xena approached her bard slowly and was glad to see Gabrielle’s welcoming smile as the bard stood up to meet her mate.

Xena drew the bard into her arms, careful of the wounds across Gabrielle’s shoulder and kissed her lightly. Xena drew back slightly to look deep into the bard’s green eyes.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Yes, no…. I don’t know. I’m still trying to sort through the dreams and visions,” Gabrielle answered, dark circles under her eyes.

“Anything I can do?” Xena asked, her face concerned.

“Maybe later,” Gabrielle muttered, eyes suddenly distant and looking troubled.

“How about breakfast?” Xena suggested and got the smile she expected and laughed at her mate. “That always gets you,” she teased and delighted when Gabrielle blushed. “I love you, Gabrielle.”

“And I love you, my warrior.” The bard answered as they began walking towards the food hut.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the scarring?” Xena asked as they walked.

“I couldn’t. They didn’t tell me what the ritual was, just that it involved some pain and I couldn’t tell you anything about it,” Gabrielle answered with a frown.

“Why not? I wouldn’t have stopped you.”

“You were allowed to be there outside the tribe because you’re my Consort and Champion and Solan because he’s our son and blind. No one else has seen the rituals outside of Amazons.”

“It was just hard for me seeing you hurt. How are the wounds?”

“Okay, hurts like Tartarus but the salve they put on it has taken most of the pain away,” Gabrielle answered as they started into the food hut.

“With your god-given gifts, how will that scar?” Xena asked softly.

“Yakut knows about my rapid healing abilities and will put a light touch of tattoo ink in the healing wounds. It won’t be as dark as a tattoo but the slashes will scar.”

Xena shook her head, still hating to see the cloth wrapping her bard’s wounds.

Gabrielle smiled softly and reached up to stroke Xena’s cheek.

“I love you too.”

The next few days puzzled the warrior. Xena expected Gabrielle to open up about her visions; instead the bard withdrew into herself. She continued to spend time with the kids and Xena and also time learning the ways of the Northern Amazons but emotionally she seemed withdrawn to the warrior.

The bard was also having bad nightmares again. Even worse than when she had returned from her captivity as a gladiator and slave. Each night Xena would wake up and soothe the dreams away until Gabrielle settled back down to sleep in her arms. The bard was getting less and less sleep and it was beginning to show.

On the fifth night after the ritual, Xena woke up in the dark, reaching for her bard to discover that side of the sleeping furs empty. The warrior frowned and waited several minutes for her mate to return. A quick glance told the warrior that Sasha and Solan were still asleep in their furs and Xena pulled the blankets and furs off and reached for her boots.

Xena found Gabrielle sitting on the same logs Solan and Xena had sat on five nights before, outside the ritual circle. The bard looked even smaller than usual wrapped in her fur cloak and huddled over into herself. The warrior knew that Gabrielle heard her approaching but the bard didn’t even look up. Xena sat down slowly.

“What’s up, little one,” she asked softly.

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat at Xena’s question and felt herself biting back tears. The bard knew she was exhausted but also scared to face the dreams. She leaned heavily against her mate’s shoulder and didn’t answer.

“Gabrielle?”

“I can’t, Xena,” she whispered.

“Can’t what, my love?” Xena encouraged, leaning her head over onto Gabrielle’s.

“I keep seeing the images in my head!”

“Ready to talk about it, little one?”

“I’ve talked with Yakut about it and I’m just more confused,” Gabrielle complained, her voice tense.

“Can you talk to me about it?” Xena questioned softly.

“Yes, no secrets. Can we move to the fire?”

“Of course,” Xena stood up and pulled Gabrielle along with her, the warrior wrapping an arm around the bard’s shoulders as they headed to the main campfire. Xena knew that several of the guards around the village had spotted them and were giving them privacy.

The couple sat down against a log, the bard leaning into Xena’s arms.

“There’s so many images, I still can’t sort them out,” the bard complained, running a hand through her short hair. “The one that is so clear scares me, my love.”

“I’m here,” Xena said, trying to reassure her mate.

“It’s us, there’s snow outside and we’re lying in a large gray place, rough ground,” Gabrielle hesitated. The bard could feel the coldness of the image creeping into her bones and huddled even closer into Xena’s arms. “We’re not moving and there’s blood everywhere. We’ve been attacked by dogs and killed.”

Xena tightened her embrace around the bard. She had been on a few shamanism journeys before and knew how real the images were to the vision traveler.

“You know I don’t believe in unchangeable Fate,” Xena said softly, gently rocking the bard as she felt Gabrielle begin crying.

“I know, I keep telling myself that. What you and Hercules always say about how we make our own fate.”

“What else did you see?” Xena asked softly.

“Some guy in a long cloak and wide hat, wolves, ravens and us with Axel and the Germans. And…”

“Go on, Gabrielle.”

“Blood, always, blood.” The bard answered softly.

“The cravings back?” the warrior asked with a frown. She was hoping that being away from Greece and the influence of Bacchus would reduce Gabrielle’s craving for blood.

Once again Xena softly cursed Bacchus and felt Gabrielle begin crying again. Xena fought back tears herself, knowing this continued to tear at her bard’s soul. Especially after killing Arja during the battle with Alti.

“Yes, getting hard to ignore,” Gabrielle finally answered.

“Yakut knows about the bacchae influence, have you asked her for advice?”

“Yes, she says that all the visions tell her is that I have to face the darkness to change the outcome of that fate. Yakut didn’t know how to do that,” the bard answered, her crying finally stopping.

“Have you tried Apollo?” Xena asked softly.

“Yes,” Gabrielle had been surprised Xena would suggest it, knowing how the warrior felt about dealing with the gods, but the God of the Sun was her father, after all. “He didn’t show. Neither did Artemis.”

Xena frowned. She knew that Gabrielle was hurt that Artemis hadn’t made an appearance to the bard when the Amazons were killed in Germania, even when the bard had mourned deeply, holding an Amazon grieving ritual and sacrificing at Artemis’ temple. Xena was puzzled by the behavior of the goddess and didn’t think it was because they found out that Apollo was Gabrielle’s father, Apollo and Artemis usually got along fairly well. It was Ares that Artemis kept trying to use for archery practice, Xena thought with a smile.

“Raw meat?” Xena suggested.

“Been there, done that. It’s getting to a point where it’s not helping,” Xena could hear the bitterness in Gabrielle’s voice and her heart ached at the sound of it. She held the bard closer in her arms.

“Animal blood?”

Gabrielle shuddered. “I… I haven’t yet,” she whispered.

“Might help,” Xena encouraged. “I could go out with the next hunting party.”

Xena drew the bard into her arms as Gabrielle broke down totally, crying and Xena carried her mate back to their hut and sleeping furs. The warrior held the tortured woman until she fell asleep again.

The warrior, however, didn’t sleep any more that night. Xena kept remembering the conversation with her mother before the Greek family had traveled north to the Amazons.

“I’m not sure what to tell you, Xena. Rare meat, even drinking animal blood might not be enough at times.” Cyrene frowned.

Xena felt a shudder. “You mean she might need human blood?”

“I don’t know. You know the Bacchae need blood to survive but it’s not just the blood. If it were they would feed on animals.” Cyrene noted.

“It’s the sexual energy that goes with the blood, the arousal and fear of a Bacchae feeding.” Xena whispered.

Xena didn’t say anything to Gabrielle when she returned the next evening from the day’s hunting, she merely handed the bard a wine flask and held the young woman tightly. The warrior tried to ignore the tears filling Gabrielle’s eyes as the bard left the hut, tears filling Xena’s eyes as well.

Xena wiped the blood from her hand and left the hut to find Solan and Sasha before dinner to get them cleaned up.

Gabrielle didn’t say anything about the animal blood but Xena noticed the bard slept the night through for the first time in days.

Xena could tell that Gabrielle was pleased when the warrior suggested that they stay with the Northern Amazons for the Winter season and travel to see their adopted Germanic family at the first frost thaw in the Spring. She knew Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli, would be visiting Axel and Eddvar about that time as well.

Xena was put to work with the blacksmith, Hillevi; and Gabrielle alternated between learning the Northern Amazon ways and the language and teaching the Northern Amazons the ways of the Southern Amazons so the rituals and traditions would be saved.

Both Gabrielle and Xena knew that special exceptions were being made for the Greek family in letting Solan stay inside the village. Males weren’t permitted to stay long in any Amazon village but his position as the adopted son of an Amazon Queen complicated things. So did his being blind. The Amazons couldn’t expect him to be welcome in any nearby village nor be able to camp outside Amazon territory in the middle of winter in Siberia.

In the end, he stayed in the village, always with an escort whenever he left the hut. Having been raised with Centaurs and allied with the Amazons, the boy understood and accepted the condition. In turn, the scouts and warriors delighted in teaching the boy fighting moves that he could do even without sight and everyone was amazed with his skill with a bow and throwing knives if he could hear the target.

Sasha and Solan also joined in learning the languages with Gabrielle. Sasha also started learning the basics of being an Amazon, from customs, to playful exercise and storytelling that passed along the history and myths of the tribe. Gabrielle had once told Xena that Sasha was smart and the Amazons were also quick to inform the warrior that she had an exceptional child, bringing a blush to the proud mother.

Xena, naturally, also helped train the warriors and scouts.

The warrior was walking across the common grounds towards the training yard when a familiar laugh caught her attention. Xena grinned and leaned against a tree as she watched Sasha and Gabrielle playing with Solan in the snow. Her mate and daughter would yell out and try to dodge as Solan launched snowballs at them while they tried to get closer to him.

Eventually the “fight” ended up as a wrestling match in the snow with a lot of laughter.

Xena turned and grinned as Otere walked up and joined the warrior watching the Southern Amazon Queen and kids.

“You’ll need to get that bunch into the sauna hut by the time they’re done,” Otere grinned.

“Yup,” Xena agreed with a smile.

“I’m glad you decided to stay with us for the winter,” the Queen smiled as they watched Gabrielle trying to get a handful of snow down the back of Solan’s jacket and Sasha tackling the bard’s legs. “I was worried that Gabrielle might not forgive herself enough to stay with us.”

“So was I,” Xena admitted. “The rest will do us all some good. It’s been a rough few years.”

“Gabrielle has told me a little bit about it. She doesn’t talk a lot about the time she was held by the Romans, is she alright with it?”

Xena lost her smile. “As well as any woman can be with being beaten, raped repeatedly, whipped, and forced into a life she never wanted.”

“I’m sorry,” Otere whispered.

“It’s alright, I guess I still feel guilty for not protecting her,” the warrior answered.

“She doesn’t blame you,” Otere said softly.

“I know and I don’t blame her, doesn’t help the guilt a lot,” Xena smiled a grim smile.

“It will ease, Consort,” Otere encouraged.

“Hey!” Xena yelped suddenly as a snowball landed right at the base of her neck, sending cold wet slush down the inside of her leather jacket.

The warrior and Amazon Queen looked over to see Solan grinning from ear to ear, still sitting in the snow and Gabrielle and Sasha trying to look innocent but giggling nonetheless.

Otere decided on a strategic retreat behind the tree while the warrior rushed over to join the wrestling match with her mate and kids before dragging them to the sauna hut to warm up.

Otere watched the interaction of the family and grinned. The Amazon Queen spotted several of the guards grinning as well and was pleased with the Council’s decision to forgive Xena her debt to the village after the battle with Alti. They were a welcome addition to the Amazons.

Yakut joined her Queen as Otere watched Xena helping her mate and kids to their feet, brushing at the wet snow sticking to their leathers. Everyone was wet, cold and laughing. The warrior wrapped her arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders as Solan picked up Sasha and they headed towards the sauna hut.

“I grew up with stories of the monster Xena.” Yakut spoke as she and Queen Otere began to walk towards the training yard. “How my mother was killed brutally, betrayed by Xena. Hearing about the blood rituals and how ruthless she and Alti both were.” Yakut pointed at the family entering the sauna hut. “That’s not the same Xena.”

“No,” Otere agreed. “I’ll tell you something, though. I’m glad this Xena is on our side, I have a feeling she’s as deadly as her former self if anything happened to her family.”

“Yes,” Yakut agreed.

Later that evening, the family sat in the meeting hall, watching some of the Amazons practicing dance moves and drumming. Several small groups were playing various games consisting of bone toss and dice. Solan was with a small group of the Amazon Scouts arm wrestling and Sasha was with the other children of the village in a play area. Xena and Gabrielle leaned against the wall near one of the fire pits, Gabrielle leaning back against her mate with Xena’s arms wrapped snuggly around her.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said, surprising Xena with the comment from nowhere.

“What for, little one?”

“For talking me into staying,” the bard answered, echoing Otere’s thoughts of earlier.

Xena grinned and hugged Gabrielle in a loving hug.

“My pleasure. I’m glad we stayed too.” Xena agreed. “Are you telling a story tonight?”

“No, not tonight. Sasha asked if she could stay with her friend Maiju and her parents for the night and Solan has offered to stay in the small guest hut.” Gabrielle informed her mate with a smile.

Xena felt additional warmth spread through her body and leaned down to lightly nuzzle her bard’s neck, sending shivers down Gabrielle’s spine. Gabrielle sighed and leaned further back into Xena’s embrace, leaning up to capture Xena’s lips with hers.

Xena leaned back after a long kiss and grinned. “You mean we’re alone for the night.”

“Yes,” Gabrielle confirmed with a grin.

“After that battle today, I’m a little tired, maybe we should turn in early,” Xena suggested with an evil grin that caused Gabrielle’s heart to skip a beat.

“I agree, that was a ferocious battle today, our leathers are still soaking wet,” Gabrielle agreed.

Svetlana grinned and pointed to the couple leaving the main hut to her Queen as they discussed winter supplies. Otere looked up and smiled as well.

“Good, they need some time,” Otere muttered.

Deep into the third month with the Amazons, the snow was thick and most of the time was spent inside the huts, working on indoor crafts; repairing weapons, making new ones, sewing new clothing and repairing old, teaching snow skills to the youngsters and the Greeks, and telling stories and histories of the Amazons.

It also meant long hours of darkness with almost no sun at all, something the Greeks weren’t accustomed to and the Amazons worked hard at keeping them busy, knowing that the lack of sun and being caught indoors for long periods of time could be deadly on the mind and spirit.

Towards the end of the month Gabrielle began tossing and turning in her sleep, caught up in nightmares again. The bard also noticed her appetite decreasing, which was astounding, as Xena would tease her if she noticed. Gabrielle began trying to avoid sleeping, which was difficult with Xena right by her side. The bard silently cursed the warriors astounding instincts. The warrior always seemed to know when Gabrielle tossed and turned and was awake instantly.

The bard also noticed her hands shaking more and her nerves on edge more and more.

Xena had noticed Gabrielle’s lack of sleep and nervousness and suspected what was causing it. What concerned her was that Gabrielle hadn’t come to her with it yet.

After a week of the situation building up, Xena was determined to get her bard to talk to her. The warrior waited until she saw Gabrielle talking with Otere outside the main hut and approached them slowly. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was engrossed in whatever she and Otere were talking about and tired; she didn’t hear the warrior approach from behind.

When Xena walked up behind the bard and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder she was surprised when Gabrielle yelped and spun on her heel, bringing her fist up in a defensive blow. Only the warrior’s years of well-honed experience and instincts kept the bard’s fist from connecting with her nose. Her hand caught Gabrielle’s wrist and stopped the fist just short of her nose.

Gabrielle’s eyes went wide with shock as she slowly lowered her hand.

“Xena! I’m sorry!”

Xena grinned as Otere and the bard tried to calm their breathing. “It’s okay, no harm. I should have said something.”

“I almost hit you!” Gabrielle protested, falling into Xena’s arms, tears welling up in her eyes.

“You almost got me too, quick reflexes!” Xena smiled, holding the bard tight. The warrior looked up and Otere nodded and went back inside the hut, leaving the two alone. “Time to talk, little one,” the warrior said softly.

“Okay,” Gabrielle agreed, not meeting Xena’s eyes.

The warrior led them back to their hut, knowing that Solan was off helping with the cooking and Sasha was learning Amazon history. She stirred up the fire and sat down on the furs. Gabrielle, instead of snuggling in Xena’s arms, sat a couple of feet away on the furs next to the fire.

Xena’s heart felt heavy as she saw the pain in her mate’s eyes.

“The cravings are back and getting strong again,” Gabrielle said simply, her hands clenched into fists.

“How can I help, raw meat?” Xena asked, the concern thick in her voice.

“Been doing that all week,” Gabrielle said bitterly, turning her eyes away from Xena and staring into the fire. “When do the hunters go out again?”

“Svetlana says in the morning, actually. I’ll go with them,” Xena said simply.

“Okay,” the bard said softly.

Xena reached forward to wipe a tear away from Gabrielle’s cheek and gently drew the bard into her arms.

Xena found the wine skin she had used the month before hanging on the door when she got up early before Gabrielle and Solan.

The warrior wiped away a tear of her own as she looked down on her sleeping mate.

Later that day Gabrielle entered the dark hut to grab her new quill from her packs when a noise from the shadows stopped her hand in mid reach.

“Who’s there?” she called, eyes narrowing in the semi dark room.

The Amazon Queen’s eyebrows rose in surprise and question as Solan and his escort stepped into the light from the smoke hole in the ceiling. Both were blushing furiously. The escort, Reija, was pulling at her tunic to straighten it.

“Oh Hades,” the bard muttered, realizing what she had just walked in on and what that could mean on Amazon land. “Reija, would you leave me with my son, please?” she asked calmly. “And light the lamps on your way out.”

“Yes, Queen Gabrielle,” the girl muttered.

Gabrielle didn’t correct the young Amazon teen in her preferred non-use of her title, instead letting the Amazon acknowledge her fear through the use of Gabrielle’s title.

The girl quickly lit the lamps and scurried out the door, hiding her face in the hood of her cloak.

Solan shifted on his feet, his head lowered.

Gabrielle sat down on the furs next to the fire.

“Sit down, Solan,” she ordered, her voice firm but betraying no emotions.

He sat quickly and waited and Gabrielle made him wait for several moments.

“Want to explain?” she finally asked.

“Not really,” he grinned a lopsided grin, reminding the bard of his mother.

“Give!” she ordered.

“I don’t know,” his face changed to one of distress. “We’ve gotten close and everything gets confused whenever she’s around. It’s like I can’t think straight, I can’t focus, and I hear her voice or scent of her special soap and my heart stops and I can’t breath.”

“Oh gods, you’re in love,” the bard muttered, running a hand through her short hair and shrugging off her coat.

“Is this what it feels like?” he asked softly.

“I don’t know. You’re both young,” she frowned.

“How old were you when you met Mom?” he questioned, shifting on the furs.

“Seventeen summers and you’re only sixteen winters old, how old is Reija?” she asked.

“Seventeen winters,” he muttered.

“Terrific,” Gabrielle muttered. “Does she feel the same?”

“Yes, she knew the consequences if we got caught,” he muttered.

“Do you know the consequences?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Yes,” he answered, dropping his head again.

“Tell me,” Gabrielle insisted.

“Blinding, castration, death, banishment, becoming a slave to the Queen, depending on how…” he stammered.

“Depending on how far the violation went,” Gabrielle finished for him.

“It was consensual!” he protested.

“I know that, I never suspected otherwise. It could still be serious for both of you. Banishment for her and worse for you.” Gabrielle shook her head. “Why didn’t you come to me?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered, suddenly sounding young again. “We thought we could handle it and it wouldn’t go anywhere.”

“Terrific,” the Amazon Queen muttered. “How long have you two been making out?”

Solan began blushing even more. “I… uh…”

“Give!” Gabrielle growled.

“I… uh… this was the fifth time,” he finally admitted.

“Oh Hades!” Gabrielle snapped. “This is serious. How far have you two gotten?”

“Mom!” the young teen protested.

“Talk!”

“Just kissing!” he protested.

“And?” she demanded.

The boy began blushing an even brighter red. “I’ve felt under her shirt,” he whispered.

“And how far did she get?” Gabrielle asked.

“My shirt off and teasing my… uh…”

“Nipples or lower?”

“Mom!” Solan squeaked. “Nipples.”

“Okay, it might help that you’re both still virgins,” she muttered.

“MOM!”

“Quiet, I need to think about what to do with both of you,” she ordered.

“Could we just keep quiet?” he asked hopefully.

“No, I’m an Amazon Queen, damn it! I can’t just ignore something this major!”

“Ignore what, my love?”

Both son and mate turned to see Xena entering the door. Solan began blushing all over again while Gabrielle turned to look at him and glare.

Xena raised her eyebrows at Gabrielle’s obvious anger and her son’s distress. She was surprised when the bard got to her feet, taking her coat with her.

“Ask your grown up son,” Gabrielle muttered as she brushed past the warrior and out the door. “I need to think.”

Xena turned to find Solan’s head lowered and the teenager still blushing.

Xena found Gabrielle in the exercise hut, practicing with her sais, going through complicated gladiator fighting moves. The bard had worked up a sweat and had an intense look on her face.

Her jaw tightened when she noticed Xena enter the hut. Gabrielle finished the set of moves and approached her mate.

Xena noted the bard’s stubborn jaw and her cat-like walk and knew Gabrielle was still upset. The warrior sat down on one of the benches and waited for her mate to join her.

“Don’t ask me to ignore this,” Gabrielle stated flatly.

“I won’t.”

“Oh gods, this is serious, Xena,” Gabrielle sat down and leaned on the warrior’s shoulder.

“Even more serious than you think,” Xena said softly and Gabrielle sat up to look in her mate’s eyes. “Reija is willing to leave the tribe for Solan, they were planning on running away to Greece in the Spring.”

“By the gods!” Gabrielle whispered in shock. An Amazon willing to leave her tribe and lifetime of training and dedication for a male was almost unheard of. Usually if an Amazon fell in love with a male, he would live near the village and the Amazon would spend time with him but her first loyalty was to the tribe.

Xena nodded, unhappily. This was complicated and probably going to get more complicated very quickly.

“Where’s the girl?”

“I don’t know, I sent her out of the hut when I caught them.”

Xena smiled a small smile. “That must have been interesting!”

Gabrielle lightly punched her warrior on the arm with a smile and then became serious again. “Good thing it was me, any other Amazon might have killed him before thinking or asking questions.”

“I know and they were bound to be caught eventually. What do we do?”
“I want to talk to the girl and Solan and then we go to Queen Otere,” Gabrielle

said simply. “Meet me back at our hut?” she asked as she stood up.

Xena rose to her feet and lightly kissed her bard’s lips. “Yes,” she responded.

The warrior watched the bard put her coat on and head for the door, her walk still determined. Xena looked around at the training area and was tempted to whack a couple of the wooden post with her sword as well. She sighed heavily and headed towards their hut.

Gabrielle quickly tracked the young scout down in the main food hall. The young teenager was sitting quietly with her friends at a table. Most everyone glanced up when Gabrielle entered the long hall and nodded in recognition and went back to their games, food, or talking. Reija went pale and her friends surrounding her noticed the look on her face and how quiet she was when the Southern Queen entered.

As Gabrielle walked towards the table everyone sitting went quiet, sensing something out of place and feeling the tension.

“Reija, come with me, please,” Gabrielle ordered simply, her face firm. Without waiting for a response she turned on her heel and walked towards the door.

A low hum of interest sprung up around the room as the Amazons began wondering what that intense scene had been about. Gabrielle could imagine the girl blushing and brushing off whispered questions as she rose to follow the bard.

The bard entered the hut and hung up her coat without a word and motioned for the scout to sit on the furs next to the fire pit, Xena and Solan already sitting down. Xena kept quiet, letting Gabrielle take control of the situation. As an Amazon Queen the bard was better equipped to deal with this. She sat down, her face still serious.

Xena had watched the scout enter the hut after her wife and took close notice of the Amazon. She had trained a few times under Xena, the warrior reflected. She knew Reija was a good scout, adequate warrior and excellent cook. The girl was the same height as Solan and looked like she was at the end of most of her growth, Xena thought to herself. The boy would probably end up a few inches taller in a year. Whereas Solan’s hair was blond and fine, Reija’s was dark and thick, cut short like a lot of the scouts. Her blue eyes were a deep blue and she was cute and would be beautiful, Xena concluded.

Not that Solan could see her beauty. A bad sign, Xena thought, which reduced the possibility that it was lust that could be handled.

“Reija, Solan, you’ve both had time to think. You both know you should have come to us before it got this far, you also know what the consequences could be. What solution would you come up with?” Gabrielle questioned.

Neither teenager spoke, both Gabrielle and Xena’s quick eyes caught Reija’s hand reaching out to Solan’s.

“Reija, what do you feel for Solan? You knew the risk you were taking,” Gabrielle said, her face softening a little.

“I don’t want to live without him, it’s like he’s a light in my life.”

“Why didn’t you come to us or the Elders? You know they probably would approve a match between the two of you,” Gabrielle asked.

“I didn’t want an Amazon bonding,” Reija answered softly.

Gabrielle and Xena were stunned.

“Have you heard of this?” Xena asked softly.

“Not at her age,” Gabrielle answered. There were cases of teenagers deciding they wanted the life outside the village and they were released from the tribe if they could find a family to take them in. Never had an Amazon of Reija’s age been willing to leave the life for any reason, even for marriage.

“Solan wants to return to Greece but he would be willing to stay here and live outside the village but that’s not what I want. I want a regular marriage with Solan.” Reija answered.

Gabrielle looked at her mate and frowned when Xena merely shrugged, indicating she didn’t know what to do either.

“Solan?” Gabrielle asked.

“I love her, Mom, and I want to marry her.”

“We have to go to the council,” Gabrielle looked at her mate and the warrior nodded in agreement.

“Mattita is the Council Elder and has decision in law, she won’t agree!” Reija protested, tightening her grip in Solan’s hand.

“Why not, if you’re not happy in the village and it’s a good match, he is the son of an Amazon Queen,” Xena asked.

“She’s my mother,” Reija whispered, a tear running down her cheek.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered. Mattita was one of the most traditionally minded Amazons Gabrielle had ever known. She had voted against Solan staying in the village in the first place, Gabrielle remembered. Mattita was very anti-male and anti-world in general.

“We don’t have a choice, little one,” Xena said simply.

“I know. Who to go to first and how?” Gabrielle mused while the teenagers shifted uneasily. “Xena, you’ll stay with Solan until someone comes to escort the two of you, probably to the Queen’s hut.” Xena nodded. “I’ll take Reija to Yakut.”

“Why Yakut?” Xena questioned and was surprised when the bard started blushing.

“So she can swear to the Council that Reija hasn’t been touched by Solan beyond the lips,” she muttered. Xena joined her mate and teenagers in blushing as well with a muttered curse.

“I won’t let him be hurt,” Xena warned.

“I know, if it comes to it, we’ll leave the village,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Gabrielle,” Xena started to protest.

“No, Xena, if it comes to it we’ll all leave together,” Gabrielle cut short the warriors argument that she and Solan would leave and leave Gabrielle and Sasha safe.

Xena grumbled but nodded muttering a curse that her mate knew her so well.

The bard motioned for the young Amazon to follow her and grabbed her coat again.

The arguing went on for two days between the Elders, Queens, and the teenagers.

It was the evening of the second day when Otere finally exited the meeting hut and dashed across the snow to the Southern Queen’s hut. Slamming the door against the wind, she took a moment for her eyes to adjust and took in the occupants looking at her, trying to read her expression.

Solan was sitting against the wall with an older Amazon warrior standing beside him, his new escort. Sasha playing at his feet with a wooden horse and soldier. Reija was sitting near the fire pit with Gabrielle, while Xena sat on a stool, sharpening her sword. Otere noticed the warrior was wearing her chakram as well. A quick glance at the other Amazon Queen confirmed her sudden suspicion. Gabrielle had her sais in their boot sheaths and a dagger at her belt.

Otere suddenly wasn’t sure if they could take the boy easily from his two moms if it came to that.

“The Council has decided for immediate banishment of them both,” she said quietly, trying to keep her face neutral.

“Over my dead body,” Xena growled with her eyes narrowing.

“You know that sending them out this time of season would mean their deaths if the nearest village or farmstead didn’t take them in!” Gabrielle protested.

“I know,” Otere said, her weariness suddenly showing plainly to everyone, even Solan could hear it in her voice. “I’ve been fighting with the Council for two days, Gabrielle. Mattita has many friends on the Council and a couple of others owe her. It’s the decision.”

“How can a mother send her child out to die?” Xena demanded.

“Mattita, my mother, gave up on me a long time ago,” Reija stated. “We never agreed on contact with outsiders and especially about contact with men. Her plan is to have men as slaves to keep the Amazon tribe alive but nothing more than slaves.”

“For work and breeding only?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Yes,” Reija nodded. “I disagreed loudly and she disowned me as her daughter.”

“Then we’ll leave in the morning,” Gabrielle stated, her eyes blazing in anger.

“Not you Gabrielle, just Solan and Reija,” Otere protested.

“That’s my son!” Gabrielle snapped back, “If he leaves, we all leave.”

“You can’t take Sasha out in this!” Otere frowned.

“Not my choice!” Gabrielle snapped back.

Otere held up her hands to try and calm the moment. “Let me talk to the Council again, we were afraid of this,” she muttered, heading back out the door.

“What if they won’t let me and Sasha leave?” Gabrielle asked Xena as the warrior continued sharpening her sword, her face with a deep scowl.

“I don’t know and I don’t want to know,” Xena muttered.

“We can’t fight the Amazons,” Gabrielle muttered.

“I know, love, I know,” Xena muttered back.

It was another candle mark before Otere returned. By then Sasha was asleep and Reija lightly dozing. The scout hadn’t gotten much sleep over the two days of debating and it was finally catching up with her and she lay with her head in Gabrielle’s lap. Xena tried not to grin at the tenderness the bard was showing to the wayward Amazon. She knew Gabrielle couldn’t help it, no matter how mad she wanted to be at the two teenagers.

Reija woke up at the chilled wind crashing through the hut when Otere opened and entered the dwelling, leaning against the door to shut it behind her.

“The Council has decided to hold off banishment until the Ice Month.”

Gabrielle turned to Xena, “Three moons from now,” the warrior answered.

“Until then?” Gabrielle turned back to Otere.

“Until then Solan will have an older escort, as will Reija. They will be allowed to see each other with other Amazons present. Since he is the son of an Amazon Queen, a marriage ritual will be performed in the Ice Month before they leave the village and any daughters they have will be accepted as Amazons.” Otere stated.

Xena was still frowning. “The Ice Month is also known as the Moon of Death. There’s no game, food is short, and the snow melts and then freezes into ice. Walking through that is like walking through a field of knives, Otere,” she growled.

Gabrielle matched her frown and turned to the Northern Queen, her face questioning.

Otere clenched her jaw. “Yes, the odds aren’t good for surviving but it’s the best I could do.”

“All right, enough for now,” Gabrielle ordered. “Everyone’s alive, no one’s fighting and we’ve reached a compromise we can live with for now.”

“Reija, go join your sisters in your hut,” Otere ordered and the teenager jumped to her feet. She glanced over towards Solan, confusion on her face. “Don’t think about it, just go for now.” Otere advised.

“Goodnight, everyone. Queen Gabrielle, Xena, thank you for fighting for us,” the girl said softly.

“Of course, you’re about to become family,” Gabrielle countered with a smile and opened her arms for the youngster and hugged the teen.

Xena smiled at her mate’s warmth again. No one could stay mad at Gabrielle or resist her for long. It always amazed Xena that the bard didn’t seem to even know she possessed that quality.

“What are the conditions on Solan’s escort, does she now live with us?” Gabrielle questioned.

“No, just don’t let him out of your sight or assign him an escort if one of you isn’t going to be with him.”

The escort left the hut with her Northern Queen, leaving the Greek family alone again.

“Get Sasha to bed and you follow, Solan,” Xena ordered, putting her sword aside with a sigh.

She looked up to find Gabrielle standing near her. The bard went behind her warrior and began massaging Xena’s shoulders. They were all tired after the stress of the two days.

“Mom,” Xena looked up to see Solan standing nearby, his head low.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry and thank you,” he said, shuffling his feet.

“It’s okay and you’re welcome. Nobody asks to fall in love, it just hits you.”

The young man moved off towards his sleeping furs.

“How bad is the weather in the Ice Month?” Gabrielle whispered, as the young man got ready for bed.

“There’s a chance if we can get to a river that’s thawing and canoe down to warmer weather. It’s a slim chance though and I don’t think the Amazons are going to let you and Sasha take that chance.” Xena growled.

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked, working on the warrior’s muscles.

“You are both Amazon royalty. I don’t think they’d let you risk that.”

“You think they’d try to hold us against our wills and send the rest of you out?” Gabrielle frowned. She knew Otere wouldn’t do that but what about Mattita? The bard could imagine the older Amazon using it as a chance to force Gabrielle into renouncing her tie to the tribe.

“I don’t know and I don’t know what we’d do if they tried. Like you said, we can’t fight Amazons,” Xena muttered.

“Let’s think about it tomorrow, I’m tired,” Gabrielle suggested.

“Yes, keep your weapons close though,” Xena advised.

Gabrielle shook her head in disbelief that they might be attacked by the Amazons during the night but kept her sais close at to hand.

The next full moon found Gabrielle with her intense cravings again and no fresh meat. It took three days of hunting for the small band of Amazon scouts to bring down a thin deer. The time it took for the hunt had left Gabrielle plagued by the cravings.

When Xena returned from the hunt she found Gabrielle curled in their sleeping furs, almost in tears from the blood need. The warrior quickly shut the door and dropped the fur coverings against the cold wind and crossed to Gabrielle’s side with the wine skin filled with the dark red liquid the bard couldn’t seem to live without. Without taking time to take off her coat and fur wrappings, she knelt by the bard and touched Gabrielle’s shoulder.

Only years of warrior experience kept the surprise off Xena’s face when Gabrielle opened her eyes and Xena saw the green eyes were mostly yellow now with the blood need.

Without a word the bard took the wine skin and turned away from her mate. Fighting back a lump in her throat, Xena turned and began climbing out of her coat and layers of fur. By the time she had finished stripping down to comfortable layers and returned to the fire, Gabrielle had finished off the wine skin’s contents and was sitting up.

The bard wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Xena sat down next to Gabrielle, resisting taking the woman into her arms immediately. “Where are the kids?” she asked simply.

“With Yakut and Karita. I didn’t want them around me right now.” Gabrielle whispered.

“Been bad?” Xena’s face showed the compassion and pain she was feeling for her wife.

“Yes,” Gabrielle admitted. “Thank you.”

Xena reached her arm out and drew Gabrielle close to her and felt the bard beginning to relax.

“What happens when you can’t find any game?” the bard whispered after a few minutes.

“I’ve talked with Yakut, they slaughter a couple of sheep next month, she’ll make sure we get some of the blood.”

“Oh gods, I can’t believe this is happening!”

“I know, little one, but we’ll get through it.”

Xena wasn’t surprised when the bard fell asleep in her arms a short time later. She had known that Gabrielle hadn’t slept well in a week.

At the beginning of the month of the Ice Moon Xena was surprised to find Gabrielle, Yakut and Otere huddled in the Queen’s hut for hours at a time and was beginning to get frustrated when none of them would tell the warrior anything after three days of being secluded away.

She was relieved when Gabrielle asked Xena to join the trio in the Queen’s Hut after the evening meal.

As Xena approached the Queen’s Hut and entered the door she was surprised to find that there weren’t any guards anywhere in sight. She frowned as she took in the numerous scrolls spread across the table of the Queen’s hut. Gabrielle got up from a chair and leaned up to kiss her mate. Xena welcomed the bard into her arms and frowned when she looked into Gabrielle’s eyes.

“Okay, what’s up? None of you have slept for three days,” she demanded.

“We need to leave, Xena,” Gabrielle said simply.

“The Moon isn’t for another two weeks,” Xena frowned.

“According to Northern Amazon law, any Amazon can be held against their will during the winter months to prevent them from leaving the village if their lives are in danger,” Otere stated.

“What?”

“It’s used to justify locking up those Amazons that occasionally go snow mad from being locked up all winter. We lock them in the prisoner hut and talk with them and work them out of their madness.” Otere answered.

“You plan on holding Gabrielle and Sasha against their wills when you force Solan, Reija and I out of the Village?” Xena demanded with her eyes narrowing.

“No, not us, but the Council.”

“Not me, Xena, just Sasha,” Gabrielle explained further.

“Our daughter? They want to take Sasha from us?”

Yakut winced at the anger flashing through the clear blue eyes dancing over them, demanding answers. Otere couldn’t face those eyes either and dropped her head.

“Yes, Mattita wants Sasha out of revenge for Reija leaving,” Gabrielle said bitterly.

“We won’t let them, they won’t fight us,” Xena stated in a flat voice.

“Yes, they will. According to Northern Amazon law, you can’t challenge the Law Speaker and the Amazons would be forced to take Sasha from you, by force, if necessary,” Otere answered.

“I take it since the three of you have been pouring over the scrolls for three days and nights, you aren’t in favor of Mattita’s plans and that you haven’t found a legal way to fight her,” Xena deduced and the three of them nodded unhappily.

“We have to get out of here, we don’t know when she’s going to make her move. She resents Otere being given the right of caste by Arja and resents me as an outsider,” Gabrielle explained.

“And she hates me because I know her secret,” Xena said grimly.

Three sets of eyebrows rose in question.

“The day of my attack, Mattita was there. When the Amazons chased me to the trees and the killing began, she ran,” Xena explained.

Otere’s eyes were wide with surprise and Yakut sat down heavily in her chair.

“She says that she was scouting away from the area that day,” Otere muttered.

“Cyrene was counting on her to watch her lieutenant’s back and Mattita ran, leaving the lieutenant open to my traps.”

“Her Lieutenant?” Yakut asked softly.

“Yes, she was caught on one of the tree branches,” Xena answered.

“Kaisu, her name was Kaisu,” Yakut whispered and Otere quickly moved around the table and wrapped her arms around her friend and shaman.

Xena sank into a chair, realization hitting her. “Your mother, that was your mother?” she whispered.

“Yes, and Mattita betrayed her?” Yakut demanded, eyes flashing brightly with anger.

“Terrific,” Gabrielle muttered, running a hand through her short hair. “Can this help us fight her?”

“I don’t know,” Otere said thoughtfully. “I don’t think so. Xena is accepted and forgiven but Mattita’s word would probably be taken over hers about anything happening on that day.”

“But she’s planning on using your support of us as the beginning of a coup, if we point out that she’s not worthy of being a Queen then she can’t try it,” Gabrielle protested.

“She’s got a lot of support, it would cause a civil war,” Otere countered.

“So the solution is still for us to make a run for it,” Gabrielle commented bitterly.

“Yes,” Yakut agreed.

“What’s the plan then?” Xena asked.

“You’re the soldier,” Gabrielle muttered, resting her head in her hands, elbows on the table.

“First thing, they’ll know something’s up, everyone knows you three have been in here non-stop for three days. We need to come up with something to distract them and divert their attention,” Xena suggested.

“We’ll tell them the truth, that we’ve been pouring over the scrolls trying to find an answer to keeping Reija from being banished into the winter snow,” Otere suggested.

“Good, convince everyone of that, nothing about the plan to keep Sasha,” Xena urged.

“Won’t Mattita use this against you if we leave?” Gabrielle asked.

“She’ll try but nothing’s been officially decided about holding you or Sasha here yet,” Otere grinned.

“Now, we plan on getting out of here.” Xena bent over the map.

Xena had decided to make a run for it from the village using canoes along the river until they hit the coast and then double back onto land and make a run for the lands of the Germans.

The plan had been simple, wait until the next feast night, slip out and make a run for it in the night with several trusted Amazons helping them get out of the Village.

The conspirators had noticed an increase in tension around the village and several of Mattita’s trusted Amazons hanging around the Greek family more.

The night of the Solstice celebration found all the Amazons but a handful in the main hall for the celebration of the longest night of the year. Only a few scouts were away from the village in scout huts along the perimeter of the Amazon territory. Since being out in the middle of winter in the Russian north was suicide, the scouts wouldn’t be venturing outside their huts during the night and very little during the day either.

Xena was counting on that.

The warrior noticed Mattita watching her and Gabrielle closely and concentrated on the celebration, breaking into a grin when she spotted Gabrielle teaching Sasha and several of the children some of the dance moves of the Southern Amazons to the delight of most of the Amazons as well.

Gabrielle looked over at her mate and grinned, sending a flush over Xena’s body. The warrior noticed Mattita’s scowl and smiled to herself. Leaving the kids to fend for themselves with their new dance steps, Gabrielle approached Xena slowly, leaning up to kiss the warrior’s lips as they sat down on one of the benches lining the walls, Xena drawing the bard into her arms.

It was obvious to everyone who happened to glance at the couple that they would probably be retiring to their sleeping furs early and not to sleep.

Yakut was standing next to Otere as they both also noticed the Greek couple embracing on one of the benches. Yakut grinned at Otere and shrugged, seemingly amused by the obvious devotion and passion of the two. Mattita didn’t notice that all four were also taking notice of her scowl and observation of them.

“It’s going well,” Yakut commented softly to Otere. “Solan’s in the guest hut, guarded by one of your guards during the feasting and those two have got me convinced they should leave and find a corner somewhere.”

Otere grinned and nodded in agreement as they watched Gabrielle’s hands run through Xena’s hair as they kissed passionately and both of them caught their breath as the warrior’s head moved down and her teeth lightly nipped Gabrielle’s neck, causing the bard to toss her head back in arousal.

No one was surprised when Gabrielle stood up quickly and pulled Xena to her feet after her. Several grins and a couple of scowls followed the couple as they headed for the door.

“I’ll follow in a few minutes, taking Sasha to the guest hut,” Yakut confirmed.

“Right. My guard is already taking Reija to the guest hut. Our Amazons have already been slipping out during the night. The canoes should be packed and ready to go by the time you get to the hut. Xena and Gabrielle will meet you at the canoes.”

“Just keep that bitch’s attention when I leave with Sasha,” Yakut muttered.

Otere nodded and moved off to the food table.

*******

“Xena, what is it?” Gabrielle’s voice drifted through the cold night air to the warrior along with the sounds of the river flowing around the canoes.

“Ice blocking the river, we’ll see if we can clear a path,” Xena called back softly, listening to the sound of the canoe following hers scrap against the ice filling most of the river as Gabrielle, Sasha and Reija slowed to a stop behind Solan and Xena.

“Solan, take the axe,” Xena instructed, handing over the axe handle first to the boy’s outstretched hand. “Lean out and see if you can whack through it.”

The teenager began hacking away at the ice and then stopped suddenly at the sound of a voice coming out of the darkness.

“Gabrielle!”

“Mattita!” Reija hissed, leaning over into the canoe, hoping they would blend into the shadows of the ice chunks flowing in the river.

“Quiet, everyone!” Xena growled.

“Gabrielle! We know you’re there,” the harsh voice called.

“Xena?” the bard called softly.

“Move up here as close as you can, Solan, keep chopping!” Xena ordered.

“Gabrielle, just come back to the village with Sasha, nothing will happen to you!” Mattita called.

“Mum?” Sasha’s voice caught the bard’s attention from her position in the canoe in between Gabrielle and Reija.

“What, Sasha?” the bard whispered as Reija guided their canoe up just behind Xena and Solan’s.

“She’s lying,” the child whispered from around her fur clothing.

“What about?”

“She wants to hurt you,” the child whispered tearfully.

“How do you know that?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in thought.

“I don’t know, I just do.”

“Okay, you let me know whenever you know something like that,” the bard instructed and noted the child’s nodding head. “Mattita, let us go. We’re leaving the village like the council wanted.”

“Your daughter is too valuable to risk to the snow and ice of the Ice Month,” the voice called back, slightly further down the bank.

“You can’t expect Xena to leave her mate and child behind? Are you insane?” Gabrielle called as her ears kept notice of Solan’s chopping.

“Come back to the village, I’ll suspend the banishment until the Spring thaw, Solan and Reija can leave in safety and you, Xena and Sasha can stay in the village.” Mattita answered.

