An Awakening part 3 by Hunter Ash

Death and Rain

Part 3 in the Awakening Saga

Storyline: Passing through a village becomes difficult when Gabrielle becomes trapped in a village struck with plague or worse.

“Xena, I can see a sign for the next village up ahead,” Gabrielle stated.

“Good, ride on and get out of this rain. I’ve got to adjust Argo’s straps or my saddle is going to drop me on my ass,” Xena suggested.

“Can’t you make it on in?” Gabrielle frowned, shaking the rain off her cloak hood as she looked into the blue eyes of the Warrior Princess.

“It’ll only be a minute,” Xena reassured the bard.

Gabrielle waited patiently.

“I think someone is behind us and I want a look,” Xena finally admitted with a slightly sheepish smile.

“Only one?” the bard frowned, resisting the urge to look back.

“Yeah, I don’t think it’s anything, just want to be sure.”

“Okay, don’t take too long, I know you’ve got to be tired of this rain, after two days of it,” Gabrielle smiled. Sasha, riding behind Gabrielle, smiled at her mom too.

Gabrielle knew that Xena was being cautious, the warrior’s instincts always on alert but the bard knew that not much was likely to happen this close to a walled village and moved her horse towards the village gates.

The bard began frowning as she got closer. The walls of the village were high, probably three men high and of thick stone. The gates were wooden and thick and would take effort to open or close.

What was beginning to bother the bard was the fact that there weren’t any guards on the wall and it didn’t appear that there were any at the gate either. Gabrielle reached down and drew her sais as she slowly moved her horse towards the gates again. The bard felt her body begin humming with energy as she went on high alert, taking in every sound, every scent, and every movement around her.

“Sasha, I want you to get down from the horse and climb that tree up there and wait for me, okay? I want to check this out,” Gabrielle said softly, lifting the child down to the ground.

“Something’s wrong inside,” Sasha said, looking at the gates of the town.

“Can you tell what it is?” the bard asked, trusting the child’s god-given psychic gifts once again.

“No, but it’s not…” Sasha frowned, looking for words to fit her feelings. “It’s not war.”

“Good, let me go check it out and you wait for me, okay?”

The child nodded and then scampered off the road and up the tree like the true energetic kid she was.

Gabrielle let the horse move through the gate cautiously, eyes darting around for any sign of a trap. The bard felt a chill overcome her as the silence of the village reached her. There were no dogs and no people in sight.

“Hello? Anyone here?” she called out loudly with a frown. There were no signs of fire or attack and no signs of things having been moved out quickly. Gabrielle dismounted and entered the tavern, one place where there was usually someone around, if only the innkeeper.

The bard felt herself go very pale when her eyes adjusted to the inside light.

There were several men lying with their heads on their arms on the tables, none looked up at the bard but the stench almost knocked Gabrielle off her feet. The smell of death and illness. The innkeeper was lying on his bar and when he looked up at her, she backed out of the door. His face was covered with horrible red splotches and his eyes were yellowed with illness and fever.

Gabrielle turned and ran for her horse and ran smack into an old woman coming around from the other side of the bard’s horse. The bard and woman fell backwards together into the mud and Gabrielle looked over in horror at the woman, realizing the woman was sick with the same thing the men in the inn had.

Everything became clear, the village wasn’t deserted, it was dying.

“Don’t touch her!” a voice demanded.

Gabrielle and the old woman looked up and saw a middle aged man stagger out of the inn towards them. The bard scrambled to her feet and backed up several feet away from both of them.

“She already did,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Then you’ve been exposed,” the man shook his head.

“Yes,” Gabrielle agreed, trying to get her fear and emotions under control. She knew she couldn’t very well tell these suffering villagers that she was immune to sickness because she was the daughter of a god. They would resent her or expect her to cure them and then would resent her when she couldn’t.

“I set guards on the gates but they must have gotten worse,” the man muttered.

“Come help me close them,” Gabrielle ordered and approached the man.

“No, don’t touch me! You might be safe if you don’t touch anyone else!” he protested.

“I’ve been in the town for a quarter of a candle-mark and I’ve touched her, I’m already dead if it’s going to happen. In the meantime, let’s make the town secure so no one else gets in,” she ordered, placing his arm around her shoulder. The old woman went into the inn without a word.

“I’m Urban, Captain of the Guard,” he introduced himself.

“I’m Gabrielle,” she muttered as they made for the gate.

“Hey, slow down, I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of energy,” he protested.

“I’ve got a friend heading for town and I don’t want her in here. We need to close that gate,” Gabrielle explained.

“Well, you’re better hurry, I think I hear a horse,” Urban urged.

“Damnit! Sasha!” Gabrielle got out from under Urban’s arm and darted for the gate. She could hear a horse as well and broke into a run. Even if it wasn’t Xena, the bard didn’t want anyone else coming into the village unless they were a healer with medicine. She also had to keep Sasha out of the village at all costs.

Gabrielle got to the gate in time to see Xena riding up at a trot. The bard managed to get one gate totally closed before Xena got close enough for the bard to see the questioning look on her face.

“Xena! Stay back!” Gabrielle shouted.

The warrior reined Argo in and frowned as she saw Gabrielle struggling to close the other gate. Xena set Argo into a run towards the gate, determined to help her mate with whatever was wrong.

Gabrielle stepped outside of the gate and raised her sais in a throwing position. Xena reined Argo back as the bard sent one flying, landing in front of her mate’s horse. Argo reared up, almost looking indignant at the bard for attacking her.

“Xena, stay back!” Gabrielle shouted again. “The village is down with the plague. I need you to get a healer, medicine and supplies. Don’t come in the village!”

“Let me in to help, you know we can’t get sick,” Xena protested. “Where’s Sasha?”

“Here, Mom!” Sasha called as she scurried out of the tree and ran up beside Argo, watching her Gabby mum with wide eyes. Xena leaned down and pulled the child onto Argo with her and glared at her bard with concern.

“Xena, we don’t know about the plague. Your mother said we can’t get sick, she didn’t say we were immortal and this stuff kills. Someone needs to go for help,” Gabrielle countered.

“Keep your friend out of here, everyone is dying,” Urban urged from behind the gate.

Gabrielle turned back towards Xena. “It’s killing people, you’ve got to keep out.”

The warrior frowned and looked back at her mate. “If there’s a chance it can harm us then get out of there and we’ll both go for help.”

“I’ve already been exposed, I’ve had contact.”

Xena could see the distress on Gabrielle’s face and cursed under her breath, wanting to dash forward and grab the bard away from the danger but she knew Gabrielle was right.

“Damnit!” she swore. “Alright, what are the symptoms?”

“Urban?” Gabrielle called over her shoulder.

“Headache followed by chills and fever. Then the red splotches appear and weakness. You can’t keep food down and then delirium from the fever. Death follows within four days,” the Captain answered.

“Do the splotches cover the entire body?” Xena called.

“Yes, head to toe,” Urban called back.

Gabrielle listened as the two talked back and forth for a few moments, Urban describing the illness and Xena questioning the Captain. Then the bard caught her mate’s eyes and they left the words unspoken between them. She could see the concern and fear in both Xena and Sasha’s faces. Gabrielle nodded and waved slightly as Xena turned Argo back onto the road.

“Your friend will be too late, most everyone is dead or dying,” Urban said behind her.

“Then we’ll have to work at keeping them alive. Find some paint and a brush,” she ordered.

“Whatever for?” the Captain asked, shivering in the rain.

“Because I’m going to paint a warning on the gate to keep people out, we don’t want anyone else wandering in,” she responded.

“Good idea,” he agreed.

“Urban?” he turned to look at her, his face fevered. “Is anyone not sick?”

“No, every single person in the town and anyone who was caught here is sick or dead, including the horses.”

“Horses? That is unusual.”

Gabrielle felt a twinge of fear come over her as she walked over and retrieved her sai, watching Xena disappear in the rain.

“I hope your friend can ride fast,” Urban commented as Gabrielle helped him towards the inn.

“How many in town?”

“Sixty, we’re off the main road and so the outpost remained small. Only the one road. Why were you two taking this route?”

“We were going to drop off a message in the next village over for a friend before going to Poteidia,” the bard answered.

“Bad luck for you,” he muttered, a grimace on his face.

Gabrielle helped the Captain into a chair in the inn and then took a good look around at the villagers. If Xena could have seen the bard, the warrior would have recognized the familiar stubborn set of Gabrielle’s jaw.

The bard spent the next two candle-marks exploring the village. She was able to find four farmers not too far gone with the illness and together they made two litters while she tried to dry off.

With a muttered curse she had discovered everything in her packs was wet except her scrolls and parchment. Once again the bard gave thanks for Xena fixing the one pack, sealing it again and again with oil and wax until the thing was waterproof for her bard’s writing things.

There were times that Gabrielle cursed the hardiness of her mate. Xena usually didn’t mind traveling in the rain or snow as much as Gabrielle did. After two days of rain the bard was wet, muddy and grumpy.

“Alright, the stable may be the largest building in town but the horses are dead and damned hard to move. Okay, gather anyone still alive and start bringing them to the temple. I’ll start clearing out the benches and chairs,” she ordered the young men.

“Shouldn’t we keep everyone separate?” one of them asked.

“I’m the only one who isn’t sick yet and I need everyone in one place if we’re going to help them,” she insisted. “My name is Gabrielle, what’s yours?”

“I’m Patron, this is Sidor, Deimachus, and Iobates,” one of them introduced himself and the others.

“Okay, let’s get moving while any of us have any strength left,” she encouraged.

It was dark when the men finished bringing in the sickened villagers and collapsed against the wall themselves, breathing heavily and sweating, despite the cold rain.

Gabrielle quickly checked each of them and handed them a goblet of water and a towel.

“I checked the well, it seems fresh and has plenty of water. Drink as much of it as you can,” she instructed.

“How can we help?” Patron asked, panting.

“Just rest for awhile. A couple of the village girls are able to go from bed to bed with water and cool cloths. I’m going to make some broth for those who can keep it down,” Gabrielle stated simply.

Gabrielle made a count of the villagers still living and found that out of 65 only 40 were still alive and she didn’t think 10 of those were going to make it through the night. Thrashing in delirium or comatose with fever, five of them were almost dead before they were moved.

Of the remaining 30 only five of them were able to get to their feet; the Captain, the young litter carriers and the two women assisting Gabrielle. Iobates and Sidor were showing signs of weakening. No one looked to be getting better and the bard frowned. She had learned to handle her fear in battle, this was a different kind of fight.

Gabrielle found clothes in a house with three dead occupants that would fit her and quickly changed into dry clothes, knowing they wouldn’t stay dry long but might give her own clothes time to dry out. Once more the bard cursed the rain that didn’t seem to ease up any.

Xena cursed as it became too dark to travel along the road and Argo needed a rest. The warrior quickly pulled Argo off the road and loosened the horse’s saddle and grabbed some cheese and bread out of the packs for herself.

“Damnit, Argo! What if Gabrielle is right and we can get sick? She’s right in the middle of an outbreak!” the warrior cursed as she sat against the tree, letting the horse graze beside her on the grass.

The warrior pulled her cloak around her, missing her mate and barely noticing that the rain had stopped.

Sasha curled up in her Mom’s arms and they held each other throughout the night. Daughter trying to comfort her mother for once.

“I remember when Gabrielle and I went up against the Persians,” Xena told her child. “It was up to us to warn the next major towns and Athens and Gabrielle was shot by a Persian arrow.”

“Was she hurt bad?” Sasha asked.

“Yeah, the arrow was poisoned. I was hoping to find the antidote at the next town, only the town was deserted and the medicine gone or broken,” Xena continued, her heart tightening at the memory of Gabrielle struggling against the poison. “We had to make a choice; stand and hold off the Persians at the bridge or I could ride to Athens for the antidote and leave the way open for the invaders. I couldn’t do both and your Gabby mum was dying, slowly.”

“You didn’t let her die,” Sasha pointed out.

“No, but I made the choice to stand. Gabrielle made it actually. She was so brave, Sasha. Braver than I was. I’m not afraid to die in battle, that’s something I’ve always accepted would be my fate. In fact, I never expected to live as long as I have ,” the warrior grinned at her child. “I couldn’t stand seeing Gabrielle die though. We weren’t even a couple yet but I was willing to let Greece take its chances against the Persians to save her life. She insisted I stand and hold them off, even if it meant her life.”

“She wanted you to fight even though she would die?” Sasha questioned.

“Yes, Gabrielle said it was for the best, for the greater good,” Xena answered.

“But she lived,” Sasha pointed out.

“Yes, while fighting the Persians I found poisoned arrows and knew someone among the bunch had to have the antidote and found it. It was close, though. She almost died and I thought I would die with her. Gods, Hecate said we can’t get sick but Gabrielle is right, Hecate didn’t say we couldn’t die.”

Sasha hugged her mother tight, trying to reassure her in the only way she knew how.

Gabrielle spent the night caring for the sick and moving the dead out of the temple. The sounds of moaning, thrashing patients and crying kept everyone not comatose semi-awake and the bard busy throughout the long night.

Buckets of water to be carried, waste buckets to be emptied, bedding to be changed, all requiring time and energy. Something Gabrielle was running short of by morning. And always there was the rain, making tiny rivers in the middle of the village roads, turning everything into mud and getting on the bard’s nerves.

Urban was thrashing on his blanket by mid-morning and Sidor was having trouble focusing on anything and throwing up what little water the bard could get him to drink.

It was past noonday when Patron walked up behind the bard and gently put his hands on her shoulders. Gabrielle, tears streaming down her face, pulled the blanket up over the child she had been tending. The little girl couldn’t have been more than five winters, she thought.

The young farmer knelt beside the bard and lifted the child in his arms and headed out the door. No one had the energy to bury the dead so they planned to burn the dead in the evening. Gabrielle just hoped they still had the energy to do it by nightfall.

Patron came back in with some cheese and a loaf of bread and tried to hand them to the bard but Gabrielle shook her head no.

“Go on, you’ve got to eat,” he insisted. “You’ll make yourself sick if you don’t.”

“I ate some this morning but you’re right,” she said, taking the cheese and bread. “Have you eaten?”

“I can still keep soup down,” he said with a small smile. The red splotches on his body and face were getting worse.

“If we can keep the fever down some of the villagers might live long enough for Xena to get back with healers and medicine,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully, rubbing her temple.

Patron frowned. “Headache?”

“Yeah, but I’ve also been up for over twenty candle-marks, so don’t panic yet,” she smiled a tired smile.

“Then get some rest,” he encouraged.

“We need more water,” she countered.

“I’ll get it.”

“You can’t hardly move anymore, Patron. I’ll get the water. Just try and keep that soup down,” she ordered and rose to her feet slowly and headed for the well with two buckets.

Gabrielle leaned against the well and closed her eyes for the moment. Patron was right, she was exhausted and it would be at least another day before Xena could return with help. She wasn’t sure she could get through another night without some rest but there were so many sick people that needed tending to and none of them recovering, only getting worse.

The bard filled the buckets slowly and began the short walk back to the temple. Gabrielle couldn’t tell if she was shivering from the illness beginning to hit her or from being wet all the time from the rain.

She found Patron and Deimachus still on their feet.

“Hey guys, we need an inventory of the food in the village and we need to keep the patients cool, who wants what?” she asked with a slight smile.

Deimachus was sweating heavily and breathing hard but attempted a small smile himself. “I’ll help keep the others cool with the water,” he volunteered.

“I can empty the buckets, I’ve still got a little strength left and you’re the bard and good with the writing stuff,” Patron suggested.

“How do you know I’m a bard?” Gabrielle questioned.

“You called your friend Xena and you’re Gabrielle. There’s only one Warrior Princess named Xena and bard named Gabrielle.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” The bard smiled a small smile and nodded, acknowledging the comment. “I’ll inventory the food.”

“There should be plenty of dried supplies, grains, potatoes, stuff like that. Fresh meat will be a little difficult,” Deimachus said.

“No one can keep fresh meat down anyway. With the barn separate from any other building, do you think we can burn it without endangering the other buildings in the village?” the bard questioned.

“Even with the rain, the insides and the dead horses should burn completely before the rain dampens the fire. There’s the rain so it shouldn’t spread. You’re worried about illness from the rotting corpses?” Patron asked.

“Yes, we’ve already got our hands full without adding more disease on top of this plague,” the bard confirmed.

“Okay, let’s do that and then inventory the food.”

“Before checking our supplies?” Gabrielle frowned.

“You’ll need help to set the barn on fire in the rain and I’m not going to be able to stand up much longer,” Patron stated with a small smile.

“Okay, let’s go.”

The sun was just setting when the last of the barn collapsed with a scream of timber. Both Patron and Gabrielle held pieces of cloth to their noses against the smell of burning horseflesh and human flesh. The bard was saying prayers of thanks that her horse hadn’t come down sick yet.

“Why don’t you sleep for a little bit before you drop?” Patron suggested.

“The others need me,” she protested, leaning heavily on a rake.

“And you won’t do them any good if you’re too exhausted to move,” he insisted.

“Alright,” the bard said wearily and let the young man lead her to the temple and a blanket in the corner. Gabrielle was asleep before he finished covering her.

It seemed like only minutes when the moans and cries of the villagers woke the bard up again but it seemed well into nighttime so Gabrielle knew she must have gotten some rest. The bard moaned with weariness as she got up from her bedding, moving to the first villager next to her.

It was another long night for Gabrielle, Patron and Deimachus. Sidor and Iobantes now too sick to be of any help and the village girls were all thrashing on blankets with high fever.

The morning was spent burning the bodies of the villagers that had died in the houses on the far side of the village, the more run-down area of the village inside the wall. Then Gabrielle found herself helping Deimachus back to the temple when he collapsed at the burning. The bard looked over at Patron as they lowered his friend onto a pallet and covered the shivering farmer. Gabrielle recognized the look in Patron’s eyes as one of hopelessness. He leaned back against the wall and looked around at the villagers and shook his head.

“Don’t give up on me, Patron,” Gabrielle urged, kneeling down in front of him and feeling his forehead.

“I think I need a shave,” he muttered, his hazel eyes looking back into hers as he attempted to smile.

Gabrielle attempted a small chuckle. “We could all do with a very long bath,” she agreed. “Don’t give up on me yet.”

“I’ll try,” he promised and looked deep into her tired face. “We’re the only ones left standing and I’m almost done in.”

“I know, none of the others are recovering. Hasn’t anyone survived this?” she questioned.

“Not that I know of. All the villagers are here and the couple of merchants who were here when it hit. They were the first ones to get sick,” he said.

Gabrielle frowned, trying to think around her exhaustion. “What were they selling?”

“Grain from the midland and fish from the coast.”

“They got sick first, right?” she asked.

“Yeah, day after they got here.”

“When did the villagers start eating the grain and fish?” she asked.

“Immediately, we were short of grain. Even grain for the horses,” Patron’s face took on a look of shock. “Grain? We’ve been poisoned?”

“It’s really rare for someone not to survive an illness, even the plague. Someone is always resistant but no one here is, including the horses. The dogs and pigs are fine, the people and horses are dying,” she said thoughtfully. “Horses don’t eat fish but they do eat grain.”

“By the gods, if it’s poison or diseased grain, what do we do?” he asked.

“Just what we’re doing, no one can keep anything in their stomachs now as it is. We keep pushing the water and the broth and try to flush it out of our systems. Think back, when people started feeling better after throwing up, did they start eating again?”

Patron frowned. “Yes, simple things, bread and broth.”

“More grain, poisoning themselves again,” Gabrielle reasoned.

“Yes, and then dying the next day.”

“Then if we can get some of them to eating solid food and not give them the grain, maybe some of them can live.”

“If you’re right,” Patron concluded.

“If I’m not then there’s no harm done, we’re all dead if I’m wrong anyway and may have a chance if I’m right,” she said simply.

“Give me a minute and I’ll help haul the water buckets with you,” he said as he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.

“Just rest a bit,” Gabrielle muttered, feeling her own eyes growing heavy. She yelped with surprise when she felt Patron’s arms reach out and pull her against him against the wall.

“Just rest, little bard,” he muttered.

Gabrielle laid her head in his lap and fell asleep, fighting the headache crowding her thoughts.

“Listen, damnit!” Xena snapped at she faced the gathering of healers from the nearest four villagers and their apprenctices. “My friend said the entire village was sick, they need your help and supplies.”

“Warrior, the symptoms you describe aren’t from an illness,” a middle-aged healer stood up and spoke. “The grain has been poisoned by a local plant, the merchants attempted to bulk up their stock by mixing in the contaminated local grain. We’ve heard of these merchants but they disappeared before the militia could grab them. Now we now where they went. By the time we could get to this isolated village they will all be dead, including your friend.”

“I won’t believe that,” Xena growled. “My friend is smart and resilient. You can’t turn away just because they ‘might’ be dead.”

The healer looked around and found several of the others nodding and turned back to Xena.

“We agree. We will gather the supplies and as much antidote as we can work up or have stored. We’ll leave first thing in the morning,” he stated.

“You know the type of poison?” Xena questioned.

“Yes, the symptoms and red splotches tell us which it is,” the healer answered.

“In two candle-marks,” the warrior snapped.

“We can’t travel at night,” one of the healers protested.

“We’ll travel by candlelight if we have to!” Xena growled. “If it was your family in that village, would you wait?”

The healer looked away from the warrior’s piercing blue eyes and nodded in agreement.

The bard woke up a couple of candle-marks later with people calling for water and help. She found Patron still asleep against the wall and feverish. Gabrielle managed to get up and carried water to everyone, somehow. She thought a couple of the villagers looked better than they had earlier that morning but she wasn’t sure if it was just wishful thinking on her part.

“Oh gods,” she muttered when she walked into the rain of the late afternoon and felt her body shivering uncontrollably. “I could do without being poisoned again.”

She moved slowly towards the well with her buckets, her feet feeling like her boots had lead weights in them. Trying to walk through the endless mud with her cloak hanging loosely on her shoulders was difficult. Gabrielle stopped, staring at the dagger in the mud in front of her, trying to process its sudden presence when a voice broke through her headache and she turned towards it.

“Gabrielle! Queen of the Southern Amazons!”

The bard turned with a puzzled look and found two strangers standing just inside the gates. Both were cloaked and hoods hid their faces from Gabrielle’s eyes. What little clothing she could see didn’t help her identify either of them, simple woolen trousers and boots and bracers on the arms.

The tall figure in front was holding another dagger in her hand.

Her? Gabrielle’s mind tried processing.

“Who are you and how do you know me? Didn’t you see the signs?” she demanded. “This village is sick with plague, get out while you can!”

“We saw you enter the village two days ago and Xena leave. I won’t wait any longer to face you, Gabrielle,” the taller one stated.

“Who are you and what do you want with me?” Gabrielle dropped the buckets and slowly lifted her sais into her hands.

The figure in front slowly pulled her hood back, revealing a familiar face, even with the scar and the patch over one eye, the face was familiar. Gabrielle shook her head, trying to comprehend that the woman standing in front of her was real.

“Eponin?” she whispered. “Pony?”

“Yes,” the Amazon weapons-master nodded, holding her dagger at the ready.

“Hercules and Iolaus said everyone else had died,” Gabrielle said, trying to clear her fuzzy head.

“Nice of you to come and find out for yourself,” Eponin snapped.

“Pony, you have no idea how happy I am that you’re alive and I have no idea why you’re upset with me but I really don’t have time for this. I’m the only one standing in this village and the people need my help.”

“I’ve come to challenge your right to be Queen, Gabrielle!” Eponin growled, moving closer to the bard.

“Fine, you can have it if there are any more Amazons to lead. Right now, I’m needed back inside with water. We can discuss this later,” Gabrielle snapped back, putting one of her sais away, her sharp eyes keeping watch on Eponin and the other figure.

“I accuse you of abandoning your tribe to the Romans,” Eponin snapped.

“Great, whatever! As your Queen for the moment, I declare that we will settle this later and right now you either get out of here and save yourselves from possible plague or grab a bucket and begin helping me!” the bard shouted and then cried out as everything began spinning. “No, damnit!” she whispered, feeling herself fall.

When her eyes cleared Gabrielle found she was on the ground and in Eponin’s arms looking up into Eponin’s brown eye.

“Damnit, you shouldn’t have touched me!” Gabrielle whispered. “Get out of here Eponin, please.”

“No, we have unsettled business. If that means I have to wait until you and this village is on its feet again, then I will. Jaeger and I will take over while you rest,” Eponin stated and lifted the bard into her arms.

“No, get out of here,” Gabrielle protested weakly as Eponin headed for the temple.

“Too late, my Queen,” the Amazon said simply as Gabrielle’s head dropped back, unconscious.

Xena swore to several deities at once and suggested things that the healers had never heard before which made a couple of them blush.

Clement, the oldest healer, jumped down off of the lead wagon and walked up beside Argo as Xena dismounted, still swearing profusely.

They both walked up to the rockslide and quickly took in the massive landslide that now blocked the only road to the village.

“Sometimes I hate Greece’s mountains,” Xena complained.

“I know, that’s one of the reasons this village is so isolated. On one hand it’s a good thing if it is a plague, we can contain it. On the other hand, we can’t seem to get there,” Clement agreed.

“Damnit! We need to get to that village!” Xena growled.

“I know and it’s going to take at least two days to clear the rocks enough to get the supplies through,” Clement argued.

“Then lets get started,” Xena growled and turned back to the three wagons of supplies and healers. “Let’s go, people, we’ve got to clear a path to get through.”

“We’re healers, not laborers!” one of the healers protested.

“Unless you want to learn how to heal yourself of broken bones, I suggest you start moving some rocks. An entire village is dying on the other side of this mess and one of them is my best friend. Which do you want, a little hard work or a broken leg?” the warrior threatened.

The healers began jumping down off the wagons and the warrior set about arranging work shifts and getting a temporary camp set up.

Xena looked back at the rockslide and then at the sky and the rain. The warrior cursed again. If the healers were right about the symptoms then it wasn’t a plague but poisoned or diseased food. Gabrielle was right, Hecate had only said they wouldn’t get ill from common stuff, Xena figured they weren’t immune to poison. Especially Gabrielle after being poisoned by the Romans on their wedding day.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and found herself looking at Eponin as the weapons master of the Southern Amazons put another cold cloth on the bard’s forehead.

“Terrific,” Gabrielle muttered, “I’m delirious already.”

Eponin smirked at her. “No, I’m real, Gabrielle.”

“Hercules and Iolaus said they only found three survivors and one of them died later. Why didn’t they find you? Did any others survive? Why didn’t you let me know sooner? What happened?” the bard demanded, attempting to sit up and falling back onto the pallet holding her head.

“They didn’t look close enough. Several of us survived. I was wounded badly and it took a long time to recover. There are ten of us now in the Black Forest. Five survivors, three women that have joined us and two infants that were left out by their families to die of exposure,” Eponin answered simply. “Like we were left to die.”

“Why didn’t someone send word to me?”

“We thought you were dead. Brutus bragged that he had killed you and Xena before marching against us. We just found out two weeks ago from a traveling skald, a Viking bard that you lived. She told us about your adventures with the Vikings up north.”

“I think I remember you challenging me, why?” Gabrielle was finally able to sit up against the wall and looked around at the other suffering villagers and spotted Patron moving between the pallets, carrying water to those still conscious. She also saw a female warrior moving along, helping cool down the cloths on the villager’s foreheads. The bard reasoned that this must have been the other cloaked figure with Eponin.

“You abandoned us to the Romans, leading Marc Antony and Brutus right to us!” Eponin hissed.

“Pony, I swear we knew nothing about the attack and didn’t learn of it until Hercules and Iolaus came to tell us,” Gabrielle insisted.

“Brutus showed us your sais and staff and said you had betrayed us to save Xena’s life just before he killed you both,” Eponin frowned.

“Am I dead? Is Xena dead?” Gabrielle countered and pointed to her sais along her boots. “Brutus could have gotten those sais from anywhere and I haven’t carried a staff since I was a Roman slave.”

Eponin continued frowning.

“You are right, though,” Gabrielle continued. “I should have gone to the Black Forest but I couldn’t face that, Pony.” The bard angrily brushed away a tear. “Hercules and Iolaus told us how they found Ephiny and the others crucified. I know how they suffered and I couldn’t face that. I’m sorry.”

Eponin growled and looked around the temple.

“So you just shed a few tears and then continued on your happy life with Xena?”

Gabrielle’s eyes flashed angrily and then she sighed. “I guess that’s close to the truth. We grieved, swore vengeance, and dealt with life.”

The bard’s eyes began unfocusing and she grabbed at her head, falling over onto her side with a groan.

“What in Tartarus is wrong with everyone, this isn’t like any illness I’ve ever seen,” Eponin demanded.

“I think the grain the merchants sold the village was bad, either diseased or poisoned. I’m guessing poisoned because it’s affecting me,” Gabrielle whispered as chills began racking her body again.

“Who would poison a small village in the middle of nowhere?”

“I don’t think it was meant for this village. The merchant was headed for Poteidia but decided to sell his grain here when he started getting sick,” Gabrielle answered softly as Eponin covered her with a blanket.

“Your home village?”

“Probably some minor warlord or pirates,” the bard muttered.

“What do we do?”

“Keep pushing the water, try and get it out of their systems,” the bard said softly.

“You’d better not die, Gabrielle,” Eponin threatened. “We’ve got unsettled business.”

“Later, Pony, right now I’m busy dying, okay?” Gabrielle attempted a small smile and drifted into the darkness.

Several candle-marks later and a long series of throwing up what little food she had eaten in the last couple of days, Gabrielle felt a little better and was able to sit up again.

Patron, however, was thrashing on his pallet in fevered delirium. Eponin walked over and sat down next to Gabrielle, obviously very tired.

“How bad?” Gabrielle asked.

“Twenty left alive, most are unconscious or delirious. Jaeger is outside burning the most recent bodies.”

“Who’s Jaeger?” the bard asked, drinking the water Eponin handed her.

“One of the Amazons, she was outcast by her family and village and joined us last winter,” Eponin said.

“Eponin, I am sorry for not coming to you,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Do you know what it’s been like while you’ve been moving on with your life?” Eponin demanded.

“No, I don’t,” Gabrielle admitted.

“We barely survived the first couple of winters, struggling just to find enough to eat. I couldn’t help, all I could do was lay there, and trying to heal while my sisters struggled.” Eponin growled.

“Pony, if I had known we would have been there.”

“We heard that Brutus was defeated at the battle of Philippi, you didn’t take revenge right after the attack? Why?” the Amazon demanded.

“We found out about the attack and then Ares got in the way and we had to find a way to deal with him. Xena, Solan and I almost died fighting him again and Ares almost got his hands on Sasha, our daughter. We were also watching the developing war between Octavian and Antony against Brutus and Cassius, waiting for a good time to take our revenge without getting ourselves killed and without helping the worst Roman of the lot. It took awhile to figure out which one of those bastards that was,” Gabrielle explained. “We were just about to plan how to go up against Brutus. He surprised us, he had Sasha kidnapped to gain favor from Ares. His soldiers blinded Solan, trying to force Xena’s mom into revealing where we were to the soldiers. They almost killed Joxer as well.”

“Oh Gods, how old was he?” Eponin questioned.

“Fourteen springs. We went after Sasha, both of us were determined that Brutus wouldn’t survive very long. Xena and I were at Philippi, I rescued Sasha and Xena was there when Brutus was killed. He died knowing that we lived and he was paying for his attack against the Amazons.”

Eponin nodded, obviously pleased with that news.

“Do I know any of the survivors?” Gabrielle asked.

“Byblos, the scholar, you’d remember her,” Eponin began and Gabrielle nodded. She did remember the Amazon scholar from the trial of the Roman who had attempted to assassinate Gabrielle. “Everilda, Aetna, Pitane, Theronice, and me. Jaeger, Isgeror, and Guoleif are our new Amazons. The babies were named Birna and Ephiny.”

The Amazons brushed away tears as they both remembered their friends and family.

“Listen, Pony,” Gabrielle said, grabbing at her head from the pain from the massive headache she was trying to concentrate through. “Fever and the splotches come next.”

“But you’re doing better!” Eponin protested.

“For now, are any of the others getting better?” Gabrielle asked.

“A couple seem to, and we’ve just been giving the villagers broth even though they’re hungry for solid food.”

“Good, maybe we can get some of them by this,” the bard nodded.

“What about you?”

“I ate some of the bread before we figured it out and I think my body hates poison more than others. Given my rapid healing abilities – it probably evens out to normal reactions.”

“Which means you’re as likely to die as the rest of the villagers have,” Eponin frowned.

“Yes,” Gabrielle agreed.

Clement walked up beside the warrior and placed his arm on hers, Xena stopped trying to lift a heavy stone and glared at him. The healer refused to release her arm and she finally stood up.

“Do I have to slip a sleeping herb in your tea?” he asked. “You’ve worked well into the night. You need to rest, killing yourself moving these rocks isn’t going to help your friend any.”

Xena angrily brushed away a lock of hair but then nodded and followed him back to the temporary camp under tarps. She raised her eyebrows as he handed her a cup of tea.

Clement grinned. “No, it isn’t drugged. I figure all the work you’ve done will catch up with you and force you to sleep some tonight.”

“I’m just worried about the village,” Xena commented, sipping her tea slowly.

“You mean about your friend,” he said gently.

“Her too,” Xena conceded with a smile.

“We’ll be able to get you and your horse through by tomorrow afternoon with the antidote, I’ll keep them working until we can get the wagons of supplies through,” Clement promised.

“Thank you, Clement,” the warrior said gratefully.

“You said Gabrielle has been poisoned before?” he said as he sat down next to the warrior.

“Yes, on our…. Yeah,” Xena answered. “Once by the Persians and then she was poisoned with strychnine and cowsbane. It… it was bad.”

“By the gods, how did she survive?” Clement asked softly in disbelief.

“The gods like my friend,” Xena grinned but Clement could see the memory and the pain with it in Xena’s eyes.

“We’ll get you to her, Xena,” he smiled a sad smile. “I know you need to be with her.”

“How did you get to be so wise, Clement?” the warrior grinned.

“I’ve heard the rumors about you and your bard, I suppose most everyone has,” he commented easily. “I see your face when you talk about her and how worried you are and I know how that feels. I lost my wife while I was away from our village. I’ll never know if I could have saved her if only I had been there.”

“Clement, I’m sorry,” Xena said softly.

“Thank you, now get some rest and hope your bard is doing the same,” he suggested.

Gabrielle came to awareness with someone forcing her to try and drink some water through her chattering teeth, as her body shook with chills and sweated with fever at the same time.

“Come on, Gabrielle!” someone’s voice ordered. “Fight this, damnit!”

Then strong arms were wrapping around her and pulling her close, bringing a blanket over her.

“Xena?” she whispered softly.

“No,” Patron’s voice answered. “Maybe I can be a temporary substitute, bard. Just rest.” The young man wasn’t sure if Gabrielle even heard him.

“She’s getting worse,” Eponin commented with a frown.

“Yeah, you may have to wait for your revenge,” Patron snapped as he held the bard close, trying to keep her warm with his body.

Eponin resisted the urge to put her dagger through his throat, rubbing her hand over her face. “Too tired, we’re all too tired,” she muttered.

“Why do you hate her?” he demanded.

“She abandoned us and we were wiped out by the Romans. Some of us lived though,” Eponin growled.

“I heard about the Roman Generals Antony and Brutus attacking the Amazons up north, that was your tribe?” he asked.

“Yes, that was us.”

“I’m sorry for your loss but are you sure about Gabrielle? I heard you arguing, you first thought she was dead, how do you know anything they told you was true?”

Eponin frowned and stomped away into the rain and her thoughts.

The bard woke up with someone changing the cool cloth on her forehead and looked up into unfamiliar gray eyes.

“Hi,” she whispered.

The woman smiled a tired smile and helped Gabrielle sit up slightly and drink more water.

“Are you Jaeger?”

“Yes,” the warrior answered simply.

“Nice to meet you,” the bard whispered as she lay back on the pallet. “How long was I out of it?”

“All of a day, it is the fourth day since Xena left you at the gate,” Jaeger answered.

“Isn’t Jaeger Northern for ‘hunter’?” the bard questioned.

“Yes, it is the name I took when I was exiled from my tribe,” the woman explained.

“I understand. How many are left alive?”

“Five more died but it looks like the rest might live, you included,” Jaeger grinned and sat down next to the bard’s pallet.

“Any sign of you or Eponin getting sick?”

“None.”

“Good, then it probably is the grain,” Gabrielle whispered still shivering.

“You have not developed the splotches either,” Jaeger commented. “Maybe you only got small measure of poison, ja?”

“I hope so, I prefer to live a little longer,” the bard attempted a small smile.

“Gabrielle!” Eponin shouted, running into the temple and sliding to a stop next to the bard and the rising Jaeger. “Bandits outside the gate, they’re demanding that we turn over all the money and valuables or they’ll come in and burn the village to the ground.”

“What in Tartarus? Didn’t they see the signs? Don’t they know they’d be risking the plague?” Gabrielle demanded, letting Eponin and Jaeger help her to lean back against the wall.

“They said they’d shoot fire arrows in and collect the gold and silver after the village burned to the ground,” Eponin answered.

“Damn! Where are they now?”

“Rode off, said they’d be back in a candlemark for our answer,” Eponin growled.

“How many?”

“I saw fifteen, I don’t think there were any more. They were scruffy and ill equipped and probably not smart enough for any strategy,” Eponin frowned.

“Any villagers on their feet?” Gabrielle asked.

“No, Patron might be able to lean against something but fighting is out for everyone except Jaeger and me.”

Patron sat up off his pallet and looked at the women, “I can fight,” he insisted, his face still flushed with fever and splotched.

“Eponin, they probably aren’t strong enough to break the gates open and a couple of us on the walls could keep them out. Can you and Jaeger take to the trees outside and pick them off one by one from behind?” Gabrielle asked.

“No, I have no depth perception and can’t shoot a bow and arrow anymore. I can only fight up close,” Eponin frowned, shaking her head. “Jaeger was wounded when she was exiled and can’t climb. Amazons who can’t take to the trees,” Eponin said bitterly.

“Okay, then we’ll have to think of something else,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Why not give them what they want?” one of the nearby villagers asked.

“Because they’ll burn the village to the ground once they have whatever is valuable out of fear of getting sick. Besides, you’ll need what little you’ve got to buy new supplies,” Gabrielle explained her reasoning.

“The four of us can’t keep track of fifteen raiders, someone will get over the wall,” Eponin muttered. “You and Patron might be able to stand but neither of you can fight.”

“Then we’ll have to outsmart them,” the bard muttered.

Xena cursed as the work progressed slowly and the time ticked by with no end in sight for the warrior.

Sasha walked up to her mom and handed her a flask of water. Xena smiled and wiped her forehead as she leaned against a particularly large and stubborn boulder. The warrior’s daughter hugged her mom and looked around the rocks over the cliff.

“Careful, little one,” Xena, ever the cautious Mom, said easily.

Sasha, looking very much like a smaller and younger version of her mother, grinned back at her Mom.

“You can get through later today, I think,” Sasha commented.

“I think so too. Will you be okay riding with Clement later?” Xena asked.

“Yes, he’s nice.”

It was indeed late afternoon when enough of a treacherous path had been cleared.

“I’m going to try it,” Xena said firmly.

“You can’t! Think of your family!” one of the healers protested, wiping his grime covered face off with the sleeve of his tunic.

“I am, my mate is on the other side of those rocks and may be dying,” Xena’s bright blue eyes flashed.

The warrior looked down questioning into the blue eyes of her daughter.

“You can make it, mom,” Sasha said, giving her mom a firm nod.

With barely room enough for a human being to slide past the rockslide onto the other side and open road, Xena carefully began leading Argo slowly along the track over the protest of several of the healers.

Clement shook his head in amazement when the warrior reached the other side. He knew it must have been only the bond between the amazing woman and her horse that had kept the animal calm and stable at such dangerous footing.

“Take care of Sasha,” she called to Clement and the healer and her daughter both waved and smiled at Xena.

The warrior grinned and mounted her horse easily and was flying down the road towards the village before most of the healers had started breathing normally again.

Clement turned to the rest of them. “Come on, we’ve still got to clear enough room to get the supplies through.”

“Patron, what’s the must secure building in the village?” Gabrielle asked while Jaeger and Eponin were going through the village collecting weapons and placing them along the upper battlements of the wall and near the gate.

“The temple,” he answered with a frown and both he and the bard looked around at the building they were in.

Unlike most of the buildings in the village, which were made of wood, this building was made of stone with windows that were very narrow and high set in the walls. The doors were of thick wood and solid. The bard began to nod slightly and her eyes narrowed.

“What are you thinking, Gabrielle?” Patron questioned.

“Of giving them what they want,” she answered distractedly.

Eponin and Jaeger entered the temple and went immediately to the Amazon Queen.

“When the bandits come back tell them we need time to gather the valuables together. Buy us another two candle-marks, tell them everyone but you is sick and it’ll take you time to gather everything together, especially in this damned rain,” Gabrielle instructed, trying to keep her eyes focused.

“Okay,” Eponin said questioningly.

“Next, we need to move all the villagers to the inn and get them out of here. Then we need to move in several large chests and weigh them down with rocks, bricks, whatever you can find to make them very heavy and top them off with some of the gold and silver the villagers have stashed,” Gabrielle instructed.

“What have you got in mind?” Patron demanded.

“How do you catch mice in a trap?” she asked with a smile.

“Bait a trap with cheese or bread,” he answered with a smile. “You make them think we’ve got a fortune in the chest and that it’ll take several of them to move those chests and lock them in. What about the ones waiting outside?”

“Well, I know how well Eponin can fight, I’ll trust her word about Jaeger and I think I can get a couple of shots off with a bow. We hope to take enough of them out and cause the others to run or we fall back to plan Beta.”

“Which is?” Patron questioned with a smirk, admiring the bard’s quick mind.

“Any villagers that can stand and walk a few feet come out of buildings and begin walking towards the bandits but not close enough to be stabbed,” Gabrielle said grimly.

“By the gods!” Eponin exclaimed. “You’re hoping the sight of the villagers will scare them off!”

“It scared me the first day,” Gabrielle admitted. “All I wanted to do was get out of here before I caught whatever it was.”

“What would stop them from torching the village from the outside once they run?” Patron asked.

“They’d risk burning their mates alive in the temple,” Eponin responded with a grin.

“And this damned rain,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Let’s get moving,” Patron suggested, leaning against the wall for support as he stood up. He motioned Gabrielle back down onto her pallet. “You stay there! You’re going to need your energy soon for your plan. I’ll get some of the villagers on their feet and positioned around the temple for your play, bard,” he grinned.

“Make sure they know not to get too close to the bandits, I don’t want them killed when the bandits panic,” Gabrielle reminded.

“Got it,” he said and stumbled to begin helping the villagers out of the temple and towards the inn. Eponin and Jaeger were already moving pallets out of the stone building.

“Xena,” the bard whispered as another wave of stomach cramps seized her. “I wish you were here.”

As Gabrielle expected, the bandits granted them the extra time that Eponin asked for and the trap was baited and all the villagers moved barely within the time but everything was set. The bard was sitting behind a barrel near the inn with a bow and a quiver full of arrows and she knew that Patron was waiting just inside the door.

Eponin had ordered the young man to stay near Gabrielle and help her to stand if necessary.

The only “villagers” in sight were Eponin and Jaeger. Both were in their cloaks, hiding their swords from the bandits and Jaeger was leaning heavily on a crutch as they opened the gates.

The bard couldn’t hear the words exchanged between Eponin and the bandit leader but he seemed pleased and rode into the village easily, not even really looking around. Gabrielle shook her head, wishing for four more people on their feet with bows on the walls. The rest of the bandits followed him into the gates and again the bard shook her head at their obvious lack of experience in raiding.

Eponin pointed to the temple and the leader spurred his horse into a trot and dismounted quickly, running into the temple without even looking around. Gabrielle could see Eponin’s exasperated look as she caught up with the bandits at the temple and shook her head at Gabrielle.

Within moments the bandit leader was back at the door.

“I need most of you inside to move these chests, they weigh a ton. Two more of you go hitch your horses to a wagon and bring it here,” he ordered.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she watched seven of the bandits follow their leader into the temple and two more head towards the nearest wagon, beginning to throw the sacks of grain stacked in it. The rest of the bandits dismounted and stood waiting.

Eponin and Jaeger moved closer to the temple door and looked at Gabrielle. The bard stood up, leaning heavily against the tavern wall and Patron moved out of the door quickly to stand next to her. The bard nodded as she pulled the bow upright.

Eponin and Jaeger threw their cloaks back and drew their swords swiftly, surprising the bandits standing nearby. As Eponin jumped off the steps of the temple to meet the first ones Jaeger turned and slammed a bar across the doors, in between the handles. In a moment pounding and shouting were coming from inside the temple.

Jaeger began swinging her sword and her crutch, using both as weapons with a battle cry that sent a chill up Gabrielle’s spine.

Patron leaned over and helped Gabrielle pull the string of the bow back and the bard quickly aimed and watched as one of the bandits fell with an arrow in his back.

Two bandits fell to Eponin’s sword and another one fell permanently under Jaeger’s sword and crutch. The two who had gone for the wagon began running up to help their friends and Patron helped Gabrielle pull the bow back again and one fell with an arrow in his side and the other turned in surprise and was flattened by a crutch whacking him over the head.

The remaining two bandits grabbed the reins of their horses and mounted quickly and headed for the gate.

Eponin checked the wooden bar holding the temple doors shut and then turned with Jaeger and rushed over to the bard.

Gabrielle smiled and dropped the bow.

“My Queen, your plan worked wonderfully!” Eponin grinned.

“Queen?” Patron questioned, his eyebrows raised high and Gabrielle couldn’t help but smile at his confusion.

“Meet Eponin and Jaeger of the Black Forest Amazons,” she said simply.

“And this is our Queen, Gabrielle,” Eponin continued.

“I thought you wanted the job,” Gabrielle asked with a slight smile.

“Only if you’re tired of it, my Queen,” Eponin said seriously. “I was wrong.”

Gabrielle looked down at her trembling hands and back up at Eponin. “You are my Regent, Eponin,” she said firmly and held up her hands, now covered in splotches. “You may get the job sooner than you wish.”

The bard felt darkness claiming her once more.

“Come on, swallow, little one,” a voice commanded and the bard fought against it and the foul tasting stuff but someone quickly held her nose, forcing Gabrielle to swallow in order to start breathing again.

Gabrielle flailed on the bed and felt her arms being held tightly and a voice soothing her.

“It’s okay, shhhh, it’s okay, little one.”

The bard opened her eyes and smiled at the blue ones looking at her.

“Xena!” she managed to whisper.

“I’m here,” Xena smiled down at her mate, running her hand gently over the bard’s hair.

“You’re late,” Gabrielle muttered.

“I know, I’m sorry. I could only move a mountain so fast,” Xena said softly.

“Are the villagers okay?”

“They’re going to be fine, thanks to you keeping them alive. I came with the antidote for the poisoned grain.”

“How’s Patron? And where’s Sasha?”

“Better than you, little one,” Xena smiled. “He’s up and moving slowly. Sasha is with the healers, they’re following behind.”

“How am I?” the bard finally asked.

“The splotches are fading and you should be on your feet in a couple of days. I wouldn’t go running up and down the mountain for a week though,” the warrior reassured her mate.

“I’ve missed you,” Gabrielle said simply as she drifted off toward sleep again.

“Me too, my love,” Xena said softly.

Xena smiled as Eponin stood in the doorway of the room in the inn where they had moved the unconscious bard. She stood up and walked over to the Amazon.

“I still can’t believe you’re alive,” Xena said.

“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it when the bard traveling through the area said you both were alive and in the North,” Eponin answered and walked into the room past Xena and sat down on the bed next to Gabrielle. “Xena, Brutus told us that Gabrielle betrayed us to save you as he nailed Ephiny and Solari to those crosses.”

“Oh gods,” Xena said softly. “They died thinking she betrayed you?”

“Yes, we all thought that and then I found out you were alive, I lost it. That’s why I came looking for Gabrielle, to kill her in a challenge.”

“We didn’t betray you, Pony,” Xena said softly.

“I know that now,” the Amazon responded. “Ephiny and Solari will know it on the other side too. It took a long time to heal from my physical wounds, Xena, and it will take even longer to heal from the emotional ones. I watched Ephiny and Solari crucified.”

“I know what that’s like,” Xena said softly, remembering how Caesar had Gabrielle crucified in front of her while Xena was chained, forced to watch as Gabrielle slowly died a painful death.

“They thought I was dead and threw me on a pile of Amazon bodies. I was able to crawl away after sunset. I… my mind snapped,” Eponin admitted. “Clawing my way through the bodies of my sisters was too much. Byblos found me hiding in a hollow log the next evening when the Romans became lax in their security.”

“Brutus died looking in my eyes, Pony.” Xena growled, remembering the blood of the Roman general on her hands and the life fading from his eyes on the battlefield.

“Gabrielle told me, thank you for avenging us,” she said simply.

“We’re not done yet. Antony still has to pay,” Xena growled.

“You’re still going to go after him after all this time? It’s been six summers.”

“Gabrielle swore a blood oath at our grieving ritual and I swore one to my Queen as Consort and Champion,” Xena said easily.

“Why haven’t you gone against him before?” Eponin questioned, watching Gabrielle sleeping.

“He’s in Egypt with Cleopatra most of the time. Cleo is a friend and I don’t want to move against her to take him out. War is coming between Octavian and Antony, that’s when I’ll move,” Xena stated.

Eponin looked up at Xena and frowned. “Tell me something, Xena.”

“Anything, Pony.”

“When did you two become immortal?”

Xena’s eyebrows furrowed as she tried to sort out the question. “Immortal? We’re not immortal,” Xena protested and pointed to Gabrielle, “And there’s your proof, she almost died from that poison.”

“Xena neither one of you have aged in the last six years. Not a gray hair on you and you’re how old?”

“Almost 38 summers,” Xena continued to frown.

“Not a wrinkle and not a gray hair on you nor on Gabrielle,” Pony pointed out. “How old is Solan?”

“Sixteen, almost seventeen,” Xena answered quietly. “We are not immortal, Pony.”

“Then I want the recipe to whatever you two are drinking,” Eponin grinned.

Xena managed to smirk back at the warrior.

“What now, Eponin?”

“We go back to the Black Forest,” Pony shrugged. “We continue rebuilding and stay away from anyone else.”

“I think Gabrielle and I will want to go with you. There were two survivors that Hercules and Iolaus found and they’re with Eddval, our adopted German family. We were going to take them to the Northern Amazons but things got a little complicated.”

Eponin smirked, “When doesn’t it get complicated with you, Xena?”

The warrior glared but smiled after a moment and shrugged, admitting the truth in the words.

“Who survived?”

“The baker Sterope and the child Tyro,” Xena answered.

“Sterope’s a good Amazon, will they return to us?”

“They wanted to go to the Northern Amazons but it wasn’t safe for us to take them there when we were at Eddval’s last time. Sterope will want to be with you again,” Xena smiled.

“We will rebuild, it’ll take time but we will rebuild,” Eponin promised.

The warrior could hear and sense the other woman approaching as Xena sat on the north wall of the village, keeping an eye out for the healers and the supplies desperately needed by the village that evening.

Jaeger leaned against the battlement, seeming to watch the road with Xena.

“Guten Abend, meine freund,” the German Amazon said simply.

“Evening,” Xena answered easily. After a moment she glanced at the warrior next to her and took in the young woman closely. “You want to try and kill me like you promised?”

“Nein,” Jaeger said simply.

The Viking was taller than Gabrielle but not as tall as Xena, with a shock of black hair that seemed to always be ruffled and spikey. Jaeger had clipped the sides short but the back was long and braided, Viking style. The grey eyes were bright and quick and the body lean and muscled.

“You know what Eponin asked me earlier?” Xena ventured.

“Of course not,” Jaeger responded. “What?”

“How I became immortal, she swears Gabrielle and I haven’t aged in six years. I told her we weren’t immortal but I think I should be asking you that question, you haven’t aged any, Hallvor,” Xena commented, her eyes watching the warrior closely.

“No, just a bit,” the warrior agreed. “You grew up from the young and angry warrior you were then.”

“I’ve changed a lot,” Xena admitted. “You haven’t. It’s been almost twenty winters and you were, what? About seventeen?”

“Yes, that would make me what, Xena? Almost 35, almost as old as you, yes?

“Have you aged any?”

“A couple of years, maybe,” Jaeger answered.

“The Amazons don’t know?” Xena frowned.

“No, I may not have aged much but I have learned a few things, my friend,” Jaegar stated. “Including how to control certain things.”

“Seems we’ve both changed,” Xena stated.

“Yes, and I’ve seen the reason for your change,” Jaeger grinned at Xena’s raised eyebrows. “Gabrielle seems remarkable.”

The warrior felt herself begin blushing slightly. “She is, best thing that ever happened in my life.”

“Good, maybe someday I’ll find my mate,” Jaeger said somewhat wistfully, turning to watch the road.

“Hallvor,” Xena began to speak and the Viking held up her hand.

“You rescued me, Xena, but my heart was never yours and you never pretended different. Then you used me and threw me aside when I was no longer useful. What happened simply was, that was a very long time ago. It’s a small thing.”

“What have you been doing for the past years?” Xena asked, grateful to change the subject.

“Mercenary mostly, even served with a Northern Roman Legion for awhile,” the warrior grinned at Xena’s raised eyebrows and then laughed. “It was…. Interesting. None of them ever figured out I was female during the five years of my service. I learned a lot about the Romans and their fighting, it will come in handy when they move against the North again.”

“Not as reckless and blind as you once were?” Xena teased.

“No, I don’t want to behead every single Roman I see now. I learned how to think and plan ahead,” Jaeger grinned.

“Not so much the berserker? Rushing headfirst into battle, the odds be damned?”

“Werserker,” the Viking corrected with a smile. “It’s still there.”

Xena nodded and looked back at the village and smiled. Some of the villagers were beginning to get back on their feet and move around slowly, cleaning up and moving things back into place and drawing fresh water from the well for the animals and humans still sick from the grain.

Jaeger grinned at Patron and two other villagers guarding the doors to the temple and at the shouts from inside. So far the doors were still holding the bandits trapped inside.

“If the healers don’t get here tonight then they should be in the morning,” Xena commented.

“Good, then you can send for the militia from the next village to come and get those idiots,” Jaeger grinned.

“You know, you’re Greek has gotten a lot better except when you’re around Eponin,” Xena questioned with a grin.

“Yeah, I can’t tell them that this young and lost German has actually been running around the world for the past sixteen years without explaining a lot of things I’m not ready to yet,” Jaeger commented.

“I won’t say anything, I know what it’s like fighting against your past,” Xena said softly.

“Thank you,” Jaeger said, sighing with relief and then frowned. “That would mean you not saying anything to your mate?”

“I won’t,” Xena stated.

“Hmmm, not sure if I like that, Xena,” Jaeger frowned. “Mates shouldn’t have secrets.”

“Friends sometimes keep secrets for friends,” Xena countered. “Don’t you think that Eponin and the others would accept everything about you?”

“I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to risk that.”

“I didn’t think Gabrielle wanted me as a mate and I was willing to keep my feelings a secret from her and live with it. I almost lost her because of it,” Xena advised.

“You know me and how I got my back broken by my own people, would you accept me?” Jaeger countered with an angry look.

“I already did, remember? I didn’t leave you because of what you are, Hall,” Xena asked and then turned towards the steps, leaving the Viking with her thoughts.
It took five days for the bard and the village to be totally on its feet again. The total remaining villagers numbered fifteen with four of those being children.

Gabrielle reassured Xena and Sasha with a smile as the bard tied on her travel packs to her horse, it having survived as well by eating grass instead of grain.

“Hey, Hall,” Xena called and tossed a pack to the Viking Amazon.

Xena didn’t notice Gabrielle’s narrowed eyes.

Gabrielle turned to the villagers who stood around to see the women on their journey. She grinned and hugged Patron tightly.

“Thanks for everything,” he said with a smile.

“You’re welcome, and thanks for holding me.”

The young man began blushing and quickly looked at Xena and began stammering at her withering gaze. “I… uh… you’re welcome. I know you and the warrior are together but if anything ever happens, I’d be glad to hold you again,” he whispered.

“Thank you, Patron,” Gabrielle smiled and kissed his cheek and began hugging some of the other villagers she had gotten to know.

Urban bowed slightly and hugged her. “You saved the village and almost died doing it. Is there any way we can repay you?” he asked.

“Just rebuild, Urban,” Xena grinned, answering for both of them.

“We will, thanks to all of you. You will always be welcome here as honored guests!” he announced loudly to the cheers of the villagers and Gabrielle blushed as she mounted her horse.

The cheers followed them out of the village gate.

Eponin grinned at Gabrielle’s blush and Jaeger merely shrugged as they followed Xena and Gabrielle down the road.
Gabrielle fell back to ride alongside Eponin after they had been on the road for a couple of candle-marks.

During her recovery from the poisoning, the Amazon Queen and weapons-master had talked endlessly about how Eponin had survived the Roman attack. They also talked of how she had begun to rebuild the tribe with the few survivors and were beginning to take in outcast women from the surrounding Germanic families and villages.

Gabrielle had told Eponin about her life with Xena after the Amazons had been attacked. Pony had grinned at the thought of Xena finally getting Ares out of their lives, even if it had almost killed the warrior and Gabrielle again.

Eponin pointed to the sais at the bard’s boots.

“I remember teaching you the beginnings of how to fight with a staff because you wouldn’t kill,” the Amazon stated.

“I remember,” Gabrielle smiled sadly. “I never really changed in that viewpoint, I just didn’t have a choice.”

“Everything happened so fast when the Romans attacked us and you exchanged yourself for the ones who had been captured. When I saw you after the Ides of March and Caesar assassination, you were deathly sick from the crucifixion and couldn’t use your hands yet. We never did catch up on how you became a fighter,” Pony said.

“What did you know?” Gabrielle asked.

“We received word from Hercules and Iolaus that you had been found and returned to Xena while she was still in the north, keeping her pregnancy a secret from Ares. The message said that you had been a slave but were healthy and safe. Later, after you sent us north towards the Black Forest, word spread that you had been a gladiator in Rome for Caesar,” Pony frowned. “We knew that couldn’t be right because Caesar was looking for you to hold you hostage against Xena.”

“It was true,” Gabrielle grinned slightly at Eponin’s surprised look. “He didn’t know who I was. I had been taken as a slave and sold to a gladiator school. I had to learn to kill and fight or die. I choose to learn and survive to get back to Xena,” Gabrielle began explaining. “Brutus recognized me but kept quiet, protecting me and eventually bought me. Caesar found out his favorite General had taken an interest in female gladiators and demanded to see me. I became one of his fighters and won my freedom in the Circus.”

“Oh Sweet Artemis!” Pony whispered. “A gladiator?”

Gabrielle nodded unhappily. “Yes, I became a trained killer,” she said bitterly.

“You survived for your mate and then you survived being crucified to save the Amazons,” Epony frowned. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“Forget it, Brutus betrayed all of us,” Gabrielle said.

“What happened? He was your friend and then he betrayed us and Xena said he kidnapped Sasha?”

“I don’t know. When he returned me to Xena we were friends. I knew he was in love with me, or lust, I don’t know,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “I don’t know what happened. I think something snapped when he killed Caesar somehow and he found himself fighting Antony for control of Rome. I think he crossed a line somewhere in his soul and was determined to have everything that he wanted, no matter what the cost.”

“And he wanted you,” Eponin said grimly.

“Yes, he kidnapped Sasha to gain favor with Ares and he was hoping I’d be captured. If he couldn’t have me willingly, he was willing to force me.”

“Gods, does everyone fall in love with you?” Pony grinned at the exasperated look the bard gave her.

“Not everyone!” Gabrielle protested. “You didn’t! Your heart is elsewhere!”

Pony’s eyes went wide and the Amazon began blushing. “I don’t know what you mean!” she whispered, her eyes glancing at Xena and Jaeger riding in front of them, with Sasha riding with Xena.

Gabrielle’s eyes caught the glance and grinned even wider.

“Tell me something, Pony,” she lowered her voice. “Why aren’t you with Jaeger?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Eponin mumbled. “Oh Hades, is it obvious?”

“Just a little, but then people tell us Xena and I were the same way, everyone knew but us.” Gabrielle grinned.

“I don’t know. I think she’s interested and then she turns cold,” Eponin complained.

“Well, I think she’s got it bad for you,” Gabrielle smiled.

“Don’t take this wrong, but have you noticed something different between Xena and Jaeger? I don’t mean sexually, but…”

“Yeah, there’s something there, it’s like they know each other somehow,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Have you asked Xena?” Pony asked.

“Yes, she says it’s nothing.”

Eponin and Gabrielle continued on, both reflecting on their thoughts as they watched their warriors ahead of them.
The End
Beowulf and Grendel
Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle travel North with two Amazons to rectify one of Xena’s past mistakes and meets Beowulf, the Viking warrior.
Timeline in the Awakening story-line

Year and Events – BCE: Before Common Era

The Furies, There, Done That, Caesar defeats Pompey, and Gabrielle become lovers. Gabrielle age 19, Xena age 26

Library of Alexandria burned by Caesar. married 27, Gabrielle 20 Gabrielle taken as slave, age 21 “Gladitor, Bard”

Sasha born – Gabrielle a gladiator, returns to Xena

Caesar assassinated. Xena age 31, Gabrielle 24 (both stop aging)

Philippi – Brutus and Crassius defeated and killed, Sasha four years old.

Sasha five, Solan 15 – “Amazons of the North”

Sasha age 6 – “Wild Hunt”

Sasha age 7, Solan 17 –

“Twilight of a God” (Ares imprisoned);

Gabrielle 29, Xena 36

“Beowulf” – Gabrielle 31, Xena 38

———————————————

The warrior could hear and sense the other woman approaching as Xena sat on the north wall of the village, keeping an eye out for the healers and the supplies desperately needed by the village that evening. Thankfully the rain had stopped, the warrior thought to herself.

Jaeger leaned against the battlement, seeming to watch the road with Xena.

“Guten Abend, meine freund,” the German Amazon said simply.

“Evening,” Xena answered easily. After a moment she glanced at the Viking next to her and took in the young woman closely. “You want to try and kill me like you promised?”

“Nein,” Jaeger said simply.

The Viking was taller than Gabrielle but not as tall as Xena with a shock of black hair that seemed to always be ruffled and spikey. Jaeger had clipped the sides short but the back was long and braided, Viking style. The grey eyes were bright and quick and the body lean and muscled.

“You know what Eponin asked me earlier?” Xena ventured.

“Of course not, what?” Jaeger responded.

“How I became immortal, she swears Gabrielle and I haven’t aged in six years. I told we weren’t immortal but I think I should be asking you that question, you haven’t aged any, Hallvor,” Xena commented, her eyes watching the warrior closely.

“No, just a bit,” the warrior agreed. “You grew up from the young and angry warrior you were then.”

“I’ve changed a lot,” Xena admitted. “It doesn’t look like you’ve aged a day. It’s been almost twenty winters and you were, what? About seventeen?”

“Yes, that would make me what, Xena? Almost 35, almost as old as you, yes?

“Have you aged any?”

“A couple of years, maybe,” Jaeger answered.

“The Amazons don’t know?” Xena frowned.

“No, I may not have aged much but I have learned a few things, my friend,” Jaegar stated. “Including how to control certain things.”

“Seems we’ve both changed,” Xena stated.

“Yes, and I’ve seen the reason for your change,” Jaeger grinned at Xena’s raised eyebrows. “Gabrielle seems remarkable.”

The warrior felt herself begin blushing slightly. “She is, best thing that ever happened in my life.”

“Good, maybe someday I’ll find my mate,” Jaeger said somewhat wistfully, turning to watch the road.

“Hallvor,” Xena began to speak and the Viking held up her hand.

“You rescued me, Xena, but my heart was never yours and you never pretended different. Then you used me and threw me aside when I was no longer useful. What happened simply was, that was a very long time ago. It’s a small thing.”

“What have you been doing for the past years?” Xena asked, grateful to change the subject.

“Mercenary mostly, even served with a Northern Roman Legion for awhile,” the warrior grinned at Xena’s raised eyebrows and then laughed. “It was…. Interesting. None of them ever figured out I was female during the five years of my service. I learned a lot about the Romans and their fighting, it will come in handy when they move against the North again.”

“Not as reckless and blind as you once were?” Xena teased.

“No, I don’t want to behead every single Roman I see now. I learned how to think and plan ahead,” Jaeger grinned.

“Not so much the berserker? Rushing headfirst into battle, the odds be damned?”

“Werserker,” the Viking corrected with a smile. “It’s still there.”

Xena nodded and looked back at the village and smiled.

Some of the villagers were beginning to get back on their feet and move around slowly, cleaning up and moving things back into place and drawing fresh water from the well for the animals and humans still sick from the grain.

Xena still couldn’t believe the misfortune that had hit them recently. She and Gabrielle had only meant to travel through the village, not even stopping for breakfast. That had ended when the bard had entered the village ahead of Xena and Sasha only to discover everyone in the village down with what appeared to be a plague.

Xena had been forced to leave Gabrielle in the village while she and Sasha went for healers. Everything had gone wrong, reluctant healers, never ending rain and a rock-slide delayed the warrior by days. Leaving Gabrielle to tend to a small village of dying villagers by herself.