“She’s moving down the river on the embankment with several warriors on both sides of the river,” Xena called softly to the bard.

“I know, probably archers, Sasha says she’s lying.”

“How does she know that? Never mind, child of gods,” the warrior muttered.

“You can’t force us to stay in the village past the winter!” Gabrielle shouted back.

The bard felt both canoes move slightly as Xena’s canoe moved forward a few feet through the chopped ice and Reija’s canoe followed.

“Sasha is special and must stay!” Mattita yelled.

“Why? You don’t want me as part of your tribe? Why Sasha?”

“She’s the child of gods! I heard you talking to Yakut about her! Whatever her powers turn out to be, they can benefit the tribe!”

“Xena?” Gabrielle hissed into the darkness.

“Damnit! She’ll kill us and take Sasha back,” Xena answered.

“The ice?”

“Almost there, it sounds clear for a good stretch past this point, get ready.”

“How could I trust your word?” Gabrielle demanded to the darkness. “How could I trust an Amazon that shows cowardice in a fight and leaves her lieutenant, Yakut’s mother, to die?”

Angry silence greeted the bard’s accusation.

“Now!” Xena hissed as her canoe began to move through the narrow passage Solan had created with the axe.

“Archers!” Mattita’s voice commanded in the dark and fire arrows lit up the sky, revealing the canoes on the iced river.

“No!” Xena screamed, “Solan, down!”

Gabrielle turned and covered Sasha’s body with her own as Reija watched Xena begin paddling frantically as arrows came flying out of the dark.

Gabrielle yelped as an arrow embedded itself into the canoe two inches in front of her nose.

“Amazons would kill a Queen and her children?” she demanded to the Amazons in the dark.

“Don’t force this, Gabrielle!” Mattita called.

“She’s insane!” Reija hissed.

More arrows began raining on them. Reija’s eyes widened in fear as she saw Xena trying to lean forward to protect Solan. Both Reija and Gabrielle screamed as they watched the warrior snatch two arrows out of the air before they could land in the boy’s back but the next two arrows landed in Xena’s back.

The warrior fell forward in the canoe.

“Mom?” Solan called out.

“She’s hurt, Solan, keep paddling, get out of there! Let the current take you!” Reija ordered.

“Xena!” Gabrielle called.

Reija paddled their canoe through the narrow passage when another round of arrows came out of the darkness.

Gabrielle yelped as an arrow hit her shoulder. She quickly caught the paddle before it hit the water.

“Damnit!” she cursed, her left arm useless.

“Just let the current take us,” Reija ordered.

Gabrielle bit her lip to keep focused on guiding the canoe, thankful when the arrows stopped landing in the canoe and water around them as they began to put some distance between them and the Amazons.

“Solan?” she called out as the shouts of the Amazons died down.

“Mom won’t answer me!” he shouted back.

“Keep going! We’ve got to put some miles between us and the Amazons!” Reija urged.

“She’s right, try keeping the canoe pointed straight,” Gabrielle yelled.

“How do I know that?” he complained.

“If it feels like you’re turning in the water, try and paddle the other way,” Reija instructed.

After a few minutes, Gabrielle was leaning heavily to one side and the paddle felt like a weight in her hand. The bard pulled it inside the canoe before she dropped it.

“I think I’m losing a lot of blood, Reija and we need to see about Xena,” she said simply as blackness began to overtake her.

Gabrielle moaned and opened her eyes slowly.

“Mom?” she heard Solan’s voice asking as his hand touched her face.

“Yes, what happened?” she whispered, looking around.

“You passed out, Reija and I made camp and carried you both up here,” he answered.

Gabrielle noticed they were right by the river in a small clearing. Somehow they had found dry ground and Reija had two fires going and they had put the bard and Xena in between them. Xena was lying on the sleeping furs, face down, still unconscious.

“How is she?” Gabrielle asked and then moaned at the flash of pain in her shoulder. She raised the furs and looked at the bandage and tested the shoulder and nearly screamed at the pain.

“She won’t wake up. I thought with the god healing thing she would be okay,” he said in a rush, his emotions over-riding his words.

“Help me over there,” she said simply.

Reija walked over from the other side of the fire and helped Solan gently raise the bard to a sitting position and let her move slowly around until she was next to Xena. They both waited while Gabrielle examined the wounds. The bard looked at Reija and saw that the Amazon knew how serious the wounds were.

“Solan, one of the arrows may have pierced her heart,” the bard whispered.

“No, please!” the boy begged.

“We need to find shelter, she needs to recover.”

“Mattita will keep on, we can’t stay here!” Reija protested.

“She can’t be moved much more!” Gabrielle countered, feeling lightheaded.

“There’s a trapper cabin a couple of miles down the river, we can make for that and hope the Amazons won’t follow,” Reija suggested.

“Okay, at first light,” Gabrielle muttered, only vaguely realizing darkness was claiming her again.

The bard opened her eyes as she felt herself gently swaying and found herself looking into extremely blue eyes and smiled softly.

“Sasha,” she whispered, discovering her throat was dry.

“Mum,” the child smiled, holding the bard’s hand as the stretcher swayed along.

Gabrielle looked up and found Solan carrying one end and assumed that Reija was carrying the other.

“Xena?” she questioned.

“Already in the cabin. We moved her first.” Solan answered.

The next few days were spent with Solan and Reija caring for the two wounded women and one small child. Gabrielle was up and moving about within two days. Xena remained unconscious for those two days and drifted in and out for two more after that.

Together the three adults managed to keep soup and water in the warrior to help maintain her strength and healing herbs in her wounds.

It was frustrating because there wasn’t much they could do for the wounds, especially the one that had punctured the heart of the warrior. Gabrielle knew that it was only Xena’s demi-god status that had saved her from instant death. The bard still wasn’t sure the warrior would make it.

Gabrielle brushed some dark hair off the warrior’s forehead and the bard bit her lip.

“I wish you had that dryad bone with you, my love,” she whispered, yellow showing in her eyes.

When Xena was finally able to focus she found Sasha sitting next to her, gently holding the warrior’s hand and wiping her mother’s forehead with a cool cloth.

“Sasha,” she whispered and was rewarded with a huge smile from her daughter.

“Mom!” the youngster cried out delightedly.

Solan came into focus as well from across the room as he made his way to her side. He knelt down, feeling her face and smiling when she kissed his fingertips.

The warrior spotted Reija by the fire, a frown held the Amazon’s face.

“Where’s Gabrielle?” Xena demanded, her voice harsh. She tried to sit up and collapsed back onto the sleeping fur, gasping for breath.

“We don’t know,” Solan said softly, holding Xena back down on the furs. “You were both wounded and she lost a lot of blood. The arrows that hit you, nicked your heart, Mom.”

“What?”

“We figure it’s because of whom your parents are that you’re even alive,” he said simply.

“Gabrielle?” she whispered as he helped her take a drink of water.

“Like I said, a lot of blood loss but she seemed to be mending. Then it was like she was sick, Mom. She began shaking all the time, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and then she started cramping, bad stomach cramps.”

“She can’t get sick,” Xena muttered.

“That’s what we thought too,” Solan agreed, the anguish showing on his face. “Then she wouldn’t let any of us near her,” the youth hesitated. “Mom, she said it was the blood craving only worse.”

“Damnit! Loosing a lot of blood and no animal blood for two months. What happened next?” she muttered.

“Yesterday she wouldn’t look at any of us,” Reija answered as she walked over and knelt by Solan. “Her eyes were almost totally yellow, Xena.”

“Then a little after dark we noticed she was gone. I swear none of us heard her slip out. Reija tried tracking her today but lost her tracks in the rocks. There’s some rough rock hills to the east of here.”

“She’s trying to get away to keep from hurting any of us,” the warrior muttered.

“She wouldn’t hurt any of us,” Solan protested.

“A man dying of thirst would kill his best friend for water,” the warrior said flatly.

“What do we do? If she’s dangerous I don’t want Reija going after her and you can’t,” Solan demanded.

“I have to go after her, I’m the only one that has a chance to reach her.”

“You can’t even move, it’ll take at least a week before you’re out of that bed,” Reija protested.

“I’ve got to try!” Xena insisted and attempted to sit up and fell back gasping again. “Don’t you get it, she’s gone off to die rather than hurt any of us!”

“Maybe I can help, Xena.”

Reija turned with her dagger in her hand and moved in between Solan, Xena, Sasha and the voice coming out of the shadows of the cabin’s far north wall.

A figured stepped out into the light and Solan felt Xena relax as he held her arm, keeping the warrior down on the fur bedding. Reija could tell it was a woman in a long dark cloak and deep hood, but could tell little else.

“Relax, young one, I’m not here to hurt you,” the elderly voice said as the woman pulled back her hood.

“Hecate,” Xena whispered.

“Who’s Hecate?” Reija demanded, “and how did she get here?”

“She’s one of our dark goddesses and she’s my Grandmother,” Solan answered.

“I thought Cyrene was Xena’s mom,” Reija asked.

“She is. It’s complicated. Hecate and Cyrene are Xena’s mothers and my grandmothers. Mom is the daughter of gods and humans,” Solan tried to explain while Hecate stood listening with a smile on her face.

“How can you help, Hecate?” Xena asked her breath ragged.

The older looking woman walked past the defensive Amazon warrior and knelt beside Solan and Sasha next to their warrior mother. The Goddess placed one hand on the warrior’s chest and waved the other over Xena’s upper body.

Xena’s body jerked violently and the warrior’s eyes rolled back up in her head for a moment as Hecate’s firm hand kept its pressure on the warrior’s chest. After a moment Xena opened her eyes and appeared stunned.

Hecate gently removed Solan’s hand and Xena sat up with a surprised look on her face.

“Mom’s okay!” Sasha squealed delightedly.

“Mom?” Solan asked softly.

“No pain, no wounds,” Xena answered, looking to Hecate for the answers.

“Find your mate, Xena.” Hecate urged. “Without you she will die.”

“How can I help her?” Xena asked in an anguished voice.

“Do you remember my advice to you when you went on your shaman journey?” Hecate asked gently.

“That love always wins over darkness,” the warrior answered.

“And that of your mother about the bacchae?”

“Human blood is needed at times,” Xena responded.

Solan and Reija sat down next to the furs, listening closely to the Goddess and the daughter of gods.

“And what does Gabrielle always need from you?”

Xena thought a moment and tears filled her eyes as she looked back up at Hecate.

“Love,” she stated.

“Yes, go to her. Come with me, daughter, time to save your mate,” Hecate ordered and offered her hand to the warrior.

Xena got to her feet easily, her body seemingly unaffected from nearly dying and laying in a coma for several days. She dressed quickly in her thick clothing and grabbed her weapons.

“I’ll be back soon with Gabrielle,” she told her children and Reija.

“And if you don’t?” Reija asked, voicing the question Solan didn’t want to ask.

“Then make for the nearest village and then for Greece in the spring. Don’t get near Gabrielle if I can’t reach her,” the warrior advised flatly.

The warrior found herself standing near a small rock cave in a rocky and forlorn mountain ridge. She could smell the smoke of a fire and was encouraged by that sign, it meant the bard was struggling to survive and not giving herself up to the snow just yet.

“Hecate?” the warrior whispered and wasn’t surprised when the goddess appeared next to her.

“Yes, daughter?”

“Why are you helping us? You know how I feel about the gods helping.”

The goddess laughed softly. “You’ll be surprised very soon, daughter. You’re my daughter and I’m fond of you and wish to help. Others will help you along the way because it’s necessary to balance things.”

“What do you mean?” Xena asked.

“Just like Gabrielle’s father intervened in her birth because Ares had messed with your destiny, other gods also make the same choices.”

“You’re speaking in riddles,” Xena complained.

“Yes, I’m sorry. The Northern Gods stepped into your life and probably will again as well as some of the Greek ones.”

“Why? What do we have to do with them?” Xena demanded.

“Sasha is destined to play a part in their future and that destiny was interfered with,” Hecate explained. “Gabrielle wasn’t meant to be separated from you when Sasha was born. That’s why the Valkyrie was sent to aid you.”

Xena felt a chill run up her spine and her eyes narrowed in thought.

“Someone interfered with Fate? Gabrielle wasn’t meant to be a slave?” she asked through clenched teeth.

“Yes,” Hecate confirmed.

“Someone set her up to be taken, raped, beaten and forced into fighting?”

“Yes, and to get her away from you,” Hecate confirmed.

“Ares!”

“Yes, because of that being set in motion, she died on that cross and Apollo had to accept the bacchae side coming out in her to save her life, but deal with that later, focus on saving her life right now.”

“Right,” Xena agreed, turning her focus back to the cave. “She knows I’m here.”

“She can hear your heart, the blood in your veins. Be careful, daughter.

“Right.”

Xena approached the cave slowly, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness of the cave, lit only by a small fire.

“Gabrielle?” Xena called softly, “I know you can hear me.”

Receiving no answer, the warrior entered further into the cave and spotted a huddled mass near the fire. Xena moved closer, keeping the fire between her and the figure. The warrior finally moved close enough to get a look at the furs and bit her lip to keep from crying out in pain at the sight of her beloved huddled under a fur cloak.

Gabrielle was curled into a fetal position with her arms wrapped around her drawn up legs and even though the bard’s eyes were open, Xena wasn’t sure if Gabrielle was seeing her. It almost stopped Xena’s heart to see the once-green eyes now totally yellow and red rimmed and the warrior could see both lower and upper canines were pronounced fangs as the bard clenched her teeth in pain.

The bard’s body shook and sweat was pouring off her as her muscles jerked. Xena had once seen a soldier who had been addicted to a powerful pain-killing herb after suffering a major injury. When it had become too much for his life, they had locked him in a cell until the drugs were out of his system. Gabrielle looked exactly like he had when he had been going through withdrawals.

“She’s dying, daughter,” a voice drifted into Xena’s mind.

Xena studied her mate for a moment then her jaw tightened and eyes narrowed in decision.

Keeping her eyes on her mate, Xena began removing most of her fur and leather clothing, stripping down to her cotton tunic and trousers. The warrior sat down very slowly next to the bard and studied Gabrielle for a few moments.

“Gabrielle, can you hear me?” Xena asked softly, her voice cracking with emotion.

Xena pulled out her belt dagger and pulled her mate into her arms. The warrior was surprised that the bard didn’t even struggle against the contact. Gabrielle’s head fell back and she appeared almost comatose.

Xena managed to hold Gabrielle and put the dagger in her left hand. With a quick and efficient movement the warrior sliced her wrist open and held the wound up to her mate’s lips.

The warrior was worried she was too late when the Bacchae Gabrielle didn’t even seem to notice. Then the bard’s eyes closed and her mouth wrapped around the wound. A moment later her hand reached out and held the wrist in place at her mouth.

Xena felt her body shudder as her blood began to flow freely into Gabrielle’s mouth. As she became light headed, Xena could almost feel the strength being transferred to her mate as Gabrielle’s body shifted and her grip on the warrior’s arm became stronger.

Gabrielle shifted and pulled back from the wounded wrist and turned to meet Xena’s lips with her own. The warrior could taste her own blood on the bard’s lips, metallic and yet enticing. Gabrielle shifted and pushed the warrior over onto her back on the furs and followed, covering Xena’s body with her own, her tongue demanding entrance past the warrior’s lips.

Xena groaned as electric currents shot through her body as her tongue played back and felt Gabrielle’s fangs. The Bacchae Gabrielle growled deep in her throat and pulled back from Xena’s lips long enough to pull the warrior’s tunic off and ducked her head to capture Xena’s nipples in her lips and teeth.

Xena arched her back and then felt Gabrielle stiffen. Opening her eyes, Xena found herself looking into green/yellow/red eyes of her bard.

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered.

“It’s me, little one,” Xena responded and pulled the bard into her arms, laying the young woman next to her. “It’s okay.”

Gabrielle frowned, lifting Xena’s wounded arm up closer to see in the firelight.

“I drank from you, didn’t I?”

“Yes, I offered it willing,” Xena answered.

“That’s supposed to make a difference?” Gabrielle demanded bitterly.

“Yes, damnit!” Xena snapped. She pulled the bard’s face up to look at her. “You need blood and sometimes it has to be human. I’m also your first blood and your mate, it should be me and I want it to be me. With the human blood you need the sexual excitement that goes with it, who better than me?”

“Terrific, I can feed on you like a stock animal?!” Gabrielle raised herself up on her elbow, her eyes blazing.

“No, my love,” Xena’s eyes filled with tears. “This is just another part of our connection. We’re already blood bound, this is just another aspect of our love for each other.”

“This isn’t love!” Gabrielle protested, “It’s feeding on you!”

“No, there’s more there or the animal blood would be enough. You need more than just the blood, Gabrielle, and you know it.” Xena pressed.

“No!” the bard sat up turning her head away to look into the fire. The warrior could see that her mate’s eyes were still mostly yellow and the fangs hadn’t receded much.

“Yes! We’ve talked about it enough; we were both so turned on when you bit me in Bacchus’ lair that we couldn’t stand it. The Bacchae crave that along with the blood. Take that from me, little one.”

“So I take not only your blood but use your body as well?” Gabrielle demanded, her eyes flashing even more intensely.

Xena’s eyes flashed as well, “Do you remember what Hecate said about the darkness?”

Gabrielle frowned and her eyebrows furrowed in thought. “Love winning out over darkness always.”

“That’s what you’ve got to face, Gabrielle. You’ve got to accept this part of yourself and accept my love for you. Accept my love. You would for me.”

The bard continued to frown. “You mean make it an act of love instead of letting the bacchae darkness control it?”

“Yes, exactly!” Xena reached out and gently stroked the bard’s jaw line.

Gabrielle reached out and held the warrior’s wounded wrist to the light. With a small sigh she gently ran her tongue along the wound and the warrior was stunned to see it close, leaving no trace. The bard shrugged at Xena’s expression.

“It’s a form of survival, that’s why you never saw bite marks on me before I turned last time,” she explained. “Xena,” the bard hesitated.

“Yes, my love?” Xena asked as she drew Gabrielle into her arms again, holding the smaller woman close.

“That wasn’t enough,” came a tortured whisper.

“I know, it’s okay, I’m here for you.”

“You can’t take anymore!” the bard protested, pulling back slightly to look Xena in the eyes. “You were wounded and lost a lot of blood too!”

Xena grinned a lopsided grin. “I kinda got some help in that area.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.

“Hecate showed up and healed me and led me here,” Xena explained.

Gabrielle seemed lost in thought until the warrior pulled her face up and captured the bard’s lips, her tongue fighting past the lips and fangs to duel with Gabrielle’s tongue.

The bard moaned and then growled deep in her chest and pushed Xena back down onto the furs, following once again, covering the warrior with her body as her tongue fought with Xena, the kiss deep and passionate.

Gabrielle suddenly pulled back and her face looked pained. When she opened her eyes there was no trace of green any longer. Xena tried to convey the love she felt for the bard and the desire she was feeling right then.

“It’s okay, Gabrielle, take it!” she hissed. “Take me!”

Bacchae Gabrielle growled again and thrust her hand down the front of Xena’s woolen trousers and the warrior cried out as the bard’s fingers entered her roughly and Gabrielle’s teeth pulled at a nipple.

Xena, her body already responding to the subtle magic of the Bacchae feeding, arched her body, trying to meet more of the bard’s fingers. The warrior’s hands were gripping at the furs under her.

The bard raised her head again. “Xena?” she whispered.

“Yes, do it!” the warrior encouraged.

Gabrielle thrust roughly into her mate again, her thumb finding Xena’s swollen clit and her teeth finding the warrior’s neck all in the same moment.

Xena cried out with the intensity as her body began shaking. With the feeding minutes before, the warrior’s body responded quickly to the bard’s attention. As her blood flowed out of her neck Xena became even lighter headed, especially as waves began to build in her body.

The warrior couldn’t tell which was sending her higher, the pull of the blood through her mate’s fangs or the bard’s knowing touch within her body and on her clit. Every time Gabrielle touched her was amazing to the warrior but this was even more intense. It felt like two electric eels were at either end of her body, sending currents back and forth, causing her muscles to jerk, her back to arch and her hips to strain against the bard’s hand.

As Xena felt her body growing weaker and the waves building, she felt herself approaching that point that only Gabrielle could get her past. The point of total surrender, the point of allowing her body to collapse into those waves, no control left.

“Don’t stop, baby, please!” Xena heard herself beg as her body rocked with Gabrielle’s fingers entering and pulling back. The warrior wondered how much blood she had lost and realized she didn’t care at that moment; she just wanted it to continue.

The warrior felt herself falling into grayness the waves overtook her and Xena felt a scream pulled from her body as wave after wave hit her.

“Xena?” Gabrielle said softly, gently rocking the warrior in her arms as tears streamed down the bard’s face. “Please come back to me!”

“Hey,” a voice brought the bard’s green eyes open to stare into clear blue ones.

“Oh Gods, Xena, I’m sorry!” Gabrielle cried. “I couldn’t stop!”

“I’m okay, little one,” Xena smiled. “I probably would have killed you if you had stopped before you did.”

Gabrielle felt confusion on top of the guilt. Her body was also absorbing the affects of the blood feeding, her body tingling, muscles twitching with excess energy and senses heightened.

“What?” she demanded.

“My love, I don’t think I’ve ever felt anything like that!” Xena said softly, letting the bard hold her.

“Me either, it was…” Gabrielle felt herself struggling for the words. “Incredible.”

“Can you describe it?” Xena asked, settling between the bard’s legs as Gabrielle leaned against the wall of the cave. A change of their usual position, Xena reflected.

“I could feel your blood rushing through your body, your heart was pounding so loudly in my ears. The taste changes as you approach orgasm, I don’t know how to describe the taste and how it changes, it just does.” Gabrielle found herself blushing at the memory. “My own body responded to yours, like it always does.”

“How do you feel now?” the warrior asked.

“I know I should be feeling more guilty than I am but I feel so calm for the first time in forever.” Gabrielle frowned, assessing her feelings. “Xena, this feels different than when we were in Bacchus’ cave. This feels… right?”

“Yes, we’re blood mates, Gabrielle. This is just a different aspect of that special bonding. No one will use that against you again.” Xena said sleepily.

“Rest, my warrior,” Gabrielle said gently, pulling the furs up over them. “We’ll go back to the cabin in the morning.

“Yeah,” Xena muttered, “we’ve got to get to Axel’s steading.”

“Anywhere as long as we’re together,” Gabrielle whispered as she settled down next to the warrior, curled in Xena’s arms.

“Together,” the warrior muttered, “Always. I’m going to kill Ares.”

“What?” Gabrielle asked but received no answer from her sleeping warrior. ‘What in Tartarus does Ares have to do with this?’ she wondered and then let sleep overtake her as well.

The End
Wild Hunt
Storyline: Xena, Gabrielle and family have traveled to their adopted Germanic family in the North and get involved with a local mystery involving dark sorcery and ancient legends which just might claim Gabrielle’s soul.

Eddval’s wife, Alfhild, couldn’t believe she was hearing a pounding at the door of the long hall. She saw several of the family members looking up in confusion at the door and then back at her and knew that she wasn’t hearing things if others were hearing it too.

She figured that Eddval must have been returning from the animal hut with his arms full and banging at the door with his foot. Alfhild grinned and went quickly to the door, her hand resting on the spear kept by the door, just in case.

When the Norsewoman opened the door she could only see a figure in fur and leather holding a bundle in its arms, the face hidden deep in the shadows of a fur hood. Alfhild could also see a couple of other figures in the blinding snow near the one standing at the door.

“Alfhild, Mistress of this Steading, we seek shelter and welcome,” a voice requested from under the hood, the voice speaking German with an accent placed the owner as a foreigner to the region.

“We know you, stranger?”

“It’s Ylsa and family,” the voice answered.

“Xena!” Alfhild threw open the door and dragged the fur covered person inside and others quickly got to their feet and helped pull the other figures inside out of the blinding storm.

The inhabitants of the Steading acted quickly and efficiently, stripping the wet fur clothing off of the figures, pulling them close to the fires while women dashed back and forth to warm towels and heat water. The figure in Xena’s arms was revealed to be Gabrielle, barely coherent and nearly frozen. The only one not suffering from the cold seemed to be Sasha who had been held inside of Solan’s fur clothing and shared his body heat.

Alfhild warmed some water to lukewarm and gently placed Xena’s hands into the water and grimaced as the warrior hissed with the pain.

“What by Hella’s Halls were you thinking?” Alfhild demanded, “traveling in this weather?”

“We didn’t have a choice, Alfhild, how are the others?” the warrior asked as someone knelt at her feet and began cutting away the laces holding the fur around her boots.

Alfhild glanced over and saw Gabrielle shaking her head, toweling the wet hair dry and then reaching out with shaking hands for a mug of lukewarm soup. A quick look at the young male and female confirmed they were also beginning to snap out of the cold haze.

“Better than you, Ylsa,” Alfhild growled and looked up when the door opened and closed quickly, her husband Eddval Skull Splitter entering the Long Hall. His sharp blue eyes took in the sight of the household bustling around the visitors and then grinned when he recognized Gabrielle and Xena.

“Brie, Ylsa! By Thor’s beard, you must have the blessing of the gods to have made it through that snow!” he exclaimed in a loud voice at the Greeks, using their adopted Germanic names and dropping the bag of apples he had brought in and hurried over to the warrior.

Xena grinned a lopsided grin. “I’ve been told a couple of the gods like us,” she agreed.

He frowned as he took in the sight of her hands in the warm water, thawing out. “How are they, wife?” he asked.

“They’ll live and I think keep all their fingers and toes. Another mark and I wouldn’t be sure.”

“What were you thinking, Ylsa?” Eddval demanded and was surprised when Xena grinned at him.

“Your wife was just asking the same thing. We were with the Northern Amazons and planned on visiting you in the spring thaw. We had to leave early,” Xena said simply.

“Someone from the North let you travel in this mess?” he demanded, his face taking on a look of rage that Xena hadn’t seen before. She began to wonder how he got his nickname.

“They didn’t give us a choice,” Gabrielle answered in a tired voice.

“Eddval,” Alfhild looked up at her husband, “arrange bedding for our family. Ylsa, are the young ones mates?”

Xena grinned as she saw Solan and Reija blushing.

“Yes, the Amazon shaman performed a marriage ceremony just before we left. This is Solan, my son and Reija, his wife.”

Gabrielle grinned as she watched Solan straighten up with obvious pride. It was the first time that Reija had been called his wife. Xena joined in the grinning as Reija reached out and took Solan’s hand in hers.

“Welcome to my home, Solan and Reija, Ylsa and Brie are family, therefore you are family. I assume the little one is Sasha? She has grown, Ylsa, and is beautiful.”

The tall Viking knelt down and looked into the blue eyes of the child and grinned. “Do you remember me, little one?” he asked softly.

“Uncle Eddval,” she answered and crawled up into his strong arms.

Gabrielle watched Xena begin to relax, knowing that her family was now safe. Xena and Gabrielle both knew that the Norsemen would die protecting their adopted Greek family members.

They hadn’t seen any Amazons trailing them for a couple of days but that wasn’t unexpected; they hadn’t been able to see anything for three days in the blinding snow. The bard had no idea how Xena had been able to lead them to Eddval’s Steading in the blinding snow, but she was grateful to be in out of the snow.

“After you sleep and eat you must tell us the tale of why you are in the snow, Brie,” Alfhild encouraged, taking the mug of soup from the bard as Gabrielle’s head began to drop forward.

Gabrielle was barely aware of hands helping her to her feet and over to the sleeping benches against the walls. Gentle hands and soothing voices helped her under the furs. The bard did yelp when she felt someone join her in the furs and it wasn’t Xena.

“Do you remember me, Brie?” a voice asked, “I am Askel. Ylsa and you are too cold to share body heat; if you will permit me I will share my body heat with you. I vow on the blood of my father that you are safe in my arms tonight.”

“Okay,” she muttered sleepily and was surprised when the young man placed his arms around her and pulled her into his arms. In a few minutes her body stopped shivering and she was finally able to fall into a restful sleep.
“Gabrielle,” a voice floated through the haze of Gabrielle’s sleepiness and she opened her eyes slowly to see blue ones looking at her. She smiled a welcoming smile as she took in Xena squatting next to the bench where the bard was sleeping.

Then a puzzled look crossed the bard’s face and Xena grinned, watching the bard try to gather her thoughts as Gabrielle realized that someone was holding her in bed but Xena was sitting next to her.

The bard yelped and sat up quickly, looking down at the handsome young Viking with his arm still thrown over her, sound asleep.

“It’s okay, I woke up with company this morning too,” Xena grinned at the bard’s blushing face. “It was a good way to warm us up quickly.”

“I remember, sort of. How are the kids?” Gabrielle asked as she stood up and pulled a woolen blanket off the bed and wrapped around her shoulders. She followed Xena to one of the fire pits.

“Still sleeping but good, better shape than we were in. Solan and Sasha were sharing body heat and Reija was behind everyone else, following a well blazed trail.”

The activity of the Long Hall continued around them, people walking by with various duties and tasks, taking a moment to say good morning and to welcome the Greeks back to their family.

Gabrielle gratefully took a bowl of porridge and a hunk of bread from one of the women and another handed the warrior the same. The couple sat down next to the fire and slowly ate, letting their stomachs slowly get accustomed to the idea of being full again.

As they ate Gabrielle noticed Xena shifting her shoulders and rolling them, trying to work out very tired and sore muscles.

“I don’t remember most of yesterday, how did we get here?” the bard asked and her quick eyes noticed the blush on Xena’s face at the question.

“I… uh, I followed a wolf,” the warrior whispered.

Xena’s quick reflexes caught the bowl that Gabrielle dropped just before it hit the floor. Gabrielle shook her head and took the bowl back, her eyes still wide with astonishment.

“What?” she hissed quietly.

“Hecate told me that the Northern gods have been keeping an eye on us. It seems that they think Sasha has something to do with their future, Hecate wouldn’t say what. That’s why the Valkyrie was sent to help me when Sasha was born.” Xena began explaining.

“And the wolf?”

“You know that wolves and ravens are Odin’s, the Norse god, right?”

“Yes, I remember the last time we were here,” Gabrielle nodded.

“Yeah, you probably remember more than I do with that bardic memory of yours,” Xena grinned. “I’ve had dealings with Odin in the past and I didn’t think we parted on such good company but I took a chance when I saw a wolf in front of us in the snow, waiting patiently. The wolf led us here.”

“I wish I had been there when Sasha was born,” the bard said wistfully and Xena felt an instant pain in her heart, Gabrielle frowned at the warrior’s expression. “What is it?”

“You were supposed to be there, Gabrielle,” Xena said painfully.

“What do you mean?”

“I wasn’t sure I was going to tell you but we promised no secrets between us. Hecate said that the Valkyrie came to me because you weren’t with me and you were meant to be. You were supposed to protect me and bond with Sasha from the beginning but you were taken from me.” Xena reached out and took the bowl and cup from the bard’s hands and placed them on the floor and held the bard’s hands in her own.

“The Fates meant for me to be there?” Gabrielle asked softly her eyebrows furrowing in thought and question.

“Yes, that’s what Hecate told me.”

“The reason I wasn’t there was because I was a slave, someone caused that? It wasn’t random?” Gabrielle’s eyes were beginning to shine with realization and with that came anger.

“No, you were set up to be captured,” Xena felt her eyes filling with tears just thinking about what Gabrielle had gone through at the hands of the Romans; repeated rapes, beatings, lashings, branding, and being forced into gladiator games to fight for her life.

“Someone took me from you intentionally? Someone put me in that Arena?”

Xena winched at the strength in Gabrielle’s hands as the bard clenched her fists. The warrior could see the anger settling in the bard’s eyes as the knowledge hit her.

“Yes,” Xena said simply.

“Ares!”

“Yes.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes, her jaw clenched tightly.

Eddval walked up to the two women and stopped when he saw Gabrielle’s face. He looked at Xena with an expression of worry.

“She’s about to go into a berserker rage,” Xena grimaced at Gabrielle’s grip.

“Bring her to the door, I’ll grab cloaks for you. Take her to the barn and let her beat up the post there, they’re very large and she’s very small.” He advised.

Xena grinned as she encouraged the bard to her feet, Gabrielle still with her eyes closed. The warrior noted the quickened breathing and the trembling muscles.

“You don’t know Gabrielle when she’s angry,” Xena grinned at Eddval.

The tall Viking looked down at the woman struggling to contain her rage and nodded with a grin. “I’m not sure I want to, Ylsa,” he agreed.
When Gabrielle’s eyes focused once more, she was breathing heavy, was lightly covered with sweat and her muscles felt like she had just been through a workout. Looking around from her position of sitting on the dirt floor of a barn, she spotted Xena leaning against a large post, also breathing heavily, sword in hand.

Gabrielle looked down at the sais in her hand and began to blush from the realization she had lost control again.

“Xena?” she whispered.

“It’s okay, Gabrielle,” Xena sheathed her sword and knelt down next to the bard. “I hit you with something rough there.”

“Ares set me up to be a slave,” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed in anger again but she put the sais away in their boot sheathes.

“Yes,” Xena said, sitting down on the floor. “Because of it you weren’t there when Sasha was born and it set in motion you ending up on that cross and dying. Because the gods had to accept your Bacchae side to bring you back, Hecate helped me out in finding you and healing me.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do if I ever see him again, Xena,” Gabrielle stated flatly.

“I know, little one. I’m not sure I trust my control either. I haven’t had a chance to work it off and I don’t think this anger will go away.” The warrior reached out and gently stroked Gabrielle’s cheek. “What happened to you… I will personally castrate him!”

“Xena, do you have any idea why Artemis won’t appear to me?” the bard asked in a soft voice.

“No, I don’t. I know the gods can be selfish but I thought she would have come to you when the Amazons were killed,” Xena commented, reaching over for Gabrielle’s fur cloak from the hay bale behind them and putting it around the bard’s shoulders.

“Do you think she’s rejected me because of the Bacchae blood?”

“I hope not, little one. You’re still the best champion the Amazons have seen and it’s not your fault what Bacchus did to you.”

“Gods, I’m tired of all of this!” Gabrielle complained. “Think we can get a break for a while?”

“At least another two months!” Xena laughed. “I don’t think anything or anyone can make it through that snow out there.”

“Good, we need some down time.”

Xena grinned and got to her feet and pulled her mate up into her arms for a long kiss.

“I agree,” Xena whispered.

After a moment they headed for the door.

“I remembered something, Xena, that I’ve been wanting to ask you.”

“What’s that?” The warrior asked, stopping at the door.

“Now that you know who your father is, are you going to tell Hercules when they get here in the spring?” Gabrielle asked and tried to resist smiling at the look on her mate’s face. “I mean, Zeus is your father too and you and Hercules got awfully close.”

Xena’s face began to blush profusely. “You are so in trouble, Gabrielle!” she threatened.

Gabrielle laughed and moved several feet back into the barn.

“He’s going to find out sometime!” she grinned. “It’s not like you knew who your father was at the time. Happens all the time with the Greek gods.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena’s voice was a low warning growl.

“And you both are so damned good looking,” Gabrielle giggled and then made a dive for the hay bales as the warrior leaped for her, the bard laughing as she dodged a blushing warrior.

Xena let loose with a war cry and flipped forward into a somersault and landed in front of Gabrielle, cutting off the bard’s intended escape route from behind the hay, and tackled her wife, both laughing as they fell into the hay.

“Xena!” the bard screamed as Xena’s knowing hands sought out the bard’s tickle spots. “Stop! I give! I give!”

“You promise never to tease me about this again?” the warrior growled.

“Yes, I promise!” Gabrielle gasped around her giggles, still trying to evade the warrior’s hands.

“Okay,” Xena stopped tickling her mate to lean down and kiss her. The bard instantly responded back into a passionate kiss.
Later that night Gabrielle sat in front of the main fire while the large extended family sat around, drinking mead or cider and listened to the bard tell the tale of their adventures with the Northern Amazons. Their battles with Alti in the spiritual and physical realm and then of Sasha and Solan being accepted as Gabrielle’s adopted children and accepted into the tribe.

Xena noticed that the bard didn’t expand on her Bacchae condition to the Norsemen and women, the bard just told them that Alti had put her under a spell and caused her to kill the Amazon Queen Arja. Gabrielle also described her initiation into the tribe but not in great detail and again Xena wasn’t surprised. The warrior knew that shamanistic journeys could be very difficult to describe and very personal too.

When Gabrielle got to the part of Solan and Reija’s romance the Northerners grinned, they delighted in love stories, especially doomed couples, the warrior knew from past experience and Gabrielle turned the explanation of what had happened into a bardic tale. Weaving a story around Solan and Reija falling in love and facing up to the Elder Council, willing to accept any consequence for that love. The bard told how the Greeks had been forced to leave under the cover of darkness for fear of the power hungry Law Speaker Mattita wanting to kidnap Sasha away from them and kill everyone else. She didn’t tell them the total reason why Mattita had wanted Sasha that it was because Sasha was the daughter of gods.

Xena felt the room of people shift in their places. The thought of someone killing them for their children brought growls out of the men and women. Several warriors fingered their daggers and several mothers reached out to reassure themselves that their own children were at their feet as Gabrielle described leaving in the snow, fighting the ice river and trying to dodge arrows from the Amazon archers intent on taking Sasha from them.

Again the bard left some major details out of the story of their escape, Xena reflected but didn’t blame her mate. She understood that Gabrielle didn’t want to tell everyone how badly the warrior had been injured and the only reason she was alive was that a Goddess had shown up to heal her. She also understood that Gabrielle didn’t want the Northerners to know that she had suffered from a massive bacchae attack because of the blood she had lost to her own wounds.

The bard had nearly died because of it. Only Xena being willing to offer her own blood had saved the bard and turned the darkness in Gabrielle into light by turning it into another connection of their love.

The warrior just hoped the bard was through fighting it and would just accept the cravings as part of her life now and not feel so damned guilty about it.

The bard ended her tale with the Greek family struggling along the rough and storm tossed coastal sea waters to reach the nearby coast and then fighting their way through the snow storm to the Steading of their adopted German family.

After her tale there were many toasts to the gods, the ancestors, the Norns and to the Greek family in honor of their survival and their courage. By the end of the rounds Xena’s head was fuzzy and she gladly accepted Gabrielle’s hand and let the bard lead her to the sleeping benches.

For the first time in months they slept well and through the night without nightmares or tension.
The family easily settled in for the remaining winter months with their adopted family. Xena helping with the blacksmith, Gabrielle and Reija filling in with the women with the usual chores, Solan helping with the cooking and Sasha learning the duties of the household as well.

With the slaughter of one a sheep or pig each month, Xena was able to secure some of the blood for Gabrielle. The warrior also gave her own blood and arousal for Gabrielle’s Bacchae needs each month, the couple keeping that aspect of the bard’s nature secret from their Germanic family.

The Spring thaw had just begun when Xena looked up one day at the sound of horses on the road and saw three riders approaching. She dropped the metal she was working into spearheads into the water bucket and readjusted her sword. Then the warrior broke into a grin as the riders got closer and she could make out Hercules, Iolaus and their adopted German son, Ketli.

“Ylsa!” Ketli cried and jumped off his horse and rushed forward to hug the warrior. Others began pouring out of the long houses and barn to greet the other Greeks, Alfhild bringing a drinking horn full of mead to offer as hospitality and thanks of their return.

Hercules grinned at the warm welcome and Iolaus found himself almost lifted off the ground when Eddval and Axel hugged him.

Gabrielle made her way through the crowd to quickly hug the two men and their growing son.

“Gabrielle! Xena! Glad you’re here,” Iolaus yelled over the noise of a happy crowd. “We thought we’d beat you here though.”

“We’ve been here for a couple of months now.” Xena grinned.

“What, through the snow?!” Hercules demanded.

“Long story and one that Gabrielle will tell again tonight, I’m sure. Come on, let’s get you settled and I’ll give you the short version,” the warrior offered, removing her leather apron and letting Thorryke, the blacksmith take over the spearhead making.

Walking inside the long hall Xena took the chance to introduce the Greek men and son to her new daughter-in-law, Reija. Hercules grinned and hugged the young Amazon and Iolaus grinned at her embarrassment over the attention.

“I don’t believe Solan can be old enough,” Hercules grinned.

“Me either,” Xena agreed. “Want to know something else?”

Iolaus raised his eyebrows and Hercules narrowed his eyes in amusement.

“What?” he ventured.

“I’m going to be a grandmother,” Xena grinned and Reija began blushing even more.

“No way! That means I’m old enough to be…” Hercules’ voice trailed off and Iolaus began laughing at his mate’s expression.

“You just became a mom!” Hercules protested, smiling at Solan and Reija’s red faces.

“A few years ago, my friend. Sasha’s now 5 seasons old and Reija is starting on a family right away,” the warrior grinned.

“Wow! Congratulations you two!”

“Thanks,” Solan grinned.

Gabrielle came up behind the men and hugged them both, stepping between them.

“Heard the news, did you?”

“Yes, grandma!” Iolaus grinned and then tried to squirm away as the bard began tickling him. “Hey! No fair! I’ve only one arm!”

“Then I’ll tie one of mine behind my back, you scamp!” Gabrielle threatened, continuing her assault until they ended up laughing on one of the benches.

Their two taller mates watched with amused smiles while several of the males began wagering on the outcome. Unfortunately for the gambling happy Vikings the contest ended in a mutual giggle fit and a draw was declared.

Iolaus, also known as Ivar One-Handed among the Vikings, looked up at Xena and Hercules and began laughing again. Gabrielle looked up and began laughing again as well.

Xena looked at Hercules and shrugged. Together they moved towards the fires to join Solan and Reija while Gabrielle and Iolaus struggled up off the furs.

Hercules watched Xena’s face as she watched the young couple and grinned. The warrior noticed his smile and blushed.

“What?” she demanded.

“You all look good, I’m glad to see you.”

“Back at you, big guy,” she grinned.
“Alfhild! Brie!” Eddval’s voice carried into the long hall late one afternoon, finding both women helping with the cooking. Everyone looked up with frowns on their faces, the voice had an urgent tone and both women were at the door before anyone else had moved.

“Xena?” Gabrielle muttered as they took in the sight of the hunters returning through the light snow on horses, Xena curled up in Hercules’ arms. Xena raised her head and looked at her mate with a small smile, trying to reassure the bard.

“I’m alright, just twisted my leg, no big deal,” she said as they rushed up.

Hercules swung his leg over the horse and landed easily on the ground with the warrior in his arms. “Probably broken and that’ll take awhile to mend,” he frowned.

The demi-god’s frown deepened when he noticed the look exchanged between Gabrielle and Xena.

“What?” he demanded.

The other hunters going about unsaddling their horses distracted the trio and Eddval walking up to his wife and the Greeks, his face enraged.

“Husband, what is wrong?” Alfhild asked.

“Someone stole the dogs!” he yelled, causing several hunters to turn quickly and then look away at their headman’s anger.

“How could someone steal your hunting dogs, they only obey you and Vikker?” she asked.

“I don’t know. We hit a fog bank near the river and they went quiet. Ylsa found them trapped under a net but quiet, not making any noise,” he tried to explain.

“Then a log came swinging out of the trees, a trap. I tried to jump out of the way but it caught my leg. When I looked up the dogs were gone,” Xena finished.

“How?” Gabrielle asked as they began walking towards the long hall.

Hercules waited for Gabrielle to open the door and carried Xena inside.

“I don’t know. I had that same tingling feeling I get whenever Ares is around,” Xena frowned.

“You don’t think it was him, do you?”

“No, too far north and not his style, besides, why would he want hunting dogs?”

“I don’t know. Has anything like this ever happened before, Eddval?” Gabrielle asked.

“No, never.”

“Let’s get Xena inside and set the leg,” Hercules insisted.

Once inside the demi-god sat the warrior down in one of the chairs and began examining her leg and knee and then frowned at his friend.

“This leg was broken, I felt the bones,” he stated flatly.

“Gabrielle,” Xena looked up at her mate and Gabrielle merely nodded and kissed Xena quickly.