On Gabrielle’s side it hadn’t been easy either; dying villagers, never ending rain, bandits and the fact that it wasn’t a plague but poisoned grain. The bard hadn’t realized the true cause of the illness until after she had consumed some of the bread made from the grain, becoming sick from the poison herself.

Then Eponin had seemingly risen from the dead and returned as Gabrielle took sick. The Amazon was hunting for Gabrielle, having been told that the bard and Xena had betrayed the Amazons to the Romans and leading to the destruction of the majority of Amazons in the Black Forest.

Eponin and her new Amazon sister, Jaeger, had found Gabrielle but the bard collapsed from the poisoning. Eventually the bard, Amazons and one of the villagers dealt with illness, rain and bandits and settled their past, the truth finally coming out.

Xena had gotten around the rock-slide ahead of the healers and Sasha in time to save Gabrielle and most of the villagers with the antidote. The warrior had been very pleased to find that Gabrielle’s planning against the bandits had led to several of them being trapped in the temple and several killed without any loss to the village or Amazons.

Jaeger grinned at Patron and two other villagers guarding the doors to the temple and at the shouts from inside. So far the doors were still holding the bandits trapped inside.

“If the healers don’t get here tonight then they should be in the morning,” Xena commented.

“Good, then you can send for the militia from the next village to come and get those idiots,” Jaeger grinned.

“You know, you’re Greek has gotten a lot better except when you’re around Eponin,” Xena questioned with a grin.

“Yeah, I can’t tell them that this young and lost German has actually been running around the world for the past sixteen years without explaining a lot of things I’m not ready to yet,” Jaeger commented.

“I won’t say anything, I know what it’s like fighting against your past,” Xena said softly.

“Thank you,” Jaeger said, sighing with relief and then frowned. “That would mean you not saying anything to your mate?”

“I won’t,” Xena stated.

“Hmmm, not sure if I like that, Xena,” Jaeger frowned. “Mates shouldn’t have secrets.”

“Friends sometimes keep secrets for friends,” Xena countered. “Don’t you think that Eponin and the others would accept everything about you?”

“I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to risk that.”

“I didn’t think Gabrielle wanted me as a mate and I was willing to keep my feelings a secret from her and live with it. I almost lost her because of it,” Xena advised.

“You know me and how I got my back broken by my own people, would you accept me?” Jaeger countered with an angry look.

“I already did, remember? I didn’t leave you because of what you are, Hall,” Xena asked and then turned towards the steps, leaving the Viking with her thoughts.

It took five days for the bard and the village to be totally on its feet again. The total remaining villagers numbered eighteen with four of those being children.

Gabrielle reassured Xena and Sasha with a smile that she was ready to travel as the bard tied on her travel packs to her horse, it having survived as well. The bard glanced up gratefully at the sun as they prepared to leave the village. It had been a long few days in the rain and Gabrielle was grateful just to be alive at the moment.

“Hey, Hall,” Xena called and tossed a pack to the Viking Amazon.

Xena didn’t notice Gabrielle’s narrowed eyes.

Gabrielle turned to the villagers who stood around to see the women on their journey. She grinned and hugged Patron tightly.

“Thanks for everything,” he said with a smile.

“You’re welcome, and thanks for holding me.”

The young man began blushing and quickly looked at Xena and began stammering at her withering gaze. “I… uh… you’re welcome. I know you and the warrior are together but if anything ever happens, I’d be glad to hold you again,” he whispered.

“Thank you, Patron,” Gabrielle smiled and kissed his cheek and began hugging some of the other villagers she had gotten to know.

Urban bowed slightly and hugged her. “You saved the village and almost died doing it. Is there any way we can repay you?” he asked.

“Just rebuild, Urban,” Gabrielle grinned.

“We will, thanks to all of you. You will always be welcome here as honored guests!” he announced loudly to the cheers of the villagers and Gabrielle blushed as she mounted her horse.

The cheers followed them out of the village gate.

Eponin grinned at Xena’s blush and Jaeger merely shrugged as they followed Xena and Gabrielle down the road.

Gabrielle fell back to ride alongside Eponin after they had been on the road for a couple of candle-marks.

During her recovery from the poisoning, the Amazon Queen and weapons-master had talked endlessly about how Eponin had survived the Roman attack and how she had begun to rebuild the tribe with the few survivors and were beginning to take in outcast women from the surrounding Germanic families and villages.

Gabrielle had told Eponin about her life with Xena after the Amazons had been attacked. Pony had grinned at the thought of Xena finally getting Ares out of their lives, even if it had almost killed the warrior and Gabrielle again.

Eponin pointed to the sais at the bard’s boots.

“I remember teaching you the beginnings of how to fight with a staff because you wouldn’t kill,” the Amazon stated.

“I remember,” Gabrielle smiled sadly. “I never really changed in that viewpoint, I just didn’t have a choice.”

“Everything happened so fast when the Romans attacked us and you exchanged yourself for the ones who had been captured. When I saw you after the Ides of March and Caesar assassination, you were deathly sick from the crucifixion and couldn’t use your hands yet. We never did catch up on how you became a fighter,” Pony said.

“What did you know?” Gabrielle asked.

“We received word from Hercules and Iolaus that you had been found and returned to Xena while she was still in the north, keeping her pregnancy a secret from Ares. The message said that you had been a slave but were healthy and safe. Later, after you sent us north towards the Black Forest, word spread that you had been a gladiator in Rome for Caesar,” Pony frowned. “We knew that couldn’t be right because Caesar was looking for you to hold you hostage against Xena.”

“It was true,” Gabrielle grinned slightly at Eponin’s surprised look. “He didn’t know who I was. I had been taken as a slave and sold to a gladiator school. I had to learn to kill and fight or die. I choose to learn and survive to get back to Xena,” Gabrielle began explaining. The bard took in the smell of the trees and the sound of the birds, remembering a time when they were a distant thought behind the walls of a Roman villa, behind the walls and chains of the gladiator school. “Brutus recognized me but kept quiet, protecting me and bought me. Caesar found out his favorite General had taken an interest in female gladiators and demanded to see me. I became one of his fighters and won my freedom in the Circus.”

“Oh Sweet Artemis!” Pony whispered. “A gladiator?”

Gabrielle nodded unhappily. “Yes, I became a trained killer,” she said bitterly.

“You survived for your mate and then you survived being crucified to save the Amazons,” Eponin frowned. “Gabrielle, I’m sorry I doubted you.”

“Forget it, Brutus betrayed all of us,” Gabrielle said.

“What happened? He was your friend and then he betrayed us and Xena said he kidnapped Sasha?”

“I don’t know. When he returned me to Xena we were friends. I knew he was in love with me, or lust, I don’t know,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “I don’t know what happened. I think something snapped when he killed Caesar somehow and he found himself fighting Antony for control of Rome. I think he crossed a line somewhere in his soul and was determined to have everything that he wanted, no matter what the cost.”

“And he wanted you,” Eponin said grimly.

“Yes, he kidnapped Sasha to gain favor with Ares and he was hoping I’d be captured. If he couldn’t have me willingly, he was willing to force me.” Gabrielle felt her jaw tightening at the thought of more rapes at the hands of the Romans and almost growled.

“Gods, does everyone fall in love with you?” Pony grinned at the exasperated look the bard gave her.

“Not everyone!” Gabrielle protested, regaining her smile. “You didn’t! Your heart is elsewhere!”

Pony’s eyes went wide and the Amazon began blushing. “I don’t know what you mean!” she whispered, her eyes glancing at Xena and Jaeger riding in front of them, with Sasha riding with Xena.

Gabrielle’s eyes caught the glance and grinned even wider.

“Tell me something, Pony,” she lowered her voice. “Why aren’t you with Jaeger?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Eponin mumbled and then gave up the pretense. “Oh Hades, is it obvious?”

“Just a little, but then people tell us Xena and I were the same way, everyone knew but us.” Gabrielle grinned.

“I don’t know. I think she’s interested and then she turns cold,” Eponin complained.

“Well, I think she’s got it bad for you,” Gabrielle smiled.

“Don’t take this wrong, but have you noticed something different between Xena and Jaeger? I don’t mean sexually, but…”

“Yeah, there’s something there, it’s like they know each other somehow,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Have you asked Xena?” Pony asked.

“Yes, she says it’s nothing.”

Eponin and Gabrielle continued on, both reflecting on their thoughts as they watched their warriors ahead of them.

“I hope Mom isn’t going to worry too much about this little side trip of ours,” Gabrielle muttered as she curled up in Xena’s arms that night.

“She shouldn’t, we just didn’t expect to take another trip to Eddval’s so soon,” Xena smiled, running her fingers through Gabrielle’s short hair and feeling the bard snuggle down against her.

“You think the message will get to her?”

“Should, Clement, the healer, promised me he’d send a reliable messenger to both our families.”

“I think Mom wants to marry that farmer next to her, the widower,” Gabrielle commented after a moment.

“Be a good match, I think,” Xena said simply, holding her mate close and raising up momentarily to check that Sasha’s bedroll was filled and the child sleeping.

“I think so to, she actually blushes when she talks about him,” the bard grinned.

Both mates lay looking at the stars. After a few moments Xena could tell Gabrielle wasn’t done talking but was nervous, the bard’s hand playing over Xena’s nightshift and ribs. The warrior waited for her bard.

“Are you going to hunt tomorrow on the way?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“Yes, what is it, little one?”

“It’s almost a full moon,” the bard said softly, her fingers nervously pulling at Xena’s clothing, unconsciously revealing her tension.

“I’ll take the flask with me,” Xena said simply and pulled the bard close for a tight hug and heard Gabrielle sigh with relief.

After a few moments Xena found herself frowning with thought. “Are you going to tell Pony?”

“About?” Gabrielle asked slowly and Xena’s eyes narrowed, sensing that Gabrielle knew exactly what she was asking but was dodging the issue.

“About the bacchae thing,” Xena stated simply. “About needing blood during the full moon?”

“It’s not something that I go around advertising,” the bard snapped.

“I know, but you want Pony to be your Regent or even Queen, shouldn’t she know this?” Xena questioned.

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle admitted. “I don’t want to find out. We just patched up our relationship and I don’t want to risk rocking that boat right now.”

“She’ll accept this, it’s not like you had a choice in the matter!” Xena urged.

“It’s hard enough for some people to accept that my father is the god of the Sun, how are they supposed to accept the fact that I drink animal blood, your blood and sprout fangs?” the bard demanded.

“The Amazons accepted me with my past,” Xena argued.

“That’s because you were changing your future, this isn’t something I can change. We’ve tried,” Gabrielle countered, her jaw taking on that stubborn set the warrior knew so well.

Xena knew that any further argument would be hopeless that night and let it drop.

Xena found herself in the middle of three secrets and wasn’t pleased with keeping any of them. The past she shared with Jaeger, Jaeger’s secret nature, and now Gabrielle’s bacchae side. The fact that the bard had been bitten and turned into a fledgling bacchae and had tasted Bacchus’ blood. Only two drops but enough to change her when she had died at the hands of Caesar, ever since then the bard needed animal or human blood, usually once a month. Sometimes she also needed the sexual contact along with the blood. Fortunately, Xena had accepted that about her mate and because Xena was the daughter of deities herself, Gabrielle’s bite didn’t harm her.

It still wasn’t something the bard wanted normal humans to know about and Xena could understand that but she felt Eponin should know.

The problem would be convincing Gabrielle to risk that trust so soon after Pony had wanted the bard’s head.

The night suddenly felt long and somewhat lonely, even with Gabrielle in her arms.

Xena wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle wanted some private time with her warrior away from the others the next night. Since Eponin and Jaeger knew they were mates they didn’t have to explain. The bard wasn’t about to explain to the two Amazons that, not only did she want some romantic time with Xena, she also needed the private time with Xena’s blood.

The warrior also wasn’t surprised when they had barely gotten away from the camp when Gabrielle turned and pulled Xena into a rough and passionate kiss that took the warrior’s breath away and made her knees weak. The warrior found herself backed into a tree and fought to maintain her balance in the dense woods as her bard attacked her. Xena could tell this was not one of those times when her bard wanted nice, gentle and slow lovemaking and growled in return, pulling Gabrielle off her feet as Xena responded to the kiss, the bard wrapping her legs around the warrior.

Xena lowered her bard to the grass as Gabrielle continued to hold tightly to her warrior, both of them moaning, hands quickly pulling away clothing as their tongues dueled for dominance. The warrior felt her heart almost skip a beat with emotion as her body melded with the bards. Xena was always awed by the feelings and energy between the two of them, even after several years together the intensity didn’t seem to ebb or grow stale. Touching Gabrielle was as close to a religious experience as Xena could hope for and she relished every touch, every sound, every scent, and every electric spark that tingled between them.

Neither one of them knew who had gotten what clothing off the other one nor was Xena aware when Gabrielle’s fangs sank into her neck as Xena entered her mate, their bodies beginning to rock with the connection and building waves.

Ever since that first time Gabrielle bit into Xena’s neck in the bacchae cave, the warrior understood how victims could keep coming back for more, even to the point of dying. The magic surrounding the bacchae bite ensured that, the eroticism behind the bite capturing the victim in waves of orgasm and desire until they would beg to be bitten again and again. Combined with the fear, the sexual energy created by a bacchae was beyond anything Xena had ever felt.

The fact that it was Gabrielle biting her that night only added to the intensity. Xena already knew she was more than attracted to her young traveling companion but didn’t think Gabrielle was interested in her as a mate. The fear of falling to the bacchae bite, the sensuality of the bacchae, and having Gabrielle be the one to bite her, had given Xena such a rush through her body that she had never felt before. Xena still wasn’t sure where she had found the strength to resist long enough to attack Bacchus and end the nightmare, except that she had to save Gabrielle.

Even though Gabrielle was still uncomfortable with being part bacchae, Xena didn’t have a problem with it and welcomed the bite from her bard. Being the child of gods did have advantages, Xena thought whenever Gabrielle’s fangs sank into her neck. The bite draining her of a small amount of blood and bringing about some of the best sex and connection Xena had ever felt with anyone.

Xena felt herself whimpering as her body trembled and approached that wave of total loss of control. Then shock hit the warrior like a physical blow as Gabrielle’s fangs left her throat and the contact was broken.

“What?” she mumbled and then with her concentration on Gabrielle broken, she heard growls mixed with a sharp voice and shouting.

Without conscious thought, Xena was on her feet and running back to camp in an instant with Gabrielle on her heels.

Gabrielle slid to a stop and tried to mentally process the scene in front of her.

Xena was tackling a growling creature and Eponin and Sasha were in a tree, shouting and yelling. The full moon casting weird shadows through the tree branches adding to the strangeness of the scene of confusion..

Gabrielle rushed forward as Xena managed to stay behind the figure and lashed out with her hands, hitting several pressure points. The creature went limp just as Gabrielle reached them.

Xena, pushing the furry shadow off of her, looked up at her bard. “Get some ropes out of the saddle bags,” the warrior instructed as she stood up and tried to rearrange what few clothes she had on.

As Gabrielle rummaged through the packs Xena picked up the large figure and threw it over her shoulder. The bard realizing that she wasn’t wearing many clothes either and tried to pull her vest closed.

“Come on down, Pony, Sasha,” she called and walked back towards the fire and gently lowered the creature down on Jaeger’s bedding.

Gabrielle handed Xena the rope as Eponin and Sasha got down out of the tree and rushed up. The bard again found herself trying to process her thoughts as she realized that the furred creature was dressed in Jaeger’s clothing and probably was Jaeger.

The Viking Amazon was now covered in fur and larger with muscles standing out under the fur. What stunned the bard was that the head was more like a wolf than human, complete with muzzle and a full set of teeth.

Xena quickly bound the werewolf’s arms behind her and then her legs. Then the warrior released the nerve pinches. Instead of struggling against the ropes the werewolf turned away and whimpered.

“What in the name of Artemis is going on?” Eponin demanded loudly.

Xena gritted her teeth and quickly hugged Sasha and checked her daughter over head to toe. Finding the child okay the warrior smiled at her daughter and kissed the child’s forehead with a hug.

“Want to do me a favor,” the warrior asked the child who nodded enthusiastically. “Go and find our clothes?”

The child grinned and headed for the trees. Xena grinned a moment and then turned to Eponin and lost her smile.

“Jaeger suddenly grows fur and fangs,” Eponin shouted. “Gabrielle has bloody lips and fangs and your neck is bleeding! What is going on?!”

“Oh damn,” Xena muttered as she took in Gabrielle’s blushing face, yellow eyes and fangs. “Put some more wood on the fire, it’s going to be a long night,” she instructed as she pulled a blanket up over Jaeger’s wolf-human body.

Half a candle-mark later Xena sat down next to the fire and pulled the blanket back from Jaeger’s head. Eponin and Gabrielle gasped slightly at the sight of the Amazon Viking’s normal self but Xena didn’t seem surprised and merely untied Jaeger.

The Viking Amazon sat up slowly with her head down, not meeting anyone’s eyes.

Gabrielle put more wood on the fire, raising the heat around the space and pulling more light out of the flames.

“Okay, I owe Pony an explanation,” Gabrielle stated, sitting across the fire from Xena and Jaeger, next to Sasha, the child crawling into her lap. The bard wrapped one of the sleeping furs around the child and held her tight. Pony sat down in between Xena and Gabrielle. “It’s also obvious that you know more about Jaeger’s condition than you’ve let on,” the bard growled at her mate.

“I promised I’d keep quiet until she was ready to tell everyone,” Xena answered.

“You know her,” Gabrielle stated, her eyes narrowing.

“For nearly twenty years,” the warrior answered.

“What?” Pony demanded, “she can’t be more than seventeen some winters.”

“Actually I’m almost Xena’s age,” Jaeger finally spoke softly, her voice harsh and rough.

“Okay, who goes first?” Pony demanded.

“I will,” Gabrielle said flatly and began the long explanation of how she was now a partial bacchae. After a candle-mark the bard had finally finished, her eyes downcast and blushing, waiting for Eponin’s reaction.

“Well, that explains the fangs and blood,” Eponin commented and then smiled slightly. “Gabrielle, if Artemis accepts you then why should I have a problem with it?”

Xena could almost see Gabrielle’s muscles relaxing and the Amazon Queen smiled at her Regent. “Thank you, Eponin.”

“With everything we’ve all been through, I have a feeling this is a small thing,” Eponin commented.

“What happened tonight?” Xena asked the Amazon Regent.

“I was telling Sasha a story and we heard Jaeger thrashing in a nightmare. I got up to wake her up and calm her down and Sasha turned over to go to sleep. I shook Jaeger awake but she was still rattled so I laid down next to her and was holding her,” Eponin answered.

“Let me guess, things heated up between you two and then got weird,” Xena grinned a grim smile.

Eponin looked surprised and confused. “Yes, how did you know?”

“I’ve seen it before,” Xena answered softly and gently nudged Jaeger. “Your turn Hallvor.”

Jaeger/Hallvor shifted and looked uncomfortable. She unconsciously pulled at her clothes nervously.

“Many years ago I was a Viking warrior, a sword-maiden. Came my seventeenth year and my family was determined that I should finally marry. No one cared or had a problem with me being a warrior and dedicated to Odin but it was also expected that I would marry and provide children to a family in addition to fighting by my husband’s side,” Jaeger began, staring into the fire. “They also didn’t care that I preferred females in my bed rather than males, family obligation was still strong and I agreed to a marriage with a minor Jarl, a lord of the region.”

Jaeger glanced over at Eponin, “Hildgara was a lot like you,” she said softly. “She was the sister to Thorkin, the Jarl. He suspected our relationship and forbid us to see each other after the wedding.”

Gabrielle and Eponin noticed the Viking’s hands beginning to shake.

“Night before the wedding he found us together and stabbed Hildgara with a dagger and then tried to force me sexually. Something happened…” Jaeger pulled the blanket over her shoulders and was surprised when Xena placed her hand on the Viking’s shoulder, reassuringly.

“I knew I had werserker fury, I had gone battle mad a couple of times,” Jaeger continued.

“Werserker, like a berserker only your totem animal is a wolf instead of a bear,” Gabrielle commented.

“Yes, no one, including me, had any idea that I was a full werserker until that moment when I changed, like I was earlier. I killed Thorkin.” Hallvor hesisted. “Because he had killed his sister and he and I weren’t yet married when he tried to force me, I was spared a death sentence for his death. Instead I was exiled by my people, outlawed. My sister was given to his family as weregild payment for the two deaths.”

“Blood price,” Xena commented to Eponin, explaining weregild.

“As I was leaving the holding Thorkin’s brother attacked me and broke my back with a war hammer and dragged me outside the gates. Because I was declared wolfs-head, outlaw, no one could help me or would. I remember crawling to the woods to the creek.”

“I found her a day later,” Xena continued the tale. “I had found a secluded hunting cabin and took her there. Hallvor told me what had happened and I was intrigued by her power, by her wolf side.” Xena’s face looked pained. “I had just come from Chin and through the Northern Amazon region, I was filled with power lust from Alti and the Vikings intrigued me.”

Gabrielle knew her mate didn’t like to talk about her past, being too ashamed of what she had done as the Conqueror and it seemed like they were always running into it.

“I nursed her back to health and began planning on how to use that power,” Xena continued. “I couldn’t totally heal her injured back, that’s why the limp and why she can’t climb trees like other Amazons. It was a long recovery.”

“I was wounded and bitter and willing to do whatever Xena wanted.” Hallvor commented.

“Which was?” Eponin asked.

“To gain power over the gods themselves,” Xena admitted, lowering her eyes. “With Alti’s power I was able to capture a Valkyrie and hold her.”

Gabrielle felt a chill run over her body and saw Eponin frowning.

“One of the Choosers of the Slain? Odin and Freya’s handmaidens?” Eponin questioned.

“Yes, I set about creating a monster that could bring down Asgard so I could get to the golden apples. The apples that can turn any mortal into a god,” Xena said softly.

“By the gods, Xena, what did you do?” Eponin asked.

“I bound Hallvor with the Valkyrie and used Alti’s magics to change both of them, merging their magic – Valkyrie and werewolf and centered it in the Valkyrie, Gerulda,” Xena admitted, a tear escaping down her face.

“I don’t remember much of the ceremony, I remember shaking my head and looking up at this monster. Gerulda was no longer Valkyrie or human,” Hallvor/Jaeger continued. “She was seven feet tall and big as a giant and twice as strong. Her skin had hardened, almost like stone or bark and her face was distorted and uglier than your Medusa. There was no humanity left. Next thing I knew I was flying through the trees and landing hard.”

“I couldn’t control her, she attacked the two servants we had and ripped them apart, drinking their blood and smashing the body pieces under her foot. My sword was useless against her, it just bounced off her skin. She was too fast and strong, she almost killed me,” Xena said.

“She got away and we went after her, trying to control her,” Hallvor continued. “We finally caught up with her and had another battle, giant monster against a werewolf and warrior. We lost again.”

“By this time Odin and some of the other gods had found out about my plans and joined in the attack against Gerulda. Odin, Thor, Tyr, Freya and Freyr joined forces with us and we were able to get Gerulda into an old mine of the dwarves. Odin used some of the same magical rope that the gods had used to bind Fenris the wolf to seal the gates of the mine,” Xena explained.

“Doesn’t Fenris break that chain sometime in the future?” Gabrielle, remembering her Viking tales, asked as a chill swept over her body. She glanced down and noticed Sasha was still awake and listening to the tale. Sometimes the bard worried that the child knew too much of the grownup world and of Xena’s past and at other times the child seemed wise beyond her years.

“Someday, when the end of the world comes,” Xena nodded.

“What happened after that?” Pony questioned.

“The gods were not amused with me,” Xena conceded with a smile. “We ran.”

“We also had help,” Hallvor added. “Loki, the Trickster god, decided that we were amusing and he was irritated with the gods that week and hid us from them. He said the Norns had told him that Xena had a future in the north and should leave quickly.”

“For once I decided to take the advice of the gods and left the north as fast as we could travel,” Xena smiled slightly.

“When they decided to stop chasing us, Xena decided I was no longer useful,” Hallvor stated and Gabrielle saw the pained expression on her mate’s face.

“Hall…” Xena began.

“I told you, that was a long time ago and I don’t hold any grudges.” the Viking stated. “I like the way you’ve changed.”

“Thanks, I had some help,” the warrior smiled at her mate and Gabrielle smiled in return and nodded.

“I spent the next years roaming the known world, working mostly as a mercenary. I can control the wolf most of the time. Sometimes in battle it comes out,” Hallvor continued.

“And during sex?” Eponin complained with a small smile.

Hallvor turned a bright red, “No, only when…. When I, uh…”

“Only when she’s really aroused by someone she cares about,” Xena answered.

“You two were together?” Eponin questioned and glanced at Gabrielle quickly, realizing too late that the question might hurt her queen.

“Yes, but no one had Xena’s heart then,” Hallvor answered quickly.

“No one ever did like Gabrielle,” Xena confirmed.

“So that’s what Odin meant when he said he didn’t hold a grudge about the past,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully, remembering the last time they were in the North and Xena had been approached by the AllFather, Supreme god of the North.

“Yes, and why he sent a Valkyrie to help me when Sasha was born and you were in trouble. He realizes that I’ve changed and he’s changed as well. Not as headstrong and angry.” Xena confirmed.

“So you can’t ever have a lover?” Pony frowned as she asked Hallvor.

“Not like I want with you,” Hallvor answered and quickly got to her feet and walked into the shadows of the woods.

“Oh sweet Artemis, what a strange crew we make,” Pony muttered.

“Yeah, vampires, werewolves, Amazons and children of gods,” Gabrielle agreed. “Can’t anything be done for Hallvor?” she questioned her mate.

“I don’t know, I don’t have the power from Alti and wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to reverse the spell that made it so easy for her to turn,” Xena admitted.

“And I don’t think Gerulda would cooperate either,” Pony growled.

“Probably not. She was in a bad mood before I locked her away for so many years,” Xena agreed.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Gabrielle muttered.

To a stranger Xena appeared calm as ever as she settled into the sleeping blankets and furs that she shared with Gabrielle. Those who knew the Warrior Princess would have been able to tell just how nervous she was as she waited for Gabrielle.

Hallvor was still roaming around somewhere in the woods with her thoughts and Eponin was tossing restlessly in her bedroll. The only one sleeping soundly seemed to be Sasha.

The warrior bard approached slowly and crawled into Xena’s arms without a word. She could feel Xena’s tension and hugged the warrior.

“Gabrielle,” Xena began, “About Hall and me those years ago…”

“Xena, that was years ago,’ Gabrielle said simply. “I was, what? Thirteen? I know you had others before we met. Hades, we both had lovers before each other.”

“What I did to Hall….”

“Xena, I know we seem fated to keep dealing with your past, but I accept that about our lives. Just like you accept my bacchae cravings.” Gabrielle smiled into Xena’s blue eyes and nuzzled her mate’s neck. “I love you and accept you, including dealing with your past.”

“I love you so much, Gabrielle,” Xena voice cracked with emotion as she hugged Gabrielle tightly.

“What are we going to do about Hallvor?” the bard asked after a moment. “Pony is having a hard time dealing with this.”

“That’s what Hallvor was afraid of, like you were afraid of how Pony would react to your bacchae side,” Xena agreed.

“Yes, I wish you had told me though.”

“I know and I’m sorry,” Xena said softly. “I know we’ve agreed there would be no secrets between us, I was hoping Hall would tell Pony and I could tell you. I was also ashamed, a lot of this is my fault.”

“Why? You didn’t make her a werserker, she had already changed and killed once,” Gabrielle pointed out.

“Yes, but berserkers and werserkers usually only change because of anger, usually in battle, not in the heat of passion. My shaman working with the Valkyrie made Hall’s werserker side more vicious and more unstable.” Xena countered. “She’s changed a bit, though, there was a time when a bad tasting ale could almost bring the wolf out. Hall’s managed to gain quite a bit of control but because of my damned lust for power she can never be with anyone.” Gabrielle flinched as Xena’s hand smashed the ground in frustration.

“You’ve changed a lot too, Xena,” Gabrielle pointed out.

The warrior shrugged and then kissed the top of her mate’s head.

“You didn’t get much tonight, love,” Xena said softly.

The warrior could almost feel Gabrielle blushing. “No,” the bard admitted softly.

Xena almost sighed outloud, no matter that Gabrielle’s patron Goddess Artemis accepted the bard as bacchae, no matter that Xena accepted Gabrielle as bacchae, no matter that Eponin accepted the bacchae, or Hercules, Iolaus, or Yakut of the Northern Amazons. Gabrielle still was ashamed of her bacchae side.

The warrior knew that neither of them were up to the loud, rougher sex that the bacchae craving usually demanded, Xena hoped that what sexual connection they had earlier that night would be enough in addition to more blood now.

Xena held her wrist up to her bard. Gabrielle whimpered slightly and felt her eyes turned yellow and her fangs extend. The bard ran her tongue lightly over her mate’s wrist and felt Xena shiver in reaction. Then the warrior cried out softly as Gabrielle’s fangs sank into her wrist and her body jerked in sexual response against her bard.

“Oh Gods,” she whispered as she felt the eroticism of the bacchae sweep over her. It seemed to go on forever and last but an instant and then Gabrielle was kissing her. Xena whimpered as she held the bard tight to her, Gabrielle’s hand roughly seeking between Xena’s legs as the warrior felt her hips thrust against the bard. Xena could taste her own blood on Gabrielle’s lips and crashed with the sexual waves.

Gabrielle felt herself avoiding Eponin’s eyes the next morning as Sasha helped the Amazon prepare breakfast for the group. The bard looked around and saw Xena coming up the trail with a string of fish but Hallvor was nowhere in sight.

Xena grinned at her mate and felt herself blushing at the memory of the night before and shook her head. Even after years of marriage one look at Gabrielle could cause the warrior to blush like a lovesick teenager.

The bard finally looked at Pony and was relieved when the Amazon grinned at her. Gabrielle knelt down and began cutting some of the goat cheese.

“Where’s Hallvor?” she finally asked.

Xena dropped the fish and knelt down to begin cleaning them. Eponin merely shrugged at Gabrielle’s question

“She’s around somewhere,” Xena said simply. “I saw her before dawn. I thought we’d stay here today and regroup. She promised not to run away.”

“Last night was a bit stressful for everyone,” Gabrielle agreed.

Pony didn’t comment and refused to look up. Xena and Gabrielle exchanged glances but left the Amazon to her thoughts.

Gabrielle spent the morning working with Sasha, working on the child’s education while Xena was off hunting and fishing for the evening meal. The bard caught Pony’s face as the Amazon watched Sasha and the bard working over scrolls and frowned.

“Sash, can you work on your numbers for a bit?” she asked the blue eyed child and Sasha nodded distractedly, determined to learn everything as quickly as possible. Gabrielle hesitated a moment, watching the child struggle with the numbers scratched in the dirt, Sasha’s blue eyes intense like her mothers’.

Pony readjusted her eye-patch as Gabrielle sat down next to the Amazon and wouldn’t look at the bard, her Queen.

“Talk to me, Pony,” Gabrielle ordered.

“About what?” the Amazon asked in a sullen voice.

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed in frustration, she knew Pony was dodging the obvious question.

“You know what about,” Gabrielle growled. “You just found out that your Queen is a partial bacchae who grows fangs and needs blood once a month and the woman you’re head over heels about grows fur and fangs and is deadly. A bit to digest, don’t you think?”

Eponin couldn’t help but grin in agreement. “Yeah, I’ll admit I don’t know how to deal with Jaeger’s problem.”

“And your Queen?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“You’ve reassured me that it won’t be my neck that you’re munching on,” Eponin grinned ruefully.

“That’s Xenas’ job,” Gabrielle agreed with a smile.

“Sounded more like her pleasure last night,” Pony casually looked away with a mischievous grin as Gabrielle blushed bright red. Then the Amazon’s face grew serious again. “From the way I understand it, I can’t have that with Jaeger without risking being killed by her.”

“We’ll work it out, Pony,” Gabrielle said simply. “Just don’t shut her out right now. Look at all Xena and I’ve been through. You might talk to Xena.” Gabrielle suggested as she stood up and headed towards the woods.

“About what?”

“What it’s like to have a lover who might rip your throat out during sex,” Gabrielle said easily and then took to the trees.

With the ease of Amazon training, Gabrielle moved through the trees silently and quickly. While not as talented or as experienced as most Amazons born into a tribe, the bard was actually fairly good after a few years at traveling through the trees. Xena, she reflected, was almost a natural at anything she tried, including Amazon tree fighting and traveling.

The trees were still covered with leaves and lent more than adequate cover for the bard to travel in without being seen by anything or anyone on the ground. The bard took in the scent of the forest and trees with a sigh of pleasure as she stopped and looked around. She knew her senses had heightened with the increase of bacchae influence in her life and she could sense Xena was near without seeing or hearing the warrior.

The warrior herself was also known for her incredible hearing and Gabrielle wasn’t surprised when she spotted Xena along the river fishing that Xena was watching her in turn. The bard grinned and waved at her mate and then moved on along the trees.

Xena smiled at Gabrielle’s ease of movement in the trees. It had taken a bit of time, experience and training but the bard was now comfortable in the trees and was almost as quiet as an Amazon scout.

The warrior drew in her line and headed back towards camp. She knew where Gabrielle was heading and what the bard had planned. Xena figured it was a good time to get her talk in with Eponin.

Gabrielle spotted Hallvor further up the river, sitting on a boulder next to the water. The Viking was twirling her battle-axe in her hands, obviously lost in thought. The bard made sure to make noise as she dropped out of the tree, one sai held defensively as the werserker spun with war axe drawn back to throw or slash.

“Easy, Hallvor,” Gabrielle said simply.

Hallvor slowly lowered the axe, her face flushed. Gabrielle sheathed her sai and walked casually towards the Viking. Hall sat back down on the rock and turned to watch the water. The bard sat down next to the warrior and leaned back against another rock.

The warrior bard let herself drift in the beauty of the land around them. They had reached the dark forested area of Germania and getting close to where the Amazons had settled after leaving Greece. The trees were so thick in places that the sun never reached the ground. The river was wide and deceptively calm and peaceful. The trees were of so many colors that it was almost overwhelming to look at, an artist pallet of reds, greens, yellows and oranges.

“You alright?” Gabrielle asked finally.

“I’ve been better,” Hall admitted.

“You’re trying to think of how to run but your oath to the Amazons is holding you up,” Gabrielle commented.

“How do you know that and how in Hella’s Halls did you sneak up on me?” Hall demanded.

“Well, I’ve been trained by Amazons and Xena,” Gabrielle responded easily. “Add to that the fact you were deep in thought, I was able to get within throwing distance. To answer the first question, logical isn’t it? Vikings are extremely loyal to family, tribe and friends. The Amazons are your sworn family now and you don’t know how to run away from that oath.”

“That is the truth, yes,” Hall admitted, twirling the axe in her hands again.

“You’re also attracted to Pony and you’re afraid of how she’s going to respond to this dangerous side of you,” Gabrielle continued.

“How would you know?” Hall demanded in a sullen voice.

“You’re forgetting that I also grow fangs,” Gabrielle smiled ruefully.

“You don’t try to kill your mate.”

“True, I’ve had to learn control and not let the darkness control me,” Gabrielle stated.

“I’ve learned a lot of control over the years but not total, I can’t risk Pony’s life for that,” Hall glanced away but not before Gabrielle saw the Viking’s eyes filling with tears.

“Xena and I seem to have a way of finding answers,” Gabrielle said firmly. “I know Xena, she’s not going to give up on you.”

“She’s feeling guilty about the past.”

“Yes, she’s feeling guilty and responsible,” the bard admitted. “She also considers Eponin and the Amazons as family and you are now an Amazon. We’ll find a way.”

“Are you always so optimistic?” Hall asked with a smirk.

“Seems to be a fault of mine,” Gabrielle admitted with a grin. “Xena never gives up and I’ve learned not to as well.”

“Maybe I can learn some more from Xena and something from you,” Hall smiled a tired smile.

“Let’s go eat,” Gabrielle suggested.

“Pony?”

Eponin turned and glanced at the warrior and then turned back to the repair work she was doing on some clothing.

“Going to tell me what it’s like to have a dangerous bed mate?” Eponin asked with a smirk.

“Carefully, Eponin,” Xena suddenly growled. “That’s Gabrielle you’re talking about.”

“Come on, Xena,” Pony snapped. “What do you want from me? Sleeping with a wolf is a little beyond me. You may get a kick out of fangs on Gabrielle but the thought of a Hallvor ripping my throat out in the middle of sex does not turn me on.”

“She’s not an animal,” Xena snapped back.

“No?” Pony countered. “What I saw wasn’t human and, unlike Gabrielle, wasn’t thinking like a human either.”

“Alright, a relationship between the two of you may be beyond you, but she is your Amazon sister. Try and remember that and treat her decently. It’s not her fault, you know.”

“She was this way before you cast that spell and she had already killed,” Pony reminded the warrior.

“Yeah, I just made it worse,” Xena commented.

Despite discussions between Xena and Eponin, Xena and Hallvor, Gabrielle and Hallvor, and Gabrielle and Pony; the tension was still thick among the four women and child and nothing seemed settled between Hall and Pony.

They were polite and cooperative after the first day of silence but it was strained and frustrating for everyone.

Gabrielle threw up her hands in exasperation at the end of the next evening and pulled Sasha aside to talk more about the Amazons customs and myths. Xena grinned at her mate’s frustration and continued sharpening her sword while Eponin and Hall ignored everyone.

“We’ll stop in the next village for the day, Hall’s horse needs new shoes before we go much further,” Xena announced to everyone in general.

Eponin nodded. “Do we stay the night?”

“Not if we can get the work done before nightfall.”

“We should be at the Amazon camp by noon the next day then. It’s hard travel though, it helps keep the locals from finding us,” Eponin commented.

“Good, it’ll be good to see the other Amazons and the new ones,” Gabrielle said softly.

“Damn, aren’t the portions a little small here?” Xena complained as she and Gabrielle sat in a crowded inn eating lunch.

“I’d have to agree,” the bard commented, continuing to eat.

“You going to eat all of that?”

“You’re not getting my food,” Gabrielle growled and grinned at Xena’s obvious frustration.

It was turning into a frustrating day for the small group. The blacksmith was out of the village until the next day, Pony and Hall were barely talking to each other and neither one of them wanted to interact with the villagers and had decided to wait outside the village, now the food was barely edible besides being very little of it.

The group was looking at a day in the village while the blacksmith did his work with villagers who weren’t happy to see Romans, Greeks or any other outsiders. On top of that they served miserable food to travelers.

The tavern was crowded, noisy and smelled of miserable food and unwashed bodies. Gabrielle was sympathic to her warrior’s frustration over the food, it was something she usually enjoyed on the road when stopping at an inn or tavern, now the bard was regretting not going back to camp and eating trail food with Eponin, Hallvor and Sasha, even if they weren’t talking to each other.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as she noticed a tall, large Viking warrior watching her closely, even more intently than any of the other curious travelers and villagers. He kept staring until Xena felt herself growling.

“I don’t like being stared at when I’m eating,” she snapped, blue eyes blazing at the bearded warrior.

The warrior, taking her warning as an invitation, stood up from his stool and walked over to their table. He glanced down at Gabrielle and noticed her left hand moving down under the table and knew that she had a hand on a weapon and smiled at her reassuringly before turning to Xena.

“Are you Xena?” he asked simply, keeping his voice low and speaking in Latin.

Xena was always cautious when people recognized her, given her past reputation and the way most people felt about the Warlord Xena. Even after years of leaving that past behind, it kept coming back and haunting her.

And the warrior was already in a bad mood.

“Yeah, what about it?” she snapped, chewing on her food.

Without saying a word the warrior reached into his vest and dropped something metal onto the table. Gabrielle flinched at the sound and looked at the twisted metal with a curious glance. She glanced up and was surprised when she saw Xena’s face was pale as the warrior stared at the twisted gold rope chain and the gold raven that was torn in half.

Xena felt a roaring in her ears and she felt her hands gripping the table. “What are you called?” she asked softly.

“Beowulf,” the warrior answered simply.

“Where can we talk?” Xena asked.

“Outside at the stable, out of the rain,” Beowulf suggested.

“I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Xena responded.

The Viking nodded to both the warrior and bard and disappeared in the crowded room.

“What is this about?” Gabrielle asked, picking up the broken metal and examining it. Xena didn’t answer but continued to frown as she watched the light dancing off the tarnished metal. Gabrielle’s eyes suddenly went wide.

“Oh sweet Artemis,” she whispered. “This is the metal rope holding Gerulda, isn’t it?”

“It was,” Xena said grimly.

“Oh gods,” Gabrielle muttered. “What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Xena growled. “Fix my past screw ups again.”

“Xena…” Gabrielle tried to begin but the warrior brushed her reassurances aside and stood up.

“Let’s find out how bad it is.”

A few minutes later and the warrior dashed across the village common with her mate into the stable, chakram out cautiously.

Beowulf stood in the center of the main area with his hands in plain sight, a golden helmet with a large boar figure on top tucked under one arm. Xena and Gabrielle, both aware of the potential for an ambush, separated just inside the door and approached the warrior with weapons drawn, quickly glancing around, senses alert for anything out of the ordinary.

“I give you my word as a warrior, there is no one else in here,” Beowulf stated.

Xena eased up and walked up to the warrior with Gabrielle approaching from the other side.

Xena held up the chain rope and broken lock shaped like a raven. “What is this?” she asked, switching to Germanic.

“You probably know what it is better than I do,” he responded. “I found that on a broken gate at the entrance to an old mine when I was looking for a monster. A man in a cloak appeared and told me to find you.”

“Terrific,” Gabrielle muttered. “You know who that sounds like.”

“Yeah, I do,” Xena nodded.

“AllFather?” Beowulf suggested. “I recognized him from the tales and he disappeared on an eight-legged horse. Pretty good clues, eh?”

“Pretty obvious, actually,” Gabrielle agreed with a smile as the tall warrior towered over her.

Xena’s sharp eyes noticed his face softening as he looked down at her mate and resisted growling.

“Yes,” he agreed.

Like Eponin had once teased the bard herself, now Xena wondered if everyone who came in contact with Gabrielle fell in love with her. Then the warrior corrected herself, except Ares, Ulysses, and Caesar. “Terrific,” she thought to herself, “I get the bad boys and she draws everyone else.”

“Monster?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Yes,” Beowulf answered, breaking eye contact and looking back to Xena. “The local King, Jarl Healfdane sent a message to me, asking for my help. Something has been brutally killing warriors, sheep, cattle, women and children.”

“Why did he send for you?” Xena asked.

“Because the skalds still sing of my adventure of five winters ago,” Beowulf said proudly, almost puffing up his chest.

“Which was?” Xena questioned.

“We’re aren’t from around here, remember,” Gabrielle quickly threw in before the warrior could be insulted that they didn’t know of his reputation.

“Yes,” he responded easily. “I killed a sea dragon that was killing the local fish and fishermen. Jarl Healfdane sent for me when his best warriors were killed, their bodies ripped apart and scattered. I found his main hall almost destroyed by something large and strong. After the last attack, the Jarl and his family have gone to his hunting hall further in the mountains. The countryside has become a wasteland, corpses of cattle and sheep litter the land.”

“Any idea what is causing it?” Gabrielle asked, hoping it was something other than the probable monster that was once a Valkyrie.

“I haven’t seen it but I managed to track it to an old mine where I found that chain rope,” Beowulf responded. “Then something very large grabbed me from behind and threw me into a tree, grabbed me again and threw me over a cliff. Lucky for me there was a river at the bottom of the cliff.”

“Good thing for you,” Gabrielle grinned.

“Yeah, but four of my kinsmen that were with me weren’t so lucky. I found them torn to pieces when I managed to get out of the water and back to the mine,” the Viking warrior growled.

“I’m sorry, Beowulf,” Gabrielle said softly, losing her grin. The sound of the rain hitting the wooden structure didn’t help the moon any inside the stable, dimly lit by two lanterns.

“Then AllFather showed up and I figured I’d better find you and get more warriors,” the Viking shrugged, reminding the bard of her own warrior mate.

“We have two others and our daughter with us, we’ll meet you on the Northern end of town in the morning to go find Gerulda,” Xena suggested.

“Grendel,” Beowulf corrected.

“Her name was originally Gerulda,” Xena said softly, her eyes going distant and her jaw tightening.

“Her? How would you know that?” the Viking demanded.

“I created her,” Xena growled and headed for the door, Gabrielle following to catch up.

The bard decided it was probably better to remain quiet with the warrior until they reached camp. After years together, Gabrielle knew when Xena was upset.

It was late evening when Xena and Gabrielle arrived back at camp to find Sasha upset and the other two women at a loss on how to calm her.

Xena’s frown deepened her daughter launched herself into the warrior’s arms, tears beginning to flow again.

“What is it, Sasha?” she asked softly as Gabrielle dropped the travel packs, now refilled with food and supplies next to the campfire, silently thanking the Fates that the rain had stopped.

“I had a dream vision,” the young girl whimpered.

“She got tired waiting for both of you and fell asleep,” Eponin explained. “Next thing we knew she was screaming.”

Xena sat down next to the fire, still holding her daughter close and welcomed Gabrielle into the hug as well. Both moms comforting the terrified child together.

“What did you see, little one?” Gabrielle questioned, “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I saw Mama hanging upside down from a tree and she was all bloody,” Sasha said softly.

Both Gabrielle and Xena could tell how upset the youngster was, it was the only time she called Xena “mama.” Hearing the description of her dream, they could understand why.

“You called it a dream vision,” Xena said softly, wiping the tears from her daughter’s face. “Was this different from a regular bad dream?”

“Yeah,” the dark-haired, blue-eyed child responded, still sniffling but calming down.

“How was it different?” Gabrielle asked.

The other two Amazons began unrolling the bedding for the evening, listening but keeping quiet. Spreading the blankets and furs on pine boughs that had managed to stay dry in the thick forest.

“It was more like the pictures I get when I see future stuff,” Sasha tried explaining.

“Okay, I understand,” Xena said reassuringly.

“Xena,” Gabrielle began, a frown on her face.

“We’d better tell Hall and Pony what’s going on first,” Xena suggested, cutting off the bard’s obvious worry about the vision and the upcoming hunt for Grendel/Gerulda.

Xena continued to hold and rock Sasha as Gabrielle told the Amazons what had happened that evening in the village and about Beowulf. By the time the bard was finished, the child was calm once more and listening closely.

“So that means we go and find your old playmate and finish this?” Pony asked with a grin.

Both Hall and Xena frowned deeply but both nodded, looking at each other with their jaws clenched.

“You don’t have to come along, Pony,” Gabrielle said simply.

“Are you going, my Queen?” the Amazon responded.

“Where Xena goes, I go,” the bard answered.

“Then I follow you, Gabrielle,” Eponin stated firmly.

“I know Hall is going, this is unsettled business with the two of us,” Xena said. “The question is now what to do with Sasha.”

“I’m going with you, Mom,” the young girl snapped.

“I don’t think that would be smart, little one,” Gabrielle said gently.

The child began pouting but listened as it turned into a major debate for the next candle-mark between the four women. The question really wasn’t whether Sasha was going to go with them, it was what to do with her while they were gone. None of them wanted the child anywhere near Grendel. Gabrielle had pointed out that Beowulf had mentioned children being torn to pieces by the monster.

It was finally decided that Eponin would escort Sasha to Jarl Healfdane’s hunting hall and then catch up with Xena and the others. Xena, Gabrielle and Hall would join Beowulf and the warriors he had gathered.

Eponin wasn’t amused with the decision but agreed that it was the best one.

Sasha and Xena arguing about Xena going at all until the child fell asleep.

The four women and child settled in for a night of restless sleep.

Sasha woke up and immediately began arguing with Xena about going after Grendel until they were snapping at each other and Gabrielle put her foot down and told both of them to be quiet.

Eponin was still upset about being left out of the first part of the hunt and Hall was quiet and sullen, lost in her own memories of Grendel.

Somehow the beautiful dawn after the storm was lost on all of them as they trekked their horses through the mud around the village to meet Beowulf.

Gabrielle could tell that Beowulf was surprised that the other two warriors were females and Amazons but he didn’t say anything and merely nodded when introduced to them. He also didn’t say anything when they told him that the child and one warrior would be traveling to the Jarl’s hall while they tracked Grendel.

Xena spent a few moments with Sasha while Beowulf relayed directions to Jarl Healfdane’s Hall to Pony.

“Mom, this isn’t good,” Sasha said once again.

“I know, Sash, but I don’t have a choice,” Xena said, sitting next to her daughter.

Gabrielle stood behind them, wanting to be supportive but unsure how to help.

“I did something bad a long time ago and now I have to fix it,” Xena tried to explain.

“Why now? You haven’t done anything bad in a very long time,” Sasha complained.

“Because the bad thing I did a long time ago escaped and is killing people,” Xena said and Gabrielle could hear the pain in her voice.

“Why do you have to fix it? Can’t someone else do it?” Sasha demanded.

“We have to take responsibility for what we do in life,” Xena said with a sad smile. “Both good and bad. Others have been killed and more will be killed if I don’t try and fix this, innocent people.”

“I saw you dead,” Sasha whispered.

“Your Gabby mum saw a vision like yours once,” Xena commented. “Did you know that she sometimes has dreams like yours?”

The young child shook her head with a look of wonderment in her eyes.

“Yup, and she saw us, me and her, lying in a cold place and we looked dead. All torn up and bloody.”

“But you didn’t die,” Sasha protested.

“We almost did. When your Uncle Hercules and Iolaus found us they thought we were dead, just like in Gabrielle’s vision,” Xena answered.

“So my picture might not happen?”

“I don’t know,” Xena admitted. “I might be hurt, I might even be killed. It may not happen for a very long time. I still have to try and stop this monster.”

“You and Mum could be hurt,” Sasha protested, throwing down a stick she had been twirling around in frustration.

“Yes, and we’ve talked about it,” Xena smiled. “You know as a warrior it might happen to me someday.”

Gabrielle could almost see the child pouting.

“I know, it’s just hard seeing things,” Sasha complained.

“I can imagine,” Xena admitted. “Being the child of a god has advantages and it also has problems. I don’t know how to help with this.”

“Just don’t die,” Sasha reasoned simply.

Xena couldn’t help but laugh and Gabrielle felt herself smiling. “The best I can do is promise to try and stay alive as long as possible.”

“Okay,” the child agreed. “Mom, it’s like a voice that said something to me.”

“What’s that, Sash?” Xena asked.

“Beware of stag horns.”

“Okay, I won’t die and I’ll avoid any deer,” Xena grinned.

“Okay,” Sasha grinned back.

Gabrielle leaned over and hugged both of them.

“Let’s go!” Hall called out and the two moms hugged the child tightly and mounted their horses.

Xena tried not to let Sasha see the worry and sadness in her face as they rode off, leaving the child with Eponin.

Just outside the next village they picked up the six warriors Beowulf had recruited for the hunt.

Gabrielle was once again amused by the difference in cultures between the Vikings and Greeks she knew. Like heroes of myth and legends, these warriors were looking at the hunt for a monster that had killed countless warriors, women, children and animals as an adventure. Instead of worrying about coming back alive, these warriors laughed at the possibility of being killed in battle and being famous even if they were dead.

In fact, some of them looked forward to dying in a good fight rather than facing death by old age.

Another thing that surprised Gabrielle was how the warriors responded to Xena, they almost worshipped her.

Xena had run into such attitude before and hated it. These warriors worshipped her because of what she had been, the ruthless warrior. The woman warrior who would use anyone she could and kill or move anyone in her way.

They admired her warrior skills, her battle tactics and her policy of no mercy. They loved the warrior who could rack up a body count without a second thought. They loved the warrior who didn’t care who was among that body count, innocent or villain and at the same time they were honorable men who would defend those same innocents with their lives.

Xena spent most of the day growling and waving away the warrior admirers.

Gabrielle also spent the day fending off advances but not because of her warriors’ skills. All of the Vikings, including Beowulf, couldn’t believe that the little bard could be deadly in a fight. Gabrielle didn’t know if letting them know about her gladiator reputation would help or cause more disbelief from the group of huge warriors. The bard grumbled that even their horses were bigger than hers.

She also could tell that Xena was distracted with her own problems with the warriors or else more than one of them might have found himself sitting on the road with a broken arm after approaching Gabrielle too often.

By the end of the evening one warrior did have a bloody nose from Xena’s fist when he demanded that she demonstrate some of her battle moves and another had a black eye when he insisted that the little Greek bard should really marry him and let him protect her. He had proposed marriage with his hand on Gabrielle’s thigh and with each word it had gotten higher. The Viking had found himself sitting on the ground holding his eye and the side of his head from where a fist had connected with his eye and a sai with the side of his head.

Then he was trying to scramble backwards as Gabrielle was holding a very angry Xena back from hurting him even more.

The Greeks fell back behind the group after the afternoon break, for some space away from the Vikings.

“Xena, if I have one more proposal to share my bedding tonight I’m going to scream,” Gabrielle declared.

“Trouble, little one?” Xena finally snapped out of her own thoughts and grinned at her mate.

“Nothing much,” Gabrielle shrugged, letting her irritation drift away at the sight of her mate’s blue eyes and smile. “Tell me, love of my life,” she continued. “Are we best friends or mates on this trip?”

“Well, considering you’ve won over more than half the warriors and Beowulf himself would probably walk through fire for you already, I think we’d better be mates and get their minds elsewhere,” Xena grinned.

Gabrielle growled and then threw her hands up in frustration. “What is it about me?!” she demanded.

“Ever think it might be from your father?”

“My father?” Gabrielle suddenly became thoughtful.

“He is the God of the Sun and, if even half the tales are true, he does get around a lot and has no problems in the romance area,” Xena pointed out.

“Sasha has visions, I get love-sick warriors,” the bard complained.

“And I get the bad boys,” Xena reminded her mate and was pleased when the bard playfully whacked Xena on the arm.

Then Gabrielle’s face got serious. “This one is going to be bad, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Xena admitted.

Before the two Greeks could discuss it further a commotion ahead of them caught their attention. Xena kicked Argo into a trot in-between Hallvor’s horse and one of the warriors. Gabrielle rode up the other side of the female Viking and grabbed the warrior’s arm as she started to grab her sword.

The werserker turned with a growl, baring her fangs and then her eyes softened and her grip on her sword pommel relaxed and her fangs receeded.

Gabrielle looked over and saw Xena holding the male Viking warrior by his collar, her hand on his sword arm as well.

“What in Tartarus is going on?” Xena demanded.

All the other warriors had stopped and Beowulf rode up with a frown upon his face.

“What is going on?” he demanded.

“Trying to find out,” Xena responded. “Now, one of you tell us what is going on.”

“I was just being friendly,” the male warrior said in a sullen voice. “I asked who her family was, she’s obvious Norse.”

“He wouldn’t let it alone,” Hallvor growled back.

“What is the problem?” Beowulf demanded.

“Ask her!” the Viking male warrior grumbled.

“My family is my business and no one else!” Hall snapped back.

Beowulf waved his hand impatiently to silence both Vikings and looked at Xena.

“Is her past as much of a problem as yours?” he asked.

“Yes, according to your customs,” Xena admitted.

Gabrielle, knowing how serious the Vikings took their family ties, kept quiet.

“Is she a wolf’s head?” Beowulf asked.

Xena and Gabrielle hesitated and both looked at Hall. The female Viking glared at Beowulf and then at the other male warrior. She finally looked back at Xena and nodded.

“Yes, she was also with me when I fought Grendel last time. We need her,” Xena responded.

Beowulf seemed to think for a moment and held up his hand for silence as several of the male warriors grumbled and complained among themselves.

“Our best heroes have been wolf’s heads and AllFather himself insisted on Xena. She vouches for the woman and that is good enough,” he declared.

A couple of the men grumbled but the one warrior Hallvor had been arguing with stuck out his hand towards the female Viking. After a moment’s hesitation, Hallvor grasped his forearm in a warrior’s handshake and Xena smiled, relieved.

The small group broke for camp a couple of candle-marks later and Xena was pleased that some of the other male warriors were approaching Hallvor, comparing weapons and discussing axe throws with the seemingly young female Viking. A couple of the others were grumbling and ignoring the young outlaw but Beowulf and the others seemed to accept her at face value on Xena’s word and the warrior was pleased. They didn’t need friction in their new group, not when they were about to face Grendel.

Xena looked over with raised eyebrows as one of the male warriors went tumbling by her, having been flipped head over heels by her mate. Gabrielle’s face was red and her green eyes were flashing brightly.

Xena quickly stood up and motioned for Gabrielle to stop and not follow through with hurting the male. The male Viking sat near the fire, looking up at the bard in surprise.

“How did a little thing like you do that?” he asked with a grin as his mates laughed at him.

“I told you all that she would surprise you,” Xena grinned and moved behind Gabrielle and placed her hands on the bard’s shoulders. She felt Gabrielle relax slightly and lean back into the warrior’s chest. Xena spotted Beowulf’s eyes narrow slightly. “Now listen up, all of you,” Xena continued. “Gabrielle is as much of a warrior as any of you and she might even have more kills than most of you.”

Xena hated bragging about Gabrielle’s kills, knowing how her mate felt about having to kill at all but it was something the Viking warriors would admire and would make them trust the bard’s warrior skills more. She tightened her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders reassuringly as the bard stiffened.

“She’s also spoken for,” Xena growled. “That means paws off. Get your mind out of your trousers and think about facing Grendel.”

“What kind of man would let a little and beautiful thing like Gabrielle go wandering around Germania looking for monsters?” one of the men demanded.

“Me,” Xena answered simply and felt Gabrielle’s head lift slightly as both of them challenged the others with their eyes to have a problem with their relationship.

“You are mated, not just travel mates?” Beowulf questioned, his eyes a little hurt.

“Yes,” Gabrielle responded, showing her bracelet from under her bracer. “Our bonding bracelets.”

“They are married and off limits,” Beowulf declared to the men and ignored the smirk from Hall. The men grumbled but no one seemed too upset by the turn of events and Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle with a sigh of relief.

“I love you, Xena,” the bard whispered.

“And I love you,” Xena responded and turned the bard around in her arms. “No matter what happens I want you to know that you have been the best thing that ever happened in my life.”

Gabrielle laid her head against her taller mate’s chest and held the warrior close.

Both noticed the chill in the air and frowned.

Within two days they were close to the territory of Jarl Healfdane and the mine that once held Grendel captive. Gabrielle noticed that the usual bluster and carefree attitude of the Vikings sombered slightly as they entered a forest of winter-bare trees. They had gone so far north that there was still snow in patches on the ground where the sun never hit.

It wasn’t so much the barrenness of the trees or the quiet of the woods that had sobered the group up, it was all the skeletons dotting the landscape. Some of the skeletons still had on broken armor or broken swords clutched in their bone hands, others were too small to be women or men. Gabrielle felt a shiver run up and down her spine at the sight of children’s bones.

Animal bones were also among the human ones. Beowulf, himself went pale with the realization that the bones had been gnawed on and most hadn’t lost their flesh to the elements or carrion but to something large stripping the flesh from the bone, probably to eat.

Xena felt her stomach doing backflips, knowing that she was ultimately the cause of the nightmare facing them.

Hall shivered as well, remembering her own encounter with the creature that could cause such destruction and how close she and Xena had been to dying.

“Xena,” she said, riding up next to the bard and warrior. “Last time we fought her our swords were useless. What plan do you have this time?”

The warrior noticed Beowulf listening for the answer as well and held up her chakram. “This is a weapon that was forged by some lost god so many seasons ago it was almost forgotten. It can cut through the weapons of Hephaestus, our blacksmith god. I’m counting on it being able to cut through Grendel’s skin,” the warrior explained to the Vikings.

“Magical weapons against a monster is good,” one man commented and the others nodded.

Gabrielle smiled as the men began to talk among themselves again and seemed more confident.

“You know, if you said Argo could fly and you were a Valkyrie, they would believe you,” Gabrielle commented.

“Yeah,” Xena grumbled. “I know. I’ve come across idiots wanting to be like what I was, the Warlord, but they were only a handful or already following a Warlord. Up here it’s the entire culture almost but different at the same time.”

“You mean like how they can worship your battle skills and slaughter and yet be so honorable in their own culture and lives?” Gabrielle asked.

“Exactly, they want to be brave in battle and actually die in a good fight. At the same time honor is everything to most of them,” Xena smiled as they rode along.

Gabrielle noticed that even though everyone seemed more confident, the voices were still kept low and everyones hands stayed close to their weapons. She looked over at Hall and wasn’t surprised that the werserker’s eyes kept darting back and forth as she leaned forward in her saddle, almost sniffing the wind.

Xena moved Argo up next to Beowulf as he raised his hand to stop the warriors. Both leaders looked around with frowns.

“We’re close to the mine, we should see or hear something by now,” Beowulf complained.

“I agree, something’s not right,” Xena muttered. “Wait here.”

With a short cry Xena spurred Argo into a trot down the overgrown trail leading to the mine. The warrior knew that Grendel would have spotted them a long time before getting this close. She and Beowulf had decided on a direct approach rather than trying to sneak up on the monster. They were hoping that Grendel would be confident in her special protection against weapons and attack them without much thought to who she was attacking.

They were counting on the men keeping the monster busy while Xena got close enough to use the chakram. It was a risky plan, everything depended on Xena getting a killing shot in before too many of them died.

Argo skidded to a stop with a snort of protest at the entrance to the mine and Xena had to agree with the sentiments of the faithful and intelligent creature. The smell of decay almost made her gag and brought tears to her eyes.

Surrounding the mine entrance were great piles of bones and decaying bodies of both animals and humans. From the bones dotting the countryside and the bones here Xena estimated that the human victims of Grendel probably numbered close to a hundred. A huge number of victims for one creature.

Xena pulled her feet out of her stirrups and moved onto Argo’s saddle. With her battle cry she vaulted off the horse and flipped onto her feet several yards away to the front of the mine, sword and chakram in hand.

Before her body had settled onto the ground the warrior rolled forward and came up with sword striking and chakram held up defensively.

Xena frowned, her brows furrowed in puzzlement as she stood upright. Her sense were on heightened alert and she sensed nothing, not even with her exceptional hearing. The gate was still there, bent and rusted but still there and nothing else seemed to be.

Still moving cautiously, Xena went back to Argo and mounted the horse. With her frown deepening she urged Argo back towards where the Vikings and Gabrielle waited.

After two candle-marks the mine had been mostly explored by the warriors with torches. They had found where the creature slept and ate and where it had been imprisoned and had tried to dig out all those years but they didn’t find Grendel herself.

After two candle-marks inside the dank, dark and smelly mine everyone was more than anxious to be away from the place and quickly scurried outside. Gabrielle felt herself shivering and she wasn’t sure if it was from the dampness or the atmosphere of the place. The bard had been to Tartarus on a couple of occasions and hadn’t enjoyed it but it would be preferable to this, she thought. Even the rats seemed bigger and more vicious in this maze of darkened tunnels, some of them collapsed and blocked.

The group moved upwind a good distance from the mine, leaving two of their number to watch the mine, and settled in for the night.

Now that their relationship was clear to everyone, Gabrielle sat between Xena’s legs and leaned back into her warrior as Xena’s arms wrapped around her. Most of the Vikings were sharpening their weapons, arm wrestling or telling tales softly.

Xena knew that Gabrielle and most of the warriors had been affected by the sights outside and inside the mine and tried to block the pictures of the bodies and bones out of her mind, herself. She held the bard tight.

Both Gabrielle and Xena noticed that the warriors kept their voices low and their eyes were constantly darting around. The sight of so many skeletons had unnerved most of them. It was one thing to face a glorious death in battle, it was another to face a monster and end up being eaten. Most of the men and both Greeks had been in battle before, they had seen the wounds war could cause. This was different, this was more horrific than any of them could even comprehend.

“And I thought Cerebus was always in a bad mood,” Xena muttered.

Hallvor sat down in front of the Greeks.

“Thank you for vouching for me,” she said simply.

“No thanks, needed. You were a very good warrior then and I have no doubt you’ve improved. I also want to try and capture Grendel alive, I need you for that,” Xena answered.

“Why alive?” Hall questioned.

“That’s the only chance we have to figure out how to reverse that spell.”

“Do you think you can cure Grendel?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“I don’t know. After what she’s become I’m not sure,” Xena admitted. “I’m hoping to at least reverse Hall’s condition.”

“If it’s a choice between Grendel killing more innocents or my wolf side, choose killing Grendel,” Hall growled.

“I’m tired of losing choices,” Xena growled back, remembering how Gabrielle had sacrificed her chance at being cured of her bacchae curse in order to save Xena and neutralize the god-killing powers of the chakram and so many other no-win choices in her past.

“You know those warriors aren’t going to be happy trying to capture Grendel alive,” Gabrielle pointed out.

“I know and I can’t explain it to them either,” Xena complained.

“Let’s just face that when it comes,” Gabrielle suggested.

“This place sends shivers up my spine, I admit it,” the females overheard one of the Vikings raising his voice. They glanced over and saw three of the warriors huddled around the fire, sharpening their weapons and looking out into the dark every few seconds.

“Alright, I admit it as well,” another one spoke up. “This is a cursed place of death, not of battle but of slaughter and death.”

“I agree, I can’t wait to get back to Jarl Healfdane’s Stag Hall and drink mead and sit by the warm fire,” the third spoke up.

Gabrielle sat upright as Xena jerked to her feet and rushed over to the men. They looked startled by the intensity in the warrior’s eyes.

“What did you call Jarl Healfdane’s Hall?” she questioned.

Beowulf rose and approached the men and Greek with a frown as Gabrielle and Hall walked over from the other side.

The Viking warrior, Hathgar, looked puzzled. “It is called Heorot, Stag’s Hall because of all the stag horns mounted on the walls and above the doors. Jarl Healfdane is a great hunter.”

“Xena?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Sasha’s vision! Beware of Stag horns,” Xena answered through gritted teeth.

“Oh sweet Artemis, that’s where Grendel is!” the bard whispered.

“You mean Grendel is at Jarl Healfdane’s hall?” Beowulf demanded.

“Yes, Sasha is gifted with sight and she saw danger, something about stag horns,” Xena answered.

“Mount up! The Jarl and our friends are in danger!” Beowulf shouted and the Vikings scrambled to grab up their sleeping furs and pack their horses up for travel.

“Beowulf!” Gabrielle shouted, “We can’t ride in the dark in this forest, one of the horses will break a leg!”

“We have to move!” Xena yelled back as she rolled up their bedding. “Sasha, Pony and the others can’t stand against Grendel. We’ll ride with torches.”

“Damn!” the bard swore as she grabbed her cloak up.

It was close to dawn when the riders came into sight of Heorot, Stag’s Hall.

“Xena?” the bard whispered as they approached the hunting hall of Jarl Healfdane. The place was dark with no sign of the ever-burning fire in the firepit. As the band drew closer and spread out they already had their weapons out. No dogs were barking and there were no guards at the main gate.

Both the gate and the main door to the halls were standing open and everything was dark.

Xena and Beowulf dismounted with Hallvor and Gabrielle right behind them. The four of them approached the hall slowly, weapons drawn and torches held high. Several of the men split to either side of the hall to approach from behind and from the roof.

Xena entered slowly with Gabrielle at her back and then Beowulf with Hallvor at his back.

Beowulf held his torch high, revealing the front half of the hall. Xena’s eyes scanned quickly for movement and danger and then began to take in the scene. She wasn’t surprised when she heard a strangled cry from Hallvor and Gabrielle muttered something to the gods and quickly dashed outside.

Xena felt her heart almost stop.

Beowulf turned and went to the door shouting for the men to bring more torches.

Xena uttered a desperate cry and began searching through the hall for any sign of Sasha, trying to identify anything familiar among the horror.

“Sasha!” she shouted, hoping against hope that something was still alive in the hall but received no answer or sound.

Beowulf and his men quickly joined her in searching for anything living.

Gabrielle stepped back into the hall, trying to choke down her fear and dinner. She was ashamed having gotten sick but the sight of the hall was worse than anything she had ever seen, even at the mine.

The hunting lodge was typical of a Viking hall – long and one large room with a smaller room at either end. Several fire pits ran down the center of the room and sleeping benches lined the walls. A cook area was at the far end of the building and a huge table near it.

Gabrielle knew from experience that the room at the end was probably Jarl Healfdane’s room and the one at the main entrance was for shielding against weather and storage of furs and boots as people came and went out of the hall in winter.

The Hall looked as if it could hold fifty people easily and the bard reflected there might be that many here. She couldn’t tell.

“Beowulf,” Hallvor called out. “How many here?” she asked, echoing Gabrielle’s thoughts.

“Twenty five, including the Jarl,” he called back, moving a chair off another body.

The bard thought the only way they could count the victims would be to count the skulls.

Body parts were everywhere in the hall and the walls were red with blood and gore. Gabrielle tried to watch where she was stepping to avoid crunching down on a hand, arm or leg but it was difficult. What little furniture in the hall was also in pieces and scattered among the body pieces.

Gabrielle forced herself to look at the body parts, trying to see if one of them was Eponin or Sasha and fought back from gagging. One of the male Vikings lost his battle with his dinner and rushed for the main door, holding his bloody hands out in front of him. The bard sympathized greatly and none of the man’s comrades laughed or teased him when he came back into the hall.

Bits of hair were left on table edges, blood was soaking into the firm packed ground and painting the log walls red.

“Xena!” Gabrielle finally called and spotted her mate at the far end. The warrior looked up towards the bards, her eyes frantic. The bard shook her head and began moving towards her mate. “Nothing, no Amazon clothing and no Sasha,” she said, trying not to look at the head of a young woman staring up at her from the floor.

The bard looked up and found she had no way to escape it. The arm of a male was caught in the rafters.

“Sasha!” Xena screamed again, her hands bloody from the search and eyes still frantic.

Beowulf and Hallvor joined the bard next to Xena as her eyes darted around desperately.

“If anyone could get Sasha out of here during an attack it would have been Pony,” Hallvor said, trying to encourage the warrior mother.

“Hall’s right,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Xena, there is no Amazon among the dead and no female child,” Beowulf reported to the warrior. “They aren’t here.”

Xena closed her eyes and struggled for control. Her eyes were still bright with intensity but she was calmer in a moment when she opened them.

“Alright, Pony would try and leave a trail. We have a candle-mark until dawn, we can search then,” Xena stated.

“Yes,” Beowulf agreed. “We’ll gather the dead and try to identify them and then we’ll burn the hall with them in it. A good and honorable funeral for Healfdane and kin.”

“We’ll be outside looking for Grendel’s tracks,” Xena stated.

Beowulf turned to his men. “Alright, we don’t have time to bury our kin and friends. Line up the heads and see if we can tell who is who and then we will burn the hall in honor of them.”

The Vikings steeled themselves to the task and began sorting through the body parts.

Gabrielle moved quickly outside and waited for Hallvor and Xena to catch up.

Xena felt her hands clenching at her sides and tried to relax. The warrior felt her eyes soften as a tear escaped down her cheek and let Gabrielle hug her for a moment. She knew the little bard was terrified too for Sasha and Eponin.

Hallvor began searching around the Hall for tracks leading away while the couple tried to comfort each other

Just before dawn the Vikings raised their drinking horns in a salute and threw burning torches into and onto the hall.

Gabrielle felt her jaw tightening as the great logs began to catch. There were so many bodies inside. Far too many to try and bury, burning was a way of taking care of the bodies and honoring them in ancient Viking tradition at the same time.

Xena hummed the burial song as the timbers screamed in protest.

Gabrielle thought the only time she had been more chilled was when they had been forced into a snowstorm in Siberia for days but this chill was different. This was a chill of fear and horror.

It was late afternoon when the finally found the missing Amazon. It was Hallvor’s howl of anguish that alerted the warriors as the female Viking Amazon scouted ahead. They had been following the Amazon trail signs in the trees left by Eponin. The signs occasionally told that Sasha was with her.

Then the trail signs ended and the blood trail began. Hallvor had whispered with Xena for a moment and the Warrior Princess turned and suggested to Beowulf that Hallvor scout ahead and the rest of the group fall back a little. The Viking agreed and fell back to ride with his men.

Gabrielle leaned over towards Xena on Argo.

“What’s going on?”

“Hall can partly change to the wolf and it increases her senses, she can track Eponin even better than I can, she doesn’t want the Vikings seeing her as a partial wolf,” the warrior answered.

“Good idea,” the bard agreed. Werserkers and berserkers weren’t unknown in the north but they were uncommon and sometimes feared even by their Viking brother warriors.

At the sound of Hallvor’s cry the entire group broke into a gallop over a field and into the woods and found the Amazons at the base of a tree in a densely wooded area. Eponin’s head was in the lap of adopted Amazon and she appeared dead to the band of warriors approaching. Dried blood covered her face and most of her body. Her clothing was ripped and Xena could make out a large gash across Pony’s left leg and another across her stomach.

“Is she…..?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“She lives,” Hallvor answered, her voice harsh. The bard assumed it was from the werserker’s transformation just moments earlier.

Everyone dismounted and Xena rushed forward to check and tend the Amazon’s wounds.

“Gabrielle, Hallvor, look for signs of Sasha,” Xena ordered as she cut away what was left of Pony’s leathers and woven clothing. One of the Vikings rushed up with a pack filled with healing herbs and bandages.

Gabrielle and Hallvor returned a few minutes later and shook their head at Xena’s questioning eyes. The warrior looked pained and turned back to tending to Eponin. The bard crouched in front of her mate.

“It’s not good,” Xena answered. “If that gash across her stomach is too deep nothing will help.”

“Can you tell yet?” Hall asked.

“Not yet, we’ll have to wait and see. I can stitch up the other gashes,” Xena responded. “There’s a good lump on her head and I don’t know when or if she’ll wake up.”

“Oh gods, Eponin,” Gabrielle whispered, gently stroking the forehead of her friend.

Hallvor and everyone waited impatiently. Xena tending to Pony’s wounds, Hallvor sharpening her axe, Beowulf and the other Vikings trying to track Grendel.

It was a candle-mark before the wounded Amazon opened her eyes and was barely able to talk. Eponin managed to speak in short bits in Greek. When Gabrielle translated what she said chilled everyone.

Grendel was intelligent, could speak and demanded Xena in exchange for Sasha.

No one was surprised when this announcement led to one continuing argument between Xena and everyone, particularly Gabrielle. No one but Xena was in favor of the exchange and the bickering went on for over a candle-mark until Xena sent her chakram flying over everyone’s head, causing most of them to duck and breaking up their arguments.

“Enough!” she shouted as she caught the chakram. “Listen, all of you! I don’t know if you know the history of Grendel or not but I am responsible for this monster. I used magic to change a Valkyrie named Gerulda into Grendel the monster. I’m responsible for everyone she has killed. I’m the reason your Jarl, your kith and your kin are dead!”

Gabrielle felt tears flowing down her cheeks as Xena shouted her evil past to the men. The bard heard Hallvor growl as the Viking Amazon held Pony in her arms.

“Xena, your guilt over your past is your business,” Beowulf finally spoke, removing his gleaming helmet. “AllFather Odin himself asked for you to set this right but I don’t think even He is demanding your sacrifice at this point.”

“How do you know, Beowulf?” Xena snapped. “He’s notorious for demanding sacrifices.”

“Yes, but would he want your life before we solve the problem with Grendel?” the large Viking reasoned and Gabrielle had to smile at that reasoning. Even Xena frowned, considering the logic.

“I say we finish this in the morning,” he continued, “follow the trail and see if we can rescue Sasha. If we can’t, then we consider trading you for your child.”

Xena looked over into the fiery green eyes of her mate and felt her shoulders sag in weariness, worry and compromise. She nodded and lowered the chakram.

Gabrielle turned on her heel and stormed off into the trees.

Beowulf could see the pain in Xena’s eyes as the rest of the men worked at setting up camp.

Gabrielle came back to camp but was quiet during the evening meal. The male Vikings were more subdued than usual, having burned their friends and families’ bodies seemed to overwhelm them and dampen their normally rowdy spirits as well as the tension between the women. Even though it was a chilly evening Xena resisted wrapping her arms around Gabrielle at the campfire, the intensity was radiating from the bard and no one wanted to get close to the brooding little blond.

Xena was grateful when Gabrielle snuggled down into the warrior’s arms in their bedding as usual. After brooding about Sasha being gone and the possibility of losing Xena all evening, the warrior wasn’t sure Gabrielle would sleep with her that night.

The warrior held her close and kissed the top of the bard’s head.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” she whispered.

“I know and I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle responded softly, “I just can’t take the thought of losing you.”

“We’ve always known that it would probably happen,” Xena pointed out.

“Not like this,” the bard countered. “I expected you to fall in battle, like these Vikings. Or to be saving someone, not giving yourself up without a fight to a monster.”

“A monster I created,” Xena reminded her.

“A monster who will continue to kill even if you sacrifice yourself for Sasha,” Gabrielle countered angrily.

“At the cost of our daughter?” Xena asked in a whisper.

Gabrielle buried her face in Xena’s chest. “No, you know that.”

“I know, little one,” the warrior said softly. “We’ll figure it out.”

Xena held the bard close, both crying quietly.

Gabrielle felt Xena turn over in their bedding and turned over herself. The bard felt herself drifting back into sleep when something sharp hit her in the back of the neck and then in her spine. Gabrielle tried to move and grab her weapons but realized with sudden fear that she couldn’t move and couldn’t speak.

“Gabrielle, it’s me!” Xena’s voice whispered in her ear.

‘Okay, this is not funny!’ the bard desperately wanted to say and found she could barely whimper.

“I’m sorry, little one,” Xena continued and Gabrielle felt herself rolled over on her stomach. The bard wanted to scream as she felt her arms and wrists being tied behind her back and then her ankles.

Knowing Xena, it would take a long time to get out of those knots. The bard bit her lips in frustration and tried to scream again. When she opened her mouth a gag was quickly stuffed in her mouth, followed by a cloth tied around her mouth behind her head.

Then she felt Xena’s body behind hers and the warrior’s arms wrap around her.

“I’m so sorry, my love,” Xena whispered, Gabrielle could hear the pain in the voice. “I don’t have time to argue with all of you and I can’t face leaving you in the daylight. I’m going to make sure Sasha is safe. I’ll either rescue her or exchange myself.”

The bard tried to scream, move, moan, do anything and couldn’t.

“I’m leaving half of the chakram here, either you, Beowulf or Hallvor get close enough to Grendel to use it if I don’t come back. Just make sure Sasha is safe,” Xena’s voice threatened to break. “Gods, little one, I love you so much. If I don’t come back, wait until Sasha is grown before you follow me, please.”

Gabrielle tried to blink back the tears streaming down her face.

“You were and are the best thing in my life, Gabrielle,” the warrior whispered. “I can only get through this with your love. I’ll try and come back.”

Then the warrior hit Gabrielle again on the back of the neck and back and was gone, leaving the bard screaming quietly into her gag and struggling against the ropes.

It was Beowulf who was up before dawn in the cool air and noticed the squirming and whimpering coming from the bedrolls of the Greeks. He was about to leave them to their privacy but something didn’t seem right to the Viking. Beowulf stopped for a moment and then approached the bedrolls slowly, knowing Xena reputation as a warrior. He didn’t want her to wake up with her sword in hand at his throat because he startled them.

“Xena? Gabrielle?” he called softly and was puzzled when the small sounds increased slightly in volume and intensity. Sensing something was out of the ordinary he poked the furs cautiously with his foot and drew his sword.

Instead of hitting something solid, the foot sank into the furs and blankets.

The Viking knelt down with his sword at the ready and pulled back the furs to reveal more furs underneath on one side and Gabrielle on the other, tied up and gagged.

“Thor’s Hammer!” he cried out and quickly cut the bard’s bonds with the sword and attempted to help her sit up as Gabrielle ripped the gag from her mouth. She cried out slightly as she attempted to move her arms and legs after being tied up throughout the night. She was finally able to sit up and looked around the camp and back at Beowulf, her eyes frantic. “Xena!” she screamed, her voice harsh from struggling.

The entire camp was in an uproar in a moment.

Beowulf looked at the furs and the bard removing the cut ropes from her bloody wrists and ankles and his eyes narrowed.

“How long?” he demanded.

“About a candle-mark after we went to sleep, I think,” she croaked out. “Hallvor!”

The male Vikings and Viking Amazon crowded around the bard, some of them puzzled but most figuring out what had happened quickly.

“Find her!” the Amazon Queen demanded from the Amazon.

“Pony?” Hallvor questioned.

“One of the men can stay behind with her, the rest of us get Xena and Sasha back,” Gabrielle snapped.

“Yes, my Queen,” Hallvor nodded and grabbed her weapons and was on her horse within moments without putting a saddle on.

Gabrielle knew that the Viking would use those wolf-senses to track the missing warrior and that Hallvor wanted a head-start ahead of the main group.

“Everyone mount up! Leave your bedding here, saddles and weapons only! Move!” Beowulf bellowed and helped Gabrielle to her feet and watched her wince as she started to put on her bracers. The tall Viking reached out and pulled the bard to him and started examining her wrists.

“Bandage those before putting the bracers on,” he ordered and then frowned, noticing the massive scarring on both sides, just above the wrists on both arms. Beowulf looked at the smaller woman questioning.

“I was crucified by Caesar to get to Xena,” she explained, pulling away and reaching into one of the packs she and Xena carried for bandages.

“You are a brave little thing, Gabrielle,” Beowulf stated. “I am honored to ride and fight by your side.”

Gabrielle stopped wrapping her wrists to look at the Viking and smiled slightly. “Thank you, Beowulf. I know what that means to you.”

Then the bard’s eyes filled with tears and she looked in the direction where Hallvor had gone riding off.

Beowulf reached out and began helping the bard with bandaging her wrists. After a moment Gabrielle relaxed and let the large Viking help her.

“We’ll get them back, Gabrielle,” the Viking reassured her. “You are her soul-mate, aren’t you?”

Gabrielle brushed away the tears angrily and buckled on her bracers and grabbed her boots up. “Yes, we are.”

“If she dies then you will die,” it was more of a statement than a question and the bard nodded in agreement. “Then we must make sure your mate doesn’t die,” Beowulf declared simply.

As Beowulf turned to grab his equipment up the bard looked at the sky and screamed Xena’s name again.

The band of Vikings and bard were on the move with saddles barely hitting the backs of their horses before they were riding away from the camp, the hooves of the horses crunching in the early morning frost.

Xena’s sharp eyes took in the sight of her daughter and the warrior mother whimpered softly.

The child was almost at the top of a very tall pine tree, suspended from a branch by a rope tied around her waist and chest. At the bottom of the tree with the rope in hand was Grendel, waiting patiently.

The warrior quickly scanned the area and her options.

After a few minutes of scouting the area, both on land and through the trees, Xena sighed and steeled herself.

The warrior stepped into the daylight and into Grendel’s view.

“Mommy, no!” Sasha screamed and Xena resisted looking at her child, knowing she might lose it if she did. The Greek didn’t want to show any emotion in front of the monster she had helped create, emotions could be used against her.

Not that she expected to survive this encounter. Xena threw her sword at Grendel’s feet and waited, watching the creature closely.

“Let the child go, I’m yours,” Xena said simply.

The band of warriors rode hard and fast, catching up to Hallvor several times as the Viking tried to trail Xena.

Beowulf frowned. “How in Hella’s Halls did Xena find Grendel?”

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle complained. “Maybe her connection with Sasha. The child is gifted.”

“She would be a spae-woman here in the North,” Beowulf commented.

“Spae woman?” Gabrielle questioned.

“A woman gifted with sight and knowledge of magic,” the Viking answered.

“They are sometimes feared in the South,” the bard commented.

“It depends on what magic they work here, some are feared for their powers for evil. Most are looked to for word of future or aid in healing,” Beowulf grinned. “Do you not have the tie with Sasha?”

“No, my bonding at birth with her was denied me. I was a slave in Italia when she was born.” Gabrielle answered, a touch of bitterness still in her voice.

“You love them very much,” he commented.

“More than my own life,” she responded.

It was late afternoon when they heard a hunting horn ahead of them and spurred their horses on even faster. Just up the trail they found Sasha on Argo with Hallvor.

Gabrielle leaped from her horse and grabbed the child into her arms as Sasha dashed to her.

“Mummy!” the child wailed.

“Sasha!” Gabrielle cried, holding the child tightly. “Where’s your Mom? Where’s Xena?”

“She stayed with the monster. The monster let me go and Mom told Argo to find you,” the child choked out between her tears.

“When did you leave your Mom?”

“It was just after the sun came up,” the child answered.

“Grendel has had her at least eight candle marks!” Gabrielle exclaimed.

“Then let’s ride!” Hallvor shouted.

Gabrielle mounted Argo and Sasha mounted Gabrielle’s horse. The bard leaned over Argo.

“Argo, find her,” the bard whispered. “Find Xena!”

The Vikings and child spurred their horses quickly to try and catch up with the bard as the faithful Argo shot off as if the horse was well rested instead of having traveled hours.

Gabrielle leaped from Argo before the horse had skidded to a stop in the meadow and was climbing the tall pine tree before the rest of the group even entered the clear space. The Amazon scurried up the tree branches as the Vikings and little girl crowded around the base of the tree. Ignoring skinned palms and scratches on her arms and face from errant branches, Gabrielle climbed higher and higher.

The bard reached the rope and grabbed it, untying it carefully. She slowly began letting the rope lower it’s weight. Gabrielle tried not to think about what was at the other end of the rope right then, trying to block out the sight and memory of Xena hanging by her feet, high above their heads.

The sight of Xena bruised, battered, bloody and appearing dead. Just like Sasha’s vision.

At the base of the tree had been another body.

Beowulf and Hallvor carefully lowered Xena to the ground while one of the Vikings brought fresh water and bandages. The others ringed the area with swords drawn, in case the monster decided to return.

Gabrielle quickly descended the tree, fortunate not to lose her grip and fall in her rush to reach the ground.

“Oh gods,” she cried at the sight of her mate, so pale and unmoving. “Is she?”

“She still lives but barely,” Beowulf answered.

The bard glanced over at the warrior hovering over the other body at the base of the tree. Gabrielle couldn’t make out anything except long blonde hair and lots of blood.

“Is she alive?” she asked.

“No, her chest is ripped apart,” the Viking answered. “I don’t know her.”

Gabrielle dismissed the mysterious stranger and turned to Xena. “Hallvor, start stitching up some of the those wounds after cleaning them, try and stop the bleeding.” She instructed.

The bard tried to ignore the fact that it was her mate she was checking over and working on and just do the work she had learned from Xena after so many years and too many fights.

The warrior was battered beyond recognition. Her blue eyes were swollen shut and bloody and her raven hair was caked with blood. Gabrielle did a quick inventory of injuries and bit back her tears.

The Greek turned Xena’s head to the side to keep the warrior from choking on her own blood as it flowed from her mouth and nose. It was almost certain that the Warrior Princess’ jaw was broken, a couple of teeth missing and a broken nose. Moving lower revealed to the bard that Xena’s left shoulder was dislocated, right arm broken, and most ribs broken.

Xena’s breathing was labored and shallow. Gabrielle quickly thrust a dagger into Xena’s side as Beowulf held back one of the warriors. The Vikings looked on in disbelief as the bard inserted a hollow reed from one of the medical packs and held the reed in place. She looked up at the stunned warriors.

“Helps release the blood from the lung and it fills with air again,” she explained, trying not to think of how she had learned that from her warrior. She had always prayed that she’d never have to use it on any of her family or friends and especially on Xena.

Gabrielle glanced at the blood flowing from Xena’s mouth and choked back her fear and tears. The bruising on the warrior was intense at the base of the spine and stomach. Grendel had meant to kill the warrior slowly with internal bleeding and there was nothing Gabrielle could do about that.

“Gabrielle, I can’t stop the bleeding in some of the wounds,” Hallvor cried, frantically working on several injuries along Xena’s stomach and thighs. “She’s bleeding too quick.”

“I know,” Gabrielle said softly. “She’s bleeding inside.”

Hallvor stopped at the sound of defeat in the bard’s voice and looked at her Amazon Queen.

“Mom’s bleeding too fast to heal, isn’t she?” Sasha asked.

“Yes, even with her god-healing gifts, it’s too much,” Gabrielle answered honestly, stroking Xena’s hair out of the warriors closed eyes.

The bard remembered when an arrow had nicked Xena’s heart and the warrior had survived but that had been with the help of the warrior’s mother, the goddess Hecate. This time there were too many wounds, inside and out. Gabrielle had seen beatings like this on criminals in the arena of the Circus as a gladiator and none of the victims had lived long.

The bard watched her warrior as she heard Sasha beginning to cry beside her. Gabrielle looked at the half of the chakram Xena had left with her and the other half clipped to Xena’s belt and began to frown.

Suddenly the bard leaped to her feet and raised her bloody hands to the sky, looking at the sun.

“Apollo!” she screamed. “Father!”

Beowulf tried to maintain his composure but the Viking next to him wasn’t as successful and stumbled back several feet as a bright light filled the area near centered near the bard. As their eyes focused once again the Vikings were awed to see the Greek God of the Sun standing before them, looking down at the bard.

“Daughter,” he said simply, glancing over at Xena. “You don’t usually ask for help.”

“Please, Father,” she pleaded, going down to her knees. “Anything! Please save her!”

Apollo’s face softened and he pulled the bard up by her hands. “Gabrielle, you’ve always been one of my favorites and I would help if I could.”

“One of those non-interference things?” she questioned bitterly.

“Yes,” he said simply.

The bard pulled out of his hug angrily and spun on her heel. When she turned back to look at him, Apollo wasn’t surprised to see the bard’s green eyes flashing angrily.

“Why?” she demanded. “The gods usually interfere all the time in human lives if it suits you! How many children do you have, Apollo? How many times has Hera chased some poor mortal woman almost to death because of Zeus’ affairs?”

“What would you give to save your mate, daughter?” Apollo asked.

Gabrielle barely noticed Beowulf signaling the other Vikings to stay back and not say a word.

“Anything! You know that!” she responded angrily.

“Your life?”

“Yes!” she snapped.

“No hesitation in your answer, I like that. You’ve always have thought Xena was the warrior, Gabrielle, but your bravery goes beyond hers in some ways,” the God the Sun and of Healing commented. “Only a deity or a demi-god could even hope to heal Xena now.”

“Please, Apollo!” Gabrielle’s eyes lost their anger as she begged for Xena’s life.

“It’s time you learned some things about yourself, Gabrielle,” Apollo stated. “Most of the Olympians thought you both would have figured it out by now without being told. Oh well, it’s done.”

“What are you talking about?” Gabrielle snapped. “She’s dying!”

“Gabrielle, Xena is the daughter of two gods and a human. She’s not human and she’s not god either but somewhere in between.”

“We figured that with the god healing thing,” Gabrielle responded.

“You were told that your god healing abilities were also a gift,” Apollo continued. “That wasn’t quite accurate. You already had them, they just became more pronounced after your death on that cross on the Ides of March.”

“What are you saying, I’m a demi-god like Xena?” the bard questioned.

“Yes, you are my daughter and you have the blood of Bacchus running through you,” he stated.

“Thanks for reminding me,” she muttered.

“How old do you think Hercules is?” he suddenly questioned.

Gabrielle frowned. “Hercules? I don’t know, he was at Troy.”

Apollo surprised everyone by laughing. “You mortals! You haven’t thought about it, have you?”

Gabrielle frowned, she was in no mood for riddles as Xena’s life force slowly flowed from the warrior’s mouth and numerous wounds.

“Okay, he’s over two hundred years old, is that what you’re getting at?” she demanded.

“Yes, a demi-god. Son of Zeus.”

Gabrielle frowned. “Xena is the daughter of Zeus.”

“Yes, and more demi-god that Hercules. His mother was human,” Apollo grinned.

“Then she’ll live?” Gabrielle asked hopefully.

“No, she’s immortal, not invincible. She still is dying from her wounds,” Apollo stated, losing his grin.

“Then why bring it up?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Gabrielle, you are the daughter of the God of Healing and Youth, look inside,” Apollo instructed. “You can give her your energy and take her place, if you dare. Personally, I’d prefer to see you live but it is your choice.”

“I can save her?” the bard whispered, looking down at her mate.

“Yes, you have healing abilities but it’s at the expense of your own energy,” Apollo revealed.

“How?” she demanded.

“Think carefully, Gabrielle!” Apollo begged. “She’s dead in but moments, you have an eternity of life ahead of you.”

“Eternity?”

“God of Healing AND Eternal Youth,” he pointed out.

“When I died I become a demi-god and eternally young?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Yes, you stopped aging the day you died.”

“And Xena?” she asked.

“She died on that spiritual journey she took for Hecate, she stopped aging on that day,” he answered.

“Eternity without Xena?” the bard frowned.

“And if you change places with her, she’ll spend eternity roaming the earth without you,” Apollo pointed out.

“She has Solan and Sasha,” Gabrielle stated simply. She turned her bright green eyes to her father. “How?”

Apollo closed his eyes with a heavy sigh and when he opened them again they were saddened. “You are blood bound to her, reach out and find her spirit and send it back here. Give your energy to her body.”

Gabrielle nodded and knelt beside her warrior. She looked up and wasn’t surprised to find Apollo gone and Beowulf with his hand on her shoulder.

“Please don’t do this,” he asked. “I don’t know what you were saying with that God of yours but I can tell the look on your face. You’re going to trade places, yes?”

“Yes,” she answered simply, realizing that all the Vikings except Hallvor hadn’t been able to understand the Greek she and Apollo had been speaking.

“This isn’t what Xena would want,” he pointed out. “She knew what she was doing when she gave herself to the monster.”

“No, she didn’t,” the bard countered. “She was a mother saving her child. I’m trying to save this part of the world. Something Xena taught me a long time ago, sometimes you have to give into the Greater Good. Xena has a better chance at killing Grendel than I do. She’s also Sasha’s mother and a better warrior. If it’s a choice between me and Xena, then Xena is the better choice in this situation.”

“You’d say that no matter what the situation,” Hallvor snapped.

“Probably, but you know I’m right,” Gabrielle stated simply.

“There has to be another way!” Hallvor protested.

“There isn’t and there’s no time,” Gabrielle snapped and sat down next to her warrior and looked at Xena, tears beginning to well up in her eyes.

Gabrielle looked at the sun and at Sasha. She quickly drew the child into her arms and held her close for a moment.

“Sasha, I love you very much but I need to save your mom,” she tried to explain.

“You’re going to die instead of her?” Sasha questioned, tears streaming down her cheeks as she looked between her mom and her mum.

“Yes,” the bard said truthfully.

“Like the time you made Mom fight the Persians instead of saving you?” Sasha asked.

Gabrielle was surprised, she didn’t know that Xena had told their daughter that story and found herself nodding.

“Yes, like that,” she agreed. “You and Solan need her and she can beat the monster better than I can.”

“No!” Sasha cried and flung herself into the bard’s arms again. Gabrielle felt herself about to break down.

“Beowulf, please,” she begged and the large Viking took the child from her arms and the bard tried to ignore the child’s wails.

“Tell Xena I love her,” she said softly to Beowulf and Hallvor and then closed her eyes, slipping into the trance the Amazons and Xena had taught her, her spirit reaching out for the well-known connection between her and Xena.

The warrior groaned and tried to open her eyes slowly. Her body felt like it had been stomped on by two Cyclops and then thrown over a cliff. Years of experience told Xena that she had been through a really good fight and had been on the losing end.

“Xena,” a voice got through the fuzziness. “Can you hear me?”

The warrior opened her eyes and attempted a smile as she took in Hallvor’s face.

“How bad?” Xena questioned.

“You’ll be fine,” Hallvor said simply.

Xena frowned and gauged her own body damage. She felt battered and bruised but couldn’t feel anything broken. The warrior began to feel a chill sweep over her body; Xena remembered her jaw breaking under Grendel’s fists. She also remembered choking on her own blood from shattered ribs. Now the ribs weren’t broken and neither was her jaw.

Xena’s jaw tightened and she sat up abruptly. “Gabrielle!”

The warrior looked around frantically and took in Beowulf and the male warriors, Sasha sitting next to her, holding Xena’s hand and Hallvor. Then Xena felt tears beginning to fill her eyes as she glanced down at the covered figure next to her. Hallvor wouldn’t meet her eyes. Sasha had tears streaming down her cheeks and was sobbing softly.

“No, please,” Xena begged quietly. Beowulf turned away with his head held low. The warrior pulled back the bard’s cloak and stifled a sob as she took in the peaceful face of her mate lying on the ground. Xena quickly checked for a pulse and spun to Hallvor when she found none and realized Gabrielle was already cool to the touch.

“How!?” she demanded.

“She yelled for Apollo and he told her how to use her healing abilities to exchange herself for you,” Hallvor tried to explain.

“Healing abilities?” Xena questioned.

“Mum had abilities from being a demi-god like you,” Sasha sobbed.

“Demi-god?”

“Apollo said that you two quit aging the day you both died and you’ll live forever,” Hallvor said through clenched teeth, watching Gabrielle’s body.

“No,” Xena whispered and struggled to her feet. “No! Apollo!” she screamed.

This time the Vikings weren’t as surprised when the Greek God appeared in their midst as they set about lighting two camp fires.

Apollo’s eyes were red and his face was sorrowful.

“Undo this!” Xena demanded, pointing at Gabrielle.

“No, as much as I want her alive, Xena,” Apollo shook his head. “She made the choice and gave her energy to you. I can’t undo that.”

“Damnit!” Xena shouted, “If you can’t then who can?”

“None of the Olympians, Xena,” Apollo shook his head and began fading from her sight.

“I didn’t ask for this!” the warrior protested.

“I know, but she did. Take care of the monster and raise your daughter, that’s what she wanted,” Apollo said and faded out of sight.

Xena looked at the stars making their appearance in the sky and screamed Gabrielle’s name.

Beowulf waited for a candle-mark before approaching the warrior. He knew it was going to be a long night for everyone but especially Xena. They had left their gear at their campsite with the warrior and Eponin so the group was huddled in their cloaks around two fires. The body of Gabrielle covered nearby, casting a quiet spell over the group.

“Xena?” the Viking questioned softly.

The warrior sat on a log sharpening her sword and glanced over her shoulder.

“What happened, Beowulf?” Xena asked finally.

“She closed her eyes and went into another space. Your body began to jerk and hers began to glow with a light. When the light cleared she was laying next to you. She reached out and held your hand, said your name and stopped breathing,” the Viking explained simply.

Xena felt the tears beginning to flow again.

“I knew what I was doing, she shouldn’t have done this,” she muttered.

“She told us that you had the best chance to stop Grendel and raise Sasha, that you were the better choice.” Beowulf said.

“Never!” Xena snapped as Beowulf sat down on the ground in front of her. “Gabrielle is the light of the world, she keeps me out of the darkness. I can’t live without her.”

“You have to until Grendel is dead if you wish to honor Gabrielle’s memory,” he stated simply.

Xena’s eyes narrowed in anger and then softened. “You’re right. Tomorrow we track Grendel, kill the bitch and figure everything else out later.”

“Your god said that you are forever young but not invincible, like Hercules,” Beowulf commented. “What will you do without Gabrielle?”

“I don’t know,” Xena admitted, tears falling. “I have to take care of Sasha until she’s grown.”

“What happened to you?” Beowulf asked.

“I gave myself up to Grendel,” Xena began. “She let Sasha go and then we fought. I managed to get in a few good strikes but it wasn’t enough.”

The warrior continued sharpening her sword, trying to distance herself from the memory of her encounter with Grendel as she told it.

“I remember her hoisting me up into the air and she began really beating me,” Xena’s jaw tightened. “Then I heard Grimhild’s voice.”

The warrior slowed her sharpening, deep in thought. “She was a Valkyrie, Beowulf. Sent by Odin to help me several times when I’ve been in the North.”

Xena didn’t look up at the Viking but knew his face was one of surprise. Most Vikings never saw their deities or Valkyries and Xena knew that this was part of the source of their admiration of her. It seemed to the warrior that she couldn’t seem to escape dealing with the gods no matter where she went.

The night seemed colder to the warrior as she thought about Gabrielle and she fought off a shiver.

“I saw her fighting Grendel,” Xena continued. “Of course she fought better than any human I’ve ever seen. Only Ares was better. It still wasn’t enough.”

Beowulf saw a fresh tear fall down Xena’s cheek.

“Grendel put both fists through Grimhild’s chest,” she whispered, sharpening her sword forgotten. “Then I heard horses and Grendel disappeared.”

“Must have been us,” Beowulf reasoned. “Your Valkyrie kept you from being killed immediately.”

“Yes, so that Gabrielle could die!”

Beowulf tumbled over on his backside as Xena jumped to her feet.

“Damnit!” she screamed, slashing at the nearest tree with her sword. “Gabrielle!”

“Xena.”

Beowulf barely turned his head but the warrior had already spun around, launching her chakram at the sound within a moment.

Both Viking and Greek warrior were surprised to see a cloaked figure holding her chakram, having caught it in mid-air. The cloaked one pulled back his hood to reveal a handsome Viking male of middle age with an eye patch over one blue eye.

Xena and Beowulf glanced over at a pine tree as two ravens cawed at them.

“Odin,” Xena said simply and caught the chakram as the supreme Nordic deity launched back at her.

“Xena, Beowulf,” Odin responded, moving closer to the two warriors.

“Can you help Gabrielle?” Xena demanded.

“And what price would you pay?” Odin smirked.

“Any!” she snapped.

“Strange, that’s exactly what she answered in order to save you,” he commented, his face still hard.

“Odin, please,” the warrior whispered.

“Begging, Xena?” Odin questioned. “I never thought I’d see that day.”

“Whatever you want!” she snapped. “Yes, this is my fault, all of it. I know that and I’ll pay any price you ask, just bring her back!”

“Not that simple, Xena,” the god stated.

“What do you want from me?” the warrior asked.

“To end Grendel’s reign of terror. Too many have fallen already,” Odin said simply. “Take your band to Hrothgar’s Hall, he’s Healfdane’s son. Gather as many warriors from all around that you can. Send them against Grendel in five days, it’ll take many to wear her down enough to capture.”

“Capture?” Beowulf questioned.

“Yes, Freya has a plan to aid Xena in reversing the spell that turned one of her Valkyries into Grendel and possibly help Hallvor, at the end of the battle I and several others will be there. Bring your child and Hallvor as well,” the god instructed.

“Gabrielle?”

“I’m sorry, Xena,” Odin finally looked sympathetic. “The Norns won’t reveal their plan to me, she is your price tag for Grendel.”

“Take me instead, please! Isn’t that a better sacrifice?” she begged.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “Take her body home to Greece or to her Amazons, her spirit will have a choice of one of our halls, her Amazon land or the Elysian Fields. She has earned any place of her liking.”

Xena’s head hung in defeat as the god of the Vikings walked away, followed by his ravens and wolves. Her tears flowing freely.

For the next few days Beowulf found himself in charge as Xena wandered aimlessly around the steading of Hrothgar. Not even Sasha could break her out of her depression. The warrior spent many candle-marks on top of the wooden log fence, staring into the dark forest and sky.

The weather was turning colder and the warrior didn’t seem to notice, forgetting her leather coat or fur cloak half the time she went outside. Hallvor and Beowulf were consistently aware of ensuring Xena didn’t freeze in the cold of a Northern night.

Only Queen Wealththeow, wife of Hrothgar, was able to get the warrior to eat or catch moments of sleep.

Eponin leaned heavily on her crutch and watched Wealththeow approach the Warrior Princess slowly with a plate of food on the third evening. The Amazon Regent had recovered fairly quickly except for a broken leg that required her to use crutches to get around the well fortified steading of Hrothgar.

Hallvor walked up beside her Amazon sister and followed Eponin’s gaze as the Viking Queen tried to encourage the Greek warrior Xena to eat something.

One advantage the adventure seemed to have was that Eponin and Hallvor were talking again and acting as if everything was as before Pony found out that Hallvor was a werserker.

Wealththeow was beautiful, generous and kind. As tall as Xena with reddish golden hair that reminded Eponin of Gabrielle’s hair when she had first met the little bard and blue eyes.

“Maybe it’s her resemblance to Gabrielle and her kindness that gets through to Xena,” Eponin commented.

“She is a lot like Gabrielle in the younger days, then?” Hallvor questioned.

“Yes, there was an innocence about Gabrielle that was almost irresistible or annoying, depending on the person,” Eponin smiled a sad smile. “I never thought anything could break that. She never really lost it, she just became experienced.”

“A Roman slave, gladiator, Amazon Queen, bard and warrior,” Hallvor commented. “That’s experienced.” She grinned.

“Yes, and mate to Xena,” Pony said simply. “Quite a list.”

“What will happen to Xena once Grendel is dead?” Hallvor questioned.

“If Gabrielle were alive, I’d say they’d go back to their lives of raising Sasha and saving the world,” Pony said, sitting down on a bench to relieve the pressure on her legs. “Without Gabrielle I have no idea what Xena will do or become.”

“She couldn’t go back to being the Warlord, could she?” Hallvor frowned.

“I don’t think so,” Pony joined in her frowning. “I hope not, anyway. She has a lot of years since she fell into that darkness and Gabrielle said that Xena has faced a lot of that darkness and won.”

“I remember the Warlord, she almost had enough power to take on the gods themselves,” Hallvor stated. “Now that she’s a demi-god and knows it, what could stand in her way?”

“Not much. It was Gabrielle’s light that kept her from ever falling into that darkness. I just hope that focusing on raising Sasha and the light that Gabrielle left with all of us will be enough.” Pony prayed.

They watched as Wealththeow slowly led the warrior towards the bathing hut after Xena had finished eating most of the food the Queen had brought her.

“Gods, when she explodes we’d all better take cover,” Eponin commented.

“Ja,” Hallvor agreed.

Xena found herself letting Wealththeow bath her once they had gotten into the bathing hut and steam room. It seemed to the Greek that she had no energy for anything, not even the basics of living. Feeling Wealththeow’s touch in the bath brought back a flood of memories of Gabrielle doing the same for the warrior, scrubbing her back, comforting Xena, just being there.

Wealththeow, softly rubbing Xena’s back, saw the tear hit the water as the warrior’s head fell forward but continued with her administrations until Xena’s body was shaking with sobbing. The Viking Queen drew the warrior into her arms from behind and Xena felt her control break as she clung to the gentle and loving arms holding her as she wailed.

Xena was barely aware of the gentle arms and hands helping her out of the bath later and into the cooling down room. The soft but firm hands toweling her down and letting her body adjust to the coolness of the land once again.

The warrior was asleep before Wealththeow pulled the sleeping furs over Xena a short time later in the main hall.

It was still early in the evening, barely after dusk but the warrior was sound asleep in moments. Warriors, servants, wives and common wives were filling the hall for the evening meal along with the noise that usually followed a Viking meal in the cheerful hall of Hrothgar. Most of the occupants ignored the sleeping figure on the bench but a handful would stop for a moment and look down at the warrior. Most had looks of sympathy, very few curiosity for the legendary Warrior Princess.

Pony and Hallvor approached Queen Wealththeow as she took up a seat next to her husband at the table, both Greek and Viking Amazon glancing over at the sleeping Warrior Princess.

“Thank you, Queen Wealththeow, for your kindness to Xena,” Pony began.

“No thanks are necessary, Amazon,” Queen Wealththeow smiled, taking her husband’s hand in her own as he brought it to his lips and kissed it. The love between the couple was very apparent. “She is so wounded in the spirit.”

“Yes, Queen,” Hallvor agreed as they took seats at the table.

“I have heard stories of the great Xena and of her battles here in the North,” King Hrothgar commented, stroking his red beard. “Of how she took on the gods themselves. Now to see her like this is a shock.”

“She loves the little Greek very much,” Beowulf commented, sitting down next to Hallvor.

“Yes, I’ve heard the recent tales of them in the North and some from traveling skalds from the south. They were an amazing team. A shame about the little one’s death,” Hrothgar stated.

“She was remarkable, King Hrothgar,” Eponin stated.

A commotion at the entrance to the Hall turned all eyes to the main doors and brought several warriors to their feet with swords in hand as shouting filled the hall. At the doors several riders on horseback forced their way through the servants, spurring their horses into the hall to the foot of the table.

The lead rider glanced around among the warriors and glared at Beowulf. With a Viking shout he drew his sword.

“Quiet!” Hrothgar shouted, jumping onto the table with his own war axe drawn. Everyone grew silent as they waited to see what would happen.

Eponin noticed that Xena was now sitting up on her fur bed with chakram in hand, appearing groggy.

“Heatholaf!” Hrothgar shouted at the rider. “How dare you draw iron in my hall! What is the meaning of this?” he demanded.

The Viking being addressed, Heatholaf, was short for a Viking but imposing in his apparent strength of stocky body and rage. His blond beard was almost overshadowed by his red face as he took in the sight of Beowulf.

“There are many heroes in this hall, great Hrothgar,” Heatholaf responded. “I have seen your own brother Heorogar, Hrethel, Wulfgar of the Wendles, Ecglaf and his son Unforth, Beanstan and his son Breca, Folewald and others, but among you is the son of a lowly base coward who killed my father!” the Viking yelled, striking his fist against his chainmail shirt with sword in hand.

Beowulf, already on his feet, stepped out from the bench and held his hand on his war axe.

“Yes, there are many heroes here,” Hrothgar agreed. “All having answered my call to face the monster known as Grendel. Also among them are Finn, leader of the Frisians; and Hnaef, Hildeburgh, Guthlaf, Hrothulf, Oslaf and others. Some of them, such as Finn, are in a blood feud with my family and myself. I have ordered a truce for the common good of destroying Grendel. You will honor that truce and swear by the sacred Thor’s Hammer that you will not raise a blade or fist against Beowulf or anyone else you have quarrel with or you will leave my steading in shame as a headstrong puppy!”

Heatholaf’s face grew even more red and everyone in the hall weren’t sure if the Viking would turn his anger onto Hrothgar at his harsh words and scolding. Heatholaf finally lowered his sword and nodded at Hrothgar.

“I agree to the truce you have asked, King Hrothgar,” he said in an even voice. “I will do nothing against Beowulf or his kin during this adventure and I will treat him as a brother in arms.”

Hrothgar turned to Beowulf. The tall Viking removed his hand from his war axe and nodded to the Viking Jarl.

“I will treat Heatholaf and his kin as my brothers in arms during this adventure against Grendel and we will honor the truce while in your service, great Hrothgar,” he stated. “I swear by Thor’s Hammer, Mjollnir.”

“I swear as well,” Heatholaf responded.

“Good, now give your horses over to the servants and come and eat,” Hrothgar demanded and everyone returned to whatever they had been doing.

Pony watched Xena replace the chakram under her pillow and close her eyes again and the Amazon breathed a sigh of relief that the warrior was returning to sleep. Pony prayed to Artemis that it be a restful sleep, Xena hadn’t slept well since Gabrielle’s death.

Just before dawn on the fifth day, scouts reported seeing the monster approaching the main steading. Seemed that everyone had the same idea on the same day, a confrontation in the woods.

Xena knelt beside the tightly wrapped body in the snow and pulled back the material covering the bard’s face.

The warrior held back a whimper. The bard looked so pale, like she had on the cross when Gabrielle had died. The body had been placed in the stable and servants had kept snow piled around it. Xena planned on returning the Amazon Queen to the remainder of her tribe for proper Amazon ritual funeral rites.

“Gods, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, stroking the bard’s cheek. “I never believed that it would be you to go first, not after surviving that stupid war and coming back to me, surviving the cross, living through Ares’ attacks.”

The warrior felt the tears beginning to flow down her cheeks.

“Guess I’ve never accepted the fact that you could die without me. I’ve managed to get you back before but it feels different this time, little one,” Xena whispered. “Maybe it’s because you’ve always been a fighter, sometimes even stronger than I’ve been. You gave up this time, is that what’s different?”

Xena heard the crunch of someone entering the stable and her hand went instinctively to her chakram.

“Xena,” Hallvor’s voice called softly and the warrior relaxed.

“Yes?” the warrior responded.

“It’s time, the warriors are mounting up in a few minutes,” Hallvor said softly and left the stable.

“Gabrielle, I know you can hear me,” Xena said as she covered the bard’s face again. “I don’t know if I’ll make it out of this, if I don’t, wait for me.”

The warrior was pleased to find Wealththeow waiting outside the stable. The Viking hugged the Greek and smiled at Xena.

“Thank you, Queen Wealththeow, for your kindness,” Xena said simply.

“You are very welcome,” Weal smiled. “You needed strength to face this monster and I need you strong to protect my husband, kin and warriors.”

Xena smiled at that logic and knew the Viking cared beyond just those ulterior motives. Wealththeow was one of those rare humans who genuinely cared about others, like Gabrielle.

“I’ll do my best to protect them and end this nightmare,” Xena promised.

It was still dark when they left the steading.

The battle was one that the skalds would sing about for decades to come. The band of Vikings spotted the large creature just at dawn in the dense forest near Hrothgar’s steading and rode forth with so many Viking war cries that the trees themselves shook from the sound.

Grendel answered with a roar that scattered any animals remaining in the area.

Xena had told the warriors about Grendel’s protection against swords and spears so each warrior carried a torch, hoping that this would prove to be one of the monster’s few weaknesses. The warrior had been right; the creature shrank back from the flames but with her longer reach, easily overcame her fear and began ripping the mighty Viking warriors to shreds.

Xena sent her chakram flying again and again that day but it barely seemed to cut the giant creature’s armored skin. Still, it was the only thing that was getting through the creature’s defenses.

Hallvor had joined the fight from the moment it had ensued and after an unknown time, fell back breathing heavily. Nothing seemed to be working against the monster and the Viking heroes were falling in bloody heaps around the creature.

One warrior grabbing at his torn armor and ripped out stomach, another looking confused as the life left his eyes, blood pouring out of his throat.

The Viking Amazon growled deep in her throat and felt herself beginning to shift from human to part wolf as she saw Xena thrown backwards into a tree by a back hand from Grendel.

At the sound of the growl the creature turned and looked at the werserker.

Xena shook her head and watched the two creatures launch themselves at the other. The two supernatural beings met in the middle of the space with a mighty crash that send two warriors falling backwards as they had approached Grendel.

Xena’s eyes widened at the sight of the werewolf-like werserker and the giant Grendel battling. Hallvor had practically leaped into Grendel’s arms, under the long reach of the monster and had one clawed hand around Grendel’s throat and the other drawn back to slash at the monster’s face. Grendel had the wolfling raised up off the ground and was attempting to grab the wolfling to smash her to the ground.

Before Grendel could get a good grip on the wolfling, two ravens dove out of the air and began harassing the creature, trying for Grendel’s eyes. The monster yowled in anger and threw Hallvor away from her into a tree.

Xena and the other Vikings still standing winced in sympathy as the werewolf fell out of the tree to land heavily on the ground with a growl.

The ravens were followed by two wolves rushing the giant armored creature and taking her legs out from under her. Before Grendel could regain her feet, Xena sent her chakram sailing again, cutting Grendel across the throat.

Grendel howled, holding her bleeding throat and slashing out with her claws at the ravens, wolves and any Viking foolish enough to get close to her again.

“She’s becoming weak!” someone yelled and in response a figure appeared out of the woods with a gleaming golden sword and golden helmet with a boar figure atop. He rushed forward and slashed at the monster and dashed back into the woods before Grendel could slash at him.

“Freyr!” Xena heard someone whisper in awe near her. The sword had cut through Grendel’s armor scaled skin across her stomach. The monster regained her feet with a roar of anger and grabbed a Viking warrior up and tore him in half.

Xena vaguely recognized the Viking as Finn, leader of the Frisians.

Hallvor, crouched low, launched herself at the monster again and, once again, they met claw to claw until Grendel threw the wolfling into another tree. This time Hallvor landed even harder and grabbed at her back with a howl of pain.

Xena and Beowulf stopped in their tracks as they watched Grendel grab at her back, seeming to be in pain as well.

“They’re connected!” Xena cried, seeing an answer. “When I cast that spell on both of them it connected them!”

“What do we do?” Beowulf demanded as Grendel killed another one of his friends.

“When Hallvor is injured then Grendel is injured,” Xena explained.

“Are you asking us to kill Hallvor?” Beowulf demanded.

“No,” Xena whispered, realizing the full extent of the connection between monster and werserker.

“We can’t defeat it!” Beowulf cried.

“I won’t sacrifice another innocent for something I’ve done!” Xena snapped back and threw her chakram at Grendel again and cursed as it came back to her, barely cutting the monster’s skin along an amr. The warrior could almost swear Grendel was laughing at them.

“Xena!”

The warrior turned to see Hallvor trying to pull herself upright.

“Do it! It’s the only way!” the Viking Amazon demanded.

“No, damnit! We’ll find another way!” Xena protested.

Both turned at the sound of a high pitched scream in time to see another warrior go down under Grendel’s claws.

“Odin! How do we do this?” Xena screamed.

“You have the answer, warrior,” a voice sounded back.

“Damn you and your sacrifices!” Xena shouted back. “You turn on your best heroes and have them killed. How many do you want, damn you?”

“You know the battle we face in the future, I take warriors in their prime,” Odin’s familiar voice carried to her.

“I don’t give a damn about your Ragnarok!” Xena shouted back. “I’m not going to kill another innocent!”

“Then all will die, including your daughter,” the response came.

“Xena, do it!” Hallvor shouted and Xena screamed, sending the chakram at Hallvor with a deadly backhand aim.

Xena and Beowulf rushed forward and grabbed the Viking Amazon before she could fall forward on her face, the chakram sticking out of her chest. Blood began flowing from the young woman’s mouth as she changed back to human in Xena’s arms.

“Now!” they heard someone shouting, more screams, roars and commotion but they didn’t even glance over.

“Hallvor?” Xena questioned. The Viking Amazon opened her blue eyes and coughed on her blood but attempted to smile.

“Look, it worked!” Hallvor muttered and attempted to point past the warriors.

The warriors glanced over and saw Odin, Freyr and the remaining Viking warriors throwing a golden net over the creature as Grendel struggled around a gaping wound in her chest. The creature howled in rage as Odin wrapped a golden rope around her hands for a quick restraint.

Xena’s eyes widened once more as Odin raised his spear and Freyr raised his spear. “No!” she screamed as the weapons came down, the spear going through Grendel’s chest and Freyr’s sword severing the monster’s head from her body.

“What?” Xena demanded. “What about Hallvor?”

“Easy, warrior,” a gentle voice ordered.

Xena looked up into the most beautiful face she had ever seen in her life. The tales of Helen, Cleopatra and Aphrodite didn’t compare to the overwhelming beauty and sensuality.

The woman wasn’t dressed in typical female Viking clothing but in something close to what Gabrielle normally wore – leather top leaving nothing to the imagination but with a long leather skirt split up to the hip. A beautiful necklace of gold, amber and jet rested comfortable at her breasts.

“Freya,” Xena stated simply.

“The original spell was one of selfishness and greed,” Freya stated as she knelt by the wounded Viking Amazon. “This time you and your friends and family have sacrificed everything to end Grendel’s reign of terror.”

“Don’t take Hallvor too, it’s not her fault!” Xena pleaded.

Freya smiled as she brushed a strand of her black hair from her face. “I don’t intend to. Your mate gave her life for you and Hallvor was willing to give hers to stop Grendel and now Grendel is dead. Enough sacrifices.”

Xena looked around at the destruction surrounding them and sighed heavily. She had no idea how many had fallen to Grendel but it was more than half of the number they had started out with. Several Vikings knelt next to their friends or kin in sorrow and tribute. Two were kicking the lifeless body of the monster in anger and a couple were sitting with their backs to trees, obvious exhausted.

Freya nodded. “Yes, there was a time when you wouldn’t have even noticed the dead surrounding your victory,” the goddess commented.

“Now I do and it hurts,” Xena agreed. “How many died today? How many died because of Grendel, because of me?”

“Too many, I agree,” Freya stated. “And now this part of it is over.”

Freya looked around at the gathering warriors and the child running towards her mother. Xena grabbed Sasha into her arms and hugged the child tightly.

Sasha drew back and quickly began examining her mother’s injuries. Xena smiled at the child’s concern.

“I’m okay,” Xena reassured her daughter. “Just scratches.”

“Sasha, are you ready to help?” Freya asked the child and Xena frowned.

“What are you talking about?” Xena demanded.

“Sasha is gifted because of who her parents are, you know this, Xena,” Freya began as the child left Xena’s arms and sat next across from Freya, Hallvor between them. “It’s time she learned some of those giftings. Beowulf, take the warriors and return to the Steading of Hrothgar and celebrate. The end of Grendel was at your hands, no mention is to be made of Xena or the gods.”

“Yes, goddess,” the Viking said simply with a bow and began herding the Vikings toward what remained of their comrades, gathering their dead for burial.

Xena continued to frown as Sasha and Freya joined hands across Hallvor’s wounded body and closed their eyes. The warrior was also gifted with shaman abilities and recognized the goddess and child going into a trance.

Xena had no idea how long the child and goddess of love, sensuality, and earth magic sat like that over the wounded Viking Amazon but she knew it was long by the aches settling in her body from the battle with Grendel and the lowering of the sun past it’s zenith in the sky.

Finally Hallvor coughed and blinked her eyes open and looked down at her chest, pulling her torn tunic aside to reveal a chest undamaged by the chakram.

She looked up into the serene faces of the child and goddess with an amazed look on her face. Xena grinned as Sasha and Freya broke contact and smiled back at Hallvor.

The goddess turned to Xena as she rose from her sitting position on the forest floor and Sasha helped Hallvor to her feet.

“Thank you, goddess,” Xena said simply.

“My pleasure,” Freya smiled. “She’s fine and will mostly have control over her wolf-self. She still will probably turn into the wolfling during battle but she won’t turn during sex anymore.”

Xena breathed a sigh of relief and she heard Hallvor choke back a sob of gratitude.

“You friend will be fine and Grendel is dead,” Odin said as he walked up and stood beside Freya. “The Norns are partly pleased.”

Xena lost her smile and she heard Hallvor growl as well.

“Partly?” Xena demanded. “What more do you want? Gabrielle is dead, more than thirty warriors are dead just today, women and children, and Grendel was lost as well.”

“Your child has a destiny here in the North,” Odin continued.

“I’ve been told that, what about it?” Xena demanded.

“Both Freya and I have lost a Valkyrie because of your dealings with Gerulda and Grimhild,” Odin stated.

“You’re not taking Sasha!” Xena growled, suddenly wishing that Beowulf or Eponin were with her and Hallvor.

“She needs training in her shaman gift and who better than a goddess?” Freya asked gently.

“If I want that I’ll call on my mother Hecate!” Xena stated, pulling Sasha behind her.

“Xena, her powers are going to go insane when she hits her first blood cycle,” Freya informed the warrior. “I can protect her and everyone around her and train her. You’re not losing her forever.”

“I missed out watching my son grow up, I’m not giving up my daughter!” Xena snapped, drawing her chakram. “Something that’s changed since I was here all those years ago, Odin, I can hurt gods!”

“Not any more, Xena,” Odin shook his head, almost sadly. “You would make a magnificent opponent but you no longer have that ability. Your Fates and our Norns revoked that after your fight with Grendel. You were given that ability because of Ares and he is gone.”

Xena felt her heart racing as she absorbed this knowledge. She had no leverage against the gods without that ability. The warrior’s eyes narrowed.

“You’re not known for your honesty at times, Odin,” she declared.

“I swear by my spear that it’s true, you can’t hurt us or kill us,” the supreme deity stated and Xena knew he was telling the truth.

“Mom?” Xena turned and looked down at her child with worried eyes. “It’s okay, I want to stay.”

“What?” the warrior whispered and knelt down by her child.

“You told me once that Gabby Mum almost let herself die so that you could fight the Persians, for the greater good,” Sasha reminded her daughter.

“And what greater good does this serve, Sash? I can’t give you up!”

“I’ve seen two different future visions, if I don’t stay and learn then I’ll be worse than you ever were,” Sasha explained, sounding older than her years.

“We can fight that together!” Xena begged. “I fought against the darkness, I can help you get through it.”

“I know you want to, Mom,” Sasha smiled. “But it won’t work and Gabby mum will need you soon.”

“Gabrielle?”

“She’s going to face doubt and darkness worse than anything you’ve been through,” Sasha stated. “Not outside but inside.”

“How?” Xena questioned.

“Xena?”

The warrior closed her eyes, hoping and praying that she had heard the familiar voice and at the same time wanting to reject it. She opened her eyes after a moment and turned to find her mate standing where the body of Grendel had been before the Vikings had removed it.

Gabrielle looked back at her mate with a confused look on her face, dressed just the same as when Xena last saw her alive, complete with sais at her boots.

The warrior turned to the gods angrily.

“Not even with that price!” she hissed. “Gabrielle wouldn’t want that!”

“It was a choice made by many deities, the Fates, the Norns, your bard and child, Xena,” Odin said gently. “She’ll stay with us for several seasons, be trained and then return to you.”

Xena felt Gabrielle walk up to mother and daughter slowly and resisted the urge to reach out and pull the bard into a massive hug.

“Gabrielle would never agree to losing Sasha in exchange for her life!” Xena protested.

“Sasha?” the bard questioned and turned her eyes to the two Viking deities. “You want Sasha?”

“I want to take and train her to use her powers when they blossom at her first moon cycle,” Freya explained.

“When will her cycle come?” Gabrielle asked.

“In two winters,” Freya answered.

“Then why are we deciding this now?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Because now is the time to decide it,” Odin snapped.

“What if we return in two winters and let you train her while we stay here in the North?” Gabrielle attempted a compromise.

“Xena is known for her stubbornness,” Odin pointed out, “Would you bring her back?”

Xena grabbed at the hand as it rested on her shoulder, realizing that Gabrielle was indeed flesh and bone and alive. The warrior looked deep in her daughter’s eyes and finally lowered her head.

“Yes, if it is Sasha’s wish,” she agreed.

“Then I am satisfied,” Odin declared. “Xena, this isn’t a punishment, I swear.”

“She will learn much and will be a hero in our land and history,” Freya put in.

“Would you give up your child?” Xena snapped back at the deities.

“Xena, I swear that you’ll see her frequently,” Odin stated and Xena finally nodded, pulling Sasha in for a tight hug.

“Keep well, warrior,” Odin said and Xena wasn’t surprised to find him gone when she looked up.

“I swear, Xena, that she will be happy,” Freya tried reassuring the Greek warrior. “Now that you’re immortal, you’ll have the rest of her life to enjoy time with her. It’ll be no worse than sending her to school in Athens.”

“You’re probably right, Freya,” Xena stated, standing up and wrapping her arm around her mate. “But I’m still not happy about it right now.”

“Understood,” Freya smiled. “Be well and enjoy your life with Gabrielle.”

Xena turned to face her mate, her mind still refusing to accept that the bard was once again in her arms.

“Gods, little one,” she whispered as Sasha jumped up and began hugging them both. “Is it really you?”

“Yes,” the bard answered simply and pulled back a little to look Xena in the eyes and glanced down at Sasha with a smile. “I found out after I crossed that the Norns were willing to send me back if Grendel was defeated. They didn’t want to risk you returning to the darkness.”

“Gods, I am so tired of dealing with gods and goddesses and monsters,” the warrior complained.

“Me too, my love,” Gabrielle agreed, hugging both mother and daughter again.

“Let’s get back to the Hall and get warm,” Xena suggested.

“Yes,” Gabrielle agreed as Xena picked up someone’s fallen cloak and wrapped it around her bard. Gabrielle wasn’t dressed in her Northern clothes and it was getting dark in the cold North.

The celebrating was well under way when the Greeks entered the steading, Gabrielle blushing at the stunned look on most of the servants, warriors and women of the village.

“They all know I died, don’t they?” she questioned as she walked alongside Argo.

“Yes, your body was in the stable, kept in snow,” Xena answered, shaking her head.

“What, my love?”

“Gabrielle, it’s been five days and nights without you,” Xena complained. “I’m trying to adjust here.”

“Me too,” the bard stated.

A shout of glee broke their concentration and the bard found herself lifted high in the air and then crushed against a very large, fur covered chest.

“Beowulf!” she gasped. “Don’t kill me now that I’m alive again!”

The Viking put her gently back onto her feet with a blush and looked her up and down in disbelief.

“It is really you?” he demanded.

“Yes, the Norns let me come back,” she stated with a grin as Xena and Sasha dismounted.

It was just before dawn before the two Greeks were able to break away from the celebrating to crawl into their sleeping furs along the hall’s walls. Xena brushed away a tear from her eyes as the bard settled into her usual spot in Xena’s arms, head resting on the warrior’s chest.

“What is it, Xena?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“I missed you so much,” Xena whispered back, breaking into tears as Gabrielle shifted to hold her warrior.

“Me too,” the bard smiled and held Xena tightly. “It was so hard watching you suffer because I was gone.”

“What was it like? Where did you go?” Xena asked.

“Can we talk about that later?” Gabrielle asked softly. “I’m still adjusting to the fact I was dead and now I’m not. It’s not like the other times when I didn’t know I was dead and came back almost immediately. I had time to think about it.”

“I can’t give up Sasha, not after losing you, even for that short time,” Xena stated.

“We’ll handle it, lover,” Gabrielle said reassuringly. “We’ll be here in the North with her and I trust Freya to let us see her. She is the daughter of the God of War, grand-daughter of Zeus, and daughter of the most feared Warlord in Greece.”

“I know and I look around us now,” Xena said bitterly. “I see how many more have died because of something I did when I was drawn to the darkness and I never want that for Sasha. I just don’t want to lose her either.”

“I know, my love,” Gabrielle whispered, letting Xena begin to drift off to sleep. “We’ll face everything together.”
The End
Nightstalkers
Storyline: Xena, Gabrielle, Sasha, Eponin and Hallvor answer a psychic call for help from the Northern Amazons with winter approaching. The tribe is under attack by something very terrifying and close to the bard.
“Well, little one,” Xena said softly as Gabrielle crawled into her arms late one evening. “The Vikings are about celebrated out and most of them are leaving tomorrow, back to their own Halls and lands to prepare for winter. Which way do you want to go? Greece or the Black Forest with Pony and Hallvor?”

“The Black Forest, I think,” Gabrielle whispered, her hands roaming under Xena’s tunic and across the warrior’s ribs. With a soft moan, she began nuzzling the warrior’s neck.

“I agree, but we either should settle in with the Black Forest Amazons for winter or make it a short stay,” the warrior commented, her own hands removing Gabrielle’s sleeping shirt under the furs.

“We’ll decide when we get there,” Gabrielle mumbled, her head disappearing under the furs, a moment later her lips began suckling one of Xena’s nipples and the warrior suddenly was no longer interested in talking about leaving in the next couple of days.

It had been two weeks since the death of Grendel, the monster and the return of Gabrielle from the dead. During that time the Vikings who survived the battle and their families had been celebrating in the great hall of Hrothgar, the local jarl, or king.