“I’m going to talk to Eddval and see about this mystery,” the bard stated, moving away.

Hercules waited, sitting down in a chair across from Xena.

“Herc, when you get a broken arm, how fast does it heal?” she asked.

“Very quickly, but not like that, Xena. I know your mother is a goddess, is this part of your inheritance?” he asked.

“Part of it. Part of it is who my father is. Herc, I was born mortal because Cyrene chose to take the child Hecate was carrying and give birth to me. She is my mother but Hecate is also my mother. The reason for it was to keep my birth a secret from my true father.”

“Not Ares!?” he protested in a whisper.

“No, not Ares, thank the gods. My father may not even be aware of my existence and I’d like to keep it that way but because of what Gabrielle and I have been through, certain traits have come up and one of them is quick healing. A good thing since I was shot through the heart with an arrow escaping from the Amazons.”

“Oh gods,” the demi-god muttered and then looked up into his friend’s eyes. “It’s Zeus, isn’t it?”

“How did you know?” she asked, also in a whisper.

“Who else would you be afraid to tell me about?” he grinned a rueful smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell him and I don’t think Hera is talking to me either.”

“Herc, I didn’t know until last spring.”

“I know that,” he said reassuringly. “No one needs to know who your father is. I take it Gabrielle knows?”

Xena shrugged, “Yeah, can’t keep anything from her.”

“Any surprises about her that you want to hit me with?” he grinned and then lost the smile when Xena didn’t smile back.

“Go grab a horn of something, this could take awhile,” she said.

After a candle-mark the large Greek sat back in his chair with a sigh. “Part Bacchae, child of Apollo and she died on that damned cross and my brother set her up to be taken as a slave. That means that Iolaus is crippled because of him, too!” he growled, his eyes flashing brightly.

“Yes,” Xena answered simply, keeping occasional eye contact with Gabrielle.

“Ares had better hope to stay out of my sight for a very very long time!” he threatened.

“I don’t think he’ll find a welcome from any of us,” Xena agreed.

“You two are handling the Bacchae thing, you said.”

“Yes, now she doesn’t feel so guilty about it, just part of her nature, thankfully. We don’t tell many about it though.”

“I understand. May I tell Iolaus?” he asked.

“Yes, I’m letting you know so that if I’m ever away or something, you can help her get through the cravings.”

“I figured that, but one thing…” he hesitated and Xena raised an eyebrow in question. “I don’t know about helping with the sexual stimulation thing,” he grinned and was rewarded with a playful slap across his arm and a grin from Xena.

Hercules grinned and checked the warrior’s leg again and wasn’t surprised this time to find it merely sprained. He shook his head and walked over to Gabrielle and quickly hugged the startled Greek and then went outside to find his mate.

Gabrielle walked over to her mate and hugged her.

“How much did you tell him?” she asked as she sat down in the chair Hercules had been sitting in.

“Everything about Zeus and Hecate and us,” Xena answered, leaning back and closing her eyes, wincing in pain as she moved the leg a bit.

“Just in case you’re not around when the moon hits you want someone who knows what’s going on with me,” Gabrielle stated.

“Yes,” Xena growled around the pain as she tested the movement of the leg.

“I know we talked about it, just feels weird someone else knowing that part of me.”

Xena opened her eyes with a frown but Gabrielle smiled.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” Gabrielle assured her warrior.
Two days later and Eddval was still cursing under his breath about his missing dogs. The news from other nearby steadings that their dogs were missing too didn’t help his mood any.

Gabrielle approached Alfhild that afternoon.

“Alfhild, could you tell me if there are any myths dealing with hounds or dogs?” the bard asked as the older woman sat carding some of the early wool.

“Yes, there are. Let’s see, there’s the story of the Fenris Wolf of the gods; the gates of Hella’s Halls being guarded by the fierce dog Garm; and the Wild Hunt,” she responded.

“Okay, the Wild Hunt sounds like the only one that needs more than one dog or wolf in it, right?” Gabrielle said, sitting down and taking up some carding tools as well, the brushes straining the wool into fine material fit for spinning.

“Yes, you’re thinking of the missing hounds?”

“Yes, maybe there’s a connection, maybe not. Can’t hurt to learn more of your history,” the bard grinned. “Why would anyone steal hounds if they won’t respond to anyone’s commands but their masters’?” the bard mused.

“To make the steading more open to attack? Cut down the warning time?” Alfhild ventured.

“Hasn’t Eddval and Axel anticipated that and worked something out?”

“Yes, we weren’t attacked the first night like Eddval suspected we might.” Alfhild frowned. “Why take dogs that you can’t control?” she echoed.

“What was the Wild Hunt you mentioned?”

“It is an old legend, older than anyone can remember. Sometimes it happens at Yule, the longest night of the year, sometimes it happens in the Spring, just after the first thaw. A pack of white hounds, with red ears and eyes of fire, tear through the land spreading fear and terror. The Huntsman that follows is thought to be Odin or the dark goddess Holda. Our travel among the Kelti tells us that they also have the same legend.”

“What happens on the Hunt?” Gabrielle asked.

“The Hunt lasts from dark until the twilight of sunrise. Anyone caught outside are caught up with the pack and must run with them, totally mad and animal, like a berserker. If they survive the night with the pack they are insane or die of exhaustion with the sunrise. The other thing that can happen is that the pack tears anyone they find outdoors on these nights to pieces.”

Gabrielle felt her head pounding and everything went gray.

When the bard’s eyes cleared she found herself on the floor and several women were kneeling beside her along with Alfhild, all looking very concerned. Gabrielle sat up slowly, breathing deeply and trying to clear her head.

“I’m alright. I’m sorry, just got lightheaded for a moment, I’m okay,” she said repeatedly to questions of concern. Several hands helped her off the floor and back into her chair. It was several minutes before everyone else went back to his or her daily chores, leaving the bard with Alfhild again.

The older woman continued to look concerned.

“When I was with the Northern Amazons, I had a vision journey and I saw someone torn to death by a pack of hounds, it startled me when you described it,” Gabrielle answered the unspoken question between them and Alfhild nodded.

“You or Xena?” the Viking woman asked and Gabrielle blushed.

“Both,” she answered softly.

“Only your death or that of your mate would cause such a reaction, I think.”

“Or the kids,” Gabrielle smiled. Then she looked puzzled. “I thought Odin was the head god of the Vikings, why would he lead the Wild Hunt of madness?”

Alfhild shrugged, slowly returning to her carding of wool. “No one knows, maybe it’s necessary for a god to let totally loose a couple of times a year? Maybe it’s a time of madness that goes along with his wisdom. No one knows.”

Gabrielle frowned, lost in thought, as she continued carding with Alfhild. Soon the conversation turned to other legends of the north and comparison with the myths of the Greek gods and goddesses.
Xena also decided to ask some questions of Eddval and Axel as they watched her working with the blacksmith.

“Who would benefit from you losing the steading?” she asked Eddval.

“That’s easy, either my kinsmen to the west or the Jarl, the local Lord.”

“Has he made moves against you?” the warrior asked as she worked the bellows.

“Yes, small skirmishes but we can’t prove anything enough to complain at the All Thing,” Axel answered.

“All Thing, the annual gathering of all the countryside when the laws are recited, complaints heard and judgments decided?” the warrior asked.

“Yes, you remember well!” Eddval grinned.

“I’ve been this way before,” Xena shrugged.

“He wants to expand his land for his own animals but the families surrounding his land are firmly tied to that land and won’t move.” Eddval stated.

“Why steal hounds though?” the warrior mused. “They’re good for early warning and sometimes in a fight but not that important.”

“The way they disappeared, it wasn’t natural!” Axel grumbled.

“Magic?” the warrior frowned, it wasn’t something that they normally came across in Greece anymore, most of the old magic having been lost to the age of knowledge and learning. The warrior also knew that there were still some capable of doing things beyond explanation in other lands.

“I would think so,” Axel muttered.

“But why?” Xena frowned. “Why use the energy to steal hounds that you can’t control?”

“Blood?” Eddval asked softly.

“It would be easier to steal cattle or sheep, that would be blamed on simple raiding,” the warrior contemplated.

“Must be something specific about the hounds,” Axel ventured and they all nodded in agreement.

Not finding any more answers the two Vikings wandered towards the long hall and Xena continued her blacksmithing work, all lost in thought.

Later that night Hercules and Iolaus found the two Greek women comparing notes on what they had learned. Axel, Eddval and Alfhild joined them, passing drinking horns of mead around the small circle around one of the fire pits.

“Odin wouldn’t need to steal dogs for the Wild Hunt, he already has his own,” Alfhild protested the line of thought beginning among the group and Eddval nodded in agreement.

“There’s never been mention of dogs going missing before a Hunt. Odin is a god and doesn’t need to steal our dogs.” Axel agreed.

“Besides, he normally doesn’t pay much attention to what happens to us,” Eddval commented.

“I agree with them, from what I know of Odin, he wouldn’t even pay attention to these specific steadings.” Xena mentioned.

“Is there any way for someone to create their own Wild Hunt?” Gabrielle asked.

“Impossible!” Eddval protested. “The Wild Hunt is magic, it is of the gods themselves. No one could have that power or dare use it!”

“What about that magic maker from the South that the Jarl has?” Alfhild asked.

“Woman, you speak gossip!” Eddval scolded. “Just because he keeps a vitki, a magic user, from the south doesn’t make him evil!”

“Who is this Jarl and who is the southerner you’re talking about?” Hercules asked.

“Jarl Herrodr, the Red,” Eddval answered.

“Also known as Herrodr, Snake in the Mouth,” Axel muttered.

“A southerner, a dark man, came to his Hall and offered his services of magic and foretelling. He is called Rajal.” Eddval continued.

“If a Wild Hunt came ripping through here, what kind of damage could it do?” Xena asked with a frown.

“Not much, the hounds only attack humans if they are caught outside. It is said the only protection is to throw yourself down in the middle of a crossroads away from the hounds. They will run over you but not harm you.” Alfhild answered.

“What if it was different, what could a large pack of dogs do if they attacked?”

The Vikings frowned. “We could board ourselves inside, even the animals, like we do in full winter. I don’t see how they could do much injury,” Eddval concluded.

“Did the Jarl lose any dogs? Do you know?” Xena asked.

“No, he didn’t and he didn’t want to hear about any of the steadings losing their dogs either when my cousin went to him for help,” Axel said and spat on the floor.

“What are you thinking, Xena?” Iolaus asked.

“When analyzing attacks, the first question is who would benefit and why. The only one who seems to be untouched and might have the means is the Jarl. The why is to wipe out our friends and steal their land. The how is a puzzle.”

“Maybe his place is too big to lose any dogs?” Iolaus suggested.

“If every town but one in an area is raided, what would you think?” Xena asked.

“I would know where to find the raiders,” Hercules grinned.

“Exactly. But why the hounds and how does he intend to use them?”

Gabrielle was looking around and Hercules caught Xena doing the same.

“Trying to figure out weaknesses?” he grinned. Both women nodded.

“The walls are secure and thick, the doors sturdy. No windows. I don’t see how dogs could get in.” Xena complained.

Gabrielle frowned. “Alfhild, you said the hounds of the Wild Hunt were magical. Could you describe the Hunt?”

“On the night of a storm, riding through the clouds, with the lightning flashing, come the hounds and they are followed by the Huntsman. He wears deer antlers on his head and carries a long spear, which causes everything to turn cold that he points at. The dogs are all white with red ears and flashing eyes.”

“Xena, don’t a lot of things travel by air up here, like the Valkyries and now dogs and Huntsmen?”

Immediately everyone looked up at the thatch roofing that was common in the region.

“The roof!” Eddval exclaimed, causing several people nearby to look up in alarm and then go back to whatever they had been doing.

“The one weakness of the buildings, of all the buildings in the area,” Xena commented and leaned over to ruffle Gabrielle’s hair in appreciation.

“Okay, how do we guard against flying dogs?” Axel complained.

“Make sure they never take off?” Iolaus suggested and everyone grinned.

“First strike,” Hercules agreed.

“He has too many men,” Eddval frowned.

“Okay, we think his sorcerer is using the dogs for magic, take away the dogs and he can’t work the magic,” Gabrielle stated.

“Yes, does the sorcerer do his work in the steading or elsewhere?” Xena asked the Vikings.

“I don’t know, I didn’t pay much attention to the little weasel,” Eddval complained.

“Rajal has his own building that is strong and locked at all times inside the steading,” Alfhild stated and the two Viking men looked startled. The Viking woman shrugged. “Women talk to each other. At the last gathering at Yule I talked with Herrodr’s wife and she was complaining about the smell and noises from the building.”

“Always go to the women for information, nothing escapes them,” Eddval advised.

Alfhild grinned.

“Then we get in there, let the dogs loose and spoil his plans,” Iolaus stated simply.

“Might not be easy, the Jarl’s steading is well guarded by berserker warriors,” Axel commented with a frown, deep in thought.

“We can’t declare a blood feud based on what his pet might be doing,” Eddval agreed.

“Why don’t a few of us sneak in and let the dogs loose or kill them?” Gabrielle suggested.

“Very risky, his building is guarded by magic,” Alfhild advised.

“Draw a diagram of the Steading and let’s work this out,” Hercules suggested.

The small band began working late into the night.
Solan stopped as he started by Gabrielle in the common yard and smiled.

“Gabby Mom,” he said and she grinned.

“How did you know?” she asked, cutting carrots for the evening meal in the warm afternoon sun.

“That soap you and Mom are fond of. How’d the planning go last night?” he asked as he squatted down next her stool.

“Dead end. The Jarl is powerful and his steading well guarded and we can’t be sure of his plans so we can’t accuse him of anything,” she explained.

“What about someone going in and scouting around?”

“That was my thought but everyone is known around here and intermarried. The scouts would need a good excuse to get into the Steading without being suspected.”

“You and mom aren’t known to the Jarl or his men,” he pointed out.

“I suggested that but Eddval is afraid that the Jarl will have heard of us including descriptions from the last time we were here.”

“Reija isn’t known to any of them,” he said thoughtfully.

“Solan, we couldn’t ask her to go in there!” Gabrielle protested.

“She is a warrior and our family,” he commented, running his hand through his hair.

“There is no way that Xena or I will let either of you risk our grandchild!” Gabrielle said sternly.

“Okay, just a thought,” he said as he rose to his feet and headed towards the long hall.

Gabrielle continued to frown.
The next day Xena frowned at the sound of horses in the distance and set her metalworking aside and looked down the road, shielding her eyes against the sun.

“Ylsa?” the blacksmith asked.

“Horses, lots of them,” she responded, at the same time spotting a lone rider riding fast towards the steading. “Here comes the sentry.”

The young man leaped off his horse before the animal even stopped and ran up to Eddval, who was just coming out of the barn at the noise. Axel was approaching from the field with the other Viking men, tools in hand.

“Eddval! Riders from Jarl Herrodr are coming! They are armed and riding war horses, they are riding down the road and not flanking off,” the teen reported almost breathlessly.

“Good job. Take a place behind me with your spear,” Eddval ordered.

Xena’s sharp eyes took in several of the men breaking off from the main group as everyone scurried around quickly. The warrior readjusted her sword and chakram and noticed the blacksmith grabbing a large war hammer.

The warrior saw several of the Viking men positioned around the Steading with bows and several more with short throwing spears. The rest were standing by Eddval, all armed.

The large group of riders stopped just short of the outer building and two riders moved forward. They were tall and very big, even bigger than Hercules, Xena thought. One had blond hair and the other had red hair and a beard. Judging by the gold decorating the leather covering the chain mail shirt, Xena figured the red haired one to be Jarl Herrodr and the other to be his top soldier.

“Greetings Eddval Skull Splitter!” The red haired one called, bringing his horse to a stop near the headsman Eddval.

“Greetings, Herrodr the Red. What brings you armed through the countryside?”

“The steading to the east has been attacked by raiders from the North, a large group attempting to oust your neighbor. I need as many men and yourself to join me, as fitting your pledge.”

“Of course, we will meet you on the road in a candle mark,” Eddval agreed.

The Jarl nodded and both riders turned and went back to their large band. Within moments the group was thundering down the road.

“What pledge, Eddval?” Xena asked as everyone began scattering around the steading.

“I am pledged to help my neighbors and Jarl in time of need, including against any of their enemies. You are welcome to ride with us or not, Ylsa.”

Xena frowned, “It could be a diversion to get you away from the steading,” she said thoughtfully.

“Yes, but I have no choice,” Eddval frowned and moved towards the long hall.

“Xena!” the warrior looked up to see Gabrielle approaching from the long hall. The bard quickly moved up to her mate. “I heard! Are we going with them?”

“I am, you’re staying here.” Xena held up a hand to stop the predictable protests. “I want you to stay here and keep an eye on Solan and Reija, I want to go and study Herrodr and his men. This is a good opportunity.”

“Alright, but as long as you promise to be careful!” Gabrielle insisted.

“You bet.” Xena grinned and hugged the bard close. “I love you too.”
The next day Gabrielle frowned as she went through her morning chores, feeling like something was out of place besides her mate being off to battle without her. It finally hit the bard and she turned to Alfhild.

“Where’s Solan and Reija?” she asked.

“They went off for a picnic by the river. I told them they could have the day,” Alfhild grinned.

“That’s good,” the bard turned quickly on her heels and swept Sasha up in her arms. “Got you!” she grinned at the stalking child as the dark haired imp laughed. “Let’s go help with the cooking, shall we?”

By late afternoon Gabrielle was frowning again but was trying not to worry. She knew from experience how time could fly when spending time with your new mate.

A candle mark before sunset the bard admitted she was worried, even the animals were heading in out of the fields for shelter against the nights that were still cold.

“Alfhild?” Gabrielle began as she approached the Viking woman by the cook fire.

“I know, the men and women working the fields told me Solan and Reija haven’t come back,” the Headwoman frowned.

“I’ve got to look for them!” Gabrielle stated.

“No, you know the weather is for freezing tonight!” Alfhild snapped. “Reija is a trained warrior, she knows how to find shelter and build a fire. We will look at first light.”

Gabriele clenched her jaw but Alfhild held her glare so the bard dropped her eyes, knowing the older woman was right. It was still too cold to be wandering around in the dark in the North.

Most of the night Gabrielle paced in front of the fires with Alfhild sitting with her.

“They didn’t go on a picnic,” the bard muttered.

“Where would they go?” Alfhild questioned.

“Herrodr’s steading, posing as travelers to scout around the sorcerer’s hall.”

“They wouldn’t!” Alfhild protested, brushing away a stray strand of gray hair from her face.

“Yes they would!” Gabrielle grimaced. “With most of the warriors away it would be a perfect time to try it and none of Herrodr’s people know Solan or Reija.”

“You’re not going to let them!?” Alfhild protested.

“No, I’m not. It’s too dangerous dealing with unknown magic.”

At dawn Alfhild and Gabrielle made a quick search of the meadow by the river but neither was surprised to find no trace of the teenagers. The two women quickly turned their horses towards the north, towards Herrodr’s steading and the route the two youngsters mostly likely would have taken, especially with Solan being blind and on foot.

After pushing hard the women found where the two had left the road for the night, seeking shelter in a small grove of trees. They saw signs where the couple had camped and then left in the morning. Gabrielle and Alfhild urged their horses on even faster.
Alfhild and Gabrielle jerked their horses to a stop suddenly, both women’s eyes widened at the sight before them on the road.

In the middle of the road was a semi circle of warriors, all dressed in bear fur and long swords, half surrounding the young couple. What stopped the women was the sight of the bard’s adopted son and daughter-in-law. The two were suspended in midair by tentacles of what appeared to be smoke, the tendrils leading to the hands of a small man off the side of the road.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she got a good glance at the small man, dark, small and foreign. Obviously the sorcerer of Herrodr and he obviously had powers.

Solan and Reija looked like they were in incredible pain and unable to move.

“You deal with the soldiers, I’ll take the sorcerer!” Gabrielle ordered, grabbing her sais into her hands as Alfhild readied her spear, several more throwing spears in a holder next to her leg. “Get the kids!”

Gabrielle let out a war cry and urged her horse forward and launched her sais all in the same moment. The warrior bard’s face broke into a grin as the sais buried themselves into the tree behind the sorcerer, taking his sleeves with them and pinning him to the tree, breaking the connection to Solan and Reija.

The youngsters fell heavily to the ground just as a spear passed over them and impaled one of the soldiers. Another spear quickly followed and went through the shoulder of another soldier. Reija grabbed up one of the swords as the remainder of the warriors slashed at her and Solan and parried two swords at once.

“Solan, stay down!” she shouted, blocking a blow from a sword.

The young Amazon was surprised and grateful when Alfhild charged her horse through the remaining four soldiers while she fought the fifth. Alfhild glanced over and saw Gabrielle leaping off her horse and heading for the sorcerer with her dagger drawn and turned her attention back to the soldiers.

“Brie! Get the kids and let’s get out of here!” Alfhild called.

The bard turned, seeming to consider the choices of action and turned back for her horse as Alfhild charged her horse through the soldiers again, blocking off spear thrusts with a shield and sword.

“Gabrielle! Behind you!” Reija shouted as she blocked another sword thrust from the huge Viking she was fighting.

The bard turned quickly and grabbed her sais as they almost impaled her at chest level. The sorcerer glared and swore in a language that the bard didn’t recognize and raised his hands, beginning to chant. Gabrielle swore in Greek and rushed for the horse, keeping an eye on the magician’s hands behind her.

Alfhild ran the warrior that was fighting with Reija through with her sword as she came up behind him on her horse and put the horse between the teenagers and the scattered warriors who were attempting to regroup.

“Solan, get up and hold out your hand, I’m going to pull you up on the horse!” Alfhild yelled and the teen quickly got to his feet and held out his hand. In a moment he was mounted behind her. “Go for Brie’s horse!” Alfhild ordered the Amazon as the Viking slashed at a warrior getting too close with a spear. “Solan, hang on!”

Reija sprinted for the bard’s horse as Gabrielle caught the reins up in her hand.

“Quickly, get on!” Gabrielle ordered the younger Amazon and then mounted behind the young girl, turning the horse back towards Eddval’s steading.

“Let’s go!” Alfhild yelled, turning her horse down the road as well.

“Hold these!” Gabrielle ordered Reija, handing the Amazon her sais as she turned slightly on the horse to keep the sorcerer in sight and see if the warriors had horses. The bard saw the magician raise one hand to the sky and the other in their direction and then saw darkness.
“Eddval!” Xena called out to the Viking leader after the fourth day. He turned and held his horse up as she moved up beside him. “This is a waste of time,” she complained softly, leaning over to keep from shouting at him in the wind along the coast.

“I agree!” he hissed back, “but I’m pledged to ride with Herrodr.”

“We’re chasing ghosts! We’re staying just far enough back from the raiders to keep from catching them and Herrodr is behind it.”

“You and Hercules go back through the friendly steadings and check on things, I have to stay with Herrodr.” He suggested.

“Right!” the warrior turned her horse and made towards the back of the traveling pack of warriors to reach Hercules, wishing she had Argo with her and that her beloved mare was alright back in Greece.

It was only minutes before the Greeks moved off into the tree line and waited until the main body of the warriors was far enough way and then began a hurried trip back towards Eddval’s steading.

“What’s the hurry besides the fact we’ve been led away from the steadings for a reason?” Hercules grinned as they rode.

“Something’s wrong, I can’t explain it but I’ve got to get back to Gabrielle!” she yelled back.

“Then let’s go!” he agreed, urging his horse to move faster.

At each steading they went through the Greeks found disturbing news, in one community there were two missing pregnant women, in another one pregnant woman and in a third a total of four missing pregnant women. All gone under strange circumstances, each steading reporting that they had disappeared into a fog.

“Like the dogs.” Hercules commented as they left the last steading before Eddval’s.

“Yes, the sorcerer! Reija!” Xena said flatly through gritted teeth.

It was two days before they had made it to Eddval’s steading, Xena cursing every mark they put behind them, neither warrior saying much as they rode their horses as hard as they dared without hurting the animals. At the last steading they had been given fresh horses and had made good time but something kept nagging at the warrior that they were already too late.
The first thing Gabrielle noticed when she became aware of her thoughts and surroundings was the smell. She quickly turned over and gagged, trying to keep from losing whatever her last meal had been. The bard slowly raised herself to her knees, taking in the fact that she was on a stone floor covered with hay and it was cold. Slowly turning her head Gabrielle could make out that she was surrounded on three sides by iron bars that were embedded into the floor and went to the roof, high above her head and the fourth side was stonewall with no window.

Whimpers and whines with a little movement in the semi-darkness of the hall confirmed the bard’s suspicion about the smell. The kidnapped dogs were being held in the hall. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness Gabrielle could see that each dog was chained to a ring in the floor or wall and they couldn’t reach each other. A little hay was dropped along the floor to absorb what little waste they had produced. The bard didn’t think it was much despite the smell, each dog looked close to death and the bard figured they hadn’t been fed since they had been taken. There were various breeds of dogs but all seemed to be losing their fur to be replaced with white fur underneath.

“No!” she whispered as her eyes adjusted and she could make out several figures across the room from her chained to the wall. Women, mostly young and all were pregnant. Some were awake and others still unconscious or asleep.

“Hey!” Gabrielle called out and several raised their heads to look at the bard but their eyes were unseeing and they didn’t respond. “Can you talk?” she asked in Germanic. The heads merely dropped again without response.

It was impossible to gauge the passage of time in the windowless room except for the fire burning down. The warrior bard judged the time to have passed at a candle mark when the large and thick wooden door opened and a small figure entered and barred the door behind him.

“Hey! You son of a Cyclops!” Gabrielle shouted, standing against the bars and rattling them.

The figure that approached was the same that she had seen on the road only he was dressed in fine silks this time, despite the colder temperature of the northern climate. The man was short, as short as Gabrielle and Iolaus only thinner than the Greek warrior and not as well defined as the bard. His thin and pointed face, with a goatee and mustache reminded Gabrielle of the eunuch that had been at the gladiatorial school she had been sold to. Her first kill in the arena.

“I am Rajal,” he said in Latin. “You are not Viking?”

“No, I’m Greek,” the bard answered.

“Good, a civilized language. I am tired of this barbaric language and lack of culture.”

“Nice touches you’ve done with this place, I’m impressed with the smells,” she growled and was pleased to see a flash of anger in his dark eyes.

“You would be wise not to anger me,” he warned. “You really should have killed me when my hands were pinned.”

“I’m not into killing defenseless people,” Gabrielle snapped.

“But I am not defenseless,” he grinned and touched his hands to hers.

The warrior bard found herself several feet from the bars holding her hands, which were stinging like she had touched an electric eel. She glared at the Arab but kept quiet.

“What do you need the women for?” she finally demanded.

“To complete the spell for the dog hunt I need blood. The best blood for the spell is of the unborn.”

Gabrielle felt her stomach threatening to turn over again at the thought.

“And me? I’m not pregnant.”

“You have a unique energy, much darkness to it. I’m going to bring that out in you and let you loose with the hounds when they run. That should be punishment enough for keeping me from taking that young girl on the road,” he stated.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gabrielle protested, feeling a chill spread over her body.

Rajal grinned a vicious grin and pointed a finger at the bard. Gabrielle yelped as she felt her fangs grow longer in her mouth. She tried to fight them back into her jaw but they refused. After a moment she gave up and growled at the sorcerer and bared the fangs at him.

“Yes, before the week is over, your hunger will drive you to madness and the point of death. Then, given the blood of the unborn along with the hounds, you’ll become like them. Strong beyond weapons and with the ability to fly through the air. You will help them rip your friends and family to shreds,” he promised.

Clenching her hands into fists and raising to her knees, Gabrielle screamed around her fangs at the image of Xena torn to pieces by the hounds, just like her vision journey had shown her. The bard let the darkness claim her overwhelmed mind.
The bard didn’t know how much time had passed except that the meals given to the women seem to indicate at least two days. During that time the bard had been given nothing to eat and very little water to drink. Gabrielle sat in the corner of her cell trying to concentrate, to keep the hunger from overwhelming her but it was becoming difficult.

The women were still mindless, held somehow in a spell that put their minds to sleep. Guards came in and gave them food and then would lead them out one by one, assumedly to attend to bodily functions. For Gabrielle, no attention was given except a cup of water twice a day.

The dogs weren’t treated any better than the bard. They had already gone mad with hunger, some chewing their own feet to shreds, others choking themselves to death on their chains in an attempt to get away or at the other dogs. Some just gave up and lay down on the cold stone and stared at nothing.

Gabrielle concentrated on Xena, keeping her thoughts on her mate seemed to help.
“Ylsa! Thank Thor’s beard you’re here!” Alfhild cried as she rushed out of the long hall as the riders skidded to a stop.

“Reija?” Xena demanded.

“She’s fine, so is Solan. It’s Brie!”

“What?” Xena demanded, her eyes flashing as Hercules jumped off his horse beside her.

“The sorcerer tried to take your son and wife but Brie and I interfered and Brie was knocked from her horse and taken as we were escaping. I’m sorry, I couldn’t save the young ones and go back for her at the same time. When we returned there was no trace.”

“It’s alright, Alfhild, we’ll get her back. How long has she been gone?”

“Six days,” the Viking answered.

Iolaus came out of the barn and rushed over to the two other Greeks and hugged Hercules. He looked haggard and both knew he hadn’t slept in days.

“The full moon was five days ago,” Xena muttered in Greek.

“We left when she was going to go through the cravings?” Hercules questioned, also in Greek.

“They slaughtered a calf the day before, she had blood. Now I don’t know if she got it,” Xena explained and then switched back to Germanic. “Sorry, Alfhild, just bitching back and forth. We need fresh horses.”

“You can’t ride against the Jarl!” Alfhild protested.

“His magician has my wife and probably several pregnant village girls, we’re going!” Xena stated firmly, moving past the woman, leaving Hercules to explain to Iolaus and Alfhild the comment about the pregnant villagers.

“Mom, I want to come!” Solan stated, entering the barn with Reija leading him.

“No, I can’t take time to make sure you’re safe and rescue Gabrielle.”

“Mom, he should go with you,” a tiny voice said and the warrior was surprised to see Sasha step out from behind Reija’s skirt.

“Sasha? What do you mean, little one?” Xena asked, kneeling down next to the child, it was plain the Xena that the child had been crying and silently cursed herself for not having reassured the child before going for the horses.

“I don’t know. Something told me he should go with you.” The child said simply.

Xena frowned and Reija shrugged. “I don’t know, I don’t want him to go but they both say he should. She is a special child.” The Amazon said.

Iolaus, Alfhild, Xena, Solan and Hercules were on the road within half a candle mark.
“Can you hear me, Greek?” a voice broke through the haze of Gabrielle’s thoughts and she opened her eyes.

Rajal was standing in front of her. Somehow she managed to become semi-aware of her surroundings and realized that she was standing upright, chained to the wall with her arms spread. The chains were holding her up since the bard no longer had the strength to even feel her legs.

The bard could feel her fangs and the hunger felt like a fire gripping every muscle and nerve in her body. Everything hurt, more than any day in the Arena, more than when she had been crucified. Even more than when Xena had found her in the cave in the snow. She screamed around her fangs.

The sorcerer grinned and held a wooden mug to her lips. Gabrielle moaned and readily drank the dark red liquid in the mug and whined when the Arab took the mug away.

“No, not too much. I want you aware of what is happening, Greek, but not well fed. Very shortly you will sink your fangs into one of those women and take the blood from her and her baby,” he sneered.

Gabrielle felt the blood rushing through her system, giving a little relief from the pain, from the gnawing at her body and soul and then his words sunk into the bard’s mind and she frowned.

“No, never!” she growled.

The Arab laughed at her and sat the cup down on a wooden table.

“It is time, Greek. The dogs are almost all dead and now the spell begins tonight.”

“Xena,” Gabrielle muttered.

The Arab frowned. “You say that a lot, is that one of your goddesses?”

The bard managed to smile a small grin. “She is mine,” she whispered.

Gabrielle managed to raise her head and focus enough to watch the Arab move the bodies of the dogs into several rings around the center of the room where there was a stone block and the table. On the table was a curved sword that was popular with the Arabic tribes, a curved dagger, a large bowl, the mug of blood Gabrielle had drank from, and some other things she couldn’t quite focus on.

When the bard raised her head again the Arab had drawn chalk circles around each dog’s body and then poured salt over the chalk, muttering in his foreign language the entire time. Rajal went to the table and took up the dagger and quickly moved from dog to dog. Any dog that wasn’t already dead had its throat cut quickly and efficiently; it’s blood flowing across the stone floor.

The smell of the blood sent the bard into a frenzy with a sudden burst of energy and strength. The Arab looked up and grinned as the bard thrashed against the chains and then tried to reach her own wrists, now bloody from fighting the chains. Her eyes were totally yellow and rimmed with red and her fangs long enough to be deadly. She looked at him and screamed in anger.

Rajal moved back to the outer circle and drew several symbols around the circle in chalk, continuing to chant, ignoring the bard’s screams and growls of anger and frustration. Then the sorcerer moved to the table and replaced the knife on the table. Pulling a key out of his pocket Rajal walked over to one of the women and pulled the Viking to her feet. The woman didn’t resist or even register the Arab’s presence as he unlocked her shackles and led her to the stone altar.

The woman’s eyes were blank as the Arab tied her hands over her head by a rope hanging from the rafters. The Arab’s face showed the same lack of emotion as he went to the table and picked up the sword and stood in front of the woman.

The impact of the scene got through to the bard and Gabrielle screamed as the Arab raised the sword over his head and brought down with all his strength, slicing the woman from the shoulder to her hip. Gabrielle screamed again, gnashing her teeth against her lip and fought against the chains.

Her mind was refusing to accept the fact that the small man was placing the large bowl under the woman’s now limp body to collect the blood. Then the smell of the fresh blood hit the bard and conscious thought fled in the wake of the overwhelming hunger.
Xena pulled her horse up to a stop just above the Jarl’s steading and quickly dismounted. Hercules and Iolaus watched with curious expressions as she bent to the road and grabbed some of the road dust and mud. She went to Solan and smeared some of the dust and mud on his clothes and face and then on her own.

“Come, Herc,” she said. “We need to look like we just came from the main force so they’ll let us in the gate.”

The large Greek grinned and jumped down off the horse to follow her lead. A few rips and they were ready to approach the gates.

“The game plan?” Iolaus asked as they rode towards the gates.

“Get inside and kick ass,” Xena said simply.

“The hall is made totally of stone and the roof is wooden, not thatch like the others,” Alfhild informed them.

“Good, we make for that,” Hercules muttered.

“The Jarl will be coming in soon to take over the pack with his berserkers. I want in there and out before they get here.” Xena stated.

“How soon do you think?” Iolaus asked, gauging the passage of time and the sun.

“When it’s good and dark, when the temp drops and everyone is inside for the attack,” the warrior guessed.

They talked their way past the guards fairly easily, telling the warriors that they had come from Herrodr’s forces with an urgent message about the Hunt for the head warrior left behind and to get aid for the boy. The guards looked at their rough condition and Solan’s bandaged eyes and let them through.
Rajal led one of the women close to the bard but not within reach of Gabrielle’s fangs. He grinned at the sight of the small Greek woman who was now in a total Bacchae frenzy. The pregnant woman’s eyes were unfocused and mindless as the others.

The Arab sorcerer slowly moved the woman forward and Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and she moved back against the wall. Rajal continued to push the woman forward until she was almost pressed against the bard. The Arab then carefully unlocked Gabrielle’s right wrist, being sure to stay out of her reach.

With a growl the bard grabbed the woman by the neck and pulled the Norsewoman to her as Gabrielle’s head arched forward towards the woman’s neck.

Rajal grinned and stepped back to watch.
Once inside the gate the Greeks and Viking looked around quickly and saw the stone hall three buildings over, guarded by four large Viking warriors. Looking around the warriors saw that no one was paying much attention to them and no one was on alert, everyone going about their evening duties.

Xena pulled her sword as her eyes narrowed.

“Iolaus, take care of Solan and keep either close to the horse or close to us,” she ordered.

“Right.” The Greek agreed, taking the reins of Solan’s horse from Xena.

Hercules pulled a large war hammer from his saddle and glanced around again.

“Those guards aren’t going to let us in,” he said calmly.

“Then we’ll have to convince them,” Xena grinned.

“Wait, I have an idea,” Hercules said suddenly and dismounted and went to Solan’s horse. “Solan, come on down from there. I’m going to carry you to the sorcerer’s hall, pretend to be hurt and unconscious.”

“Okay,” the teen agreed readily and dismounted.

“Good,” Xena agreed. “That’ll get us close enough to take them out and inside before anyone can raise an alarm.”

In moments the guards frowned at the sight of several warriors heading their way, one carrying someone in his arms. A closer look revealed two of the warriors to be female, a surprise to the guards since Herrodr didn’t care for women warriors.

Alfhild stepped forward as they approached the guards.

“This boy is injured and must be seen by the Jarl’s magic worker, Herrodr the Red sent us,” she said simply.

The guards frowned and looked at each other, shifting on their feet.

“We were told that no one should enter tonight,” one of them said uneasily.

“Aren’t you Eddval Skull Splitter’s wife?” one questioned, his hand moving toward his sword.

“Now!” Xena shouted.

Hercules turned and let Solan down and Iolaus quickly pulled the youth back as Hercules turned, swinging his war hammer in the same motion, taking out the guard in the front.

Xena’s sword quickly blocked one of the guard’s sword as he swung at her and she spun under the blow and brought her sword up in an arc, slicing through his leather armor from hit to shoulder.

Alfhild’s spear took out another guard before he could even draw his sword and the fourth fell to one of Hercules’s fists.

“Intruders!” a voice shouted and Xena turned to see several warriors launching spears.

Sounding out her war cry, the warrior flipped forward through the air to land by Solan and Iolaus and knock them to the ground as several spears flew overhead.
The Arab frowned at the strange sound outside the door and looked that way for a moment. When he looked back he was stunned to see the bard hesitating at the woman’s neck, her fangs not yet breaking the skin.

“Xena,” the bard whispered.

Gabrielle’s face looked pained and she closed her eyes for a moment and when she opened them she drew back and released the woman from her grip at the Viking’s neck. She pulled the woman next to her against the wall and glared at the sorcerer.

“My father is the god of light, I won’t give into the darkness anymore!” she growled.

“You can’t resist!” he screamed.

The bard grinned around her fangs. “None of you can claim me anymore!”

The sorcerer turned with a curse and stood in front of the altar with his arms raised high and began chanting.
In moments, the common of Herrodr’s steading was a madhouse as warriors kept rushing the small band of Greeks and Viking woman, only to fall to sword, chakram, war hammer or spear. Iolaus had pushed Solan back against the doorway and was protecting the young man with his sword while Hercules kept a group of warriors held back with swings of his hammer.

Xena heard a yell and growled when she saw Alfhild go down to a sword strike along her leg. The Greek yelled a war cry and somersaulted through the air to land standing over the Viking woman, blocking a fatal sword strike and impaling the enemy warrior through the chest with her sword. She lashed out with her other hand and cut the throat of another attacking warrior with the chakram. She blocked another series of sword strikes, protecting Alfhild as the woman began crawling towards the doorway where Solan and Iolaus were.

“We’re not going to make it!” Alfhild yelled.

“Don’t give up! Never give up!” Xena shouted back and then hit the ground when she was unable to block a fist and two swords at the same time. She brought her sword and chakram up just in time to block the two swords again but not the boot that connected with her ribs. Two more warriors rushed up to join the three attacking the Greek.

“Damn,” she muttered.

Xena was surprised when two of the warriors looked stunned and then fell to the ground, the life leaving their eyes. Two more went down and the third turned to see who was attacking them and Xena ran him through with her sword. She flipped to her feet and found herself face to face with a familiar face.

“Greetings, Greek!” the Valkyrie Grimhild Thornfinndottir grinned. The Valkyrie quickly turned and blocked another series of sword strikes from two attacking warriors. She grinned over her shoulder. “Go, your mate needs you!”

Xena turned to head for the stone hall.

“Ylsa Xena!” Grimhild called and Xena looked back. “All Father holds no grudges and says he’s pleased with your progress.”

Xena gritted her teeth and merely nodded as the Valkyrie went back to fighting.

The Greek warrior quickly helped clear out the small band Hercules had been fighting off and the demi-god turned to the door and put his foot against it. Two more times and it crashed inwards.

Iolaus grabbed Solan and pulled him inside and Hercules picked up Alfhild and followed. Xena held off the attacking warriors and managed to get inside before Hercules lifted the heavy door back into place.

The small band turned to face whatever was inside the stone hall.
“Xena!” The warrior’s eyes swept the room, taking in Gabrielle chained on one side and several women on the other; the rings of dogs; the dead woman hanging by a rope; the sorcerer with his back to them at the stone altar; and the smell of fresh blood, urine and decay.

The warrior was about to launch her chakram when the sorcerer whirled and a blinding light filled the room with a force that knocked everyone but Solan flat.

Gabrielle shook her head and saw Rajal pick up the bowl of blood and walk over to one of the hounds.

“Xena, Hercules, if he pours blood over them we lose!” she screamed.

She could see the warriors shaking their heads, trying to clear their eyes. Xena was feeling around on the stone floor for the chakram.

The bard screamed in frustration as the Arab began pouring the blood over four of the hounds. Rajal grinned at her and kept chanting as he moved towards the fifth hound in the outer circle. Gabrielle’s yellow eyes went wide at the sight of the hounds that had been initiated with the blood begin to move and open their eyes.

“Solan, your bow! The speaking!” Gabrielle yelled in Finnish, knowing that Rajal probably hadn’t learned the languages further north that the Amazons used.

The blind teenager cocked his head and drew his bow up and notched an arrow. Iolaus grabbed Alfhild and held his hand over her mouth to silence her moaning and Hercules and Xena held still.

Rajal’s chanting stopped and he looked at the bard with a stunned expression on his face as he dropped the bowl of blood and felt at his neck for the arrow sticking through it. The Arab sorcerer fell face first onto the stones with a sickening sound.

“He’s down!” Gabrielle yelled.

The four dogs got to their feet and took in the moving warriors and growled.

“Xena, your right hand to your right!” she yelled and the warrior grabbed up her chakram. “My voice, your chakram, quick!” Gabrielle yelled.

Xena took a deep breath and launched the chakram, both mates trusting each other totally. Gabrielle ducked at the last moment as the chakram cut through her chain. The bard dropped the woman she had been shielding down the wall and fell forward, her legs refusing to hold her up.

Xena shook her head and blinked several times and grabbed up her sword.

“Hercules, can you see yet?” she called.

“No, everything’s gray!”

“It’s fuzzy but getting better,” she muttered.

The bard got to her knees and gritted her teeth together, her fangs biting into her lower lip as she watched the dogs testing their weight and new muscles, their lips curling back in a snarl.

Seeing them about to spring forward, Gabrielle threw herself across the space and into the middle of them, tipping the table over with her. The dogs turned growling and snapping as she fought to reach the sword.

“Gabrielle!” Xena screamed trying to make out the fuzzy figures, hearing the snapping of the dogs jaws, yelps, screams, growls, yells, and whimpers. Concentrating on the noise the warrior rushed forward and dived into the middle of the moving mass.
When his eyes finally cleared Hercules looked around and felt Iolaus moving up behind him.

“No!” the smaller Greek whispered as they both took in the sight of the Arab sorcerer lying on the cold stone with an arrow through his throat and then the mess of several dogs, Gabrielle and Xena also lying on the floor, all covered in blood and not moving.

“What’s happening? Somebody tell me!” Solan shouted.

“Easy, son,” Hercules said softly. “We’re going to find out, stay there.”

The two Greeks rushed forward, stepping around the corpses of dogs and the Arab and pulled two dogs off Xena and another off Gabrielle, none of the dogs were alive. Iolaus quickly bent to check Gabrielle’s breathing and pulse as Hercules did the same.

“She’s alive!” Iolaus said gratefully.

“Same here! Solan, they’re alive. Keep your ear at that door and let us know if anyone’s about to charge it.” Hercules called to the teen.