Now everyone was tired, happy and contemplating facing the typically harsh winter of the Northern lands and thinking of their own homes, family and kith left behind. Eponin’s broken leg was healing fine but it would still be a couple more weeks before she could put weight on the splinted limb. She was forced to get around with crutches on the ice and patches of snow on the ground.

Hallvor, her sister Viking Amazon, was faring better after her battle with Grendel. Xena, Beowulf and Hallvor had been forced to sacrifice the young Viking female when they realized that she was physically connected to the monster. Xena had sunk her chakram deep in the young werserker’s chest. It had been the skills and gifts of the Norse goddess Freya and Sasha’s developing powers that had brought the Amazon back whole and in better control of her wolf-side.

Then Freya had made a demand of Xena that the warrior hadn’t been willing to pay: the Northern gods wanted Freya to train Sasha in her god-skills when they blossomed at the young girls’ first menstrual cycle. Xena had refused to let her daughter go. Gabrielle had sacrificed her life for Xena’s. Too many warriors had fallen to Grendel’s claws and teeth, and Hallvor had nearly died. Xena wasn’t about to lose her daughter as well. The Norns brought Gabrielle back in gratitude for the death of Grendel but Freya and Odin still insisted on Sasha being trained in the North or the child faced becoming worse than Xena ever was as the warlord; a ruthless child of darkness with the powers of gods.

Xena had finally compromised with the return of Gabrielle and the promise that they would return to the north for Sasha’s training in a year and a half, before her first blood cycle. The warrior wasn’t happy but the gods had reassured the bard and warrior that it was training, they weren’t permanently taking the child and she would see both her moms often.

After that had been decided, Xena and Gabrielle settled into celebrating with the Vikings and adjusting to the fact that Gabrielle was alive once again and in Xena’s arms. Both Gabrielle and Xena found they were a little insecure and didn’t want the other one out of their sight for long and needed to touch each other frequently, as if to reassure themselves that the other was real and alive.

Hrothgar had made the band of female warriors feel very welcome in his hall and had invited them to stay for the winter months if they wished but Xena and Gabrielle were anxious to move on. They also knew that Hallvor and Pony wanted to get back to their small Amazon band to help out in the winter.

The next morning found the warriors sleepy but doing better. Xena went off to help around the steading while Gabrielle went to talk with Eponin and Hallvor about traveling before the first real winter storm hit.

Before she found the Amazons, Sasha asked to talk with her. Bard and child sat down near one of the pit fires.

“What is it Sasha?” Gabrielle asked.

Instead of answering right away the child shuffled her feet, looked down and refused to meet Gabrielle’s eyes. The bard raised the child’s chin up until blue eyes met green ones.

“It’s okay,” the bard encouraged. “Tell me.”

“I’ve been seeing and hearing things,” the child said softly, her eyes downcast. Gabrielle understood, the last vision Sasha had seen was of Xena hanging from a tree, battered beyond recognition and almost dead. The vision had happened at the claws and fists of Grendel. Only Gabrielle exchanging her life for Xena’s had saved the warrior.

“What have you seen and heard, Sash?” the bard asked gently.

“I see the Northern Amazons, some of them are being attacked by dark women,” Sasha tried explaining, becoming frustrated.

Gabrielle also understood the problem; she sometimes had difficulty describing whatever she had seen in a vision on the rare occasions when they happened.

“Dark women?” Gabrielle frowned. “Close your eyes,” she instructed. “Now, can you see the vision you saw?” The child nodded and Gabrielle smiled slightly. “Now, what do you see, tell me very slowly?”

“I see Otere fighting with two women,” Sasha began.

Gabrielle spotted Xena heading their way and she placed a finger on her lips and the warrior approached quietly and stood behind Sasha, listening in.

“Can you see the women she’s fighting?” the bard questioned. “What kind of clothing do they have on?”

“Furs and leathers, like Amazons only dark painted. They wear hoods up over their heads, like Odin,” Sasha spoke softly. “Their fingernails are very long and they use them like claws, they’re not using any weapons but Otere is.”

“Is her sword working?” Gabrielle asked, glancing up at her worried mate.

“No, it slashes their clothes and skin but they only bleed a little, not enough.” Gabrielle immediately sensed the child becoming anxious.

“It’s okay, Sasha, it’s just pictures right now. Anything else about the women?”

“They have fangs like a wolf,” the child whispered. Gabrielle thought she was going to fall off the stool she was sitting on. Sasha had seen her bacchae fangs and eyes before, was this the same thing?

“Are they like me, Sash?” Gabrielle forced herself to ask.

“No, they’re hurting the Amazons and Yakut is yelling for me to help them, to bring you and Mom,” Sasha answered.

“Oh gods,” Xena muttered, noticing Gabrielle’s hands shaking. “Sasha,” the warrior said gently, squatting down beside her daughter. Sasha kept her eyes closed but smiled at the sound of her mom’s voice. “Do you see Mattita, the Amazon who hurt us when we left the Northern sisters?”

“Yes, she’s fighting Otere too, everyone is fighting everyone,” the child responded.

“Oh gods, Xena,” Gabrielle growled. “A civil war and an attack from the outside by bacchae?”

“Sounds something like it, doesn’t it?” Xena commented as Sasha opened her eyes and hugged her mom. “It’s probably not bacchae though but vampiir. That’s what they call them up here, vampiir or upir. Women and men who have been killed by one vampiir and they become vampiir themselves.”

“Different than bacchae?” Gabrielle frowned. She knew that there were many different types of blood-sucking creatures, including once-human ones. She knew about the Greek ones and some of the Baltic area ones as well.

“Yes, sunlight hurts them when they’re young and can kill them,” Xena answered. “The only real way to kill them is either stake them with wood or decapitate them.”

“How do you know about them?” the bard asked as Sasha sat back down on her stool, listening to the two adults.

“Yakut told me about them when we fought Alti,” Xena responded. “She figured out that you were a partial bacchae from Alti’s spell. That’s why you didn’t have to explain when we needed her to help get us blood in the winter.”

“Now they’re in trouble from vampiir, my kin, it would seem,” Gabrielle said bitterly.

“They aren’t your kin, Gabrielle,” Xena growled. She hated the fact that the bard still looked at her bacchae cravings as a curse. Xena had accepted it a long time ago, why couldn’t Gabrielle.

Then the warrior mentally scolded herself. How many times had Gabrielle asked Xena to forgive herself for the warlord’s past?

Xena had always resisted, not feeling that forgiveness was for her. She knew that Gabrielle hated having some of Bacchus’ blood in her veins, even if Xena didn’t mind most of the time. Only when it caused her mate pain did Xena object. Like the time Gabrielle almost starved to death from blood cravings, or when an Arabic sorcerer working for a Viking Jarl had held the bard and starved her until her craving for blood was maddening. Her bard had resisted hurting anyone innocent though.

Gabrielle watched the thoughts running through Xena’s mind and could almost follow them. They had argued enough about Gabrielle’s shame about being a partial bacchae. The bard knew that Xena actually enjoyed the time when Gabrielle needed her blood, when she needed the connection and the sex. The bard had to admit that she enjoyed that as well but not the fact that she NEEDED the blood and sex and that it wasn’t a choice.

The warrior glanced up and smiled at her daughter and mate. “You’ll find Hallvor and Eponin and see if they want to go with us?” Xena questioned.

“We’ll risk Mattita trying to take Sasha again?” Gabrielle questioned.

Xena’s smile became a look of intense anger, remembering the Law Speaker of the Northern Amazons trying to keep Gabrielle and Sasha in the North while exiling Solan and his would-be wife, Reija. It had come down to the small band escaping in the night and Mattita trying to kill them, her archers almost succeeding with both Gabrielle and Xena. The power mad Amazon had wanted the child because she had overheard that Sasha was the child of gods and would probably have powers when she was older.

“I’ll rip Mattita’s heart out before she takes one step towards Sasha and face whatever consequences there might be,” Xena growled.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, my love,” Gabrielle smiled slightly. “I don’t think the Amazons need a civil war, attacks by vampiir and a war with the Warrior Princess all at the same time.”

Xena finally smiled at Gabrielle’s smirk. “We’ll work it out,” she said, a little calmer.

“I’ll find Hallvor and Pony and see if they’ll go with us,” Gabrielle said as she rose from her stool.

Sasha turned towards her mom. “You’re not mad at me?”

“For what, Sash?” Xena asked, pulling the child into her arms for another hug.

“For seeing bad things?”

“No, not at all,” Xena said gently. “You don’t cause the bad things, you just see them. It might even save lives, little one.”

“Really?” Sasha questioned, her eyebrows furrowed, looking almost like a small twin of Xena.

“Yes, you didn’t see if Otere was okay or not, we might get there in time to make sure she’s okay when those vampiir attack,” Xena pointed out.

“Okay,” the child said brightly. “I’ll go pack!”

Xena smiled as she watched the child scamper away and then began to frown, thinking about the trip and what they might be facing. One thing she and Gabrielle hadn’t discussed, it was coming on full winter and they probably wouldn’t make it back before the snow hit.

They were looking at spending the long winter months with the Northern Amazons. The last time they had been there they had nearly died and lost Sasha.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As both Xena and Gabrielle thought, both Hallvor and Eponin wanted to travel further North with the Greeks. The female warriors and child packed their things and began making their goodbyes to the Vikings.

As expected, Hrothgar insisted on another feast to thank the women for their aid in defeating Grendel. Xena drew the Viking Jarl aside and quietly protested that she was the reason for Grendel in the first place. Hrothgar merely laughed and hugged the surprised warrior and called for a feast anyway.

Xena tried to ignore Gabrielle’s smirk of amusement at Xena’s discomfort, the bard shrugging at her mate. Both knew that nothing now would stop the Vikings from celebrating yet another night.

Xena hoped they had enough supplies to last the winter with all this feasting.

Early the next morning at dawn the females took in the goodbye hugs, hand-shakes and giftings from the Vikings.

Gabrielle walked over to Beowulf and looked up at the huge Viking and grinned. Beowulf smiled down at the little blond in turn.

“Little bard,” he said softly. “If you ever need anything, anywhere, anytime, I will be there.”

“Thank you, Beowulf,” Gabrielle smiled and hugged the Viking. “You have our friendship as well.”

“You mean more to me than that, Little Greek,” he smiled as he put the smaller woman down. “I also like your mate. Be happy with her.”

The small group finally made their way out of the steading and began a quick pace towards the North. A feeling of urgency hitting them once they were away from the now cheerful Vikings.

Gabrielle pulled up close to Xena and Argo.

“How long will it take?” the bard questioned.

“At this pace a couple of days, but we’ll probably have to slow up with snow,” the warrior answered, looking up at the sky.

“Xena, if Sasha is right then we’re walking into a hornet’s nest,” the bard commented.

“We usually are, we just don’t know it half the time,” the warrior grinned.

“Why isn’t anything ever easy for us?” the bard grinned back

“I don’t know,” Xena admitted.

The bard wished they had more time to travel at a slower pace as they moved further and further North. The land always fascinated the writer in her. At times it seemed so bleak that she had to wonder how anyone could survive and at other times it was so beautiful that it was breath-taking, especially the fjords along the coast and the meadows hidden in the mountains.

It took a rough breed of people to live in this climate and the Vikings and Northern Amazons were such breeds. Strong and cold hardened but with an undying sense of humor. Maybe it was the rough life, the bard thought to herself, that raised people that could laugh in the face of death and welcome it with a roar and a smile.

The one that worried Gabrielle was Mattita, Law Speaker of the Northern Amazons. The bard thought that Mattita was one that truly reflected her surroundings; cold, harsh, and unbending. One of the qualities that this Amazon didn’t share in common with most of the Amazons and Vikings Gabrielle knew; Mattita was a coward.

Gabrielle knew that there were thieves, liars, cowards and other such low-life among the Amazons and Vikings but they were usually dealt with harshly when discovered. Unfortunately for everyone, Mattita hadn’t been fully discovered before she had gathered enough power to hold almost half the Amazons in her power or way of thinking.

Xena was also worried and not only about Mattita, she was also worried about Sasha’s vision. If the “dark women” were vampiir then they were facing supernatural creatures again, much like the bacchae. When they had faced the bacchae Xena had almost lost Gabrielle to the dark side and the bard had been cursed with being a partial bacchae. Xena was worried how her bard would handle dealing with other creatures who needed blood to survive. And why were the Amazons being targeted by these creatures?

The trip turned into three days, the small band of women and child beating the first harsh storms of the winter in the Siberian north.

As they approached Amazon territory, every one of them had a weapon in hand and was on high alert. Gabrielle and Xena began frowning after a candle-mark.

“What is it?” Eponin questioned as they stopped the horses by a stream. She looked over at Xena, the warrior was with sword in hand and bouncing lightly on her toes.

“We’re already in Amazon territory, have been for a while,” Gabrielle answered, keeping one sai in hand as she held the reins of the horses. “We should have been challenged long before this.”

“I thought so, their signs aren’t much different than ours in the South,” Pony commented and Gabrielle nodded.

“Yes, there should be scouts around and guards this far in,” the bard muttered, getting even more worried than they had been when they heard Sasha’s vision.

“Will we make it to the village before dark, the sun is already set?” Hallvor asked as she joined the two.

Gabrielle looked at the sky and the surrounding land and continued to frown.

“I don’t know, it’ll be close,” she responded.

The warrior turned and trotted over to the others. “Let’s ride! I don’t want to be out here too long after it gets dark,” she said, echoing the thoughts of the others.

A candle-mark later the bard leaned over towards her mate.

“Xena, we have to camp soon or the horses are going to break a leg in this darkness,” she suggested.

“I know, it’s just this place is as eerie as the Bacchae Forest,” Xena muttered.

Gabrielle, looking around at the weird shadows being cast by strangely bent tree limbs and lurking darkness, nodded in agreement.

“Let’s camp and light a fire then,” Eponin suggested in a soft voice behind Xena and Gabrielle.

“Alright,” the warrior agreed.

The small group was about to dismount when screeches filled the air and figures seemed to detach themselves from the shadows of the trees and launch themselves at the women and child.

Gabrielle yelled out in surprise as two different figures hit her from almost opposite sides. The bard was a mass of flying arms and legs as she tumbled off the horse with the two figures holding tight.

The bard managed to get her sai from her right boot as clawed hands sought her face and throat and began smashing back against the two monstrous women attacking her. A good smack on the side of one of the creature’s head would have been enough to knock a normal human unconscious but the human-appearing creature shook her head and dived for Gabrielle’s neck with fangs bared and yellow eyes shining.

Xena turned towards Sasha at the sound of the first screech and was tackled off Argo along with the rest of the party. Unlike the others, however, Xena’s horse wasn’t a normal travel animal but a respected friend and ally. The horse screamed, her ears laid back alongside her head as she spun and knocked one figure off of Xena and slashed out with her fore-hooves at the other, distracting the creature.

The warrior was able to grab her chakram and slashed out as the creature attempted to turn its attention to her. A moment later and the creature was nothing but dust as its head became separated from her body. Both Argo and Xena scrambled to reach the child as she screamed in terror, flailing away at the creature picking her up and raising her to the it’s chest.

Xena screamed in rage and launched her chakram as the creature started to bend its head to her child’s neck. The creature turned with a roar of rage, dropping Sasha, as Xena caught the chakram. The vampiir reached behind her and felt along her lower back at the slash. The second strike from the chakram decapitated the vampiir now that Sasha wasn’t in the way.

“Their heads!” Xena screamed as she took in the sight of the other three women fighting vampiirs. “Take their heads!”

The warrior turned to her faithful horse, “Argo, protect Sasha!” she ordered and the mare turned and stood by the crying child, her hooves slashing out at anything that got close to her charge.

Xena was about to work her way towards Gabrielle when three more vampiir tackled her, forcing her to the ground with their blows and body weight. The warrior screamed a war cry and kept slashing at anything grabbing for her, she fought her way to her knees when she felt hands grab her shoulders and throw her to the hard ground, her head bouncing from the impact. Xena tried to shake off the blackness threatening to take her consciousness as she weakly slashed with the chakram.

Eponin, with a broken leg, found herself at a distinct disadvantage as she fought two vampiir attempting to sink their fangs in her throat. Somehow the Amazon weapons-master crawled to a tree and placed her back to it and kept slashing with her sword at anything trying to get close to her. Sasha scrambled to her feet and ran over to the Amazon with her own small knife drawn and Argo followed, protecting both the woman and child.

Hallvor growled under the weight of three vampiir and fought to reach her sax, her long Viking knife. The werserker howled in rage as a set of claw-like fingernails slashed across her lower back and she felt herself shift. Hallvor turned and slashed back with her own set of claws and let the change and battle lust hit her.

The remaining vampiir turned and stared at the werewolf in their midst. Gabrielle and the others were stunned when the vampiir screamed in apparent rage and launched themselves at Hallvor, all en masse. The werserker went down under a pile of dark clothed women vampires.

Gabrielle struggled to her knees and wanted to throw her hands over her ears at the noises that followed. The screams, howls, and screeches from the vampiir and werserker were ear-shattering and raised the hackles on the humans.

With a howl Hallvor stood up, shaking off the vampiir for a moment. When they attacked again the wereling grabbed one by the throat and slashed out with her other hand, decapitating the vampiir with her claws. She quickly dropped the vampiir before it even had a chance to turn to dust and thrust an elbow into the face of a vampiir coming up behind her. Hall then grabbed another and ripped an arm off and threw it back at the startled vampiir.

The bard fought back a gag reflex and the vampiir scattered and melted into the shadows.

The women looked over at the wereling as the creature glared back, eyes battle maddened, blood dripping from her claws. Gabrielle went into a defensive position with her sais as the creature growled deep in her throat. Then the werserker looked to the sky and howled a long wolf-howl.

Hallvor then sank to her knees and weakly pulled at her cloak.

“Sasha,” Eponin said softly, “pull her cloak over her,” she instructed, instinctively realizing what the wereling was trying to do.

The child quickly grabbed the cloak from behind Hallvor and threw it over the werserker’s head and Hallvor fell forward heavily.

Gabrielle turned her attention to Xena and the others as the figure under the cloak whimpered and twitched.

Xena was shaking her head and holding the back of it, eyes still slightly unfocused as Gabrielle approached.

“You okay, lover?” the bard asked, voice heavy with concern.

“Yeah, just knocked my brains around a little,” the warrior joked as she looked over and saw Sasha helping Pony to her feet and Argo prancing proudly. “I’m okay.”

Gabrielle frowned as Xena reached down for her sword. “Xena, your hand,” she pointed and Xena tried to comprehend. “Is your head bleeding?”

The warrior reached to the back of her head again and brought it back around to find it covered with fresh blood.

“Terrific!” she complained and swayed slightly on her feet. Gabrielle reached out and steadied her mate.

“Hallvor!” Gabrielle called. “Are you back with us under there yet?”

A muttered response met the bard’s question.

“You’re from the North, what protects us from these things?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Fire, only fire,” came a muttered reply.

“Are you alright under there?” Eponin called out.

When only a mutter came from under the cloak Eponin turned to Xena and Gabrielle with a frown.

“She’ll be okay, after a werserker rage she needs to sleep. Makes them vulnerable after a battle,” Xena commented as Gabrielle led her over to the tree which Eponin was leaning against.

Sasha ran up with Pony’s crutches and handed them to the Amazon with a grin.

“Come on, Sasha,” the bard suggested. “Let’s gather some wood really fast and light some fires.”

Pony decided to give up standing and slid down to sit next to Xena as the warrior pressed a piece of her tunic against her head. Both of them were covered in blood and neither was sure which blood belonged to whom at that moment. They knew some of it was from the vampiir and they figured some of it was theirs from scratches and the head wound.

Xena watched Gabrielle and Sasha closely as they quickly gathered wood for several small fires, neither one of them getting out of sight. The warrior kept the chakram at the ready and Pony kept her sword in her hand until the band had a small ring of fires surrounding them. Only then did they let down their guard but then only slightly.

Xena kept trying to focus her eyes as they constantly darted around, trying to look in the shadows just beyond the fire ring as Gabrielle slowly cleaned the blood and dust from her warrior mate. She found that the warrior had gashed her head slightly when thrown to the ground and had numerous cuts and slashes, including a matching pair of slashes on the left side of the warrior’s neck.

The bard quickly wrapped a bandage around Xena’s head and cleaned the other wounds and then turned her attention to Pony. Gabrielle found the Amazon had actually faired better than she and Xena had, with fewer slashes and scratches but she had twisted the broken leg and it was throbbing. Gabrielle frowned as Eponin gritted her teeth in pain, sweat beginning to stand out on her brow from the pain.

“Xena, could she have re-broken it?” Gabrielle questioned.

“I don’t think so,” the warrior muttered, touching the slashes at her neck with a frown. “It’ll probably be better in the morning, elevate it for a bit.”

The bard discovered Hallvor groggy and fine except for a few scratches. Gabrielle looked at Xena in confusion but the warrior merely shrugged.

“Most of the wounds seem to heal when the berserker or werserker change back into human. She’ll sleep heavily tonight,” Xena commented.

“She’s the only one who will, I think,” Gabrielle muttered.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The tired and battered group approached the village of the Northern Amazons a little after dawn. They were surprised and pleased to find the village in its normal early morning buzz of activity. After the night before the small band was worried they’d find an empty village.

They were also surprised when a group of Amazon warriors rushed forward with drawn swords, arrows notched and spears pointed at them.

Gabrielle frowned, in the lead was Svetlana, Scout Captain and well known to both Xena and Gabrielle.

“Halt!” the Captain called.

“Greetings, sister,” Gabrielle responded. “We seek welcome to the village, these are Amazon sisters and you know my Consort.”

“You spent the night in the forest?” Svetlana demanded, looking closely at their bandages and scratches.

“Yes, we found no guards, no scouts and couldn’t make it here before dark last night,” Gabrielle answered, her frown back again.

“Then you are denied entrance to the village, you’ve obviously have been attacked by the upir!” The Captain snapped, keeping her spear raised.

The Southern Amazon Queen heard a growl from Xena and Hallvor but was relieved when Queen Otere stepped out of a hut and quickly hurried over to the warriors.

“What is it, Svetlana? You know them!” she snapped.

“They were in the forest last night and were attacked,” the Captain answered.

Otere turned and carefully looked over the group. “You were attacked by the vampiir?” she asked.

“Yes, and we killed a few of them!” Xena snapped back.

“Were any of you bitten?” Otere asked.

“No, why?” Gabrielle answered with a curious frown.

“Are you sure?” Otere pressed. “Sometimes the victim doesn’t know they’ve been bitten, the vampiir clouds their memory.”

“We were in the middle of a fight, we got scratched and slashed but no one got bit,” Xena growled.

“Then welcome them in, Svetlana,” Otere ordered.

“Yes, my Queen,” the Captain said and pulled her spear back in a salute and the rest of the Amazon warriors followed her example.

Gabrielle grinned and dismounted quickly as Otere trotted forward and hugged her sister queen.

Hallvor and Sasha followed Xena in dismounting, while Eponin, with her broken leg, stayed on her horse.

Otere pulled back and hugged Xena and then carefully looked them over.

“You two look great! A little battered on the edges but good!” the Queen beamed as Svetlana came forward to greet Xena with a warrior handshake. “This is Sasha?” Otere questioned, looking over the growing child.

“Yup, she’s getting taller,” Xena grinned.

“Taller? By the gods, Xena,” Otere grinned and hugged the child, “She’s going to be as tall as you.”

“Probably,” the warrior agreed.

“And these are Amazons? You’re rebuilding the tribe?” Otere questioned, taking in the sight of Pony and Hallvor.

“Yes, some of the tribe survived and they’re beginning to rebuild their numbers in the Black Forest. The Southern Amazon tribe is alive,” Gabrielle said proudly and nodded towards Eponin. “This is Eponin, weapons master and my Regent. She’ll probably end up Queen since I can’t be there all the time. This is Hallvor, an adopted Amazon from the Vikings. She is their Scout and weapons master as well.”

Queen Otere and the other Amazons gave an Amazon salute to their sisters with smiles.

“Now, come sisters!” Otere ordered. “Take their horses and put them up, put their gear in one of the winter huts. Someone help Eponin down with those crutches and everyone meet in the food hall and we’ll hear tell of their adventures from our sister bard and queen!”

Hallvor stayed behind to help Eponin down from the horse as Xena, Gabrielle and Sasha walked with Otere and Svetlana towards the largest wooden hall.

“What is happening, Otere?” Gabrielle questioned as they approached the familiar building.

“You mean since you left or last night?” the small and young queen countered.

“Okay, we’ll wait until we’ve eaten,” the bard grinned.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Amazons, Sasha, bard and the Warrior Princess dived into their food, especially the visitors. They hadn’t fixed a warm dinner or breakfast after fighting off vampiir and spending the night in the forest. They had only eaten cold trail food and were hungry.

During breakfast it seemed to the visitors that every Amazon had come up to greet and welcome them. Finally, Otere stood up and raised her hand for attention and the hall fell quiet.

“Sisters, we welcome our sisters from the Black Forest. We are pleased and will celebrate in the future with the news that our sister tribe has survived and is rebuilding. Queen Gabrielle and the others have asked what has happened since they last visited us. I call upon Terje, our skald, to tell the tale.”

A small Amazon stood up and went to the head of the Hall as two Amazons placed a chair near the fireplace. Terje was old and moved slowly and once she was settled into the chair one of the Amazon placed a hearthrug blanket over the elder’s legs.

“Queen Gabrielle, her Consort Xena and their child were with us in the winter months after the defeat of Alti,” Terje began. “Their son broke Amazon law and fell in love with an Amazon and ignored the courting rules. It was decided that they would be exiled into the snow. Our friends from the South protested that this decision was one of death in the winter months, especially as the boy was blind.”

Several Amazons shifted in their seats. Everyone knew what an exile during the winter months meant in the Siberian north. They remembered the battles with the Elder Council and the visiting Greeks to keep the two teenagers alive.

“It was decided that the sentence would be delayed for three moons,” Terje continued. “This was still close to a death sentence, it still being too much into the winter months but it was decided. It was also the decision of the Law Maker that Queen Gabrielle and the child Sasha would not be allowed to leave in the snow, both of them being too important to the tribe to risk their deaths.”

Gabrielle saw Xena and Otere both gritting their teeth in memory.

“Our visitors fought this decision of being separated,” the old Amazon smiled as she watched the fire dance. “Queen Gabrielle and her Consort could not stand to be separated from each other and their family split apart. It is said that they suspected the Law Speaker Mattita of conspiring against them to claim the child Sasha and kill the adults. The group of Gabrielle, Xena, Solan, Reija and the child disappeared into the night of the solstice, the coldest and longest night.”

Terja paused and drank some of the hot tea an Amazon handed her.

“Law Speaker Mattita reported that she had attempted to invoke Amazon law preventing anyone from traveling in the winter months but the Greeks attacked her and her small band of Amazon scouts and disappeared down river in the night. We weren’t sure if the Greeks lived or not until we heard tales from a passing skald of their adventures with theVikings in the land south.”

Gabrielle felt her hands clenching into fists at the description of their escape from the Amazon village. It wasn’t quite like Mattita had reported to the tribe but Gabrielle kept quiet for the moment.

“It was decreed that Queen Gabrielle and Xena were outlaws to our tribe and were to be arrested and their child taken in as an Amazon sister if they should return to our village,” Terje continued.

The bard wasn’t surprised when she felt Xena’s hand fall to her chakram, her own hand was resting on her right sai.

Otere quickly motioned for them to be calm and stay still.

“It was then that our own Queen Otere brought charges against our Law Speaker, accusing her of planning the kidnapping of the child of Xena and Queen Gabrielle and of cowardice during battle,” Terje said simply. “Yakut performed a most difficult spell working and brought forth the spirit of her mother who testified against the Law Speaker. She told of the battle with Xena and Alti, years before. Yakut’s mother told of how Mattita was her battle partner and that Mattita turned and ran, leaving the Scout lieutenant open to one of Xena’s traps and her death.”

Xena closed her eyes against the memory of that day, of Amazons flying through the trees to land on sharpened branches, of spiked logs flying through the air on ropes to smash Amazons into trees and impaling them, of Queen Cyrane’s death at her hands. She felt Gabrielle reach out and hold her hand reassuringly.

“Law Speaker Mattita was exiled and several Amazons went with her. They began attacking the scouts and isolated Amazons they found, either killing or maiming our sisters, or kidnapping them. Our exiled sisters haven’t been seen since,” Terje said, her voice heavy with emotion.

Xena glanced across the table at Otere and wasn’t surprised to find the young Amazon was gritting her teeth and her face was red with anger.

“Thus began the civil war we find ourselves in now, Sisters,” Terje continued. “Amazon against Amazon. Law Speaker against Queen. Then the attacks of the vampiir women began. They come in the night with screeches and wails to grab anyone who isn’t inside. We found the villages to the east and south of us have been wiped out by these demons. Our scouts can no longer venture out and guard our village at night and we huddle in our halls like frightened children.”

“The attacks began about a three moons ago,” Otere continued, talking directly to the visitors. “You’ve seen them, the only thing that stops them is fire and decapitation.”

“Do they attack in the daylight?” Gabrielle questioned.

“No, we managed to hold onto one that attacked the village one night. We managed to chain her down. When the sun came and hit her body she screamed and burst into flame and exploded into dust,” Otere answered.

“Did you recognize her?” Xena asked softly.

Otere dropped her head as tears began flowing down her cheeks. “Yes, it was my mate.”

“Oh sweet Artemis,” Gabrielle muttered and got up from the bench and around the table to hug the young Amazon, wrapping her arms around Otere as the young woman began to cry. The bard looked over at her mate. “How did you know?”

“When we fought the vampiir I ripped a necklace off one of them, it was an Amazon necklace,” Xena explained. “The vampiirs are turning the Amazons into vampires, that’s how it spreads.”

“Yes,” Otere agreed, raising her head slowly. “No one has seen Mattita or the rebel Amazons but we assume they fell to the vampiirs and are among those stalking us.”

“What about the villagers?” Pony questioned.

“Among the vampiirs, we’ve seen some men and children as well as women,” one of the Amazon scouts answered in the Germanic language common to the Greeks and Northern Amazons. Very few had learned the native Slavic language so out of courtesy the Northern Amazons spoke Germanic around Xena, Gabrielle and the others.

“Oh gods,” Hallvor muttered. “Usually the vampiir just take adults.”

“How do we fight them?” Gabrielle asked. “It’s coming up on winter when the sun rarely makes an appearance.”

“Yes, we are not in good shape,” Otere agreed. “We haven’t been able to hunt enough game, most of it was either taken by the vampiir or driven away. We can’t send out hunting parties that would be gone overnight and the nearby villages were destroyed.”

“If we don’t get some supplies in it’ll be a lean winter,” Treje commented.

“I have a question,” Xena stated and waited until Otere looked up. “Where is Yakut?”

Xena’s sinking feeling grew worse when Otere dropped her eyes again.

“She disappeared when the vampiir first struck us,” the Queen answered softly.

Xena looked up at her mate to see Gabrielle with her hands on Otere’s shoulders with her eyes closed, fighting back tears.

“So we might be fighting Yakut as a vampire?” the warrior questioned.

“Yes,” Otere whispered.

Otere jumped visibly when Xena’s hand slammed down on the table in anger. Gabrielle walked around and sat back down next to her mate and leaned her head on the warrior’s shoulder. The bard wrapped an arm around the bard, trying to comfort the warrior.

After a moment Xena looked around and realized that most of the Amazons seemed to be waiting to see if the Greeks had any answers. She remembered with shame that most of them had grown up with only a couple of leaders barely older than themselves. Xena had killed the elders that day among the trees, leaving children and a couple of teens to lead and rebuild the Northern Amazons.

“Alright, let’s start thinking this thing out,” she ordered and Gabrielle sat up with her eyebrows raised. She could feel the energy building in her mate and almost smiled.

One thing about Xena, she always enjoyed a challenging fight.

“Let’s clear the tables, get out the maps and figure how to fight, track and kill these things,” she ordered and young Amazons quickly scrambled to obey her.

Otere looked over with a grateful expression.

“Thank you, I’ve been a little out of it since my mate died,” she commented.

“It’s alright,” Xena smiled as she stood up. “When we thought Gabrielle was dead for five days, I wasn’t much use to anyone either.”

Gabrielle felt herself blushing and smacked Xena on the leg as the warrior started to move away from the table with their dishes. That had only been the partial truth, the bard reflected. She had been dead for those five days, having given up her life willingly to save Xena.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Okay, first and foremost, what do we know about these creatures?” Gabrielle asked as a small group of Amazons and her Consort sat down around the meeting hall’s firepit.

“They drink blood to survive, they can live on animal blood but prefer human,” Svetlana answered.

“Yes, how often do they need the blood, do we know that?” the bard and queen questioned.

“Young ones seem to need it every other night, there are tales of older vampires needing it only once a week,” Hallvor responded.

“It is also said among your Viking people that they hate werserkers and berserkers, is that true?” Treje asked from her chair near the fire.

Xena glanced over and found Hallvor blushing a bright red as the Viking stared into the fire.

“Ja, it is true,” she admitted. “Something about the animal walkers drives the blood drinkers crazy. They’ll leave easy prey to attack a skin-shirt.”

“That’s just myth!” one of the Amazons complained. “Berserkers and werserkers don’t even exist!”

Both Xena and Gabrielle glanced over at Hallvor to gauge her reaction. Eponin decided to keep quiet and see how this developed.

Hallvor seemed deep in thought for a moment and then raised her eyes to look at the young Amazon scout and then at the Northern Amazons around the fire.

“I am a Viking warrior, dedicated to AllFather Odin,” Hallvor said softly, her eyes shining with intensity. “I am also a werserker, the wolf is my totem, my skin and my other self. We do exist.”

Natalka, the young Amazon began blushing at being countered and glared at Hallvor, trying to judge the Viking’s statement.

“Full wolf?” she demanded.

“No, partial wolf,” Hallvor answered. “I fall to blood lust, turn into a partial wolf and rip apart anything in my way. Want to see my fangs?” the Viking challenged.

“Enough!” Xena snapped. “We’ve got enough problems without arguing among ourselves.”

“Hallvor is a werserker, the four of us have seen her in full werserker form and it is deadly,” Gabrielle responded. “We also saw the vampiir change targets from all of us to attack her when she changed last night. The myths are in fact truth.”

“Next?” Xena suggested.

“Okay, that might help or not,” Otere commented, dismissing the strangeness of their Amazon guest and returning to the topic at hand. “Sunlight kills them, so does decapitation.”

“I’ve heard running water can but I’m not sure I trust that one,” Hallvor commented.

“Me either, besides, the water would be too cold for us to lure them into without getting ourselves killed,” Xena mentioned looking over the maps of the area.

“Since sunlight kills them, why not track them during the day?” Pony suggested.

“Yes, exactly,” Xena grinned but Otere shook her head.

“We’ve tried it, we lose their tracks in the trees and several tracking parties never came back,” the Queen explained.

“They weren’t Xena,” Gabrielle grinned, knowing her mate’s reputation for tracking and stealth.

“Some of them seem to have mental powers,” one Amazon mentioned and the Greeks turned to her with questioning expressions. “I an Yulya, village guard. Some of them can just call our Amazons to them and their fangs.”

Otere nodded sadly. “Yes, we’ve watched some of our sisters drop their weapons and walk right to the vampiir.”

“Were the victim and vampiir close before the one turned into a vampire?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Yes, usually best friends, family or mates,” Treja answered.

The bard nodded slightly. “The bacchae of our lands tend to first seek out their family and friends when they turn into bacchae.”

“Bacchae?” one of the Amazons questioned.

“A form of Greek vampiir, a little different but they still drink blood,” the bard responded.

“Okay, I suggest that hunting parties go out at night and make a ring of fires around the camp, that seemed to keep the damned things out of our camp last night,” Xena offered.

“I’ll ask for volunteers,” Otere nodded.

“I’m going to try and track these things back to their nest, if we know where they sleep during the day maybe we can burn them out or kill them a little easier,” Xena added.

“I suggest that Pony take a wagon, a couple of Amazons and head for the next village over and trade for supplies,” Gabrielle suggested. “Stay in the wagon at night with a fire ring around you.”

“You’re just sending me because of my leg,” Pony complained.

“Yes, also the vampiir can’t seduce you because none of them know you and they’ll probably be speaking Slavic,” Gabrielle smirked.

“Yes, my Queen,” Eponin grinned at the bard’s logic.

“Alright, sisters,” Otere stood up. “You heard the suggestions, consider them orders. I want six Amazons to accompany Eponin for supplies. Arm yourselves well with oil for fires and torches and carry extra axes and swords to decapitate these things if you’re attacked.”

She turned to Svetlana, the Scout Captain. “Gather a group of your best trackers, try and pick Amazons with no one lost to the vampiir. Go hunting for fresh meat but be back here within three days. Carry extra axes and always build a large fire ring at night.”

“How have you kept the vampires from the cattle and pigs?” Gabrielle asked.

“We bring them in with us at night,” Otere grinned. “We’ve got enough walking on the hoof around to get through a couple of months but we need more.”

“Why don’t they knock down the doors and attack at night?” Pony questioned.

“Some kind of strange magic,” Treje answered. “They can’t come in a home unless someone inside invites them.”

“Very weird,” Pony agreed.

“The spirits of the threshold protect us and hold them back,” an Amazon responded.

“That’s the only reason we’ve survived so far,” Otere commented. “We gather at night in the food hall and play drums, rattles, flutes, whatever will make noise to drown out their calls.”

Gabrielle looked over and knew the look on her warrior mate’s face, Xena meant to go out that night after the creatures.

“Alright, let’s get moving and get ready for nightfall,” the warrior suggested. “The days are getting shorter already.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The Amazons scurried around the village, happy to have goals and something to do after more than a month of terror. Gabrielle wasn’t sure how much help her small group could be but her Northern sisters were looking to the Greeks for new ideas and suggestions. Fortunately, she thought, Xena was usually up to that task.

Xena looked over the village common area and spotted Gabrielle watching the scouts forming up and grinned. Even after years together, just looking at her mate could make Xena’s heart skip a beat. The bard was looking serious as everyone went about their tasks and the warrior could understand that. The small band of Greeks had very few choices and they needed to be made quickly.

The first real winter storm was on its way, everyone could feel the pressure in the air changing and they knew if they stayed more than a week with the Northern Amazons then they were probably going to end up staying the entire winter. Facing a winter fighting off vampiirs and possible starvation was not Xena’s idea of a good time.

They needed to resolve the crisis and soon.

Basics: shelter, food, protection. All of that was in danger.

Xena grabbed one of the village keepers and set up another group of Amazons to start gathering more wood for the winter. If they were going to have to hold off vampires then they would need more fires to keep everyone safe.

Xena turned her attention to the scouts forming up for the hunting party. She started towards Svetlana as the hunters moved out into the woods with their heavy backpacks of supplies.

She nodded slightly as Otere joined her.

“Aren’t you one of the best trackers?” Xena asked as they approached Svetlana. The warrior was confused when the Scout Captain dropped her eyes and began blushing.

“She is but she can’t go out of the village,” Otere answered.

“Why not?” Xena asked.

“She was bitten by a friend a few nights ago,” Otere said softly and Svetlana pulled back her hair to reveal the fang marks and dropped her eyes again. “Ever since then the vampire has had control over her at night. We have to lock her in the cell to keep Svetlana from going to the vampire.”

“I wake up in the morning and don’t remember trying to get out, just that I had bad dreams,” Svetlana explained.

“Once bitten they control you?” Xena questioned and saw Gabrielle’s ears pick up as the bard joined them.

“Yes, at night they call and the victim can’t resist and will fight to go to them, even if it means their death,” Otere continued.

“The victims don’t turn into vampiir within a day?” the bard questioned.

“No, if the vampiir drains them slowly it can take two weeks,” Svetlana answered.

“Sometimes they kill their victims right away and feed them their vampire blood, turning them,” Otere continued.

“They exchange blood?” Gabrielle questioned. “That’s different than bacchae,” she muttered.

“How so?” Otere questioned, knowing Gabrielle’s past.

“You can be a partial bacchae and change other women into partial bacchae but there’s still a chance to be saved. If you drink some of the blood of Bacchus, the bacchae god, then there’s no chance and the women are full bacchae.” The bard explained.

“It seems that these vampiir must exchange blood with the victim to turn them,” Otere commented. “Or when the victim dies they become vampiir.”

“If the vampiir is killed before the victim dies or is turned?” Xena questioned.

“Then the victim is saved,” Svetlana said, rubbing her neck where the fang marks were hidden by her hair.

“How many times have you been bitten?” Gabrielle asked gently.

“Twice, only a few more times and I’m lost to the darkness,” the Amazon Captain whispered.

“Don’t worry, Svetlana,” Gabrielle said firmly. “We have a talent for getting people out of the darkness.”

Xena grinned at her mate’s strong voice, she knew Gabrielle wasn’t revealing her bacchae nature to the Amazons at this point and why. Dealing with one set of vampires was making the Amazons paranoid and skittish enough without trying to explain that Gabrielle was only a partial bacchae and drank Xena’s blood once a month. Some terrified Amazon might decide it wasn’t worth the risk and try to kill her mate.

Xena blinked and looked up as Gabrielle snapped her fingers in front of the warrior’s face.

“Reality to Xena!” Gabrielle teased. “Let’s lay you down for a bit,” the bard suggested. “I know we didn’t sleep last night and you’re planning on being up all night again. Sasha’s already napping with some of the younger kids.”

The warrior didn’t protest as the bard took her hand and led her to one of the huts. Within minutes they were curled up on sleeping furs, Xena behind her mate with arm and leg thrown over the bard.

It seemed like they had just closed their eyes when someone was knocking on the door and calling for them. Gabrielle muttered in her sleep and pulled the sleeping fur up over their heads with a growl.

Xena grinned and pulled it back down.

“What is it?” she called.

“Sunset in a candle-mark, Queen Otere is asking for you,” a voice called back.

“Thank you, we’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Yes, Consort,” the voice responded and Xena’s sharp ears heard the guard leaving and bent over Gabrielle’s body. She began lightly kissing the bard’s lips and then moving to the lovely neck and then couldn’t resist nibbling on the bard’s earlobe.

Gabrielle responded with a purr of delight and wrapped her arms around her mate, green eyes opening to look into blue ones.

“Hi,” she said simply and met Xena’s lips for another kiss.

“We need to get up,” Xena said after a few moments.

“Wake me up like that and you want to get up?” Gabrielle teased but released her hold from Xena’s neck and the warrior sat up on the furs.

“Yeah, Otere wants us,” Xena grinned, wishing she could stay the rest of the afternoon and night in bed with her mate. “Would be nice to have some privacy though.”

She was pleased when the bard blushed but nodded in agreement. The one major different between the Greeks and Vikings, the bard thought, was their sleeping arrangements. The Vikings prefer a long hall with everyone sleeping along the walls on sleeping benches and occasionally a bed. No rooms except for the head of the family. Gabrielle knew most young couples would sneak off to barns, woods, meadows or wherever they could to find privacy and others just learned to make very little noise under the sleeping furs.

The Greeks didn’t mind sharing their space with others but definitely wanted privacy at times. Xena often teased Gabrielle that the little bard couldn’t keep quiet during love making even if it meant their lives. Gabrielle always countered that Xena could rattle a few rafters herself, usually getting a blushing warrior on her hands for that one.

Gabrielle grinned and grabbed for her tunic anyway.

“Later, my love,” she promised.

“Gods, I hope so,” Xena said softly, watching her mate dress, absently reaching for her own clothes. “You know I’m going out tonight.”

“I know,” the bard responded, losing her smile but continuing to lace up her boots. “I’d argue with you but I’d lose, so I’m not going to bother.”

“And you’re not going to follow me, right?” Xena growled.

“Years ago I probably would but Otere and the others need me here,” Gabrielle smiled ruefully at her mate. “Can you feel it? It’s like they’re teenagers left on their own.”

“They were, Otere wasn’t even Sasha’s age when I slaughtered the elders of the village,” Xena commented, looking away from Gabrielle’s gaze. “Most of them were on their own as Amazons. They’re looking to you for leadership.”

“They’ve forgiven you for that, Xena. Right now they’re tired, frazzled, and scared,” the bard commented. “Do you really think you can track the vampiir? Can’t they fly like bacchae?”

“I don’t know, but I have to try,” Xena growled.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As the sun sank lower in the sky, so did the spirits of the Amazons. Xena joined Gabrielle as she sat talking with Otere and Hallvor by the main fire in the food hall. The Greek was dressed as she normally was in the North in leathers with one addition that Gabrielle nodded in approval over, a leather collar around her neck over the bandage covering the slashes.

Would be difficult to bite through, the bard thought with a smile and noticed Otere’s grin as well.

As they talked over the previous attacks two guards approached the small group next to them. Both Xena and Gabrielle raised their heads in curiosity.

“Svetlana,” one of them said. “It’s time.”

“What’s going on?” Gabrielle asked Otere.

“It’s time to lock her in the holding hut, before darkness hits,” Otere stated simply, the sadness reflecting in her eyes.

“Can’t she stay here, you and I could watch her,” Gabrielle suggested.

“We can keep those creatures out only because no one has invited them into the hall,” Otere explained as Svetlana stood up and followed the guards. “All it would take is one person to invite them in and it would be a slaughter.”

“Like a pack of wolves,” Xena commented.

“It’s going to be dark enough in a few minutes,” Otere mentioned.

“I’m going to go out in the trees and wait, I’ll see if I can follow them,” Xena declared, standing up.

Gabrielle stood up and quickly hugged her mate, biting back all the arguments she wanted to launch into.

The warrior looked down into her mate’s green eyes and smiled.

“I love you, little one,” she whispered.

“I love you, my warrior,” Gabrielle whispered back and turned as Xena slipped out the door. The bard bit back her tears and worry. “What do we do now?” she asked.

“Fires are lit outside and everyone huddles inside. We try and keep up noise most of the night to drown out the sounds of the vampiir outside.” Otere explained.

“Does not sound like fun,” Gabrielle muttered.

“It isn’t,” Otere admitted.

A few moments later a young Amazon child yelped in fear as pounding began on the door, the shuttered windows and the walls themselves. A moment later and the pounding continued on the roof, surrounding the women inside with terrible banging.

Otere raised her hand and the Amazons began banging on the tables in front of them as some of them passed out drums, clappers, flutes and such. The noise the Amazons made was rhythmic while the pounding surrounding them was sporadic and manic. At the sound of the banging and flutes the creatures outside began to screech like night owls.

Gabrielle badly wanted to cover her ears and she noticed Hallvor wincing at the incredible sound. The bard wondered how any of them had stayed sane night after night of this. Otere looked over at her sister Queen and nodded, understanding what the bard was thinking.

“Any other solution than this?” Gabrielle yelled over the noise.

“None that have worked. They settle down after about two candle-marks and get loud again before dawn,” Otere shouted back.

“Oh gods,” the bard muttered and saw Hallvor slide under a table with her cloak thrown over her, trying to cover her ears.

The night was long and endless. Just when it seemed that everything had settled down and most of the Amazons were lulled into sleep from exhaustion, the banging and screeching would start again.

To the bard it sounded like four giants on each side of them, kicking the walls and pounding on the roof. Dust scattered from the rafters and pegs began creaking in the walls under the constant pressure of the violence.

The Amazons also showed signs of breaking under the pressure. Women huddled in small groups, trying to keep each other calm. Holding the ones who would snap and start crying or shouting, restraining them if necessary.

Gabrielle, who was part bacchae and had spent an evening among bacchae, had heard nothing like this before. The screams coming from the outside were enough to drive anyone mad.

Then the worst of it came just before dawn. The pounding, screaming and screeching stopped for a quarter of a candle-mark. Then someone knocked on the door and a female voice called out for Katja to open the door.

Otere quickly jumped up from the furs she was sitting on and began running down the length of the hall with Gabrielle right behind her.

The bard spotted an Amazon near the door with her head raised up and a shocked expression on her face. The Amazons around her were talking rapidly but the young woman shook her head and continued to listen to the voice on the other side of the door.

She fought to stand up while her friends kept her sitting on the furs. Otere ran up as others joined the friends in restraining the young woman.

The voice outside sounded weak and cold and very human. Gabrielle herself felt a tugging to open the door and almost took a step forward when Otere called out for her to stop and help with the young woman.

“That’s Tata!” the girl Katja screamed, “I know her voice! She’s alive! Let her in!”

“No!” Otere yelled back, “You know we can’t open that door until dawn!”

“But she’s cold, let her in!” Katja protested. “Tata…..”

One of the Amazons quickly shoved a piece of cloth in the girl’s mouth and another wrapped a gag around her head as the others restrained her.

Otere turned to a troubled Gabrielle. “That’s how they got into the villagers homes, all it takes is one person to invite them in.”

“How did you figure it out?” Gabrielle asked as the young girl screamed for her sister through the gag.

“We found a couple of the villagers alive but dying. They managed to tell us what they went through when the vampires seized the village,” the Queen explained.

“We can’t keep this up all winter, everyone will go mad and someone will eventually open that door,” Gabrielle complained.

“I know, we need to figure out how to defeat them or flee,” Otere commented.

“They’d pick us off on the road at night and merely follow, like wolves following a herd of reindeer,” one of the other Amazons complained.

“She’s right,” Gabrielle nodded in agreement. She realized that the voice at the door had stopped and looked around; the other Amazons were rising from their furs on the floor or their seats on the benches and beginning to stretch and look around. “It’s dawn, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes, a few will stay on guard but most of us will sleep for a few hours,” Otere said simply. “We take shifts sleeping during the day because we don’t get much sleep at night.”

“Xena says the first mistake a warrior can make is not eating or sleeping,” Gabrielle muttered.

“Yes, and you can see why none of us are sleeping long hours and the nights are getting longer.”

“Oh gods, we need to settle this quickly,” the bard muttered.

The bard found Sasha in tears with the other children, who weren’t in much better shape. Gabrielle gathered the child up on her feet and wrapped a blanket around her. In a few moments they were snuggled down in a bed in the hut assigned to Xena, Gabrielle and Sasha.

“I know, Sash,” Gabrielle said gently as the child cried tired tears until she fell asleep. The bard closed her eyes after saying a silent prayer that Xena was alright.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle woke up and sighed with relief when she realized that she was being held from behind by familiar strong arms. Sasha was already up and gone somewhere and the smoke hole at the top of the roof told the bard it was still daylight.

Deciding to let the warrior sleep a little longer, the bard wandered over to the meeting hall and found Otere barely awake herself.

“Xena still sleeping?” the Northern Queen asked.

“Yes, when did she get in?”

“About two candle-marks ago, she said she lost the vampiir among the rocks to the east,” Otere answered simply. “She said she’d go out again tonight until we track them.”

“Gods, that is so dangerous,” the bard muttered, sitting down by the fire.

“Yes, but so is everything around here right now. Let’s get something to eat,” Otere suggested.

“Okay,” the bard agreed, getting back on her feet. “I feel helpless against these things. Are any of them intelligent, can they be reasoned with?”

“Can your bacchae be reasoned with?” Otere countered. “They are intelligent but very focused on only one thing, getting blood.”

“The bacchae won’t listen to reason either, especially when just turned,” Gabrielle muttered. “The older bacchae can interact normally with everyone else but are at Bacchus’ call and they need blood to survive.”

“Maybe the older vampiir grow in mental clarity but I don’t think we can wait around to reason with them,” Otere complained.

“I know, I don’t know how all of you have managed after going through it last night,” Gabrielle admitted.

After a decent breakfast Gabrielle checked in on Xena. She found the warrior sleeping restlessly. The bard crawled into the sleeping furs and the warrior calmed down into a deeper sleep as Gabrielle took her into her arms.

That night was a repeat of the night before, this time Hallvor choosing to stay in the isolation hut away from the other Amazons during the night. Otere had frowned but Gabrielle and Xena had supported the Viking Amazon’s decision. The night had been rough on the wereling and she had struggled with the noise, the heightened fear of the Northern Amazons around her and the thick hatred of the vampiir seeping through the walls for anything that moved with blood in it.

Xena felt her muscles tensing up as she escorted Hallvor to the isolation hut. It was a unique fixture in the Amazon village, made of very thick stone and the only windows were high set in the walls. They were also so narrow and small that a child couldn’t squeeze through. The door was of thick wood and could only be opened from the outside.

It was meant to keep Amazons calm and safe if someone went a little insane from cabin fever in the deep winter. Months spent indoors day after day with no hint of the sun shining through was enough to drive even the most sane person a little off at times. The Northern Amazons had a law that anyone who was hit with the snow fever could be held against their will until they were recovered or Spring came.

It was the same law that Mattita had intended to use to hold Gabrielle and Sasha hostage in the village while Xena, Solan and Reija were exiled.

Xena hated to see Hallvor locked away alone for the night but knew it was probably the best decision. There wouldn’t be any guards outside because of the attacks and Hallvor would be totally alone. Both warriors were hoping that the lock on the door would hold and keep one battle crazed werewolf inside and all the blood crazed vampiirs outside.

“Hall,” Xena began to speak but the werserker held up her hand, cutting the warrior off.

“It’s okay,” the werserker reassured the warrior. “I had a hard time not changing last night. If I change in here, no one gets hurt.”

“I know, I just hate this,” Xena grumbled.

“Go, it’s getting dark,” Hallvor insisted and shut the door on the warrior.

Xena was frowning as she turned away from the hut, after locking the door. She absently handed the key to one of the guards, knowing the Amazon would open the door in the morning after sunrise.

The warrior looked at the sky and knew they only had a few days before the first real storm hit. Already the ground was already lightly covered with snow. Xena cursed under her breath as she kicked at a rock sticking out of the snow. It should be easy to track something in the snow but she had still managed to lose the band of vampires the night before. She was also more tired than she was admitting to anyone. So tired that she was actually fuzzy about the events here the night before.

Xena remembered tracking the vampiir once they left harassing the village and had gotten as far as the rocky terrain to the east and then lost the tracks but still heard the vampires calling and hunting. The warrior next remembered resting among the rocks, feeling tired and weak.

Xena grinned at the sight of Gabrielle sitting next to Otere at the food hall. She didn’t have long before the vampiir would return and she wanted a couple of minutes with her mate.

Gabrielle caught Xena’s smile and grinned in return. The bard leaned her head on Xena’s shoulder as the warrior sat down next to her on the bench.

“I have an idea,” the warrior stated as she reached for a mug of ale sitting on the table.

“I’d welcome most any idea about anything,” Otere stated, her voice reflecting her weariness.

“These creatures hate fire, how about setting up archers on the roof and around the food hall and shoot fire arrows at anything that moves,” Xena suggested. “Might keep them away from the hall and let everyone get some sleep.”

“That might work, one archer and one warrior with an axe or sword to protect both of them if the vampires get past the arrows,” Otere said thoughtfully and quickly rose to set it up for the next night.

Gabrielle sighed, “I don’t know how they’ve managed to get through all these nights, I almost went crazy after only one night.”

“I know, I heard them while I was in the trees,” the warrior commented, wrapping an arm around her bard. “I’ve got to go soon.”

“I know. Did you get close?” the bard asked.

“Maybe, I’m going to circle around and wait for them where I lost them last night and see if I can track them further this time,” Xena answered, “Maybe even back to their lair after the sun rises.”

“Just be careful, okay?”

“You bet, little one,” the warrior grinned.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle rubbed her eyes as dawn finally made its appearance in the sky and the vampires were gone along with their screeching and howling. The bard looked around the food hall and wasn’t surprised to see everyone was frazzled almost to the breaking point.

She had only been with them four days and nights now; they had been going through this for over a month.

The bard walked up to Eponin and smiled at her Regent.

“Gods, Gabrielle,” Pony grimaced as she stood up. “How in Tartarus can you stand that night after night? I thought it was bad on the road when we were getting those supplies.”

“I’m glad you’re back,” Gabrielle said simply. “It’s not fun but we don’t have any choice. Have you seen Queen Otere?”

“She was over by the north end fire pit, last I saw her,” Pony smiled.

“Did you get a good stock of supplies?”

“Yes, they were more than willing to do business since the other two villages haven’t been around to trade,” Pony lost her smile. “We didn’t tell them why the villagers wouldn’t be needing supplies from them.”

“Probably best, they might panic,” the bard agreed. “The vampires haven’t hit that far?”

“No, not a sign of them outside a day’s range,” the Amazon weapons-master answered.

“That means they’re staying local and their lair is nearby,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“Then why hasn’t Xena been able to find it?”

“Good question,” the bard muttered and moved off to find Otere.

The bard found Otere asleep on a bench near the fire and lightly shook the other Queen awake. Otere rubbed her eyes and sat up blinking, trying to focus her eyes and mind together.

“Sorry to wake you but I need some help,” Gabrielle stated as she sat down on the bench next to the other Amazon. “Take me to the sacred grove,” she said softly.

“We can’t go there, only Yakut can enter the grove,” Otere hissed back softly.

“Yakut’s not here and Xena is exhausted,” Gabrielle reasoned.

Otere frowned and then nodded. “Meet you in the sauna in a quarter mark.”

The bard nodded and went to the hut assigned to Xena, Sasha and Gabrielle and frowned as she realized that Xena wasn’t back yet. It seemed to take longer and longer each day past dawn for the exhausted warrior to return. Xena wouldn’t say much but would just shake her head that she hadn’t found the vampire’s lair and then crawl into bed.

Gabrielle narrowed her eyes and grabbed some clean clothes.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle had been in a trance for more than a half candle-mark and Otere had been keeping the steady beat on a shamans’ drum. Offerings of fresh flowers and spring water stood on the stone that acted as an altar in the small clearing in the forest.

Otere had been in the clearing before with Yakut and always the shaman had lead the small group of Amazons in their workings, now she and Gabrielle were working

from memory, instinct, and luck.

The Amazon Queen of the North closed her eyes and kept drumming and chanting lightly, not wanting to lose her concentration. She had seen the movement of

trees but didn’t want to drop the beat and break Gabrielle’s concentration.

The bard kept her eyes closed as she swayed and chanted, even when she felt the light touch on her hair and then on her arm. She was attempting to contact nature spirits and they could be startled easily, at least she knew the Greek ones could.

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly and smiled gently at the figure in front of her, the bard’s face showing no surprise even though inside her heart was pounding wildly.

The figure was a young girl squatting in front of the bard and lightly touching her clothes and hair with an air of curiosity. The figure had green skin with patches that shifted depending on whatever background she was against, like a lizard. Her hair was wild and standing in every direction, black and filled with leaves and twigs and her eyes were brown and cat shaped. Gabrielle took in the fact that the girl’s loin-cloth seemed to be made of moss and she wore nothing else.

Gabrielle saw movement to her left and shifted her eyes only slightly and saw a man emerge from the trunk of a tree. At least that’s what it looked like. It appeared that his skin was bark, then shifted to leaves and then grasses as he approached the bard and

squatted down next to the girl. The bard kept her smile simple, honest and open. With the little training she had from Xena and Yakut, she knew to keep her thoughts open and calm and to show no fear.

The man had a dark beard, his reddish hair under a hat of fir tree branches and a long cloak and loin-cloth made of moss. His skin was the same basic green as the girl’s.

Then another movement caught the bard’s eyes and two more figures came into sight. A woman about the man’s age and a teenage boy.

Gabrielle knew the Family deities of the Forest had answered her call. Now the question would be whether they would listen and then if they would help.

“I am Tapio, my wife Mielikki, daughter Tuulikki and son Nyrrikki,” Tapio stated. “You have honored us with offerings of sweet scent and pure water, stranger

to the north.”

“And you honor me with your names, great Tapio,” Gabrielle responded. The bard knew that the deities, even minor ones, could be very protective of their names. Many of them thought that a person’s very name contained power and it could be caught and used by someone else.

The man grinned and sat down cross-legged in front of the bard and the rest of the family followed.

“You are not the usual human that approaches us,” he stated.

“No, she has disappeared after the dark women came to the land,” Gabrielle responded.

“Yes, the upirs,” the woman, Mielikki, stated. “They hurt the land. They drive away the game and upset the balance of the land and nature.”

“Yes, great Mielikki,” Gabrielle agreed.

“These umpir are not natural,” Tuulikki added. “The origin of their strain is not of the natural order.”

“Can you explain a little more clearly, young one?” Gabrielle asked.

“Umpirs are natural creatures, part of the darkness that must balance the light,” Mielikki answered for her daughter. “These creatures came into being because of evil, not because of nature.”

“They are killing my people, can you help me in stopping them?” the bard questioned.

“Yes, we considered your request before showing ourselves,” Tapio answered. From his cloak he pulled a sack and placed it in front of the bard. “Take those, they have been blessed by us and are of holy wood of the Ash, Hawthorne and other trees. Put it

through the creatures’ hearts and break the spine, it ends their lives.”

“Do they all have to die?” Gabrielle asked with a sinking feeling, almost all of the vampires were Amazons who had been turned.

“No, but there isn’t one strong enough to assume leadership and turn them from the dark path of murder,” Mielikki commented. “One must be of the blood and only one can lead.”

“They have a leader?” the bard asked with furrowed brows.

“Yes, the one who called on the dark side for power over her Amazon tribe. She gladly took on this darkness and spread it among your people,” Tuulikki answered.

“Oh sweet Artemis, Mattita,” Gabrielle muttered. It answered a lot of questions, including why the main target of the vampires were the Amazons. The power mad Law Speaker had brought this plague of evil down on her sisters voluntarily brought.

The bard raised her head and looked into the cat like eyes of the forest family. “What do you mean, of the blood?”

“One touched by the darkness, one who needs blood,” Tuulikki explained. “But none of the upir can stand against the leader, she is the first of the strain and the strongest.”

“If someone were a upir or vampire but not from Mattita’s fangs, they could challenge her?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes,” Tapio answered.

“You have helped me, gracious spirit,” the bard continued. “How may I repay you?”

Gabrielle held her breath, this was the tricky part. Lower deities could be quite mischievous and their price could be anything from wanting Gabrielle to stand on her head and singing to offering her life to them.

The forest gods wee quiet for a moment and seemed to be sharing their thoughts with each other. Then Tapio smiled.

“We agree,” he stated simply. “Restoring the balance to the woods is enough for now. A future price will be asked later. It won’t require anyone being hurt, agreed?”

Gabrielle knew that she really didn’t have a choice, if she refused, they’d probably take back the weapons and kill her and maybe even Otere.

“I agree,” Gabrielle agreed simply.

With a smile each disappeared back into the trees. The bard waited a moment and then stretched.

“Okay, Otere,” she said softly and the drumming beside her slowed and then stopped.

The Northern Amazon Queen slowly opened her eyes and looked over at the Southern Amazon Queen.

“You intend to take on Mattita in a challenge?” she whispered.

“We don’t have a choice,” Gabrielle stated simply. “They are like bacchae and can fly short distances, we’ll never track them.”

“Then what has Xena being doing these nights?” Otere frowned.

“Being bitten,” the bard said bitterly.

“Xena? Wouldn’t she have said something?” Otere protested.

“The victims don’t know it,” the bard explained as she stood up and stretched. “She’s getting weaker, she’s gone longer each night and she can’t remember most of the night.”

“Gabrielle,” Otere said softly but the bard shook off the Amazon’s sympathy.

“We will kill Mattita and get Xena back,” Gabrielle said firmly.

Otere stood up and started following the bard, the confusion evident on the young Queen’s face. The bard hadn’t explained how they were going to do that.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The warrior tried to focus as she sat up, something told her that it was close to dark and she needed to get moving. Stumbling back onto the sleeping fur, she frowned deeply. She felt as weak as a newborn puppy and she was puzzled how she had gotten this way. Xena knew that she couldn’t get sick but she sure felt like it. She remembered tracking the vampires and then nothing.

Xena groaned, it felt like her boots had weights in them and her arms were mush.

The warrior tried a small smile as Gabrielle and Otere entered the hut but then something about her mate’s body language took Xena’s smile away and suddenly made her cautious.

“Going out again tonight?” Gabrielle questioned, standing near the door and not moving forward and hugging Xena as she normally would.

Xena’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Yeah, only option I can think of to stop these things.”

“How can you track them when they can fly short distances and one of them is feeding on you every night?” Gabrielle demanded, her green eyes beginning to flash.

Xena felt her ears roaring and she sat heavily back onto the sleeping furs. She wanted to deny it; to demand what in Tartarus Gabrielle was talking about but something was tripping up her tongue. The warrior looked up at her mate with a confused expression.

“Try and think through the fog, Xena,” Gabrielle insisted. “The best tracker in the known world can’t track something close by? The vampires aren’t attacking outside of a one-night travel range and you can’t find them?”

Xena looked down at her boots.

“Remove your bandage, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly.

“What?” the warrior questioned with a grimace.

“Those gashes were deep but not that deep and with your rapid healing those should have been healed by now. Why the bandage?” Gabrielle pressed, her voice becoming harsh with tenseness. “Is that to cover the bite marks?”

Xena felt her hands beginning to shake. Everything her mate was saying made sense but she still couldn’t remember anything about the vampires, especially being bitten. What if Gabrielle was right and she was being bitten every night and controlled by the creatures?

When Xena looked up at the two Amazon Queens her blue eyes were scared and filled with tears.

“Gabrielle….” She began softly.

“No, Xena,” Gabrielle shook her head angrily. “I know they’ve messed with your mind but I can’t believe that much. You need someone else’s fangs now?”

The warrior felt her heart sinking and her fists clenching. She gritted her teeth in rage and she wanted to howl in despair.