“Right!”

Iolaus almost yelped in surprise when Gabrielle opened her eyes and they were yellow and red rimmed. She quickly closed her eyes again as her body began to shake. The Greek pulled the bard into his arms, off of the cold stone.

“Xena?” Hercules called softly and was pleased when two blue eyes opened to look at him. Xena smiled a small smile.

“Hey big guy,” she whispered.

“Are you okay?” he asked, lifting her up into his arms as well.

“I think so. I landed on my head when that last dog jumped me. Gabrielle?”

“Alive but Bacchae,” he said grimly.

Xena started to move and winced.

“I think one of those bastards outside broke some ribs,” she whispered.

“How can we help Gabrielle, she’s going into shock?” he asked, his face showing his worry.

“None of the blood here, its tainted, sacrificed blood. It’s got to be me.”

“You’re too weak!” he protested. “I don’t know how many bites you’ve got.”

Xena glanced over at her mate and wasn’t surprised to see Gabrielle trembling, her eyes rolled back in her head.

“I don’t have a choice, Herc,” she whispered.

Solan started to shout something and barely moved aside in time as the door crashed in once more. Hercules quickly let Xena back down onto the floor and stood up, war hammer in hand.

The Greeks looked up and saw the Valkyrie Grimhild and Eddval walking in the hall with torches. Axel and other Vikings from Eddval’s steading began pouring in. Axel went to Alfhild and began calling for stretchers as Grimhild and Eddval walked over to the small group of Greeks.

“Jarl Herrodr has been taken prisoner to answer charges of kidnapping, murder, black sorcery, treason and whatever else Eddval can think of,” Grimhild grinned down at the warrior. “You all did well.”

“Gabrielle!” Xena muttered, sitting up on her elbows and wincing at the broken ribs that were trying to knit themselves back together.

“She’ll be fine, she conquered the darkness totally. Give her what she needs from you, warrior. You’ve both beaten her vision.” The Valkyrie answered.

“No,” Hercules said softly and Xena and Valkyrie looked at him with puzzled expressions.

“When my eyesight cleared I saw the two of them covered in blood and not moving. We thought they were dead, torn by the hounds. Just like Gabrielle saw,” he explained.

“Then the Norns have been met,” Grimhild nodded. “Bring them to Herrodr’s hall,” the Valkyrie ordered and several Vikings moved forward to help carry the women and follow the tall Viking warrior woman.

Within a candle mark the women had been cleaned up from the blood and their wounds treated and Xena was amused to find herself and Gabrielle in the Jarl’s own bed in a separate room from the rest of the main long hall. Gabrielle was unconscious and trembling but not shaking as badly.

The warrior took the bard into her arms and began talking to her mate softly.

“Come on, baby, come back to me. Come on, Gabrielle, come on,” she kept repeating until she saw the bard’s eyes struggling to open.

Xena smiled slightly and held her wrist up close to Gabrielle’s lips.

“Come on, Gabrielle, take it,” she ordered softly.

Gabrielle opened her eyes slightly and raised a trembling hand to grasp the wrist. She closed her eyes and ran her tongue over the inside of the wrist, sending a shiver of energy through Xena’s body. The warrior’s breath quickened as the bard lightly nipped the wrist, scraping her teeth over the nerves so close to the surface and Xena felt her own body begin to tremble.

She was surprised when Gabrielle’s eyes snapped open and the bard attempted to sit up.

“No, I won’t!”

“Gabrielle!” Xena said sharply, holding the bard in her arms. “Its okay, it’s me!”

“Xena?” the bard asked softly, falling back into Xena’s arms.

“Yes, you beat it, Gabrielle. You beat the darkness totally.” Xena whispered, a tear escaping from her eye. “Take what you need.”

“You saved me again,” Gabrielle grinned and then her face grew serious as Xena lifted her wrist again.

“Let me continue to save you,” Xena whispered, kissing the bard’s forehead and cried out softly as she felt fangs sink into her wrist and felt her hips jerk in response to the stimulation. “Is your bite always going to be connected to me like this?” she wondered aloud.

Hercules grinned when he checked on them later and found both women asleep in each other’s arms.
When Gabrielle opened her eyes and focused she was surprised to see Xena sitting in a chair beside the bed, her feet propped up on the bed and a cloak thrown over her.

“What in Tartarus are you doing over there?” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena opened her eyes and blinked in surprise and then blushed.

“I was restless and didn’t want to keep you awake tossing and turning,” she admitted.

“By the gods!” the bard complained as she struggled to sit up. “I feel like I’ve fought two Cyclops barehanded!”

Xena grinned. “Nope, just one insane sorcerer, four draugr magical dogs, and your own hunger.”

“And you, my love?”

“A few Viking berserkers and a couple of dogs, nothing much,” the warrior shrugged.

“Uh huh, I suppose I’ll have to find out from the others how close we came again to dying?” Gabrielle smiled.

“No, we came close, I’ll admit it. Your vision came true. We were lying on cold stones, surrounded by dogs, covered in blood, bitten repeatedly and not moving. Hercules and Iolaus thought we were dead, just like you did in your vision.”

Gabrielle looked at her arms and the fading wounds and frowned at her mate.

“How long have I been out?” she asked.

“Two days.”

“What?” the bard asked in a whisper of disbelief.

“The sorcerer starved you and your hunger, it took a couple of days to recover,” Xena said simply, moving over to the bed and sitting next to the bard, letting Gabrielle rest her head on her chest, the warrior wrapping her arm around the bard’s shoulder.

“You fed me,” Gabrielle stated.

“Yes, to get you through the worst of it and then cattle blood the last couple of days. What do you remember?”

“Which part? It gets a little confused between fighting that little bastard and waking up here.”

“Do you remember being Bacchae and yet fighting back? When we broke in you were full Bacchae and blood starved yet you didn’t touch the woman next to you and you told us how to fight back when we were blinded,” Xena stated.

“Yes, I refused to give in. I called on Apollo’s lightness and resisted. Is Solan okay? I saw him with you.”

“Yes, he’s fine and a hero. With your direction he took out the sorcerer,” Xena grinned.

“Like his mom, you cut my chain, I remember,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Team work,” the warrior shrugged her own part of the rescue off. “I love you, Gabrielle.”

“I love you so much, Xena. What’s happened and where are we?”

“We’re in Jarl Herrodr’s bed and the women are fine. Once the sorcerer was dead they had their right minds back when they woke up and have no memory of being captured at all.”

“One was killed,” Gabrielle remembered.

“Yes, she was from the steading of Axel’s cousin.”

Both women were quiet for a few moments.

“An All Thing was held earlier today. Seems that we stopped a major event from happening. Herrodr planned on trying to steal Odin’s powers. He was going to slaughter four steadings and turn the slain Vikings into draugrs, a mindless and soul-less body that obeys its magician master.”

“That’s why he wanted the dogs for his own Wild Hunt,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“Yes, that got the attention of the gods but they hate interfering in the affairs of humans so they sent my Valkyrie to help out when things got a little tight. Eddval, his men and the men from the other steadings took Herrodr prisoner when Grimhild, the Valkyrie, publicly accused the Jarl of his crimes. When they got here they found the women the sorcerer had taken for sacrifice, the dogs and us. He was found guilty of a lot of crimes,” Xena hesitated and Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed.

“Xena?”

“When he was found guilty there was a lightning flash and Odin appeared. This isn’t a normal occurrence up here, Gabrielle. Most of these Vikings had never seen one of their Valkyries before, let alone their major god. He didn’t say a word, just pointed his spear at Herrodr and they both disappeared.”

“Wow! Judgment by a god?”

“Yeah. Eddval was selected as Jarl for the area and we’re heroes. Hercules and Iolaus have been treated like gods the last couple of days.” Xena grinned.

“Well, considering how our adventures usually end, we’re not too banged up this time,” Gabrielle grinned and Xena hugged her mate close.
Three days later the Greeks were leaving the Jarl’s steading to return to Eddval’s steading and back to Sasha and Reija when they stopped suddenly just outside the gate, all of them stunned into silence except Solan.

“What is it?” he asked, sensing the sudden change in mood.

“The one time you would be glad not to have eyes,” Alfhild commented, shifting on her horse around her injured leg.

“Herrodr is hanging from a tree,” Xena said simply.

“It’s called the Red Eagle,” Alfhild stated.

“Mom?” Solan questioned.

“Tell him,” Xena said flatly.

“The criminal is tied to tree branches, arms spread wide. If the execution is to be quick then he is strangled with a noose, a rope. If it is to be punishment then slices are made down his back and his lungs pulled out from behind. They look like wings. More cuts are usually made to the body to make it even more painful.” Alfhild explained.

“Oh gods,” the teen muttered.

“He challenged a god,” Alfhild shrugged and moved her horse forward.

The Greeks urged their horses forward to follow.

“Xena?”

“Yes, Gabrielle?”

“Time to go home?” the bard questioned softly.

“What about the Amazon woman and child?” Xena asked and Gabrielle frowned. “Do we risk returning to the Northern Amazons to escort them to their new tribe?”

“No, I don’t want Sasha near Mattita until we know for certain that she no longer has any power.” Gabrielle muttered. “I’ve talked with Sterope, the baker, and she wants to remain with Axel’s family if going to the Amazons would put us in danger.”

Gabrielle’s face looked pained as she looked over into Xena’s eyes. “I want to go home.”

“Yes,” Xena agreed simply.

The End
Bard Scrolls
Storyline: Xena, Gabrielle, family and friends are traveling back from Northern Germania to Greece after a winter with the Northern Amazons and Vikings.

**It has been four years since Julius Caesar was assassinated and it is still unclear who is the real power in Rome. With Brutus and Cassius dead, with no small help from Xena and myself, Gabrielle, it has fallen to Octavian and Antony, just as Xena had predicted. **

The bard looked up from her scroll as Xena stepped into her light. The warrior knelt down and grinned at her mate.

“How’s it going?” the warrior asked.

“Ah, there’s so much to write about when we were with Eddval. That insane Jarl Herrodr with that little Arab maniac sorcerer. Then there’s everything that happened with the Northern Amazons,” the bard complained.

Xena grinned.

“Let’s see,” she mused. “You mean traveling to the Northern Amazons to make amends for my past crimes and having them adopt Sasha as an Amazon; finding out Alti was still powerful; taking her on in the spiritual realm and the physical; nearly losing you in that battle? About your initiation into the tribe and losing Arja, the Queen? Things like that?”

Gabrielle smirked at her mate.

“Yeah, something like that. Don’t forget you nearly died from all those wounds you took in that battle before you killed Alti. Then discovering your son had fallen in love with his Amazon escort and getting tossed out of the village in the middle of winter. What else? Oh yeah, one power hungry Law Speaker Amazon trying to kidnap Sasha because she’s the daughter of a god and demi-god,” Gabrielle counter listed.

“I am NOT a demi-god!” Xena muttered and Gabrielle grinned, her nose and eyes crinkling in amusement.

“Of course not, just because you’re the daughter of two gods and Cyrene, all at the same time, not a demi-god at all. It’s not complicated, no, not at all!” the bard teased.

“I just hope we don’t come up against sorcery again, that was too weird for me,” Xena complained.

“I didn’t exactly have a good time either,” Gabrielle frowned and then smiled when Xena’s hand gently stroked her cheek.

“I’m sorry, I know it wasn’t,” the warrior said softly.

“In a way it worked out well,” Gabrielle stated and wasn’t surprised when Xena’s eyebrows went up in question. “I finally conquered that damn blood darkness”

Xena smiled and sat down next to the bard, leaning against the tree. “Yep, and you were amazing! I’ll never forget the sight of you in full bacchae craving, all those dead dogs, pregnant women chained to the walls, meant to be sacrificed and that little bastard sorcerer. I wasn’t sure we could beat him for a moment there,” the warrior admitted.

“Yeah, like you said then, team work. With Solan’s amazing aim with a bow, you’re aim with a chakram and help from your Valkyrie, we made it.”

“You’re forgetting your part in it, my love,” Xena gently scolded. “You gave Solan the target, you gave me the target and you kept the dogs from attacking all of us when we were blind by jumping in the middle of them.”

Gabrielle delighted the warrior by blushing. Xena laughed lightly and wrapped her arm around the bard’s shoulders.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly, laying her head on Xena’s chest.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” the warrior responded simply.
*Personal Journal

I feel very fortunate at times like this. Our small group has camped for the night and everything is set up. Solan is cooking dinner, a deer that Xena brought down earlier today. Ketli is playing with Sasha in the trees, he’s almost as much at home in the trees as an Amazon and he keeps a very close eye on the precocious child.

I get to take this time to watch my friends and family. Hercules and Xena are discussing something and Iolaus is napping. I notice Xena’s eyes always darting back and forth between Hercules and Sasha, always watching out for our daughter.

“Our daughter”, sometimes that still feels strange to me. Not because Ares is her father, just the ache I have when I think about her birth and not being there. I can’t even begin to describe the anger I’m feeling now that we know Ares had me captured and sold into slavery to stop me from being there. Even when I was fighting in the Arena I didn’t feel this level of anger. It scares me, even more than the Bacchae side of myself.

When do we get a break? I’m almost 30 winters old. Twice the age past beginning marriage and children myself. Watching Solan and his new wife Reija reminds me of that. I don’t understand myself, that’s exactly the life I didn’t want when I left home to follow Xena, now I’m wanting it and wondering if it’s too late. We have a home in Amphipolis, both of us have good jobs and a family. When do we get to enjoy them?

I’m worried now that we know Ares was behind my being taken as a slave and what a nightmare that was for me that Xena won’t rest until she’s gotten back at him somehow. Even Hercules is boiling over with anger at the abuse I suffered and the fact that Iolaus was crippled because of those damned plans of his brother’s.

I still have nightmares of that time. I don’t talk to Xena about them much because I know she feels so guilty about not being there and protecting me or at least rescuing me. All those hours of training, learning to kill. Learning to do something I never thought I would be able to do. I remember every face very clearly. Their eyes haunt me. Xena was right, when you kill – it changes everything. You can see the light in someone’s eyes going out as they die. I know that I didn’t have a choice but it doesn’t help when the nightmares come. I know that each of those men and women would have killed me without a thought, that’s what they were trying to do, all that prevented that was that I was better that day. I never told Xena about the women I was forced to kill in the Arena. Somehow, I just can’t.

That one is hard to define. I’ve told her everything about Nikki, about having to become lovers to protect my body from the men of the gladiator school and for comfort; I’ve told her about the cravings when the bacchae side takes over; I’ve let her see what Dancer the gladiator can be like but I’ve never admitted to killing other female gladiators. I wonder why? Is it because I’m an Amazon and have sworn to protect women? Do I feel that I’ve somehow broken that vow? Is that why Artemis won’t come to me? She came to us when she needed help saving the Amazons but she hasn’t appeared to me since just after the Ides of March.

Oh good! Now Xena and Hercules are arm wrestling of all things! Reija is helping Solan with dinner and the kids are now exploring under some rocks.

Ketli Axe Hand, what names these Northerners come up with, tries to be such an adult now that he’s almost a teenager but around Sasha he can revert to being a child that he never really had a chance to be.

Since revealing to us that she’s somewhat telepathic, Sasha’s potential god-skills haven’t shown themselves, which is fine for Xena and me. The less different that she is from other kids the better. Both Xena and I remember what it felt like growing up feeling different and how difficult that could be. How painful the teasing from other kids can be.

It’s been close to seven years since I followed Xena and I swear she doesn’t look that much older than when I first saw her. A few differences here and there but nothing major. She’s still so beautiful and deadly; she takes my breath away even after all these years.

We left Eddval Skull Splitter’s steading four days ago and we are making good time on the horses in this spring weather. After leaving the Northern Amazon village in the middle of the Solstice Month, I thought we’d never get warm again. Fighting a river of ice, blinding snow, nearly being killed by arrows, that was more than I want to repeat. Only Xena got us through at the end.

I’m still enraged at Mattita, the Law Speaker of the Northern Amazons. Wanting to kill all of us and take Sasha because the child “might” have powers of the gods. I would be very tempted to cross that line in my soul about starting a fight with the intention of killing someone! I’ve only fought in self-defense but I almost believe I could kill her intentionally. I only hope that when I get a message from the tribe we find out that Otere and Yakut have managed to oust Mattita for her murderous plans.

It will be good to be back in Greece. I want to see Lila and Mother very badly. *

Xena smiled as she watched Gabrielle writing in one of the bard’s scrolls. Her mate was deep in thought and sometimes it seemed that it wasn’t pleasant, Xena could tell from Gabrielle’s expressions.

The warrior caught Hercules looking at her as they sat under a tree, watching Sasha and Ketli playing.

“What?” she demanded.

“You’re beautiful when you watch Gabrielle,” he commented and grinned when she began blushing. “I don’t know why it took you two so long to figure it out, everyone else knew.”

“As if you can talk, big guy! How long did it take you to finally admit your feelings for Iolaus?” she countered with a smile.

“True enough. I guess sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of us.”

“I’ll agree to that.” Xena stretched her long body, her eyes darting around the camp, always alert. “I’ll be glad to be home for awhile.”

“Yeah, Iolaus and I have been on the move even more than you two. I want to get Ketli some education, Iolaus is great with most everything except numbers.”

“Me too, I think the entire village of Amphipolis was raising Sasha,” the warrior grinned. “She has a gift, everyone loves her immediately.”

“I could think of worst gifts,” Hercules grinned.

“Yup!”

“Do you ever think about Zeus being your father?” the demi-god asked.

“Not a lot. You know how I feel about the gods. You grew up knowing that he was your father, good or bad. I never knew that until recently. I’m hoping we never have to deal with that,” Xena shrugged.

“Not likely, you know. Secrets have a way of coming out, even among the Olympians,” Hercules commented.

“I know, but only as a last resort. I’ve seen how thrilled Hera is with your existence, my friend.” Xena grinned and the demi-god grinned with her.

“She seems to be calming down a little.”

“I hope so, Herc, she’s caused you enough trouble in your life.”

“Dinner!” Solan suddenly called out, startling Iolaus out of his nap and causing Gabrielle to drop her quill. Both glared at the youth and, as if he could sense it, Solan grinned.
Xena cleared her throat to let the young girl know the warrior was there. The older woman wasn’t surprised when Reija turned quickly and then just as quickly hid her face.

The warrior approached the young woman slowly; sitting down on the rock next to the river they were traveling along. The girl was trying to dry her eyes and conceal that she had been crying.

“You okay?” Xena asked simply.

“Yes, I don’t know why I’m crying,” Reija complained, finally giving up trying to hide her swollen and red eyes.

“Could be just your body going crazy. It happens when you’re pregnant,” Xena smiled.

“Really?”

“Yep, should have seen me when I was pregnant with Solan, I wasn’t letting anyone know I was pregnant and I had all those raging emotions. My troops probably thought I had been cursed by the Furies,” the warrior grinned. “Or maybe you’re missing home?”

Xena hadn’t expected the young woman to break down so suddenly and launch herself into the warrior’s arms for comfort. The warrior quickly recovered and gently held the young teenager as Reija sobbed.

After a few minutes the sobs had been reduced to mere sniffles and Reija pulled back slightly.

“I’m sorry, I know I’m supposed to be strong.”

“Don’t apologize. You’ve never been outside of Amazon territory, have you?” Xena asked kindly.

“No, not at all,” Reija confirmed.

“Now you’re traveling all the way across the country from one end to the sea then to another sea. You’re leaving home, your friends, your family, your tribe, your way of life, I’m not surprised you’re a little down.” Xena pointed out.

“My mother, Mattita, and I hadn’t spoken in months before we left the village but it still hurts that she tried to kill me.”

“I know. Adjusting to life outside the village won’t be easy, Reija, but you’ll find that you have a large family now.”

“Thank you,” Reija said simply, hugging the warrior again.
*Personal Journal

It’s been seven days since we left Eddval’s steading in the north and have stopped for a couple of days at a village along the river. We came upon a spring festival and we found a warm welcome among the Germanic tribes that make up the small village. I find my skills at tale weaving most welcome at night around the bonfires of their celebrations. I think these Vikings like story telling even more than my Greeks. They value their bards, whom they call Skalds, very highly here, relying on them for education, news, and entertainment. Skalds can even hold honored positions among royal courts up here, the nobles keeping skalds close to them so that their histories might be recorded. These Vikings have a passion to be remembered as heroes and such. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I began traveling with Xena, I wanted to record her deeds for the world, especially when I realized that she was trying to change from the dark Warlord she had been into something else. I wanted the world to realize that.

The Vikings have a saying up here – Cattle die and kinsmen die, thyself soon will die; but fame will never fade for he that wins it.

They also say: from his weapons away no one should ever stir one step while in the field, for no one knows when you might have a sudden need of your sword.

One thing about these Goths, they love to fight, gamble, pursue love and challenge life.

In many ways my fellow Greeks would consider the Germans barbaric. Their clothing is much more simple, most cannot read a single word, most wouldn’t know a simple number problem and yet, I find I admire them greatly. They have a complex religious system and they aren’t as barbaric as Caesar made them out to be. They still rely on magic and superstition more than we of the South do but they also face a harsher life than we do.

They also treat women and children differently than the Southerners. Women are allowed to keep the property they enter into a marriage with in case there is a divorce. Something that is unheard of in our “civilized” society. Divorce is allowed if a wife is mistreated and she retains custody of any children. Children are not considered property unless they are children of slaves.

One thing that both societies have in common: slaves. It seems that neither society can exist right now without slaves, although Eddval’s Steading did fine without slaves. Maybe he can influence the other families under his rule now that he has been made Jarl of the region.

Women are also allowed to have opinions, for the most part. Some are even allowed to be warriors. I understand that the Celts are even more even handed with their women and that they have more rights in society than our own Greek and Roman women have. Amazing, those we would consider barbaric are more advanced in dealing with its citizens.

Although I do find I would miss having my scrolls around me up here. Even ink would be a problem, let alone parchment. They view my writing ability as a rarity up here and sometimes with awe, as if I have a magical skill.

I guess in a way that is true on some levels for the Norse. Their basic writing system is called runes and it developed out of sacred symbols. Symbols that each have a power, a magic of their own, even their own sounds. Most everyone knows the basics of the runes and how to work them but those who are adept at the magical symbols are viewed with honor and respect and are viewed like we view our priests.

Xena looked over at the bard as she wrote in her scrolls and smiled. Gabrielle was almost unaware of the small crowd she was attracting by her writing. The warrior reflected that they didn’t see much writing up here, let alone someone who wrote just to write down their thoughts, unaware that she was echoing the bard’s very thoughts.

The warrior looked around, aware that she was fairly at ease, which was unusual in a large crowd. Normally, she was alert for everything and anything. Up here you had to be on your toes to avoid fights and minor arguments and stay out of the way of local politics. It felt nice not to be watching for assassins, Callisto, or Romans.

The warrior caught Gabrielle’s eyes and smiled and got an answering smile that always warmed the warrior’s heart. Then Sasha tearing through the area with several village children hot on her heels, laughing in a game of tag distracted Xena. A glance around showed Solan leaning against one of the logs with Reija between his legs, leaning back into his chest and the warrior shook her head. When did he grow up? He was only 15, no 16 summers. A man in all societies now, she knew, but she didn’t feel old enough to have a son who was about to become a father.

She spotted Hercules and Iolaus involved in a drinking contest with some of the villagers with a lot of wagering going on. The warrior knew better than to bet on this contest, Iolaus could surprise most everyone by out-drinking men twice his size and Hercules’ drinking capacity was legendary. She also knew the same could be said of the Vikings. Xena figured she might take even odds on a couple of the villagers and the Greeks.

Xena turned back to the man she was talking to, Saebjorn, a local rune worker and religious leader. She wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle joined their table, her sharp ears picking up the conversation on runes.

“Wait a minute!” Gabrielle held up her hand and stopped Saebjorn again. “From the beginning please,” she asked.

“When you have a need for the power of a rune, the worker goes out and finds a tree at dawn and asks permission to take a branch,” Saebjorn began.

“Permission from who?” the bard asked.

“From the tree and the spirits of the land, the Disir. The branch is cut and then the rune worker cuts the staves, long bits of wood, and carves the runes on the staves. Then he or she must stain them,” Saebjorn grinned.

“Stain them? With what?”

“Gabrielle,” Xena growled slightly.

“What?” the curious bard asked.

“No, it is not a hidden secret as it once was,” Saebjorn smiled. “The runes can be stained, imbued with energy, by many methods. It depends on what the working is that determines how they should be stained. Most times it is with the blood of the rune worker, that’s why working rune magic is usually very personal or very wide spread.”

“What do you mean?”

“Either you are working for yourself or for the entire community, not usually for any number in between,” the magician tried to explain.

“I see, instead of helping someone with a love spell,” the bard ventured.

“I would show the person how to work the love spell themselves and warn them against working spells in the first place,” Saebjorn grinned.

“Why discourage them?” Gabrielle asked with a matching smile.

“Because spells never turn out how you want them,” the Viking laughed.

“We have a saying, be careful what you ask for, you might get it,” she joined in his laughter and Xena grinned with them.

Most of the time the warrior didn’t pay a lot of attention to Gabrielle’s conversations with other bards, knowing they were usually exchanging stories, which she would hear later. This time she was interested in the use of the runes and in Gabrielle’s understanding of the northern cultures.

“Or I work a rune working for the community, good harvest, good cattle, stuff like that,” Saebjorn continued.

“Can rune magic be used for evil?” the bard questioned.

“Yes,” Saebjorn frowned in thought for a moment. “Magic is neither evil nor good, it simply is. It is how the energy is used that makes it evil or good. Like your Hades, our Goddess of the Underworld, Hella, isn’t considered evil, she just is. She reigns over the Underworld where those who aren’t worthy of Asgard end up and those who work against others end up in the River of Knives, not even reaching Hella’s Halls.”

“River of Knives?”

“I was told that it was probably a river so cold and filled with ice that it would feel like knives stabbing you. Hella’s Halls aren’t somewhere I want to end up,” Xena commented. “Snakes fill the walls, poison drips from the doorways, other fun stuff like that.”

Saebjorn grinned. “Yes, and Odin’s Hall, Valhol, is made of shields and there is feasting and drinking all night and fighting all day. Each god and goddess have their own halls and their own followers join them after they die. Odin gets half of the honored slain and Freya the other half.”

“The goddess of love and forests,” Gabrielle remembered.

“Yes,” Saebjorn confirmed.

“Back to the staining,” she reminded him.

“Right, most times it’s blood which connects the worker to the working. Other times it can be spit, a minor working. Sometimes it’s… it’s more personal.”

Both women were surprised when the Viking began blushing. Xena suddenly understood but noticed that Gabrielle didn’t.

“For a love spell or fertility, right?” Xena questioned, hoping the bard would figure it out without Saebjorn having to go into details.

“What?” Gabrielle then began blushing and Xena knew the bard finally got it. “Oh yeah, okay. Uh, how, uh, how then do you use the runes?”

“You understand ritual, ja?” he questioned.

“Yes,” Gabrielle and Xena both answered.

“Chanting, prayers, and such. Sometimes the wood is burned to release the energy, sometimes buried. Most times the chanting is accompanied by the galdr stance and sound, the body position of the rune and its special sound.”

Xena looked over and saw that several villagers had dropped out of the drinking contest, literally. Several were unconscious, curled up in their cloaks next to the fire. Iolaus was swaying heavily on his log with his eyes closed and the warrior didn’t think that the small Greek would last much longer. That left Hercules and three Viking villagers left, still going strong.

Gabrielle and Saebjorn were deep in conversation about metre verse poetry and sound and the magical use of it when the bard looked over at Xena and frowned. The warrior was almost pale and staring at something past the fire.

Gabrielle quickly followed Xena’s gaze and saw a figure watching them from across the large bonfire. The bard could make out that the figure was probably male from the general outline but not much else. A male figure in a large, floppy brimmed hat, dark cloak and leaning on a spear. She couldn’t see his face clearly and couldn’t determine age or much about him. Something tugged at the bard’s memory but she couldn’t quite grab it. She turned to Xena.

“What is it?” she questioned as Saebjorn got up from the small table to fill his drinking horn again.

“I need to stretch my legs for a moment, be right back,” Xena mumbled as she stood up, never taking her eyes off of the figure.

Xena started by Gabrielle and was surprised when the bard reached out a hand and stopped her.

“I got it! My vision!” Gabrielle hissed quietly. “He’s the one in my vision!”

“I don’t doubt it, I knew who he was. Wait here,” Xena ordered.

“But…”

“No, wait here!” Xena snapped and pulled away from her mate and walked around the fire to the figure.

Xena approached the cloaked figure cautiously with her eyes quickly scanning the countryside, her eyes trying to pierce the darkness.

“Hail,” she hesitated. “What do I call you?”

“Vakr is good for now,” the tall figure answered easily.

“Vigilant, you know that’s what they call me now,” she countered.

“Yes, Ylsa,” he answered and gestured to a log near the fire, inviting her to sit.

The warrior hesitated with her hand on her chakram, just inside her coat.

“I swear on the head of my son that I mean you no harm and I am not seeking a fight with you,” the stranger vowed.

Xena nodded and sat down across the log, facing the stranger.

“What do you want, Vakr?” she asked.

“I owe you personal thanks for helping with that mess with Jarl Herrodr, you and your friend but I thought I’d approach you alone first. You can tell your friend thank you for me.”

“And everything before?” she asked quietly.

“I don’t know you, warrior. You are not the same woman who was here years before and I am not the same either.”

“Odin, one thing I’ve learned over the years, gods don’t change much!” she whispered fiercely.

“Xena, what changed you?” the Norse god countered.

The warrior’s face softened and she looked deep into Odin’s blue eye, suddenly realizing that he had a patch over his right eye. He watched her facial expressions and nodded, indicating Gabrielle.

“She happened to you, didn’t she?” he asked.

“Yes, she is the reason,” the warrior admitted.

“I’ve changed as well, Xena. Frigga and I are close again, I sacrificed my eye for the gift of prophecy and wisdom, and I’ve watched the changes in you whenever you’re in the North.”

Xena nodded, accepting the possibility that the god before her wasn’t the same god she knew years before. She had to admit that she wasn’t the same woman she had been then either.

“Hecate said that Sasha is predicted to have a future in the North and it’s important to you, can you tell me anything about that?”

Odin shook his head sadly. “No, the Norns won’t reveal what, just that she is important to us. I’m sorry, I know how frustrating that is.”

“Thank you for your help in sending Grimhild, both times,” Xena said.

“My pleasure,” the god grinned. “Things have changed and will continue to change.”

The Norse god stood and offered his hand. Xena hesitated a moment and took his arm in a warrior’s grasp and then accepted his hug.

“You have turned into quite a woman, Xena,” he said simply and pulled his hat lower over his face.

“You’re turning into a decent god, Odin,” she matched his grin and watched as he walked into the shadows.

Xena turned and spotted Gabrielle watching her intently and walked back to the table where the bard waited.

“Where’s Saebjorn?” Xena asked.

“Headed for his hall. Who was that?”

“Odin,” Xena answered simply.

“Odin? As in Odin, All Father God of all the Norse gods?” Gabrielle demanded in a fierce voice.

“Yup, the very same,” Xena couldn’t help but grin.

“What did he want with you?”

“To thank us both for stopping that idiot Herrodr from forming his own Wild Hunt,” Xena explained, sitting next to her mate.

“That’s it?”

“No, he said he can’t tell me about Sasha’s future with the Norse people, just that she has one and it’s important. I hate prophecy,” the warrior complained.

“Of course you do, my love,” the bard grinned.

They both looked over and watched the last two contestants of the drinking contest. One villager and Hercules, both finishing off another drinking horn at the same moment and both falling over dead drunk at the same moment. The spectators howled and stomped their feet, trying to wake up one or the other but finally had to give up and declare a draw.

Xena and Gabrielle both laughed loudly.

“He’ll pay for that tomorrow!” Gabrielle predicted.

“No doubt! That mead packs quite a punch!” Xena grinned in agreement.

The bard leaned back into Xena’s arms and moaned in pleasure as the warrior leaned down and kissed Gabrielle’s neck.

“Let’s head for our sleeping furs, little one,” the warrior whispered huskily.

“Yes, my love,” the bard agreed readily.

Gabrielle smiled and turned into Xena’s embrace, when they reached their sleeping furs inside the local stable. Xena had set their furs up in the farthest corner of the building in an old stall which offered them a little privacy. Gabrielle’s sharp ears could hear snores and breathing from others sleeping in the barn and smiled.

“What, little one?” Xena whispered.

“You tell me that you used to be quiet when making love, think you can be quiet again?” the bard teased and grinned when Xena began blushing.

“Okay, you!” Xena threatened as her lips began nuzzling Gabrielle’s neck, “I admit that you can have me begging or screaming but I’m not the one usually shaking the rafters!” she whispered and was rewarded with her own teasing by Gabrielle smacking her on the arm and breaking out of the embrace.

The bard danced into the stalls and faced her mate in the faint light of the moonlight. Gabrielle smiled and pulled her coat off and let it drop at her feet and Xena felt her heartbeat increase at the look of playfulness in the bard’s green eyes. The bard pulled her tunic over her head and Xena’s breath caught in her chest at the sight of her half naked mate.

Xena entered the stall and went to her knees easily and let her lips and tongue begin to dance over the bard’s ample breasts and nipples, her arms encircling her mate and pulling Gabrielle close to her.

The bard’s whimper of arousal brought a flush to the warrior’s entire body and she pulled Gabrielle down to her knees and the two lovers began dueling with their tongues and hands as clothing was pulled off or pushed aside.

“Gods, Xena, I love you so much!” Gabrielle whispered as Xena laid the bard onto the sleeping furs.

“I love you more than life itself, Gabrielle,” the warrior whispered back and bent down to capture her bard’s lips and show her soul mate how much she loved her.

“Xena?”

The warrior pulled back slightly and was a little surprised when she saw Gabrielle’s eyes were mostly yellow instead of her usual green and Xena could see the beginning of fangs on her bard.

“Yes, little one,” Xena said easily.

The warrior was surprised at the speed and strength of her bard as Gabrielle flipped the warrior over onto the furs and the bard began kissing her roughly. Xena moaned and felt her body responding instantly. Xena started to pull the bard closer and felt herself growling as Gabrielle grabbed her wrists in one hand and held her arms over her head as the bard began nuzzling the warrior’s neck. Gabrielle growled back and Xena’s back arched as the bard’s fingers began caressing her center, parting her sexual lips and playfully arousing the warrior even higher.

As the bard’s fingers, tongue and lips began to drive her crazy, Xena felt her body beginning to tremble and tried to break the bard’s hold on her wrists and moaned with frustration as Gabrielle’s grip held. The bard pulled back slightly and looked into her mate’s blue eyes.

“Yes!” Xena hissed and felt her whole body rise off of the furs as Gabrielle’s fangs pierced her neck and the bard’s fingers claimed her lower body.

There were several grumbles later from other occupants of the barn when cries broke the silence at the far end of the barn but no one complained much.
*Personal Journal

Xena says we’re still in the flat part of northern Germania, which isn’t saying much. We’ll be hitting the large range of mountains soon enough. I’m just glad that we’re traveling in the summer and not in the fall or spring when everything would be mud in the lowlands and snow in the mountains.

Of course, the rain for the last two days hasn’t helped this theory.

We’re following a large river and finding plenty of villages to find shelter in. They are much more open to strangers here, having the custom that anyone can find shelter from a storm or at any time during the winter. Of course, getting stuck in a strangers’ home for five months during the snow season can cause quite a strain on hospitality, I have no doubt!

The countryside is so beautiful. The riverside is thick with trees, sometimes it’s even hard to get through on horseback and the leaves are all different colors. The weather, besides the four days of rain, has been good with the chill being bearable even at night.

The only trouble we’ve had was from a small group of bandits that tried to rob us yesterday. *

Xena was leading the small band of travelers when she surprised them all by stopping and holding her hand up in a signal for them to stop. Gabrielle’s hands went to her sais, Hercules to his war hammer, Iolaus for his sword, Solan for a dagger, Ketli for a small war axe, and Reija for her sword.

Xena’s hand flashed towards her side and brought her chakram up at the same moment she yelled.

“Down!”

Everyone moved like a well-trained military unit. Gabrielle dived out of her saddle, grabbing Sasha from her horse and rolling to the ground, shielding the child in her arms and taking the heavy hit from the dirt road herself. Solan felt his wife’s hand on his arm and rolled towards it, trusting her as they hit the ground together between the horses. Ketli jumped off his horse and ran to help Gabrielle shield Sasha. Hercules and Iolaus both hit the ground on their feet and were able to see Xena deflect several arrows with her chakram as they flew towards her chest.

Xena flipped over backwards off her horse with a war cry and landed her feet in a defensive position.

Solan and Reija gained their feet and Gabrielle stayed in a crouched position with Sasha behind her as her eyes scanned the trees.

“Move and you die!” a voice threatened in lower Germanic.

None of the Greeks and Amazons said anything as several figures moved out of the trees, each armed with bow and arrow and sword.

“Hand over your furs, your money and any jewelry,” the leader ordered.

Xena glanced over her shoulder, assessing everyone’s position and getting answering nods from the Greeks and Amazon. She saw Gabrielle reverse the sais in her hands into a throwing position and saw Reija whispering to Solan, his head cocked and listening for voices and noises.

The warrior turned to the bandit.

“Only one warning, leave now,” she grinned.

“Maybe you didn’t hear so well, foreigner. Hand everything over,” he demanded again.

“Go join Hella!” Xena cursed as she let loose her chakram, cutting his bow in two.

Two bandits fell over clutching their chests; suddenly wondering about the strange weapons embedded in their chests and the small blond who had thrown them. It was their last thoughts.

Two other bandits rushed the group with swords drawn and were quickly taken out by Reija, Hercules and Iolaus. The leader, the only one left standing, suddenly turned very pale and decided to make a hasty retreat back into the trees.

Hercules and Iolaus stripped the unconscious bandits of their weapons, retrieved Gabrielle’s sais for her and helped Sasha back up onto her horse. Everything was done within minutes.

“You know, that wasn’t even a challenge,” Xena complained.

“Yup,” Hercules agreed with a grin.

Gabrielle and Iolaus shook their heads in amusement at their mates.
*Personal Journal

Now we head into the mountains. Mountains that seem darker and almost sinister as compared to my native Greek mountains. Even the Romans hate trying to hold these mountains. The people are fiercely independent and hard working and keep mostly to themselves. Fortunately we aren’t heading into the deep mountains.

It’s strange; I’ve actually found a place that Xena hasn’t been in her travels. Somehow, even during her Warlord days she missed the deep Carpathian Mountains. She says that she saw no reason to concentrate her forces in the deep mountains when she could control the surrounding land below. Her army howling like the wind across the land they call the Steppes or down through the valley between Greece and northern Germania.

We’ve decided to camp early and start into the mountains in the morning. The trip from this point on gets harder and travel will go a little slower. I think we’re all anxious to get home except Ketli, seems like he was born for the road. He never complains about being tired and takes in everything around him with an eagerness that is sometimes tiring. He reminds me of myself when I was a child, only he’s getting to travel the world while I grew up only dreaming of it. Which was better, I wonder sometimes. I grew up with a loving family in a stable village and life that didn’t understand me. Ketli grew up raised by the large family of Axel since Ketli was an orphan and then adopted by Hercules and Iolaus, the boy having bonded so deeply with them. Now he travels the world but I hear him tossing in his blankets sometimes with nightmares. Hercules says he hears the boy muttering and crying for his mother in his sleep. Hercules and Iolaus are wonderful fathers but the boy still misses his original family.

My nightmares are starting again about being taken as a slave. The rapes and the horror of the Arena are beginning to haunt my dreams again. We’re not going through the same area where I was taken and Iolaus crippled but the closer we get to Roman territory the worse it gets. I know that Xena has noticed but she hasn’t said anything other than comforting me at night, like I do her when the memories get too much. She’s probably figured out what is bothering me anyway.

I know I should talk to her about it, if nothing else to keep her from worrying too much but it’s so hard. I’ve never counted how many kills I had in the Arena but I could. I remember every face, almost every detail. I thought, I had hoped, that they would blur together after awhile like memories do sometimes but it seems I’m cursed by the Fates to see each fight clearly, even those long fights on that day we were taken in front of Caesar and I was crucified. It troubles me that I can kill so easily. I killed those two bandits without a second thought. What have I become? *
Hercules smiled as he handed Xena a mug of tea and sat down next to her in front of the fire. He glanced over at their sleeping mates, neither he or the warrior were surprised when Iolaus and Gabrielle both headed early for their sleeping furs. Neither the bard nor Greek warrior had been sleeping well.

“You okay?” he asked softly.

Xena glanced up at Solan and Reija huddled on the other side of the fire, wrapped in each other’s arms and furs, watching the fire and basking the in the warmth of each other. Sasha was asleep between Xena’s legs, her head resting on Xena’s thigh, and Ketli was sharpening his hand axe near Solan and Reija.

“Yeah, just a little worried. Ever since we ran into that Roman garrison two days ago both Gabrielle and Iolaus’ nightmares have been worse,” she said simply.

“I know. It happens every time. I don’t know what to do about it except try and comfort them.”

“That’s about all we can do. I don’t think the Roman Empire is going to disappear anytime soon so we’re going to keep running into soldiers,” the warrior frowned.

“You were the Warlord, where do you see this thing with Octavian and Antony going?”

“Now that Antony is with Cleopatra all the time and they’ve already had a child? I heard the latest news from the Roman soldiers the other day,” Xena pulled out her whetstone and began sharpening her sword.

Hercules knew it was the warrior’s way of keeping her hands busy and giving her a focus when she was thinking, especially unpleasant thoughts.

“You’re friends with Cleopatra, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, we helped her out with a problem a while back.”

“Antony and Octavian are going to fight, aren’t they?” the demi-god frowned.

“Yes, neither of them will be willing to settle for dividing the Empire. Octavian won’t trust Antony and Antony will kill Octavian the first chance he gets,” the former Conqueror of Nations commented.

“Why? Antony should be happy in Egypt and having that half of the world.”

“He won’t be satisfied with that. He’s Roman, no matter how much he loves Cleopatra, he’ll always be Roman and want Rome for himself. He’s ruthless and bloodthirsty, even more than I was. Antony killed anyone related to anyone that might have been involved in the assassination of Caesar. He’s quick to use that sword of his and he’s tried to kill Octavian before.”

“Really? I’m not surprised. When?”

“The Battle of Philippi. Octavian and his troops were set to take the worst of the battle and Antony had assassins infiltrated in Octavian’s ranks. They were to kill Octavian during the battle and Antony would seize the victory and claim the Empire.”

“That’s when you helped them defeat Brutus and Cassius,” Hercules reflected.

“Yes, I also kept Octavian off the battlefield. Seems he has a delicate stomach at times and was too sick to fight,” the warrior grinned and Hercules shook his head with a grin, admiring the tactical mind of his friend.

“Antony planned on killing you and Gabrielle, didn’t he?”

“Yes, the men he sent with both of us were supposed to kill us but they decided to be somewhere else when we left,” Xena grinned.

“Do you think Cleopatra will call on you for help?”

“I hope not. I like Cleo and thinks she’s one hell of a leader but I can’t help her against Octavian.”

“Is it because Antony slaughtered the Amazons or because you support Octavian?”

“I don’t have any love for Rome, even after Caesar’s death. No, we owe Antony for killing our family and friends,” Xena’s eyes narrowed in anger and Hercules remembered that face very well and was glad that it was no longer directed at him after all these years.

“I miss them too,” he said softly, remembering finding Ephiny’s body on the cross where Brutus had her crucified, the body of Solari, Ephiny’s mate left for the carrion feeders. They never found the body of Xenon, Ephiny’s Centaur son.

Xena’s head snapped up at the sound of a small whimper. She started to get up and glanced down at the sleeping child in between her legs.

Hercules placed a hand on her arm. “I’ll go to her, you take it easy.”