“What would you do if we tried to lock you up with Svetlana?” Gabrielle asked.

Without thinking Xena grabbed the chakram from her belt.

Gabrielle didn’t look surprised but merely nodded.

“Go, Xena, just go,” Gabrielle said sadly and moved away from the door. Otere followed her example and moved aside.

With a cry not unlike a wounded animal, Xena cried out and grabbed her cloak. The warrior dashed through the door and disappeared into the twilight.

The bard closed the door softly.

“Gabrielle?” Otere said softly. “You didn’t mean all of that, did you?”

“No,” the bard admitted, tears filling her green eyes. “But Xena’s now distraught, she’ll go straight to the vampire lair and we can track her.”

“May the gods prove you right,” Otere said softly and took the Southern Amazon Queen into her arms as Gabrielle broke down crying.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

It took the combined efforts of Hallvor’s keen senses and the best scout the Amazons had to track the warrior when the sun came up but they finally managed a candle-mark before sunset.

Gabrielle, Otere and several Amazon scouts looked down over the small cliff, down into a clearing that led into a cave. They all frowned at the sight of three Amazons and two men obviously guarding the place.

Hallvor’s sharp eyes pointed out the bite marks on their necks.

“Then the vampires are controlling them, like they tried with Svetlana,” Otere frowned.

“Yes, and they’ll fight to protect them while they sleep,” Hallvor agreed.

“I don’t see Xena among them,” Gabrielle frowned.

“She’s probably inside, either already turned or sleeping after the feeding,” Hallvor commented bluntly, ignoring Otere’s glare and Gabrielle’s pained eyes.

“Then we take out the guards, go inside, rescue Xena and torch the place,” one of the scouts said simply.

Gabrielle and Otere looked at the sky and then each other. Otere shook her head, echoing the bard’s thoughts.

“We don’t have time,” Gabrielle commented. “We’ll be caught inside before we could kill all of them, even with fire.”

“Then what do we do? We’ll be caught in the open before we can get back to the village,” the scout questioned.

“The only thing an Amazon can do,” Gabrielle said cryptically.

“I wish you could think of another way,” Otere complained.

“So do I,” the bard agreed.

Otere turned to Hallvor and the scouts. “I want Hallvor to lead you back to the river, cross over and wait on the other side. Build a fire ring to protect yourselves from any vampires. Hopefully, they’ll be too busy with us.”

“With you?” Hallvor demanded but Otere continued, ignoring the Viking Amazon.

“If we don’t come back shortly after dawn, return here, kill all the vampires and any victim too far gone to be saved. Decapitate them and burn the bodies,” Otere ordered. “Burn out the cave.”

“Yes, my Queen,” the lead scout agreed.

“Gabrielle, I’m not letting you go in there alone,” Hallvor protested. “Xena would kill me and so would Pony.”

“Otere is going in with me to stand as my sister and witness,” the bard responded.

“Witness?” Hallvor questioned.

“Just do it, Hallvor,” the bard insisted. “The vampires will sense you, the wolf inside. Take care of the scouts.”

“Yes, my Queen,” Hallvor responded and led the scouts back the way they had come.

Otere turned to Gabrielle. “Are you sure about this?”

“If we wait until dawn to attack them, Xena will be dead,” Gabrielle said simply.

“She might be dead already,” Otere said softly.

“No,” the bard frowned. “I would know if she were dead. Let’s do this.”

The two Amazon Queens moved down the hill, over the rocks and around the barren trees and approached the clearing in the open, walking confidently over the light snow.

They weren’t surprised when the guards scrambled to rush at them with weapons drawn, moving slowly and stumbling over each other. Gabrielle and Otere noticed the dazed look in the eyes of the men and women approaching them.

Both Queens raised their hands and maintained their confident stances.

“I am Gabrielle, Queen of the Southern Amazons and I claim right of challenge to your Vampire Queen Mattita,” Gabrielle said firmly.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena opened her eyes slowly and groaned as her muscles protested even the thought of moving. Input from her senses started telling that she wasn’t in the hut with Gabrielle.

Fragments of leaving Gabrielle started flashing across Xena’s mind and she sat up with a moan. She frowned and tried to focus. In her immediate sight was the chains on her wrists leading to a large iron ring imbedded in the stone wall; beyond that was a cave. The warrior growled at the sight of several Amazons also chained to the walls around the large cave as well as a couple of men, survivors from the vampire attacks on the nearby villages. One of them was Yakut and she seemed unconscious.

Xena felt a chill run down her spine as vampires began to enter the cave from a darkened back area. The warrior felt a growl escape her throat as she recognized Mattita, the former Law Speaker of the Northern Amazons.

Mattita laughed around her fangs as Xena moved back as close to the cold stone wall as she could as the Vampire Queen approached her.

“Beginning to remember, Xena?”

The memories hit the warrior like a tidal wave. The night of the fight in the forest and one of the vampires sinking her fangs into Xena’s neck. It was only for a moment but apparently enough to erase her memory of it and to render her helpless against them. The following nights of attempting to track the vampires only to fall to Mattita’s fangs before dawn each time.

Xena’s body shook with the memory of the fangs entering her neck and the eroticism that accompanied the bite. The warrior fought back the urge to be sick at the memory of Mattita’s touch and bite.

“Gabrielle, I’m sorry,” the warrior whispered. Now she knew how Gabrielle could have been bitten by bacchae and not remember it and how she was helpless against the call of Bacchus.

“Don’t worry about it, Xena,” Mattita laughed. “You’ll join us and then you can turn her. Won’t that be my ultimate revenge against you? You’ll either turn her or she’ll kill you.”

Xena growled and then whimpered slightly as the Vampire Queen bent towards her neck, fangs extending even longer.

“Mattita!” a shout stopped the vampire and caused both the vampire and Xena’s heads to snap around towards the front of the cave.

Standing in front of several of the guards was Gabrielle and Otere. The Southern Amazon’s green eyes were flashing angrily.

“Ah, Gabrielle,” Mattita purred and turned away from Xena to face the bard. “Perfect! You can watch me feed from Xena again and turn her into one of us; then she can turn you.”

“I challenge you to the right of Queenship over the vampires,” the bard said firmly, ignoring the vampire’s taunts.

“Nice try, human,” Mattita grinned. “You can only lead vampires if you are a vampire.”

The Amazon Vampire turned towards the Warrior Princess again.

“Mattita! I challenge you for right of Queenship,” Gabrielle shouted again.

Xena couldn’t help but grin slightly at the astonished face of the vampire when she looked back at the bard.

Gabrielle now had yellow eyes rimmed in red and her fangs were prominent and flashing.

“I am a vampire and have been one longer than you, Mattita,” Gabrielle growled. “I challenge you.”

Mattita’s brown eyes flashed angrily and she clenched her fists tightly. “You can’t be vampire!” she protested. “You walk in the sun and don’t drink blood!”

“But I am and that just shows that I’m stronger than you,” Gabrielle smiled, her yellow eyes dancing. “I do drink blood, animal and human. I just don’t kill humans for it.”

“Then you are weak, not strong,” Mattita grinned and ran a long claw-like fingernail across Xena’s chest, leaving a red streak beginning to well up with blood. Gabrielle resisted licking her lips at the sight of blood, especially Xena’s blood.

“You cannot refuse the challenge, Queen Mattita,” one of the Amazon vampires stated.

“I accept, battle to the death,” Mattita growled. “Now.”

“Excellent,” Gabrielle grinned a grim smile that worried Otere. The Northern Amazon Queen found it disturbing when she glanced at the bard to see the yellow eyes and fangs. “You have choice of weapons.”

“I don’t need weapons but you can have your choice,” Mattita smirked.

“I’ll take my sais,” Gabrielle pulled the weapons into her hands, the handles in her hands and the long prongs along the inside of her arms.

“Gabrielle! No!” Xena yelled, suddenly struggling against her chains. “Your sais can’t hurt her!”

“I’m comfortable with these,” the bard said in a stubborn voice.

“Good, then both Amazon queens can fall to my fangs in one night!” Mattita growled and then screamed as she launched herself across the small space, straight for the bard.

Gabrielle rolled over backwards, letting Mattita fly right over her. The bard snapped her arm up and smashed the blunt end of her sai against Mattita’s jaw. Gabrielle flipped up to her feet and bared her teeth as Mattita landed and spun to face her.

The bard quickly discovered that, while she may have been vampiric longer, Mattita had more experience at using the vampiric abilities. Gabrielle was only part bacchae and without the power of flight.

Mattita again launched herself with her claws extended.

Xena struggled against her chains, she always hated feeling helpless and this was the worst. She had let Gabrielle and the Amazons down and now Gabrielle was fighting for all their lives and Xena couldn’t help. She screamed in frustration.

Gabrielle twisted to one side but not enough and hissed as Mattita’s claws raked across her ribs. In turn the bard brought down her elbow hard into the small of Mattita’s back as the vampire passed her, causing the Vampire Queen to smash into the stone floor. The bard attempted to jump onto Mattita’s back but the Northern Amazon was faster and flipped over, catching Gabrielle’s wrists with her hands. Gabrielle screamed in anger as Mattita flipped her over, the bard landing hard on the stone.

Both Amazons leaped to the feet but Mattita was faster and flipped over Gabrielle and grabbed the bard from behind.

Both Otere and Xena screamed as Mattita sank her fangs into Gabrielle’s neck.

“No! Gabrielle!” Xena felt her wrists becoming bloody from fighting against the chains and struggled even harder.

“Gabrielle, now!” Otere shouted.

The bard’s head began to drop forward but she seemed to struggle. Gabrielle felt her body giving over and shouted at herself. She felt an answering growl and she lifted both hands up with her sais and thrust them backwards.

Mattita released her hold on the bard and Gabrielle dropped forward onto her knees. After a moment she turned and looked at the Vampire Queen as Mattita struggled to comprehend the wooden objects sticking out of her ribs.

“Something you didn’t know about vampires, Mattita,” Gabrielle said as she stood up, unsteady on her feet. “You’re strain of vampirism isn’t natural and can be destroyed by natural wood. These were made for me by the spirits of the forest.”

The bard walked up to the Vampire Queen as Mattita fell to her knees, still trying to remove the sais. Gabrielle grabbed one of them and yanked it out roughly, sending Mattita falling backwards onto the floor. The Vampire Queen screamed as the bard grabbed her wrist and bit into it.

“Gabrielle!” Xena screamed in horror as the bard drank for a moment from the other vampire. Then Gabrielle shifted on her heels and thrust the wooden sai into the vampire’s chest, through the heart and breaking the spine.

Mattita managed to scream once before turning to dust under the bard.

The bard hesitated a moment, trying to absorb the fact that part of the nightmare was over.

Gabrielle grabbed up the sais and turned to face the other vampires, her eyes still yellow and fangs plainly showing.

Xena resisted the urge to whimper at the sight of her beloved mate. Gabrielle didn’t only have upper fangs as usual; this time she had the full set of Bacchae teeth, including two sets of lower fangs. The bard had let her full Bacchae blood come to the surface and Xena felt a twinge of fear and worry. She had never seen Gabrielle go this far before.

“Queen Gabrielle has defeated Mattita and is now your Queen,” Otere shouted.

The female vampires looked confused and then one of them went to a bended knee and the others followed.

“As your Queen,” Gabrielle began firmly, “I order you to release the prisoners and your mental control over the guards.”

“But who will we feed on and who will guard us during the day?” one of the vampires protested.

“There is a peaceful way of doing things,” Gabrielle’s voice softened. “Trust me and release them.”

Two of the vampires rushed to obey their new Queen as Otere joined them, releasing the handful of prisoners, including Yakut and Xena. The warrior moved over to her bard slowly, as if gauging her and possibly seeing her in a new light as Otere rushed to take Yakut into her arms.

“Gabrielle?”

The bard’s face softened and she touched the warrior’s arm lovingly and Xena felt a surge of relief.

“I’m sorry about earlier,” Gabrielle said softly. “We needed to follow you.”

“We’ll talk about it later, okay? Why did you drink Mattita’s blood?”

“A gesture of victory and supremacy. Unfortunately it was the only way I could think of right at that moment to show the other vampires their queen was truly defeated by another vampire,” Gabrielle stated, unable to meet her mates’ eyes.

“It’s okay, I understand,” Xena said softly. “What are you going to do with the vampires?” the warrior questioned and they both looked over at Otere tending Yakut.

“I have plans for them and no one gets hurt,” Gabrielle smiled. “Take Yakut and the others to the river, the Amazons are waiting for you.”

Xena frowned and looked down at her mate. “What about you?”

“I need to stay with them for a little bit,” Gabrielle tried smiling a reassuring smile. “I will meet you back at the Village tomorrow night, in the common ground. If things go right some of the vampires will be with me.”

“And if they don’t go right?” Xena whispered.

“Then come back during the day and burn them out,” the bard said simply.

Xena bit back any protests she might have. She knew either her mate would succeed or would die trying with whatever she had in mind. The warrior also knew arguing with her wife would be useless.

“I’m sorry about Mattita,” Xena said softly and was relieved when Gabrielle wrapped her arms around her.

“I didn’t mean what I said last night,” Gabrielle responded softly. “I knew you weren’t aware of what was happening. I love you, Xena.”

“I love you, Little One,” the warrior whispered.

“Take Yakut and the others and go, please.”

“Don’t you dare leave me, Gabrielle,” Xena growled and quickly turned away and went over to help Otere pick up Yakut.

As the one time food source for the vampires hurried out of the cave, Gabrielle turned to her new Amazons, vampire Amazons.

The new Queen of the Vampires was trying not to show how nervous she was.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena was unapproachable the entire next day as she sharpened her sword, paced the common grounds and talked with Sasha, trying to reassure the child when the warrior wasn’t too sure herself if Gabrielle was coming back .

The only one that managed to talk to the warrior was Otere and just long enough to tell Xena that Yakut and the others were recovering and awake. If they weren’t bitten again they would be fine, Xena included.

The warrior nodded and continued sharpening her sword.

Xena had let Otere explain to the other Amazons what had happened in the cave with the vampires. She also left it to Otere to explain how Gabrielle was a vampire but not a vampire.

The warrior again cursed her weakness for giving into the vampire Mattita and for letting Gabrielle try whatever it was she was doing without her. She must have been insane to leave Gabrielle!

The warrior did manage to smile when Otere stepped out of the food hall with Yakut leaning on the Queen’s arm for support. They approached the warrior slowly, Yakut blinking against the winter sun and still very weak.

“It’ll be dark soon,” Otere commented.

“Yes, how are you doing, Yakut?”

“Tired, but okay,” the shaman responded. “We need to talk about Mattita.”

“After Gabrielle gets back,” Xena insisted.

“Of course,” Yakut smiled.

“That’s why Mattita took you immediately, you knew how to stop them,” Xena realized.

“Yes, and I know the cause of Mattita’s seduction into the darkness,” Yakut stated.

“Gods, I hope Gabrielle has figured some of this out,” Otere complained.

“I think she’s figured out some of it but not all of it,” Xena commented.

“They’ll be here soon, come inside, Xena,” Yakut urged.

“Alright,” Xena frowned and looked at the sun just setting down behind the trees. The warrior growled as they closed the doors, she hated not knowing if Gabrielle was alright or not.

The Amazons settled into an uneasy wait. They had no idea what to expect that night. Everyone knew Gabrielle was attempting something with the vampires and most didn’t understand how the bard could be part vampire and part human and now Queen of the Vampire Amazons.

Xena knew a lot of them weren’t sure whether they could trust the Southern Amazon or not.

It was two candle-marks before Gabrielle’s voice sent the warrior flying for the door but discovered Otere blocking her way. The warrior’s eyes narrowed and Otere hoped that this wasn’t her last moment as she held the warrior back.

“Wait a moment, Xena,” she urged, “Don’t rush into a possible trap.”

Xena growled but nodded and drew her chakram. Otere opened the door slowly and they looked out onto the common ground of the village. Torches had been placed around the village for light and protection and the bard was spotted easily with several of the vampire Amazons behind her.

Gabrielle held up the wooden sais and grinned at her mate.

“I’m fine, everyone,” she called. “I ask for a meeting of the Elder Council.”

Xena and the remaining leaders of the Northern Amazons slowly left the food hall and approached the bard and the vampires.

Xena and Svetlana’s eyes constantly danced around, watchful of any figures that might come out of the dark. The warrior heard Svetlana gasp slightly and looked over at the Amazon Scout Captain. Svetlana’s face was pained and Xena saw one of the vampires step forward slightly and then hesitate.

The Warrior Princess wanted to grab the bard up in her arms, especially now that Xena was thinking a little more clearly. She almost shook her head, wondering how in Tartarus she would have ever agreed to leave the bard in a den of vampires alone for a night and a day. Xena held back, letting Gabrielle control the situation.

Gabrielle felt a twinge of regret as the Northern Amazons approached cautiously, watching her carefully as well as the vampires. The bard could see in their eyes that they knew she was somewhat like the vampires who had been preying on them.

“Did Otere explain what happened between myself and Mattita?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Yes, that you challenged her for rank of Queen and could do so because you’re some kind of vampiir,” one of the Elders stated.

Xena growled but Gabrielle merely nodded, “Yes, it’s true. I am partly what we call Bacchae, a type of Greek vampire. I have been for many years now.”

“So Alti just brought out the demon in you?” another one demanded and Xena’s growl was audible to everyone.

“It’s alright, Xena,” Gabrielle said, holding up her hand. “I am not possessed by demons but I do understand your fears, especially after what you’ve been through.”

“Otere said that you could end this nightmare,” Treje stated.

“I am now Queen of the Amazons who have become vampires and they will obey me. I have issued several commands that will end the nightmare for both sides,” Gabrielle stated.

“Then, Queen Gabrielle,” Otere stated formally. “I welcome you to our fires, let’s discuss this.”

The other Elders nodded and Gabrielle bowed slightly to Otere. Everyone then moved to sit around the main fire, the vampires sitting slightly behind Gabrielle and staring at their former sisters across the flames. Xena sitting next to her mate and Queen.

“The male slaves have been released and given a wagon, they’re heading for the nearest village. To end this between Amazons I propose that the two types work together,” the bard began.

“How can we work together when they prey on us?” Danja, an Elder demanded.

“That will end,” Gabrielle promised. “By working together, both groups will benefit. I have ordered most of the vampires to scatter throughout the land, dispersing their impact on nature. Vampires will no longer kill humans for their blood and will only take blood from willing humans.”

“The vampires who leave the area, they’ll obey this order?” Treja asked.

“They were originally Amazons of your tribe, they’ll obey,” Gabrielle reassured them.

“What else? You said working together,” Otere questioned.

“The remaining vampires will work with the tribe as nightly protectors, in turn you give them the blood from the animals you hunt and slaughter,” the bard explained.

“You’re asking us to house them and feed them?” Yakut demanded.

“Yes, in turn they will protect you,” Gabrielle proposed.

“How many?” Otere asked.

“As many or as few as you wish, the others will leave the area and those that remain will obey you as their Queen,” the bard explained.

“What about turning others into vampires?” Yakut demanded, her voice tense.

Gabrielle understood the Shaman’s anger. She had been one of those that the vampires had been feeding on for quite awhile, an existence of terror for anyone.

“Only those who consent and with the approval of the Queen, either Otere or myself,” Gabrielle stated.

“And if we don’t agree?” Yakut asked.

“Then the vampires will scatter and those who wanted to stay with their sisters or mates will be separated,” Gabrielle stated.

“You talk like they have feelings,” Setka, a Scout leader snapped.

“We do,” one of the vampires surprised everyone by speaking. She had once been a young Amazon scout who had been one of the first to fall to Mattita’s fangs. “Mattita had us acting like predators, like wolves. Truth is that after the first few nights the hunger lessens and we begin remembering. We remember our families too.”

Xena glanced over, she could feel the longing from Svetlana for her mate, a mate who was now a vampire and saw the same emotions on the young vampire’s face.

“I suggest that we put this to the entire tribe,” Otere commented.

The Elders and other Amazons present nodded in agreement.

“We will return with the tribe’s answer in two candle-marks,” Otere stated to Gabrielle.

“Thank you, Queen Otere,” Gabrielle said simply and watched as the Amazons headed back into the food hall.

Gabrielle tried to ignore the hostile looks from several of the Elders as they passed her and the vampires. It wouldn’t be easy to get past the fear they had been feeling for endless days and nights.

As the door closed the bard turned and hugged her mate tightly.

“Gods, I missed you, Xena,” the bard whispered in the warrior’s ear.

“Back at you, little one,” the warrior grinned and held the bard close. “I don’t know why I let you stay last night, I must have still been out of my head.”

“I know,” Gabrielle grinned, glancing over to keep an eye on the vampires.

“This has got to be one of the craziest ideas you’ve come up with, Gabrielle,” Xena commented, also keeping an eye on the vampires.

“I know but it seems to fit,” the bard shrugged with a grin.

One of vampires approached the couple and bent on one knee. “Queen Gabrielle, one of the scouts reports that they have brought down two deer, there’s enough blood for everyone.”

“Excellent, Ke,” the bard responded. “Go ahead before the tribe returns. Feeding should take place away from the day tribe, it will make them uncomfortable to see it.”

“Yes, my Queen,” the vampire Amazon scurried away to follow her new Queen’s instructions.

Gabrielle looked at Xena’s amused expression. “What?” she asked.

“You’re quite the leader, my bard,” Xena commented and grinned when Gabrielle began blushing.

“A very tired and relieved leader,” Gabrielle muttered and leaned into Xena’s arms.

“Relieved?”

“You’re alive and aren’t about to turn into a vampire, I may have found a way to end this mess, and we can probably still get out of here before we’re snowed in.”

“Don’t want to stay the winter?” Xena questioned.

“You saw how they looked at me, Xena,” Gabrielle stated sadly. “They’ll think of me differently now.”

“They’ll adapt, it’s not like you’re a full vampire,” Xena encouraged. “It’ll take time to adapt to having Amazon vampires around.”

“It will take months for that to happen. I want to take Hallvor and Eponin to the Black Forest and go home,” Gabrielle said simply.

“Alright, we can still get through with a sled and a good team of horses,” Xena smiled.

Feeling safe and secure in her warrior’s arms the bard closed her eyes while they waited. The sounds of shouting inside kept everyone outside on edge.

Gabrielle snuggled into Xena’s arms closer to the fire, the other vampires didn’t need to warm their bodies but the bard was still mostly human and felt the cold just as much as Xena did. She also needed the comfort of her mate’s arms. The bard had been afraid of how Xena would see her after the fight with Mattita and she knew Xena was afraid of how Gabrielle would respond to her after being bitten by Mattita.

Both were feeling insecure. Both sighed contently when it was enough to snuggle together, words unnecessary. The fears fading away as they held each other.

Exactly two candle-marks later the Elders and some of the others came out of the hall. Gabrielle sat up as the Amazons sat down in their previous spots and the vampires gathering behind their new Queen once again.

Several of them looked unhappy but some looked curious about the vampires that were once their sisters and might be again.

“Queen Gabrielle,” Otere began, “After much discussion, it has been decided to accept your proposal for peace and cooperation between the vampires and the Amazons.”

Gabrielle was visibly relieved. “Thank you, Queen Otere,” she said softly, “Then balance can be restored to the surrounding land and there will be peace between sisters.”

“This won’t be easy,” Otere cautioned. “There was a lot of terror and pain, accepting them into our lives will be difficult.”

“I understand and so do most of them,” Gabrielle responded. “They’re willing to work at gaining your trust and most are anxious to talk to their families and mates.”

Otere frowned. “For so long that meant seducing their mates into becoming vampires, can we trust their motives now?” she demanded and Gabrielle winced at the sound of uneasy agreement from several Elders.

“I suggest that the meetings take place in the village commons, within sight of everyone,” Gabrielle offered. “It will take time, we understand that.”

Xena wasn’t sure how she felt about the use of the word “we” when Gabrielle used it to describe the vampires. It made the warrior uncomfortable that the bard easily seemed to include herself among the vampires who had been terrorizing the Amazons.

“It isn’t finished, Gabrielle,” Yakut spoke harshly. “You were told by the forest spirits that Mattita was exposed to evil. That evil still exists.”

Gabrielle frowned and she felt Xena stiffen beside her.

“You know what it is?”

“Mattita worked dark magic and contacted the spirit world, she gave herself up willingly,” Yakut answered. “A vampire spirit turned her spirit into a vampire and a shaman’s magic carried it over into her body in this realm.”

“Spirit realm?” Xena repeated softly. “Shaman?”

“Oh not again!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Alti?”

“Yes,” Yakut nodded.

“Damn!” Xena said simply.

The End

Blood Darkness

Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle, with the Northern Amazons, must face Alti, Spirit vampires and a major surprise appearance by an enemy of Gabrielle’s.
“Queen Gabrielle,” Otere began, “After much discussion, it has been decided to accept your proposal for peace and cooperation between the vampires and the Amazons.”

Gabrielle was visibly relieved. “Thank you, Queen Otere,” she said softly, “Then balance can be restored to the surrounding land and there will be peace between sisters.”

“It isn’t finished, Gabrielle,” Yakut spoke harshly. “You were told by the forest spirits that Mattita was exposed to evil. That evil still exists.”

Gabrielle frowned and she felt Xena stiffen beside her.

“You know what it is?”

“Mattita worked dark magic and contacted the spirit world, she gave herself up willingly,” Yakut answered. “A vampire spirit turned her spirit into a vampire and a shaman’s magic carried it over into her body in this realm.”

“Spirit realm?” Xena repeated softly. “Shaman?”

“Oh not again!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Alti?”

“Yes,” Yakut nodded.

“Damn!” Xena said simply.

Xena was surprised to find Gabrielle pacing inside the practice hut. The bard was obviously upset.

It was the middle of the night and freezing outside. Xena had been concerned when she woke up and found her mate missing, especially when Gabrielle didn’t return after a few minutes. Xena’s stalking abilities hadn’t been necessary to follow the bard’s footsteps in the snow leading towards the practice hall.

It had been a difficult time for everyone. Answering the psychic call for help from Yakut had led Xena, Gabrielle, Sasha, Hallvor and Eponin to the Northern Amazons. Once near the village they had been attacked by vampires, Amazons who had been attacked.

It had taken time to defeat these turned Amazons and almost at the cost of Xena being turned into an umpiir herself. Gabrielle had finally ended the worst of the nightmare when she challenged Vampire Queen Matitta to the right of leadership over the vampires and won.

Now they were facing the source of that evil again. Alti, the dark shaman from Xena’s past.

“Gabrielle?” the warrior said softly.

The bard turned to face her mate and Xena was even more surprised to see that Gabrielle’s eyes were red and fighting back tears.

“What is it, Little One?” Xena asked softly as the bard accepted her strong arms in an embrace.

“I don’t know if I can face Alti again,” Gabrielle admitted.

“I can understand that,” Xena agreed. “I’m not looking forward to taking her on again.”

“How do we do this? Last time I fought her spirit and you killed her body,” Gabrielle asked as Xena led her to one of the benches lining the walls.

“As usual, I guess,” the warrior shrugged. “Go into the spirit realm, keep her off balance and kill her spirit.”

“You haven’t figured it out, have you?” the bard pulled back from Xena’s arms and the warrior frowned.

“Figured out what?”

“I think Yakut has figured it out but hasn’t said anything yet,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully.

“What about? Alti?” the warrior demanded.

“The vampire spirit that Alti sent to Matitta to turn her into a vampire and spread it to the Amazons,” the bard answered and watched Xena’s frown deepen as the warrior thought about the renegade Amazon.

Matitta had been the Law Speaker for the tribe and wanted to be Queen and resisted when the young Otere had been named successor to Queen Arja and had fought against Gabrielle being accepted into the tribe.

Gabrielle remembered the battle with Alti very well; she still had nightmares of Alti bringing the bard’s Bacchae curse to full power. Gabrielle couldn’t fight against the full Bacchae curse, just like before when she had bitten Xena. To save her, Queen Arja had willingly given herself to Gabrielle’s fangs and Matitta had protested this was enough to keep Gabrielle out of the tribe.

All doubts had been put to rest when Arja’s spirit appeared at Gabrielle’s initiation and declared the bard an Amazon worthy to be adopted into the tribe.

The problems hadn’t ended then with Matitta, however. Xena’s son Solan had fallen in love with one of his Amazon guards. Matitta had demanded they be banished into the ice and snow for breaking the courtship rules. The Greeks learned that Matitta wanted Solan and his mate, Matitta’s own daughter, to die in the snow and the adult Greeks, Xena and Gabrielle with them.

The Law Speaker wanted Xena’s daughter Sasha to stay with the Northern Amazons because she had learned Sasha was the daughter of Ares and Xena and would probably have god powers.

The Greeks and Reija had fled into the snow one night and had nearly died from Amazon arrows and the cold.

Gabrielle could tell Xena was remembering the same thing. Then the warrior’s eyes widened and she looked at her mate, eyes questioning.

“The vampire couldn’t be Arja,” Xena protested. “She appeared at your initiation and gave her approval to your adoption into the tribe?”

“Wouldn’t that be just what Alti would want?” Gabrielle asked bitterly. “To keep us connected to the North? Knowing we’d either stay here or be back.”

“You think Alti is controlling Arja and that she turned into a vampire because of your bite,” Xena frowned.

“Yes, Yakut told me after the battle that anyone dying by a vampire’s fangs in the spirit world remains trapped there,” Gabrielle said softly.

Xena gently wiped a tear away from her mate’s cheek.

“That’s why you didn’t want to be accepted into the tribe,” the warrior mentioned softly.

“Yes, not only did I kill Arja but I trapped her spirit as a vampire in the spirit world with Alti.”

“You didn’t say anything to me,” Xena took the bard into her arms as Gabrielle cried softly.

“I wasn’t sure, now I am and I have to face my own guilty past instead of yours this time,” the bard whispered.

“Well, Alti is still part of my past guilt,” the warrior reminded her.

“I don’t know if I can face both of them,” Gabrielle repeated.

“We’ll figure it out, my love,” Xena said, trying to reassure her sleepless bard.

“I know, anything to stop Alti,” Gabrielle muttered. “Now we deal with your past and mine, Alti and Arja.”

Xena frowned but really didn’t have an answer for her beloved. It was true that Gabrielle had dealt with Alti but not as long or as in-depth as Xena had in her youth. The bard had no idea of what Alti wanted and that she was capable of getting it, even as a ghost. The warrior knew she had to be willing to die if necessary to stop Alti’s vision of the world, Xena just hoped that Gabrielle wouldn’t be caught up in the firestorm.

Yakut found the warrior going through her sword drills the next day in the same practice hut. She sat down on one of the benches and watched Xena along with several of the Amazon scouts and warriors.

Like other Amazon villages, this tribe had a practice yard outside but to deal with the snow months in the Siberian north, they also had a practice hut. Also a sweat hut, and an isolation hut for those going snow mad with cabin fever.

Yakut wasn’t surprised to find the Greek warrior in the practice hut. It was a daily routine for the warrior and most of the Amazons as well.

After a series of thrusts and parries with a sword in each hand, the warrior then went through several complicated flips and jumps that ended with her in a defensive pose with one sword held parallel to her chest and the other pointing forward over her head.

She grinned at the sudden burst of howls and cheers from the Amazons and then her eyes narrowed when she spotted Yakut waiting.

The other Amazons broke into pairs or groups and began their own practicing. Xena grabbed a towel and ran it over her hair quickly and sat down next to the Shaman.

“What’s up, Yakut?”

“We need to deal with Alti,” the shaman said simply.

“And Arja?” the warrior asked softly and wasn’t surprised when Yakut nodded sadly.

“Gabrielle figured it out?” Yakut asked.

“Yes,” Xena nodded in return.

“We need to deal with them before they can build up more power, especially after losing their control over the vampires,” Yakut insisted.

“I know,” Xena muttered.

“What is it?”

“Gabrielle’s having doubts about facing them,” Xena admitted.

“I can understand that but we need to take action,” Yakut protested. “You know Alti won’t give up.”

“I know but any doubt or fear is deadly in the Spirit Realm, you know that,” Xena countered.

“How do we deal with this? Leave Gabrielle behind in the Physical Realm?”

“I don’t know, she’s not one for staying behind if I’m in danger,” Xena frowned.

“Tomorrow night is the full moon, we need to move before the moon moves into the waning phase and gives power to negative workings,” Yakut insisted.

“Alright, even if Gabrielle isn’t up for it, we go tomorrow evening,” Xena decided firmly. “What about you, Yakut?”

“What do you mean?” the shaman asked with a frown.

“You’ve been treating Gabrielle differently, what’s going on?” Xena questioned the smaller woman.

“I don’t think I have,” Yakut protested, still frowning.

“Yes you have and I think she’s noticed it,” Xena insisted. “I need to know that you can work past this and be there for us as our anchor. Our souls depend on it.”

Yakut lowered her head and appeared to be thinking about what the warrior had asked and after a moment looked Xena in the eyes.

“Okay, soul searching done,” Yakut responded. “Yes, I feel differently since the attack by the vampires. I do see Gabrielle differently.”

“You were one of the few who knew she requires blood before the mess with Matitta,” Xena protested, trying to keep her anger in check. Yes, it was her mate, her Gabrielle they were talking about but the warrior reminded herself that she asked.

“Yes, and then I was raped and fed on every night for two weeks!” Yakut snapped, her eyes flashing brightly with the anger. “Always by a different vampire so I wouldn’t change, Matitta wanted me alive as long as possible so she could torture me every night. You may not remember your attacks but Matitta made sure I remembered every single moment.”

“You know Gabrielle isn’t like that!” Xena protested; her hands clenched.

“Yes, I know that,” Yakut agreed, her voice still raised in anger. “Feeling it is something else and you know it. Gabrielle knows that you weren’t aware of what was happening and you don’t remember it but don’t you think she still had a problem with someone else nibbling on your neck and who knows what else they did with your body?”

Xena felt her eyes narrow in anger and a growl rumbling in her chest but fought them back. After a moment she nodded and unclenched her hands. “Yes, she does and we’ve talked about it. She understands and forgives me but it still bothers her.”

“Xena, I will be there for both of you when you cross into the Spirit Realm,” Yakut said firmly. “I swear it. I will die for either or both of you. This won’t interfere.”

“Okay,” Xena nodded, suddenly feeling very tired. The warrior wondered if she was still fuzzy from dealing with the vampires so recently herself. The Greek was worried about this upcoming fight. “None of us are really ready for this,” she muttered.

“No, but we have to stop Alti before she builds up much more power in either Realm,” Yaku insisted.

“I know, I know,” the warrior mumbled.

Xena walked up behind her mate as Gabrielle stood outside the circle of dancing Amazons. The drummers had set a pounding beat that normally would have set the bard swaying, easily sliding into a trance.

Xena could tell tonight was not one of those nights when she wrapped her arms around her mate and could feel the tension in the little bard.

Normally the bard enjoyed the Amazon rituals, especially the dancing and drumming. Yakut was in full shaman clothing and swaying to the beat as she stood next to the huge bonfire. Several Amazons stood around the circle, ready to protect those entering the Spirit Realm and leaving their bodies behind. Xena noticed Sasha sitting with the drummers, also ready to lend her energy to the ritual.

“You alright?” Xena whispered in Gabrielle’s ear.

“No,” the bard admitted. “I couldn’t fight Alti’s magic last time, Xena. It cost Arja her life and this time it might be you. I couldn’t face that.”

“You aren’t responsible for Arja, Alti is,” Xena growled.

“It was my fangs that killed her and turned her, just like I turned you that night in the cave of Bacchus,” Gabrielle countered bitterly.

“And you’ve faced that side of yourself and won, Gabrielle!” Xena urged. “Remember when you were starved physically and blood starved and you didn’t touch that girl, you fought back and won!”

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in thought. She remembered when she had been captured by an evil magician and starved to the point of madness, especially blood madness. To turn the bard into a creature of the night under his control, the magician had meant for her to kill an innocent pregnant girl while he cast a spell on the bard.

Gabrielle had fought back against the blood hunger. Then the bard shook her head.

“You remember breaking into that Arab’s workshop and finding me with that girl?” the bard questioned her mate.

“Yes, you were full Bacchae, half insane and you hadn’t touched her, you were trying to protect her,” Xena said firmly.

“Because of you,” the bard whispered, closing her eyes as her jaw clenched.

“What?” this time Xena’s face reflected her confusion.

“I was about to sink my fangs into her neck, I had no conscious thought left and hadn’t been aware of anything for days. Then I heard your battle cry outside, that’s what brought me back,” Gabrielle explained, trying to fight back tears of anger. “It wasn’t my strength, it was you.”

“Don’t you see, it was still you,” Xena insisted. “Our connection, your love for me and mine for you was stronger than the darkness you were in. If you weren’t connected more to the light than the dark you never would have heard that war cry.”

“I still failed and killed Arja,” Gabrielle said bitterly, “Let’s just get this over with.”

Xena frowned as Gabrielle pulled out of her arms and walked in through the dancers and sat down across from Yakut at the main fire.

Xena tried to smile as Sasha walked up to her and quickly hugged her mom. The child turned and looked at her adopted mom while still hugging Xena.

“She’s not ready for this,” Sasha said softly.

“No one ever is,” Xena said grimly. “We have to stop Alti, Sash. Alti would be willing to destroy the entire world if she thought it would give her power and revenge. Gabrielle has fought Alti before and she’s better prepared for the Bacchae thing, I don’t think Alti can use it against her again. That might give Gabrielle an edge we need over Alti.”

“I’m still worried, Mom. You both be careful!” Sasha demanded.

“You bet, kiddo,” Xena grinned and kissed her daughter on the head.

Gabrielle wasn’t just nervous, she had to admit, she was scared.

The bard sat breathing deeply as she felt Xena sit down next to her. Gabrielle closed her eyes and tried to empty her mind and let the beat begin to take her. She accepted the mug placed in her hands and drank down half the contents and began rocking with the beat as someone took the mug away. Gabrielle knew that the mug would be handed to Xena next.

The bard tried calming herself. Xena had been right, Gabrielle had fought the darkness using her inner light, one that was expanded by being the daughter of Apollo, god of the sun and healing. Since facing Alti last time, the bard had beaten that blood hunger by using that light, she had also discovered she had some healing abilities.

Gabrielle felt the drugs in the tea she had just drunk beginning to take hold and let herself flow with the pounding drums and chanting, beginning to alter, to trance. Next the bard felt another mug being pressed into her hands and immediately felt her fangs trying to extend themselves as the smell of blood reached her. She fought her fangs back into their recessed holding place in her jaws, out of sight.

The bard easily drank half the contents of the blood from the deer she and Xena had taken down that morning. She knew Xena would drink the other half of the liquid.

Gabrielle felt light-headed and everything began shifting. Having her eyes closed didn’t help as the scenes in her mind shifted, the colors bleeding into each other, roaring filling her ears. The bard knew she was crossing over to the Spirit Realm.

As she “fell,” she could feel Xena’s spirit next to her and the familiar feel of Sasha’s surrounding them. The talented child of gods was providing an anchor to the real world for her moms.

Xena opened her eyes and wasn’t surprised to find the sky gray, devoid of all color and the grass so brilliant green that it was difficult to look at. The bird sounds were backwards or the silence was deafening. Then Xena closed her eyes as the colors all blended together, making the warrior dizzy.

When she opened her eyes, Xena found everything appearing normal.

The warrior shook her head, it had been years since she had been in the Spirit Realm. She had always regretted letting Gabrielle face Alti and the Spirit Amazons without her that day but someone had to ensure Alti’s body was killed. Now she was hoping that Alti would continue to underestimate her mate; most did.

Xena had tried to tell Gabrielle how proud she was of the bard but it had been difficult with Gabrielle’s guilt over killing Queen Arja. Gabrielle had faced Cyane, the legendary Queen of the Northern Amazons, the only one who had ever beaten the Amazon warrior had been Xena. Gabrielle had almost been killed but had defeated the Queen, something that had impressed the Greek warrior.

Xena turned and found Gabrielle a few yards away, on her hands and knees shaking her head. The bard’s green eyes looked up and found Xena’s blue ones and she smiled slightly.

Suddenly Gabrielle yelped and fell backwards as an energy burst exploded in front of her hands.

Xena’s body and head snapped around and she saw Alti, looking younger and more deadly than Xena last remembered. The dark shaman was standing on a large tree branch high above the Greeks. Alti laughed and launched another energy ball at the bard and Gabrielle flipped over backwards to avoid the deadly attack.

Xena growled and sent the chakram flying but Alti merely held up her hand and deflected it back at Xena. The warrior caught it with a snarl.

An energy bolt caught up with the bard, sending her smashing into a large tree. Gabrielle landed hard at the base of the tree, shaking her head.

Xena screamed a war cry and launched herself at the evil shaman. Physics often bent their usual laws for Xena and her flips but in this realm those laws didn’t even exist. The warrior found herself flying through the air with chakram in front of her, heading right for Alti’s neck.

Gabrielle’s eyes cleared as Xena left the ground heading towards Alti. The bard saw the shaman laugh and dive off the branch, heading straight for Xena with her claw-like fingernails extended.

The bard’s eyes narrowed and she drew her sais but as she got to her feet something grabbed her from above, claws digging into her shoulders, trying to rip through the leather. For once the bard was grateful she was wearing a Northern Amazon leather tunic and not her usual leather top that barely covered anything.

Gabrielle looked up into the face of the vampire Arja as she was yanked into the air into the tree branches. The bard struck at the vampire with the sais and the vampire screamed as one sank into her ribs and the vampire realized that the sais were wood and deadly.

Arja dropped the bard and Gabrielle landed hard, screaming as she fell on her arm and sai and felt a white-hot pain through her ribs.

“Oh not again!” she muttered, remembering the time Ares broke her ribs, kidnapped her and took her to Tartarus where her healing abilities were suspended. She managed to roll out of the way as Arja landed on the ground where Gabrielle had been.

The bard whirled around and struck at the Queen of the Northern Amazons and parried with her sais the attempts by the vampire to slice Gabrielle with claw fingernails. She and Arja ended up wrestling on the ground, vampire and partial Bacchae.

Gabrielle attempted to keep control over her Bacchae side as Arja tried to slash at her with deadly fingernails and fangs. The bard felt her own fangs extend and eyes change from green to Bacchae yellow as she broke contact with the vampire and rolled several feet away.

The bard paused a moment to catch her breath and growled in both anger and frustration. Alti laughed high above her, fighting with Xena and Arja grinned at her.

“What’s wrong, Gabrielle?” Arja hissed. “Don’t approve of your handiwork?”

Gabrielle hesitated in throwing her sais, the guilt hitting her. She turned to see Alti and Xena fighting in mid-air and Gabrielle’s grip on her sais tightened in resolution.

The bard spun with her sais in hand to face Arja when she froze in mid-step.

With a scream from Alti and a war cry from Xena, the two slammed into each other. Xena met Alti in mid-air, chakram and nails slashing. The shaman managed to avoid the chakram and grabbed Xena’s wrist with one hand and the warrior’s throat with the other as they flew through the sky with the momentum of the crash.

Xena growled, feeling at a definite disadvantage in the air. She wasn’t accustomed to fighting in the air and Alti obviously was. Xena wished for a tree branch or solid ground to get her feet under her so she could break Alti’s hold on her, instead she cried out as they slammed into a tree, barely missing a sharp tree branch.

Xena’s blue eyes widened as she looked at the branch right next to her head. Then her eyes narrowed as Alti laughed at her. The warrior got a foothold and thrust up with her legs and back, managing to knock Alti’s hand away from her throat.

Next came a series of blows that moved too fast for even the birds in the strange realm to follow as Alti and Xena fought for the advantage. Xena grabbed Alti’s hand holding the warrior’s wrist and twisted and was pleased to hear Alti cry out as her wrist snapped audibly.

“What’s wrong, Alti?” Xena hissed as they closed together again, hands reaching for throats and eyes. “Don’t like being hurt in this realm anymore than you did in the physical?”

“Xena, why are you fighting your destiny? I told you that your future was to be the Destroyer of Nations,” Alti purred.

“I found a better deal,” Xena growled and then yelled out in anger as Alti took advantage of the close hand-to-hand fighting to grab Xena and kiss her quickly.

“Stop fighting it, Xena,” Alti grinned. “I can still help you fulfill that destiny.”

“Never!”

“Then see your future!” Alti growled and Xena’s head jerked at the sudden images flooding her brain.

Xena slashing out as a Bacchae Gabrielle flew at her.

Gabrielle lying on a cave floor with a dryad bone sticking out of her chest and Xena laying next to her, covered in blood and not moving.

Solan looking down at an arrow sticking out of his chest in surprise.

Gabrielle, her head thrown back, covered in sweat and screaming in pain.

Xena screamed in rage and smashed Alti in the face with a fist and the shaman went flying backwards in the air until she hit a tree, again barely missing one of the sharp branches.

Xena was tired of this trick. She knew Alti was subtlety trying to work on Xena’s guilt about killing the Northern Amazons all those years before by impaling them on broken tree limbs and spike traps.

The warrior was about to dive after Alti again when she glanced down and saw Gabrielle freeze, sais in hand but the green eyes distant.

“Gabrielle!” the warrior screamed and then heard the drumming and chanting that the bard had already heard.

Xena knew the chanting, she had heard it before.

“No!” Xena screamed as Gabrielle dropped the wooden sais.

In the caves of Bacchus in the Bacchae Forest.

The vampire Arja looked up at Xena and grinned as she walked towards a non-resisting Gabrielle.

Xena drew her chakram back to decapitate the vampire when she was thrown off balance from an energy bolt from Alti and hit the ground hard. The warrior rose up, groaning with pain and quickly looked over and saw Gabrielle close her eyes and tilt her head back as Arja moved behind her.

“Gabrielle! Fight it!” Xena screamed and then rolled quickly to one side and then the other as Alti continued to throw energy bursts at her.

Arja wrapped her arms around the little bard and took to the air laughing with her prize as Xena screamed.

Somewhere in her mind, Gabrielle heard Xena cry out for her but it seemed so far away. Like something out of a dream, she thought. The feeling of flying was a sensation she barely remembered from being a Bacchae but it felt nice.

Then the bard frowned. Where was she? Where were her sais? Where was Xena?

Weren’t they fighting someone?

“No!” Xena screamed as she slashed at Alti above her, trying to get a shot in at the vampire carrying her mate away. “Gabrielle!”

Alti landed on a tree branch and laughed at the warrior as Xena was thrown into another tree from one of the shaman’s energy balls. When Xena’s eyes cleared, Arja and Gabrielle were nowhere in sight.

“No!” Xena glared at Alti. “Where is she, bitch?”

Alti laughed even harder. “Someone wanted to see her again, Xena.”

Xena sharp eyes took in the moving shadows around her and she pulled out her sword as well as the chakram as vampires began emerging into the light. The spirits of those vampires they had been forced to kill before Gabrielle had made peace between the Amazons and vampires. Included among them was Matitta. The warrior was quickly surrounded.

“Yakut!” Xena screamed and felt her spirit being yanked back abruptly.

Xena moaned and then sat up abruptly. “Gabrielle!”

Hands gently held her back from leaping to her feet. The warrior growled and then relaxed a little as Yakut knelt in front of her. “Gabrielle!”

“No, we can’t get her back,” Yakut answered and helped Xena stand up, supporting the warrior until she got her feet steady under her “We’ve lost contact with her soul.”

The shaman pointed across the circle and Xena stood stunned.

Sasha was shaking her head and the child looked dazed. Xena quickly crossed the short space to her daughter and pulled the girl close, examining her swiftly. To her relief,

Sasha’s eyes focused and she nodded at her mom.

Xena turned to take in the sight of Gabrielle again as she and Sasha stood up.

The bard was still on the furs she had fallen back on when she entered the trance state necessary to enter the Spirit Realm. It also appeared that the bard was still unconscious, her body occasionally twitching with whatever was happening to her in the Spirit.

What had changed was that Gabrielle was surrounded by a massive growth of vines, Xena’s eyes spotted several kinds of ivy and grapes. Her eyes widened as she realized that they were moving, as if conscious of their surroundings. She turned to Yakut as the warrior wiped blood away from a cut lip, courtesy of Alti.

“They have fangs and thorns and killed one Amazon already,” Yakut said bitterly.

Queen Otere ran up, joining the two as the rest of the Amazons kept up the chanting and drumming.

“The vines grabbed three of the Amazons and began biting them and draining their blood. We couldn’t get one of my warriors away in time,” Otere said bitterly and Xena could see numerous bite marks on the Amazon Queen.

“We moved you when they started reaching for you, they won’t let anyone get close to Gabrielle,” Yakut explained, holding a wounded hand.

“Weapons? Fire?” the warrior asked.

“The vines work in harmony against anyone approaching them with a torch. We tried throwing torches at the vines and they threw them back, hitting two of the huts,” Otere growled.

“And we can’t near enough with weapons to do enough damage,” Yakut continued.

The warrior growled, “What if we rush them?”

“We can try,” Otere smiled grimly. “Amazons! Form a spearhead! Two Amazons in the center, if we break through it’ll be your job to grab Gabrielle.”

“Yes, Queen Otere,” two Amazons stepped forward, volunteering.

The Amazons formed up with Xena at the front, Otere didn’t even question Xena’s position in the lead to fight for her mate.

Xena moved Sasha to one side and drew her chakram. The child didn’t try to stop her mom but the worry showed clearly on the child’s face.

Gabrielle flinched away from the stinging slap and opened her eyes reluctantly. The bard felt a layer of ice surround her heart, gripping her with fear.

“Oh sweet Artemis,” she whispered.

Bacchus, Lord of the Bacchae, Wine and Vine, grinned and stroked the young woman’s cheek with one of his long claw-like nails.

“Sorry, bard,” he laughed in his deep bass voice, “she’s nowhere near here.”

Gabrielle realized she was chained to a cave wall by her wrists and a quick glance around told her that she was surrounded by Bacchae, servants of Bacchus and others in the middle of a bacchanalia orgy and celebration.

“What do you want with me, Bacchus?” Gabrielle asked, her voice angered. “I’m already cursed with your blood.”

“But you aren’t mine, little one,” he grinned and Gabrielle felt sick hearing the dark god call her by the term of endearment that Xena usually used. “I want you totally, heart and soul. I already have your body with those cravings.””

“Never!” she snapped.

“But you will, daughter, you will,” he promised.

“I’m not your daughter! I am the daughter of Apollo and Hecuba,” Gabrielle growled.

“Niece then, or something. You will give over willingly, little bard,” Bacchus laughed.

“No!” Gabrielle yelled, then whispered, “Xena.”

“She can’t get to you, in this realm or the physical one either,” Bacchus laughed heartily.

“No!” the bard screamed and struggled as two Bacchae approached her. Gabrielle struggled as one attempted to hold her head and the other held a goblet to her lips. The bard at first thought it was the blood of Bacchus but even when she realized it was wine she still struggled.

The fact that it was wine gave her hope, Bacchus wanted or needed her to submit willingly and not by force. That might give her time for Xena to get through to her, she thought as she struggled with the Bacchae, resisting drinking the alcohol until she had spit half of it out and choked on several mouthfuls. They finally managed to get most of the alcohol down her throat. Then another goblet appeared and the bard could taste herbs in the drink. Drugs.

Gabrielle attempted to spit the liquid out and felt her head snap back from a blow to her jaw and then rocked to the side by a blow to her eye. She drank the entire contents of the second goblet.

Xena screamed in anger as another vine attempted to entangle around her throat and another did manage to wrap around her sword wrist. She growled and sliced through the vine at her throat but the vine around her wrist managed to sink its fangs into her wrist before she cut it in half.

Other vines were already wrapping around her legs and digging in, no matter how fast she cut through them.

The warrior felt strong hands grabbing her under her arms and pulling her back as others cut the vines holding onto her. Once clear of the moving hoard of greenery, the same hands quickly grabbed the vines and pulled the dying plant life from the warrior’s body.

Xena sat up and looked around at the Amazons surrounding the area and found them all in similar shape: bleeding, bruised and beaten back from the wall of vines.

This was their third attempt to reach the bard and their third failure.

The first time they had been beaten by a solid wall of vines, interlacing together tighter than a fishing net and striking out against when the Amazons and Greek would try to slash at them.

The second time Xena had tried flipping over the vines to get to Gabrielle but the vines had formed a dome over the bard, grabbed Xena by all four limbs and threw her back. The warrior landed heavily on the ground. She growled deeply and screamed in frustration as she sat up and looked at the vines.

Xena would almost be willing to swear later that the vines were laughing at her.

“Damnit!” she yelled and the Amazons had formed up to try again.

Now most of them were bleeding from more than a dozen wounds and some had broken limbs and they were no closer to getting to the unconscious Southern Amazon Queen than when they first approached the vines.

“Xena, I’ve never seen this before,” Yakut complained, “where did Alti learn this level of plant control?”

“She didn’t,” the warrior’s voice was bitter.

“Then who is working with her?” Otere questioned as two of the Amazons bandaged a deep bite wound on her right thigh.

“Bacchus, he’s the god of wine, Bacchae and vines,” she snarled.

“Bacchus, Gabrielle has talked of him,” Yakut said thoughtfully, “He’s the one that cursed her with the Bacchae blood.”

“Yes, now he wants her totally, forcing her to turn me into a Bacchae or me to kill her,” Xena nodded.

“Or Alti to kill you and he still has Gabrielle,” Otere said grimly.

“Yes, all of the above would suit either of those two,” Xena growled.

“So, now what?” Yakut demanded to no one in particular.

“Well, we can’t get to her from this end, we’ll have to do it on the Spirit level,” Xena said simply.

Sasha nodded slightly, watching the Amazons and her mom.

“New game plan time,” Otere agreed.

“Consort!” one of the Amazons standing near the vines called and Xena, Otere and Yakut stumbled over to see what she was pointing at.

The tribe could see the bard’s body twitching as if she were in a bad dream. They could see blood trickling slightly from the bard’s mouth from a cut lip and also bruising around her right eye. It was obvious that whatever was happening to her in the Spirit Realm, she was fighting against it.

Then Xena thought her heart would stop as fang marks appeared on the bard’s neck and blood flowed slowly from the wounds as the bard’s body jerked.

“No!” Xena screamed and started to launch herself against the vines again.

After a few moments she realized she was being held back by Yakut and several Amazons. She nodded slightly and they eased their hold on the warrior. Xena turned away from seeing Gabrielle being abused as she stood by helpless.

“New battle plan time,” she growled.

Gabrielle fought back against the lips pressing against hers and the insistent hands roaming over her body but found she had no way to resist with her body chained against a rock wall. The bard was already fuzzy from the alcohol and the touch of the Bacchae was trying to get past her defenses.

“Xena!” she screamed, as she broke loose from the lips only to have them trail down to her throat and begin nibbling.

As the Bacchae fangs sank into her neck, Gabrielle felt her body responding to the eroticism of the Bacchae magic against her will. Multiple hands began ripping away her clothing as the fangs moved down from her neck and bit the bard on the breast.

Gabrielle screamed, both out of terror and arousal. She could faintly hear Bacchus laughing.

“Xena!” Gabrielle screamed again and lashed out, knocking the Bacchae away from her chest and kicked two others away from her. The bard knew that her own fangs were flashing and her eyes were now yellow and glaring with anger as she snarled at Bacchus.

The goat-horned god merely threw back his head and laughed at Gabrielle’s struggles. His dark, burgundy skin glistened in the torchlight and his mouth full of fangs glinted back at the bard. Bacchus pointed his finger at the bard.

“You are strong, stronger than I expected,” he admitted. “Especially with my blood running through you. You’re already a blood drinker and you can still resist me, interesting. Won’t last long though.”

“Go to Tartarus!” she snapped, clenching her fangs together.

“Been there, done that,” he grinned back. “Let’s see if we can weaken that resistance of yours a bit.”

Gabrielle screamed as a flash of light enveloped her and lightning seemed to radiate from her wrists. When she opened her eyes against the blinding pain she screamed again.

The bard was once again on a wooden cross with Roman spikes driven through her wrists.

“No!” The same type cross she had died on. Gabrielle screamed as darkness crowded her.

Xena was across the common before Yakut and Otere had even gotten to their feet, at the sound of alarm from one of the Amazons keeping a watch on Gabrielle.

Otere reached out an arm to steady her Greek friend as Xena stood stunned, watching her mate and the new development.

The bard’s breathing was labored and blood was flowing from under the bracers she wore on her wrists.

“Not again!” Xena whispered.

“What is it, Xena?” Yakut asked.

“Alti’s old trick, she or Bacchus is making Gabrielle relive the crucifixion,” the Greek warrior said softly.

“When she died,” Yakut finished the thought.

“Yes,” Xena spun on her heel and looked at the full moon. “Artemis! Apollo! Father! Anyone!” she screamed and couldn’t really believe that no one appeared in front of her.

After a moment Xena’s face hardened. “Alright, we can’t get help from them, we’ll have to do it ourselves.”

Xena turned to find Sasha standing and watching Gabrielle.

“Sasha?” the warrior questioned softly.

The child’s eyes were half closed and Xena recognized the trance look in Sasha’s eyes.

“She’s breaking down,” the child said softly. “The pain of the crucifixion is too much for her.”

“Come on,” Xena ordered the Amazons, “I don’t know how much longer Gabrielle can hold on.”

Xena wasn’t surprised to find Alti and Arja waiting for her when she crossed over into the Spirit Realm again. They both looked extremely pleased with themselves.

“Take me to Gabrielle!” Xena demanded, her chakram in hand.

“Not likely, Xena!” Alti laughed, her voice as harsh as Xena remembered in the Physical realm. “I do have a proposition for you, however.”

“Nothing you say could interest me!” the warrior snapped, releasing the chakram without warning.

Alti bent over backwards, avoiding the steel weapon but Arja didn’t move quite fast enough. The shaman looked over where the vampire had been standing on a tree branch and casually watched the dust falling through the air. The only thing left of the vampire after being decapitated by the chakram.

She looked down at Xena and shrugged.

“Leave your little bard to play in this realm, Bacchus can make things very enjoyable, you know,” Alti purred.

“What?” Xena demanded, suddenly confused. “What do you want?”

“Gabrielle’s body,” Alti grinned at the warrior’s shocked face. “Just think, Xena, we could rule the world together and you’d still get to f**k that gorgeous body. Bet I can think of some tricks your gentle little bard hasn’t.”

“By the gods, you are twisted, Alti!” Xena hissed, leaping up to join the shaman on the tree branch, chakram at the ready. “I’d never agree to that and neither would Gabrielle.”

“She’ll agree to anything soon, enough time spent in Bacchus’ den of pleasure and anyone would give up everything to stay there,” Alti taunted and deflected Xena’s sudden chakram slashes with her energy bolts.

“Never! Gabrielle is light itself, something that worries you, doesn’t it?” Xena countered and knew she had hit a point with the shaman when Alti’s eyes flashed for a moment. “Is that why you and Bacchus fight so hard to turn her to the darkness? To conquer that light?”

“She is a challenge,” Alti admitted. “She was so much easier last time. One thing remains the same, however.”

“What?” Xena demanded, flipping over backwards on the branch as Alti lashed out with a sudden energy burst.

“She’s your weakness,” Alti grinned but lost the smile when she was knocked from the branch after Xena leaped into the air and hit the shaman in the chest several times with her feet, sending the shaman flying.

“Ares thought so too, look where he is,” Xena muttered as she rushed after Alti, only to be backhanded by the shaman into a tree. The warrior slid down the trunk to the ground shaking her head.

Xena dived to one side as another energy bold hit the tree where she had been sitting. The warrior quickly got to her feet and began running.

“Xena?” Alti called, the confusion apparent in her voice. “Where are you going? You know I’ll find you.”

The warrior flipped over some rocks and landed softly and blocked a sword aimed at her head with the chakram.

Gabrielle had no idea how long she was on the cross but she was having trouble breathing and the pain was overwhelming the bard’s attempts at concentration. She knew from dealing with Alti before that the Spirit Realm was mostly mental, that’s how Bacchus could make her appear on a cross without actually nailing her to the wood. It was still real because of Bacchus’ mind controlling it and Gabrielle’s mind accepting it.

The bard growled her frustration, she knew if she could just concentrate enough she could get off of that cross and maybe even out of the Spirit Realm. The problem was she couldn’t get three thoughts together past the pain, added in with the chanting and dancing of the bacchanalia.

“Xena,” she whispered.

It took a moment to realize that she was no longer on the cross and no longer had seven inch spikes driven through her wrists. They were still bleeding and hurt badly but she was off the cross and laying on furs and pillows.

Someone was bandaging Gabrielle’s wrists and someone else was placing a cool, wet cloth across her forehead and eyes. The bard was too grateful that the pain was easing up to resist and laid back on the soft cloth of the pillows and hides of the sleeping furs. She gratefully drank the wine offered by strong, masculine hands and accepted the gentle stroking from feminine hands through her hair.

“Xena, there are spirit vampires all over the place. How do we fight them?” Otere asked, drawing her sword back, blushing from the fact she had instinctively slashed out at a figure leaping out of the dark and it had been Xena.

“Same as in the physical, decapitate them or ram a spear through their chest and break their spines,” Xena growled.

“Xena! I can tell you have playmates with you,” they heard Alti’s coarse voice calling from the trees. “Come out and play some more. There was a time when we shared playmates.”

“Damn her!” Xena muttered.

“Is that little Otere with you?” Both Xena and Otere’s breath caught in their throats. “Do you want to share her now that she’s an adult?”

The warrior watched the Amazon Queen begin blushing a bright red and drop her eyes as the other Amazons looked away. Suddenly things became even clearer to the warrior as to why Alti had wanted Otere dead those many years before. Otere was destined to become powerful as the Amazon Queen, as Alti had said. Otere was also one of Alti’s victims and the shaman didn’t like to leave any of them alive.

Otere refused to meet Xena’s eyes, a response not uncommon from survivors of child abuse.

“Damn that bitch!” Xena cursed and walked out from behind the rock cropping to face Alti in the moonlight. “I never cared for children in that way, you sick bitch.”

“No, you never agreed with the spilling of their blood either,” Alti agreed. “That was what caused your downfall, wasn’t it? Couldn’t kill a child so your men turned against you.”

“Yes,” Xena agreed. “Just like I couldn’t kill Otere when you wanted me too.”

“Well, what happens now, Xena? How long can you stay in this realm before your physical body begins dying? What about those with you? How long can they last here?”

“Long enough to stop you!” Xena suddenly screamed a war cry and Amazons popped up from behind rocks and in trees all around the shaman. They began firing arrows and spears at Alti and the vampires stalking towards Xena.

Fire arrows sent vampires screaming into the darkness while other arrows pierced heads and hearts, turning the vampires into dust.

Alti deflected all the arrows and spears launched at her, sending several of them back the way they had came, to impale their owners with their own weapons. Several Amazons dropped, either dead or dying.

Xena leaped up onto the same branch with Alti and again they began exchanging blows, energy bolts and chakram slashes.

The Greek warrior had the feeling that they were getting nowhere. The Amazons were holding the vampires back and she was about evenly matched with Alti and Gabrielle was still somewhere in the hands of Bacchus.

The bard bit her lips to keep from crying out again as the lash landed on her back. Gabrielle was still reeling from the shock of everything. One minute she had been dying on a cross again and then in comforting hands. Hands and lips that were soft and gentle and soothing, bandaging her wounds, giving her drink and holding her as the pain eased.

Then those same hands dragged the bard to her feet and over to a large X-shaped wooden structure and chained her hands and feet to the post.

Gabrielle had screamed at the first shock of feeling the whip against her skin and then bit her lip against the pain. She had felt that pain before when forced into slavery; she still had light scars from those lessons.

It was getting harder and harder not to scream as the torture continued and the bard could feel the blood trickling down her back from open wounds.

Gabrielle clung to the chains holding her wrist and felt the screams ripped from her throat, finally unable to fight it. Her fangs extending again at the smell of her own blood from her back and from thrashing against the chains on her wrists; wrists that were already seeping blood through their bandages from the crucifixion.

Yakut looked around, noting the progress they were making against the vampires and Xena still holding Alti at bay. She watched the two parrying sword strikes and energy bolts and shook her head, the little shaman knew within moments that she never wanted to face Alti on any level.

The Amazon shaman sat down behind the rocks and let herself drift away.

“She’s back!” Yakut heard someone saying and then a mug of water was pressed against her lips as hands helped her sit up. She drank gratefully as she opened her eyes and took in the concerned faces of the Amazons around her.

She quickly looked at the sleeping bodies of the Amazons still in a trance, their souls fighting the spirit vampires in the Spirit realm. Several of them had blankets covering their bodies and the shaman resisted the urge to grieve. That would come later.

Yakut smiled at Sasha, the little girl held Xena’s hand. The young girl’s eyes were half closed but she smiled back at Yakut.

“Your Mom is still holding Alti off,” Yakut told the youngster.

“Yes, but Gabby mom is in trouble,” Sasha responded, a tear escaping down her cheek.

“What can you see?” Yakut’s voice became intense. Not even she could see what was happening to Gabrielle in the Spirit Realm.

“She’s being beaten and then comforted, not given a chance to think or meditate. Bacchus wants her will broken so she will give into him,” Sasha responded, her voice in a monotone, as she seemed to be focused elsewhere. “She’s being whipped now.”

“Can she hold out until we reach her?” Yakut questioned.

“No, I don’t think so,” Sasha said simply. “They’re using drugged wine too.”

“Damn!” Yakut cursed and then crossed her legs again. “I’m going back,” she informed the Amazons staying behind.

Gabrielle cried out as fangs sank into her neck again and as hands and lips roamed over the rest of her body.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, the bard shivered at the sound of Bacchus laughing.

Gabrielle tried to get up and someone shoved another goblet of wine at the bard and others forced her to drink. The bard gave up trying to think coherently as sensations overwhelmed her body.

One minute was pleasure and the next was incredible pain. She began to hope that the pleasure would last longer than the next round of pain.

“Come to me, little bard,” Bacchus’ voice whispered in her ear.

Xena looked down at the sword wound in her side and grimaced.

She and Alti were breathing heavy and sizing each other up again. The warrior glanced down and saw that the spirit vampires had all disappeared, either they had fled the battle or they were dead and now dust. Xena grinned at the dark shaman.

“Lost your soldiers, Alti?”

The northern shaman glanced around with a snarl.

“Don’t worry, Xena,” she snapped. “You’ll be more than an adequate replacement for all of them.”

“I gotta hand it to you, Alti,” Xena grinned a sarcastic grin at her former mentor, “You don’t give up, do you?”

“Never! You’ll find that out, even if it takes centuries!” Alti promised.

“Not a chance, bitch!” Xena countered with words and then a forward series of flips that caught the shaman off guard and sent her flying through the trees once again. She barely caught a tree limb to stop her momentum in time to stop from being impaled on a ragged tree branch. Both shaman and warrior looked down at the sword Alti had dropped in her desperation to grab the branch.

Alti snarled at the warrior.

“Yakut, quick!” Xena called down to the Amazon shaman, “get the others out of here!”

The Amazon nodded and turned to gather the others as Xena turned back to Alti. Xena moaned as she hit the ground hard, taking another energy bolt in the chest. Before she could recover Alti was on her with her hands wrapped around the warrior’s throat.

Xena growled and smacked the shaman in the back of the head with her foot, sending Alti tumbling over Xena’s head. Both quickly regained their feet and Xena flipped over to where her sword had landed and saw Alti grabbing up her blade at the same time.

Again they squared off.

“Want to know about your blood mate, Xena?” Alti taunted and the warrior’s eyes narrowed. “Do you think she’s suffering for you?”

Once again images flooded Xena’s mind.

The sight of naked Bacchae and humans in various positions didn’t surprise the warrior; she knew that Alti and Bacchus had set up a bacchanalia in the Spirit Realm for some reason. What did surprise her was the site of a naked Gabrielle in the center of the mass of bodies.

Xena moaned in physical and emotional pain as the bard’s head snapped back in obvious passion as shadowy figures worshipped the bard’s body. The warrior knew that look well, having it seen it an untold number of times on her mate, always at her hands or lips though, never during sex with someone else.

Gabrielle’s hands clenched at the fur hide beneath her as her body began to arch.

Xena sank to her knees as the vision cleared. The roaring in her ears was replaced with Alti’s laughter.

“What’s wrong, Xena?” Alti taunted. “Didn’t think she could find pleasure from anyone but you?”

“That’s Bacchus’ doing!” Xena muttered, getting back to her feet. The warrior’s blue eyes were flashing with fury.

“Some of it,” Alti admitted, still grinning. “But he can only manipulate so much, he can’t cause that kind of enjoyment against someone’s will.”

“I don’t call torture, giving her drugged wine and sexual abuse free will,” Xena growled.

“No? Well I call it a good time!”

Xena screamed in rage and dived at Alti again as the shaman laughed.

Gabrielle tried to catch her breath. It was either blinding pain or intense pleasure and sometimes the bard wasn’t sure which she was feeling at any given moment. Beaten, forced to drink drugged alcohol, all of that was adding up to an unclear mind.

Add the torture of the crucifixion, a flogging until her back was almost ribbons, and more beatings, and Gabrielle was weakened to the point of being unable to resist anything physically.

Then came the sexual arousal in between each torture.

Somehow she kept resisting the blood offered her but it was getting harder. Gabrielle cried out again and she wasn’t sure if it was from pleasure or pain anymore.

Xena shook her head as she landed on the ground next to Yakut and Otere. A quick glance around told the warrior that the other Amazons were gone, crossing back over into their physical bodies before the pinch could kill them in the physical realm.

“Time to up the bets,” Xena growled, deflecting another energy bolt from hitting Yakut with the chakram. “Otere, you help Yakut get things ready and I’ll take on Alti.”

“I’m with you, Xena,” Otere said firmly.

“Xena, this is very risky,” Yakut warned.

“Do we have a choice? Much longer with Bacchus and Gabrielle will be lost. She wasn’t able to resist the bite the first time, she won’t be able to this time with his blood already flowing in her veins.”

“But to use this…..” Yakut tried to protest and Xena merely shook her head.

“We’ll figure out the price later. Just do it!” the warrior snapped and the Amazon shaman nodded and moved away with Otere.

Xena growled and faced the dark shaman again.

“And what are your playmates up to, Xena?” Alti purred, flipping off the tree branch she had been standing on, to land several yards away from the warrior.

“Working up a surprise for you, actually,” Xena admitted with a flash in her eyes and a grin for Alti.

Alti’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “And what could you three possibly work up against me?”

“How about something I’ve learned,” Xena taunted. “Want to see?”

“What?” the shaman demanded.

Xena’s eyes half closed as she concentrated. She felt energy humming through her like battle fury. With a shout she released it as a lightning ball towards Alti.

The shaman, accustomed to dealing with magic, sidestepped the bolt but looked back at Xena, stunned.

“My father likes to throw lightning bolts around when he’s pissed off, guess I take after him,” Xena grinned, launching another bolt.

Alti growled and shot her own energy bolt at the warrior only to have it met in mid-air by one of Xena’s own bolts.

Otere, peering over the rocks, grinned.

“Hurry, Yakut,” she urged. “It’s working! She’s tapped some of her inherited powers!”

“You can’t rush these things, damnit!” Yakut muttered, sprinkling incense over the fire she and Otere had made earlier. She began chanting and invoking.

Gabrielle felt everything trembling as hands dragged her to her feet again. More alcohol was poured down her throat and then someone was slapping the wounds on her back while others held her.

The bard screamed in agony.

Alti surprised the warrior by flipping up into the trees and disappearing. Xena growled and followed the shaman into the tree branches, moving cautiously, her senses on heightened alert.

Xena yelled in anger as something slammed into her from behind, the warrior hearing something cracking across her back. The warrior just avoided one of the deadly tree branches but landed hard against a parallel branch with her ribs. Xena barely held onto the branch to avoid falling.

Alti’s laughter filled her ears as the shaman landed on the branch, her feet stepping on the warrior’s hands.

Xena growled, looking up at the shaman as Alti grinned down at her. The warrior coughed and felt the blood welling up in her mouth and past her lips as she struggled to maintain her hold on the tree.

Even with the laws of physics being suspended in the Spirit Realm, Xena wasn’t sure she could avoid falling heavily to the ground with the injuries she had taken and didn’t want to take that chance.

Alti bent down on the branch.

“Give it up, Xena,” she taunted. “Just say the word and I’ll heal you, we leave here and conquer the world. You become the Destroyer of Nations and I will give you that power, Gabrielle’s body will be perfect!”

“Drop dead,” Xena muttered.

“I’m already dead, that’s the point!” Alti snapped. “Gabrielle’s body is already immortal and has powers, joined together with my spirit and even your gods will tremble before us!”

“Ares promised me that for years, I turned from you once what makes you think I’d ever go back to what I was?” Xena demanded.

“Xena, your child is one of a god and demi-god, your mate has powers she hasn’t explored yet and you have untapped abilities as well,” Alti purred. “I can show you how to use all of it!”

“I’m not the power hungry warlord I was, Alti,” Xena growled. “Get over it.”

“Have it your way, Xena,” Alti shrugged and stood up and applied more pressure on the warrior’s fingers, causing Xena to grit her teeth in pain. “You die here and I get to torment you forever!”

Xena glanced down at the ground and growled at Alti again. With a war cry the warrior swung her body out and then back and forth, snapping her body up behind the startled Alti. As she spun around Xena’s feet landed square in the shaman’s back, sending her falling towards the ground.

Xena continued the flip over the tree branch and landed next to the shaman and smacked Alti at the back of the neck and rolled away from the shaman.

Alti started to get to her feet and then looked around in confusion as vines began growing at an extremely rapid pace and wrapped around the shaman. Alti growled and then screamed as her legs were encased in the greenery.

“What is this?” she screamed. “Bacchus! What are you doing?”

Xena, holding her ribs and the gash in her side, grinned at her enemy.

“It’s not Bacchus,” she snapped. “The Amazons have some powerful friends, as well.”

Alti’s eyes widened as the trees nearby seemed to come to life and figures extracted themselves from the trunks. The man had a dark beard, his reddish hair under a hat of fir tree branches and a long cloak and loincloth made of moss. His skin was green now that he had stepped away from the tree. The other figures were a dark haired woman and a teenage boy and girl, both with dark hair.

Together they surrounded the shaman and raised their hands over her and Alti screamed as the vines encircled her, wrapping her up tighter than a cocoon.

“Forest spirits! You weren’t to interfere in this realm,” Alti screamed.

“You brought in outside gods from foreign lands and they use our vines against our friends,” the forest male explained.

“The spread of your unnatural vampirism in the physical land was against the plan of the cosmos,” the woman continued.

“We seek to set right what has been made wrong,” the teenager girl spoke. “We restore balance to the forest.”

“Warrior!” the male spoke firmly, “Take her now, we have power only for a short time.”

Xena whistled and was relieved when Otere and Yakut appeared from behind the boulders. They quickly grabbed Alti at either end and carried her behind the rocks. Otere dashed back and helped the warrior stand, placing Xena’s arm over her shoulders.

Xena glanced back and watched the forest deities merging into the tree trunks and thus disappearing.

When she and Otere rounded the boulders the warrior wasn’t surprised to find Alti screaming endlessly.

Otere and Yakut had placed her in a cage made of human bones, the bones of Alti’s victims. While the Amazon warriors had fought the vampires, Otere and Yakut had made the cage and prepared the place for Alti.

The shaman screamed in rage and struggled against the vines still holding her.

“Finish it, Xena,” Yakut urged.

The warrior stumbled to her knees next to the shaman and pulled a dagger out of her boot.

“I swear, Xena,” Alti snapped, “if you do this I will haunt you for eternity! I will find a way!”

“Maybe,” Xena said wearily, “but for now, die!”

Alti screamed as the blade flashed in the unnatural moonlight of the Spirit realm.

Xena fell back coughing as Yakut and Otere moved in to work over the cage. The warrior watched as Otere poured pine resin over the bones and the body of the shaman and Yakut chanted.

The warrior wiped at the blood flowing from her mouth as the forest spirits appeared once again and moved the Amazon shaman and Queen aside to stand over the cage. They wrapped their arms around each other and the Amazons and Greek turned away as a brilliant light surrounded the family of forest deities.

When they could look in that direction once again, they found the deities gone and the cage was now a solid piece of amber. The pine resin had been hardened magically to hold the dark shaman.

Everyone’s heads snapped around towards the forest as banshee-like shrieks filled the air.

“Yakut! Get Otere and get out!” Xena screamed, trying to sit up. “Bacchus knows his ally is dead and he’s attacking with the Bacchae.”

“We can fight them with you!” Otere protested, pulling out her sword as the Bacchae swarmed closer.

“No! They won’t kill me, Bacchus wants me alive but they’ll drain you both! Get out!” Xena snapped, getting to her knees and pulling her chakram into her hand.

“No!” Yakut protested.

“Just go and protect Sasha!” Xena ordered and sighed with relief as the two disappeared back into the physical realm.

The warrior replaced her chakram at her side and fell forward onto her hands. She could feel the blood flowing from the gash in her side and coughed up even more blood.

Xena felt darkness crowding her as clawed hands reached for her.

“Welcome, Xena!” a booming bass voice greeted her as the warrior raised her head. She was being held between two Bacchae and didn’t have the strength to pull herself to her feet.

The warrior looked just like she felt; like she had been through one hell of a battle and had barely gotten through it.

Bacchus, with his dark purple skin gleaming and shimmering cape flashing in the torchlight, landed in front of the warrior. His mouth full of sharp teeth grinning, the Lord of Wine, Vine and Bacchae, raised the warrior’s head up by her hair.

“You seem to have gotten the better of Alti,” he commented. “I didn’t think that was possible once I knew her strength and skills. Still, you’ve always amazed me.”

“Maybe I can surprise you again,” Xena muttered.

Bacchus laughed heartily at the wounded warrior. Then he looked thoughtful.

“You know, if you die in this realm, you’re stuck here. I can’t have that,” he mumbled and waved his hand over the warrior’s head and Xena was enveloped in a purple haze.

When she opened her eyes the warrior found she could stand on her feet, barely. She had been given a small dose of healing, she realized. That was something she could never get used to, she thought to herself, being healed by gods. Dying one minute only to be perfectly healthy the next. Well, not perfectly, she thought. Bacchus had given her a little more time but still left her injured and weak.

“Do you want me to thank you?” she demanded and again Bacchus laughed at her.

“No, that would be a little much for you,” Bacchus agreed.

Xena noticed that the Bacchae didn’t ease up on their grip on her wrists.

“Chain her!”

Xena started to struggle when Bacchus surprised her with his massive fist across her nose. By the time the warrior’s vision cleared, Xena found she was chained to the cave wall. She frowned at the drops of blood at her feet and the blood coating her wrists. Someone had been there before her and they hadn’t enjoyed the chains.

“Look over here, Xena,” Bacchus called and moved aside to show Gabrielle laying on pillows and furs.

Xena tried not to show any emotion as she took in the sight of her mate. It appeared that Gabrielle was unconscious or asleep and she was naked. The warrior felt her heart skip a beat at the sight of the bard’s bloody back and wounded wrists, the bandages filled with blood and the skin below the wrists was scrapped raw and open.

“Gabrielle!” the warrior shouted, almost screaming.

The bard opened her eyes slightly and Xena could see the lack of focus and redness that told the warrior Gabrielle was either drugged or drunk. The bard closed her eyes again without raising her head or focusing on Xena.

“Gabrielle!” Xena tried again and this time the bard didn’t even respond.

Bacchus laughed and sat down next to Xena’s mate. With surprising gentleness he stroked her short blonde hair and grinned at the warrior.

“Want me to describe what she’s been through and what she’s enjoyed?” Bacchus taunted.

“I swear I’ll cut you into little pieces!” Xena promised.

“Not likely, Xena,” the god of wine laughed and ran a claw along the bard’s back, instantly bringing a cry of pain out of Gabrielle.

Xena grimaced as her mate flinched in pain and grabbed the fur under her.

“Stop it!” Xena yelled but Bacchus just smiled and leaned over next to Gabrielle’s ear.

“Would you like me to stop, little bard?” he whispered.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as she watched Gabrielle biting her lip, attempting to keep from answering.

Xena screamed in rage and Gabrielle screamed in pain as Bacchus scratched another bloody trail down the bard’s back.

“It can stop,” Bacchus purred. “It can stop forever if you just so say. Nothing but pleasures the rest of your days.”

“Gabrielle, don’t do it!” Xena screamed but she wasn’t sure if her mate heard her as Bacchus ran all five fingernails on one hand down Gabrielle’s back.

Two men grabbed the bard’s arms to keep her in place as she screamed and thrashed in pain.

“Stop, please!” Gabrielle begged.

“You accept my world?” Bacchus whispered.

“Yes!” the bard whispered, tears streaming down her face, the exhaustion showing clearly in the hollow eyes. Her lips were already bloody from her fangs biting into them to keep from screaming or giving in.

“No, please! Apollo, Zeus, Artemis, anyone!” Xena whispered as Bacchus laughed in triumph.

The God of Wine turned, his yellow eyes glinting with amusement.

“Even your Northern gods won’t venture here, Xena,” he goaded.

The men released the bard and she dropped back onto the furs with a sigh of relief.

“Gabrielle!” Xena screamed and the bard looked up. The warrior had a moment of hope, as it seemed that Gabrielle actually comprehended that Xena was there with her.

Xena felt tears escaping her own eyes as tears flowed down Gabrielle’s face and the bard buried her head in the furs to avoid looking at her mate.

“Torture, alcohol and drugs don’t count as Free Will, damnit!” Xena protested.

“My world, I make the rules,” Bacchus sneered.

Xena felt her breath quicken as Bacchus pulled out a dagger and sliced open his wrist while watching the warrior. With a malicious smile, he lifted Gabrielle’s head up slightly and placed the bleeding wrist in front of her.

Xena increased her struggles against the chains, Gabrielle’s blood actually helping the warrior work her hands through the restraints but it was slow going and painful. Pain Xena was ignoring.

“No!” she screamed as Gabrielle reached out for the wrist.

Gabrielle heard Xena’s voice and looked up into her mate’s blue eyes and felt a moment of hope. Then she noticed the chained wrists and Xena’s desperate expression.

Flashes of images and memories of the last few hours spent in the hands of Bacchus flooded the bard’s mind and Gabrielle felt her head drop in defeat.

After all that had happened, remembering the different faces, hands, lips and bodies; Gabrielle knew she couldn’t face Xena again.

Then the pain, searing down her back, caused her to scream. Her back was already bloody from the whip and this was beyond agony. Hands grabbed her, holding her in place for more torture as she screamed again.

Then the promise of release, the promise of no more pain, ever.

The scent of blood reached her and Gabrielle hesitated a moment, the scent wasn’t right, something was wrong. The blood wasn’t Xena’s.

Then the pain flared again as something sharp trailed down her back. Gabrielle hissed in agony and exhaustion and grabbed for the wrist in front of her. With a quick motion of her head, her fangs sank into the flesh surrounding the wound and the bard began to drink deeply.

“No!” someone screamed nearby and it caused the bard to hesitate for a moment but she returned to the wrist with a growl, feeling the blood hitting her system, sending energy back through her body.

“Damn you, Bacchus!” Xena screamed and thrashed against her chains as she watched her mate drinking from the God of Wine and Bacchae. The warrior could feel her own life ebbing away from the wounds outside and inside her body.

Gabrielle pulled back from Bacchus’ wrist and Xena felt a chill run over her body as the bard looked around the cave.

Yellow eyes looked deeply into blue ones and Xena wasn’t sure there was anything left of her mate. She was almost positive of it when Gabrielle traced her tongue over her fangs, taking in Xena’s bloody wrists.

“Gabrielle,” Xena growled softly.

“Take them!” Bacchus shouted and Xena’s view of Gabrielle was suddenly blocked by Bacchae, maenads and humans crowding and grabbing her. The warrior tried to fight as someone unlocked her chains but a net thrown over the wounded Xena took most of her energy.

Xena screamed with rage as she was carried through the cave to a smaller and darker cavern room. The warrior growled when she was dropped onto fur bedding in the room.

As Xena untangled herself from the net her senses alerted her that she wasn’t alone in the room. The warrior dived away from the net as a figure landed on the tangled mess, fangs flashing.

Xena jumped to her feet and took in the sight of the very enraged and blood hungry Bacchae that was once her mate. Someone had thrown a skimpy black dress over the bard but nothing else.

“Gabrielle!” Xena growled as the Bacchae began moving towards her, slowly. Stalking the warrior.

“Come on, fight it! You’ve fought it before!” Xena encouraged.

The door to the room opened and both Bacchae and warrior turned at the noise. Xena wasn’t surprised to see Bacchus standing there, filling the small space. He grinned at her snarl.

“You have a choice, Xena,” he sneered. “Let Gabrielle turn you or kill her. Either way you will be lost. If you kill your mate you’ll never forgive yourself and won’t be the warrior you were. If you turn Bacchae in this realm then you’ll be Bacchae in the physical world and mine.”

“Never!” Xena snapped, her eyes darting back and forth, trying to keep an eye on both Bacchae and Bacchae lord.

“She’s already mine, Xena,” Bacchus taunted and threw something at the warrior’s feet.

Another chill passed over the warrior as she took in the dryad bone. Bacchus laughed and slammed the door shut.

Xena knew that Bacchus wouldn’t risk opening that door any time soon. He wouldn’t let Xena near him, even as a Bacchae again until he was sure she was under his control. The warrior wouldn’t get a second chance to ram that dryad bone into his chest if she turned Bacchae. He would wait until she had no will left.

Xena instinctively grabbed up the dryad bone as she heard Gabrielle growl near her.

Xena also knew she could never drive that dryad bone into Gabrielle except that she had once promised the bard never to let her become a full Bacchae.

Otere sat across from Sasha as they watched over Xena’s unconscious form. She carefully watched the semi-conscious child gently swaying to the chanting and drumming as her eyes focused on another realm.

Suddenly the child cried out and fell backwards.

Before Otere could move, Sasha was up on her knees and examining her mother’s throat.

They both thought their hearts would stop when they saw the fang marks on the warrior’s neck, blood slowly flowing from the wounds.

“Sasha?” Otere questioned, the panic evident on her face.

“It’s Gabrielle,” Sasha answered, tears beginning to flow down her face.

“Pull your mother back! We can still save her!” Otere demanded.

“It’s too late, Gabrielle is a full Bacchae and just bit my mom,” the child said sadly, falling back into a sitting position next to her mother.

“No,” Otere whispered as Xena’s body jerked.

Bacchus sent three Bacchae with torches through the door first. Xena had been right, the God of Wine and Blood wasn’t taking any chances on the warrior ambushing him again. He had experienced a dryad bone through the chest courtesy of Xena once before and it hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

The Bacchae weren’t anxious to put themselves in the path of the Warrior Princess either but obeyed their master and entered the room cautiously.

Seeing two figures on the sleeping furs inspired a little more courage in the creatures, especially when neither figure moved.

One of the Bacchae, braver than the other two, moved closer to the figures and leaned over the bard.

Both of the other Bacchae quickly retreated several feet when they heard their sister hiss in reaction to what she was seeing.

“What is it?” Bacchus demanded from the doorway.

“Dryad bone!” the creature lisped, “She has a dryad bone through her chest!”

“Damn!” Bacchus swore, looking down at the small blonde on the floor. “What about Xena?”

The Bacchae moved around the figures and knelt down next to the warrior. She raised her yellow eyes to her master’s a moment later.

“She breaths but barely, she’s lost a lot of blood,” she commented.

Bacchus, a little more secure of his safety now that he knew where that dryad bone was, moved into the room and looked down at the two women.

“Why didn’t Gabrielle explode or turn into dust?” one of the other Bacchae asked softly.

“Probably because she’s immortal,” Bacchus muttered. “Bring Xena into the main chamber. We’ll still turn her into one of us.”

The Bacchae scurried to grab the warrior’s arms and legs. Bacchus took in the flow of blood from Xena’s nose and mouth and the paleness of her skin. It wouldn’t be long, he thought.

“I’ll have one of you!” he growled, glancing back down at the bard. “I never thought Xena had the strength to kill you.”

“Mom is still alive but just barely,” Sasha commented.

Otere watched the child closely; it had taken Sasha more than half a candle-mark to calm down long enough to focus her back into a half trance. The Amazon Queen and those guarding the unconscious bodies could see the blood oozing from the warrior and the non-moving form of Gabrielle and everyone had worried expressions.

“Pull her back!” Otere snapped.

“She’ll die within moments if we do,” Sasha said simply, a tear streaking down her cheek.

“Something’s gone wrong!” Otere cried desperately. “She couldn’t have planned for this!”

“We wait,” Sasha said firmly, sounding much older than her 11 spring seasons.

Bacchus leaned back on his temporary throne, watching the lost spirits of the realm reveling in one of his famous bacchanalia orgies. Bodies were entwined everywhere and it seemed to the Lord of Excess that it was like looking onto a sea of flesh, moving in waves.

The god glanced over at the unconscious warrior, gauging her blood loss and remaining life. He didn’t want to turn Xena until the last moment; he wanted the warrior totally unaware and unconscious.

Bacchus was still angry about losing the bard, Gabrielle. He had gotten accustomed to tormenting her with the blood cravings whenever he was bored. He never planned on Xena actually killing her own mate.

It had delighted him to badger and tempt the bard into the darkness. Xena had been right about that when she confronted Alti with the observation, both the dark shaman and the god wanted Gabrielle to fall. Watching a child of Apollo give in to the darkness appealed to their perverse natures. That was the main reason Bacchus had agreed to Alti’s insane plan of attacking the couple in the Spirit Realm, not because he wanted Xena, Bacchus wanted Gabrielle more.

When the bard had turned Bacchae the first time, Bacchus hadn’t even bothered to find out her name. She had been someone to use to get to Xena, one of his most persistent enemies. Then he had discovered that she was the child of Apollo and that Xena’s feelings for her traveling mate extended beyond friendship.

That made Gabrielle highly attractive to the dark god. Now he had lost her.

Deep in his anger, Bacchus growled and several maenads and Bacchae near him scampered away in fright.

The god yelled out in surprise and covered his eyes as a bright light suddenly filled the cavern, sending the Bacchae screaming for the shadows. Unlike other vampires, the Bacchae could tolerate daylight but preferred the shadows of the deep Bacchae Forest or the caves during the day. This light was much too bright and reminded Bacchus of the noonday summer sun.

The light dimmed and slowly faded to a slightly glow.

Bacchus howled in rage as he took in the sight of Gabrielle sitting cross-legged in the middle of the cave floor, the light radiating around her.

Behind stood Yakut with her hands resting on the bard’s shoulders and lying in front of Gabrielle was an unconscious Xena.

“What?” Bacchus demanded with a roaring shout.

“Gabrielle was never stabbed with the dryad bone,” Yakut explained to the irate god. “The bone was cut in half and you merely thought she was stabbed because Xena was still alive and not Bacchae.”

“Gabrielle was a full Bacchae, she couldn’t resist!” Bacchus protested.

“You forgot their blood binding,” Yakut smiled a calm smile as she concentrated on her friend.

Bacchus growled, realizing that the shaman was acting as a link between the Greeks and the physical world and had established a link with the bard now that Gabrielle was in a meditative state.

“Xena’s blood reconnected them and brought Gabrielle back,” Yakut grinned. “Xena risked her life and soul on the chance.”

“No!” Bacchus screamed in rage.

Several Bacchae flew at the Amazons and warrior and screamed in pain as they hit the light surrounding the three women.

Gabrielle, without opening her eyes, extended her hands over Xena and Bacchus growled in frustration as a purple light enveloped the warrior.

After a moment the purple glow around Xena was gone and the bright light still remained. Yakut’s grin got even wider as Xena sat up, taking in her surroundings.

The warrior broke into a large smile of her own when she saw Gabrielle and Yakut.

“It’s time to end his presence in this realm, Xena,” Yakut said simply.

“You mean it’s time to kick some ass!” the warrior said enthusiastically and was pleased at the faint smile it brought to her concentrating mate.

“Yes, do your thing, warrior,” Yakut smiled. “Warriors,” the shaman shook her head.

Xena leaped to her feet and drew her chakram. With a familiar grin that usually sent chills up the spines of whoever she was facing, the warrior shouted one of her war cries and flipped into action.

Bacchus screamed and shouted at the others to grab all of them and kill them.

The warrior leaped over several Bacchae heads and rebounded off the cave wall to land behind the three chasing her. The Bacchae didn’t even have time to turn around before they exploded into dust; Xena’s chakram decapitating them.

Xena laughed a manic laugh as two more Bacchae went down to her chakram. Yakut shook her head as the warrior flipped over three men and kicked two of them in the back of their heads and severed the middle one’s spine at the neck with the chakram.

Yakut turned her attention to Gabrielle as the Amazon felt the energy surrounding them beginning to hum, causing the hair on the back of her neck to stand up. The shaman felt the energy suddenly wane and bent over to Gabrielle’s ear.

“Come on, Gabrielle, you can do it! There is nothing but the light!” Yakut urged and felt the energy increase in strength again.

Yakut cried out as the energy danced across her skin, it felt like she was being sun burned from the sun reflecting off new snow. Instinctively, the Amazon held out her hands and energy bolts shot out from her hands, bursting a Bacchae into flames.

Bacchus howled his rage and charged at the shaman and bard while drawing his sword.

Xena, hearing his shout, reversed the direction of her fighting and easily took out three more Bacchae on her way to stand between her mate, Yakut and the enraged Greek god.

The warrior grinned as her sword clashed with the sword of Bacchus. She liked seeing the rage in his face.

Yakut began aiming the energy balls flying from her hands and Bacchae, maenads and party spirits begin falling to the light of Apollo flowing from the bard.

The battle between Xena and Bacchus was fast and furious. The Greek god wasn’t as good as Ares but Xena had lost the ability to do serious harm to the gods, so they both of them discovered that they were fairly well matched and neither could get in a serious blow to the other.

After a few minutes of flying around the cavern, rebounding off cave walls, kicking each other in the chest and back, slashing repeatedly at each other, Bacchus and Xena paused.

Xena looked around and then grinned at the God of Wine.

The cave was littered with the spirit bodies of the humans and maenads, the servants of Bacchus. All the Bacchae had been destroyed, either by Xena’s chakram or Gabrielle’s energy of light.

“Looks like you’re on your own, Bacchus,” Xena sneered.

The God of Bacchae looked around and then growled at the warrior, the worry showing plainly on his face.

“Go home, Bacchus,” she urged, “or we’ll send you there painfully. How long did it take you to recover from that dryad bone last time we fought?”

Bacchus roared his anger and raised his sword to charge the warrior when Xena dropped to a crouch. The God of Wine looked over the warrior to see Gabrielle and Yakut looking at him with their hands extended.

“No! You’re mine!” he managed to scream just as four energy bolts of light hit him in the chest.

Xena flinched and narrowed her eyes as he exploded into pieces and the pieces into dust.

The warrior turned and sheathed her sword just in time to catch Gabrielle as she collapsed.

“Never,” Gabrielle whispered to Bacchus’ passing spirit and sank into darkness.

“Get us out of here, Yakut,” Xena said simply, holding the bard close.

“My pleasure,” the shaman grinned and Xena felt like she was falling through space.

Gabrielle coughed and felt hands and arms helping her sit up and someone pressing a mug of something to her lips.

Flashes of the bacchanalia invaded the bard’s mind and she began thrashing.

“Easy, little one,” a soothing voice cut through the haze between the nightmare and the waking. “It’s okay, you’re back. I’ve got you.”

“Xena?” Gabrielle felt herself asking softly, recognizing the strong arms holding her from behind. She managed to focus her eyes and saw Yakut holding a mug as the shaman knelt beside her and Xena. The bard nodded and accepted the water gratefully.

“We’re back?” she asked softly, trying to accept the sight of Sasha smiling at her and the Amazons surrounding them.

“Yes,” Xena’s voice answered near her ear.

Then the pain began to seep in as well and she shifted uncomfortably in her warriors’ arms. Gabrielle went pale when she raised her hands and found that someone had removed her bracers and she had fresh bandages on her wrists and half way up her arms. Blood was still trying to seep through the cloth.

“No!” she whispered, beginning to tremble with the overwhelming memories.

“It’s okay, you’re safe,” Xena said firmly.

“No, it was real. It wasn’t a nightmare!” Gabrielle whispered, closing her eyes as tears began flowing down her face.

“Xena,” Otere’s voice carried softly to the bard as she felt her mind trying to reject everything.

Gabrielle felt her body being lifted into strong and safe arms as the blackness of shock and denial hit.

Otere sat down next to Yakut at one of the tables in the food hall several candle-marks later. Both looked haggard but relaxed.

“How long since anyone had a break in this life?” Otere asked somewhat bitterly.

“I don’t remember anymore,” Yakut admitted.

“Do you know everything they’ve been through? Do the gods have it in for them in particular?” Otere demanded.

“Well, we know that Xena’s path of redemption is a difficult one,” Yakut commented, accepting a mug of hot tea from one of the kitchen workers. Otere also took one and drank deeply from the hot liquid.

“Yeah, but Gabrielle gets caught up in that.” Otere countered. “She’s nothing but light and love and she’s been injured by the gods so many times now that I’m losing count!”

“I know, how many times can one survive being crucified?” Yakut agreed.

“Now she’s in emotional turmoil and won’t even let Xena or Sasha near her,” Otere complained. “Haven’t we been through this before?”

“I know, I know,” Yakut said wearily. “When she killed Queen Arja in the Spirit realm and went into catatonic shock. This time is different though.”

“What happened with Bacchus? What did he do to her?” Otere asked.

“Otere, I don’t know if I can talk about it,” Yakut frowned at her Queen.

“She’s my friend, my sister Queen and both of them are hurting,” Otere argued.

“Yes,” Yakut nodded and glanced around to see how close the nearest Amazon was. The last thing she wanted was rampant rumors and half-truths about the bard and warrior. She and others were already having enough trouble accepting Gabrielle being half Bacchae after their recent dealings with the vampiir, the vampires of the North.

“Bacchus beat her, forced alcohol down her throat, drugged her, and then had his Bacchae seduce her,” Yakut said simply, clenching her mug in anger. She had gotten part of the story from Sasha and pieced the rest together with Xena when they had tended the bard’s wounded body. She could still see the massive wounds the whip and the claws of Bacchus had caused down and across Gabrielle’s back. Yakut had also flinched when they had tended the bard’s wounded wrists, once again open all the way through from seven inch Roman spikes. On top of that had been various cuts, bruises, scratches, and Bacchae bites.

The bard had wept quietly as they tended her body, refusing to look Xena or Yakut in the eye and wouldn’t answer any questions. Lying on her stomach, Gabrielle had buried her head in under a sleeping fur.

Yakut had thought her heart would break when she and Xena discovered the blood, bruising and bite marks on the inside of Gabrielle’s legs. Yakut had glanced quickly at the warrior and wasn’t surprised to see the look of cold rage spreading across the warrior’s face.

Yakut felt her earlier irrational anger at Gabrielle’s vampire blood fading away after seeing the torture the bard had been through. Tortured at the hands of vampires, like Yakut.

“Seduce? Like the vampires did Xena?” Otere frowned, bringing Yakut back to the conversation.

“No, Bacchus wanted Gabrielle to give over willingly so he set about breaking her will,” Yakut explained. “First pain and then pleasure, then more pain and the promise of more pleasure. She was drunk and drugged but aware.”

“Oh, gods,” Otere whispered. “A flogging, beating, crucifixion, being drugged and drunk, how in the name of the Sun Goddess, did she resist for so long?”

“Her love for Xena and her stubbornness, I think,” Yakut managed a slight smile.

“What happens now?”

“I don’t know, she’s feeling guilty because she enjoyed the pleasures and finally gave into Bacchus to end the pain,” Yakut growled at the thought of the Greek god. “She feels she betrayed Xena.”

“Does Xena feel that way?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so,” Yakut answered thoughtfully. “It’s not like Gabrielle was in her right mind during any of it.”

“Isn’t that how the couple got Sasha?” Otere smiled to herself. “Gabrielle says Xena wasn’t in her right mind when that happened with one of the Greek gods. Maybe Xena will remember that and forgive Gabrielle.”

“I hope so, for everyone’s sake.”

Xena carefully applied healing salve to Gabrielle’s back wounds, grateful that the bard was letting the warrior near her after four days.

The bard had been an emotional and physical wreck for the entire time.

“We need to talk about it, little one,” Xena said softly.

“I can’t,” Gabrielle whispered, keeping her eyes closed.

“We’ve been through a lot, Gabrielle,” Xena continued. “You’ve forgiven me for the worst crimes anyone can commit, even sleeping with Ares.”

Xena frowned when Gabrielle failed to show any emotion at that one.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Xena tried again.

“You never betrayed a mate,” the bard said softly, the bitterness thick in her voice.

“Yes, I did. With Ares, remember?”

“You didn’t even remember me or that you had changed. We’ve been through that,” Gabrielle muttered.

“And we’ll go through this with you” Xena countered and shoved the bard back down on the furs when the blonde started to rise up in protest. “Stay there, I’m not done with your back.”

The warrior could see her mate’s jaw clench and was pleased, any emotion could be an improvement, she thought, even anger.

“Gabrielle, you know I was an abuser, I hurt men and women physically, emotionally and sexually,” Xena felt her own jaw tightening. This wasn’t something they talked about and it shamed Xena to even let the thoughts run through her mind, let alone talk about it out loud. Alti had forced the warrior to reveal the most horrible things about her past to Gabrielle, trying to crush Xena and her relationship with the bard. Gabrielle had surprised Xena by forgiving her of the Warlord’s rapes, even after the bard had suffered through numerous beatings and assaults at the hands of the Romans herself. Xena had never expected that level of forgiveness from anyone but especially from Gabrielle. On one side of the coin, Xena knew the bard loved her beyond anything and would forgive her anything. On the other side of the coin, Gabrielle was a survivor of rape and beatings, how could the bard forgive Xena for having done that to others when Gabrielle knew what it was like?

“One of the most horrible things I did to the women was to make them enjoy it at times,” Xena admitted in a soft voice, silently cursing her shaking hands.

“What do you mean?”

“The body responds to stimulation, even when the mind doesn’t,” Xena was grateful the bard was asking questions and talking too but she wasn’t amused with the conversation. The warrior gritted her teeth to continue. “I could make a woman enjoy being assaulted at my hands.”

“Xena, that wasn’t you, you’ve changed,” Gabrielle protested at the self-hatred in the warrior’s voice and tried to rise up to her hands but was pushed down again by her mate.

“Quiet, I’m comforting you this time,” the warrior ordered and grinned when Gabrielle actually laughed. It was a good sound to Xena. Then the bard’s face grew serious again.

“I wasn’t raped, Xena,” she protested. “I enjoyed most of it and didn’t fight it.”

“You were raped, Gabrielle,” Xena countered. “After being beaten, drugged, gotten drunk and then tortured, the body and mind welcomed the pleasant sensations happening to it. It was much worse than some idiot getting a girl drunk and throwing her down on a pile of hay.”

Xena was pleased to see the bard frowning in thought.

“I’ll be back in a bit, I’m going to check on Sasha,” the warrior said simply, pulling the soft cloth over the bard’s back. Xena was going to give her mate some time to think about what they had talked about.

Gabrielle heard Xena leave but she was still in deep thought over what Xena had said. The warrior had been right; she had forgiven Xena for being a Warlord, a killer, and a rapist. Why couldn’t she expect Xena to forgive her for the bacchanalia?

That wasn’t it, the bard cursed herself, it was that she couldn’t forgive herself. It just kept getting worse, first with Nikki and now this!

Images and sensations again flooded her mind and Gabrielle quickly pulled herself to the edge of the sleeping furs and grabbed for a pot as her body physically rejected the memories.

It was becoming a common occurrence for the bard; she was finding that keeping anything down on her stomach was becoming a nightmare as her body responded to her guilt and the pain of her wounds.

Tears of pain, anger, and self-hatred streaked her face as her body finally settled past the dry heaves and let Gabrielle move back onto the sleeping furs to weep once again.

Outside the hut Xena frowned at the sound of her mate’s suffering, her heart breaking at the sound of it. She resisted going back in to comfort Gabrielle though; she’d let the bard have a little more time.

The warrior smiled slightly when she spotted Yakut and Otere at one of the tables in the food hall and quickly joined them. Her smile widened as Sasha spotted her and ran into her mother’s arms. Xena moved over and let Sasha sit next to her.

“How is Gabrielle?” Otere questioned immediately.

“Still suffering, both with the physical and the mental,” Xena responded.

She shook her head as one of the kitchen workers placed a plate of hot food in front of her but Yakut shoved it back towards the warrior.

“You haven’t eaten much in days, you need your strength,” Yakut insisted and the warrior finally nodded wearily.

“Why are her wounds so bad?” Otere continued with the questions. “Wouldn’t they have healed faster than this?”

“I would have thought so,” Xena agreed. “Maybe it’s because she used that healing energy to save me. Sasha says I was moments away from dying.”

“What do we do to help?” Yakut asked.

“I don’t know, comfort her as best we can,” the warrior shrugged helplessly.

That night Xena was awakened by the whimpers and thrashing of her mate, just like the previous three nights. She moved quickly past the fire to kneel down next to the low single bed across from the one Xena usually shared with Gabrielle. Ever since returning from the Spirit Realm, the bard had been sleeping in a single bed.

Xena gently shook the bard and began to stroke the hair off Gabrielle’s forehead.

“Xena?” the bard whispered, partly opening her eyes.

“I’m here, little one,” the warrior answered. “It’s okay, you’re safe.”

“Take me home, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly, “please.”

“I don’t know if we can make it through the snow,” Xena frowned.

“Please, I want to go home,” the bard reached out and touched Xena’s hand, causing the warrior to smile. It was the first sign of affection and contact Gabrielle had initiated since the battle with Alti and Bacchus.

“Gabrielle, you can’t even use your hands yet,” Xena protested.

“I can’t take anymore and I want to go home. I want to see our families, I want to watch Solan’s child grow up and I want to go back to the inn,” Gabrielle said firmly.

Xena glanced over and saw Sasha in the faint firelight, watching her moms. The child nodded her agreement to the bard’s request.

“Okay, we’ll leave as soon as possible before the next storm hits,” Xena promised.

The bard smiled slightly and pulled Xena’s hand to her cheek.

“Want to sleep next to me?” Xena asked softly and hopefully.

“I’d like to try,” Gabrielle answered slowly.

As the bard lay on her stomach next to the warrior, the bard reached out for Xena and let the warrior snuggle up next to her and place an arm across Gabrielle’s lower back where the lash had missed.

Xena thought about the visions Alti had shown her. The vision of Gabrielle lying on a cave floor with a dryad bone sticking out of her chest and Xena lying next to her, bloody and not moving – that had come true. The vision of Gabrielle enjoying the sexual pleasures of the bacchanalia had come true.

Xena was worried about the other two visions and was as anxious as Gabrielle to get back to Greece as well.

The visions seemed to be flooding her mind as she began to drift off into sleep. The visions of Gabrielle screaming in pain and covered in sweat and the sight of Solan looking down at an arrow in his chest before falling.

The End
Aftermath
Storyline: After defeating Alti and Bacchus in the Spirit Realm, Gabrielle and Xena must deal with the after effects of the battle and torture, unexpected results.
Xena gently shook the bard and began to brush the hair off Gabrielle’s forehead.

“Xena?” the bard whispered, partly opening her eyes.

“I’m here, little one,” the warrior answered. “It’s okay, you’re safe.”

“Take me home, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly, “please.”

“I don’t know if we can make it through the snow,” Xena frowned.

“Please, I want to go home,” the bard reached out and took Xena’s hand in her own, causing the warrior to smile. It was the first sign of affection and contact Gabrielle had initiated since the battle with Alti and Bacchus.

The pain in Gabrielle’s voice tore at the warrior’s heart and she knew she would move the earth to get Gabrielle home if it would make her mate feel better.

“We’ll go home, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly.

Xena thought about the visions Alti had shown her. The vision of Gabrielle lying on a cave floor with a dryad bone sticking out of her chest and Xena lying next to her, bloody and not moving – that had come true. The vision of Gabrielle enjoying the sexual pleasures of the bacchanalia had come true.

Xena was worried about the other two visions and was as anxious as Gabrielle to get back to Greece as well.

It was these visions that seemed to be flooding her mind as she began to drift off into sleep. The visions of Gabrielle screaming in pain and covered in sweat and the sight of Solan looking down at an arrow in his chest before falling.

************************************************************************

The next two days for the bard were spent in Xena’s arms as the warrior held Gabrielle and comforted her. Trying to soothe away the tears and get Gabrielle to eat something was difficult but the warrior was surprisingly patient and gentle.

With Sasha’s help in caring for the injured Amazon Queen, Xena began making plans to leave the North as soon as possible. The snow was deep enough to require a sled to get further than a day’s travel from the Siberian Amazon village and Xena was worried. The last time they had tried a trek in the winter they had almost died but Xena knew they had to try; Gabrielle wasn’t doing well. The bard wasn’t sleeping more than two candle-marks at a time before she would awaken Xena and Sasha screaming from the nightmares. Most nights were spent holding a crying bard and Xena trying to comfort her. Gabrielle wasn’t eating either; it seemed everything she ate made her sick.

Xena sat down in the food hall across from Otere, trying to thaw out her hands. It was only a short distance between the huts to the food hall but it was cold enough now to quickly freeze any uncovered body parts.

The Amazon Queen smiled at her Greek friend and handed the warrior a mug of warm tea.

“Still plan on trying to get through this?” Otere asked.

“Yeah,” Xena responded. “Gabrielle is such a wreck; I need to get her home.”

“I know, but it’s extremely dangerous traveling through this with the first ice storm coming,” Otere said gently.

Xena smiled slightly and nodded.

The warrior jumped slightly as a darkened figure entered the hall and moved with unnatural swiftness to a table in the far corner. Otere followed her friend’s eyes and nodded slightly.

“It’s still difficult to adjust to having vampires coming and going in the village, even if they are our sister Amazons,” Otere agreed to the warrior’s unspoken discomfort.

“Yeah, especially after fighting the Bacchae and vampire spirits with Alti and Bacchus in that damned Spirit Realm,” Xena growled. She watched as the vampire reached out to hold the hand of one of the human Amazons, probably a mate or relative of the vampire.

“How are Gabrielle’s wounds?” Otere asked.

“Healing normally. The back will scar from the lash and Bacchus’ claws,” Xena’s jaw tightened, remembering how helpless she had been while Bacchus ran his claw-like fingernails down the already wounded back of her mate. With everything Gabrielle had already endured, the pain of claws ripping down through open lash wounds was enough to break the bard’s spirit. The body was healing but both Otere and Xena knew Gabrielle’s spirit hadn’t even begun to heal yet.

“Her wrists are a mess, I don’t know if she’ll lose the use of her hands. The nerves may be damaged this time. Even if they aren’t, it’ll take time to build up the muscles again,” Xena continued.

“Crucifixion,” Otere said thoughtfully. “I’ve never seen one. The Romans and the Chin use it but none of the Northern tribes do.”

“Tie a person with their arms outstretched to a tree and then drive spikes through their wrists and ankle bones, leave them hanging and watch their bodies slowly drown in their own fluids because they can’t breath,” Xena said bitterly.

The warrior wasn’t surprised when the Amazon Queen went pale.

“She’s been through that twice?” Otere asked softly.

“Yes, only a handful of people have even survived once. Fortunately both Bacchus and Caesar left her ankles alone. Driving spikes through the ankle bone is more painful but leaving them tied makes it harder to move on the cross and harder to breath,” Xena rambled, remembering watching Gabrielle struggling to lift herself up by her impaled wrists just to breath. The Ides of March hadn’t been lucky for Caesar and Xena didn’t particularly think she and Gabrielle had been lucky either; Xena had almost lost her mate, again.

Xena shook her head, “I’m sorry, Otere. I didn’t mean to take it out on you and get so graphic.”

“Its okay, my friend,” Otere simply smiled, dismissing Xena’s mood. She looked thoughtful for a moment and Xena waited, wondering what Otere was thinking. She didn’t have to wait long.

“You haven’t been away from Gabrielle’s side except to eat and bathe since we got back from the Spirit Realm, have you?”

“Of course not,” Xena said simply.

“You haven’t let it hit you yet, have you?”

Xena felt her jaw tightening. “What do you mean?” she asked cautiously.

“You haven’t released that or let anger to let it hit you yet, have you?” Otere pushed.

Xena hesitated before answering instead of dismissing Otere’s question gruffly. Otere was a good friend and the warrior knew she was right.

“No, I haven’t,” Xena admitted.

“Let me send word to clear the practice hall for a candle-mark and let’s see if we can work some of that anger and pain out of you,” Otere suggested.

“Maybe later,” Xena said casually and was surprised when Otere grabbed her wrist.

“Now, Xena,” the Queen insisted.

Slowly the warrior nodded tiredly and got up to follow the Amazon.

************************************************************************

Gabrielle winced slightly as Sasha applied the healing salve to her wounded back. Xena was right, it was healing but it still hurt like Tartarus. The bard wasn’t used to wounds taking a normal amount of time to heal either. She and Xena had gotten accustomed to having the rapid healing abilities from their inherited parentage.

Healing at a normal human rate hurt, the bard decided.

Sasha noticed the flinch but continued talking to her Gabby mum, trying to distract the woman’s focus off the pain. The youngster, wise beyond her years, knew both her moms were hurting more than they ever had before and didn’t know how to help.

For once, Sasha’s ability to see into the future was cloudy. She knew Gabrielle was blaming herself for giving into the pain and pleasure that Bacchus had put her through and Xena mom was blaming herself for letting Gabrielle crossover in the first place. Both of them had known Gabrielle wasn’t up for the challenge of facing Alti and the vampire Arja but they had risked it.

Neither of them had ever considered Bacchus might team up with Alti and put the bard through absolute torture of both pain and pleasure, breaking the bard down into accepting becoming a full Bacchae.

Now both of them were suffering and Sasha was unsure how to help.

Sasha yelped and fell backwards as a flash of light filled the small hut and Gabrielle cried out in agony. Her wrists had suffered seven-inch spikes driven through them and then supporting her body weight for an untold amount of time, so trying to grab the sais had been a bad idea.

Both bard and child looked up at the source of the light as tears streamed down Gabriele’s face.

“Artemis?”

Standing next to the fire was the Greek Goddess of the Hunt and Moon. Gabrielle’s quick eyes noticed that the Goddess’ bow was across her back and the sword was sheathed. Artemis’ relaxed stance and weapons at rest reassured the bard this wasn’t an emergency. Probably.

The Goddess smiled and knelt down across from the bard and child.

“Yes, Gabrielle,” she answered, her blue eyes dancing and soft.

“Are the Black Forest Amazons alright?” Gabrielle demanded quickly.

“Yes, they are doing fine. They have enough supplies to get through the winter and are anxious for Hallvor and Eponin to return,” the Goddess responded easily. Her heart soared with pride over her pick of Gabrielle as her Chosen. Despite everything the bard had been through, her first question to her patron Goddess was about her tribe.

“Thank you,” Gabrielle said simply.

“My pleasure,” Artemis smiled and then looked over into Sasha’s intense blue eyes. “Why don’t you go find Yakut for a bit, Little One. I need to talk to your Gabby mum for a bit.”

“What about Mom?” Sasha asked.

“She’s in the practice hall but it’s a private session,” Artemis answered simply.

“Okay,” the youngster agreed after a moment and Gabrielle had the feeling the deity and child had communicated something on a level other than vocal. Sasha leaned over and kissed Gabrielle’s cheek and grabbed her coat, hat and gloves from beside the door. “You’ll be okay, Mum?”

“Sure,” Gabrielle said easily, trying to smile for the child. She lost the smile when she turned to face the Goddess after Sasha closed the door. “Come to tell me in person I’m no longer your Chosen?”

“Not at all,” Artemis smiled gently and noticed Gabrielle sigh with relief. “Quite the opposite, my Chosen. I am proud of you.”

Instead of smiling or accepting the praise the bard growled with frustration and glared at her wrists. She wanted nothing more than to throw something across the room or to whack something with her sais.

Artemis noticed her expressions and body language and nodded. “That’s what Xena is doing right now, whacking the demons out of a wooden post,” the Goddess commented.

“I can’t even do that!” Gabrielle snapped. “How can you say you’re proud of me?” she demanded.

“Because I am. Gabrielle, what you went through, no one else could have made it through,” Artemis tried reasoning with her champion.

“Artemis, I was with others sexually!” the bard protest. “And I enjoyed it! I’ve betrayed Xena!”

“Your body enjoyed most of it,” Artemis corrected. “You were given drugged wine, beaten nearly to death and then given pleasure. Your nerves were on overload, Gabrielle. Some people get addicted to the fine line between pleasure and pain.”

“I gave in! I accepted Bacchus’ blood!” the bard shouted, kicking a footstool across the room as she lashed out in anger.

“Did you think you wouldn’t?” Artemis demanded roughly. “You already are part Bacchae, I’m amazed you lasted as long as you did! Anyone else would have just given in immediately at his call.”

“I still gave in!” Gabrielle protested.

“You also found a stronger inner light,” Artemis countered.

Gabrielle’s anger melted and she sank back onto the sleeping furs. She looked up at the Goddess with tears filling her eyes.

“How can I ever expect Xena to touch me again?” she whispered.

“Come here,” Artemis opened her arms and wasn’t surprised when the bard scampered over, tears breaking loose. The Goddess settled in and held her champion close as the girl cried out her grief once again. A look of intense sadness reflected in the blue eyes of the Goddess. “It’s not over yet, either,” she whispered.
************************************************************************

Xena growled and whacked the post again and glared at Otere as the Amazon Queen shook her head.

“What?” the warrior demanded.

“Okay, that’s good for surface anger,” Otere commented.

“Otere,” Xena growled, the warning clear in her voice.

“Come on, Xena,” Otere ignored the warning. “You want this to come out when you’re in bed with Gabrielle? To suddenly have the anger coming between the two of you?”

“Otere, you don’t want me to lose control,” Xena growled.

Surprisingly, the little Amazon Queen grinned. “Wanna bet?”

Otere was on Xena faster than the warrior could have expected and Xena instinctively reacted, sword parrying Otere’s strikes. The Amazon continued with the attack and the Greek realized within moments that Otere wasn’t holding back.

Xena growled and let her instincts take over, holding back enough to keep from slashing the younger and less experienced warrior until they were both breathing heavily.

“Good enough?” Xena demanded, her blue eyes dancing angrily.

“Nope,” the Amazon grinned. “Tell me, Xena. You saw inside the cave of Bacchus in the Spirit Realm, how many were there?”

Xena’s eyes narrowed in anger.

“Twenty? Men, maenad servants, and Bacchae?” Otere said, pretending to be thoughtful. “How many of them were with Gabrielle during that time?”

The Amazon casually walked a few feet away from the warrior, ignoring the growl from the Greek’s chest.

“Did you see Bacchus take her? Or were they done with her by the time you got there? Had they tossed her aside yet?”

The Amazon dived behind a wooden post as she said the last word and wasn’t surprised when she heard a “thunk” in the wood behind her head. Otere glanced around and saw Xena’s famous chakram buried deep in the post.

Queen Otere didn’t even take time to look where the warrior was as Xena screamed in rage; the Amazon dived out the door and threw herself against it as Xena’s body hit the other side. Two guards ran up and quickly lent their shoulders to the wood. Otere quickly locked the door.

Screams and sounds of things breaking flowed through the door.

“My Queen?” one the guards questioned cautiously.

“Xena is working some things out, leave her in there until she answers you clearly and calmly,” she instructed and turned to get to the food hall quickly. She had left her coat inside the practice hall and wasn’t about to go back inside to get it any time soon.

************************************************************************

Gabrielle sighed as she sank into the warm water of the bathing hut and then winced when the water hit the wounds on her back.

“Okay, enough of that!” Artemis said irritably and held her hands over the bard’s back.

Gabrielle gasped as the pain began easing and then almost disappearing totally from her back. “What?” she questioned sleepily.

A candle-mark of crying and howling, her grief and frustration had left Gabrielle feeling drained but calmer. She hadn’t been surprised when she found herself and Artemis in the bathing hut; she was too tired to be surprised. She hadn’t slept a full night through in two weeks.

“Quiet, I can’t heal your hands but your back will be fine now. Scarred but fine,” Artemis explained and began washing the bard’s back with a cloth.

“Why can’t you heal my hands?” the bard asked, not even questioning when a very naked Artemis pulled Gabrielle back into her arms to relax in the warm water.

“My power is waning quickly here and there’s still something I need to do,” Artemis said softly.

“Xena won’t want me after this,” the bard repeated her major fear.

“Yes she will,” Artemis reassured her champion. “It won’t be easy, you’ll both have nightmares to face, both awake and asleep. Especially during sex.”

“I know, I still have nightmares of the Romans who raped me,” Gabrielle said softly, leaning her head back on the shoulder of the Goddess.

“Yes, so does Xena. Now you’ll both have more images to add to that, unfortunately.”

Artemis wasn’t surprised when she heard the outer door open and then close and the inner one open immediately after that. The Goddess also wasn’t surprised by the stunned expression on Otere’s face as she led Xena into the bathing hut.

“Who in Hella are you?” she demanded and felt Xena raising her head.

The warrior was obviously physically and mentally exhausted, exactly as Otere figured she would be after the berserker rage Otere had enticed in Xena. The Amazon Queen figured time spent in the warm waters of the bathing hut would be good for the warrior.

She hadn’t counted on finding a very naked Gabrielle also in those waters and in the arms of a very naked and beautiful woman.

“Artemis?” Otere heard Xena ask.

“Yes,” the Goddess answered in Germanic. “Don’t worry, Otere, I’m not seducing your friend. I’m helping my champion heal.”

“Artemis is the patron Goddess of the Southern Amazons,” Xena said in a tired voice.

Gabrielle had apparently fallen asleep in the arms of her patron Goddess Otere noted.

“Get her into the water before she catches a chill,” Artemis asked with a playful smile.

Otere blushed profusely. “Okay, let me guess. You spent time with Gabrielle while I spent time with Xena, both of them working on getting this out of their systems.”

“You are a smart and an excellent queen,” Artemis smiled as Otere helped Xena into the water. Both noticed the warrior groaning with sore muscles and exhaustion as the water seeped over her body. Artemis also took in the bloody and ragged hands of the warrior. The Goddess wasn’t sure she wanted to see the insides of the practice hut. “Now we both figured the water would be a nice healing touch. So get in behind her and don’t let her drown.”

Otere shook her head, being around Xena and Gabrielle certainly made for an interesting life.

************************************************************************

Xena was pleased to feel the familiar body of Gabrielle next to her sometime later. The sensation of fur against her skin told the warrior they were in sleeping furs and were naked.

Xena was surprised to open her eyes and find Otere sitting by the fire of their hut.

“Hey,” Xena called softly and the Amazon turned from the fire and grinned at her friend.

“Hey yourself,” she responded, also in a soft voice. “I’m making tea for you two. I thought one or both of you might be waking up soon.”

The warrior frowned, trying to remember. “How long have we been asleep? I remember the bathing hut and Artemis.”

“About nine candle-marks,” Otere grinned at Xena’s surprised expression. “You both needed it. First real sleep either of you have gotten in two weeks since getting here.”

With a start Xena realized Gabrielle was lying in her usual position in the warrior’s arms, which meant Xena’s arm was under and across the bard’s back. Xena started to rise up and took in the fact that she didn’t feel a large bandage under her arm, just skin.

She looked up and found Otere nodding. “Your Goddess healed Gabrielle’s back,” she answered the question in Xena’s eyes.

The warrior looked and found bandages still around her mate’s wrists, however and frowned.

“She said she couldn’t heal those without using too much of her energy,” Otere explained.

“Where is she?”

“Artemis said she’d be back once both of you were awake,” the Amazon responded, pouring two mugs of tea as Gabrielle began to stir in her lover’s arms. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

“Otere,” Xena’s voice stopped the Amazon Queen, “Thanks for pushing me.”

“No problem, Xena,” the Amazon grinned. “We’re going to have to pry your chakram out of that post though.”

“Otere,” Xena’s voice was serious. “I know you took a risk.”

“For a friend, it’s not a risk,” the Amazon answered and grabbed her cloak by the door.

“What was that about?” a sleepy bard asked in the warrior’s arms.

“While Artemis was helping you work through some stuff, Otere was helping me work too,” Xena answered, gently kissing the bard’s lips.

“Is that why they have to pry your chakram out of something?” the bard asked with a smile and was pleased when the warrior began blushing bright red.

“Kinda,” Xena admitted. “Your back is better.”

“Yeah, Artemis healed it,” Gabrielle mentioned, snuggling closer to her mate.

“Otere said Artemis would be back, what does she want?” Xena questioned.

“I don’t know, she healed my back, let me rant, scream and cry,” the bard answered, still in her sleepy voice.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly.

“I love you too, I… can’t get the faces and sensations out of my head,” the bard said simply.

“I know, it’ll take time,” Xena tried reassuring her mate.

Instead of letting the couple trek through the snow to the food hall, Otere arranged for food to be brought to the couple’s hut. It wasn’t long before the couple was sitting around their fire with Otere, Yakut and Sasha.

Even though no one said a word about it, everyone was relieved when Gabrielle actually ate more than a few bites and seemed to be able to keep the food down.

Outside of the bard’s hearing, her health had been the center of discussion ever since the return from the Spirit Realm. She was getting far too thin, not sleeping enough, and was mentally and physically exhausted.

Yakut seemed to be lost in thought as she watched the bard lean her head onto Xena’s shoulder. Both Otere and Yakut thought that was an excellent sign of recovery for the couple but the Greeks still looked haggard.

“Yakut,” Xena snapped, throwing a piece of bread at the shaman.

“What?” the Amazon asked, coming out of her thoughts.

“Do you think we can get through the snow if we leave in two days?” Xena asked.

“I still would advise you staying here for the winter,” the shaman responded.

Xena felt Gabrielle stiffen slightly. “I know but I think Gabrielle and I need to be home. We’re both tired.”

“I know, I think you can get through with a dog team and sled,” Otere answered.

“Then we’ll leave in two days,” Xena said simply.

“How about today?”

Xena’s hand instinctively reached for her chakram, Otere was on her feet with a sword in hand and Yakut had a dagger in hers.

Xena felt Gabrielle relax and saw Otere do the same.

“Yakut, meet one of our Gods, Artemis,” Xena said simply as Otere sat down. Yakut, catching up with the fact that there wasn’t any danger, also sat down as Artemis joined them.

“Patron Goddess of the Amazons, forest, and moon,” Gabrielle added.

“And friend to Xena and Gabrielle,” the Goddess added.

“What did you mean about today?” Xena questioned.

“I can take Gabrielle home today,” Artemis said simply.

“Without Xena?” the bard immediately demanded.

“I’m growing weak here, Gabrielle,” Artemis admitted. “Here they don’t worship me and my powers are waning. I can get you home safely.”

“Not without Xena,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Little One,” Xena began to protest.

“No, I spent almost two Springs away from you,” Gabrielle snapped, sitting upright, her green eyes flashing.

“I want you home and safe,” Xena countered.

“I’m not leaving you!”

“I do have a question for you, Artemis,” Xena said thoughtfully. “Where were you when Gabrielle was in that nightmare with Bacchus?”

Gabrielle frowned deeply, considering the question and wondering if she really wanted to know the answer.

“I can barely function here right now. Healing Gabrielle tasked me,” Artemis admitted. “I’m sorry, I owe you both my existence and I want to help but I couldn’t break into the Spirit Realm.”

“I’m not leaving without Xena, I’m still not feeling well and I want to be near her,” Gabrielle protested.

“Please, I swear it’ll be safer than trying the snow,” Artemis argued.

“Gabrielle?” Xena questioned.

“No, not without you, please,” Gabrielle said, her jaw set in a familiar stubborn line.

“She’ll be protected and healed when I get her back to Greece,” Artemis assured all of them. “Both me and Apollo will watch over Gabrielle until you get back.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed as she saw how thoughtfully Xena had become.

“Xena,” she growled, the warning evident in her voice.

Otere and Yakut held very still as their Greek friends and a deity argued back and forth.

“Gabrielle, if they’ll heal you,” Xena argued but the bard cut her short.

“I’d rather risk the snow and take longer to heal than be away from you again,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Gabrielle,” Artemis’ voice brought the bard’s attention back to the Goddess. “The healers haven’t told you and neither has Xena because of your emotional state, the nerves in your wrists were damaged.”

The bard suddenly looked much younger as she glanced down at her bandaged wrists.

“My hands?” she whispered.

“If I don’t get you to Greece where Apollo can heal you before the wounds heal over, then you won’t have use of your hands,” Artemis said bluntly.

“Then take her back,” Xena said firmly.

“Xena, no,” Gabrielle said softly.

“I’ll follow as quick as I can,” Xena reached out and pulled Gabrielle into her arms. “Don’t pass this up, Little One. I love you more than life.”

Before Gabrielle could protest again, the warrior nodded her head at the Goddess and everyone blinked at the sudden bright light that filled the hut.

************************************************************************

Cyrene dropped a tray of ceramic goblets as a bright light filled the empty main room of the inn. When her eyes cleared she was surprised to see Gabrielle and a tall woman standing several feet from her.

Gabrielle blinked and looked around, apparently also in surprise. The bard spun to glare at the woman in hunting leathers.

“Artemis!” she shouted. “Damnit!”

Deities showing up whenever Gabrielle or Xena was around didn’t surprise Cyrene any more. My daughter and daughter-in-law seemed to have more to do with the Greek Gods than some priests, she thought.

“Sorry, Gabrielle, this is for the best,” Artemis shrugged and disappeared.

“Xena!” the bard shouted, raising her hands in anger.

After a moment she looked over and smiled slightly at Cyrene. Then the inn-keeper got a good look at the bard and was dismayed at what she saw.

The bard quickly sat down in the nearest chair and Cyrene went behind the bar and grabbed two unbroken mugs and a pitcher of cider.

“Gabrielle? What’s going on?” she asked as she sat down with the bard.

“Where to begin? A village stricken with poisoned grain, some of my Southern Amazons are alive, and then we dealt with a monster with some Vikings. Next we went to the Northern Amazons and found vampires were attacking them. We had to fight Alti in the Spirit Realm and Bacchus was also there. I got hurt, Artemis promised to bring me back to Greece and heal me. I didn’t agree on leaving Xena behind but here I am,” Gabrielle explained and shrugged at Cyrene’s frustrated look.

“That’s it in a nutshell,” the bard responded.

“Is Xena okay?”

“Yes, some bruises and scratches but okay,” Gabrielle finally had a faint smile. “Can I talk about this later?”

“First, how is Sasha and what happened to your hands?” Cyrene asked.