Xena watched with a pained face as Hercules gently shook the bard slightly until the nightmare was broken and then drew her crying mate into his arms until Gabrielle fell back asleep.

Xena caught Reija’s glance and the Amazon shrugged, also at a lost as to how to help the two Greeks ease their nightmares.
* Personal Entry

Oh Gods, I haven’t been so scared in my life. Solan woke us up in the middle of the night calling for Xena and me. We found Reija in such pain, it scared us all. Severe stomach cramps, so bad that she couldn’t straighten her legs out and kept throwing up.

Xena was able to use pressure points to relieve some of the pain while Hercules and Iolaus warmed water up for some herbs to help calm the muscles down. Solan, I didn’t know how to help him, we both felt so helpless. He held Reija’s head in his lap and let her squeeze his hands as the pain ripped through her. I tried cooling her down with a cool cloth but felt so frustrated.

Then Xena said the words that each of us already knew but refused to face. Reija was trying to lose the baby; her body was trying to reject the life growing in her. I know it’s common with women, especially young girls in their first pregnancy, but that doesn’t make it easier to live with. Even knowing that future children are possible after losing one doesn’t help.

Solan was trying to be brave for both of them but he’s such a caring young man. I knew he was devastated and Reija just cried in his arms. How can she face losing this child? Reija’s given up everything she’s ever known to be with Solan and this child was going to be her connection with her new life.

I found myself silently praying. I know Xena’s not one for praying and asking help from the gods under almost any circumstances but I’m not that strong or stubborn. I called on Apollo, God of healing and medicine, and my father, for help.

We worked through the night, all of us. Ketli kept an eye on a dozing Sasha by the fire. Iolaus and Hercules took turns keeping water hot for compresses on Reija’s womb and cool water for cloths on her forehead. Xena kept alternating pressure point massage and the herbal teas. I kept the compresses and cool cloths alternating and Solan kept holding her.

Finally at dawn Sasha’s head popped up and she got up from Ketli’s arms and approached our tired little circle. Hercules and Iolaus were almost asleep by the fire and Reija’s pains had subsided. Sasha knelt down next to Reija and carefully placed her hand on Reija’s womb for a moment and then smiled at us.

I know I must have looked confused because I know Xena did.

“The baby is okay,” Sasha told us.

“You sure, Sasha?” Xena asked her.

“Yes,” the child nodded.

Somehow she just knows things.

We spent the day resting. Reija’s pains finally settled down to a dull ache, and most everyone slept the morning away. We’ve decided to camp here for a few days and let Reija’s body rest. Hercules and Xena want to find a nearby village and get a small wagon for the travel the rest of the way. Reija is protesting, trying to be the strong Amazon she was raised to be, but everyone is outvoting her. The best thing for her and the baby is to take it easy from now on until we’re sure she can carry the child the rest of the term.

I give thanks to Apollo and to Xena’s skills and the love of family and friends.

“Is she going to be okay?” Gabrielle asked her warrior as they settled the young Amazon mother-to-be into the wagon that Hercules and Iolaus had purchased from a nearby village two days later.

Xena grinned as Reija rolled her eyes in frustration. It had been a difficult argument to get the Amazon to agree to ride in the wagon and take it easy, finally they had insisted on the life of her child and Reija had instantly given in, once she accepted it was best for the baby.

“I think so as long as we don’t have to tie her down,” she joked and laughed as Reija threw hay at the couple.

Iolaus, driving the wagon, looked back and grinned and clicked to the horses, setting the wagon into motion with Solan sitting beside him.

The rest of the family mounted their horses and began following behind.

“The rest of the journey isn’t too hard until we reach the Greek mountains. We’ll be out of these mountains and into the valley lands below shortly,” Xena commented.

“Back into Roman territory,” Gabrielle muttered, her jaw clenching.

“Want to talk about it?” the warrior asked simply.

“You already know about the nightmares,” Gabrielle complained.

“No, Sasha says I don’t know everything.”

“What?” Gabrielle demanded quietly, glancing over at the child riding in front of Ketli.

“She says that there’s something about your nightmares you haven’t told me and it’s slowly draining your strength,” Xena explained, glancing out of the corner of her eye to her mate.

The warrior wasn’t surprised to see the bard’s clenched fists and jaw.

“She tell you what it was?”

“She didn’t know, just that it was hurting you, my love.”

“Xena…” Gabrielle hesitated; her eyebrows furrowed and face in a frown. “I need some time, I’ll catch up.”

Before Xena could respond the bard turned her horse and trotted off back the way they had come. Hercules and Iolaus turned with questioning faces and Reija with raised eyebrows. Ketli looked away and Xena had the feeling he had overheard their conversation.

The warrior shrugged off the questioning looks and moved her horse to the front of the wagon on point.

After half a candlemark Xena turned her horse with a curse and began trotting back the way they had come. Iolaus looked over at Hercules and the demi-god just shrugged.

“Will someone tell me what’s going on?” Solan finally demanded.

Reija, Hercules and Iolaus all looked at each other, silently debating who was going to try and explain what they didn’t understand yet.

Gabrielle wasn’t surprised to hear a single horse approaching the small clearing where she had stopped. The bard held her sais in a defensive position until she saw for certain that it was her warrior, her Xena, approaching and then turned back to attacking the tree she was focused on.

The bard watched Xena get off her horse out of the corner of her eye as she buried the sais into the tree and spun on one heel into a kick that snapped a dead branch off the old and dead tree.

As Xena approached Gabrielle felt the anger energy disappear, leaving her suddenly tired. She sank to the ground and leaned her back against the tree. Xena squatted down in front of her bard, blue eyes seeking out green ones, filled with concern and love.

Gabrielle felt tears filling her eyes. “I know why Artemis won’t come to me and maybe even Apollo,” she whispered, dropping her eyes.

“What is it, little one?”

“I broke my vows as an Amazon and Queen,” Gabrielle broke down as Xena held out her arms. The bard scampered into her mate’s arms as tears ran down her face.

“What do you mean, Gabrielle?” Xena asked, shifting so her back was against the tree.

“I’ve killed women, sometimes they were young.”

“You have no choice in the spirit realm. Alti had their spirits and they would have killed you and the other Amazons,” Xena protested.

“No, not then. I know I didn’t have a choice, even when I killed Cyane in the Spirit Realm and maybe not even when I killed Arja. This was different,” the bard protested.

Xena frowned, trying to remember when the bard had come into battle with other females and couldn’t think of any when they were together. Then Xena realized what the bard was probably talking about. The time when Gabrielle was away from her and didn’t have choices in her life, especially over life and death.

“In the Arena?” Xena ventured and felt Gabrielle nod through her tears. “You didn’t have a choice, Gabrielle!”

“I didn’t protect females in need, I killed them!”

“They would have killed you easily if you hadn’t fought back,” Xena tried reasoning with her mate.

“I shouldn’t have ever killed, Xena!” Gabrielle protested, sitting up, her face angry again. “That’s not what I wanted! I should have died rather than take life!”

“No!” Xena grabbed Gabrielle’s wrists, forcing the bard to look her in the eyes. “I would have died without you and probably Sasha too! You can’t blame yourself for surviving!” the warrior insisted.

“I wasn’t meant to be a warrior! I don’t believe that was my path!” Gabrielle insisted.

“It might not have been, we don’t know that. We know that Ares altered your destiny and he is going to pay for that! We don’t know if you never would have killed.” Xena could see and feel the pain radiating from her mate. “We know that traveling with me you would have faced that sooner or later. You know that saving people sometimes requires being a warrior and sometimes that means death.”

“I might have had a choice in the matter,” Gabrielle complained.

“That’s the point!” Xena argued. “You didn’t have a choice, it was either die or survive by killing. You had less choice than even a soldier in war, Gabrielle. No one can hold that against you.”

“Artemis seems too! Wouldn’t she have come to me when the Amazons died? What happens when we die?”

“What do you mean, little one?” Xena asked, letting go of her bard’s wrists.

“I betrayed my vows, I’m not going to end up in the Elysian Fields with you!”

Once again the bard collapsed into tears in the warrior’s arms. Xena felt tears flowing down her face as well as she held her beloved close.

“Gabrielle, I don’t believe that! We’ll find out what’s going on with Artemis when we get to Greece. I don’t believe that anything this side or the other can keep us apart. The Gods themselves blessed our joining. We will be together!”

“I don’t want to be anywhere without you, even paradise,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Nothing and no one is going to keep us apart. We’ll figure out what is going on with Ares and Artemis, little one, I promise.”

Personal Entry

The land now is farmland and rich. The people are friendly but not as welcoming as the Goths and Germans. This area is traveled more and they are more accustomed to strangers coming and going and even troops passing through their small villages and towns.

We ran into another patrol today. A few minor questions and they always send us on our way once they know we are Greek and freeborn. Gods, I still get the shakes every time I see a Roman soldier and Iolaus went very pale as well. How in Hades do I get over this?

One advantage of having those scars across my shoulder from my Amazon tribal marking: the slave brand is no longer visible, the scars destroying the brand.

I must admit that I’m sleeping a little better since I talked with Xena and told her about my having killed women in the Arena. She tries to reassure me that that can’t be the reason Artemis won’t come to me but I don’t know. Xena also thinks the gods are selfish, spoiled brats most of the time. Did Artemis come to me for help only because she needed Xena and me and then abandon me because of my broken vows?

The mountains were so beautiful but harsh. I’m glad to be in the valley for a while. Next it will be our mountains and then home. I’m tired and want to see my family and I know Xena is missing Amphipolis. Who ever would have thought that Xena would want to settle down?

Home will be good for a while. Solan and Reija to make their home and prepare for the baby; see Mom and Lila and see if she has any more kids herself; help Cyrene in the inn and tell stories, I do have some new ones to add now.

Even the bacchae thing has gotten easier, although Xena glares at me good-naturedly when Hercules and Iolaus tease her about her “love bites” after a full moon. I know I blush bright red but can’t help it! Who ever thought that something that could be considered a curse could become something that is such an incredible sexual turn on for us? By eating rare meat the week before the moon and animal blood, I’m able to control the bacchae craving most of the time and only had to turn to Xena for more than just the blood every other month.

A life to build with my love, my Xena. *
Gabrielle pulled her horse close to the wagon and looked down at Reija playing in the back with Sasha. The young Amazon woman looked up and attempted a smile.

“Don’t worry, Xena’s mom is going to love you!” Gabrielle grinned, trying to reassure the young bride.

“Solan says that she didn’t know about him until he was almost a teenager, now he’s coming back a married man with a child of his own on the way, she might resent me!” Reija said softly.

Gabrielle looked over at the young man riding on a horse, Xena holding his reins.

“She’ll love you, Reija,” Gabrielle repeated. “Cyrene’s had to adapt to a lot of changes over the years. She had given up and turned her back on Xena when Xena became a Warlord, then she trusted and accepted that Xena was trying to change,” Gabrielle grinned. “She even accepted this tag-a-long annoying young kid who kept following her daughter and making a nuisance of herself.”

“You? You weren’t born an Amazon?” Reija asked.

“No, I was born a simple village girl in Greece, on the coast. Xena saved me and the other girls of the village from some slavers and I started following her and kept pestering her until we became friends and I actually started helping her with things.”

“How did you become an Amazon?”

“We asked permission to cross Amazon land and the Amazons were attacked. I tried to shield an Amazon Princess with my body after she was hurt and she passed her caste onto me and I became Queen after her sister. Wasn’t easy to be accepted though. I wasn’t a warrior of any type and didn’t want to be,” Gabrielle explained as they rode along.

“But you’re a warrior now,” Reija protested.

“No, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that. I was forced to learn to defend myself traveling with Xena and becoming an Amazon. I was very good with a staff and I was determined not to kill.”

“But?”

“I was forced to learn to fight or die at the hands of the Romans,” Gabrielle lost her smile. “Solan didn’t tell you any of this?”

“He said I should ask you about your past, that some of it might hurt you,” Reija answered.

Gabrielle nodded, appreciating the young man’s sensitive nature. “It does. I was taken as a slave by the Romans and sold into a gladiator school, I had to learn to fight or die. I survived.”

“Oh Goddess Metsola,” Reija muttered, even in the North they knew about the gladiator games and the cruelty of the Romans towards their slaves, criminals and gladiators, especially the women.

“I was able to gain my freedom and rejoined Xena, that’s why I know how to fight but don’t know if I’ll ever get over it,” Gabrielle explained.

“Do you think the villagers will accept me?” Reija asked in a small voice.

Gabrielle smiled, glad to be back to the original subject. “Yes, they all love Solan and Sasha and have taken to both of them. They’ll be delighted to see him happy and with a wife. Xena’s already plans on building a small cottage for both of you and the baby when we get back. I heard her and Hercules talking about plans last night over dinner.”

Reija began blushing even more and Gabrielle laughed softly. This was something the girl was going to have to become accustomed to, kindness from parental figures, something Reija hadn’t gotten from her own mother.
Cyrene was thrilled to see the small band arriving in Amphipolis. She spotted Joxer running to meet them from the blacksmith shop and glanced up as Torris stepped out of the inn behind her.

Cyrene took in the sight of the group carefully, sighing with relief that Xena, Gabrielle, and Solan looked well and Sasha was even bigger. Hercules and Iolaus were as handsome as ever and seemed unharmed and their adopted son looked taller.

Cyrene was very curious about the wagon Iolaus was driving with Solan in the seat, grinning from ear to ear.

Torris grinned and hugged his mom a quick hug and moved inside to prepare dinner.

The older woman smiled, now maybe things could settle down, she thought, saying a quick prayer of thanks to Hecate, Zeus and Hera in seeing her daughter and family home safe.

The End

A God’s Twilight
Storyline: Gabrielle returns to the Amazon forest demanding to see Artemis and finds Aphrodite and a very angry Ares. Xena and Hercules must try and rescue a captive Artemis and dying Gabrielle from the inner depths of Tartarus and spoil Ares’ plans once more.
Gabrielle moved through the forest with ease but as always with caution. She had avoided three Roman patrols of soldiers within the last three hours after entering what was once the Amazon forest of her tribe.

As she looked at the last set of soldiers tromping down the trail below she smiled grimly. Men never seemed to look up, especially soldiers, the Amazon Queen reflected. It was one of the main strengths of the Amazons when they had controlled this forest, when they had been alive.

Gabrielle gritted her teeth and fought back tears that threatened to cloud her eyes. She needed to stay alert for more patrols and not lose concentration because of her emotions. The bard planned to grieve once more for her lost family but later, for now she needed to keep out of the hands of the soldiers.

Roman soldiers were one thing Gabrielle knew about. Over a year spent as a Roman slave and gladiator had taught the young Greek what it could mean to fall into the hands of unethical soldiers, especially Roman soldiers.

The warrior bard was deep in what was once Amazon territory and waited for twilight before moving out of the trees and down to the clearing near the waterfall. It had been a sacred site for centuries and it hurt Gabrielle to see signs that it had been discovered by the Romans and frequently used as a resting place by patrols.

Gabrielle spent the next candle-mark clearing away the brush from a huge boulder next to the river and building a small fire. She sat down and made a pot of tea while waiting patiently for the moon.

Tonight was the crescent moon, held by the Amazons to be sacred to Artemis, patron Goddess of the woods and Amazons. The bard waited until the moon had risen above the tree line and approached the boulder with a torch and placed it in the ancient iron holder embedded in the rock.

The boulder had been chipped by some magnificent forces in eons past and part of the rock had been snapped away, leaving a ledge like surface and a clean wall. Centuries before Amazons had carefully and lovingly carved the image of Artemis into the flat surface wall of the rock above the ledge. Artemis with her bow and a hunting hound at her feet, her bow forming the shape of a crescent moon. The ledge had become an altar to the Goddess.

Gabrielle retrieved a pouch and the two rabbits she had killed earlier in the forest and went back to the fire. The bard quickly pulled out a bowl and placed incense in it with a charcoal from the fire. Next came a goblet in which she poured fresh spring water. Then she placed the rabbit on the altar in the center and raised her eyes to the moon.

“Artemis!” the bard called softly. “I offer sacrifice to you, oh sacred Goddess! I offer fresh water from the sacred forest, incense of pine and herbs from your forest, rabbit from that same forest. Come to me, Artemis! I beg you to appear to me!”

Gabrielle waited patiently and fed more incense to the coal.

“Artemis, I am your Chosen. You picked me to be your Champion on earth and among the Amazons, even though I wasn’t born an Amazon and I wasn’t a warrior,” the bard continued. “I did my best to protect your Amazons, my family. All the tribes of the South, even sacrificing myself on a Roman cross to win their freedom and a new home.”

Gabrielle looked down at the bracers covering her wrist and covering the scars from the nails that had been driven through her flesh. She could feel tears beginning to build in her eyes and angrily brushed them away.

“Artemis, I wasn’t able to protect them from the Romans. Is that what you blame me for? Is that why you won’t come to me, your Chosen?” Gabrielle’s eyes snapped back to the moon above. “Or is it my tainted blood? Is it because I’ve been touched by Bacchus and carry his damned blood craving?” This time she couldn’t stop a tear from escaping her eyes.

“I’ve fought that Artemis, and I’ve won, mostly. The craving doesn’t control me and I’ve never harmed anyone because of it. Please, sweet Goddess, I want to see you! I grieve for my Amazons,” the bard’s tears began to flow of their own accord. “I miss Ephiny, Solari, Eponi, all of them so much! Do you blame me for their deaths?”

Gabrielle pleaded to the moon and waited patiently for several minutes and then the bard’s shoulders slumped in dejection as her head dropped forward and she let the tears fall freely.

“Gabrielle!”

The bard was on her feet with sais in her hand before the voice had stopped sounding in her ears. Gabrielle blinked several times at the figure standing in the clearing; it was not who she expected.

“Aphrodite?” the bard questioned.

The Goddess of Love wasn’t surrounded by her usual sparkle show of bright dust-like light and brightness and she looked troubled.

“I don’t have much time, listen closely,” Aphrodite crossed the clearing quickly to the bard, her eyes darting around constantly. “Artemis hasn’t forsaken you, she can’t come to you and you’ve got to rescue her!”

“What?” Gabrielle stammered. “Slow down! What’s going on?”

“Ares has Artemis prisoner in Tartarus, none of the gods can interfere with whatever he has planned. I’m not even supposed to be here,” the goddess said hurriedly.

“Why did he take Artemis and why can’t any of you do anything about it? What about Zeus?” Gabrielle demanded.

The Goddess of Love screamed and fell forward and Gabrielle rushed forward the few remaining feet between them and caught the goddess as she fell. The bard’s head snapped up and she saw Ares standing in the clearing, energy balls surrounding each hand and one was drawn back to throw one of them. Gabrielle realized he must have hit Aphrodite with one.

Gabrielle turned Aphrodite over and the Goddess of Love arched her back in pain, opened her eyes and glared at Ares.

“Damn you and your plots!” Aphrodite hissed.

“Dad told you to stay out of things!” he growled back and threw the energy ball.

The bard barely had enough time to roll with Aphrodite out of the way, taking herself to the ground along with the goddess as Ares released the other energy ball, keeping Gabrielle off balance.

“Stop it!” Gabrielle screamed. “This is between you and me! Leave her out of it!”

Ares didn’t respond verbally. Gabrielle was still trying to get up off the ground and Aphrodite had gotten to her knees when the God of War reached them.

The bard was shocked beyond belief and movement when he kicked Aphrodite in the ribs, lifting the goddess up. Then he dropped her and the goddess landed heavily and Aphrodite groaned in pain, holding her ribs.

Gabrielle scrambled to her hands and knees as another kick connected with the Goddess’s face and sent her head snapping backwards against the ground.

“Stop it!” the bard screamed as she tackled the god, taking both of them to the ground.

Gabrielle managed several good shots to his ribs before he recovered enough to throw a couple of good blows of his own to her jaw, the last one knocking the bard off of him. Gabrielle growled and brought her foot up into his stomach and grabbed his leather vest as Ares dived for her and flipped him over onto his back.

Gabrielle quickly twisted around and scurried for her sais as Ares cursed under his breath, getting to his hands and knees. The bard grabbed up one of her fallen sais and turned to face Ares again and felt her heart skip a beat when she saw the energy balls surrounding his hands as he knelt on the ground.

After dying on the Roman cross Gabrielle had been brought back to life by her father, the Sun and Healing God Apollo, one of the advantages the god had given her was that she could hurt any god with any weapon or fist. Almost demi-god status like Hercules. What she didn’t have was the energy bolts or energy ball thing.

She also knew that she couldn’t beat Ares, God of War, in a fight. The first time she had nearly killed him and she had also nearly been killed but she had managed to hurt him badly because of surprise. He hadn’t been aware of her equal status with him. Now he was and ready for it.

“I was hoping to get you out of the way without Xena knowing I was behind it,” he snarled and released one of the balls which caught Gabrielle in the ribs and sent her flying backwards to land heavily on the ground several feet beyond where she had been. “Now I don’t care anymore, either way she’ll be mine. If she won’t come back to me as my Chosen Warrior then she can come back to me when the lust for revenge grabs her!”

“Never!” Gabrielle muttered, wiping away blood from her mouth and braced herself for another energy bolt.

Aphrodite threw herself at her fellow god, knocking him over and sending the energy ball flying into the trees, startling a family of squirrels into fleeing their sanctuary and two ravens to take to the sky. Everyone began protesting by cawing and chattering at the human and gods.

Ares cursed again as Aphrodite racked her fingernails across his face and then he backhanded her, sending her to the ground once again. Gabrielle got to her knees and threw her sai as Ares turned to face her and felt some satisfaction when it embedded itself in the War God’s shoulder.

The bard rushed to grab the other sai as Ares cursed and pulled the other one out of his body and glared at her. Gabrielle grabbed up her other sai and rolled out of the way of Ares throwing the other one at her. As he rushed her, the bard kept the one in her hand this time and parried his sword strike at her head.

“What does Artemis have to do with this?” she demanded.

“I’m going to use her to force Zeus to undo what the Fates have done to me!” he snapped and backhanded the bard, getting around her defenses and he quickly followed up with a sword strike that knocked the sai out of her hand.

Gabrielle barely saw the boot that caught her in the chest and knocked her to the ground. When her eyes cleared a moment later Ares was standing over her with his sword at her throat.

“What are you waiting for? You’ve been wanting to do this since we met!” she hissed.

“No, not yet,” he muttered. “I’m going to make Xena suffer with your disappearance!”

“Not again, you bastard!” Gabrielle snapped, taking advantage of his momentary distraction to kick him between the legs and knock the sword away from her neck. The sword left a thin cut along her neck and left palm but the God of War was left clutching his groin after dropping his sword.

Gabrielle never saw the energy bolt leaving his hand as she reached for his sword.

*********************

“Xena!”

The warrior looked up from the blacksmith forge and frowned. She was out from behind the work area in a flash and began pushing her way through the small crowd that was beginning to form around the figure standing at the town well.

When she got through to the owner of the voice, Xena was shaken to see Cupid standing next to the well with Aphrodite in his arms. The God of Love was dusty, tear streaked and had smears of blood on his arms and chest.

Aphrodite’s condition shocked Xena and the rest of the villagers, most of whom had never seen Gods before and certainly didn’t expect to see them in this condition. The Goddess of Love’s usual pink outfit was dirty and torn and the top, what little of it there was, was blood streaked. Her hair was also filled with dust and matted and Xena couldn’t get a good look at the goddess’s face.

The warrior moved forward quickly as Cupid knelt at the well, lowering his mother to the ground gently. Xena tried not to gasp at the sight of Aphrodite’s face. The most beautiful face in all of existence was ravaged. Dite’s right eye was swollen closed with a cut along the eyebrow and Xena thought might need a few stitches, her right cheek was obviously broken with another cut on it. The goddess’s nose had been bloodied but a quick examination told the experienced warrior that Dite had probably escaped a broken nose but her lips were cut, bruised and bloody and it looked like she might loose a tooth. A massive welt was forming along the goddess’ jaw-line as well.

Xena’s quick hands found the rising welt along the goddess’s ribs and Aphrodite moaned as Xena touched the area. Cupid groaned in response to his mother’s pain, his eyes searching Xena’s face for answers.

“She’s got a couple of broken ribs, a dislocated jaw, a broken cheekbone and a cut along the eye that would need stitching if she wasn’t a goddess,” Xena answered.

“We can’t go to the other gods or goddesses, Xena,” Cupid answered, gently stroking his mother’s hair.

“Bring her inside, gently,” the warrior instructed. She watched with a worried expression and winced at her moan of pain as the god lifted his mother into his strong arms.

Xena turned to the crowd. “Okay, I know you haven’t seen this before but give us some room. I’m taking them to my mother’s inn. Silvus, could you please get the healer?”

The man nodded and moved off quickly towards the far end of town.

Xena led the god and goddess to her mother’s inn.

A candle-mark later Xena led a weary Cupid down the stairs to the tables while the healer finished stitching Dite’s broken cheek.

Cyrene, Xena’s mom and tavern owner, didn’t say a word about having the Greek God of Love sitting at one of her tables, his wings discretely tucked in behind him in the booth, although the muscular chest and arms were hard to ignore and he was extremely handsome. Cyrene shook her head with a grin and sat down two mugs of port, understanding why the god had no problem in the love department nor the sex one either.

“What happened, Cupid?” Xena finally asked.

“I need your help and you need mine, Xena,” he said cryptically.

“What in Tartarus is going on!” she demanded again.

“Tartarus is exactly what is going on!” he growled, his eyes taking on a faraway and angry look. “Let me start somewhere near the recent beginning of this mess. Ares got Zeus drunk and in a good mood. Ares got Zeus to promise that no Olympians could interfere with a plan of revenge he had against Gabrielle.”

He held up his hand to hold off the warrior’s anxious questions when Gabrielle’s name came up. “Just let me explain, the time it takes to explain isn’t going to make any difference, okay?”

Xena’s eyes narrowed but she nodded slowly.

“The Fates got angry at Ares messing with Gabrielle’s fate and punished him. He won’t say how but it must be major because he is one pissed off god. He captured Artemis and is holding her in Tartarus.”

“Tartarus?” Xena questioned.

“Yes, none of us have any powers in Tartarus nor the Elysian Fields except Hades and his minions. Since none of us can interfere and Artemis can’t escape, she’s stuck there,” he explained.

“Okay, how does that explain Aphrodite’s condition and why you can’t go to the other gods or goddesses to heal her.”

“Mom interfered,” he answered simply.

“With his plan against Gabrielle? What’s happened to Gabrielle?”

“Mom and I have always had a soft spot for the two of you and she went to warn Gabrielle as to what Ares was up to and to say that Artemis hadn’t abandoned her. Ares showed up and attacked them. He beat up Mom and took Gabrielle,” the god said unhappily.

“Where is Gabrielle,” Xena growled.

“In Tartarus with Artemis, being held by Ares.”

“She’s not dead! I’d know if she was dead!” Xena snapped and Cyrene looked up from her position behind the bar with a concerned look. Xena lowered her voice.

“No, she’s not dead. Ares has bragged about that much. He intends to kill Artemis unless Zeus reverses whatever the Fates did to him,” Cupid explained.

“And Gabrielle?” Xena asked in a growl.

“He wants her dead or out of your life forever or both.”

“Okay, I go in get her out and then we’ll settle with him!” Xena stated firmly.

“It’s not that simple,” Cupid argued. “I’ve already tried.”

He shrugged and blushed slightly at the warrior’s raised eyebrows.

“Hey, I may be the God of Love but I’m not a helpless wimp!” he protested. “Mom and Artemis are… uh, they’re very close and Mom is very fond of Artemis.”

Xena’s years of training as a war leader kept the surprised look off of her face but it wasn’t easy. This was one development between the gods that she was not aware of and hadn’t suspected. Could be interesting in the future. Was that why the Goddess of Love had a “soft spot” for her and Gabrielle, as Cupid put it?

“Mom tried to use her talents to get Ares to release Artemis but that seemed to make him madder. She tried distracting him while I went to Tartarus to try and get Artemis out. She’s being held in a specially built cell with no door. The bars on three sides go into the mountain five feet deep and the back wall is the earth. The bars were made by Haepestus.”

“No normal tool or weapon can break or cut them,” Xena muttered.

“Right, and we don’t have any powers in Tartarus, only Hades and his minions. He’s the only one that can get in and out of that cell. Not even Ares can get in or out,” Cupid complained.

“Why is Hades helping him? I thought the deal was no interference from any of you,” Xena demanded.

“We don’t know. Ares has something over him,” Cupid shrugged.

“My chakram will cut through the bars,” Xena assured him.

“Why would your chakram be any different than my sword?” he asked.

“I don’t know but it is. I’ve gone up against weapons forged by Haepestus and my chakram was able to slice them in half. I’m betting that it’ll cut those bars.”

“Then the trick is getting you in there and out without Ares and Hades stopping you, not easy for a mortal,” Cupid commented.

“I have many skills.”

&&&&&&&&&

“Ares, damn you! Have you lost your mind?”

Gabrielle opened her eyes and groaned in pain as she took in a deep breath and quickly closed her eyes.

“Shhh, don’t move, Gabrielle,” the voice instructed.

The bard opened her eyes slowly this time and was careful not to move or breathe too deeply.

“Artemis?” she whispered, realizing that she was lying in the Goddess’ arms. Gabrielle glanced around and frowned. “A cell? Where are we?”

“Tartarus, deep below the Underworld,” the Goddess answered.

“What’s going on?” the bard whispered.

“I think my brother has gone mad. He’s threatening to kill me unless Zeus makes the Fates reverse something they did to Ares. You he just wants dead.”

“Terrific, what else is new?” Gabrielle complained and then groaned again as Artemis carefully lowered the bard to the hay covered cell floor.

A moment later Artemis held a wooden cup of water to the bard’s lips and Gabrielle drank gratefully.

“How bad am I?” she asked.

“A few good bruises and several broken ribs, that’s why you can’t move,” Artemis informed the young woman. “If you move you could rip open the wounds to your lungs and collapse both of them and die.”

“They’ll heal quickly,” Gabrielle muttered.

“No, not down here they won’t,” Artemis responded. “None of the gods have any powers in Tartarus nor the Elysian Fields except Hades and his guards. Your god given healing powers won’t work down here. Those broken ribs could easily kill you.”

“Can you bind them and keep them in place?”

“Of course, I was waiting for you to wake up.”

“Gods, this is gonna hurt,” Gabrielle complained.

“Yes,” the Goddess agreed.

**********

“Cupid?”

The God of Love looked up from his folded arms at the warrior, his face and eyes reflecting his weariness. He sat up from Aphrodite’s bedside and quickly checked his mother and sighed with relief as the goddess slept on.

“She’s doing better,” the healer said softly as the young god stood and stretched. He nodded and followed Xena out of the room and down the stairs to the common room of the inn.

“Thank you, Xena,” he said simply as Torris , Xena’s brother, set a goblet in front of the god and one in front of his sister.

“For what, Cupid?”

“Helping my mom.”

“Sure,” she shrugged.

“How long was I asleep?”

“A couple of candlemarks,” the warrior replied.

“And you’ve planned what while I was with mom?”

“I know of two entrances to Hades, one through a bottomless lake and the other is guarded by Cerebus, Hades’ hound. I’m going to go through the hound.”

“Because you’ve used the lake before and Hades will be expecting you there,” Cupid reasoned and Xena nodded.

“You have to move fast, you know. If Gabrielle eats anything while in Tartarus she’s doomed to stay there,” Cupid reminded the warrior.

“I remember the story of Persephone, so will Gabrielle, it’s one of her favorites.”

“That gives you three maybe four days before hunger drives her crazy,” Cupid frowned. “Tell me something, Xena, why weren’t you with Gabrielle? You now have the ability to hurt gods, Ares probably couldn’t have taken both of you on.”

Xena’s face looked pained and the warrior blushed.

“Gabrielle wanted to make the trip alone. She knows how I feel about reaching out to the gods,” she muttered.

“You didn’t approve of her reaching out for Artemis?”

“I did approve but Gabrielle knows I’m not much for making sacrifices and chanting to the gods and she wanted to face her fears of Artemis having reject her.”

“With all the Romans around in that area?” Cupid demanded and Xena’s eyes narrowed.

“That was one of the fears she wanted to face,” Xena growled.

“Never mind, when do you leave?”

“Immediately, that’s why I woke you. Is there anything you can tell me about where they’re being held or anything that might help get me in?”

Cupid sat with a thoughtful look on his face for a few moments and then shook his head. “No, just that they are in the deepest level of Tartarus and you’ll have to get through Cerebus, Hades and then Hades’ guards to reach them and back out again.”

“I don’t have a choice, if she’s not coming back then neither am I!” Xena growled.

“And your daughter? Who will keep Ares from getting her?” Cupid demanded.

“Hercules and Iolaus are her godparents and I’ve already sent Joxer to find them. I know they’re visiting Iolaus’ family three villages over,” Xena stated simply. “How does Ares plan on killing Artemis?”

“He found the Dagger of Helios,” Cupid whispered.

“Oh gods, what in the name of the gods did the Fates do to him? He’s gone insane!” Xena exclaimed.

“I don’t know. No one does and the Fates won’t say. Whatever it is he thinks it’s worth taking on all of the Olympians when this is over,” Cupid frowned.

“He’s going to answer to me first,” Xena growled.

**********

“Here, Gabrielle, drink some water,” Artemis said softly, helping lift the bard up slightly to drink but the bard shook her head.

“If I eat or drink anything I’ll be stuck here, like Persephone,” she protested.

“I have Hades word that the water won’t condemn you to Tartarus, only the food will. Besides you drank earlier.”

“You trust him after he’s helped Ares in all of this?”

“We have to, without water you’ll be dead in two days.”

“What is going on?” the bard asked between sips of the water, praying to Apollo that she wasn’t condemning herself to eternity in Tartarus.

“The Fates punished Ares for meddling in your fate one too many times and now he wants to use me as a hostage to force them to take back their punishment,” Artemis explained.

“What did they do to him?”

“They took away his manhood,” Artemis grinned and Gabrielle grabbed her ribs and bit her lip.

“Oh gods, don’t make me laugh, damnit!” she growled. “Ares? The God of War?”

“Yes, he can’t get it up,” Artemis grinned even wider.

“You said the Fates got tired of him interfering with me and Xena, I know about setting me up to be captured and sold into slavery by the Romans, is there more?” Gabrielle asked.

“Besides crashing your wedding, tricking Xena back into his bed, and the incident of trying to kidnap Sasha when you nearly killed him?”

“Yeah, besides those.”

“Yes, a lot more,” Artemis answered.

“Hello, Dancer.”

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat and moved her head enough to see into the main area outside the cell and felt herself go pale.

“Caesar,” she whispered and felt Artemis stiffen beside her.

“Glad you remember me!” the conqueror said cheerfully. The would-be Emperor was dressed in Roman General finery of gold armor and purple cloak. A richly designed and jewel encrusted sword hung at his side and a matching Roman dagger hung from his belt. The handsome Roman held a bunch of grapes in one hand and with the other he began tossing grapes in the air and catching them easily in his mouth.

Gabrielle felt her body responding to the visual sight of food.

“Shouldn’t you be off somewhere being tortured?” Artemis demanded.

“Nah, I thought it’d be more fun to see my old friend Dancer,” he grinned, chewing on a grape. He held out the bunch towards the bars. “Would you like some, gladiator? Champion of Rome and the Arena?”

Gabrielle clenched her jaw as her eyes blazed at the Roman.

Caesar, seeing the rage in the Greek’s eyes, threw back his head and laughed heartily. “I must say it is good to see you, Queen of the Amazons,” he grinned. “I never thought I’d beat you here. That attack in the Senate was a surprise and then, just imagine my shock when I got here and discovered that you had actually survived the crucifixion!”

“Glad I surprised you,” Gabrielle snapped.

“Go find some Goths to torment or something,” Artemis growled, sitting down on the floor of the cell and laying Gabrielle’s head in her lap.

“But I like Gabrielle so much better!” he taunted, continuing to munch on the grapes. “Just think of the fun we’ll have when these bars come down and you’re here forever!”

“Not likely!” the bard muttered.

“Hey, you’ll have to share, Caesar!”

Gabrielle’s eyes widened at the sight of Brutus stepping out of the darkness. Unlike Caesar, Brutus looked like he had in the last moments of his life. Gabrielle could see where the sword had entered upwards from falling on his sword and the Roman General was still covered with battle grime of dust and blood. The bard could also see where he had been spitting up blood in his final moments.

“Artemis,” the bard whispered.

“I’m right here, Gabrielle, and they can’t get in,” the goddess said softly, her eyes blazing at the Romans.

The bard coughed and Artemis wiped at the bard’s lips with a frown. Seeing Gabrielle’s questioning look the goddess held up her finger and showed the bard blood.

“Guess I’m still bleeding into the lungs,” Gabrielle commented softly.

“Yes,” Artemis agreed with a frown.

“Hey, Artemis,” Brutus called through the bars. “Come out here and you won’t be a ‘virgin’ goddess anymore!”

Both Romans laughed until Gabrielle thought they might throw up.

“Why don’t you two go fight each other or something,” she growled.

“No point of it now,” Caesar shrugged. “We’re no longer fighting for Rome so there’s no reason to fight.”

“Well, he did stab you in the back, literally,” Gabrielle reminded the would-be Emperor.

Caesar shrugged and grinned at the bard and Goddess. “That I can understand and applaud!”

Another coughing fit seized the bard and with it racking pain and then darkness.

**********

“Xena!”

The warrior rose up from behind the rocks and looked down at the clearing below. She sighed with relief and pulled herself up further.

“Hercules!” she called and waved to catch his attention when he looked for the source of the shout. He grinned and quickly scrambled up the rocks to her.

As he rounded the last boulder blocking his view he frowned and moved quickly to his friend’s side. Xena was leaning against a large boulder and looked worse for wear with her armor dusty and dented and a large cloth wrapped around her thigh with blood soaking through.

The demi-god knelt beside the warrior and handed her his water flask. Xena drank gratefully as the son of Zeus pulled the bandage aside and grimaced at the sight of the wound.

“What happened to your rapid healing abilities?” he asked.

“That is my rapid healing,” she responded with a grimace of her own.

“If you weren’t the daughter of gods you would have lost that leg already,” he commented, rummaging through his travel pack until he came upon a small leather pouch. With practiced ease Hercules began cleaning the wound and dressing it properly.

“And I’d be dead,” Xena agreed.

“What happened?”

“Goddamn hound of Hades. He bit my sword in two, tried to munch on my chakram and took a couple of good chunks out of me,” Xena answered, revealing several bite wounds on her arms and one on her other calf. “Dog has three heads and all of them are in a bad mood.”

“I don’t know of anyone that’s gotten past him, in or out,” Hercules commented. “Why didn’t you treat the wounds?”

“I dropped my pack down there and anytime I get near the ground the mutt comes roaring out of that cave after me. With my leg like this I couldn’t move from up here,” she responded.

“Well, let’s get you on your feet and get past that overgrown monster down there. Joxer told me what is going on.”

“We don’t have very long, she’s been down there a full day and night now. If she gives into hunger and eats anything down there then she’ll be trapped forever!” Xena growled as the demi-god tightened the bandage on her leg.

“I know. We’ve got to get in, get past Hades and his guards, break open the cell, get Gabrielle and Artemis back out through Hades and his guards and probably face Ares when we get back on the surface, that about it?” he grinned.

Xena grinned back at him. “Yup, that’s about it.”

“Sounds like a typical day with our half-brother involved,” he complained and helped the warrior to her feet. Together they leaned over the boulders and looked down at the entrance to one of the entrances to the Underworld where Cerebus waited.

“Any suggestions?” she asked.

“Well, drugs and poison won’t work against him. You can’t distract him away from the entrance and he can bite through steel easily. He’s not afraid of fire or loud noises like some dogs and the three heads think and act independently. I can’t think of anything. If we drop rocks on him then we’ll block the cave and it won’t kill him,” Hercules said thoughtfully.

“My thoughts as well,” Xena replied.

“I could handle one, maybe two heads. I can’t grab three at once for you to slip by,” the demi-god frowned.

“What about lassoing one of the heads and pulling him up, that might give me enough time to get by him before one of the other heads bites through the rope?” Xena suggested.

“Might work, maybe even long enough for me to follow, you’re going to need help in there. Hang on, let me find a branch or something for you to lean on until you can put weight on that leg,” Hercules suggested.

“Okay, it’ll take a while to heal,” Xena agreed.

“And you’ll lose that quick healing thing of yours when you enter Tartarus,” the demi-god said as he pulled a fallen tree branch out from two rocks where it had wedged when it fell from a lightning struck tree.

“What do you mean?”

“All god powers are lost in the Underworld except for Hades and his guards. That’s why Ares chose it to hold Artemis,” he informed Xena as he began stripping old twigs off the branch.

“Aphrodite thought Gabrielle might have been hurt when Ares attacked them,” Xena frowned.

“Then her god healing gifts won’t work either and she won’t heal until she’s out of there.”

“Damn!”

&&&&&&&&&

When Gabrielle opened her eyes again Artemis was wiping the blood from the bard’s lips and offering Gabrielle water.

Laughter and raucous suggestions caught Gabrielle’s attention finally and she looked past the Goddess of the Amazons and saw several figures outside the cell.

“What is this? Every single person I’ve ever pissed off?” she complained, looking over at the grinning faces. Some sent chills down her spine.

Rajal, the Arab sorcerer who had been had planned on turning her into a full bacchae and sacrificing several pregnant women in his dark spells.

Brutus, Casear, un-named bandits and gladiator opponents.

“Menstratus?” she said softly, looking into the manic eyes of her brother-in-law. The same relative that had almost killed Xena for some twisted idea of revenge against Perdicus’ marriage to Gabrielle and his death at the hands of Callisto.

“Yeah, I finally get you down here, bitch,” he growled.

“I still don’t understand why you want me dead, you’re the one who helped Xena kill Callisto’s family and Callisto is the one that killed your brother Perdicus.”

“Because of you he was unarmed and weak,” Menstratus countered. “I can’t wait to get my hands around your throat!”

The bard’s stomach rumbled as she took in a new addition to the cell she was sharing with Artemis. A long table piled high with food of all kinds.

“Can you get rid of that stuff since I can’t eat it?” she asked as Artemis sat down with her back against the wall, next to the bard.

“Can’t, every time I throw it out it just reappears,” Artemis said simply, glaring at the men and women on the other side of the bars.

“Terrific, guess that’s why people want to stay out of this place,” the bard muttered, ignoring the yells and taunts from her enemies.

“That’s one of the reasons,” Artemis agreed, moving to put Gabrielle’s head in her lap.

“You didn’t reject me?” Gabrielle asked softly, suddenly looking very young.

Artemis smiled a sad and gentle smile at her Chosen.

“No, my young one, I never rejected you,” the goddess said softly. “Not even with your Bacchae blood. I never had a problem with that and I’ve admired your struggle against the darkness. You are still my champion.”

The goddess gently wiped a tear from Gabrielle’s face and then more of the blood that the bard coughed up.

“Why did Ares kidnap you?” Gabrielle asked, trying to ignore the food and the men and women taunting them.

“I was going to challenge him over his involvement with the slaughter of our Amazons and demand Zeus do something about him,” Artemis explained, watching Gabrielle’s enemies closely in case any of them decided to try a knife or sword throw through the bars.

“He was involved with that?” Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed.

“And more.”

“How did he capture you and get you here?” Gabrielle whimpered with another coughing fit and swore horrible things she wanted to happen to Ares.

Artemis waited for the coughing to subside before answering.

“I was distracted at the time and he zapped me with two of those damned energy bolts before I could think clearly,” the goddess answered and Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.

“What aren’t you telling me?”

The bard’s eyes widened when she realized that Artemis was blushing.

“I was preoccupied and didn’t sense or hear him quick enough. Hades is helping him for some unknown reason and I woke up here.”

“You were distracted? With whom?” Gabrielle asked and realized she had found the answer when Artemis began blushing even more.

“Does that matter?” the Goddess countered and Gabrielle smiled and shook her head ‘no.’

“I still don’t really get it,” Gabrielle complained. “The Fates punished him for interfering too much in my life, so he takes you out and is going to ransom you to Zeus in exchange for undoing what the Fates did to him?”

“That’s about it, twisted isn’t it?”

“So, he figures he’ll just get rid of me along the way and hopefully twist Xena enough into a battle frenzy,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Yes and I don’t think he has any intention of letting me go even if Zeus agrees to undoing the Fates did, he wants us both out of the way,” Artemis commented. “How’s the hunger?”

“Not bad, swallowing this blood is making me sick and not hungry. I didn’t think blood would make me sick,” the bard said thoughtfully.

“Your own blood won’t sustain your blood hunger and you’re getting too much of it. Even full bacchae can only drink so much before they gorge themselves into a stupor,” Artemis tried smiling for her Chosen.

“It doesn’t bother you that your Chosen is part bacchae now?” Gabrielle asked, her voice young with obvious nervousness.

“No, I understood the circumstances and the price we all had to accept when Apollo brought you back from that crucifixion,” the goddess responded.

Gabrielle brought her wrists up and looked at the bracers covering the scars from where the nails had been driven through her flesh and muscle into wood of the cross.

“Something I wondered,” she said softly. “After the crucifixion, when you zapped us back to Amphipolis, why didn’t you heal the wounds and take away the fluid on my lungs?”

“The same reason Hecate or Apollo didn’t heal Solan’s eyes. Even though you weren’t meant to be on that cross that doesn’t mean the gods like to automatically fix things. The future is never totally set, Gabrielle,” Artemis said. “Xena and Hercules are right mostly, humans do set their own fates for the most part. It’s like looking at a map, if you take one road then you face this set of road choices. If you take the other road then you will face a totally new set of choices that you wouldn’t have on the other road.”

“I think I understand that. By allowing Solan to suffer with his injury and recover, he had to learn how to do things differently and so learned new strengths,” the bard commented.

“Yes, by not healing you it made you face the reality of how much you sacrificed for your Amazons and how close you came to dying. The strength of that sacrifice helped you face the darkness of the bacchae in you and helped give you strength to overcome it.”

The bard looked away from Artemis and glared at the taunting men and women outside of the cell as the taunting got louder.

“Will you shut up!” the bard snapped at the figures outside the cell.

“Shhhh, ignore them,” Artemis said softly as Gabrielle closed her eyes again.

“What happens if I die here,” Gabrielle asked, wiping away a trickle of blood from her mouth.

“You’ll be trapped here forever. The best I could hope for is that Hades would take you to the Elysian Fields,” Artemis said simply. “I have no control over that, only Hades decides who goes where after they die. He’s usually fair.”

“How long have I got?”

“Time is impossible to track down here but I’d say a day,” Artemis said truthfully.

“If you get out of here, tell Xena I love her and not to follow me,” the bard said softly and closed her eyes again, not noticing the tears running down the goddess’ face.

&&&&&&&&

The two Greeks cautiously approached the cave entrance yards apart from each other. With an ear-shattering howl the Guardian of Hades appeared, all three heads howling and growling. Cerebus stood in the center of the entranceway, all three heads watching the two approach.

“Will you be able to flip over him with that leg?” Hercules asked, a huge tree limb in his hands as a club.

Xena leaned heavily on the branch she was using as a crutch. “I have to. It’s either that or I fall on my knife and get into Tartarus that way.”

“Well, since I’m not going to let you kill yourself, I guess you’ll have to make it,” Hercules grinned.

“Draw him out and I’ll lasso him,” Xena grinned back, readying her rope.

The warrior suddenly stopped and straightened up and spun, almost falling over with her injured leg.

“Hercules!” she yelled just as Ares appeared and attempted to backhand Xena. The warrior was able to duck under his swing and punch him in the chest with the flat of her hand, sending him stumbling backwards several feet.

The God of War drew his sword as Hercules moved in with his club and Xena drew her chakram.

“Get out of here, Ares,” Xena hissed. “Remember, I can hurt you and right now I really want to!”

“I’m hurt, Xena,” the God of War growled back. “Is that anyway to talk to the father of your child?”

“You’ll never be a father to Sasha!” the warrior growled. “The only thing you’re good for is dog bait!”

Both Hercules and Xena rushed the God of War, Xena parrying Ares’ sword strike with her chakram and Hercules tackling him around the waist, both falling to the ground. Ares retaliated with a blow to the demi-god’s head with the pommel of his sword and he parried a chakram slash from Xena and forced her back.

Before he could gain his feet, however, Hercules retrieved the rope Xena dropped as he grabbed his half-brother again and pulled Ares back to the ground. Xena kicked the sword out of Ares’ hand as Hercules and the God of War wrestled. Hercules threw the rope to Xena and the warrior quickly tied it around the War God’s feet and yanked, throwing Ares off balance in the wrestling match.

Hercules jumped to his feet and grabbed the rope and began spinning it until Ares was suspended on the end of the rope, flying through the air by his feet.

Xena moved closer to Cerebus and began taunting the monster dog while Ares shouted curses and threats that neither Greek had ever heard of. Cerebus moved further out into the open as Xena got closer, each head growling and snapping.

“Now!” she shouted and stabbed at the far left head of the dog with her crutch-like tree branch as Hercules hurled the screaming God of War into the other two heads. Xena, shouting her battle cry, flipped over the dog’s heads as they chewed on the tree branch and the God of War.

Hercules smashed the one head of Cerebus that had dropped the tree branch and managed to slip inside the entrance to Tartarus as the screams of Ares filled the chamber. The demi-god quickly grabbed Xena and threw her over his shoulder and began moving quickly down the passage.

“Put me down, damnit!” Xena snapped.

“We need to move quickly and you can’t run,” he growled. Xena was surprised but pleased when he reached up and handed her Ares’ sword. “I prefer my fists,” he muttered.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Xena asked, gritting her teeth against the pain in her leg and the discomfort of being thrown over Hercules’ shoulder.

“Down, always down until we find them.”

“We need to hurry, Gabrielle’s hurt. I can sense it,” Xena stated.

“As fast as I can,” Hercules promised.

“Xena!” they heard Ares shout behind them.

“Uh oh, sounds like Cerebus didn’t think our half brother tasted so good!” Hercules muttered and moved off into a side passage.

Xena lost track of how many fights they had gotten into and managed to get away from over the next couple of hours. Hades himself, his guards and Ares had all tried to stop them along the way but Hercules and Xena had managed to get lower and lower into the Underworld.

The warrior leaned heavily against a rock and then quickly ducked behind it at the sound of running boots. She looked over at another set of rocks and saw Hercules looking around. They both cautiously left the cover of the boulders.

“How’s the leg?” he asked as they met in the center of the small cavern room.

“Hurts like Tartarus,” the warrior grinned.

“How much further can it be?” the demi-god wondered.

“Not much, that last set of guards weren’t looking for us, they were headed with a purpose,” Xena commented.

“They’re heading to the cell where Artemis and Gabrielle are to wait for us,” Hercules surmised.

“I’m betting on it. The fighting has gotten more and more desperate, we’re getting close.”

“So now, they’ll gather all the troops together and make a stand,” Hercules grimaced.

“Yes,” Xena agreed on the obvious strategy. “Listen, Herc, when we get in there and if I get through the bars, I want you to grab Gabrielle and make for the surface.”

“We all go out together,” Hercules frowned.

“Gabrielle is hurt and she needs out of this place before she can start healing again. I’ll follow with Artemis,” Xena argued.

“We’ll argue about this when we get them out,” he countered.

“Alright, until then, take the sword – everyone else in this place is armed,” she suggested and handed him the sword of Ares. “Do we try and sneak up on them?” she pondered.

“Probably not, they’ll have the cell surrounded and be expecting us,” Hercules said thoughtfully as they walked along.

“Maybe I can help?”

Both Greek warriors spun around with weapons drawn, Hercules with Ares sword and Xena with her chakram. Neither of them could see the owner of the voice.

Xena resisted looking surprised when a Roman Centurion appeared before their eyes, lifting a helmet off his head.

“The Helmet of Invisibility of Hades?” Hercules asked, his sword at the ready.

“Yes, do you recognize me, Consort?” the Roman asked Xena.

“Consort?” she muttered, looking intently at his Roman face and brown eyes. “You’re Octavion, the Roman that poisoned Gabrielle at our wedding.”

“Yes, at your service,” he bowed slightly at the waist.

“What? Xena’s the reason you died,” Hercules demanded.

“Yes, I deserved it and I was wrong. My death meant nothing to Rome or to Caesar,” the Roman said simply. “I’m here, Caesar is here, Brutus is here, Crassius, Pompey, all of them. For what? The glory of Rome? I tried to kill a beautiful young woman who was no threat to the Empire, I want to make up for that, if you’ll let me.”

Xena knew her face reflected her surprise this time. “How did you get the helmet?”

“Most of Hades guards are off looking and preparing for you. A woman in a gray cloak came to me and freed me from my chains and told me where the helmet was.”

“Can’t have been any of the goddesses, none of them have powers down here,” Hercules muttered and Xena nodded.

“It doesn’t matter though, he’s here and so is the helmet. We’ll figure out the details later.”

“Agreed, Octavion and I will attack while you sneak in with the helmet and cut the bars,” Hercules suggested.

“Yes, then you take the helmet and get Gabrielle out of here,” Xena continued.

“We all get out together,” Hercules countered.

“And hopefully get Octavion here to the Fields on the way.”

“That’s not my goal, warrior,” Octavion protested.

“We try and take care of our friends,” Xena grinned.

&&&&&&&&&

With the bard unconscious, most of the tormentors had wandered off down the various passages leading away from the underground chamber, giving Artemis a break from their taunting and crude suggestions.

Then guards started running into the chamber, all armed and most of them battered and looking as if they had been in a good fight. The enemies that had wandered off came running back in and the last to follow was Ares and Hades themselves.

Ares grabbed the sword from Menstratus with a growl. “Give me that! You can use that crossbow of yours, you actually shot Xena with it once.”

Everyone crowded around the cell, facing outwards, towards the passages.

“Gabrielle!” Artemis began shaking the bard gently. “Gabrielle, look! Even Hades and Ares are here now and they’re scared. Only Xena could cause that kind of fear in those spineless macho types.”

Ares turned his head and snarled at the goddess and turned back to watch the main entrance.

“Gabrielle?” Artemis quickly checked for a pulse and was frantic to find that the bard’s heartbeat was very rapid and shallow and the bard was non-responsive, her breathing ragged and quick.

“Ares, if Xena doesn’t kill you then I will for this!” Artemis promised.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?” Ares turned and looked at the goddess. “I want you all dead, Xena included.”

Before the goddess of the Amazons could respond, shouts from the front of the pack caught the attention of Ares and the others.

Octavion, bearing a Roman shield, led the assault into the chamber and took the arrows and crossbow bolts in the shield while Hercules followed with sword through one bandit and his massive fist smashing the nose of another. Within moments the chamber was a mass of moving limbs and bodies.

The Roman found himself face to face with Caesar and Brutus and hesitated momentarily.

The would-be Emperor glared at his former Praetorian Guard and assassin.

“You would turn on your Emperor? On your General?” Caesar demanded, slashing with his sword, forcing Octavion to block with his own sword.

“Yes! I followed you loyally for nothing!” Octavion shouted back, taking the offensive with his own sword and blocking blows from both Caesar and Brutus.

“You would side with the Greeks against the God of War?” Brutus demanded.

“And where will you be at the end of the fight? Right here in Tartarus!” Octavion countered.

Hercules growled as a sword slashed along his ribs and a knife was somehow buried into his thigh. The Greek demi-god yelled in anger and grabbed two bandits by their tunics and smashed their heads together and then threw them into the others crowding around him.

Ares stumbled back from a blow from one of the hands of Hercules and landed next to Hades. The God of War stood up by the bars and leaned over towards Hades, “How can they be winning?”

“They’re fighting the dead. The dead really don’t care what happens in this, they’re still going to be dead. It takes away their edge,” Hades responded.

“What about that idiot Octavion, he’s dead and fighting on their side!”

“He’s fighting for redemption, it gives him a reason and an edge,” Hades shrugged.

Neither of them noticed the bars on the far side of the cell being sliced through at the bottom and then at the top but Artemis did and caught three of the bars before they fell and struck the floor. The other two bars hovered in the air and then went silently to the floor.

Ares growled and dived back into the fight with a scream of rage, driving Hercules back several feet and landed a massive wound along Octavion’ shield arm, causing the Roman to drop his shield.

“Artemis, it’s Xena. When I grab Gabrielle she’s going to go invisible, don’t panic,” Xena’s voice instructed the goddess. “Get out of here, grab a weapon and head for the surface, we’ll be right behind you.”

“We can’t move Gabrielle!” the goddess protested. “Both her lungs are punctured and will collapse if you move her.”

“If we don’t then she’ll bleed to death anyway,” Xena hissed back.

“Use your energy bolts and take them out!” they heard Ares shouting at Hades.

“I promised to help you hold and keep your prisoners, I said nothing about attacking Hercules. Fight your own battle,” Hades countered.

“She’s almost dead now!” Artemis whispered intently.

“Alright, I’m going to drag her out of here and stay invisible. You make for Hercules,” Xena instructed. “Ares and Hades will think Gabrielle and I are with you. I’ll follow behind after I make a stretcher to drag her. Go!”

The goddess ducked out of the cell and turned to see that Gabrielle was gone. Artemis resisted crying out in surprise when something unseen shoved her out of the way. She could feel Xena move past her, dragging Gabrielle out of the cell and against the rock wall.

“Damnit, Hades! They’re out!”

Artemis turned at the sound of Ares’ voice with a snarl and leaped at the God of War, intent on at least hurting him before Hades could use his energy fireballs.

“Stop!”

Everyone froze and a small circle drew back from the gray-cloaked figure in the center of the room. As the figure drew back the hood Xena removed the Helm of Invisibility, making her and Gabrielle visible to everyone in the room.

Hecate glared at everyone, wounded dead, fighting Greeks, and Greek gods and goddess.

“Enough of this nonsense!” she snapped.

“Stay out of this Hecate! This doesn’t concern you!” Ares warned.

“Or what, little god? You forget, as a dark goddess, I have power in this realm!” the goddess countered and the War God grumbled but his sword lowered several inches. “You threaten my child and her mate. You threaten the life of a fellow goddess and you secretly are planning to overthrow Zeus for the control of Olympia,” Hecate snapped. “Yes, this concerns me, godling.”

The goddess swept her hand and the dead warriors, bandits, generals and riff raff disappeared, leaving Octavion, Hercules, Ares, Hades, Artemis, Gabrielle and Xena in the rock chamber.

Ares turned to Hades but the Lord of the Underworld shrugged and stepped back. “This is your problem, nephew, I consider my debt to you paid in full,” the god declared.

“Zeus!” Hecate called loudly. “I demand a hearing on this!”

&&&&&&&&&

Xena blinked and stared at the sudden change of surroundings. Instead of a dim rock chamber, they were all now in a white marbled hall with traditional Greek pillars lining the long hall. At the far end of the hall sat two thrones and they were occupied.

From the descriptions from the stories of bards Xena recognized Zeus and Hera.

Ares started forward but Zeus held up a hand, silencing the War God’s protests before they began.

“Silence, everyone!” he ordered.

Xena knelt beside Gabrielle, examining her mate in the decent light and growled at how pale her bard was and how faint Gabrielle’s heartbeat felt.

“Hecate, you demanded something from me?” Zeus glared at the older goddess in the center of the room. “I swore that I wouldn’t interfere with whatever Ares had planned for the humans, Gabrielle and Xena.”

“You swore that when you were drunk,” Hecate countered. “Besides, you can’t swear not to interfere when his ultimate goal is to throw you into Tartarus and take your place.”

Zeus and Hera’s eyes narrowed as they glared at Ares. Their son began to blush but kept quiet.

“Father, he has found the Dagger of Helios and was going to use it on me and you,” Artemis informed the head deity of the Greek gods.

“Enough! Fine, we’ll address his plans for the gods. I’m sending the humans back to earth.” Zeus commented and raised his hand.

Xena jumped to her feet as both she and Hercules began protesting. Zeus held his hand up for silence again.

“Why should your war with Ares concern me?” he demanded.

Xena clenched her jaw and Hercules looked at her. “Xena, tell him,” he encouraged but Xena shook her head.

“I won’t ask anything of him,” she snarled.

“Zeus!” Hecate stepped forward and placed a hand on Xena’s arm. “It’s time, daughter.” The ancient goddess turned to Zeus and Hera. “Hera, I have asked for your forgiveness in the past for my affair with your husband and you have granted it. For that I am grateful. What wasn’t known to either of you was that I had a child from that affair.”

Hera’s brilliant clear blue eyes flashed angrily. “What? Another bastard child, Zeus?” she demanded.

“Zeus knew nothing about the child. She was born to a human mother and wasn’t aware of her true parents until this last year. Xena is my daughter and yours, Zeus.”

Xena clenched her fists and knelt back to Gabrielle’s side as the bard’s breathing became more labored and blood trickled out of her mouth. Xena cradled her mate in her arms as Gabrielle’s shook and gasped. Then she was silent.

“NO!”

Hercules went pale at Xena’s scream and both Zeus and Hera stopped bickering over his past affairs and looked at the warrior holding her mate, tears streaming down her face.

“Xena?” Hercules whispered softly.

“Ares!” Xena screamed and launched herself towards the War God only to be grabbed by Hercules in a bear hug. The demi-god held on tightly as the Warrior Princess struggled to free herself, screaming in rage.

Hecate walked up to her daughter and placed both hands on Xena’s face and waited until Xena’s blue eyes cleared.

“Wait, daughter,” she said softly.

Both Greeks watched as Hecate walked over to Gabrielle’s body and placed her hands on the bard’s chest. A glow filled the area surrounding the Greek and the goddess until it was too bright to look at and Xena narrowed her eyes against the brightness. When the light cleared Hecate was helping the bard sit up.

Gabrielle’s green eyes reflected her confusion until she spotted Xena and the bard grinned. Xena sighed with relief and Hercules released the warrior. Xena rushed over and hugged Gabrielle before turning to face Zeus and Hera.

“I don’t want anything from you, Zeus,” she stated. “Except justice. Ares just killed my mate and has interfered in my life, my marriage and wants to take my daughter from me for his own.”

“Artemis, why did Ares kidnap you and hold you hostage?” Hera asked.

“Because I found out just how much he’s been interfering with Gabrielle, my Chosen. Even the Fates declared he was out of line and punished him. He was going to force Zeus to reverse their punishment by threatening to kill me,” the Goddess of the Hunt stated.

Gabrielle welcomed Xena’s arms around her for a quick hug and accepted the warrior’s help in standing up. Hercules grinned at the small bard as the small group joined him again.

“Glad to see you up and about,” he whispered and Gabrielle nodded in agreement.

“I suggest, husband,” Hera said, “that we listen to what they have to say about our errant son. We will discuss your offspring later.”

“Yes, dear,” Zeus agreed. He turned to Artemis. “You have something to say about this?”

“First, where are the other Greek Gods and Goddesses, they should observe this and some of them are witnesses to these events,” Artemis suggested.

Moments later all the Greek gods and goddesses, that Xena and Gabrielle knew of, were filing into the hallway and taking up their positions in chairs between the pillars until the small group was surrounded by Greek deities.

Gabrielle felt Xena growl as Poseidon walked by them with a snarl, his trident shining in the sunlight as he took his seat. The bard watched the various gods and goddesses take their seats with fascination, taking in various details about all of them for her future tales; the way the air seemed to shift and go hazy around Morpheus; the air surrounding Iris flashing in rainbow colors; Mercury’s dancing hands and tapping feet; the sadness in Demeter’s eyes; the golden light surrounding her father, Apollo. Gabrielle noted each of the Muses carrying something symbolizing their talents; and other details filed themselves away in the bard’s mind.

Artemis frowned at two empty seats and pointed to them. “Where are Cupid and Aphrodite?” she asked.

“Here!” a voice caused everyone’s head to turn to the opposite end of the thrones where Cupid stepped out of a doorway, walking slowly with Aphrodite, lending his arm for her to lean on.

Xena and the others heard many of the gods and goddesses gasp or cry out in shock at the sight of the Goddess of Love, still showing her injuries from her fight with Ares.

Gabrielle rushed up to lend her arm to the other side of Aphrodite and the goddess smiled gratefully as they led her to her customary seat.

“How did you come to be in this state?” Hera demanded, holding her hand up and silencing everyone.

“I attempted to warn the bard Gabrielle of Ares’ plot to kill her and Ares attacked us. I was injured. My son, Cupid, took me to Xena and her family cared for me,” the goddess answered.

Athena walked over to her sister goddess and held her hands on Aphrodite’s head. When she stepped back the Goddess of Love was once again her beautiful self with no sign of having been injured. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom and War resumed her seat.

“Ares?” Hera demanded.

“Zeus swore none of the Olympians would intervene in my plan against the human Gabrielle and Aphrodite broke that pledge,” Ares responded sullenly.

Gabrielle started to walk back to Xena and Hercules and spotted Bacchus, Lord of wine and the bacchae, in the shadows of one of the pillars and quickly rushed to Xena’s side. The warrior noticed her bard trembling and questioned Gabrielle with her eyes but Gabrielle just shook her head and took Xena’s hand in hers for support.

“Later, lover,” she said simply.

“Aphrodite, did you interfere?” Zeus asked.

“Yes, Ares has gotten away with the most underhanded things while the rest of us sit back and let him. I’m fond of Gabrielle and Xena and couldn’t stand by,” the goddess responded, glaring at the War God who glared back.

“What has he done that irritated the Fates into action?” Hera asked of Artemis.

“He has always wanted Xena back as she was before, a blood-thirsty warlord bent on total domination of the known world with Ares by her side. Ares views Gabrielle as a direct obstacle to that goal. He has impersonated Xena’s human father to enrage her, framed her for murder, threatened Gabrielle’s life, has sent other warriors against her, the list is endless!” Artemis complained.

“Details, please,” Zeus commanded. “Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, you know of Ares and his plots. What has he been up to?”

Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom stepped forward.

“The involvement of Ares in the affairs of Xena and Gabrielle are long and some are well known. It is known that Ares planned for Xena to conquer the known world and send it into darkness. The mortal Xena turned away from those plans and Ares has struggled since then to turn her back to her Warlord ways.”

The Goddess moved to the center of the room.

“Ares framed Xena for the murder of some simple villagers, hoping that she would return to him in exchange for escaping a murder sentence. Xena was able to trick her way out of it and prove her innocence.

“Next Ares changed his appearance and pretended to be Xena’s mortal father and tried to trick her into returning to the Warlord ways, again he failed.” Athena continued.

Ares glared and assumed his seat in the great hall.

“The War God then teamed up with the maniac Callisto and they preyed on Xena’s guilt over not having saved Callisto from death. Xena ended up in Tartarus in Callisto’s body. Again, Xena was resourceful and escaped from Tartarus but in Callisto’s body,” the Goddess of Wisdom and War recited.

Gabrielle shivered, remembering having to deal with Xena in Callisto’s body, her most beloved in the body of the one person the bard hated more than anyone on earth or in Tartarus.

“It wasn’t until Ares lost his sword and required Xena’s help that she was able to force him into returning her back to her own body.”

Ares growled and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he muttered.

“Go on, Athena,” Hera urged, glaring back at her son.

“Ares convinced the Furies that Xena hadn’t avenged her father’s death and she was cursed with persecution and insanity. Ares’ plan of revenge for Xena not coming back to him was clever. It was Xena’s human mother, Cyrene, who had killed her husband when he attempted to kill Xena as a child.”

“I remember that,” Zeus commented. “I wondered why you were taking an interests in the lives of a soldier and his family. You encouraged him to attack the child, you convinced him that she wasn’t his offspring.”

Ares shrugged and threw his leg over the arm of his chair.

“Yes, when Cyrene’s husband was going to attack the child she killed him. The Furies decided Xena hadn’t avenged her father’s death and punished her,” Athena concluded.

“If she had killed her mother then she would have been cursed by the Furies for killing her kin,” Hera frowned and Athena nodded in agreement. “How did she get out of that one?”

“She convinced the Furies that Ares was her father and she wasn’t required to avenge the death of Cyrene’s husband,” Athena answered.

“She didn’t know Zeus was her father?” Hera questioned.

“No, she had guessed that Ares might be her father because of his intense interest in her. Xena knew nothing of Zeus or me,” Hecate answered.

“The following incidents require others to speak of them: the wedding of Gabrielle and Xena; the poisoning of Gabrielle; drugging Xena and placing her under a spell to forget her marriage; the pregnancy of Xena; the bard being attacked and sold into slavery; the birth of Xena’s daughter; the attack on the Amazons by Caesar and the crucifixion of Gabrielle; the slaughter of the Amazons; the attack by the priests of Ares against Xena and her son, kidnapping of her daughter Sasha and attempting to kill Gabrielle; the kidnapping of Sasha by Brutus; and the influence of Bacchus in the bard’s life. These are the plots of Ares.”

Both Zeus and Hera were frowning at their son.

“That is quite a list, don’t you have other battles to fight and arrange, my son?” Zeus demanded.

Ares shrugged and attempted to look bored.

“Continue Athena, call witnesses in. It is hard to believe that Ares could be the center of all this misery these humans have lived through,” Hera instructed.

“Who would speak of their wedding and the actions of Ares?”

Hercules stepped forward. “I will. I am Xena and Gabrielle’s Kumbada and was there for the entire event. The Gods and Goddess of Olympus gave their blessing to the union of Gabrielle and Xena and gave their blessing to a blood bonding, the most binding and serious of joining of two human souls.” All of the Olympians nodded in agreement, remembering the Amazon wedding of the couple. “After the ceremony, Ares attacked the couple in their wedding hut. His intent was to kidnap Gabrielle, Queen of the Amazons, to spark war between several of the delegates. When Xena stepped in and tried to stop him, Ares attempted to kill her, going against the blessing of the gods.”

“Ares came to me the next day and attempted to seduce me into joining him as a warrior and as a bedmate, again undermining the blessing of the gods,” Gabrielle stated and blushed when she saw Xena’s surprised face. She had never mentioned Ares’ actions that day to her mate.

“Was Ares responsible for the poisoning of the bard at her wedding?” Athena asked. “Who speaks on this?”

Hades stepped forth into the main part of the hall and waved his hand towards the door. Xena growled as Caesar, Brutus and Octavion stepped through the door in their Roman finery and approached Zeus and Hera.

“Romans,” Hades called to them, “Tell Zeus and Hera of the assassination attempt on Gabrielle’s life the day of her wedding.”

“Why should Romans concern themselves in this, they’re already dead,” Ares complained.

“Because I told them to and I control what happens to them in Tartarus. Speak the truth Romans and all of it,” Hades instructed.

“Ares came to me and offered me glory and the power to build an Empire out of Rome. Naturally, I accepted his help,” Caesar began. “I knew Rome would be great if I could gain that power. Ares suggested that if the Amazon Queen were killed during her wedding it would cause political upheaval throughout the region and maybe several wars, all of which would be beneficial to Rome. This would have given me the opportunity to send in troops and take over many of the small kingdoms and their land and wealth. I sent Praetorian Guards, like Octavion here, to poison her.”

Octavion stepped forward, “She was poisoned but lived. I was executed for the crime without naming Caesar or Ares.”

“She lived because she is my daughter and has the gift of quick healing,” Apollo spoke up from his seat.

“Who will speak of the child of Xena and Ares?” Athena asked formally.

Artemis stepped forward, “They were in my Amazon village after the wedding and the poisoning. Xena was escorting their families home when Ares disguised himself as a trusted friend of Xena’s and tricked her into drinking enchanted wine. She lost her memory of the previous two winters and forgot Gabrielle and her changed ways,” Artemis continued. “He seduced her and then set her out to kill Gabrielle, even though their union was blessed by all of us. Gabrielle succeeded in reviving Xena’s memories but Xena became pregnant and a child was born.”

“The Fates have said that Gabrielle was to be at the birth of the child and she wasn’t, who can speak on this?” Athena demanded.

A new figure stepped through the doors and Gabrielle couldn’t suppress her gasp of shock at the sight of Grimhild Thornfinndottir, Xena’s Valkyrie from the northern lands.

“All-Father Odin has sent me, great Zeus and Hera to speak of the crimes against Xena and the skald Gabrielle,” she stated and they both nodded. “It was set by the Norns and the Fates that Gabrielle should be there when the baby Xena carried was born. She was meant to protect them both and bond with the child. This was denied her.”

“How?” Zeus frowned.

“Gabrielle and their friend Iolaus were attacked by Roman soldiers. Iolaus was crippled and almost killed. Gabrielle was sold into slavery,” Hecate answered.

“Iolaus?” Hera questioned, “Your mate, Hercules?”

“Yes, Hera,” he responded.

Hera frowned and nodded for the Viking to continue.

“Gabrielle wasn’t there at the birth of the child known as Sasha because she was in the hands of Romans as a slave. I was sent by All-Father to protect Xena and the child from raiders sent by Ares,” Grimhild stated simply.

“Slavery? The daughter of a god?” Hera’s eyes flashed angrily and Ares shuffled his feet in discomfort under her glare.

“Who can speak of the slavery of Gabrielle, daughter of Apollo?” Athena called.

Brutus stepped forward. “Gabrielle was treated as other slaves, branded, raped, beaten, and flogged. She became a very skilled gladiator and killed many in the Arena. She was away from Xena for almost two years before I was able to trick her way out of Rome and back to Xena.”

“You were her friend but become their enemy?” Hera questioned.

“Yes, after Gabrielle returned to Xena, Ares came to Caesar and offered power and victory. He suggested attacking the Amazons. He knew that it would bring Xena and Gabrielle out of the protection of the Northern lands where he could get ahold of them. Caesar forced me to attack the Amazons,” Brutus answered.

“I had Brutus attack and slaughter most of Gabrielle’s tribe,” Caesar continued. “I was hoping she was there with them and would be killed but she wasn’t. The bard traded herself for the Amazons I had prisoner and I had Xena in chains when she attempted to assassinate me.”

Xena growled with the memory and Gabrielle’s grip on her hand tightened as Caesar grinned at both of them.

“Ares suggested I get rid of Gabrielle and then let Xena go. She would go berserk and would start a war with Rome. I would get the wars I wanted and the conquests I needed to increase Rome’s power,” the would-be Emperor grinned. “I had Gabrielle crucified in front of Xena, knowing that would drive her insane.”

“He didn’t count on being assassinated the next day,” Brutus grinned an evil grin. “I was able to get the Senate to agree to a treaty with the Amazons and rescued Gabrielle and Xena.”

“Crucified?” Zeus growled and Ares decided that his feet were more interesting to look at under the glare of his powerful father.

Athena looked at Ares with obvious contempt. “Who can speak of the crucifixion of the mortal Gabrielle?”

Apollo stood up from his chair, shaking with anger. “Gabrielle, my daughter, died on that cross. Because Ares had influenced everything so heavily, the Fates agreed that I could bring her back but the price was that the darkness that had touched her earlier would show up now. As a partial bacchae she tasted two drops of the blood of Bacchus, now it would flare up,” Apollo continued.

“The bard is part bacchae now?” Hera asked with a frown.

“Yes, but she defeated any control the darkness might have had on her,” Apollo said proudly.

“How does this affect her?” Athena asked. “Is it permanent?”

“She craves blood, animal and human and sometimes human sensuality with the blood. It hits once a month and it can be overwhelming but it doesn’t control her any longer,” Apollo stated proudly again.

“Artemis, your Amazons were killed anyway. Was Ares responsible for this?” Athena continued. “Who speaks on this?”

Brutus stepped forward formally again. “In revenge for Gabrielle not dying, Ares approached Marc Antony and me,” Brutus continued. “We had his blessing and assurance of victory and attacked the Amazons in their new home and slaughtered all of them.”

Xena looked over and saw Artemis clenching her hands into fists so tightly that the warrior thought the goddess might draw blood with her nails digging into her palms.

“It has been accused that Ares sent his priests against the family of Xena and Gabrielle, what happened?” Athena asked.

“Ares then had his priests attack me and my son,” Xena spoke up. “They injured Solan almost to the point of death and I was hurt badly and taken captive with my daughter. They were setting up a trap to ambush and kill Gabrielle when she attacked them and killed all of them. She then confronted Ares in one of his temples and they fought to a standstill, both of them injured.”

Almost all the gods looked puzzled and Hecate stepped forward.

“The bard was able to hurt Ares?” Athena questioned with a frown. “How could a mortal hurt a god?”

“Xena’s gifting from me and Gabrielle’s gifting from Apollo is the ability to hurt any god or goddess on equal footing. Any weapon or fist, they use can hurt you,” Hecate explained.

The hall erupted into chaos as the gods and goddesses began protesting loudly over humans having the ability to hurt and possibly even kill them. A few were in favor of the two having the power so they could fight against Ares but most were protesting and worried about the warrior’s fighting skills.

“Silence! It’s done!” Zeus yelled and everyone grew quiet. “Xena hasn’t set out to overthrow Olympia with this gifting. How long have you had it, warrior?”

“A couple of winters,” Xena answered.

“There, see?” Zeus asked. “The only one she’s gone up against has been Ares. I don’t see a problem with the gifting and reasons for it.”

“Sasha is my daughter too!” Ares protested.

“You have plenty of children, go play with them,” Hera snapped.

“Not the daughter of Xena and me,” Ares protested.

“The daughter of Xena and Ares has been a source of contention between the two of them and at the center of several of his plots lately. Who will speak about the kidnapping of Xena’s child and the blinding of her son?” Athena demanded.

“Ares is the reason I kidnapped Sasha,” Brutus spoke up. “He told me if I could get my hands on Sasha that he would grant me victory against Octavian and Marc Antony.” The Roman turned and looked at the War God with a sneer. “He promised me the position of Emperor if I killed Xena, and Gabrielle as my slave and in my bed, that’s why I betrayed them.”

“You failed?” Hera asked.

“You don’t keep up with the warriors, my love,” Zeus smiled. “He succeeded in kidnapping the toddler but Xena and Gabrielle were more clever and helped Antony and Octavian defeat the troops of Crassius and Brutus and got their daughter back. I watched the battle, it was amusing.”

“Because of Brutus and Ares the Romans blinded my son,” Xena growled.

“Did Ares let up on his scheming after these failures?” Athena questioned.

“No, during this time Ares had me start calling my blood out in the bard,” Bacchus’ deep bass voice called from the shadows. “She began feeling the pain of craving blood, especially human blood and the sex that goes along with it. Ares didn’t think Xena would accept the darkness and hoped Gabrielle would leave Xena because of it or even kill herself.”

Xena’s hand clutched at her chakram and restrained herself by sheer willpower from using it on Ares, growling at the memory of how Gabrielle had suffered with the blood craving.

“What is the big deal?” Ares suddenly demanded. “I influence the outcome of battles every day. I decide who lives and dies and no one says a word. Why are you concerned over these two humans?”

“You’re half sister, brother,” Hercules reminded the War God.

“Did you have to mention that?” Xena hissed and got a shrug from the demi-god.

“You mean almost everything that has gone wrong in our lives has been because of Ares?” Gabrielle demanded, her green eyes blazing.

“It appears so, human,” Athena answered.

Xena and Hercules grabbed the bard as she screamed in rage and tried to launch herself at the War God. Ares flinched but attempted to look bored.

Zeus looked amused and Hera’s eyes were still blazing angrily.

“Well, my son,” Zeus smiled at Ares’ obvious discomfort. “Seems that these godlings are upset with you and for good reason. What do you have to say about all of this?”

“Not much,” Ares growled. “Everyone knows I want Xena back as my Chosen, my Warlord and I’ve worked hard to get her back.”

“You admit all of it?” Hera demanded.

“You got it! Xena’s destiny is to rule the world and all of you have fought against that, even before Xena was a teenager. Apollo fathering Gabrielle to fight against Xena’s future with me, what was that?”

“Your plans would throw the world into darkness and chaos, we agreed there needed to be a balancing of light and Xena would choose between the two,” Hera countered.

“And I’m just working to get her back, you can’t fault me for that!” Ares growled at the gods.

“Your methods go too far, my son,” Zeus responded.

“Is there anymore accusations against Ares?” Athena asked all gathered.

“There’s more, Zeus,” Hecate stated and Ares glared at the dark goddess. “Ares found the Dagger of Helios and I believe he planned on using it against you in his plans for conquest.”

The hall went quiet at the thought of Ares having the power to kill any god or goddess with the Dagger. There was very little in existence that could kill a deity and this was one of them.

“Is it true, son?” Zeus frowned as he asked his son.

“No, Father,” the War God answered. “I have the dagger but it was only to force you to undo what the Fates did to me, not to overthrow you.”

“What exactly did the Fates do to you?” Hera asked and Ares began blushing a bright red.

Gabrielle and Artemis glanced at each other and resisted grinning by biting their lips. The bard leaned into Xena’s arms as they watched Ares shift on his feet and refused to meet the eyes of any of the other gods and goddesses.

“Well?” Zeus asked.

“They took my manhood,” Ares mumbled and blushed an even brighter red at the laughter of the Greek deities.

Xena looked over at Hercules and both resisted joining in on the laughter but found it difficult.

“Knowing Ares like I do, I understand why he went nuts,” Xena whispered in Gabrielle’s ear and the bard nodded in agreement.

Zeus waited until the laughter had died down and held up his hand for silence again. “A harsh punishment for you, I agree.”

“Before we continue, husband,” Hera interrupted her husband. “Hades, send your witnesses back, this concerns only the gods and the godlings here,” she instructed.

“Hera, wait!” Xena called out. “Octavion aided Hercules and me in Tartarus in attempting to rescue Gabrielle and Artemis. I ask that Hades reconsider his case and send him to the Elysian Fields.”

Hades frowned and Hera looked puzzled. “Isn’t he one of the ones that poisoned your mate on your wedding day?” Hera asked.

“Yes, but he regrets that and went against the wishes of Hades, his Emperor and General in an attempt to help us,” Hercules added.

“Hades?” Zeus questioned his brother.

“I will consider it and I will be fair and balanced in my decision. In the mean-time he will be kept away from all the other Romans that might wish his harm for his aiding you,” Hades stated.

“Thank you, Hades,” Xena responded.

“Now, back to my son,” Zeus said as the Romans disappeared from sight.

“What?” Ares demanded, getting to his feet and going to the center of the room, standing near Xena and the others. “I’d still fight to get Xena back!”

“You go too far, my son,” Zeus said sadly. “The list against you is long and serious and you admit it as well as having witnesses against you.”

“His plans are that if he can’t have me then he wants my daughter to raise and train as a Warlord and conqueror,” Xena stated.

Zeus and Hera appeared thoughtful and bent their heads together whispering. Ares glared as Hercules kept a hand on Gabrielle’s shoulder, ensuring that the bard didn’t launch herself at Ares again.

After a few moments the head Greek deities turned to look at Ares, both still frowning.

“I don’t agree with the decision of the Fates,” Zeus declared and Xena’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Obviously it has done nothing but make you more desperate and dangerous. I will reverse their decision, my son, but there are all the other incidents for you to answer to.”

“Godlings, Xena and Gabrielle, this concerns you the most,” Hera spoke up, “What justice would you ask?”

“I could almost want him dead,” Gabrielle muttered, “but I can’t. Not even him, but how do we keep him out of our lives?”

“Banishment?” Hera asked Zeus softly.

“Hmmm, a possibility,” he agreed and Ares turned red with anger.

“Nothing has been proven that I was plotting against you, Zeus,” Ares growled. “This is between Xena, Gabrielle and myself.”

“What would you suggest? That we let you go on the way you have?” Zeus demanded.

“Trial by combat,” Ares suggested with a grin and turned to Gabrielle. “How about it, bard? Up to a challenge?”

Gabrielle growled and felt Hercules’ hand tighten on her shoulder.

“How can a human, even a godling, stand up against the God of War in a fight?” Hera complained.

“We could even the odds, wife,” Zeus said thoughtfully. “Would you agree to my conditions, Ares?”

Ares frowned. “What would those be?”

Zeus grinned. “Just agree because you don’t have a choice. If Xena and Gabrielle agree to a fight, that is.”

Gabrielle started to step forward but was grabbed from behind by Xena who quickly covered the bard’s mouth with her hand and held her mate tightly.

“I think you just want the responsibility off of your shoulders,” Xena growled at both Hera and Zeus and the God shrugged in agreement. “I am Gabrielle’s champion and consort. Ares, you’ll face me,” Xena declared.

The God of War lost his grin and looked thoughtful.

“You’ve never been able to beat me, Xena.”

“I convinced the Furies that you were my father by beating you to a draw. I have even more incentive now,” Xena countered.

“Husband, I am not comfortable with this,” Hera declared. “If Xena should lose then Ares suffers nothing.”

“I agree,” Zeus said and pondered for a few moments. “The choices are this: Ares and Xena decide this matter by combat, as fitting a warrior and the God of War or Ares accepts the punishment of the Fates and promises never to bother Xena, Gabrielle or their families again, including the child Sasha.”

“What is the incentive to win the combat?” Xena asked.

“It will be fought in a cave that is magically sealed. Whichever one of you wins the contest and emerges from the cave will be the winner. The loser will be trapped in the cave for eternity or until the winner releases them,” Zeus declared.

“And the imbalance of power?” Hecate questioned.

“Both will have equal powers,” Zeus decided. “Ares will not be able to use his fireballs or energy bolts and both will be able to inflict mortal wounds and even be able to kill each other. The only weapons will be Ares sword and shield and Xena will have her sword and chakram.”

Gabrielle finally wiggled a hand free and removed Xena’s hand from her mouth. The warrior relented and eased her hold on the bard, allowing Gabrielle to turn in her arms. The bard’s green eyes flashed angrily into Xena’s blue ones.

“Don’t even think about it!” Gabrielle warned.

“It might be our only shot at getting him out of our lives for good!” Xena whispered.

“And if you don’t? I’m not going to lose you!” the bard snapped.

“He’s just going to keep coming, Gabrielle, until he gets either you, me or Sasha. You heard everything he’s done!” Xena urged.

“She’s right, Gabrielle,” Hercules said softly and blushed at the glare the bard gave him. “Iolaus is crippled, you were taken a slave and it’s only a miracle that you survived that. The crucifixion, everything. How long can you keep surviving what he throws at you?”

“Then let me take him!” Gabrielle insisted. “I remember all the rapes, all the people I was forced to kill, Solan being blinded, this damned blood curse, all because of him! Let me challenge him!”

“No, my love. You’re better than most warriors I’ve seen but you’re still no match for Ares,” Xena said gently.

“Then you’ll still have a chance at him if I fail,” Gabrielle insisted.

“No! If I fail then I want you, Hercules and Iolaus to take the family back North where Ares can’t reach you and Sasha. Promise me, Gabrielle,” Xena demanded.

“I can’t promise that! I can’t live without you!”

“You have to, for Sasha!”

“Xena, please!” Gabrielle begged as she threw herself into the warrior’s arms.

“Oh please, this is sickening already,” Ares taunted and found himself lifted off the ground by his vest and looking down at a very angry Hercules.

“Shut up!” Hercules growled.

“Promise me,” Xena insisted.

“Alright, if you fail I won’t follow you until Sasha is grown and strong enough to face Ares herself,” Gabrielle promised.

Xena wiped a tear away from her bard’s cheek and turned to Zeus and Hera.

“I agree to the conditions,” she stated.

“One more thing, to make the conditions even. Since Ares is a god and immortal, if he wins Xena you will be made immortal and trapped in the cave forever. You’ll both be facing the same fate.” Zeus declared and Gabrielle went pale.

“Zeus, if Ares wins then he escapes punishment,” Here objected.

“I know, that’s the risk.”

“I suggest that he be banished for the turn of one year into Tartarus,” Hera said strongly.

“Hey! What if I just take the year banishment and not risk eternal isolation?” Ares demanded.

“Not an option. Eternal banishment if you lose, one year if you win,” Zeus declared.