“Sasha is great and has grown another two inches. My hands, I was crucified in the Spirit Realm by Bacchus,” Gabrielle said softly.

Cyrene didn’t say a word but pulled the bard into her arms as Gabrielle’s anger and resolve broke down.

Cyrene sensed there was more to the bard’s injuries and haggard appearance.

************************************************************************

Xena resisted letting the tears fall from her eyes as she watched Gabrielle and Artemis disappear. The warrior sat down heavily and Sasha crawled into her arms.

“I hate dealing with Gods,” the warrior muttered.

Otere and Yakut had no answer for the warrior and quietly left the hut.

Xena tried to smile for Sasha as her daughter hugged her.

“Was this a good idea?” the warrior asked softly, not sure if she was asking Sasha’s opinion or perhaps talking to the air.

“It’s what the Gods wanted,” Sasha said simply, pulling back to look at her mom and wasn’t surprised when Xena frowned.

“I don’t usually care what the Gods want,” the warrior commented bitterly. “Because of Ares, a God, I almost lost Gabrielle so many times.”

“You also got me,” Sasha grinned.

“That’s the best thing Ares ever gave me!” Xena agreed, hugging her daughter tightly.

After a moment Sasha got up and poured some more tea for her mom and herself. “You know mum’s going to be mad,” she said simply.

“That’s an understatement,” Xena grinned ruefully. They both knew Gabrielle’s temper. “What say we start getting things together and head home?”

Sasha agreed with a grin and a nod.

Xena’s eyes saddened as she watched a cheerful Sasha begin gathering their things together. The child was far too young to have lived through and seen everything she had by this early age.

The warrior didn’t regret keeping Sasha with her but at times she wished she could have given her daughter a different life. Xena had thought she was doing the best thing for Solan when she left him as an infant with the centaurs. She regretted that decision even though it was the right one; she knew if she had tried to keep him they would both probably have ended up dead.

Xena growled, it seemed like she and Gabrielle never got more than a month or so to rest and try and build a normal life. Now since she knew they were both immortal the warrior wondered if the conflicts and hard times were going to go on forever.

************************************************************************

After a bit Cyrene handed the bard her apron to wipe her eyes with and called for Torris to bring food for the bard.

“When is Xena coming home?” Cyrene began, hoping that she could get a little more detailed information out of the bard.

“As soon as she can get through the snow,” Gabrielle answered, smiling at the sight of Torris appearing with a tray of food. She was hoping she could finally keep food down.

“That could be another two moons or more,” Cyrene complained and immediately noticed Gabrielle’s pained expression.

“I know,” the bard muttered.

“You’ve both been gone for seasons,” Cyrene commented. “I’ve missed you.”

“We’ve missed you and everyone, too,” Gabrielle smiled and took a bit of food with some hesitation.

Cyrene’s sharp eyes noticed Gabrielle’s hesitation and the thinness of the bard.

“Having trouble eating?” she asked, her voice filled with concern.

Gabrielle began blushing a bright red and immediately felt her stomach turn over. She jumped to her feet so quickly that she knocked over the chair as she dashed outside, her body racked with vomiting again.

Cyrene followed her daughter-in-law outside and handed the bard a wet cloth as Gabrielle tried to stand up on unsteady legs.

“Sorry,” Gabrielle muttered.

“How long as this been going on?” Cyrene asked as they sat down on a bench outside the tavern door.

“Since we returned from fighting Alti and Bacchus,” Gabrielle said reluctantly.

“Gabrielle, what is going on? You and Xena can’t get sick and yet you are?”

The bard’s green eyes filled with tears and she wouldn’t meet Cyrene’s eyes.

“The healers and everyone think it’s a physical reaction to what happened with Alti and Bacchus,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Tell me what happened,” Cyrene encouraged, leading Gabrielle back inside into the warm inn.

At first Cyrene thought Gabrielle wasn’t going to tell her but then the bard broke down once again and slowly the story emerged.

Xena’s mother thought she had heard the worst her daughter and daughter-in-law could ever be put through. After Gabrielle had disappeared and it was revealed she had been a Roman slave and gladiator and Cyrene thought it couldn’t get much worse than that. Now this torture and sexual abuse was worse and mostly because of Gabrielle’s guilt about it.

Cyrene could tell the memory of it was tearing Gabrielle apart inside and out.

“Gabrielle, you did nothing wrong,” Cyrene said softly, holding the small blonde in her arms. “I’m partly to blame for this.”

“What?” Gabrielle sat up, attempting to wipe the tears from her face.

“I told Xena when your Bacchae blood started coming to the surface you might be easily called by Bacchus, especially in the Fall or Spring.

I even mentioned that you might not be able to resist a bacchanalia,” Cyrene informed her. “Maybe I should have warned against Spirit Realm travel.”

“It’s not your fault,” Gabrielle smiled slightly. “We didn’t know Bacchus was there.”

“Then it’s not your fault either,” Cyrene countered.

Gabrielle frowned, unable to argue, she realized had fallen into a trap of logic.

Cyrene looked up as Torris walked into the main room and gently hugged the bard.

“Want me to send word to Solan and Reija that Gabrielle’s back? And where’s Xena?” he asked.

“She’ll be a moon or so behind me,” Gabrielle continued frowning. “I took a short cut home.”

“Yes, send word to Solan and Reija and have them come here,” Cyrene smiled and Torris went off to find one of the kitchen servants.

“What about Joxer? He’ll want to know I’m back,” Gabrielle mentioned.

Cyrene grinned. “I’ve got news for you!”

“What?” Gabrielle demanded as Cyrene helped her out of the heavier leather jacket and over shirt, glad to be left with her woolen trousers and lighter tunic.

“Someone that looked just like Xena showed up one day and grabbed Joxer, kissing the daylights out of him,” Cyrene laughed.

“Meg,” Gabrielle joined in the laughter.

“So we found out,” Cyrene agreed. “They left a week later after getting married.”

“Married?” Gabrielle wasn’t sure if she was going to keep her balance in the chair or not. Joxer married?

Gabrielle’s eyebrows furrowed in thought. She had grown used to having Joxer around after missing him for several years. He had grown into a decent guy and someone she and Xena could always count on him whenever they needed him, even if he was a bumbling Wanna-be warrior.

Married?

That evening, dinner was spent telling Solan, Reija, Dex the blacksmith, Torris, Cyrene and Torris’ new wife, Despesia, about the recent journeys.

Cyrene and Solan both had the feeling he bard was skipping over a bit when it came to how badly she and Xena had been injured during the battle with Grendel but didn’t say anything.

They were right, Gabrielle didn’t tell them that she had willingly sacrificed her own healing energy to Xena and had died for five days. She told them they had both almost died, she left out that Xena would have died if Gabrielle hadn’t taken her place.

She also didn’t tell them the details of the fight with Bacchus and Alti, especially the details of her own torture and pleasures. Cyrene knew some of the details from Gabrielle’s earlier breakdown but, again, didn’t say anything.

Gabrielle answered questions about Artemis healing her back and bringing her back to Greece and it was evident from the bard’s flashing eyes that she hadn’t been in total agreement with her mate and patron Goddess.

What was surprising was when one of the tavern maids walked up and told Gabrielle softly that someone at the bar would like to talk to her.

Gabrielle was amused and touched when several hands rested on daggers in a protective gesture of the bard, especially since she didn’t have the use of her hands. The bard cursed silently at the sais in her boots that were useless to her.

Everyone glanced over at the figure and frowned when all they saw was a shape in a traveling cloak with the hood pulled up high over the face. Several pairs of eyes noted a male hand stretching for a mug of something on the bar and the gold bracer on his wrist.

Gabrielle smiled slightly. “It’s okay, I know him,” she said simply and went to stand next to the figure.

“Apollo, I was wondering where you were,” she said simply as he drank from the mug of ale. “Artemis said you wanted me home.”

The God of the Sun turned and carefully embraced his daughter and then gently ran his hands down her arms until they rested on her bandages.

Gabrielle hissed slightly and felt her eyes close and head go back slightly as energy pulsed through her body.

It was over in a moment and the bard turned quickly, lifting her hands up to stop her alarmed family from rushing over.

Solan and Torris were the last to reluctantly sit down and both kept a close eye on her as she turned back to the stranger.

“Thank you, Father,” she said softly. “Can you bring Xena home?”

“No, my power is even weaker in the North than Artemis’,” he answered sadly. “They worship a Goddess of the sun, not a God. I’ll be around though until she gets back.”

“Thank you,” Gabrielle hugged her deity father again and turned back to the table. A glance back told the bard her father had disappeared.

The bard began removing the bandages from her wrists, knowing that she’d find only angry red scars underneath. Her hands were now hers again.

************************************************************************

Xena yipped at the dogs, setting the team into motion and Hallvor set her team to work right behind the Greek. Eponin was frustrated because she felt basically useless in the snows of Siberia, whereas Xena had experience from traveling in the north and Hallvor was a native.

She had grumbled about not knowing how to help with everything until Xena assigned her the cooking duties of the trip since Gabrielle wasn’t with them.

Neither Black Forest Amazon was surprised when Xena had put together the dog teams and gotten everything together in the space of a day and they were trekking through the snow at dawn the next morning.

Yakut and Otere had wanted them to stay for the winter but the Greek had been stubborn and the Northern Amazons hadn’t fought too hard either. They knew Xena wouldn’t be separated from Gabrielle for very long, especially since the bard had been injured and was still suffering emotionally.

Xena wrapped a thin layer of gauze over her eyes to help block the blinding sun as it reflected off the snow and let the dogs take their lead. Sveltana had assured Xena and Hallvor that the teams they had put together were the best and the lead dogs were her own personal selection.

Xena hadn’t been happy with letting Artemis just taking Gabrielle without the bard’s permission the way she had but she hoped that her mate would be in a forgiving mood by the time the warrior got back to Greece. She wasn’t sure though, she knew how stubborn Gabrielle could be, especially when mad.

Even with conservative estimates, it was going to take two months to get back to her mate.

A glance down told the warrior that Sasha was peeking through the fur surrounding her and then the child ducked back into the warmth. Xena grinned a rueful grin; Sasha and Pony would be the ones staying warm on this trip. They were both wrapped in cocoons of fur on top of the supplies. The shape of the sleds helped form the cocoon and the fur ensured warmth. Xena and Hallvor would be freezing along with the dogs outside the sleds.

The warrior had only spent two nights without Gabrielle and she was already lonely.

************************************************************************

Cyrene handed the bard a travel pack of food and smiled at her daughter-in-law.

“You going to be okay?” she asked, sounding very much like the mother she was feeling like right then.

“Yes, I’ll be fine now that I’ve got the use of my hands again,” Gabrielle grinned.

It did hurt Cyrene to see that Gabrielle was wearing a simple tunic instead of her preferred leather top. It wasn’t cold in Greece yet but Cyrene knew that wasn’t the reason the bard was now wearing full shirts. It was because of the damned scars across her back.

Those scars were obviously from a whip and animal claws and had gotten the bard in trouble with Roman troops once before. A small patrol passing through Amphipolis had mistaken her for a slave because of those lashes. Now the bard had even more scars added to the original ones, courtesy of Bacchus.

“You’re still not eating right and I’ve seen you getting dizzy whenever you stand up too quickly,” Cyrene protested.

Gabrielle leaned down from her horse to grasp Cyrene’s hand.

The bard quickly grabbed the reins tightly as the horse suddenly spooked and Cyrene reached out to steady herself against the Tavern door.

“What?” Gabrielle cried out.

“Earthquake! Small one!” Cyrene said simply. After a moment the tremors stopped and they both looked around the village. People were coming out of the shops and homes and were looking around, comparing notes on possible damage and checking on each other.

“Maybe you should stay?” Cyrene suggested.

“I’ll be okay, I’ll probably be better after spending some time with Lila and my mom,” Gabrielle grinned.

“I know, you need your other family right now,” Cyrene relented and stepped back from the horse and rider.

“I’ve got a couple of things to do and I want to see Mom and Lila for a couple of days,” Gabrielle said simply and was off down the road leading from Xena’s village, now her home as well.
************************************************************************

Joxer picked up the last of the pieces of broken pottery and threw them in the basket that already held several broken bottles and jugs. Fortunately there hadn’t been a lot of damage from the earthquake two days before but this was the first chance he had to clean up the barn.

Joxer pulled his shirt off and wiped his brow with it. The barn, where they kept the supplies for the tavern, was cooler than outside but it was still warm work pulling kegs of ale down onto the small cart.

He looked around, taking a quick inventory of the supplies, like he did every day and was pleased. The wine was holding out and the ale was well stocked. The two milk cows and goats that supplied the inn with milk for butter and cooking were content in their pens outside and several chickens ran around free.

The warrior was pleased with his life as it was turning out. He and Meg had been married two months and were getting along well. The idea of running a tavern had been an easy one, Joxer’s parents ran a boarding house after his father’s retirement from soldiering and Meg was a natural at handling the patrons.

Joxer reflected that he was pretty happy, overall. Meg knew he still had deep feelings for Gabrielle but he had moved beyond being “in love” with the bard. Joxer figured that what he and Meg had was more than enough for a good relationship that could last a lifetime, friendship and lust.

It did unnerve him at times that she looked exactly like Xena and found it weird that he could have fallen for a twin of Xena and not a twin of Gabrielle. Not that he had ever met a twin of hers.

Weird, he thought, he knew about the Priestess, Princess Diana and Meg – all twins of the Warrior Princess and yet they had never come across a twin for Gabrielle. Not that he was complaining, mind you, that would get really weird, he decided.

He understood some of Xena’s frustration whenever she had to deal with one of her twins, Meg included. Growing up as part of triplets had been a pain in the ass, he thought.

“Joxer?”

The warrior turned innkeeper hesitated. What? He knew that voice. Joxer turned slowly and tried to take in the fact that it was Gabrielle standing in the door.

Joxer grinned a goofy grin and grabbed the little bard up in his arms in a massive hug.

“Gabrielle!” he almost shouted.

“Easy, Joxer,” Gabrielle laughed in his arms.

He reluctantly put her back onto her feet and took a step back to look at his friend. He noted the tunic and traveling clothes and grinned.

“Heading to your mom’s?” he questioned.

“Actually, I wanted to see you,” Gabrielle said simply.

“Really? Gods, it is so good to see you!” he grinned. He moved back into the barn to grab his shirt. He was surprised when Gabrielle followed him in. “Is Xena with you?”

Not receiving an answer, he turned and glanced at his friend. He was very puzzled and instantly concerned when Gabrielle’s face showed pain and she turned her eyes away from his.

“Gabby?”

“Xena’s still in the north,” she answered softly and moved closer to her friend.

Joxer moved even closer when he saw tears welling up in her eyes.

“Something’s happened, Joxer.”

The long-time friend pulled the bard into his arms as she began to cry softly. After a few moments he lifted her chin up to look him in the eyes.

“What happened, Gabrielle?”

“We went into the Spirit Realm to face Alti again, only Bacchus was there too,” Gabrielle began.

Joxer uttered a string of curses that he had learned in the east while working as a caravan guard, some of them in Arabic, some in Persian and some in Greek. Gabrielle was impressed with the variety of suggestions that Bacchus could try according to Joxer.

The tavern keeper moved his friend to a hay bale and sat down next to her, wrapping his arm around her.

“What happened?” he asked softly.

“I couldn’t fight him for long, he tortured me and then tossed me into a bacchanalia, trying to break me down to drink his blood,” Gabrielle continued.

“Where was Xena?” he demanded.

“Fighting Alti,” the bard answered.

“Go on,” he encouraged.

“I gave in, Joxer,” she cried softly. “To the sex, to the torture, to the blood.”

“How did you get out?” Joxer asked.

“Xena was badly wounded and brought to Bacchus. She took a chance and let me bite her. It somehow brought me back and we forced Bacchus back to the physical realm in Greece,” Gabrielle explained.

“So why is Xena in the North and you’re here?” he asked.

“Artemis zapped me back here because of my injuries and feelings,” Gabrielle answered.

“What do you mean?”

“I can’t face Xena, Joxer,” the bard whispered, tears flowing down her face again. “I betrayed her and our vows, I know that she can’t forgive me for enjoying some of what happened.”

“Of course she can, you two are soul-mates and are meant to be together,” Joxer protested.

“Not anymore, Joxer,” Gabrielle stated simply. “I discovered something while in the Spirit Realm.”

“What?”

The warrior turned tavern-keeper began muttering protests as Gabrielle moved his face around and began kissing him deeply. After a moment he stopped protesting and pulled Gabrielle into his arms.

Joxer suddenly pulled back and held Gabrielle at arm’s length.

“Gabby!” he protested. “What are we doing?”

“Finally giving into our feelings?” she suggested.

“We’re both married! I married Meg and you’re married to Xena!” he continued to protest. “Xena, tall, dark and deadly! Xena, as in she will kill me and chop me into pieces Xena!”

“Joxer,” Gabrielle smiled and placed a hand on the man’s chest, attempting to calm him down as his voice rose in tone and volume.

“What?!” he snapped and then moaned softly as Gabrielle’s lips met his again and her hands began roaming up and down his back. “Gabby.”

Joxer found his desire for the bard quickly returning as Gabrielle’s lips left his and moved to his earlobe and she began to nibble lightly.

“Gabrielle, we can’t do this!” he protested, his hands moving under the tunic to her back. Somewhere his mind noted the feeling of scars under his fingers.

“Tell me you don’t want me anymore,” the bard whispered fiercely and bit down on his neck.

“Oh Gods!” the warrior cried and then whimpered as his hands moved to the front of Gabrielle’s tunic and found the breasts he had dreamed about for years. Joxer lost all control as Gabrielle’s hands reached for his belt and pulled him down to the hay-covered floor.

************************************************************************

Xena sat up in her bedroll, sweating, despite the snow surrounding the small party. The warrior quickly looked around, hand on her chakram. Everyone else was still asleep and undisturbed.

Hallvor and Pony were curled up in one set of furs and on the other side of the fire; Sasha was sleeping comfortably next to her mom.

Xena wasn’t sure if the Amazons were lovers yet but at least they weren’t growling at each other. It had been a difficult transition for the two women.

Hallvor and Pony had been extremely attracted to each other until Pony found out that Hallvor was a werserker and had a tendency to turn into a vicious wolf-like human creature during battle and during sex.

That had taken some getting around, the warrior admitted to herself. They had finally settled into being friends but not lovers.

The warrior’s sharp eyes continued darting around the camp, listening for sounds and watching for anything out of the ordinary. After a moment Xena figured it was a bad dream. Something about Gabrielle, she felt.

Something was off and she couldn’t put her finger on it.

************************************************************************

Meg stepped out of the tavern’s back door, curious as to where Joxer had gotten himself to. He had left more than a candle-mark earlier to get more kegs of ale out of the barn and to clean up the mess out there.

The tavern keeper stumbled backwards as two horses pounded out of the barn door. Meg looked up, surprised to see Gabrielle and Joxer on horses.

Sharp eyes saw love bites on Gabrielle’s neck and scratches on Joxer’s neck and chest.

Meg’s husband began blushing a bright red as he caught sight of Meg.

“Meg,” he stammered.

“Joxer?” she snapped.

“Meg, I…” the gentle warrior stammered.

“Come on, lover,” Gabrielle urged and smacked his horse across the rump with her hand.

Meg screamed in rage as both horses broke into a gallop away from the tavern. The sound of Gabrielle’s laughter sounding in her ears.

************************************************************************

Xena growled at the snow swirling around them. She finally pulled the dogs to a stop and waited as Hallvor pulled up next to her sled. The Viking Amazon leaned next to Xena’s mouth to hear the warrior over the howling wind.

“We’d better stop!” Xena shouted.

Hallvor nodded and moved quickly to set up an emergency lean-to for the women and child while Xena tipped over the sleds and led the dogs to the semi-shelter. The warrior promised them that she’d look at their paws later for ice damage. Some of them were already wearing little leather wrappings on their feet to protect them. Sasha had giggled for five marks over the dogs wearing booties. The dogs in turn, delighted with a laughing child, had romped around and on top of Sasha, licking her and making her laugh even more.

Xena glanced into the lean-to and the other two women cuddling with Sasha to warm her up. The Greek warrior yelled in anger against the wind and snow fighting them, slowing their progress.

************************************************************************

Joxer fell back onto the sleeping furs, exhausted and breathing heavily. Gabrielle collapsed on top of him, her head resting on his shoulder.

“Gabrielle, we’ve been traveling for two days and you haven’t told me where we’re headed,” he mentioned once he finally caught his breath again.

He moaned softly as his bard shifted her weight on top of him and moved down to nibble on his chest.

“Does it matter anymore?” she asked.

“No, I guess not. I figure we can’t go home so that leaves the rest of the world,” he said thoughtfully.

“Except the Amazons, they won’t agree with me leaving Xena and taking up with a male,” Gabrielle whispered and felt Joxer’s attention turning elsewhere and began kissing him again.

After a moment he broke away, trying to breathe again.

“Gods, woman!” he sputtered. “You trying to kill me with sex?”

“Sounds like a wonderful way to go,” she muttered as she moved down his body.

“Oh yeah!” he agreed.

************************************************************************

Xena was in a really bad mood. Weird dreams were disturbing her sleep, the snowstorms were making the going difficult and she was tired of eating cold rations.

Hallvor glanced over at Eponin and shrugged, neither of them knew how to help.

Sasha curled up in her Mom’s arms, ignoring Xena’s growl of frustration.

It was going to be a long trip.

************************************************************************

Joxer leaned over the little bard and kissed the lovely neck. Gabrielle grinned and ruffled his shock of hair as she stirred the stew cooking over the fire.

He smiled and sat down across the fire from her, relishing the opportunity to watch her.

“What are you thinking, Joxer?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“How content I am. I never thought I could feel like this,” Joxer admitted. “Spending my life with you on the road, having you in my arms at night.”

“That’s the plan, Joxer,” the bard grinned and Joxer frowned.

“What plan?”

“To be content and peaceful, we haven’t had that in our lives,” Gabrielle replied.

“That’s true, especially you,” Joxer agreed. He moved to sit next to her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “You have the most gentle soul, Gabrielle. It’s always killed me to think about how much you’ve been through.”

“I know, and you’ve always been there whenever I needed you,” the bard said, leaning her head onto his shoulder. “Just like now, sometimes predictable can be nice.”

Joxer didn’t see the sparkle in the bard’s green eyes.

************************************************************************

Xena smiled at the progress the Black Forest Amazons had made over the seasons since the Roman attack had killed most of them. The village was slowly blending into the forest. Instead of clearing part of the trees out, the Amazons had chosen to build their huts among the trees and not disturb the beauty of the area with clear cutting.

Eponin and Hallvor had discovered that their number had increased with the addition of three more infants that had been abandoned by local villagers and two teenage girls that had fled unpleasant marriage prospects.

Xena was impressed with the training the older Amazons were giving the younger ones. She was also pleased with the obvious pride Eponin had in her new tribe. The evening was spent around the main fire pit, Eponin telling of how she and Hallvor had tracked Gabrielle down and challenged the bard to the right of Queenship over the Amazons.

The description of Gabrielle’s condition after eating poisoned grain had been harrowing and Xena felt her heart aching for her bard even more now than ever. Eponin explained to the tribe that the bard and warrior hadn’t betrayed the Amazons to the Romans and that Gabrielle was still the same woman they had known before. The survivors of the Roman massacre nodded in relief, they had never wanted to believe that one of their most beloved Queens had betrayed them.

Eponin went on to tell how Gabrielle had recovered and named Eponin Regent of the Amazons and acting Queen. The Amazons were disappointed that the bard Queen wasn’t with the travelers but understood after Pony continued her tale of the battle with Grendel and then the fight with Alti. After describing Gabrielle’s injuries to her tribe, the Amazons more than understood Xena’s agreement to send Gabrielle back to Greece with the Goddess Artemis for healing.

The Amazons then set about welcoming Xena to their village, especially delighting in Sasha, Gabrielle’s adopted daughter and accepted Amazon.

Xena finally began to let herself relax a bit. More than a month had been spent traveling in the snow and the warrior was tired and anxious to be home but she also knew that it was important to spend at least a couple of days in the village since Gabrielle couldn’t be there. She was somewhat standing in for her mate as Champion and Consort to the Queen.

The Black Forest Amazons were all anxious to prove their worthiness to the legendary warrior and mate to Gabrielle and after awhile Xena grew tired of the youngsters and headed for one of the small huts where Sasha was already asleep.

“Artemis, can you hear me?” Xena called softly to the darkness.

Xena growled softly when the Goddess didn’t respond and reluctantly removed her winter clothing and crawled into the sleeping furs.

************************************************************************

“Xena’s going to come after us, isn’t she?” Joxer asked softly as he rolled up their sleeping furs. He had been with Gabrielle for two weeks and couldn’t believe his fortune.

The former soldier had a feeling it wouldn’t last and he didn’t want to be anywhere on Earth when Xena found out that Gabrielle had left her.

“Probably, I’m hoping she won’t,” Gabrielle answered easily as she cooked breakfast.

“Is that why you go off to write in your scrolls? Writing down your feelings?” he asked casually. Joxer was actually puzzled by Gabrielle behavior at times.

The bard would beg some time to herself and he would gladly wander off to go fishing or hunting. Gabrielle told him that she wanted to take some time with her scrolls and the request hadn’t surprised him but had confused him a bit. Whenever he had traveled with Xena and Gabrielle before, the bard hadn’t been shy about writing in the evening around the campfire with both Xena and Joxer there.

Many a time the soldier had caught himself staring at her while her mind was obviously engrossed in whatever she was writing. He had always thought she was so beautiful in the firelight, absently brushing a strand of reddish blond hair out of her eyes as she bent over a scroll.

What really puzzled him was that the last two times she had gone off into the woods by herself, Gabrielle had left her scrolls behind.

“Something like that,” she answered vaguely.

Joxer decided to let it go; maybe she was dealing with the grief of leaving Xena. It had to be rough for her, he figured, they had been together for years and had been through death and beyond.

The former soldier ran a hand through his shock of dark hair, now with touches of
grey. How had he ended up with Gabrielle after all she had been through with Xena? He knew they were soul mates, even blood bonded. Nothing on earth or beyond should be able to break that bond.

Then Joxer scolded himself. He had taken vows with Meg and had meant them, every single word but had easily broken them. He was still having problems dealing with himself over that. Joxer the Mighty had run off without even saying he was sorry to his wife.

He angrily brushed away a tear, keeping his back to Gabrielle. He didn’t want to add anymore to the guilt she was probably already feeling about the whole affair.

Meg had deserved better than he had given her, he cursed himself. She had changed her life for him and had only asked for whatever love he could give her.

“Maybe we should think of leaving the country for awhile,” he suggested. He knew for certain he didn’t want to face an angry Meg and no one ever wanted to face an angry Xena. Even his family had probably heard what happened and was cursing his name even now.

He didn’t even want to think about how Cyrene or Solan would treat him now. He thought they would probably take out their anger on certain parts of his anatomy that were below the belt.

“That’s probably a good idea,” the bard agreed, coming up behind Joxer and wrapping her arms around him and nuzzling his neck. “You’re worried about Xena and Meg finding us?”

“Yeah, they’re both kinda known for their tempers,” he tried to smile as he held onto her arms.

“That’s true, I was thinking maybe Eire,” she said softly, beginning to nibble on his earlobe.

“Why not north? You know the languages now.” Joxer asked, his breath quickening as her hand went down the front of his shirt.

“I’m very well known up there as Xena’s mate, Vikings aren’t keen on divorce,” she answered and moved around to sit on his lap, facing him.

Guilty thoughts faded to the back of his mind as the bard’s neck was so inviting.

“I do want to take a couple of days and visit my family, if that’s okay,” she whispered, pulling his tunic off and gasping as his fingers ran over her nipples.

“Sure, we can be there in a couple of days,” he muttered, pulling off her tunic as well and replacing his fingers with his lips.

“Oh Gods, Joxer,” Gabrielle muttered, running her fingers through his hair, encouraging him. Then she pulled his head back to look down into his eyes. “I need a couple of days alone with them, to explain things.”

“Okay, you want me to stay here?”

“Yes,” she answered and then kissed him deeply. “And, lover, I want you to continue what we’ve started.”

Joxer grinned and gladly went back to his worship of his bard.

************************************************************************

Cyrene was pleased when Gabrielle walked into the tavern two days later. Then she frowned, the bard was still too thin and haggard looking, even after being gone for three weeks. Gabrielle grinned as Cyrene rushed up to hug her tightly and then pulled back. The bard could tell she was being assessed.

“You’re not much better than when you left,” Cyrene scolded.

“I know, I’m still having trouble eating and feel tired all the time,” Gabrielle admitted.

“I’m glad you’re back then, where I can keep an eye on you. How’s your family?”

“Doing well, Lila is pregnant again. Her son, Patron, is as big as a house and Lila has her hands full keeping up with him,” Gabrielle smiled as they sat down at one of the tables. “Mom married her neighbor and it’s a love match. His name is Antonious and he’s kind.”

“Good, I know times were rough with your father,” Cyrene smiled.

“Yes, at times,” Gabrielle admitted. “He used his fists too often. I think he was beaten as a child and didn’t know how to act any different but he did love my mom and us.”

“Xena told me how he wanted to change at the end,” the mother mentioned softly.

“There is something,” Gabrielle hesitated and then grinned as Torris came in and rushed to hug the bard.

“Glad you’re back! We haven’t had any good entertainment in forever!”

“Thank you, Torris,” the bard smiled. “I’m glad to be back and I can’t wait to get my life back to normal.”

“Normal?” he laughed as he sat down with the two women. “When has things ever been normal with you and my sister?”

Cyrene laughed as her daughter-in-law blushed. It was good to see the two of them teasing each other. There was a time when Torris would have growled whenever he saw Gabrielle.

“That’s something I wanted to talk to you both about. I was going to wait until Xena got here but….”

“It’s alright, Gabrielle,” Cyrene encouraged. “You left a lot out of your description of what happened to you and Xena while you were gone.”

Again Gabrielle blushed with the truth.

“Yes, I did,” she admitted. “Xena and I learned something while fighting the Northern monster Grendel.”

Gabrielle hesitated, gathering her thoughts of where to begin and how much to reveal. She didn’t want to go into how it was Xena’s fault the monster existed in the first place. Cyrene and Torris didn’t need to know more of Xena’s horrible past, they had heard enough, the bard decided.

“Grendel was a giant monster that was almost invincible to everything except Xena’s chakram. She was also intelligent,” Gabrielle continued. Torris got up and brought over a tray of cider and cups for all of them as Gabrielle talked. “Xena had fought Grendel before and the creature held a grudge. She kidnapped Sasha and almost killed Eponin, one of my original Amazons.”

“She survived the Roman attack?” Torris asked, trying to keep up with the people in his sister-in-law’s life.

“Yes, barely and has been rebuilding the tribe,” Gabrielle smiled with pride in her friend and Regent. “To get Sasha back Xena exchanged herself.”

“Oh by the Gods,” Cyrene whispered. “You described some of what that monster did. It massacred entire settlements?”

“Yes, I saw at least 25 bodies in one hall alone. She did that in one night.”

“What happened?” Cyrene choked out.

“Xena was beaten to the point of death,” Gabrielle wiped away the first of many tears beginning to form in her eyes again. “That’s when we learned some things about our lives.”

“Obviously she made it,” Torris said, quickly convincing himself that the story had a happy ending.

“Not really,” Gabrielle whispered, closing her eyes. “She was so injured, not even her God-given healing ability could keep up.”

Cyrene reached out and held the bard’s hand.

“I called on Apollo,” the bard continued. “I know that Cyrene knows but I haven’t talked with you about it Torris, Apollo is my father.”

“Apollo? The God of the Sun?” he whispered.

Gabrielle opened her eyes and smiled slightly. “Yup, the same. He confirmed that Xena was dying and no one but me could help.”

Cyrene, having some experience with Gods, being the Goddess of Hecate for the area, narrowed her eyes. This did not sound good, she decided.

“How?” Torris finally asked.

“I inherited some of Apollo’s healing abilities. I can heal if I expend my own energy. Xena was so far gone that the option was to trade places with her and exchange my life force for hers,” Gabrielle whispered.

“No, oh Gabrielle,” Cyrene whispered, already knowing the answer Gabrielle had given.

“Yes, Apollo also revealed that since he is my father and I’ve already died once,” Gabrielle hesitated again. “He revealed that I’m immortal and so is Xena.”

Gabrielle was surprised to find Cyrene nodding.

“I thought so,” Cyrene answered, taking in both Torris’ and Gabrielle’s surprised looks. “I knew you were when Hecate revealed you died on that cross and Apollo brought you back. I suspected Xena might be because of her parentage.”

“Parentage?” Torris questioned, his eyebrows furrowing.

Cyrene began blushing. “Xena’s parents are Zeus and Hecate, I carried her and gave birth to her but they conceived her.”

“My sister is a God?” he whispered.

“Demi-God,” Cyrene corrected. “She died on a shaman journey and became immortal. She might even discover some God abilities down the line.”

“Immortal? Both of you?” Torris questioned, still trying to puzzle it out.

“Yes,” Gabrielle answered.

“You’ll never die?”

“Only if we’re killed, we won’t grow old and we don’t get sick,” the bard responded.

“Then why are you sick now?” he demanded. He had also taken a good look at the bard and didn’t like what he saw.

“She’s not sick physically, not really,” Cyrene corrected and turned back to Gabrielle and noticed the bard’s thoughtful expression. “You traded places? You died again?” Cyrene continued, wanting to focus the bard on the immortal thing for the moment.

Gabrielle again blushed. “Yes, for five days, they tell me.”

“Five days?” Torris felt like his head was spinning. “How did you come back?”

“The Northern Gods let me after Xena defeated the monster. Her reward for dealing with Grendel,” Gabrielle said simply.

“What was it like? Where did you go?” Torris asked quickly.

“I really don’t want to talk about that,” Gabrielle frowned. “My memories about it are fuzzy and my tongue doesn’t seem to work when I try and talk about it.”

“Okay, there’s more though, isn’t there?” Cyrene asked.

“Yes, the Northern Gods Odin and Freya told us that Sasha has inherited powers from being the daughter of Xena and Ares. They said those powers are going to go totally out of control when she gets her first blood cycle and they insist on training her.”

“For how long?” Torris frowned.

“At least two winters or more,” Gabrielle responded, frowning herself.

“Xena would never agree to that!” Cyrene exclaimed.

“She agreed once Sasha did,” Gabrielle explained.

“What?” Torris demanded. After making peace with Xena and Gabrielle he had bonded nicely with the children of Xena, both Solan and Sasha.

“Sasha can see things about the future and she has seen things about her future if she doesn’t get the training,” Gabrielle said simply. “She thinks it’s for the best and Xena had to agree.”

“When does this happen?” Cyrene asked, still frowning. “Is she coming home first?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle smiled. “We have a full turn of the seasons and then we head north again.”

“Anything else you want to reveal?” Torris asked, slightly teasing but still serious and so grinned when Gabrielle blushed again.

“Not that I can think of right now,” she mumbled.

“Torris,” Cyrene turned to her son. “Why don’t you go help in the kitchen before the dinner crowd? I’ve got something to talk over with Gabrielle.”

“Sure, Mom,” he got up and leaned over the table to kiss Gabrielle’s cheek. “Glad you’re home.”

“Thanks, Torris.”

The bard waited for Cyrene to continue the conversation. The innkeeper looked uncomfortable.

“What is it, Mom?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“I get the feeling you really don’t know what’s happening with your body, do you?” Cyrene asked.

“Cyrene, what are you talking about?” Gabrielle asked. “I told you some of what happened with Bacchus, every time I think about it I get sick.”

Cyrene noted Gabrielle’s jaw tightening and her fist clenching the edge of the table.

“Every time I close my eyes I feel the hands, lips and bodies of others. Men and women, Bacchae and human and none of them were Xena!” Gabrielle growled, closing her eyes. “I feel the whip landing on my back; I feel the spikes through my wrists.”

Cyrene got up quietly and knelt by Gabrielle’s chair. Tears began flowing down the bard’s cheeks.

“I hear Bacchus, Mom,” she whispered. “I hear Bacchus’ voice and someone pulling me to them sexually. I think it was Bacchus.”

Cyrene wrapped her arms around Gabrielle as the bard began to cry.

“You didn’t tell Xena that, did you?” Cyrene whispered.

“No, I couldn’t!” Gabrielle cried softly. “I get sick just thinking about it and I can’t sleep.”

“And you get sick just thinking about most food?” Cyrene questioned.

“Most food,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Anything that you can keep down and can’t get enough of?” Cyrene asked. “Besides nut bread?”

“I can’t even tolerate nut bread right now,” the bard admitted in a small voice and shrugged at Cyrene’s astounded expression. “I seem to want goat cheese all the time.”

Gabrielle looked puzzled as Cyrene smiled softly and looked the bard in the eyes.

“Okay, just come right out and say it, I guess,” Cyrene muttered to herself.

“Cyrene, if you have any idea what is going on with me, please tell me,” Gabrielle asked.

“Gabrielle, when was your last blood cycle?”

The bard looked puzzled and then thoughtful. “Before facing Alti, I think. With everything that happened, I figured the throwing up and everything was messing my cycle up.”

“Gabrielle, I’ve been a mom three times now and I’ve helped almost every girl in this village deliver their children,” Cyrene said simply.

Gabrielle’s eyes widened in shock. “No,” she whispered.

“I think so, you’ve got all the classic signs,” Cyrene said gently.

“No,” the bard shook her head firmly. “You need a man for that and there’s only been Perdicus, years ago.”

“What happens in the Spirit Realm affects the body in this one,” Cyrene pointed out, trying to hold back her own tears.

“No!” Gabrielle cried, closing her eyes. Her eyes were slightly frantic when she opened them again. “They were spirits, not living beings!” she protested.

“Bacchus wasn’t a spirit,” Cyrene said softly, tears beginning to flow down her cheeks as well.

“No!” Gabrielle screamed and jumped up from her chair.

************************************************************************

Xena grinned at Pony as the Amazon Regent walked up behind Hallvor and embraced the shorter Viking Amazon.

The warrior was glad to see this new development; Hallvor had been more relaxed since the incident with Grendel and the truce between the Vampires and Amazons. After the battle with Grendel and the spell was broken, Hallvor had gained a measure of control over her wolf-self, at least sexually. She still had a tendency to go berserk in battle, especially when dealing with vampires but now any sexual partners didn’t have to worry about having their throats ripped out by a werewolf like creature.

The attraction between Pony and Hallvor must have heated up over the recent days in the Amazon Village.

Xena felt a wave of sadness hit her as Hallvor turned and began kissing Pony passionately. The warrior missed her bard, badly.

Xena grabbed one of the ropes leading to the ground and quickly descend from the small tree hut she had shared with Sasha. As if hearing her thoughts, Sasha was waiting at the base of the tree, her packs already tied on a horse. The warrior grinned and hugged her growing daughter and looked around to see Hallvor and Pony descending from their tree.

The warrior accepted a pack of food from the Amazon cook and tied it on top of the other packs on her horse. A quick round of warrior handshakes, quick hugs for Pony and Hallvor and Xena and Sasha mounted their horses.

It was barely past dawn but Xena was anxious to be on the way home. She hadn’t been sleeping well and felt uncomfortable. Xena had the feeling that something was wrong with Gabrielle and none of the deities had answered her calls.

The warrior was a little pissed. She had half expected Artemis to show up once Xena and Sasha had gotten closer to Greece and among the Amazons again, among worshippers of the Goddess. Still the Goddess hadn’t appeared. Neither had Apollo.

Xena glanced over and found Sasha watching her as they traveled along the narrow trail.

“What?” the warrior asked.

“You’re worried about Mum,” Sasha said simply.

“Yes, you know what she went through fighting Bacchus,” Xena responded. “I don’t like being away from her.”

“I saw more than you did, Mom,” Sasha reminded Xena.

Instantly the warrior was regretful. Because Sasha had acted as a lifeline for Gabrielle and Xena while they were in the Spirit Realm, she had been connected to them. She also had the gift of psychic sight and had been able to see even more than the shaman Yakut. Even more than Xena, she could see Gabrielle when the bard was in Bacchus’ bacchanalia without Xena. The child had seen all the terrors of her adopted mom being tortured and sexual abused.

Xena’s imagination and guilt over letting Gabrielle attempt the fight had filled her mind with images of what had probably happened to the bard. The warrior was sickened to think Sasha had actually seen the events.

“I’m sorry, Sasha,” Xena said softly.

“I know,” the child responded.

“Can you tell how she’s doing?” Xena asked hopefully.

“No,” Sasha frowned after a moment. “Something is blocking me. I can’t see her.”

“Damn!” Xena cursed and urged her horse into a gallop and Sasha pressed her horse to follow.

It had been over a month to travel through the snow and they had spent a polite five days among the Amazons.

It was going to take another two to three weeks to get home.

************************************************************************

Cyrene rushed around the table and grabbed the bard by the arms.

“No!” Gabrielle cried out. “It can’t be Bacchus!”

“We don’t know that for certain!” Cyrene shouted.

“You brought him up! Who else could it be?” Gabrielle demanded. “He was the only living male there!”

Cyrene held tightly as Gabrielle sagged, her knees weakening.

“Oh Gods, I was with Bacchus?” the bard screamed.

Xena’s mother looked over her shoulder and saw Torris pushing his wife and kitchen helper back into the kitchen.

Cyrene eased Gabrielle back into her chair as the bard wrapped her arms around her adopted mom and sobbed.

Torris walked up quietly.

“How can I help, Mom?” he asked softly.

“Open the door to the first available room and then help me get her to bed,” Cyrene ordered.

“Shouldn’t she be at home?”

“We can help Solan and Reija keep an eye on her here until Xena gets home,” Cyrene answered, gently stroked the bard’s hair.

“Oh Gods,” Torris said softly. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

“Yes, enough to shatter both of them, I think,” Cyrene answered softly. “How much did you hear?”

“Only Gabrielle screaming something about Bacchus,” he responded as he reached behind the bar and grabbed the master key to the rooms.

“That’s enough for now,” Cyrene commented.

“Mom, I want to be able to help,” Torris protested.

“I know and I’ll explain after we put her to bed and Solan and Reija get here. Can you send for them, please?”

“Already did,” he smiled slightly, watching Gabrielle’s sobs fading and the bard’s body sagging with it.

************************************************************************

Solan muttered curses under his breath as his Amazon wife Reija turned pale after Cyrene explained to them and Torris what was happening with Gabrielle.

“When does this end?” Solan snapped, his blue eyes flashing like his mother’s.

“Now that they’re immortal I’m not sure it ever will,” Cyrene said ruefully.

“How do we help?” Reija asked, keeping an eye on her infant son playing under the table.

“I think we need to keep an eye on Gabrielle until Xena gets back,” Cyrene said thoughtfully. “This incident in the Spirit Realm had already shattered her spirit, now this!”

Torris frowned at his mother’s anger as she clenched her fists. He understood it, he knew they were all feeling helpless and hated it.

“I’m going to look in on her,” he said simply and stood up.

“Thank you, Torris,” Cyrene said gratefully. It was almost dinnertime and customers were started to wander in already. “Can you sit with her until after dinner? I’ll have Reija bring you up a tray.”

“Yes, of course,” the eldest child of Cyrene agreed with a smile.

As he walked up the stairs he reflected on the change in his relationship with Gabrielle and Xena, much as his mother had done. He had resented Xena’s return to Amphipolis, partly because of the legendary trouble she seemed to attract; partly because of the pain she had caused the family in her warlord days, but also because he was jealous.

He had been envious of Xena’s relationship with Gabrielle once he knew they were more than only traveling companions. Torris had struggled with that revelation about himself for months. Was he jealous because he wanted Gabrielle for himself? He had finally come to the conclusion that part of his dislike of their relationship was that they were of the same gender and he did take some gruff teasing for that from villagers and other village elders. Another part was that he felt Xena hadn’t deserved to be happy, especially with someone as special as Gabrielle.

He had taken his resentment out on both of them. He grinned at himself; it had taken over a month for his jaw to heal where Xena had hit him. Torris had made the mistake of getting angry and confronting his sister over her public display of affection for the bard. Xena had easily blocked his blows but Gabrielle had tried to step between them and he had hit the bard. It had taken a blacksmith’s full strength to hold Xena back from killing her brother in a berserk fury and Gabrielle’s gentle words to eventually calm her down.

Torris had struggled with his feelings. He began to admire how much Xena had changed and how much of that was due to Gabrielle and his resentment began to fade. His attitude had totally changed when Romans threatened the lives of Gabrielle, Xena and Sasha. In the struggle Joxer and Solan had killed several Roman soldiers, Joxer nearly being killed. Solan had been blinded, Torris smacked over the head with a club and Sasha taken.

After that day a peace had come between his sister, Gabrielle and himself until he now considered them friends. He was no longer teased by any of the Elders about Gabrielle and Xena’s relationship either. Of course, a couple of Village Elders had attended the next town meeting with black eyes and Torris with bruised knuckles. Xena’s older brother had refused to answer his mother’s questions about that.

Now his sister’s mate was in trouble again and he cursed the Fates that seemed to be working against them. He couldn’t even blame it on Ares this time.

Torris stood looking in the room at the bed. Looking down at an empty bed in an empty room. Torris rushed in and grabbed up the scroll left on the pillow. He quickly scanned through it, trying to read the bard’s writing in the moonlight.

“Mom!” he shouted as he flew down the stairs to the main room, taking the stairs two at a time.

Minutes later the back of the inn was a mass of confusion as everyone tried to talk at once. Cyrene raised her hands to stop the din and took control.

“Reija, go to the stable and see if Gabrielle’s horse is there,” she ordered. “If it is, tell the stable master not to let Gabrielle leave if she shows up.”

“No one could stop Gabrielle if she wants something,” Torris complained.

“He might be able to slow her down until we can talk to her,” Cyrene countered. “Solan, if she has left town, you track her. You’re the best tracker in the Village.”

“When Mom isn’t here,” he said grimly and moved outside to wait for Reija’s return from the stables.

“Mom, could Gabrielle really be serious about what she says in her note?” Torris asked softly as his wife cared for their toddler son.

“Yes, I’m afraid she might be. The Gods might not even be able to help this time,” Cyrene said softly.

No one noticed the masculine hand reaching for the scroll that had been left on the bar.

************************************************************************

Xena looked at the raging river confronting her and Sasha and yelled in anger. They were halfway home and facing another delay. The river was normally smooth and slow flowing at this part of the country but the recent rains that had plagued the Greeks had swollen the river into a dangerous obstacle.

The banks were usually smooth, grassy and peaceful, now the water had stripped away the grass and dug into the ground, leaving sharp embankments that could break a horses’ neck.

Sasha pulled her hood back and brushed her dark hair out of her eyes and blinked through the rain to look at her mother.

“We’ll have to go either up or down to find another crossing,” the pre-teen said simply.

“I know, I know,” Xena mumbled. “Do you get the feeling we’re being delayed?”

Sasha frowned and closed her eyes for a moment. “I don’t sense anything.”

“I do, it’s that same feeling I used to get whenever Ares was around,” Xena complained.

“Well, it can’t be Ares,” Sasha commented, knowing that her father was safely locked away somewhere in a tomb. Placed there by her mother.

“I know, it’s basically the same feeling and we’re making miserable time,” Xena complained. “Can you see anything about Gabrielle?”

Again the child closed her eyes and concentrated. Then Sasha opened her eyes and bright blue eyes met identical ones and Sasha shook her head.

“No, it’s like looking into a fog,” Sasha stated. “Can you pick up anything?”

“No, just that she’s alive,” Xena growled.

Xena glared at the river again. Either direction would mean another delay and the rain wasn’t helping.

Finally the warrior’s shoulders shagged. “Let’s find somewhere to camp, hopefully out of the rain. We’ll cross tomorrow.”

Sasha knew her mom was frustrated. Ever since leaving the Northern Amazons it seemed that something delayed them. Snow storms, ice flows ripping rivers apart, lame dog teams and then needing to spend time with the Black Forest Amazons.

Now it was rain and another river. Sasha began to wonder if this was something more than possibly ill luck and if her mother was right.

************************************************************************

Reija had reported to the family that Gabrielle’s horse was already gone. Solan and Torris quickly scouted around the edge of town with a torch until Solan found fresh tracks. Having a direction to go, Solan continued on as Torris rushed back to get horses and let Cyrene know what direction they were heading.

Cyrene sent Reija home with her son, Kiryk and the innkeeper went to her room in the back of the inn and closed the door.

Lighting a single candle, Xena’s mom sat down and began concentrating on the candle’s flame.

“Hecate, Great Mother of Darkness and Wisdom, can you come to me? Hear my plea, my old friend,” Cyrene intoned. “My family, our daughter is in trouble.”

Cyrene felt the air behind her shift but closed her eyes.

“I know the trouble, Cyrene,” Hecate’s familiar voice whispered behind her. “Others are moving to help.”

“Others?” Cyrene questioned.

“Yes, they have been keeping an eye on both Xena and Gabrielle and are stepping in now,” Hecate explained.

“Will they succeed?” Cyrene questioned, a tear flowing down her cheek.

“I can’t see the future when it concerns our children, Cyrene,” Hecate whispered. “No mother can.”

“Please, do you know what Gabrielle is planning?” Cyrene pleaded.

“Yes, have faith.”

************************************************************************

Xena had her chakram in her hand before she even blinked a second time. She could hear Sasha stirring next to her as they both took in the bright light filling the small clearing they were camped in.

Xena was sleeping with her back to Sasha, facing the opening of the pine-bough lean-to she had made for shelter. She noted that it had stopped raining and that it was Apollo standing near the center of the meadow.

“Apollo?” Xena questioned as she lowered the chakram and Sasha peered over her shoulder.

“Get up and get dressed!” he said urgently. “There’s not much time!”

“What?” Xena blinked and sat up.

“Move!” Apollo shouted. “I need you ready to travel! Gabrielle is in trouble!”

The warrior was on her feet and in the Gods face in moments. “What? What’s happened?”

The God of the Sun handed the warrior a rolled up scroll. He held up his hand above them, the light from it shining like a bright oil lamp.

Xena unrolled the scroll with a feeling of dread. Gabrielle’s handwriting greeted her.

Xena;

My beloved soul mate and my life.
How can I tell you the reason for this when my own mind screams in rage and denial about what has happened to me?

I never thought that anything could come between or separate us. I always thought that one of us would fall in battle or an accident. I then pictured that one waiting on the other side.

I never dreamed we would end like this. I guess in a way I did fall in battle. That damned battle with Alti and Bacchus. I failed, my love and now I fall.

I can’t live with the results of that battle and that loss. To do so could release a potential evil in the world. I’ll take that future with me.

Xena, I’m sorry for your mother. I’m leaving it to her to explain the precise reasons for my actions and I’m sorry for that. I can’t bear to write it down.

You’ve told me that I was the best thing in your life; I hope you can forgive me for this. I pray that the Gods forgive me and let me wait for you in one of the paradises.

I am hoping that all the good we’ve done will balance out against carrying this evil and for taking my own life.

I’ve chosen poison since my body reacts badly to it ever since our wedding, even with my immortal healing abilities.

There is so much to write you, my love, and now there is no time. I wouldn’t change my life with you, Xena. Even the battle with Alti was necessary. We always knew that the odds of living until old age weren’t good, I’m so sorry to leave you.

You’ll find my body behind the altar where Aphrodite and I took on Ares, in the niche hidden by the bushes. I’m hoping that the shaman concentration skills you have taught me will block Apollo and Artemis from knowing where I am and stopping me.

Xena, I love you more than life its self but I can’t carry through.

I love you. Forgive me.

Your Gabrielle

“Body? Poison?” Xena whispered as Sasha grabbed the scroll from her mother and quickly read while Xena attempted to absorb the words Gabrielle had written her.

“Yes!” Apollo hissed. “Artemis! Appear, damnit!”

The Forest and Moon Goddess appeared instantly.

“What is going on? You want me to delay the warrior and now you’re yelling at me?” she demanded.

“Where is she?” Xena screamed.

“What?” Artemis snapped back.

“Gabrielle plans to kill herself!” Apollo shouted.

“What? That’s not the plan!” Artemis yelled.

“No kidding!” Apollo growled. “Where did she and Aphrodite fight Ares?”
“One of my altars in the old Amazon forest, I don’t know which one, I was in Tartarus,” Artemis whined.

“We don’t have time to search them, I already spent two days looking for her,” Apollo grumbled while Xena and Sasha got dressed and gathered their gear together. Xena rushed over to the horses and removed their reins and set them loose. “Aphrodite!”

It was several moments before the Goddess of Love appeared, trying to rearrange her flimsy top, her hair mussed and she looked flustered.

“What? I was busy!” she snapped.

“At which altar did you and Gabrielle fight Ares?” Artemis demanded.

“Oh that’s easy!” the Goddess giggled.

“Then take us there, Gabrielle’s in trouble!” Apollo demanded.

“No problem, cousin!” Aphrodite snapped her fingers and everyone disappeared, leaving two confused horses in the middle of Northern Italia.

************************************************************************

Gabrielle didn’t dare make any prayers to Artemis, the Goddess might appear and try to stop her. She hoped that the Gods and Xena would forgive her.

The bard angrily wiped away tears and pulled out the vial of poison.

“Xena,” she whispered as she uncorked the bottle and raised it to her lips.

A moment later, liquid was splashed over the distraught bard and she was holding a cut hand. Her green eyes widened at the sight of Goddesses, a God, Sasha, and Xena.

The warrior was holding the chakram she had just sent flying through the air, which shattered the bottle and cut Gabrielle’s hand.

One look into those blue eyes and Gabrielle’s strength failed and she fell back against the rock, breaking into tears.

Gabrielle began to wail as Xena’s arms wrapped around her and pulled the bard from the niche behind the altar dedicated to Artemis.

“Xena, help me!”

“I’m here, little one, I’m here,” Xena whispered, rocking her mate.

“Well, guys,” Aphrodite looked around at Apollo, Artemis and Sasha who were watching the couple. “Someone want to, like, clue me in?”

“Gabrielle and Xena recently entered the Spirit Realm and fought the Northern shaman Alti,” Artemis began. “Unfortunately Alti had joined up with Bacchus.”

“Ewwww!” the Goddess of Love exclaimed. “Tall, dark, and fanged.”

“Yes,” Apollo grimaced in agreement. “Gabrielle was captured by him and went through an endless time of torture and sexual abuse.”

Aphrodite’s eyes widened, “I’ve been to more than a few Bacchanalia’s in my time but everyone was more than happy to be there. Totally uncool and unfair!”

Apollo shook his head at his cousins’ description. He felt the same way; he probably would have expressed it in a different way, though.

“My poor Chosen eventually gave in but was saved by Xena from being a total Bacchae,” Artemis continued.

“Oh bummer! But can’t they work through that?” Aphrodite asked.

“They probably would if Gabrielle hadn’t come to the conclusion that the child she’s carrying is the child of Bacchus,” Apollo continued the explanation.

Both Xena and Gabrielle looked up in confusion.

“Child?” Xena whispered.

“But Bacchus was the only living being there besides me,” Gabrielle protested.

“Bacchus?” Xena whispered, suddenly understanding Gabrielle’s terror. “You were with Bacchus and now you’re pregnant?”

Gabrielle buried her head in Xena’s shoulder.

“Gabrielle,” Xena pulled the bard’s head up until Gabrielle looked her in the eyes, both with tears flowing down their cheeks. “Gabrielle, I love you. Whatever this means, I don’t care. We’ll face it together, you and me. I don’t care if the child is from Bacchus, it’s also your child.”

“I can’t!” Gabrielle protested.

“You accepted a child of Ares,” Sasha said simply.

Gabrielle frowned in thought and Xena smiled gratefully at her daughter.

“Besides,” Apollo drew their attention. “It doesn’t matter.”

“What do you mean?” Xena asked, still holding tightly to Gabrielle.

Artemis sighed and knelt down in front of the couple. She gently stroked Gabrielle’s hair. “Chosen, we gave you time to figure out you were pregnant before Xena could get back to Greece. We never dreamed you would think it was Bacchus and want to end your life.”

“What in Tartarus am I supposed to think?” the bard demanded and Xena was amused, glad to see a flash of emotion other than despair from her mate.

“Apollo,” Artemis glanced up at the God, “We blew it.”

“I guess,” the God of the Sun shrugged. “Gabrielle, my child, we wanted to give you time to adjust so you could tell Xena.”

“Adjust to what? Having a child of Bacchus?” Gabrielle demanded.

“No,” Artemis protested. “Bacchus isn’t the father!”

Gabrielle blinked repeatedly and Xena frowned deeply. “Run that by me again,” the bard demanded.

“Bacchus isn’t the father,” Artemis repeated and glared at Aphrodite who giggled and clapped her hands at the news.

“Then who, one of the men who was at the bacchanalia? Is that supposed to be better?”

“Artemis, explain already!” Aphrodite demanded. “I’m like dying of curiosity over here!”

The Goddess stood up and the Greek couple watched as she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, letting the moonlight bathe her face.

After a few moments Xena’s eyes spotted movement in the trees at the edge of the small clearing and pointed them out to Gabrielle.

Both felt their hearts jump when they realized it was the Forest Spirits from the North. Gabrielle stood up slowly, followed by Xena. The bard slowly walked to the family of forest deities.

“Greetings, I am honored by your presence this far from your home,” Gabrielle said respectfully.

Artemis rushed over and grabbed Aphrodite, a hand over the Goddess of Love’s mouth to stop any comment or question from the goddess. The last thing the Goddess of the Amazons wanted to hear was Aphrodite’s comments on the way the Forest Family was dressed, which was mostly in moss, bark and leaves. The Amazon Goddess walked over and stood next to her Chosen after releasing Aphrodite.

“Because of what happened to Gabrielle in her battle against Alti and one of our dark Gods, Gabrielle thinks that the dark God is the father of the child she is carrying,” Artemis explained.

The oldest male stepped forward and gently placed his hands on the bard’s shoulders. His green eyes shifted into different shades as he looked into Gabrielle’s eyes.

“You are still wearing the necklace we gave you,” he commented softly.

The bard touched the necklace of three tooled silver beads and leather and frowned.

“Yes, you asked me too when you gave me the wooden sais to fight the vampires,” she answered.

“Then, child of the shining God,” the Forest Spirit wife walked up and joined her husband. “The child you carry is no one but of your mate.”

“Mate?” Gabrielle questioned. “Xena?”

“The beads were magic to hold a spirit child from your mate,” the male explained.

Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s waist as the bard’s knees gave away.

“Xena?” Gabrielle whispered.

“I’m here, little one,” she whispered back, watching the eyes of the Forest Deities. “Why?”

“The little one asked for help to return the balance to the forest of our land,” the wife continued. “She agreed that our help came at a price.”

“The price is a child?” Gabrielle asked, regaining her feet, a flash of anger in her voice.

“Not quite,” the father said easily. “Your child will grow up with talents, woodland talents. We ask that he or she be trained as a protector to the land, whatever land you live in. We ask for a champion of the land as you have been to the Amazons.”

Gabrielle leaned back into Xena’s arms and closed her eyes for a moment.

“You’re not demanding that my child join you at any point?” she asked, finally opening her eyes.

“No, we ask not for a loss from you but that your light spread through your child,” the wife said easily.

“What about my darkness? Will my child inherit my blood lust?”

“We cannot say of that,” the father responded, beginning to back away from the group towards the trees.

Xena’s sharp eyes noticed that she could no longer see the son and daughter.

“Be well, daughter of light and dark,” the wife said softly as she and her husband blended into the trees once more.

Gabrielle turned to embrace Xena tightly for a moment and then drew Sasha into the hug, the bard sobbing in relief.

“Totally radical!” Aphrodite exclaimed.
“Xena, I can’t take much more,” Gabrielle whispered as the warrior sat down behind her and pulled the bard into her arms.

Apollo, Artemis, Aphrodite and Sasha sat around the fire with the Greek couple.

“I know, little one,” Xena nuzzled Gabrielle’s neck. “Time for some answers.”

Apollo and Artemis looked dismayed and Aphrodite looked somewhat amused at their discomfort.

“What in Tartarus made either of you two think we could handle this better separated?” Xena demanded.

“We knew that it would be a shock when Gabrielle discovered that she was pregnant and wouldn’t know how she had gotten that way. We wanted to give her a couple of days to figure out how to tell you,” Artemis explained.

“We never dreamed that she would think it was Bacchus,” Apollo chipped in.

“What was she supposed to think? Divine intervention?” Xena snapped. She could feel the exhaustion radiating from her mate and her heart ached for the mental torture Gabrielle had been through.

Artemis blushed and looked away.

“Gabrielle, we never meant to hurt you,” Apollo said softly.

Gabrielle shook her head and leaned back into Xena.

“Let us fix this as much as we can,” Artemis asked.

“How? Gabrielle has been through Tartarus,” Xena demanded.

“Tonight you’ll be safe here from patrols and can rest and talk,” Artemis said. “We’ll take Sasha back to your mother and grab Solan and Torris on the way. We’ll explain things to your family.”

“Solan and Torris?” Xena asked.

“They were trying to track me,” Gabrielle answered. “I lost them yesterday when I took to the trees.”

Xena shook her head, admiring her mate’s resourcefulness, even when distraught.

“We’ll also leave you horses to get back on,” Apollo continued. “Gabrielle left hers when she lost your son and brother.”

“Sasha?” Xena questioned.

Sasha looked at her two moms and smiled. Gabrielle looked so tired and sick, barely holding her head up. She could feel the pain starting to ease from her “mum” but it was still going to take time.

“I’ll be okay, Mom,” she said easily. “You need time with mum.”

Xena nodded to the deities as she felt Gabrielle’s head drop forward slightly. The God and Goddesses got up quietly. Each moved forward and touched the bard’s head.

“She won’t be sick anymore with the child,” Aphrodite said softly, her blue eyes filling with tears at the sight of one of her favorite couples.

“The memory of Bacchus abusing her sexually will remain faded,” Apollo whispered softly and Xena nodded gratefully.

“Two days sanctuary here, no one will get close,” Artemis offered softly. Xena blinked and discovered a full stocked camp, complete with Gabrielle’s horse and Argo. Bedrolls waited for them.

“Thank you all,” Xena said simply and reached up from Gabrielle to hug their daughter. “You be good and tell your Grandmother we’re okay.”

“I will,” Sasha promised.

In a flash the Gods and demi-God child were gone.

Xena moved a groggy Gabrielle into the bedrolls and quickly got out of her armor and leather tunic. She crawled in behind her bard and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle. The bard whimpered slightly and grabbed Xena’s arms.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, tears flowing down her face. “I’m sorry, I should have been there. I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have sent you away.”

The thought of Bacchus and the Bacchanalia flashed through the warriors mind and the physical tortures her mate had gone through and she growled softly.

Someday she’d find a way to make Bacchus pay.

************************************************************************

Gabrielle opened her eyes and was surprised to find Xena sitting next to the fire cooking breakfast.

Remembering the night before the bard frowned and sat up slowly.

“It wasn’t a dream? You’re here?” she asked softly.

Xena smiled softly. “I’m here, little one.”

“It’s not Bacchus?” Gabrielle asked, still frowning.

“No, they say your child is both of ours,” Xena grinned and brought a plate of deer and fresh vegetables to her mate.

“How is that possible?” the bard asked, reaching out and touching Xena’s arm, as if to reassure herself the warrior was really there.

“I don’t know, how does half of what happens to us happen?” Xena grinned.

“Okay, I’ll accept that one,” Gabrielle smiled slightly.

Then Xena looked pained. “Gabrielle, what you planned,” she began.

The bard fought back tears as green eyes looked into blue ones. The warrior put the plates aside and pulled her mate into her arms.

“Let’s just leave it at me saying ‘don’t ever do that to me again!’ Okay?” Xena said softly.

“Okay,” the bard said gratefully. “I haven’t been thinking clearly since that damned place.”

The bard’s eyes narrowed at the sight of Xena’s knuckles and the warrior winced when Gabrielle grabbed her hands. Green eyes flashed as Gabrielle inspected the scraped and bruised knuckles.

Xena glanced away, blushing slightly.

With a sigh Gabrielle suddenly realized what had happened.

“You went out this morning and punched something,” Gabrielle said flatly.

“Yes, whacking a tree with my sword didn’t seem enough this time,” Xena admitted. “Gabrielle, I almost lost you, again! The thought of you killing yourself over Bacchus made me crazy.”

“I’m sorry, Xena,” the bard said softly, head downcast. “I keep hearing his voice as he reached for me, his laughter as he whipped me and drank the blood from the strands of the whip. His moan of delight as he drank blood from my neck and from the wounds of my back. I couldn’t take knowing I was carrying his child.”

“I know, I… had to work some of that out,” Xena explained. She was also worried. Apollo said that the memories of Bacchus’ abuse would be a faded memory. What Gabrielle remembered was apparently clear. Xena wasn’t sure she wanted to know what else Bacchus had put her mate through that Gabrielle wasn’t remembering.

“I don’t remember much about last night,” Gabrielle said slowly.

“We’ve got two days without worrying about Roman patrols,” Xena explained. “They took Sasha home, and, presumably Solan and Torris.”

“We can rest a couple of days?”

“Yes, just you and me, the woods and the river,” Xena smiled. “As exhausted as we both are I suggest a day of swimming and sunning and nothing else.”
Gabrielle smiled in agreement.
************************************************************************

Joxer was sitting by the campfire and began wondering if Gabrielle was coming back or if his beloved bard had changed her mind after trying to explain to her family that she had left Xena for him.