Xena was frowning, “Eternity? Gabrielle and I wouldn’t be together when I die?” she whispered.

“Those are the conditions,” Zeus stated flatly. “Do all the gods and goddesses agree to the conditions and swear that they won’t interfere now or in the future in this decision?”

All of the deities nodded their heads in agreement, some reluctantly, like Cupid and Aphrodite. Others in amusement like Bacchus.

Zeus turned to Hecate, “Do you agree as well?”

“Yes, I agree. Hear this, Ares, if you win do not ever cross me or Gabrielle again,” Hecate threatened.

“I agree to the fight,” Ares answered with a grin.

“Xena, no! We’ve gotten through everything because we knew we’d be together no matter what on the other side!” Gabrielle protested.

“It’s our only hope, I won’t lose,” Xena promised and kissed Gabrielle lightly on the lips and held the bard for a moment. She then turned out of the embrace.

“Xena,” Gabrielle whispered, dropping her head in defeat.

“Hercules, please,” Xena asked softly and turned to Zeus and Hera and nodded.

Gabrielle found herself wrapped tightly in Hercules’ arms as Xena and Ares disappeared along with all the other deities; only Artemis remained.

The demi-god held the bard as she began to cry and Artemis began to pace.

&&&&&&&&

Xena and Ares found themselves in a large cavern with Zeus, Hera and Athena. Torches lined the walls and a large firepit lent warmth and light as well to the dark and foreboding place.

“There is an entrance and many passages but your prison shall be this room for whichever one of you falls in combat,” Zeus declared. “See that jewel over the coffin? That is made by Hephaestus, it will be the key to the coffin for whichever one of you remains here.”

“And only Xena can release me in the future if I fail?” Ares questioned.

“Either Xena or a descendant of Xena. If Xena falls then only you, Ares, will be able to free her,” Zeus confirmed.

“Works for me,” Ares said confidently, swinging his sword around several times and stretching.

Zeus walked over to the warrior and smiled kindly and waved his hands over her. Ares growled when he realized that his father had just healed Xena of all her wounds and re-established her energy level.

Xena looked down at her once mangled thigh and grinned, pulling out her own sword and twirling it a few times.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

“I said the odds would be as fair as possible. Remember, both of you, either one of you could die or be trapped forever. We will await outside for the outcome,” Zeus stated and lent his arm to Hera as they started out of the cavern.

“Hey, Dad,” Ares called, stopping the couple as they turned and looked at the God of War. “Who are you cheering for?” he demanded with a smirk.

“You are both my children, I’m trying not too,” Zeus said sadly. “Oh, by the way,” Zeus stopped and held out his hand. “The dagger, son, hilt first.”

Ares turned red with anger but reached behind to his belt and pulled out a wavy bladed dagger and handed it to his father. Zeus and Hera turned to leave.

With a snarl of disbelief the God of War turned to the Warrior Princess.

“Shall we dance?” he grinned.

Without warning Ares was on her with his sword flashing. Xena barely countered his sword strikes with her own sword and found herself forced backwards across the enclosure and felt the fire’s heat behind her.

With a growl Xena swung her sword around, matching move for move with Ares and regained her balance and forced him back several feet, giving her room to move. Again and again they met with swords and fists until each of them were breathing heavily and both had various cuts on the arms and legs, though none serious.

“What’s the matter, Ares?” Xena taunted. “Not used to fighting someone on equal terms?”

“Not really,” he admitted. “It is exciting, though. Admit it, Xena, nothing gets you going like a good fight.”

“Give it up already, Ares,” Xena sighed and countered his next strike with one of her own, both sword strikes parried and deflected without harm to either of them. “We’ve been through this. I’m not coming back to you.”

“Drop the sword and we both walk out of here to go rule the world,” he suggested as he parried another sword stroke but missed countering Xena’s fist and was rocked back a foot. He rubbed his jaw with his free hand. “Either that or you get stuck here for eternity and I get Sasha.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed and the warrior growled. Ares was surprised with the sudden fury with which the warrior was fighting and stumbled back under a rapid series of sword strikes.

As they separated and caught their breath again, Xena knew Ares was frustrated. They were fairly evenly matched now that Ares didn’t have his energy bolts to rely on and both were very experienced warriors.

Xena flipped over Ares with a war cry and slashed backwards and found her sword strike blocked again and Ares found his fist blocked by Xena’s gauntlet. The warrior spun and attempted another strike and fist blow only to be blocked. Both separated again and glared at each other.

They had already fought all over the cave, balancing on the edges of the stone coffin and trading blows, running up and flipping over and off the walls, swinging from torch holders while dodging sword strokes, and generally beating each other almost senseless. Still they were fighting to a stand still.

Ares traded several more sword strokes, bringing him close to Xena.

“You know something that Athena and the others didn’t figure out?” he grinned and Xena struggled to maintain her block of his sword with hers.

“What could that be, Ares?” she growled and shoved him back with a burst of strength.

“I was the one that shot Gabrielle’s horse out from under her when she tried to escape the Roman soldiers,” he grinned.

Xena felt herself blinking as her mind tried to process the new information. Gabrielle had almost escaped the Roman soldiers that crippled Iolaus and sold her into slavery, except that an arrow had shot her horse and the dead weight had pinned the bard’s leg.

The warrior felt her heart begin racing faster to match her rising emotions as images of Gabrielle’s capture flashed through her mind. Iolaus had seen everything.

Xena felt a roaring in her ears and a pounding in her head and felt her eyes narrow as she looked at a grinning Ares.

“Do you know what they did to her?” Xena whispered.

“Of course I know!” he smirked, “I watched.”

The warrior felt everything inside of her snap and she launched herself at the God of War with a scream of rage.

&&&&&&&

“It’s been forever!” Gabrielle complained as she paced in the hall.

“We don’t have a choice but to wait,” Hercules commented, throwing himself into Cupid’s chair and watching his friend pace, her fists clenched in anger.

“What if she loses? Ares will just grab Sasha!”

“No, if Xena doesn’t come out of that cave, I’ll take you and the entire family North to safety before he can take Sasha,” Artemis promised.

“She can’t lose!” Gabrielle muttered, twirling one of her sais in her hand, wanting to break something.

“I hope you’re right,” Hercules mumbled.

&&&&&&&&

Xena became aware of her surroundings slowly, the first thing getting through her berserker haze was pain.

The warrior realized she was laying face down on the cold rock surface of the cave and everything hurt, especially her back. Xena raised herself up on her arms and cried out in pain as it felt like a red-hot poker stabbing her in the lower back. With a growing sense of dread the warrior discovered she couldn’t move her legs easily.

“You’ve always had one weakness for the last few years, Xena.”

Xena looked over and saw Ares standing over the stone coffin with his back to her. She glanced around quickly for her sword and saw it near his feet, totally out of reach since she was right at the doorway of the chamber. She bit her lip against the pain as she tried to move her legs and they refused to respond.

Ares turned and sat down on the edge of the coffin, watching the warrior’s struggles.

“I knew I could get to you if I mentioned that irritating little blond. She’s been your soft spot and weakness. She makes you weak, Xena!”

“She’s the best thing that ever happened to me, Ares,” the warrior growled. Her sharp eyes did take in the fact that the God of War was wounded badly in several places, apparently not having moved fast enough to avoid all of Xena’s sword strikes when she was enraged. He was holding his left arm and the wound was still bleeding freely, even with direct pressure and Xena could see a deep sword thrust along his ribs. She almost had him, she silently cursed.

“Maybe you’ll change your mind after you’ve been in this thing for a couple hundred years,” he taunted, slapping the stone side of the coffin. “Maybe I’ll drop by long after that little bitch of yours is dead and gone and see how you feel about spending eternity in this thing.”

“I’m not the only one with weakness, Ares,” Xena countered, pulling her chakram up along her body where the War God couldn’t notice it.

“And what would that be, Xena?” he asked with a grin.

“One, you talk too much when you should be fighting. Two, you really don’t want to destroy me. You’re too hung up on me, admit it.”

Ares lost his grin and looked thoughtful for a moment. “Alright, I admit it. I’d rather have you with me than dead or trapped here but I’ll take the trapped part.”

“You still talk too much,” Xena muttered and rolled over onto her back with a cry of pain and sent her chakram flying.

Ares was caught off guard and ducked as the chakram went sailing past his ear. It rebounded off three walls and came straight at the War God’s head. Ares snapped his body backwards to avoid the flying weapon and stumbled backwards into the coffin.

Ares yelled in rage as the chakram hit the Eye of Hephaestus and the lid of the coffin and the stone door to the chamber began closing.

The chakram continued its path past the Warrior Princess into the passageway and snapped into two pieces, embedding itself in the wall.

Xena bit her lip as she rolled out of the way of the stone door into the passageway. She could hear Ares screaming in rage as both the coffin lid and stone door closed, sealing him in and then there was silence.

The warrior looked up at the two pieces of the chakram high above her head on the passage floor and frowned.

“Damn!” she muttered and then bit her lip to keep from screaming as she tried to get to her feet again, the pain sending her to the cold stone floor.

After a moment of letting the worst of the flash of pain pass, Xena began the long crawl towards the opening.

&&&&&&

Gabrielle yelped with surprise as all the Greek gods and goddesses began appearing next to their seats in the great hall. Her eyes quickly scanned the deities and noticed several absent. She turned quickly to Zeus and Hera as they appeared in the main chairs.

“Well?” she demanded.

“Here,” a voice called and Gabrielle, Hercules and Artemis turned to find Cupid and Aphrodite holding a very battered and wounded Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle rushed over to her mate and Aphrodite moved aside to let the bard get close to Xena. The bard felt tears begin falling down her cheeks as she took in the sight of her warrior mate.

Xena was bruised, dusty and bloody. The warrior opened her eyes and tried to manage a smile when she saw green eyes looking down at her.

“Hey,” she whispered.

“Hey yourself,” Gabrielle responded and looked up momentarily as Hecate appeared in the chamber near them. The bard looked up into Hercules’ face as he knelt and quickly looked over the warrior. Both the bard and demi-god had seen plenty of battle wounds before.

“Not so bad except the back,” Xena muttered as Hercules’ hands gently felt her wounds and limbs. “I think my spine is broken.”

“Your mate won against Ares, bard,” Zeus declared loudly.

“What does that mean now, Zeus?” Poseidon demanded. “Who will be the God of War?”

“That can wait,” Zeus said impatiently. “First, we deal with the godlings.”

Gabrielle and the small group surrounding Xena watched carefully as the main god stood up from his chair and approached them. He looked down into the pained face of Xena and smiled gently.

“I didn’t think you could do it but I’m pleased,” he said simply and raised his hands over the warrior.

When the bright light cleared, the warrior was unharmed and cleaned up. Xena grinned a lopsided grin and accepted Hercules’ hand up to her feet and turned to hug Gabrielle.

“I’ll never get used to that, one moment I’m crippled and dying and the next it’s as if nothing happened,” she complained softly. She looked at Zeus over the head of the bard. “Thank you for that.”

“You’re welcome,” he responded and walked back to his throne and sat next to Hera.

“You’ll find an interesting future without Ares in it, I think,” Hera commented with a smile and Gabrielle grinned widely in response.

“What will you do without a God of War?” Hercules asked his father.

“We’ll deal with that,” Zeus promised and suddenly looked thoughtful. “Xena,” he called.

Gabrielle and Xena turned towards the main deities, Xena wrapping an arm around the bard’s shoulders and the bard wrapping an arm around the warrior’s waist.

“The position is open and I couldn’t think of a better replacement,” Zeus offered.

“Me?” Xena questioned. “You already have a Goddess of War.”

“Athena’s role is much different than that of War deity, her primary role is that of the Goddess of Wisdom,” Hera stated.

“Yeah, Athena thinks,” Xena grinned, “Ares just liked the fight and usually didn’t care who won.”

“Exactly,” Zeus agreed. “Athena deals with battle because of the end result, Ares wanted battle just for battle sake.”

“Sorry, Zeus, that’s not me any longer,” Xena grinned down at Gabrielle and the bard hugged her tightly.

“Good! I’m glad of that but I thought I’d offer it since you did defeat Ares,” Zeus grinned.

“Now go back to your lives and live as humans as long as you can,” Hera instructed.

“What do you mean, as long as we can?” Gabrielle demanded.

“You both are the daughters of gods,” Hera smiled, “there are things yet to be discovered by you both. Good lives to you.”

The Goddess waved her hand before any of them could question the deities further.

&&&&&&&

Cyrene dropped the tray of mugs she was carrying in surprise as Hercules, Xena and Gabrielle suddenly appeared by the fireplace in the inn.

The trio looked around in surprise themselves and then everyone grinned as Xena’s mom rushed forward to embrace all of them.

Soon the room was filled with family members hugging each other: Iolaus, Joxer, Solan, Reija and Sasha welcoming the three Greeks home once again.

Later that evening Xena’s sharp eyes noticed a cloaked figure in one of the booths in a far corner and left the table of celebrating family. She smiled reassuringly to her bard and then moved to the booth and sat opposite the figure.

“Hecate,” Xena stated simply.

The goddesses blue eyes danced from under the cloak hood at the warrior.

“It’s good to see everyone so happy, none of you have ever really had a chance to relax,” the goddess commented.

“That’s true, the threat of something is always over our heads. Now with Ares out of the way maybe some of that will ease up,” Xena agreed.

“How does it feel?”

“Weird, he’s been such a part of my life since I was a teenager, over 15 years now.”

“Enjoy it, he’s not the only one who has ever caused you problems,” Hecate grinned.

“No, he had lots of help,” Xena agreed. “What brings you here?”

“I knew you’d have questions,” Hecate stated simply.

“You have powers in Tartarus,” Xena commented after thinking for a few moments.

“Yes, as a Goddess of the Darkness, I do.”

“Why didn’t you get Artemis and Gabrielle out of there sooner?” Xena asked softly but intensely. “Gabrielle died!”

“I could have but I had to wait until things got out of hand,” Hecate responded, also in a low voice.

“Why? If she had died in Tartarus she would have been trapped there!”

“If I had just gone in and brought her back, Zeus and the other gods wouldn’t have listened and agreed to finally doing something about Ares.”

Xena frowned and then nodded. “Okay, I’ll buy that. Gabrielle was explaining why Artemis didn’t heal her after the crucifixion and Solan’s injuries and stuff.”

“Yes, even though the gods have played heavily in your lives you still have to live with some of the consequences on your own and discover your own paths,” Hecate agreed.

“I still don’t like it,” Xena growled. “Solan is blind, Gabrielle died again, I was almost crippled, and Hercules risked his life again.”

“Yes, and now Ares is out of your lives, is that too high a price?”

“No,” Xena sighed. “Not if it keeps him out of Sasha’s life, it’s not.”

Both the warrior and goddess were quiet for several moments.

“What did Hera mean about our lives not being human?”

Hecate smiled sadly. “You are the daughters of gods and have had more dealings with gods than any other human ever has. I can’t tell you what your future is and what it means to be the daughters of gods except that you aren’t like other mortals and it will affect you both eventually.”

Before Xena could demand further explanations the goddess was gone and the warrior was left swearing under her breath about gods and riddles.

“MOM!”

The warrior was on her feet with chakram in hand before Solan’s cry had stopped echoing in the room of the closed inn. All the laughter and talk stopped instantly at the family table as everyone turned or jumped out of their chairs at the yell.

Solan, cooking dinner in the kitchen for the family, came running and stopped in the doorway with a huge grin on his face.

Xena blinked and slowly lowered the chakram as a familiar roaring filled her ears as she was overwhelmed with the realization that her son was looking at her. Solan wasn’t wearing his blindfold over his eyes and his blue eyes were looking into her own blue ones.

Solan could see once again.

Xena crossed the room in an instant and grabbed her son up in a huge embrace as the rest of the family began to crowd them, everyone talking and laughing at once.

Everyone suddenly went still when Solan’s eyes scanned the family and caught sight of the former Amazon in their midst, a very pregnant and apprehensive Reija.

Solan’s wife.

“By the Gods, you’re beautiful,” he whispered and swept her into his arms.

“Thank you, Hecate,” Xena whispered.

The End
Chakram
Storyline: A runaway slave and his mystic brother ask Xena and Gabrielle’s help in stopping their local war god, Kal, from obtaining the Chakram of Light.
Xena stopped outside Sasha’s room and listened for a moment.

“Why do we tell people that my father’s name is Aramus and that he’s a soldier somewhere?” Xena heard Sasha’s voice asking.

“Well, you know how some people pray to Ares for help in battles and stuff?” Gabrielle began answering and Xena leaned against the wall, curious.

“Uh huh,” Sasha answered and Xena could almost imagine the child nodding her head to her Mum.

“Well, if people knew you were the daughter of a god they wouldn’t know how to act around you or how to treat you. People sometimes treat other people bad when they get confused or scared. Most people haven’t seen anyone who is the son or daughter of a god,” Gabrielle continued.

“What about Uncle Hercules?”

“He gets treated differently and sometimes it hurts him,” Gabrielle answered gently.

“Why didn’t you and Mom want Ares to be my father?”

“We knew that he wouldn’t be a good father.”

“Why?” Sasha persisted.

“Well, a long time ago,” Gabrielle began her answer to her adopted child and Xena smiled at the sound of Gabrielle slipping into her bard voice. “Long before you were born, your Mom learned how to be a warrior. Ares, the God of War, helped teach her how to be a warrior and encouraged her to do wrong things.”

“Mom did wrong things?” Sasha asked and Xena felt her jaw tighten and was very glad that her mate was handling this and not her.

Xena could face an entire army by herself but facing a 7 year old’s questions was frightening.

“Yes, she did. Sometimes people either choose to do bad things, like the Roman bandits who took you when you were little, or they make bad choices and end up doing bad things and fall away from the right path,” Gabrielle tried to explain. “Your mom did both and Ares encouraged it and wanted her to continue to do bad things.”

“Why does he want to do bad things?” Sasha asked.

Gabrielle sighed, wondering that herself.

“I don’t know,” she admitted, “there are things about some of the gods that I don’t understand. He is the God of War and I don’t understand the need for war. Your mom was very good at war and Ares wanted her to keep doing that.”

“She didn’t keep doing bad things, though,”

“No, she didn’t. She realized what she was doing was bad and felt terrible about it. Your mom began changing and began doing good things for people. That’s when I met her. Ares, your father, was really, really angry at your mom and me and he’s done a lot of bad things to us because he wants your mom to go back to war,” Gabrielle explained.

“I’ve heard you and Mom talking sometimes, Ares sent those bandits after you that made you a slave before I was born, right?”

Xena closed her eyes with the pain of that memory, Gabrielle had been taken as a slave, sold into a gladiator school and had been forced to endure rape, beatings, floggings, and was forced to kill to survive. All because of Ares.

Gabrielle smiled a sad smile. “Yes, it was because of Ares. That’s why we didn’t want him to have any contact with you until you were older. He wants you to become a warrior and do bad things, like your mom did a long time ago.”

“Being a warrior isn’t a bad thing,” Sasha frowned.

“No, not at all. There are many good warriors, like your mom. Joxer is a good warrior and Hercules too.”

“And you,” Sasha grinned and suddenly hugged the bard. “Love you, Mum.”

Before Gabrielle could respond the precocious child was up off the bed and heading out the door.

“Hi, mom, bye, Mom!” she yelled as she ran down the hall.

Xena grinned at her disappearing offspring and turned to enter the child’s bedroom and frowned when she saw the serious and meditative look on the bard’s face.

“Hey, what is it, little one?” the warrior asked as Gabrielle began folding Sasha’s freshly washed clothes.

“Just thinking,” the bard muttered. “Even Sasha thinks I’m a warrior.”

“Is that a problem, my bard?”

“Yeah, I think it is,” Gabrielle answered. “Was that my path? I didn’t want that.”

“I know you didn’t want to kill or be a warrior but, even without Ares, we don’t know that you wouldn’t have ended up here,” Xena responded as she sat down on Sasha’s bed, watching her bard.

Gabrielle frowned. “You think I would have ended up killing?”

“I don’t know but I know it was likely to happen eventually if you stayed with me and you know it.”

The bard sat down on the bed beside her mate. “Yes, I probably would have killed eventually but would I have become a warrior with all these deaths?”

“No, I don’t believe so. You certainly wouldn’t have picked becoming a gladiator,” Xena agreed. “What you are is a talented bard, a wonderful mom and someone who can take care of themselves and protect others if needed.”

The bard smiled. “I’ll take those descriptions,” Gabrielle said as she hugged her mate.

Xena frowned as she approached the small home on the edge of the town, her warrior instincts kicking into high gear. Her incredible hearing noted the lack of noise coming from the surrounding woods and no sounds coming from the barnyard either.

The warrior drew her sword from her hip and adjusted her gauntlets as she approached the barn cautiously. She could see movement through the boards.

Xena knew that Gabrielle wasn’t due home for another couple of candle-marks yet. Xena’s son, Solan, wife Reija and newborn son Kiryk were off visiting Gabrielle’s mother in Poteidia and had taken Sasha, Xena’s daughter with them.

The warrior was not in a mood to deal with anything. It had been a long day working in the blacksmith shop, the inn had been packed at lunchtime and Gabrielle hadn’t had a chance to spend any time with Xena and the warrior was grumpy. Now someone was in the barn.

The only things that should be in the barn were Argo, Xena’s prized horse, and two cows.

Xena stopped and listened, sword at ready.

“No, I say we go back to Judea and organize some of the men and go after the chakram. We don’t need the help of a woman.”

“I know it goes against your grain, Asher, but Caleb suggested her and I’ve heard of Xena,” another male voice responded.

“It’s against the nature of God!” the first voice protested.

“So is Kal! If she’s our best shot at stopping him, then I say we ask for her help. I know you haven’t been out of Palestine before but you have got to start adapting a little bit,” the second voice urged.

“What does that mean, Eli?”

“Not everyone that you’re going to meet is evil just because they don’t believe the way you do. There are good people among other religions, cultures and countries.”

“Have you lost your mind?” the first voice, Asher, demanded. “God says that any who do not believe in him are heretics and worthy of death!”

“Would you destroy half the known world?” the second voice, Eli, countered.

“If they turn from the word and glory of God, yes.”

Xena could almost see the second man shaking his head.

“Asher, not everyone is your enemy just because they don’t believe in our God,” Eli’s voice sounded tired.

“Yes they are!” Asher insisted.

“Asher, either you get some tolerance and work with me or go back to Palestine because you’re attitude is just going to cause problems,” Eli insisted.

“You’ve been out among the heathens too long, brother,” Asher’s voice dropped a notch in anger and Xena’s eyes narrowed.

“Maybe, but I’ve learned a lot from those heathens, things that will help our people. If you insist on coming with me then keep quiet and observe, you’ll learn more that way.”

“I don’t see why we need help in doing it!”

“Because I’m not a warrior and we’re going up against a War God!”

Xena opened the barn door and stood in the entrance, knowing that the sun behind her was framing her body in silhouette and with the light reflecting off the sword she was presenting a formidable image.

One man, dressed in the more traditional clothing of the Mid-East, fell off the end of a hay bale and the second man jumped to his feet, a sword in his hand as well.

The second man was dressed in similar clothing to the first but the main difference was the sword and the fact that he knew how to hold it. His body stance told the experienced warrior that he knew how to handle it as well.

“Asher, no!” the first man cried out but the second man ignored him and glared at the warrior.

“You’re in my barn, friend,” Xena growled softly. “Drop the sword and explain why you’re here or leave.”

“Heathen country,” the man with the sword spat. “Women owning property.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” the warrior grinned. “I own the property and I’m not married to a man, either.”

“Asher, drop the sword,” the first man insisted as he gained his feet. Asher finally seemed to listen to the first man and lowered his sword and Xena lowered hers but entered the barn cautiously.

The first man, whom Xena took to be Eli, moved in front of his brother and held out his hands showing he was unarmed.

The warrior looked into his blue eyes and lowered her sword further.

“I apologize for my brother, he hasn’t traveled much and hasn’t been among people of different religions and cultures,” Eli stammered.

“Except Romans!” Asher hissed behind his brother.

“I’m not overly fond of the Romans, myself,” Xena muttered.

“I’ve heard that and that’s one of the reasons a friend of mine thought you might be able to help us.”

“Who are you and why didn’t you wait outside instead of hiding in the barn?” Xena demanded.

“My name is Eli and this is my brother Asher Ben-Mishael,” Eli moved aside and pulled his brother to stand next to him. Xena could see the family resemblance and then her sharp eyes took in the slave collar and the broken manacles on the brother’s wrists.

Eli nodded, taking in her glance.

“My brother is an escaped slave. I know this could cause lots of problems for you and if you don’t want to help us, it’s okay. I would ask that you give us a candle-mark head start though before you turn him in,” Eli said quickly.

“I don’t like Romans and I despise slavery. I’m Xena, come into the house but pull up his hood so his collar doesn’t show,” the warrior instructed, motioning them towards the door, careful not to turn her back on Asher and his sword.

“Thank you, very much!” Eli said gratefully and practically threw his brother through the door of the barn and headed towards the main house.

Gabrielle was surprised to find two men sitting at the table with her mate when she entered the small house. Xena looked tense but not on alert and the bard let her guard relax after quickly glancing around the room.

The warrior bard quickly placed the men from the desert regions but the blue eyes led her to believe that they probably weren’t Arabic. Gabrielle noted the one man armed with a sword but the second one only had an eating knife at his belt.

“Hey,” Xena said in greeting as the bard walked in slowly.

Gabrielle walked behind Xena and placed a hand on her mate’s shoulder. “Hi,” she responded and nodded to the two men. “What’s up?”

“Our company here is Asher and Eli from Palestine, they’ve come to ask our help with something,” Xena answered easily, resisting the urge to wrap her arm around Gabrielle’s waist.

The bard sensed Xena’s stiffness and moved to the empty chair and sat down, keeping her eyes on the men.

“She’s too small to be of use against a god!” the shorter of the two men protested.

Gabrielle grinned as Xena frowned.

“You’d be surprised,” the bard responded.

“This is Gabrielle and she is experienced in fighting,” Xena responded.

“What’s this about a god? Ares is still out of our lives, isn’t he?” Gabrielle asked her mate with a frown.

“Yes, I think one of the Olympians or Hercules would have warned us if Ares managed to start roaming the country again.”

Gabrielle’s face reflected her puzzlement when the shorter of the two men began muttering under his breath, his face an angry red.

“What?” she demanded and the taller one began blushing out of embarrassment.

“I’m Eli, this is Asher,” he began explaining. “He’s not accustomed to people who have had personal dealings with gods.”

“I wish I hadn’t either, at times,” Gabrielle grinned, trying to get the young man to relax but that just seemed to make him even angrier.

“Never mind him right now,” Xena growled and Eli put a restraining hand on his brother’s arm to keep Asher quiet. “Tell Gabrielle what brings you to us.”

“A scholar friend of mine, Caleb, lives in a town between here and Palestine. He sent a messenger to me that the local God of War, Kal, is trying to get his hands on the Chakram of Light,” Eli said.

“Chakram of Light?” Gabrielle questioned, looking at Xena.

The warrior shrugged. “Chakrams are common in the east, like in India. What isn’t common is that they return to you and can cut through any metal, like mine did.”

“Did? You don’t have the chakram any longer?” Eli asked, his voice suddenly intense.

“No,” Xena answered simply.

“Where is it? How can we get it back?” the young man suddenly demanded.

“We can’t, it’s lost forever,” the warrior replied. “Why? What is the Chakram of Light and how is it different than a regular chakram?”

“Your chakram was the Chakram of Darkness, only someone totally immersed in the darker side of human nature; war, violence, power, could touch it.”

Both Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other. “Ares,” they both muttered.

Eli looked puzzled.

“Ares gave me the chakram when I became his Chosen Warlord,” Xena stated.

“That explains it, he stole it from Kal, the God of War, and gave it to you,” Eli said thoughtfully.

“It also explains how a human could touch it, a female is inherently evil,” Asher responded and Eli hit him on the arm.

Both Gabrielle and Xena felt growls rising in their throats.

“That attitude doesn’t help us, Asher,” Eli scolded.

“Why can’t Kal just take the chakram,” Gabrielle asked.

“No one who has been touched by violence or the baser nature of things can touch it, only a saint could retrieve it,” Eli answered.

“Why would Kal want it then?” Xena asked.

“Once it’s off the altar, then anyone can touch it and use it. The Chakram of Light has the power to kill gods, the deities themselves.”

“Whoa!” Gabrielle found herself muttering and Eli nodded.

“They should all be destroyed anyway!” Asher muttered.

“Have they done something personal to you or are you just naturally ill-tempered?” Gabrielle finally demanded.

Asher began blushing a bright red and glared at the bard.

“There is only one true God in the universe and the existence of these lesser gods is an affront to Him!”

“Which god is that?” Gabrielle asked with a puzzled look.

“Yahweh, the God of Abraham, the god of my people,” Asher responded.

“We’ve dealt with the Children of Abraham before,” Gabrielle commented, “They weren’t this intolerant.”

Eli quickly placed his hand back on his brother’s arm and glared at him. Asher gritted his teeth.

“My brother is a Zealot, he believes there is only one true religion and one true god for the world,” Eli quickly explained.

“And you, Eli?” Xena asked softly and wasn’t surprised when the young man blushed himself and refused to meet the eyes of either Xena or Asher.

“I’ve seen many things in my travels and I’ve meet some good people. I believe that the God of my people is my true god but I’m not sure he’s the god for everyone,” the young scholar admitted.

Asher surprised Gabrielle and Eli by jumping to his feet but Xena seemed ready for it as she also jumped to her feet and reached over the table to grab the young man by his robe and arm. She pulled the young zealot off balance and onto the table, face down, his body pinning his arm beneath him as he reached for his sword. The warrior hit two pressure points at the back of his neck and Asher yelled with the sudden realization that he couldn’t move.

“Shut up!” Xena ordered and glanced over at Eli and Gabrielle, on their feet a second later than the brother or the warrior. “You are a guest in my home and you are not allowed to kill or hurt your brother or anyone else in here.”

“Please don’t hurt him!” Eli begged.

“He says blasphemy!” Asher shouted. “Thou shalt have no other God before me for I am the Lord thy God and I am a jealous God,” the young man quoted.

“Asher, calm down! God is still my God! I haven’t turned from him!” Eli protested.

“If you accept that there are any other gods then you do! Just accepting other gods is blasphemy!” Asher growled.

“Asher, other gods exist and they exist for other people,” Eli grumbled. “Who do you think we’re going up against?”

“They work for Shaitan, the enemy of God!”

“Eli, send him home, he’s just going to get in the way and possibly mess up whatever you’re trying to do,” Xena advised.

“He can’t go home, as a runaway slave he’s being hunted,” Eli sighed heavily, sitting back down.

“Slave?” Gabrielle questioned, her own face going pale. She quickly looked and found the slave collar and manacles on the young man laying on her table.

“He’s an escaped slave,” Xena stated and watched as Gabrielle touched her own neck, the bard remembering her own collar.

“He’ll be killed if he’s captured,” Eli stated.

“He can go to Palestine and hide in the caves like the rest of the Zealots, criminals and rebels,” Xena muttered.

“He’d never make it back,” Eli countered. “You’ve heard him, he can’t keep his mouth shut for ten minutes.”

“How did he end up a slave anyway, given his attitude?” Xena asked.

“The heavy taxation by King Herod left my family with nothing and my two younger brothers were sold into slavery to pay the taxes. Asher escaped from the Roman family he had been sold to when he saw me in the market in Desyme.”

Xena released the pinch holds and Asher fell back into his chair, rubbing his neck.

“All right,” she warned. “You behave until your brother finishes telling us why you’re both here.”

Asher muttered under his breath but nodded in agreement.

“So Kal, a minor God of War, wants to get his hands on this Chakram and kill Zeus and any other god that gets in his way in become the Supreme ruler of Olympia. You want to stop him somehow and you need Xena’s chakram to do it?” Gabrielle stated and grinned when both Eli and Xena stared at her, amazed looks on their faces. “The pieces fit,” she responded to their unspoken question. Xena turned to Eli.

“She’s got it,” he grinned.

“How does my chakram fit into this?” Xena asked.

“By combining both chakrams together causes the power to destroy the gods to be neutralized and Kal won’t care about it then,” the scholar responded.

“But we can’t get to it,” Gabrielle complained.

“Why not?” he asked.

“It’s trapped in a cave with Ares and we don’t know where. Hopefully, for all eternity,” Xena answered.

“Then the rumors of Ares disappearing are true,” Eli muttered.

“Yes, my chakram was broken and embedded in the cave walls during the fight,” Xena answered. “Useless to anyone.”

“And you don’t know where the cave is?” Eli questioned.

“No, I don’t,” Xena growled.

“Then we have to find another way to neutralize the chakram,” Eli muttered, his eyes thoughtful and unfocused.

“Why not leave it where it is?” Gabrielle asked. “It doesn’t sound like Kal or anybody else can get it.”

“Kal will eventually find someone who can get it for him and then he’ll terrorize the world,” Eli said simply.

“Who hasn’t been touched by violence or the baser parts of human natures?” Gabrielle asked thoughtfully.

“Maybe a child or someone simple minded,” Xena suggested and Eli began to turn pale.

“Oh God, I pray that Kal hasn’t thought of either of those!”

“Amen,” Asher responded.

“So your plans are?” Xena questioned Eli.

“Get the chakram before Kal does, neutralize it and possibly destroy it.”

“Sounds simple, as usual. That means it’s going to be complicated,” Gabrielle complained and then smiled at her mate. “What is it with you and war gods?”

Xena blushed and growled.

Asher, watching the two women interact, almost turned purple but decided to look at his feet.

Gabrielle found Asher staring into the fire of the small house in the middle of the night. She smiled when he noticed her and started to get to his feet, blushing.

“No, don’t get up, Asher,” she said simply and sat down in a chair across from him, wrapping her blanket around her.

“I couldn’t sleep,” he muttered and went back to staring at the flames.

“I understand that, neither could I,” the bard responded easily.

“What is keeping you awake?” he asked.

“Something that was said earlier,” Gabrielle answered, also watching the fire.

“About taking on the gods? Most people would be scared,” Asher commented.

“No, I’ve dealt with gods and goddesses before, both good and bad. It was about you being a slave.”

The young Hebrew blushed bright red in the firelight and unconsciously pulled at the manacle on his left wrist.

“You’re worried about the Romans finding out you harbored a runaway slave?” he asked, his eyes bright with anger.

“No, not at all,” the bard answered. “My memories were just keeping me awake.”

“You were a slave?”

“Yes, to a Roman,” Gabrielle stated, letting Asher lead the conversation. The bard knew that the young Zealot wasn’t happy being in a home owned by two women, in a heathen country, or especially asking for help from heathens and wanted him to get more comfortable around her and Xena.

“Did Xena buy you from the Roman?”

“No, I was sold illegally into slavery. I was gone from my family and Xena for almost two years.”

“You couldn’t appeal for justice?” Asher was frowning.

“No, Caesar was hoping to find me and use me against Xena. He knew that she cherished our friendship and would risk her life to save me. I couldn’t let anyone know who I was,” Gabrielle explained.

“Were you mistreated?”

Gabrielle felt her jaw muscles tightening and looked over and found the young man watching her. “Yes,” she finally responded. “I was abused from the first moment that renegade Roman soldiers captured me and the abuse didn’t stop until I won my freedom.”

“I was whipped for not obeying my master or his harlot or his wife,” Asher said simply and returned his eyes to the fire.

“I was flogged for not responding fast enough or refusing to go to the bed of the school owner,” Gabrielle said softly, letting the young man absorb the common ground they shared.

“School? What kind of school?” Asher looked up, obviously curious.

“Gladiator, I was taught to fight and I was taught to kill,” Gabrielle answered.

“I wish someone had taught me, I’m not the best with a sword,” Asher complained.

“Why take it up at all?”

“To fight for the Lord, to rid my land of the Romans and make the Earth ready for the Kingdom of God,” he answered sincerely.

“Kingdom of God? I’m afraid I don’t know that ideal.”

“When the god Yahweh returns to the Earth,” Asher began with a smile. “When the Jews return to their moral ways and honor Yahweh, He will return to Earth and return our land to paradise. All the nations of the world will bow before him and we shall be raised back to our rightful place as his Chosen children.”

“How is fighting with a sword going to help bring your god back to Earth and his people back to him?”

“The reason our land is desolate and we are under the yoke of slavery to the Romans is that the Children of Abraham fell out of favor with the one true god by accepting the ways and customs of the heathens around us. Once we clear the heathens out and those that accept Roman rule and Roman gods, then Yahweh will turn His favor to us again,” Asher answered intensely.

“And to do that you need a sword?”

“I know you’ve fought Romans, it’s the only way to sweep them out of my land,” Asher frowned.

“Very likely it’s suicide, I moved my Amazon tribe out of the Empire and they were still slaughtered by Romans,” Gabrielle shook her head with the painful memories.

“You’re an Amazon? One of those women who turn from the rightful rule of men?!” Asher demanded.

“Asher, I have a feeling we’re about to head down the way to a long argument that neither of us could win and will only make things worse. Drop it, okay?” Gabrielle urged. “I know most of your fellow Zealots and rebels end up dead, is that what you want for yourself and Eli?”

“I’m not afraid to die, I will sit at the right hand of Yahweh a hero!”

Gabrielle, feeling her years of experience compared to the young man in front of her, sighed heavily and lowered her eyes.

“You’ll still be dead, your parents will be without their sons and the Romans won’t even remember you after a few days.”

Gabrielle noted the Zealot’s clenched jaw and flashing eyes and held up her arms out from under the blanket. She didn’t wear her normal bracers or bracelets to bed and Asher could see the massive scarring on the inside of the young woman’s wrists in front of him and then he turned pale when she turned her arms and showed the scars on the other side.

“I was crucified by the Romans,” she explained. “My tribe is still dead, my family was told that I had died a criminal on a cross and my best friend watched me almost die.”

“You regret trying to save your people?”

“No, not for a minute and I would do it again but I’d also try and find another way other than violence,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I’m not afraid to die,” Asher insisted.

“You would be if it’s crucifixion,” Gabrielle muttered. “Violence isn’t always the answer, Asher.”

“That’s what Eli always says,” Asher muttered. “It’s the only thing that the Romans understand.”

“Then maybe someone should teach them something new?” Gabrielle suggested with a smile.

“You’re a warrior and preaching the Way of Love like my brother?”

“The Way of Love?” the bard questioned.

“It’s what my brother believes,” Asher said with a frustrated smile. “He believes that violence is never the answer, no matter what. My brother Eli would let someone run him through with a sword before lifting a hand to defend himself!”

“He’s stronger than I am, then,” Gabrielle muttered.

“He won’t defend himself at all,” Asher complained.

“Maybe it takes more strength not to pick up a sword than to use one sometimes, you might think about that and give him a break,” Gabrielle suggested.

“You became a warrior,” Asher countered.

“Because I had more to live for than to die for, I guess,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “Your brother has a principle, a way of life that he’s willing to die for, just like you do.”

The young Hebrew looked thoughtful and Gabrielle stood up with the blanket wrapped around her.

“I never wanted to be a warrior, Asher,” Gabrielle said softly. “I did it to save my life. Don’t try and force your brother into something he’s not, you could destroy more than his physical life.”

Gabrielle smiled and walked outside of the home and sat down on the bench outside, leaving the young man to his thoughts.

The bard didn’t look surprised when a figure stepped out of the shadows around the corner of the house and sat down next to her.

“I overheard your conversation,” Eli began.

“I heard you in the hall,” Gabrielle responded.

“Thank you for talking to him,” Eli said simply.

“Not a problem,” Gabrielle grinned at the taller man and he smiled back.

“You have the most gentle energy,” he commented and then began blushing as Gabrielle raised her eyebrows in question. “No, that’s not a statement to flatter you. It’s what I sense about you.”

“You haven’t seen me in a fight,” Gabrielle smiled a sad smile.

“I have a feeling you only do what is necessary. The Way of Love isn’t for everyone. It’s very difficult and not meant for everyone. I fail a lot, myself,” he grinned.

“Really?” Gabrielle grinned.

“Yes, I’m not sure I’m strong enough most of the time. Asher is part of a large movement in Palestine, they desire to overthrow the Romans and the corrupt rich and royal Jews.”

“What do you want, Eli?” the bard asked.

“Me? I don’t know. I haven’t found what God has called me to do yet.”

“Who is Caleb?”

“Part of the Order that I’ve studied with, learning the Way of Love as well as the other Ways. He is the most scholarly among us and most serious, if he called for help then the trouble is real,” Eli explained.

“We’d better get some rest, we’ll get everything together for the journey tomorrow. Xena will take Asher to her work and get those manacles and that collar off of him.”

“Thank you for everything and I’m sorry.”

“For what?” the bard asked with a puzzled face.

“For whatever my brother says in the future,” Eli grinned and Gabrielle found herself joining in his smile.

“You will have to keep him quiet whenever we’re around Romans or nobility,” Gabrielle agreed.

“You mean around most anyone!”

Gabrielle laughed and Eli joined her but they both knew the words were true. It was going to be difficult to keep Asher’s rebellious nature in check.

“I hate ships,” Gabrielle muttered as the group stood on the dock of Eion.

Sasha looked up at her Gabby Mum and smiled and the bard couldn’t help but smile back.

It had been a hectic day, getting the basic travel stuff together and then Solan, Reija, Sasha and the new baby had come home and Sasha had insisted on going with them.

That had led to a huge argument with Asher firmly on one side and Gabrielle on the other. Both Eli and Xena tried to stay out of it, mostly. Asher had been against taking a small female child into possible danger and Gabrielle knew he was right, if Sasha had been any other child but the child had whispered to Xena and Gabrielle that Sasha just “knew” she had to go with them. It was one of those feeling things she got.

Gabrielle and Xena had the difficult task of convincing the young men that Sasha could come along without revealing that she had special gifts, gifts she had received by being the child of Ares and Xena. Ares, the God of War and Xena the daughter of Zeus, Hecate and Cyrene.

Knowing Asher’s hatred of any god but his, both the bard and warrior wanted to keep Sasha’s birthright quiet. That made convincing him that the small child could come along with them to fight a God of War extremely difficult.

The argument had finally ended when Eli had squatted down and looked Sasha deeply in the eyes. Neither man nor child spoke but everyone could sense something passing between them. At last Eli had stood up and turned to his brother and announced that Sasha was going with them and if Asher didn’t agree then he could stay behind and dodge Romans as a runaway slave.

Asher had turned bright red and stormed out of the house but didn’t say anything when they left for the coastal town with Sasha riding behind Gabrielle.

“I thought you were from Poteidia,” Eli commented as he stood beside the bard while Asher sat on a pylon sulking and Xena haggled their fare across the Mediterranean to Judea.

“I am,” the bard responded with a smile.

“Isn’t it a coastal town?” the scholar questioned.

“Yes, that doesn’t mean that I ever went out on the boats,” she said grimly.

“Ah, seasickness?” he smiled gently.

“Major,” Gabrielle muttered, her face already going pale at the thought of getting on a ship.

“My stomach doesn’t like it but I don’t get too sick,” he commented.

“I do,” she grimaced again and then turned to Eli with a thoughtful look. “Why did you agree to Sasha coming?” she asked as Sasha broke away from them and ran to her Xena mom, who was coming down a gangplank from the ship.

“Her eyes told me that she’s going to be needed during our journey. Like most students of the Ways, I have a little bit of a gift and sometimes just know things. So does Sasha, I could see it in her and knew that she has received a little bit more knowledge than we have.”

“But she doesn’t know what she knows, she says it’s just a feeling.”

“You trust that feeling though,” he stated.

“Yes, she’s been right before and she’s special.”

“She’s part god, isn’t she?”

Gabrielle felt her body tense.

“No offense,” he quickly stammered, seeing the bard’s eyes narrow and the body shift slightly. “I sense divinity around her, that’s all. I don’t mean to pry.”

“Are you an oracle?” Gabrielle frowned; trying to figure out the two men she was traveling with. One a religious zealot and the other a scholar and possible mystic?

“No, I have some healing gifts and some insight. A lot of us do, especially those who believe in the Kingdom of God. It’s something that God touches us with to help us do his work,” the young man answered.

“Like being the Chosen of Ares will make you a better fighter and more likely to have victory in battle,” Gabrielle said.

“Yes, God gifts some of his children with ability to do miracles and predict the future and sometimes with a touch of madness, I think.”

“Xena’s calling us to the ship.” Gabrielle said as Xena waved to them. “Oh Gods, grant a smooth sailing,” the bard muttered under her breath as they began walking towards the gangplank.

“Amen,” Eli muttered next to her.

Xena walked up behind Gabrielle on the deck of the small ship later that evening as the bard hung over the railing. The warrior waited with a pained expression of sympathy until Gabrielle could stand upright again and placed an arm around her mate’s shoulders.

“I’m sorry, little one, it’s the quickest and safest way to Syria,” Xena said softly.

“I know, I know, just put me out my misery, okay?”

Xena smiled down at her mate and knew the bard’s frustration. There was nothing anyone could do. Eating small bits of ashes helped settle the stomach and Xena could always use some pressure points, only then Gabrielle would be faced with losing all sense of taste and would always be hungry. Once the pressure points were released she was usually sick with whatever she had eaten on board the ship.

Gabrielle had decided to suffer with the sickness.

“You know where we’re going they frown on our type of relationship,” Xena began cautiously.

“I know, it’s punishable by death in most of the countries on that side of the sea,” Gabrielle nodded. “And with Asher’s hot temper you think it’s a good idea if we not share the same bedroll on this trip.”

Xena sighed with relief; she hadn’t quite known how to approach her mate with this suggestion. Normally the warrior didn’t care what anyone thought but she didn’t want to have the added hassle when they weren’t really sure what they were walking into.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she agreed.

“Probably for the best,” Gabrielle agreed and sighed herself. “Won’t be easy, you know,” she continued with a gleam in her eyes and was pleased when Xena’s eyebrows went up in playful questioning.

“Really?” the warrior whispered, pulling the bard into her arms.

“Nope,” Gabrielle whispered back, “You’re irresistible,” the bard said as she leaned up for a kiss and then surprised her mate by backing out of Xena’s arms with a grin. “I guess we shouldn’t be doing that, someone might see us.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena growled and Gabrielle smiled her impish grin before her face changed when another high wave rocked the ship and hung onto and over the railing as the battle with her stomach interrupted the couple’s playfulness.

Xena grimaced, as Gabrielle was sick once again.

Once on solid land the bard was back to her friendly self and Asher found himself loosening up in spite of himself as they rode along the dry land of the Syrian coast.

“Your people think that your god has turned away from you because your people stopped following his laws?” the bard questioned as they rode behind Xena and Eli.

“Yes, the Torah says: If you follow My laws and are careful to keep My commandments, I will provide rain at the right time, so that the land will bear its crops and the trees of the field will provide fruit,” he quoted. “Then Yahweh also promises that we will have so much that the threshing season of wheat will last until time to harvest the grapes and we will have our fill of food.”

“What else?” Gabrielle questioned.

“That we will sleep without fear, that Yahweh will chase away all our enemies. He says that five of us will be able to chase away a 100 and a 100 of us will be able to defeat ten thousand.”

“Wow,” the bard commented, processing the information, “What happened to change that?”

“The people turned away and began breaking the covenant with God and He turned from us. The Torah says: Thus, I will be a God to you and you will be a nation dedicated to Me. If you come to denigrate My decrees, and grow tired of My laws, you will have broken My covenant. I will then do the same to you. It’s said that God will direct His anger against us and we will be defeated by our foes and that God will send the plague against us and give us to our enemies. The land will became barren and we will be scattered among the nations and remain desolate and our cities in ruin with every sword turned against us.”

The bard frowned in thought. “So if you rid your land of the Romans and those Hebrews that break your covenant with your God what will happen?”

“Then He will turn His favor once more to us and restore our land and make the nations of the world bow down to us under Him,” Asher smiled, his eyes shining brightly.

“And the Zealots are willing to use force to achieve this?” Gabrielle could see Xena and Eli listening in on the conversation as well.

“Yes, we are soldiers for God and have His blessing and protection. King Herod spends riches on buildings and we pay for it in taxes that leaves us with nothing. He prefers the Roman life to that of a good Jew,” Asher answered simply.

“How can you fight against the Romans?”

“We take our example from the great David and the Maccabees, we hide in the caves of the mountains and strike on Roman army units and harass and destroy the property of rich Jews and heathens. We encourage the people not to pay their taxes to Rome and Herod.”

“So why are you traveling with Eli to neutralize the Chakram of Light?” the bard questioned.

“I saw Eli and just escaped, he was already looking for you and Xena, and I’m along for the ride. After he settles the chakram thing then we’ll return to Palestine and I’ll join the other Zealots hiding out from the Romans and corrupt officials,” Asher answered.

“Mum?” Sasha’s voice interrupted the question the bard was about to ask the young religious fanatic. Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder to the child holding on behind her.

“Yes, Sasha?”

“Trouble,” the youngster said simply.

“Xena!” Gabrielle called just as Xena reigned in her horse and was motioning for Eli to stop.

Fifteen riders appeared at the top of a grassy ridge ahead of the travelers. Both groups took in each other. Xena and the others dressed much alike in flowing shirts and billowing trousers, the second group was dressed in armor and carried the curved swords that were popular among the desert people. The armor reminded Xena of the Persians.

The lead soldier drew his sword and sounded out a desert war cry and pushed his horse forward in a charge down the hill with the rest of the soldiers following behind.

“Let me guess,” Xena growled, “Soldier priests of Kal?”

“Good guess,” Eli agreed.

“Let’s ride, where to?” Xena hated being in unfamiliar territory, especially a foreign land. Canyons could lead to dead-ends, locals could be hostile, and the terrain could turn against you in a moment.

Eli turned his horse to the right and began riding as fast as his horse could be encouraged to run. The small band of travelers right behind him with Xena holding back to take up the rear.

“At least they don’t have archers!” Gabrielle shouted to Asher.

“Thank God! Eli, hurry!”

“Gabrielle, make sure everyone is safe!” Xena called.

“What are you doing?” her mate demanded.

“I’m going to delay them, leave trail signs if you can!”

“I’m not leaving you!” Gabrielle protested as they rode.

“Keep Sasha safe!” Xena insisted and the bard growled but nodded her head in agreement.

Xena pulled her horse up to a stop and growled when Asher rode up beside her.

“What are you doing?” she demanded.

“I’m a soldier, unlike my brother,” he responded, drawing his sword.

“Alright, just do exactly as I say,” the warrior growled. Seeing the flash of anger in his eyes, Xena hesitated. “I mean it, Asher. I’m a lot more experienced at fighting than you are.”

“Alright, I agree.”

“Then when I say, ride as fast as you can in the middle of them with your sword and keep low. Make only one pass and then wait for my next move!” Xena ordered.

Xena drew her sword and waited for a moment and then shouted her war cry and spurred her horse into action with Asher a moment behind.

“Eli, where are we going?” Gabrielle shouted as she rode beside him with Sasha clinging to her Gabby Mum.

“It’s a longer way to Caleb’s house,” he responded.

Gabrielle hated leaving Xena behind and swore under her breath, cursing any and all War Gods. “Hang on, Sasha!”

Xena turned her horse and Asher moved his horse around to be next to hers as they faced the soldier priests, who were also turning their horses. Xena had managed to take two priests out with her sword and one with her dagger and Asher had also killed two priest soldiers.

“They’re tougher and more skilled than most priests,” Xena muttered. “When I give the word we go back through. I really hate this but take out the horses.”

“What?” Asher asked with a frown.

“They can’t follow if they don’t have horses, as much as I hate to hurt the horses,” Xena explained.

“I don’t care about the horses, why not kill the men if we have the chance?”

“We’ve a better chance with the horses, just do it! We don’t have time to argue!”

Xena spurred her horse into action as the soldier priests drew closer, trying to shut off her mind to what she was about to do. Asher, grumbling, was right behind her.

The warrior steeled herself and headed straight for the riders coming at them. She tried to close her ears and mind to the screams of horses and the yells of their riders as they fell. Xena ducked several swords and broke through the group and had started to break for the trail Gabrielle, Eli and Sasha had taken when she realized that Asher wasn’t with her. Xena stopped her horse with a curse and turned to see Asher fighting two priests on the edge of the group. The rest of the group was beginning to divide between following her and heading towards Asher.

Xena swore a general curse and threw her dagger and moved her horse back towards the warrior priests. The dagger buried deep in the eye of one soldier about to stab Asher and Xena reached down and grabbed the war axe she used as backup to her sword since losing her original chakram and sent it flying. It cut the throat of the other priest the young Jew was fighting.

Xena forced her horse through the center of the soldier priests again, flaying with her sword in all directions and caught the shaft of the war axe and yanked it out of the throat of the priest with her left hand in time to strike out with it and cut the throat of another priest.

“Move!” she yelled at Asher and then swore again as his horse went down. Xena flipped off her horse and landed next to the young religious warrior, parrying a sword strike from one of the priests. She grabbed the dying soldier and yanked him off his horse and grabbed the reins of his horse.

Xena reached down and pulled Asher to his feet and handed him the reins. “Go!” she shouted and turned to take on four soldier priests on horseback crowding close to her. Throwing the war axe and following through with a series of sword strikes, Xena cleared a little space and Asher was able to mount the horse.

Xena slashed at the horses nearest her and then grabbed another priest off his horse and mounted it in his place. With a shout the warrior followed a fleeing Asher, continuing to slash at the horses in her way.

“Sasha, is your Mom okay?” Gabrielle called to the child behind her.

“Yes, for now but she’s angry at Asher,” the young voice reached the bard.

“Figures,” the bard muttered, following behind Eli through a forest.

“What?” Eli asked over his shoulder, slowing his horse down in the forest terrain.

“Sasha says that Xena and Asher are alright but Xena’s upset with your brother,” Gabrielle grinned as she slowed her horse as well.

“Why am I not surprised?” Eli’s blue eyes danced in amusement. He glanced around the forest.

“Caleb’s place is about two miles from here, the trail branches off in three different directions. Can you mark the trail for Xena to follow but hide it from the soldiers of Kal?” the scholar asked.

“Yes, she knows to look for Amazon signs,” Gabrielle answered.

“That’s right, I heard you tell Asher that you are an Amazon. Good thing you cut that conversation off!” Eli grinned as they moved along the path. “He has a particular dislike for women warriors, especially the Amazons and gladiators.”

“Terrific, I fit that on all accounts,” the bard complained.

“I know but he does realize that you didn’t become a gladiator of your choice. Xena told me a little bit about that on the ship.”

“You mean while I was heaving up my guts?”

“Yeah, something like that,” Eli smiled.

They continued on until they reached the end of the forest and faced three different paths. Eli pointed to the left path and Gabrielle nodded and dismounted, leaving Sasha on the horse.

The Amazon Queen moved to the woods next to the left trail and broke several branches and turned and found Eli watching her with a puzzled look. The bard grinned and walked back to the horses.

“Xena will know the pattern. Now, let’s move down the middle trail for a bit and then backtrack,” she suggested.

“Mum!” Sasha screamed and Gabrielle instinctively ducked.

Both warrior bard and scholar mystic were surprised by the energy bolt that cut down a tree just behind the bard. Eli dived off his horse while Gabrielle grabbed Sasha as the child leaped from the horse she shared with the bard.

The three began to run for the trees as energy bolts exploded around them.

They had almost reached the trees when Gabrielle was thrown forward into a tree by a blast hitting her square in the back.

Xena and Asher moved as fast as their horses would carry them, the warrior cursing the blood covering her hands and legs from the horses and men she had slain, especially the horses.

“Why didn’t you listen? You could have been killed!” she yelled at the young Zealot.

“I don’t take orders from a female!” he snapped.

“Then your mother must have had her hands full in raising you!” the warrior growled back and wanted to backhand the Zealot as he glared at her.

“I was doing fine!” he yelled.

“Right! One against ten on horseback, I don’t think so.”

“They don’t seem to be following, why?” Asher asked, glancing backwards.

Xena checked as well and frowned. “I don’t know, those with horses should be all over us. Unless…”

“What?”

“Sasha!” Xena spurred her horse to an even faster speed. “They were a diversion, meant to split us up!” she yelled as Asher struggled to catch up.

“Eli?”

“Kal is after Sasha, Gabrielle or Eli,” the warrior growled.

Xena was off her horse before it had completely stopped when they reached the crossroads and she saw Gabrielle sitting by a tree, her head between her knees and Eli kneeling next to the bard, dabbing at Gabrielle’s back with a cloth.

Gabrielle looked up at the sound of the horses and dropped her head again.

“Where’s Sasha?” Xena demanded as Asher finally stopped his horse behind hers and dismounted.

“He took her,” Eli said simply, his eyes filling with tears.

“Who?”

“He didn’t introduce himself but I’m guessing it was Kal,” Gabrielle muttered.

Xena squatted in front of Gabrielle and gently raised the bard’s head up and frowned at the sight of the blood trickling from her mate’s mouth, cut cheek and hollow eyes. The warrior then raised up and took in the sight of the bard’s burned back. Something had burned a hand’s width wound in Gabrielle’s back.

“Where is she, Gabrielle?” Xena asked softly, her blue eyes intense.

“I don’t know. Fire bolts came out of nowhere and we were running for the trees. Next thing I know someone has me by the neck and holding me off the ground,” Gabrielle stated. “I kicked and fought back and got thrown into a tree.”

“Before she could get up he backhanded her and then kicked her. He drew his sword and was aimed at her neck,” Eli said. “Sasha and I stopped running and Sasha agreed to go with him if he spared Gabrielle. Sasha walked over to him and they disappeared and Gabrielle passed out.”

“You didn’t try to protect her?” Xena frowned.

“I’m not a fighter, Xena, I cannot raise my hand in violence,” the young man answered.

“I can understand sacrificing your own life for a principle but you didn’t fight for a child?” the warrior demanded.

“I understand your anger and I will do anything I can to get Sasha back except fight or do violence,” Eli said simply as he lowered Gabrielle’s tunic down. The bard hissed with pain and gritted her teeth.

Xena frowned but stood up and helped Gabrielle to her feet.

“Can you ride?” the warrior asked briskly.

“Yes,” the bard answered and then frowned as Xena turned and started towards the horses.

“Xena?” Gabrielle called softly but the warrior kept walking. The bard’s eyebrows furrowed in puzzlement, she knew Xena had heard her.

“You can ride behind me and Eli behind Asher,” Xena stated, quickly mounting the horse she had taken from the priest of Kal.

“Xena? What is it?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Let’s move,” Xena ordered.

“Where?” Eli asked, coming up behind Gabrielle.

“Wherever the chakram is, that’s where Kal will be with Sasha,” Xena answered.

“He’s going to use Sasha to get the chakram?” Asher questioned.

“She’s a child and he’s counting on her being innocent enough to get it,” Gabrielle responded.

“Xena?” Eli questioned.

“Sasha has seen a lot, including her older brother being blinded by Roman soldiers, I don’t know if she’s innocent enough for whatever demented god made those damned things!” Xena snapped.

“I think we should go to Caleb’s first, we need to know how to neutralize the chakram first,” Eli suggested.

“If Sasha can get the chakram then he won’t need her anymore and he’ll probably kill her,” Xena growled and reached out an arm to help Gabrielle onto the horse and then frowned even deeper when Gabrielle didn’t respond right away.

“What is it?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Can we talk about this later?” Xena snapped.

“You’re blaming me?” the bard demanded.

“How could you turn your back once the fire bolts started? We can hurt Greek gods; odds are that we can hurt this one too. You could have had a chance to fight him if you hadn’t been taken from behind,” Xena said in a low voice.

“I was trying to get Sasha and Eli to cover,” Gabrielle whispered, surprised at the anger in her mate’s eyes.

“Bad call,” Xena muttered.

“What about you, warrior?” Asher demanded and Xena turned to glare at him as Eli mounted behind his brother.

“What do you mean?” Xena snapped.

“You didn’t figure out the soldiers were a diversion until we got away from them,” he snapped in return.

“I expected Gabrielle to be able to protect Sasha!” Xena snapped back.

“This isn’t helping us!” Eli yelled. “If anyone’s to blame, it’s Kal!”

“Eli’s right,” Gabrielle growled, her green eyes flashing at Xena and her jaw taking on that stubborn set that the warrior knew very well. “Let’s finish this and we’ll talk about this later!”

The bard reached up and accepted her mate’s arm and help in mounting the horse behind Xena and placed her arms around the warrior but Xena could feel the anger radiating from her mate.

“Gabrielle?” she said softly.

“No,” Gabrielle snapped. “Just ride, the left trail.”

“I’m just worried about Sasha,” Xena began but Gabrielle cut her off.

“You don’t think I am? You don’t think I’d die for her?” the bard snapped.

Xena felt her own jaw tighten as she yelled and kicked the horse into action.

They found the decapitated body of Caleb in the middle of the living area of his simple stone house. The mystic and scholar hadn’t been dead long.

Eli knelt beside the body and head of his friend in a state of disbelief.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and fought back angry tears and Asher stormed outside, the others presumed to break something.

“Eli, I’m sorry about your friend,” Xena said softly, feeling some of her anger melting away in the face of another death.

“Why would Kal kill him?” Eli muttered. “Caleb was the most simple living of our group, he rarely would even eat meat. He was so gentle and no threat to anyone.”

“Either as a warning to us or Caleb wouldn’t give Kal something he wanted,” Xena ventured.

Gabrielle walked over to the simple single bed and removed the wool blanket and gently covered the body and head while Eli stood up.

“Then something here can help us,” he stated and began looking about the small living space. Both Xena and Gabrielle also looked around and frowned.

“Eli, there are scrolls and books everywhere,” Gabrielle protested. “How do we know what we’re looking for?”

“You probably won’t and you probably don’t read Hebrew,” he smiled a slight smile.

“Oh, why can’t everyone stick to Latin?” the bard complained.

The scholar shrugged. “You get Xena to take a look at that burn and cuts, there’s salve on the shelves near the water basin. I’ll look quickly through the scrolls and books.”

“Alright,” Xena agreed and waited to see if Gabrielle would. The bard’s green eyes flashed for a moment and then she sighed and nodded.

The warrior crossed the room and rummaged through the bottles and jars until she recognized some of the salves and herbs. She turned to her mate and found Gabrielle sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to Eli, without her shirt on.

Xena sat down beside the bard and began to slowly apply some of the salve as Gabrielle gritted her teeth.

“Gabrielle,” Xena said softly.

“Not right now, okay?” the bard responded. “I hurt everywhere, I feel guilty about Sasha being taken, I’m worried sick and I’m upset with you.”

Before either of them could speak they both looked up at Asher walking in the door. Gabrielle nonchalantly pulled her tunic up to cover her breast while Xena continued to dress her wounded back. The young Zealot suddenly had trouble swallowing and blushed furiously. He quickly blinked and then frowned as his eyes took in the sight of the lash scars and the long scars from the bear claw, not knowing that the claw marks were from Gabrielle’s Amazon ritual initiation into the Northern Amazons. He moved over to the blanket and pulled it aside.

Eli glanced up and bit back tears as Asher moved the body of his friend onto the blanket, followed by the head of the older scholar.

“I’ll build a stone grave,” Asher said simply as Eli walked over and handed the young man a needle and some thread. The Zealot began sewing the blanket closed over Caleb.

“Thank you, Asher,” Eli said softly and returned to the scrolls.

“Are your ribs injured?” Xena asked the bard.

“No, just bruised,” Gabrielle answered as she slowly pulled the tunic back on with a grimace.

“Turn around and let me see those cuts on your face and arms,” Xena instructed her mate softly.

“I can do those.”

“Please,” the warrior asked softly and she felt Gabrielle’s muscles relax a little and the bard turned, her green eyes still flashing though.

The warrior thought her bedroll would be empty that night if she and Gabrielle weren’t sleeping separately already.

After nearly thirteen seasons together the couple had seen a fair share of disagreements and arguments but nothing that wasn’t usually settled by the end of the day. Xena wasn’t sure Gabrielle would be willing to let this go by evening and she knew the bard was right.

It just wasn’t easy for Xena to admit she was wrong, especially outloud.

The evening found Eli still pouring over the scrolls and books and rubbing his tired eyes in the lamplight, Asher washing up from the hard work of building a stone cairn grave for Caleb, Xena sharpening her sword and Gabrielle finishing dinner.

Asher, frowning, walked over to where Gabrielle was stirring a pot cooking over the fire.

“What are you cooking?” he asked.

“I know that you can’t eat pig or hare so we’re having a chicken from the stock pens Xena killed earlier. Roasted chicken with vegetables and in the pot is some herbs for my back,” she answered.

“How do you know that we can’t eat pig nor rabbit?” he asked, kneeling down beside her.

“We have Hebrew visitors coming through occasionally at the inn, sometimes they’re even Roman soldiers.”

Asher scowled, “Traitors,” he muttered.

“What else can’t you eat?” she asked, curious.

“Anything that swims without fins and scales, camel, ravens, snails, mice, other stuff.”

“Eels are out then?”

“Yes, they are unclean to us.”

“Seems a harsh religion at times,” she commented.

“Yes, very. The laws can be difficult to follow when outside influences encourage us to turn away from the face of God, that’s why many have turned from the true way,” he agreed.

“Have you ever seen your god?” Gabrielle asked, checking on the chicken and vegetables.

Asher looked stunned. “No, no one has ever seen the face of God, not even the mighty Moses! He appeared to the great leader as a burning bush because no one is worthy to look upon Him.”

“A burning bush?” Gabrielle tried not to look amused.

Asher blushed and reached to help pull the grape leaf wrapped chicken from the coals with the bard.

“That’s what the Torah says,” he muttered.

“I understand that, the legends say that Zeus appeared as a golden ray of sunshine once,” Gabrielle smiled.

“I have it!” Eli shouted, startling everyone else in the room causing Xena to drop her whetstone, Gabrielle to drop a cooked carrot and Asher to almost drop the hot chicken he was putting on a platter.

“Eli!” Xena snapped.

“Sorry,” he shrugged and pointed to a scroll. “I found it, the answer! How to neutralize the Chakram of Light!” he said excitedly.

“Okay, how does it work?” Xena asked, getting to her feet and looking over Eli’s shoulder and then frowned, still unable to read Hebrew.

“Well,” Eli began stammering, “We need to find a stone, a magical stone. If you take the chakram and cut the stone in half with it then the powers of the stone are released and the chakram is neutralized.”

“What is the stone, where is it and what does it do?” Xena demanded.

Gabrielle and Asher, both listening closely, finished putting the food on the table.

“It’s called the Stone of Bacchus….”

Everyone turned at the sound of a goblet crashing to the stone floor and saw Gabrielle suddenly blinking and her breathing quickened.

“Bacchus?” she whispered.

“What’s wrong?” Asher demanded.

“We’ve dealt with Bacchus before, we both almost died and became his,” Xena quickly explained. “What does this stone do?”

“Bacchus and Kal got into a fight decades ago about the worshippers in these parts and Kal won, stealing the stone from Bacchus. It’s rumored that the stone can turn an innocent into a full bacchae or free a bacchae from the curse of Bacchus,” Eli answered.

“How?” Gabrielle demanded while Asher continued filling the goblets with wine.

“If the affected person breaks the stone then Bacchus no longer controls them,” Eli said after reading the scroll further. “To change someone into a bacchae it has to be slipped under their pillow while they’re sleeping and they awaken as a vampire.”

“What does this have to do with us?” Asher demanded, not seeing the looks passing between Xena and Gabrielle.

“So a weird scenario would be a bacchae taking the Chakram of Light, cutting the Bacchus Stone and being cured of being a bacchae and neutralizing the chakram at the same time?” Xena asked, watching Gabrielle’s green eyes flash with yellow tinges.

“Well, that would make an interesting situation,” Eli agreed with a grin. “Since we don’t know any bacchae, I suppose that means any of us can grab the chakram from Kal and slice the stone.”

The small group sat down to dinner with Gabrielle being more quiet than usual. Xena wasn’t surprised but the men were but all attempts by Eli and Asher to draw the bard out failed.

“I suggest that Asher and I take on Kal, he’s going to expect me to go for the chakram. While Asher and I take him on Eli grabs Sasha and Gabrielle goes for the chakram and shatters the stone,” Xena suggested over dinner.

“Any idea where the damned stone is and how I’m supposed to get a chakram off a very defensive War God?” Gabrielle asked in general.

“The scroll says that Kal treasures the Bacchus stone as a war prize and has it displayed on his altar,” Eli answered part of the question.

“We’ll just have to convince him to let go of the chakram,” Xena grinned.

“Or better yet, we hope Sasha has held off getting it for him,” Eli commented.

“That would be perfect,” Xena agreed, carefully watching her thoughtful bard.

Without a word Gabrielle got up from the table and went outside. Xena was surprised when Eli motioned the warrior to remain sitting and got up.

“I’d like to talk with her for a bit, Xena,” the young scholar said simply.

Xena frowned but nodded and began helping Asher clear the table.

Eli found the bard sitting on the stone fence holding the two cows Caleb had kept for milk. Gabrielle was twirling one of her sais in between her hands with an intense look on her face.

“Do you want to talk?” Eli asked softly.

“About what? Xena and I have argued before, we’ll get through it,” the bard answered.

“No, why you have to be the one to smash the stone.”

“Seems like a good plan,” the bard suggested.

“There’s something about you, Gabrielle and I have a feeling it has to do with Bacchus and that stone.”

Eli wasn’t sure if the bard was going to fall off the stones in surprise. He could see her jaw muscles tensing with an effort to control her emotions and surprise. The scholar sat down next to her and waited.

“What do you mean, Eli?”

“Asher didn’t notice the looks you and Xena gave each other when I described the Bacchus stone and its’ powers but I did. He also didn’t notice that your eyes are trying to change from green to yellow. Add in Xena’s idea of you smashing the stone and that I sense something around you, I logically figured that you didn’t get totally away from Bacchus.”

“Damn, I can’t control the eyes sometimes,” the bard muttered.

“Tell me,” he encouraged and then listened patiently and without questions as Gabrielle found herself pouring out the history of her involvement with Bacchus, God of Wine and Bacchae.

Gabrielle told Eli about being turned into a partial bacchae and turning Xena and how they managed to defeat Bacchus and return to normal. She could see him flinch when the bard described her crucifixion at the hands of Caesar and how she had died. Eli’s eyes widened as Gabrielle described Apollo bringing her soul back into her body but at a price; the unknown taint of Bacchus would now come to the surface.

“How does it affect you?” Eli asked softly, noticing the tears in Gabrielle’s eyes.

“I crave blood. No, that’s not right, I need blood,” she answered, not looking into Eli’s blue eyes. “I’ve almost died a couple of times when I couldn’t get it. It hits around the full moon and I can reduce the need with rare meat and animal blood but I occasionally have to have human blood.”

Eli waited patiently.

“I’ve learned to control it mostly but that stone could be my answer.”

“Have you ever killed because of it?” Eli questioned softly.

“No, never. When it gets bad, Xena….”

“Xena is your blood source and your mate,” Eli finished for his friend.

“You knew, of course,” Gabrielle nodded. “You’re more observant than your brother.”

“Just more traveled and not as narrow-minded. It tends to cloud his observations at times. He suspects but he wouldn’t want to deal with that so he pretends he doesn’t notice,” Eli smiled.

“It’s against your laws isn’t it?”

“Which? The blood or your relationship with Xena?” he asked with a grin, “Both are stoning offenses in our customs. I wouldn’t mention either to Asher,” he recommended.

“I don’t think I will,” Gabrielle agreed, able to smile slightly for the first time in hours.

“How long have you been fighting this?”

“I was bitten and tasted Bacchus’ blood twelve years ago but the blood lust hit four years ago.”

“And right now?”

“The craving is there,” she admitted.

“And you and Xena aren’t talking,” Eli smiled.

“What are you, Eli? You’re more than a scholar,” Gabrielle asked.

“I’m a seeker. Asher would say that I’m one of the Chosen, gifted with miracles from Yahweh and that I should be leading the fight against the corruption of Judea.”

“Miracles?”

“When I was thirteen, my father’s best friend collapsed. He had chronic convulsions, and I was left with him while my father went for help and all I could do was stand there, helpless. As I reached out, trying to calm him, I guess, I felt this kind of white hot surge go through me, and when I touched him it stopped. Whatever or whoever gripped him let go. He never convulsed again.”

“And you’ve been searching for what, Eli?”

“What I am supposed to do with these gifts. There are many in the Kingdom of God movement that posseses such giftings, it’s almost a requirement to be able to perform miracles to be a leader but I don’t feel my path is violence,” the young man said.

“I never believed my path was to be a warrior either,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“Then maybe my truth is yours,” Eli suggested.

“What is that?”

“It’s life; that we must revere it whenever we find it. To bring peace to this world, I think my path is to teach mankind a reverence for life.”

“So, if someone were to walk up to you and knock you down?” she questioned.

“Then I’d get back up.”

“But if they knocked you down again?”

“Then I’d get up again if I could. Under no circumstances would I fight back. If I did, I would simply be perpetuating the cycle of violence that has ravaged the Earth for centuries. That cycle has to be broken. My truth is that this can only be done through nonviolence.”

Gabrielle frowned with thought.

“It’s not for everyone, Gabrielle, few can do it. You have the instincts of a warrior now and the strength of love for others before yourself. Could you stand by and watch someone kill Xena or one of your family?” he questioned gently.

Gabrielle shook her head readily. “No, never.”

“Just like Xena’s Way is that of the Warrior, your must find your middle ground and what Way is yours. It is better to die following your own way than to live following someone else’s,” Eli advised.

“My path is with Xena, we were blood bound before the damned blood lust,” Gabrielle stated.

“Then you Way is that of Friendship and Family. Have you ever wondered what to do with your skills in overcoming the blood lust?” he questioned.

“What skills?”

“You have overcome the madness of the lust. It still calls and you answer it but it no longer overtakes you totally, does it?”

“How do you know that?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Your mate would answer that I have many skills,” he grinned and Gabrielle gave him an exasperated look. “Do you realize that there other types of vampires out there other than bacchae?”

“I’ve heard some of the legends but we haven’t run into any,” the bard answered.

“Maybe you could teach some of them to control their blood lust and not kill innocents,” Eli suggested.

Gabrielle was stunned and sat pondering. It was something she had never considered.

“Maybe your curse can be used to help others.”

“Turning a weakness into a strength?” she said with a smile. “But if I smash the stone then I won’t have the blood lust any longer.”

“Then that won’t be your path, will it?” Eli asked with a grin as he stood up.

Gabrielle twirled the sai in her hand, deep in thought as the young man went back into the stone building.

Gabrielle turned and saw Xena closing the door of the house behind her. The warrior seemed to hesitate for a moment and then approached her mate slowly.

“Still mad at me?” the warrior asked softly as she sat down next to the bard.

“No,” Gabrielle answered simply.

“I’m sorry, I was wrong.”

“It’s over, lover. Let’s just get her back,” Gabrielle smiled and laid her head on her mate’s shoulder, letting what was left of her anger fade away.

“I will do everything possible to get that stone in your hands, Gabrielle,” Xena promised.

“I know, just don’t endanger the ultimate goal of taking that chakram away from Kal and neutralizing it,” the bard stated.

“Let’s go to the barn,” Xena suggested softly.

“I thought we weren’t going to risk intimacy with Asher and Eli around,” Gabrielle countered.

“I saw your eyes, I don’t want you weak with cravings when we leave before dawn,” Xena said simply.

“Eli knows, he saw my eyes too and sensed the blood. He won’t admit it but he’s a mystic.”

“Is he okay with it? Jews aren’t too fond of blood issues,” Xena frowned.

“Yes, he’s a little more tolerant than his fanatical brother,” the bard smiled and wrapped her arm around Xena’s waist in a familiar and comforting movement.

“Do you need the blood or can you fight it for a day?” Xena questioned.

“I’ll fight it, lover.”

The sun wasn’t even turning the sky purple when Xena’s sharp eyes took in the temple interior from the high window above the altar.

The inside of the temple was lit by a few torches in brackets on the walls, two on each wall and one by the door, making the place fairly well lit. The design was very basic as far as temples went, the warrior reflected.

Seats for worshippers just inside the door, aisle down the center, stone altar stained heavily with blood, banners showing battles scenes decorating the walls along with various weapons, and a chair on a dais behind the altar.

On the secondary altar, behind and higher than the sacrificial one, was a large reddish-purple stone sitting in an eagle’s claw. A huge golden sword and a golden goblet also sat on the altar.

In the chair was someone that Xena presumed to be Kal. The War God was sitting with his leg thrown over the wooden and elaborately decorated chair, in the same manner that Ares did. This god of war had long hair pulled back in a braided ponytail and was clean shaven. His skin was well tanned and Xena wasn’t sure if he looked more Arabic than Greek or Egyptian. Also like Ares, Kal wore all leather with his arms bare, showing off his well-developed arms.

Xena’s eyes narrowed at the sight of a chakram hanging on his belt.

At his feet, curled up in a blanket, was a sleeping Sasha.

Xena bounced lightly on her feet on the windowsill and waited, dagger in her hand.

It was only moments before the door to the temple crashed inward and three shouting and screaming figures ran in and separated, each taking a side and one up the center aisle.

Kal, startled awake, started to rush down from his throne but Xena grinned with delight when Sasha reached out an arm and tripped the War God, sending him flying to the stone floor next to the altars.

As Kal raised up to his knees he grabbed the chakram at his belt and drew back to launch it. The War God appeared surprised when he stopped and looked at his hand as the chakram hit the floor. A dagger was sticking through his hand and it was bleeding.

Xena laughed and flipped forward out of the window and landed on Kal’s throne.

The God of War swore under his breath and pulled the knife out and threw it at the warrior but with a grin Xena merely caught it before it hit her face. Kal drew his sword and slashed out as Asher reached him and struck at the god with his sword.

The God of War growled and motioned with his left hand and the young Zealot went flying across the room to land heavily among the benches.

As Kal turned to take on Xena, Sasha crawled out from behind the altar.

“Sasha!” Eli called from the far side of the room. “Here!”

The child quickly ran to him and the scholar turned, putting his body between Sasha and the angry god of War. Gabrielle screamed as Eli and Sasha were thrown into the wall by an energy burst.

Kal parried a series of sword strikes from Xena as she flipped over and landed in front of him. With cat-like quickness he pulled a second sword and slashed at Gabrielle, attempting to scurry past the fighters and grab the chakram. The bard fell back behind Xena holding a slashed arm.

Both Xena and Gabrielle pressed forward again, Xena with her sword and Gabrielle with her sais. Kal parried their strikes, taking a few cuts on his arms and body but nothing serious. Gabrielle fell back from a sword hilt connecting with her jaw and lay in front of the first set of benches shaking her head.

As the bard picked up a sai she had dropped she spotted Eli trying to get to his feet dazed and an unharmed Sasha crawling out from under him. Gabrielle glanced back and saw Asher pulling himself up from the stone floor among the over-turned benches with a scowl, blood flowing down the right side of his face from a cut scalp.

Asher grabbed up his sword and rushed past the bard just as Kal got through Xena’s defenses and managed to hit her in the stomach several times with the pommel of the sword but before he could turn the sword to strike, Asher tackled the War God.

Gabrielle scrambled to her feet and rushed up beside Xena.

“Grab the chakram,” Xena yelled.

As the bard started past the altars she found herself falling into the altars with Asher on top of her. With a curse the bard moved the unconscious body of the Zealot off of her and saw Xena and Kal fighting once again, swords flashing faster than the bard’s eyes could follow.

Gabrielle started to get to her feet and fell back against the altar with a cry and grabbed her leg, realizing with horror that it was twisted and it felt like lightning striking through her lower back and leg and the bard realized that the leg was broken in the fall.

“Damnit!” she shouted.

She watched as Xena and Kal spread their fight to the rest of the temple, leaping on top of benches and trading sword blows, somersaulting over benches and rebounding off the stone walls to land behind each other, trading fist blows to each other’s faces and bodies, Xena flipping over Kal’s head and Kal spinning out kicks faster than even the warrior could counter.

Sasha knelt beside Gabrielle while Eli was still trying to clear his head.

“Sasha, grab the chakram and wait behind the high altar, okay?” Gabrielle instructed the child and smiled as Sasha nodded, the child’s blue eyes flashing as they watched Xena fighting the War God.

The daughter of Xena disappeared behind the altar.

Gabrielle began shaking Asher.

“Asher, come on!” she shouted. “Wake up, I need to get to that altar!”

Receiving no response the bard turned toward Eli. “Eli, snap out of it! I need help!” she yelled and shouted in rage as the young man attempted to stand and fell back against the wall and slid down to the floor, his eyes unable to focus.

Xena glanced over to see Gabrielle and Asher by the altar. “Gabrielle, grab the chakram!” she shouted.

“My leg!” the bard shouted back.

Xena swore under her breath seeing both Asher and Eli unable to help and Sasha nowhere in sight.

The warrior knew she had to somehow get away from Kal and help Gabrielle to the higher altar to grab the chakram and break the stone. The problem was that Kal was just as skilled as Ares and even more deadly. Unlike Ares, Kal didn’t care for Xena and therefore wasn’t holding back.

Xena could feel a couple of broken ribs, a loose tooth and various cuts and slashes on her arms and legs. The warrior reflected that the War God wasn’t in much better shape, however, and that gave her some hope.

With a war cry the warrior somersaulted over the War God and thrust her sword backwards and spun around as the sword went through Kal’s back, near his right side. The War God cursed and spun rapidly and managed to kick Xena in the stomach before she could follow through with another sword strike. Both warriors recovered and met in front of the altars, almost within kicking reach of Gabrielle.

Kal surprised the warrior by dropping his sword, parrying her sword strike with his arm gauntlet and grabbing Xena by the throat. Before the warrior could counter the movement it felt like white hot fire was ripping through her body and she could feel her body jerking as Kal lifted her off of the stone floor, choking her.

“Xena!” Gabrielle screamed as she could see energy bolts shooting through her mate. “No!”

The bard tried once again to get to her knees and screamed in pain and rage. Xena was shaking in Kal’s hands, her eyes rolled back in her head and Gabrielle felt a chill sweep over her body as blood began to trickle from Xena’s nose and her arms went limp, no longer clawing at Kal’s hands and arms.

“Sasha!” Gabrielle screamed, pulling herself up on the lower altar as upright as she could. The child’s head appeared above the higher altar, her eyes wide at the sight of her Mom dying in the War God’s hands. “Take the chakram and smash that stone in front of you! Do it now!”

Kal’s head snapped around as the child raised the silver weapon above her head with both hands and the energy bolts stopped as he started to turn.

“NO!” he screamed, dropping Xena as the chakram went crashing down onto the Stone of Bacchus.

Xena’s eyes cleared and the warrior growled.

The War God Kal glared at the small child he held by her tunic high above his head, his eyes blazing with intense fury.

“You’ve ruined the chakram!” he shouted.

He prepared to throw the child into the stone wall when he hesitated, feeling cold steel at his neck.

“Put my child down or die, Kal,” a harsh voice instructed.

“You can’t kill me, Xena,” the War God smirked.

“Oh yeah? What’s that you’re doing, bleeding, isn’t it?”

Gabrielle could see the War God frowning as he looked down at his body, especially the wound in his side.

“We have the power to kill gods, Kal. I’m willing to let you live right now if you put my child down gently and give me your word that we all walk out of here unharmed,” Xena hissed in his ear.

The War God looked at the child in his fists, the chakram having separated into two distinct pieces, one in each of the child’s hands. He glanced back down at the altar and the shattered stone and glared back at Sasha.

The child’s eyes were wide with fear but she matched his glare.

“I give you my word that I won’t harm any of you for the space of three days. Get out of my territory, Xena, and take your brat with you,” Kal snapped and lowered Sasha to the ground. In a flash, the War God was gone.

Xena looked down at Gabrielle’s yellow eyes and realized what had happened.

“Oh gods, little one,” she whispered.

Eli patiently followed the candle flame with his eyes as Xena passed it in front of his face later that day.

“The eyes are both equal now, you’ve had a pretty good hit to the head but I think you’ll be okay,” the warrior and occasional healer announced with a smile.

“That’s good because I can’t seem to heal myself,” he matched her smile and then frowned. “How is Gabrielle?” he asked softly, glancing over at his brother who was fixing lunch.

“She’ll be okay, I can help her if you keep Asher busy,” Xena said softly.

“Her leg?”

“It’ll be mostly healed by tonight and she can get around on crutches tomorrow.”

Xena shrugged her shoulders at his obvious surprise.

“We’ve been blessed by the gods with rapid healing,” she explained, also keeping an eye on Asher, not wanting the young Zealot to get upset with Xena and Gabrielle’s dealings with the gods. Anything dealing with the gods could set the angry young man off.

She wondered what he would think if he knew the true parentage of Xena, Gabrielle and Sasha. The warrior decided that she didn’t want to find out.

“The other?”

“We failed, it wasn’t Gabrielle who broke the stone, it was Sasha,” Xena answered.

“Then she’s still cursed by Bacchus,” Eli lost his smile.

“Yes, that’s why she’s been in the barn since we got back. She doesn’t want Asher to see her eyes and fangs right now. Being near the stone set her bacchae side off.”

“Then go to her, I’ll keep Asher busy.”

The warrior found Gabrielle resting on a pile of hay with Sasha playing in the hayloft above, playfully dropping hay onto her bard Mum. The child grinned at the sight of her Mom entering the barn and nearly gave Xena a heart attack when Sasha launched herself from the loft and landed in a large hay pile next to the warrior.

“Sasha!” Xena squeaked as the laughing youngster dug her way out from under the hay.

“Now I know how my mom felt when I pulled that same stunt,” the warrior complained as her daughter hugged her.

Gabrielle managed a small smile at her mate and child.

“Sasha, why don’t you go help Asher with our early dinner, okay?” Xena suggested.

“You need alone time?” the impish child asked.

“Yup, think I can get it with your Mum?” the warrior asked.

“I guess so, see you later!”

Xena looked down at Gabrielle and wasn’t surprised when the bard lost her smile, her yellow eyes looking up at Xena’s blue ones. The warrior settled next to Gabrielle and pulled the bard to lean into her, wrapping an arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders.

“How’s the leg?”

“It’s okay. Hurt like Tartarus for awhile,” the bard answered and reached down and carefully removed the chakram from Xena’s belt and began looking at it.

This chakram was different than the warrior’s original one in that it could separate into two pieces. The pieces looking very similar to a Yin Yang design Xena had come to know from her travels in Chin.

“Can you throw the individual pieces?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes, one at a time or both at the same time or as one large piece,” the warrior answered.

“Then it’s even more deadly than your original one,” the bard remarked.

“Yeah,” Xena agreed.

“I’m still bacchae,” Gabrielle said simply.

“I know, I saw the eyes and your fangs. You could have crawled to the chakram while Kal and I were fighting.”

“You were dying, by the time I reached it you would have been dead. It was either distract him with the chakram or sacrifice you. I chose you, my love,” Gabrielle answered softly, leaning into Xena’s shoulder.

“Gabrielle….”

“No, it’s okay. I’ve lived with it for awhile now and it won’t be any different,” Gabrielle said.

“No, it won’t be the same. You had a ray of hope and sacrificed it.”

“For us, Xena, I’d sacrifice my life for us or the kids.”

Xena wiped a tear away from Gabrielle’s face.

“I know, little one. I’m sorry about yesterday, about blaming you, I was wrong.”

“It’s over and seems like forever now,” Gabrielle whispered. “Xena, I can’t let Asher see me like this.”

“I know,” Xena said softly and took the chakram from her bard’s hand and put it in her left hand. “What say we break this in?”

With a rapid movement the warrior had sliced a cut into her forearm and held the arm around for Gabrielle.

Gabrielle felt a whimper escape from her throat as she gently reached out and pulled Xena’s arm to her