She had been gone for three days but he was attempting not to worry.

A sound to his left brought the former soldier to his feet with sword in hand.

“Joxer?” a familiar voice called out.

“It’s me,” he responded and grinned as Gabrielle approached the camp, leading her horse to where his was tied. In a moment she was in his arms and all doubt quickly fled as anxious hands began tearing at his clothing.

Joxer had always suspected that gentle and sweet Gabrielle was probably a wild cat in bed and he had been right, he thought. She was insatiable and he had been more than willing to try and keep up with her.

Joxer was willing to die trying. The warrior couldn’t believe how happy he was with Gabrielle.

Later Joxer and Gabrielle lay in the shade of a tree, watching the breeze through the leaves as the bard’s hand played across his chest.

“How did it go with your family?” he finally asked.

“Fine, everything is going as planned. Everyone is right where they’re supposed to be,” she muttered sleepily.

“What? Who is where they’re supposed to be?” Joxer was confused.

“Hmmm? We are, lover,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Xena’s family is back in Amphipolis and no longer looking for me, my family is in one place and we lost Meg.”

Joxer frowned; he didn’t like being reminded of the life they were leaving behind, especially his wife. He had never meant to hurt Meg but he knew he had and it was unforgivable. There was no excuse and no justification. Everyone knew he had always loved Gabrielle but that didn’t excuse this, he thought. He thought he had moved past his desire for the bard and had taken vows with Meg.

Joxer loved Meg and he desired her and he had betrayed her but he wasn’t strong enough to go back to try and make amends. In Gabrielle’s arms nothing else mattered, not even his honor.

It didn’t help that he sometimes didn’t understand Gabrielle, her moods were erratic and he didn’t feel the original connection with her at times. Joxer attributed it to her recent trauma and breakup with Xena and shrugged it off, especially since the sex was precisely as he had always imagined it, wild and untamed. Joxer frowned again, there was something missing though, Gabrielle’s gentleness and the soldier found he did miss that, a lot. He tried to shrug that off as well, she had been through a lot recently, he reminded himself. His Gabrielle would come back soon.
************************************************************************
Xena glanced over at her mate and noticed Gabrielle’s frown and intense look. The warrior finished pouring both of them a cup of tea and sat down across from the bard.

The day had been spent fishing and swimming in the river and then sunning on the rocks. Fortune seemed to be finally showing some mercy on the couple and the day was warm and gentle. Xena had stirred the fire back up when the night began turning cool after dinner.

“What is it?”

Xena’s heart always skipped a beat whenever Gabrielle looked up at her and had yellow eyes instead of her usual green ones. She knew the bard didn’t do it intentionally but it almost always startled her.

The warrior found it disturbed her even more now, after going through the Bacchanalia and seeing Gabrielle turn into a full Bacchae. Before facing Bacchus in the Spirit Realm Xena had almost gotten used to Gabrielle’s eyes changing as well as catching glimpses of fangs.

Xena had definitely gotten accustomed to the more pleasant side of Gabrielle’s Bacchae side, incredible sex that accompanied the blood feeding.

Gabrielle scowled, “It’s changed, hasn’t it?”

“What’s changed?”

“How you see me now,” Gabrielle said bitterly, looking away.

Xena lifted the bard’s chin to look her in the eyes, her battle trained senses keeping her heartbeat a steady rhythm when yellow eyes looked at her.

“No,” Xena insisted. “After dealing with vampires for two moons, it simply startled me. I almost lost you again to the Bacchae; I came so close to losing you. I couldn’t take that!”

Gabrielle sat their cups aside and let Xena pull her into an embrace. She felt Xena doing something the warrior rarely let herself do, cry.

“You were gone for those five days and I was so lost, then that damned Bacchae thing and then you almost left again,” the warrior cried softly, holding her mate tightly.

“I’m sorry, Xena,” Gabrielle felt tears streaming down her own face.

After a few moments the warrior pulled back and wiped at her tears and then at Gabrielle’s. She tried to smile but then held Gabrielle close again.

The warrior knew neither one of them were emotionally up to a round of Bacchae sex and feeding. She gently turned Gabrielle around to sit between her legs and the bard leaned back into her mate with a sigh of contentment. Xena wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s ribs and the bard intertwined her fingers with her mate’s.

An evening of watching the fire and stars while sipping their tea did much to continue the healing they both needed.

Later Xena took Gabrielle’s cup and her own and placed them to the side. The warrior removed her wrist bracer and returned her other arm around Gabrielle’s waist.

“Its okay, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered.

Gabrielle hesitated. It had been an insane time and part of her had been hoping that the Bacchae cravings had been broken when she actually died to save Xena and had been dead for five days.

To her dismay she had discovered the cravings were still there. Then that damned time with Bacchus when she had become a full Bacchae in the Spirit Realm and she was still blaming herself for giving in.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure she trusted herself and the blood cravings anymore.

Xena sensed Gabrielle’s hesitation.

“Gabrielle, our connection brought you back when Bacchus had you,” she said softly. “He lost and we won. Do you remember the light radiating from you? The power of your true father, Apollo?”

“Yes,” the bard closed her eyes and brought the warrior’s wrist to her lips and lightly kissed the skin and the palm of her lover’s hand.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena said simply.

The bard kisses worked their way up the warrior’s arm as well as tiny nips on the inside of the arm, causing the warrior’s body to jerk in reaction as the Bacchae eroticism began to hit both women.

Xena hand roamed under Gabrielle’s tunic, missing the days when the bard wore almost nothing, especially on top. The warrior missed feeling the skin of her bard, even with casual contact. How many times had that driven her crazy before they became lovers?

The warrior felt Gabrielle’s quick intake of breath as her hand found the bard’s lovely breasts and Xena moaned slightly as she felt Gabrielle’s fangs extend and play over her wrist. Xena lowered her head to the bard’s neck and bit down firmly, causing Gabrielle’s body to arch in response and the bard to cry out.

The bard’s head darted downward and Xena hissed as fangs sank into her wrist and her body began to shudder.

Then Xena felt a change in the energy and blinked in confusion, she could sense Gabrielle hesitate. Usually during their Bacchae lovemaking Gabrielle lead the way but the warrior could feel the tenseness in her mate’s body and how Gabrielle stopped at her wrist.

Xena understood, with everything that the bard had been through, she needed to be reassured as if it were their first time together.

The warrior used all her skills to hold back the usual passion caused by her bard feeding from her, whether it was at her wrist or neck. Using her other hand, still caressing under the bard’s tunic, Xena gently pulled up the edge of the fabric and bent her head to kiss Gabrielle’s back. The angry red scars stood out brightly against the thin healed white scars of previous lashings. One set of claw marks showed distinctly against the lash scars and slave brand the bard had endured while a slave, the claw marks given to her from the Northern Amazons upon her initiation into the tribe. The only scars Gabrielle was proud of. New claw marks had been added by Bacchus, causing her shame.

Xena kissed each mark lovingly until she felt Gabrielle start shivering. After kissing all the bard’s scars, the warrior started gently kissing Gabrielle’s neck and shoulder. She heard the bard moan and the feeding on her wrist eased.

Xena whispered into Gabrielle’s ear, “I love you, my bard. Please let me show you how much, how much I want to touch you.”

Gabrielle’s breathing became heavier and the bard nodded her head slightly. Her body had been stiff but began to loosen as Xena continued to kiss her way up and down Gabrielle’s body, removing her clothing as she went. Once they were both naked, Xena eased Gabrielle down onto the sleeping furs, placing small and warm kisses on the bard’s chest before coming up to the bard’s mouth. She kissed her mate’s bottom lip and pulled it gently between her teeth. Then, as like their first time together, their kisses became passionate.

Xena released her mouth and kissed her way down Gabrielle’s chest. Reaching the bard’s nipples she licked and nipped each one. Gabrielle’s hips began a motion against her warrior until they were both wet.

“I’m right here, little one,” Xena said softly in between nibbles and heard Gabrielle moan in pleasure, the bard’s hands working through Xena’s hair and across her shoulders. “Just you and me. I love you.”

“Xena, no one but you, please!” Gabrielle whispered, her back arching under her mate.

Knowing that Gabrielle wasn’t ready for any rougher sex, Xena softly kissed her way down the bard’s body. As she positioned herself between Gabrielle’s legs the warrior felt the bard stiffen. “I’ve got you, my love,” Xena said softly as she ran her fingers up the inside of Gabrielle’s thighs, staying away from the bard’s center yet. “Trust me, little one. I won’t hurt you.”

Gabrielle sighed and Xena felt her relax, giving over trust to her warrior.

The bard jerked with a flash of memory of other hands and bodies and gripped the sleeping furs under her, she could feel Xena back off and wait patiently until Gabrielle relaxed again and nodded slightly.

“Think of a word to use when one of those hits, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly.

“What?” Gabrielle questioned.

“A word to let me know to back off until you’re ready and don’t pick ‘stop,” the warrior teased and was delighted when Gabrielle lightly smacked her playfully on the head. The warrior had dealt with survivors before and was one herself, having been both the abuser and abused. She knew flashes would hit Gabrielle for a long time to come, especially during sex and the last thing she wanted to do was cause her mate any pain.

“How in Tartarus am I supposed to think of something when one of those hits?” Gabrielle complained.

“How about a color then?” Xena suggested, continuing to run her fingers over Gabrielle’s legs and body, noting that the bard was beginning to react again.

“Gods, your touch is so nice,” Gabrielle muttered.

“A color, pick a color,” Xena smiled as Gabrielle’s hips jerked when the warrior danced her fingers across the reddish blonde hair in front of her.

“Fine, fine! Red, okay?” Gabrielle demanded as Xena went to her lower lips.

“Perfect. You are so beautiful,” Xena muttered as the bard’s hands reached down to Xena’s head and began running her fingers through her hair, holding the warrior’s head where it was, to welcome Xena’s attention.

Xena felt herself moan at the sound of Gabrielle’s whimper as Xena began alternating between gentle licking and pressure with her tongue. Soon the bard was reaching a fevered pitch and the warrior held one arm over the bard’s wonderful abdomen to try and keep the bard still enough to enjoy what Xena was doing to her.

Gabrielle screamed Xena’s name and dug her fingers into the fur underneath her and felt her body tense. She cried out Xena’s name again and collapsed back onto the skins below her.

Xena quickly moved up beside Gabrielle as the bard’s body was wracked with tears and spasms. The warrior softly rocked her mate and whispered gentle words of love and support in Gabrielle’s ear.

After awhile the tears subsided and Gabrielle looked up with sleepy eyes and a relaxed body. “Gods, I love you, Xena,” she whispered. “I’m sorry about Bacchus.”

Xena wiped away a fresh tear from the bard’s face and smiled gently. “It’s okay, love, sleep now. I’ll hold you tonight.”

“As always,” Gabrielle muttered, trying to resist falling asleep but her head fell onto Xena’s chest.

“Shhh. I love you, my bard.”

The warrior kissed the bard’s head and sighed in relief when Gabrielle’s breath evened out and became rhythmic. Xena breathed a silent hope that the bard wouldn’t have nightmares tonight before falling asleep herself.
*****************************************************************

As Xena returned to the camp she found herself whistling and smiling, remembering the night before. Now that Gabrielle was healed physically, it was time to start healing the emotionally and mental parts. They had snuggled and kissed a little after the battle in the Spirit Realm but Gabrielle and Xena hadn’t had time to reconnect before Artemis had taken Gabrielle to Greece, leaving Xena behind in the North. Now the night before had been a wonderful beginning towards healing.

Xena entered the camp area and found Gabrielle gone and the warrior frowned. Xena extended her senses but nothing seemed out of the ordinary. A quick look around camp in the early morning light told the warrior where her mate had gone. Clothing left behind and a towel draped over a tree branch.

Xena smiled. How many years ago had she awakened to find Gabrielle gone but a towel tossed over a tree limb to let her know where to find the bard? The day after they had finally declared their love for each other. The day they would become lovers.

So much had happened in their lives. She had a grandson and now Gabrielle was pregnant. Totally unexpected.

Now Xena felt like she did all those years before when she went to find Gabrielle. She wanted to make love to Gabrielle but she was nervous. Back then because it was their first time, now it was because it felt like it was the first time.

Xena thought it was a good sign that Gabrielle had left the towel for her to find, encouraging the warrior to come and join her. Xena hoped that Gabrielle was remembering that first time as well instead of the recent events with Bacchus.

The warrior removed her armor and grabbed a towel herself and walked the short path through the woods to the river.

As she rounded the trail, Xena caught site of Gabrielle and held her breath.

Xena felt like she had traveled back in time.

The bard was breath taking. Xena couldn’t find the words. Gabrielle had already been in the water and was now on a smooth rock, leaning back on her elbows, letting the sun dry her beautiful skin. Xena felt her heart pounding as Gabrielle lay back on the rock, her naked skin shining in the sun.

Xena grinned and stripped out of her leather shift and left that and the towel on the bank as she slowly entered the water, trying not to make any extra noise. She almost yelped at the cold water though but gritted her teeth.

Exactly as she had so many years ago Xena ducked under the water and easily swam the short distance across the current and, with absolute silence, slid out of the water and up onto the rock where Gabrielle was sunning herself. With the grace of a stalking tiger, the warrior moved slowly and carefully up close to her bard and then, with an evil grin, shook her head quickly, sending cold water flying all over the bard.

“Xena!” the bard shrieked and then laughed as she sprang up into the warrior’s waiting arms. Her lips were quickly captured by Xena’s and Gabrielle pulled Xena down on top of her, moaning slightly at the feel of the warrior’s cool and wet skin against her.

Xena pulled back and leaned on an elbow, looking down into the beautiful green eyes of her mate.

“You goof!” Gabrielle grinned. “I remember,” she whispered, reached up with a gentle hand and touched Xena’s cheek and trailed her fingers over the warrior’s face and lips.

“You are just as beautiful as that day, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, gently kissing her bard.

All those years ago their first lovemaking had been with a sense of urgency of passion that had been smoldering for moons, if not years. Their bodies had come together quickly, now it was gentle and slow.

Xena’s fingers began moving lightly over Gabrielle’s skin, smiling at the beauty of her mate, occasionally frowning at the various scars she found, remembering where some of them had come from. An arrow from the Persian army, a knife wound from some forgotten bandit that had gotten infected and numerous slashes Xena presumed had come from Gabrielle’s training and combat as a gladiator.

The bard’s pulse quickened as the warrior’s fingers danced over her skin. To Gabrielle it also felt very much like the first time for them. The bard had been so afraid that Xena wouldn’t want her after what Gabrielle had been through with Bacchus and every time she got near Xena the memories would come flooding back. The events of the night before had done much to reconnect them and Gabrielle was grateful for Xena’s gentleness.

The bard knew her reactions were normal after the abuse; she still suffered from nightmares from being attacked when she was a Roman slave.

Xena moved slowly, letting her lips follow her fingers, lightly kissing Gabrielle’s skin. She would linger over a spot whenever the bard moaned in pleasure and would back off whenever the bard would stiffen with a flash of memory.

Unconsciously, Gabrielle’s hands reached up and pulled Xena close to her, pulling Xena back against her as the warrior explored the bard’s body. Her hands were all over Xena’s back and lacing through her long raven hair.

Slowly Gabrielle felt her desire slowly returning and pulled Xena’s body almost on top of her, her own back arching to meet the warrior’s body as Xena’s knee went between her legs.

The warrior looked into Gabrielle’s eyes, green meeting blue and the warrior was pleased to see the desire darkening the bard’s eyes and she felt herself moan.

“Yes!” Gabrielle hissed and Xena began a tormenting slow descent down Gabrielle’s body with her hands, tongue and lips until Gabrielle was almost thrashing with desire. Xena groaned again and gently parted the bard’s lower lips and was rewarded with Gabrielle growling and tossing her head back. “Xena, please!” she begged.

The warrior noted how wet the bard was for her and knew it wasn’t from the swim. With ease she slipped two fingers into her lover and began her exploring with her tongue over and around lips and then slowly encircling the clit, causing Gabrielle to cry out with the intensity of the energy building within her body.

As always Xena was amazed at how her own body reacted to Gabrielle’s cries and rising passion with her own energy build up, she usually let herself ride to orgasm with the bard. Today, she held back, focusing all her attention on Gabrielle, carefully watching and judging. Watching for flashes of memories to overcome the bard. When none seemed to crowd her mate, Xena increased her speed with her tongue and Gabrielle’s voice hit a higher notch.

“Xena!” she cried out. “Harder, please!”

Xena complied and Gabrielle’s hips matched the rhythm the warrior was setting with her fingers and tongue, entering Gabrielle harder and deeper and was rewarded with Gabrielle screaming her name again. Xena felt the bard’s muscles begin contracting and she pulled on Gabrielle’s clit with her teeth. The bard screamed as waves of her orgasm overcame her, again and again.

When she could breath again, Gabrielle found she was in Xena’s arms again, being rocked and the warrior was saying words of love and comfort in her ear.

“Gods, you are always amazing,” Gabrielle whispered, feeling like a limp rag at the moment.

The first time they had made love the bard had momentarily lost consciousness and scared her mate, now Xena was a little more accustomed to it happening whenever Gabrielle hit that high. It still unnerved her but also pleased her.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” and lightly kissed the bard’s lips.

Gabrielle moaned at the softness and the taste of herself on Xena’s lips.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“For what?” Xena smiled. “I love you more than life itself, Gabrielle. Nothing will come between that.”

“No one can do to me what you do,” the bard whispered, beginning to nuzzle the warrior’s neck.

“That’s because we make love, not just sex,” Xena agreed.

“Yes, big difference,” Gabrielle agreed, lightly nipping at Xena’s earlobe, sending shivers over the warrior’s body while her hand began playing with Xena’s breast and nipple.

“Gods, your touch is always like fire!” Xena moaned, her back arching.

“Xena?”

The bard had pulled back and Xena wasn’t surprised to see Gabrielle’s eyes had changed from green to yellow. The bard hadn’t taken much the night before because of her fears.

“Yes, little one,” Xena said fiercely. The warrior sat up on her elbows, letting Gabrielle see the passion in her eyes. “Gabrielle, no more fear. I love you and trust you with my life and soul, even with this. Let it go, little one, and take back your power and control. I can handle whatever you need.”

Gabrielle growled deep in her throat and felt her fangs extending as Xena’s words sank in and the bard let the desire hit her body.

Xena saw Gabrielle’s hands trembling and lay back onto Gabrielle’s towel, pulling the bard with her.

“Now!” she hissed, thrusting her leg between Gabrielle’s.

The bard growled and lowered her head to Xena’s breast and her hand went between them. Xena screamed as Gabrielle’s fangs sank into the area around one of her nipples and the bard’s fingers entered her quickly, the warrior’s body arching under the bard.

Xena clung to Gabrielle’s back as their bodies rocked together. “Oh gods, little one!” The warrior thought she would go insane with the heights she was reaching; Gabrielle had never done that before!

The bard released her hold on Xena’s breast and traced a trail with her tongue down the warrior’s ribs and stomach, a slight reddish trail and Xena groaned at the sight. Gabrielle’s eyes were still yellow and Xena whimpered as the bard’s tongue danced over her clit, playfully watching Xena.

Xena could feel Gabrielle’s fingers working deeper into her and concentrated on trying to relax for her mate as she bit her lip to keep from screaming as the waves began to build up.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly. “Anything?” she questioned.

“Gods, anything for you!” Xena cried out, gripping the towel under her as her hips rocked, trying to take more and more of her mate.

Xena felt her voice break as Gabrielle’s hand entered her and filled her. Both their bodies stilled for a moment as the warrior trembled with the sensation. Then Gabrielle began moving her hand slightly, expanding her fingers and pulling, causing Xena to whimper and cry out, her back arching again.

The warrior lost all contact with conscious thought and reality as Gabrielle’s tongue found her clit and her fangs sank into her at the same time. The bard began feeding on both life juices of her mate as her tongue danced over Xena’s sex and her hand filled her mate.

Xena’s voice couldn’t scream anymore as wave after wave hit her and darkness claimed her.

Xena woke up in Gabrielle’s arms, covered by one of their traveling cloaks against the sun and wondered when the bard had gotten that to the other side of the river. She looked at the sleeping bard and smiled, brushing a stray strand of blonde hair from the bard’s closed eyes.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena whispered, letting the bard hold her for once.

***********************************************************************

Gabrielle felt better than she had in an entire moon. The two days by the river in the woods had been exactly what they both needed and the bard thanked Artemis silently for ensuring their privacy.

She rode beside Xena and smiled over at her mate. The warrior also looked better than she had in months as well.

“Seems like we’ve been on the run for seasons,” Gabrielle said easily.

“Seems like most of our lives, my love,” Xena smiled. The bard blushed at the gruffness of the warrior’s voice. The warrior having strained a couple of vocal chords during the intense sex the day before and then repeated again that night.

“Do you think we can rest for awhile?” the bard asked hopefully.

“I hope so, especially with a little one of your own on the way,” the warrior grinned and laughed at Gabrielle’s blush. They were still trying to adjust to the realization that Gabrielle was pregnant but it wasn’t a bad thing.

Gabrielle instinctively touched her hand over her womb with a frown. How could she have thought of ending her life and the life of a child?

Xena reached out and touched her mate’s arm gently.

“It’s okay,” the warrior said softly.

Gabrielle shrugged and attempted to smile.

“Do you want a boy or girl?” Xena asked, hoping to distract her mate.

“Wow!” Gabrielle exclaimed. “Hadn’t thought about it yet. I guess I don’t care. Healthy is my choice.”

“I agree,” the warrior smiled and then frowned as she looked up the road.

“What is it?”

“Thought I heard something,” Xena said and stopped Argo. Gabrielle stopped her horse and listened as well. Then they both heard the sound of someone shouting from the woods. Both hands were quickly on weapons.

“Female, sounds in trouble,” Xena said and urged Argo into the brush with Gabrielle following.

Xena jumped off Argo and rushed over to the figure in the trees near the river. The bard followed quickly and was surprised to see Xena trying to unlatch a metal trap from around a female’s foot.

Both raised their eyebrows in surprise when the woman turned over and it was Meg.

“Xena? Gabrielle?” she exclaimed, surprise in her voice as well.

“Meg? What happened?” Xena asked as she worked at the trap. With a growl of frustration she got it separated and Gabrielle helped pull the leg out. Together Xena and Gabrielle examined the leg and ankle.

“I came down here for water and was caught by this damn thing!” the tavern owner snapped.

“What are you doing in these parts?” Gabrielle asked as she went back to the horses for their medical pouch, bringing it back to Xena. She handed Meg a water skin and the women drank gratefully.

“Looking for you and Joxer,” Meg muttered.

Both Gabrielle and Xena were dazed when Meg suddenly leaped forward and hit Gabrielle with a surprising right cross that landed hard at the bard’ eye, sending Gabrielle falling backwards.

Xena jumped into the fray, attempting to pull an enraged Meg off her mate. Gabrielle had curled into a ball, her legs protecting her stomach and arms over her head. Xena managed to pull Meg back but found her physical twin a bundle of furious energy and a mass of struggling muscles.

The warrior saw Gabrielle sitting up with a confused look on her face as Meg screamed, attempting to break away from Xena and attack the bard again.

Xena yelled out in frustration and threw Meg over her shoulder and stormed down to the riverbank and threw Meg into the cold but slow moving water. The warrior then followed Meg in and pulled the sputtering woman out onto the bank.

“You try that again and I’ll put the pinch on you and it’s not pleasant!” Xena warned as Meg sat up and brushed her wet hair out of her eyes.

Meg cursed and held her throbbing leg, swearing as Gabrielle walked up slowly and cautiously.

“What in Tartarus was that about, damnit!” the bard demanded.

“Where is Joxer?” Meg shouted.

“Joxer? What?” Gabrielle looked at Xena but the warrior merely shrugged, as confused as her mate.

“Where is he?” Meg shouted and then burst into tears. “Why, Gabrielle? Why after all these years. You could have had him at any time. Why take him now?”

“Meg, calm down,” Xena urged, beginning to bandage Meg’s injured ankle after retrieving the medical satchel. “Now tell us what is going on?”

“A moon ago, two days after the first earthquake, Joxer went out to get more kegs of ale from the barn. He was taking forever and I went out to see what daydream had gotten a hold of him. Joxer and Gabrielle came flying out of the barn on horses.”

Xena’s eyebrow furrowed in confusion and she saw the same expression on Gabrielle’s face.

“I left your mother’s tavern the day of the earthquake. I went to visit my family, I never saw Joxer,” Gabrielle explained to Xena.

“So you don’t know where she’s been, either,” Meg snapped. “They both had love bites on their necks and passion scratches. She smacked his horse and they rode off without explaining a thing! She was laughing at me!”

“Xena, I didn’t go anywhere near Meg’ tavern and I haven’t seen Joxer,” Gabrielle protested.

“Same sais, same outfit, same horse, same Gabrielle,” Meg countered.

“Meg, where did they go?” Xena asked.

“I don’t know. I lost them and I’ve been looking for them since. I thought she might run to the forest,” Meg explained.

“Xena, who is with Joxer?” Gabrielle asked.

“Meg,” the warrior looked at her twin, recognizing the pain in the other woman’s eyes. “Gabrielle didn’t take Joxer from you. I don’t know who did.”

“She was wearing a small leather top and has fresh scars. Do you, Gabrielle?” Meg demanded.

Gabrielle blushed a bright red. “Yes, I do. A recent lashing left fresh healing scars.”

“Meg, it wasn’t Gabrielle!” Xena protested.

The bard sat down on the embankment next to Meg, careful to stay out of reach, however.

“I swear by Apollo and Artemis that I haven’t seen Joxer since we left Amphipolis. My love and vows to Xena are strong. I don’t love Joxer like that Meg,” Gabrielle said.

“Then who has my Joxer? He thinks it’s you,” Meg demanded.

Gabrielle looked to Xena and the warrior could only shake her head.

Neither of them could answer the question.

The End
Here Comes Trouble
Storyline: The mystery of who Joxer has been with is solved with the return of an old enemy who brings major life changes and the possibility of a war between the gods that could destroy the Earth and all the Realms.
Part 1

Xena frowned as she looked over at her mate and then over to Meg. The warrior noticed that Gabrielle was keeping Xena and Argo between her and the innkeeper. Not that Xena could blame the warrior bard, not after Meg had suddenly attacked Gabrielle.

Xena thought everything was confusing before they met up with Meg but now it was even more puzzling. Prior to Meg, Xena and Gabrielle were told the child the bard was carrying wasn’t a child of Bacchus as they once feared, but magically conceived as a child of both Xena and Gabrielle by the Forest Spirits of the Siberian Amazons.

Xena was still trying to process this new revelation and she knew Gabrielle was still in shock. The bard believed the only possible answer to her pregnancy was Bacchus when they fought him and Alti in the Spirit Realm. During this time Gabrielle was tortured and sexually abused and turned into a bacchae again. Only her blood connection to Xena brought her back and saved them both.

The discovery that she was pregnant and presuming that Bacchus was the father devastated the bard, sending her into a suicide attempt. The attempt had been stopped at the last moment by Xena and some of the gods; the gods finally called the Forest Spirits forth and they revealed the truth of Gabrielle’s pregnancy.

Xena and her mate were facing another child in their lives, something created by both of them this time.

They were also wondering about Joxer now.

Meg had told them of how Gabrielle had appeared a month earlier, seduced Joxer and ran off with him. The bard had quickly denied even seeing the warrior turned innkeeper, pointing out to Xena and Meg that she had been with her family in Poteidaia.

Xena knew Meg didn’t believe Gabrielle and only reluctantly agreed to accompany the warrior and bard to Amphipolis because she didn’t know where else to turn to find her husband.

Of course, Xena and Gabrielle didn’t have an idea about where to look for Joxer either or who was actually with him. Who could look and act enough like Gabrielle to fool Joxer into going with her and then staying away for a month?

Gabrielle continued frowning as her thoughts traveled along the same path. An unexpected and still mystifying pregnancy, being mentally and physically stressed out, these did not add up to a fun ride back to her home with Xena and Meg.

“You okay, little one?” Xena asked softly.

“Yeah,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Any idea what is going on? I know I don’t have a twin.”

“I didn’t think I did until we ran into Diana and then Meg,” Xena grumbled back.

Meg glared at both the warrior and the bard and then concentrated on the road ahead of them.

“Enough like me to fool Joxer into leaving Meg?”

“I can’t buy that either,” Xena admitted.

“Who would want to do this?” Gabrielle pondered. “Only Aphrodite comes to mind but I can’t really see that. She wants you and me together, so why would she mess with Joxer and Meg by making them think I wanted Joxer?”

“Gabrielle, you’ve been through a lot lately. Any way that the Furies or someone else could be using you?” Xena questioned and wasn’t surprised when the bard’s green eyes flashed angrily.

“You think I was with him?” she hissed, trying not to attract Meg’s attention.

“No, I just know how Morpheus, the Furies, maybe even Bacchus can mess with people, especially us,” Xena whispered back.

“I was with my family!” Gabrielle snapped. “Lila is pregnant again, my mom got married and I was busy most of the time throwing up my guts!”

The warrior wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle urged her horse ahead of the other two in a fit of anger. Xena shrugged off Meg’s glare, she didn’t blame Gabrielle for being upset – nothing was easy about any of this.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle was hurt and angry but knew she couldn’t blame Xena for questioning her about her mental state of the last month and a half. After the mess with Alti and Bacchus she was shattered enough to try and kill herself.

She began to calm down as they got closer to Amphipolis and let her horse fall back alongside Xena’s. Gabrielle was still upset enough not to meet her mate’s eyes though.

She finally shrugged and saw Xena relax a little. Even after all the years they have been together, occasionally they would argue but they usually made up by that evening and Xena was grateful this seemed to be one of those times.

Gabrielle pulled her horse to a stop and Xena quickly did the same. The warrior had her chakram in hand even before she thought about it.

“What is it?” she asked softly as Meg looked over at the two warriors.

“I don’t know, something is wrong,” Gabrielle muttered and pulled her sais into her hands.

Xena motioned for Meg to be quiet and listened, her eyes going unfocused for a moment. “Gabrielle, close your eyes and listen.”

The bard closed her eyes and let her sense shift into hyper alert.

“Sasha!”

Both Xena and Gabrielle urged their horses into a rapid trot with a surprised Meg following behind them.

“What in Tartarus is going on?” Meg demanded.

“My daughter is psychic gifted and is yelling for help,” Xena explained.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

All three horses stopped on the edge of town, each woman trying to take in the sight of the village center.

Gabrielle heard a growl from her mate and felt her own ears roaring with rage.

Dexicreon, the village blacksmith and Xena’s friend, was chained to a post nearest the women. The sight only got worse as they saw their friends and family chained to other posts: Cyrene; Solan; Reija and son; Joxer; Sasha; Torris and wife.

Xena heard Meg moan softly beside her as she saw Joxer hanging in his chains. The former soldier looked like he had been through a gauntlet with bruises, cuts and blood everywhere.

Everyone else looked okay but shaken.

There was no sign of anyone else in the village and there were no sounds either.

“Gods, it’s a trap!” Gabrielle complained with a whisper.

“Yup, definitely set for us and well baited too,” Xena growled. She resisted letting a battle cry loose and rushing forward, especially at the sight of the toddler Kiryk, her grandson, and her daughter, Sasha in chains. The boy kept pulling on the chain around his waist, trying to crawl to his mother.

Reija and Cyrene looked frantic; Solan and Torris enraged. It didn’t help that they were gagged and couldn’t reassure each other or even yell at whoever had them chained.

“Joxer looks dead!” Meg cried, trying to keep her voice low.

“I can see his chest moving,” Gabrielle said softly. “What do we do?”

“Circle around and see where in Tartarus the trap is. There has got to be archers or soldiers waiting in the inn and the buildings around the square,” Xena muttered.

“To rush out and surround us when we go in,” Gabrielle nodded.

“Yes.”

“Let me go in and scout it out,” Gabrielle suggested.

“Not likely, Gabrielle!” Xena’s eyes narrowed. “Not in your condition.”

Gabrielle felt herself blushing, remembering the reason for the recent emotional and physical turmoil. It had taken years of growth and experience but she had become almost an equal partner with Xena in their battles and adventures. Now that was going to change for a while.

“Condition?” Meg asked and Gabrielle blushed an even deeper red.

“Never mind that, she’s not going in,” Xena said abruptly.

“Then what do we do?” Meg demanded.

“You wait here,” Xena ordered. “If it is a trap, I want you to ride to the next village and gather the militia.”

“I’m not leaving Joxer!” Meg protested.

“Just do it!” Xena growled and drew her chakram. “If we’ve been spotted they won’t wait much longer before forcing our hand. Come on, Gabrielle.”

“Right with you,” Gabrielle said easily, her sais in hand.

“Fast and quick! You go for the far end, get them loose and into the stable or inn,” Xena ordered.

“The chains?”

“When you reach Joxer, I’ll cut the chains with the chakram and then help get the others out of the line of fire.”

“Let’s do it!”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle wasn’t surprised when Xena held back at the edge of the fountain while she dashed forward on her horse. The bard leaped off her horse before it had even skidded to a stop, landing on her feet easily, almost right under Joxer’s nose.

“Joxer!” she yelled and raised the soldier’s chin. She grimaced as she took in the sight of his battered face.

“Please don’t hurt me anymore, Gabby,” Joxer said softly.

“What?” Gabrielle thought her heart would stop as his words sank in.

The bard quickly spun, swinging her sais in an arching motion as arrows began flying through the air. She managed to deflect five of the arrows and gritted her teeth as an arrow went through her right calf.

“Gabrielle!” she heard Xena scream as another round of arrows came flying out of the air.

The bard turned and again deflected several arrows, most of them aimed at Joxer.

Xena growled and rushed Argo forward behind the posts and began cutting the chains as she went along. She also found herself catching and deflected arrows as she went.

The warrior cursed under her breath as she took in the sight of several soldiers rushing out of the inn on one side of the square and several from the blacksmith shop on the other.

“Soldiers!” she shouted at Gabrielle and turned Argo to take on the soldiers from the blacksmith shop while Gabrielle turned to take on the ones from the inn.

Solan, Reija, and Kiryk were still chained. Torris and his wife quickly grabbed Joxer and Cyrene and dived to the ground; Torris covering the women with his own body.

Gabrielle growled and then yelled in anger as she broke off the arrow embedded in her leg and faced the soldiers. The bard took on the rush of soldiers easily, parrying one sword strike and blocking another and burying one sai in between the ribs of one soldier. She ducked a sword swing and came up with the blunt end of the sai under the soldier’s chin, knocking the soldier off his feet.

Seeing several more soldiers rushing her, the bard sheathed one of her sais and grabbed up a fallen sword.

Xena screamed a war cry and took Argo through the middle of the first rush of soldiers and with her sword and Argo’s hooves, four soldiers went down quickly. Argo spun easily back through the bandits or soldiers and three more went down.

Xena yelled again and flipped off the horse and landed in between two of the soldiers. A backhand sent one onto his back and one slash of her sword sent the other to his knees, trying to hold his stomach back in place.

The warrior turned to her family when she froze at the sound of a female war scream.

Gabrielle, finishing off another soldier, turned to face another when both froze at the sound. The bard turning pale in the sunlight.

Xena and Gabrielle knew that scream very well and both turned to the source.

“No, please!” Gabrielle whispered as she took in the sight of Callisto at the edge of the square, a knife held at Meg’s throat.

Xena glanced over and saw the shocked statement on her mate’s face and felt the same emotions overwhelming her as well.

“Hi!” Callisto said cheerfully, her brown eyes frenzied.

The Goddess looked exactly like she did when Xena and Gabrielle last saw her falling into a river of lava. Except her eyes were now brown again instead of new-God white.

“Miss me?” Callisto asked, pulling roughly on Meg’s hair.

“Not much!” Xena growled, raising her chakram.

“Now, Xena!” Callisto scolded, “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”

“What do you want, Callisto?” Gabrielle demanded.

“Oh, what I always want,” the warrior said in her child-like maniac voice. “You screaming in pain, Xena’s head on a platter, the usual.”

“You’re a god now, why bother with us?” Xena tried reasoning with her. “I helped you get the ambrosia.”

“And put me in that lava river! Did you think I would forget that little part? One thing about immortality, I can’t be killed but that lava did hurt a little bit.”

Gabrielle turned and blocked a sucker punch from one of the soldiers and put her sai through his throat.

“Oh, interesting! You have changed!” Callisto said delightedly. “You know, it wasn’t easy being you for the last month!”

“You?” Gabrielle pressed, the pieces falling into place as she looked down at the barely conscious Joxer.

“Trust me! It wasn’t my best work!” Callisto laughed. “Although, he is better than he looks and torturing him was so much fun!”

Gabrielle and Xena’s eyes widened in shock as Callisto… shifted and it was a twin of Gabrielle holding Meg.

‘Gabrielle’ looked over at Joxer and grinned as the former soldier raised his head and looked at her and then at Gabrielle.

“How’s it going, lover?” ‘Gabrielle’ asked and laughed as he flinched and lowered his head again.

Meg yelled in anger and struggled in Callisto’s arms and only stopped when the knife bit into her neck.

“Let her go!” Xena demanded. Then she growled when Callisto shifted again and merely laughed at all of them.

“Now,” Callisto yelled and both Xena and Gabrielle quickly looked around at the soldiers appearing on top of the buildings, each with bow and arrow.

“No!” Xena screamed and launched herself into the air, flipping over and over, trying desperately to reach her family. Gabrielle dropped the sword and dived forward herself, somersaulting towards the remaining chained members of the family.

Gabrielle grabbed a shield up from one of the soldiers and dropped it over Torris’ back as she flipped by them and turned to face the arrows as she shielded Sasha and Reija.

Xena flipped in front of Solan and Kiryk just as precisely at the same moment the arrows reached the Greeks. Three arrows in one hand, two in another and one buried in her side, Xena hit the ground hard, almost next to Gabrielle.

Xena heard Callisto’s laugh and Cyrene’s scream.

Gabrielle quickly turned and saw that the arrows had missed Sasha and Reija and rapidly looked down. “No!” she cried out when she saw the arrow sticking out of Xena’s side and then she stopped, stunned as Callisto laughed.

Xena turned over and somehow wasn’t surprised at the sight of an arrow sticking out of Solan’s chest. Exactly like the vision Alti showed her months before.

Gabrielle reached down without looking and helped Xena to her feet. The warrior broke off the feathered end of the arrow in her side with a growl and turned her attention to her son.

Solan was still alive but blood was flowing freely from his mouth and Xena groaned at the look of pain on his face.

“Solan?” she whispered as Reija screamed next to her. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Torris trying to release Reija and the kids.

“Mom,” he whispered and closed his eyes.

Xena screamed as Solan stopped breathing.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle looked up from her mug, the weariness apparent to everyone, especially Meg as the other woman sat down.

“How is Joxer?” the bard asked.

Meg wiped tears from her eyes and Gabrielle could see her struggling.

“I don’t know, they say he’ll recover physically,” Meg sobbed. “Mentally, he won’t even talk to me. Just keeps saying he’s sorry.”

“Meg,” Gabrielle didn’t know what to say. She wasn’t responsible for Joxer’s condition but it almost felt like it.

“How is everyone else?” Meg asked, dismissing the beginning sympathy.

“The healer is about to remove the arrowhead from Xena, Reija is grieving for Solan, Sasha is in shock, Cyrene has lost her grandson, and my leg hurts.”

The innkeeper fought against her remaining and misplaced anger at Gabrielle and helped the bard into one of the back rooms of the inn where the healer was working on her mate.

Cyrene wiped Xena’s forehead with a cool cloth as the warrior grabbed the bedposts and gritted her teeth.

“Xena?” Gabrielle questioned softly, staying back out of the healer’s way.

The warrior opened her fevered blue eyes and tried to smile at the bard and then bit back a scream as the healer prodded her side with a knife.

Meg pulled the bard back to the wall to a chair and quickly checked Gabrielle’s bandage and nodded, satisfied with the stitching and cleaning of the wound.

Gabrielle found herself being held back by Xena’s twin as the warrior screamed as the knife and tongs sought out the arrowhead still embedded in her body. The bard could see the pain on Cyrene’s face as she watched her daughter.

Cyrene glanced over and nodded reassuringly to Gabrielle and the bard sank back down in her chair, biting her lip. She could almost feel Xena’s pain herself.
Gabrielle tried not to think, it hurt too much. Solan was dead before Xena had cut his chains. It had taken Torris and Dex both to drag Xena away from her son’s body so that her own wounds could be tended to inside the inn.

Gabrielle had sat in the dust with the boy’s head in her lap while everyone else ran around franticly. Whatever magic Callisto had cast upon the town lifted with her disappearance and the villagers came pouring out of their houses and businesses, all wanting to help.

The bard could barely make out Cyrene’s voice as she took charge and ordered the people about. Gabrielle became aware of Reija sitting next to her, holding Solan’s hand and softly crying. The bard wanted to say something comforting, to lend the girl a shoulder to cry on, anything. Instead, Gabrielle found she couldn’t move, speak or think.

So she sat in the dust, wiping the blood away from her adopted son’s mouth, watching his blonde hair wave slightly in a breeze. Gabrielle found herself staring at the arrow still in the young man’s chest, the blood turning very dark in the air.

The bard had no idea how long she sat there. She knew it couldn’t have been long, but it felt like forever with Xena’s screams still sounding in her ears and Reija’s gentle sobs softly telling the bard of the passage of time.

Strong hands and a soothing voice reached her finally but somehow Gabrielle still couldn’t respond. Those same strong hands gently lifted her into strong arms and the bard closed her eyes against the sun and the pain that filled her body and soul.

Hands and voices kept trying to intrude into her darkness and force her to pay attention to something. The abrupt pain of the arrow being forced through the rest of her leg brought the bard out of her shock with a scream.

Dex, the blacksmith, held her back onto the bed with gentle but firm hands while Reija wiped her forehead with a cool cloth. It felt like fire shooting from her leg but the pain soon eased into an irritating and painful throb and with help, Gabrielle was able to get back into the main room of the tavern.

Now Xena was screaming in pain, Reija was nowhere to be seen and Gabrielle had no idea how bad Joxer truly was.

The bard let Meg wrap her arms around her and they both finally wept as Xena sank into a troubled and fevered sleep after the healer bandaged her wounds.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Joxer?” The soldier opened his eyes slowly and grimaced at the pain as it radiated throughout his body.

Gabrielle almost broke into tears when her best male friend whimpered and tried to move away from her.

Meg quickly lay next to him and took him in her arms. “It’s okay, Joxer,” she said softly. “It’s okay. That’s Gabrielle, remember? She’s not the one who hurt you.”

Gabrielle moved back away from the bed several feet, trying not to cry.

“Don’t hurt me, please,” Joxer muttered.

Gabrielle gave up and left the room with a sob. In the hallway she sank down against the wall.

Xena was still unconscious and the healer feared the arrow was poisoned. An examination of the last round of arrows had shown they were coated with something. Reija wasn’t talking to anyone, only her son Kiryk could get her attention away from the coffin the carpenter had made for Solan.

Cyrene was still trying to maintain control but Gabrielle could see the strain beginning to overtake the older woman.

Torris and Dex reported that Callisto’s bandits had escaped north at a fast speed and there was no sign of the insane goddess herself.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle looked up with a hopeful look as the healer entered Xena’s room but the healer shook her head. Gabrielle already knew the answers from sitting with her mate for most of the day.

Xena was feverish, the wound was infected, and her system was poisoned.

Cyrene frowned as she wiped Xena’s forehead with a cool wet cloth again and then held Sasha close. The child hadn’t left her mother’s side since the battle.

“You said awhile back that you could heal, can’t you help her?” Cyrene questioned the bard.

“Yes, but not a lot. To heal I have to use my own energy and now with being pregnant I don’t know how dangerous it is,” Gabrielle said softly, stroking Xena’s cheek. “I’m going to try a little bit at a time.”

“Gabrielle, you know, being the daughter of gods she should heal from this,” Cyrene reasoned, suddenly changing her mind now that it concerned her grandchild, Gabrielle’s unborn child.

“I know but it might take time and I want her back,” Gabrielle said simply. The bard had waited until her own body had mostly healed the arrow wound to her calf and she had gotten over some of the shock of the day.

It had been an emotionally rough ride during the last two months for the bard; all of which was draining emotionally and physically.

That included running into Meg and finding that Joxer was with someone he thought was Gabrielle.

Joxer was devastated by whatever he had been through, Xena was poisoned and Solan was dead.

Gabrielle closed her eyes and placed her hands on her mate’s arm. The bard began concentrating on her breathing and focusing, drawing her energy into a focal point.

After a moment Gabrielle felt dizzy and broke off the connection and when she felt Cyrene’s hands steadying her. When she opened her eyes she was relieved to find the redness around Xena’s bandage was lessened.

“What do we do?” Cyrene asked.

“I don’t know,” Gabrielle admitted. “Wait for Xena to wake up, grieve and hope Callisto doesn’t come back.”

“Xena won’t sit still for that,” Cyrene frowned.

“I know but how do you kill a god? Xena may be a demi-god but Callisto is still a god and damned hard to kill,” Gabrielle protested.

“Callisto isn’t finished,” Sasha said simply.

“What happened, Cyrene?” Gabrielle asked softly.

“Raiders came from all directions,” Cyrene began, touching Xena’s face gently as the warrior tossed in fevered sleep. “We could hear the villagers yelling and pounding on their doors and windows but they couldn’t seem to get out. The raiders grabbed all of us and threw us in the center of the square, Dex included. They beat Torris and Solan badly when they resisted and threatened Reija with a sword and rape if anyone continued resisting.”

Gabrielle closed her eyes, feeling Cyrene’s painful memories.

“Then you appeared with Joxer thrown over his horse. We thought it was you, anyway. Then she changed into Callisto, I had heard enough tales about her to recognize her,” Cyrene continued. “She just dropped Joxer at my feet. Poor man was barely alive.”

“Joxer was begging her not to hurt him anymore,” Sasha said quietly.

“They chained and gagged us and we waited while Callisto ranted and paced,” Cyrene explained. “She then disappeared and we saw you and Xena riding towards us.”

“You said that Callisto isn’t done, Sash,” Gabrielle turned to her adopted daughter. “What did you mean?”

“I just know, she said she was only beginning,” Sasha shrugged, reminding the bard of her warrior mother.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

The days and nights began to run together for Gabrielle as she kept her vigil next to Xena’s bed. The warrior was getting better and on the third day her fever finally broken and her sleep was restful.

Gabrielle had expended as much energy as she could towards Xena and Joxer’s recovery without draining herself too much.

By the third day Joxer was able to sit up and walk a few feet with Meg’s help.

Cyrene, Meg and Gabrielle were shocked at Joxer’s condition when they examined him. He had been beaten almost to the point of death with numerous cuts along his arms and legs, obviously the result of torture. All the fingers on his left hand were broken as well as his nose.

On the fourth day Torris and Dex was able to help Joxer into the back of a wagon and Meg climbed up into the seat and took the reins from Cyrene.

Gabrielle looked over the sides at the former soldier.

“Joxer, you could stay longer,” Gabrielle suggested and felt her heart breaking when he wouldn’t meet her eyes.

“I want to go home with Meg,” he said simply.

Gabrielle gave up and turned to his wife. “Meg, I’m sorry you both got caught up in this.”

“I know,” Meg looked down from the wagon. “Joxer and I need some time. I still love him and I think he loves me.”

Gabrielle and Cyrene watched the wagon leave, both women frowning.

“Give him some time, Gabrielle,” Cyrene suggested.

“He’s loved me for so many years and now he’ll always see me as his worst enemy,” Gabrielle said sadly. “He wanted me for years and then Callisto gives him his dreams only to shatter them along with his image of me.”

“That was her plan,” Cyrene said firmly. “Just like killing Solan was part of her plan to destroy Xena.”

“Gods, Solan,” Gabrielle whispered. “What more can she do to us?”

“Never ask that out loud,” Cyrene cautioned.

“True,” Gabrielle tried to smile as they walked back into the inn.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena opened her eyes with a groan and then managed a small smile when she recognized familiar green eyes looking at her. Then the memories came flooding back and the pain washed over her face in a flash.

Gabrielle didn’t say anything but simply took her mate into her arms as Xena began to cry.

Neither woman was aware of how much time passed as Xena’s cries began to subside to gentle sobs of anguished grief. Tears streaming down both their faces as Gabrielle held Xena tight.

“I lost so many years with him,” Xena cried.

“We had some good years with him and now we have his son,” Gabrielle responded softly.

“How can I give up Sasha after this?” the warrior demanded.

“I don’t know, love, I truly don’t know.”

Screams and shouts broke the women apart, both diving for weapons and Gabrielle for the door before the first scream had finished echoing throughout the inn. The bard hit the hallway at a dash and looked out over the railing to see Callisto sword fighting with Torris and Reija and a man in leather trading blows with Dex, the blacksmith.

Gabrielle felt a growl in her throat and judged the distances and positions of everyone. She felt Xena move up beside her and glanced over at her mate and wasn’t surprised to see Xena sweating and gritting her teeth in pain against her wound.

Instead of scolding her mate, Gabrielle pointed to the man fighting with Dex and then at herself. Xena nodded, lifting her chakram, her eyes narrowing as she took in the back of Callisto’s head since Gabrielle was going to tackle the stranger, that left the insane Goddess to Xena.

As Gabrielle vaulted over the rail Xena released her chakram. Just as the circular blade hit the chaotic goddess in the back of the head, the warrior’s eyes spotted Sasha and Kiryk under a table against the wall and Cyrene sprawled near the fireplace, either dead or unconscious.

The bard landed lightly in a crouch and drove her sais upwards in the man’s back as he sent Dex flying backwards over a table. The sais went deep into the man’s chest, driven by the force of Gabrielle springing to her feet from the leap and thrusting the energy into her sais.

Xena screamed Gabrielle’s name as the man turned and backhanded her mate, slamming Gabrielle painfully into the bar. She fell to the floor on her hands and knees.

The warrior couldn’t believe her eyes as the chakram returned to her hand and Callisto merely brushed her hair back into place, looking up at Xena. Then Xena’s eyes widened as the man reached behind his back and pulled the sais out and there was no sign of any blood.

“Damn!” she muttered, hanging onto the rail as her energy quickly evaporated.

“Xena!” Callisto called and casually sent Reija flying into the table over Sasha and Kiryk with a motion of her hand. “So glad you could see this!” Torris fell back, holding a wounded side and slashed thigh.

Gabrielle shook her head and looked up at the man standing over her holding her sais. Her back was hurting badly and he appeared unharmed and slightly amused.

The man was taller than Xena, which meant he towered over the small bard, but had similar black hair that was brushed back and had a full beard. Dark eyes laughed down at Gabrielle and the bard had a feeling of familiarity. The beard made him look older but the bard could see the youth behind the beard and the viciousness in the eyes. He was dressed in a leather vest with no tunic and tight leather pants. The leather gauntlets and wide belt were studded with silver and gold inserts. A large sword hung on one side of his belt and a long dagger on the other.

Gabrielle looked at the silver necklace around his neck and grew pale. She knew that design.

“Ares, the sign of Ares,” she whispered and was rewarded with a grin from the obviously young god along with a kick to her jaw; sending her back into the bar where she ended up sitting with her back to it. She fell forward onto the floor onto her hands and knees again.

“Yes, very good, bard,” he hissed as he knelt down in front of her.

Xena pulled herself back up to a standing position with the help of the railing as Callisto’s brown eyes danced with delight at the warrior’s pain. As the warrior’s eyes darted back and forth between her mate and the male god, Callisto, and the others. Callisto seemed to be waiting.

“What do you want, Callisto? Leave my family out of this, I’m the one you want,” Xena growled, gauging whether in her condition she could flip over the rail and land on her feet.

“Oh but, Xena!” Callisto protested and moved over to pull a stunned Reija to her feet. “That’s exactly what I want! You destroyed me when you killed my family. I thought I’d return the favor.”

“No!” Xena screamed, taking in several things at once.

The other god, anticipating Gabrielle’s reaction to Callisto’s movements, backhanded the bard again and then smashed a fist down across her eye, stunning her.

Cyrene, shaking her head and trying to raise her hands, screamed as Callisto dragged Reija to her feet.

Sasha and Kiryk had terrified eyes as the young toddler screamed for his mother. Sasha tried holding him back and shielding him under the table, her blue eyes pleading with Xena for help.

Reija tried to fight back, even though she still couldn’t focus her eyes, as Callisto easily turned her around and threw the Amazon across a table.

As the male god glanced over to Callisto; Gabrielle shook her head and closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing rather than the pain. The bard let herself drift for a moment and then keyed into the energy she had felt once before in the caves of Bacchus, in the Spirit Realm. She slowly sat up with her back to the bar and used it to help her get to her feet.

When the bard opened her eyes she could see the energy beginning to build around her hands, golden energy of her father, Apollo, god of the Sun.

“Stop her!” Callisto screamed and pointed to the bard.

Xena released the chakram once again, hoping to at least distract Callisto but the chaotic goddess merely deflected it with her hand, barely noticing its passage. Then Xena screamed as the male god turned with Gabrielle’s sais in his hand as her mate’s eyes began to flash.

Everything happened too fast.

The male god thrust forward with the sais as Gabrielle was about to release her energy bolts at him. The bard screamed as she was impaled through both shoulders with her own sais, the energy bolts dissipating into nothing.

“Gabrielle!” both Cyrene and Xena screamed at the same time as Gabrielle fell to her knees and onto her side.

Xena vaulted over the railing and landed hard on the wooden floor, falling over as she clutched her side.

The warrior looked up as Callisto laughed heartily and the blonde turned with a vicious grin and slashed out with her sword, hitting one of Reija’s legs behind the knee. The young Amazon screamed and went to the floor, holding her leg.

“Damn you, Callisto!” Xena screamed, trying to sit up, blood flowing past the hand holding her wounded side.

“Oh, I have no doubt of that, Xena,” Callisto grinned. “But then, you’ll probably be with me so that makes it alright.”

The male god grinned as he walked over and kicked Dex in the head, ensuring the blacksmith’s continued unconsciousness and then joined the insane goddess.

“Hello, Xena,” he said simply, looking down at the warrior, not even glancing at Cyrene, as she got to her feet and dashed over to Gabrielle. “I’m Mars, son of Ares and the new God of War.”

Xena felt a chill run over her body at this introduction. He obviously was as bad as his father or maybe even worse.

Mars walked over to the table where Sasha and Kiryk were hiding, and he simply threw it aside. Sasha rushed with a scream forward, aiming for the god’s face with her fingernails as Xena struggled to get to her knees. Mars merely grinned and threw the teen under one arm, then he reached down and grabbed Kiryk by his collar and turned to Callisto.

“No!” Xena screamed and finally got to her knees, feeling the blood coming up into her mouth and noticing Torris trying to get to his feet as well, sword in hand.

Callisto, Mars, and kids disappeared as Xena got to her feet and Torris slashed forward at where Callisto had been with his sword.

Xena screamed in rage as she fell back, clutching her side.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena winced as Gabrielle bit her lip to keep from screaming as Dex pulled the sais out of her shoulders.

The inn looked like a hospice again: Xena stretched out on the floor with Torris next to her on one side and Reija on the other. Dex with a bandage around his head and Cyrene nursing a couple of broken ribs.

The only one undamaged was Torris’ wife, Serita. She and Cyrene quickly laid the bard down and pressed compact bandages against both sides of Gabrielle’s shoulders as the bard cried out in pain. Xena looked down and saw that the bleeding through her bandaged side had slowed down and she no longer tasted fresh blood in the back of her mouth.

“Hold that tight!” Cyrene ordered as Gabrielle bit back another scream and then went limp.

“Mom!” Xena cried out and Cyrene glanced at her daughter as she worked on Gabrielle and then turned to Reija’s wounded leg.

“She’s passed out, Xena,” Cyrene finally answered. “Gods, where in Tartarus is that healer!?”

“Right here,” she called as she opened the door. “I should move in here free of charge.”

“I’d be glad never to have your services again, friend,” Cyrene countered.

Cyrene shut down the tavern for the night. She set the kitchen staff to work handing out meals out of the back of the kitchen for those with nowhere to go, she was keeping the main room of the tavern/inn shut.

Cyrene, Serita, Dex and the healer worked late into the evening on the wounded family until they were satisfied everyone was going to survive and Reija was going to be able to keep her leg. Cyrene held the young widow as the healer was forced to inform Reija that she probably wouldn’t put much weight on the leg ever again and would need crutches to get around. Both Cyrene and the young girl cried as the realization of her crippling injuries, her missing son and her dead husband sank in.

Dex carefully carried Gabrielle into Xena’s room as the warrior watched anxiously, still holding her aching side. Her blacksmith friend placed her mate next to her on the bed and Xena quickly checked the bard’s breathing and pulse.

“Thank you, Dex, for everything,” Xena said softly as the large man started out the door.

He simply nodded with a smile and was gone.

Cyrene entered the room with fresh bandages, clean water and a pitcher of wine. She handed her daughter a goblet to drink, with a stern look that which told Xena she wouldn’t win an argument against drinking the slightly numbing and pain killing liquid.

Cyrene pulled up a chair next to Gabrielle’s side of the bed and quickly examined the bard’s wounds.

“Xena, her shoulders are going to be fine, I think,” Cyrene began and Xena nodded.

“With her god-healing abilities, they should be,” Xena agreed.

“I’m worried though,” Cyrene admitted and Xena frowned. “I saw her hit the bar hard with her back.”

Xena realized what her mother was worried about and turned pale. “No,” she whispered, quickly taking Gabrielle’s hand in hers.

“It’s possible, she’s still early in the pregnancy, dangerous times for a child,” Cyrene said gently. “That was a bad blow and then the massive blood loss didn’t help. We need to keep a watch on her for a couple of days, we need to watch for bleeding.”

“Days? We need to go after the kids!”

“To where? Callisto and Mars are both gods, they could be anywhere in the known world!” Cyrene argued, fighting back her tears. “Even with your healing abilities you’ll be in bed right beside her for at least two days.”

Cyrene left her despondent daughter and daughter-in-law to join Reija in her own grief.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle woke up feeling like Zeus had thrown two lightning bolts right through both her shoulders and cried out with pain when she barely moved them.

“Shhh,” a gentle voice said softly and Gabrielle looked up to find familiar blue eyes looking down at her. The bard attempted a small smile as Xena brushed a lock of hair from Gabrielle’s forehead. “You’re gonna hurt for a few days.”

“My sais, he used my sais, didn’t he?” the bard managed to whisper.

“Yeah, you stabbed him in the back and he should have dropped but he’s the son of Ares and a god,” Xena explained. “It’s not your fault he got your sais.”

“Gods, this hurts!” the bard complained. It seemed that she couldn’t even move any part of her body. It affected her shoulders or back and she growled in frustration. Then her eyes widened.

“The kids!” she cried out and managed to sit up but bit her lip to keep from screaming with the pain. Xena gently helped Gabrielle lay back down, trying not to move the bard’s shoulders or back any more than necessary.

“Callisto and Mars took them,” Xena felt her eyes threatening to spill over with more tears but she fought them back as she took in Gabrielle’s pained face.

“No,” the bard whispered. “Why? Why didn’t she simply kill us?”

“She wants to destroy everything around me before she comes to kill me,” Xena said bitterly.

“How long was I out?” Gabrielle asked, her jaw taking on the stubborn set which Xena knew quite well.

“All night and most of the morning. Your wounds are healing nicely and there’s no sign of bleeding from your womb,” Xena managed to smile. There were advantages to being the children of gods.

“Womb?” Gabrielle questioned, fear sweeping over her face. “Oh gods, the blows to my back.”

“Yes, Mom was worried because it’s still the first season of your pregnancy. No sign of cramping or bleeding,” Xena leaned on her elbow on the bed next to her mate.

“Thank the gods!” Gabrielle closed her eyes, sighing gratefully.

Xena had to grin at that one, it hadn’t been but a few days before when Gabrielle was ready to kill herself rather than have a child of one of those gods. Now she was thanking them for saving her child during the fight.

Then the bard opened her eyes again. “The others?”

Xena lost her smile. “Dex got a pretty good headache out of it, Mom has a few broken ribs but will be okay, no punctured lungs.”

“Gods,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Torris has a bad sword wound to his thigh, a graze across his ribs and is pissed as hell and Sarita was untouched,” Xena continued.

“Good, Reija?”

Xena felt a tear escape her eye as she met Gabrielle’s demanding gaze. “Callisto cut the back of her leg at the knee, crippling her. Reija will keep the leg but will be on crutches the rest of her life.”

“No, no, please!” the bard lost her control and began crying again. It seemed like that’s all they had been doing for days; and much longer for the bard with her confusion over the pregnancy.

Xena almost whimpered, she wanted to take Gabrielle into her arms and couldn’t because of the bard’s wounds. All she could do was cry with her wife and gently stroke the bard’s forehead and wipe the tears away until Gabrielle could open her eyes again.

“The kids?”

“Mars and Callisto took them without a word,” Xena whispered.

“How long am I in this bed and how do we find the kids?” Gabrielle demanded, her grief turning to anger at the thought of Callisto and Mars with her adopted daughter and grandson.

“At least two more days and I’m not sure how to find them,” Xena admitted.

“Two days!?” Gabrielle demanded.

“At least, little one,” Xena countered firmly. “You could have lost your own child and were nearly killed. Another inch either way and those sais would have hit an artery or vein.”

Gabrielle yelled in frustration, wanting to hit something but it hurt too much to even clench her hands into fists.

Xena rose up with a frown when a knock sounded on the door. Her tension eased up only slightly when Cyrene cautiously entered the room.

“Hey, Mom,” Xena said easily, hand still on her chakram. After the last few days, the warrior wasn’t taking any chances.

“Xena, you and Gabrielle have a visitor,” Cyrene announced, her voice reflecting her puzzlement as she stepped aside.

Part 2
Both Xena and Gabrielle were expecting maybe Meg and Joxer or Hercules and Iolaus. The Greek couple both looked puzzled when a cloaked and hooded figure entered the room.

Sharp eyes spotted the strong and masculine hand wrapped around a covered spear and Xena’s eyes began to narrow. After everything that had happened, neither Xena nor Gabrielle was really surprised when the figure pulled the hood back and it was revealed their guest was Odin, god from the North.

“Odin,” Xena said simply, resisting the urge to grin at her mom’s puzzled face.

“All-Father God of the Northmen,” Gabrielle explained, wishing she could at least sit up.

“Xena, Gabrielle, wish I could see you under different circumstances,” Odin said simply, removing his cloak. Cyrene quickly offered to take it for the god as he sat down at a chair and table near the bed.

“What do you know of it?” Xena questioned, lowering her chakram to the table next to her side of the bed and leaning back on her elbow to look at the god over Gabrielle.

“I saw everything through the Well,” the god answered. “I was too far away to do anything.”

“Can you help now?” Gabrielle asked, ignoring the growl from Xena.

Odin smiled at Xena’s reluctance in dealing with the gods, especially when it concerned asking for help.

“Yes, actually the gods need your help as well,” Odin shrugged and, with a gentle smile, invited Cyrene to sit down at the table with him.

“Viking Gods asking for help?” Xena asked skeptically.

“Yes, your new God of War is messing with the strands of Fate. He intends on turning Sasha into a War Goddess, someone even more blood-thirsty than you once were,” Odin explained.

“No,” Xena whispered, her face stricken with horror.

“Yes, we have no idea what her inherited powers will be from you and Ares but we do know that she will be a goddess.”

“Where do you fit in? I know you want to train her and have said that her future is in the North but you’ve been pretty vague why you want her up there in the North,” Xena growled.

Odin’s one blue eye flashed and Gabrielle wasn’t sure if it wasn’t in anger or not at being challenged by the Greek warrior.

“All the Norns have revealed is she is to be a hero and more in the North. She will ride with the gods and goddesses and be one of us,” he admitted.

“Sasha?” Gabrielle questioned. She knew the child was already gifted with Sight from her parents but trying to imagine the pre-teen as a goddess was beyond her imagination.

“So, now Mars has her and intends on messing with her future and screwing up your plans,” Xena said simply.

“Yes, and possibly altering the future of the world. Mars is gathering some of the minor Olympian gods and goddesses in support in keeping Sasha,” Odin explained.

“You’re going to march against Mars and other Olympian gods?” Xena demanded.

A war between gods hadn’t been heard of since man was still figuring out how to keep fire going in a cave. The warrior felt Gabrielle shudder beside her at the thought of it as well.

“Yes, Loki and Hella are siding with Mars,” Odin looked suddenly grim. “No surprise there, you never know where he’s going to land. Others are standing with Freya and me, most want to stay out of it.”

“Oh gods, not Ragnarok!” Gabrielle whispered.

“No, not Ragnarok but probably a good practice run at it,” Odin grinned ruefully.

Xena’s mind whirled. Ragnarok, the battle among the gods and the dead, among Vanir, Aesir and giants and the ending of the world. A new world would be born but the old one would be wiped away, including all but a small handful of humanity and gods.

“If Mars keeps and trains Sasha it could well lead to Ragnarok for all the cultures and world,” Odin shrugged, looking very much like Xena.

“So what do we do?” Xena demanded, easily moving from reluctance to impatience.

“You and I plan a war and get her back,” he said simply.

“What about me?” Gabrielle demanded, trying to sit up and falling back with a cry of pain.

“You’re stuck here,” Odin again shrugged and refused to meet the bard’s flashing green eyes.

“He’s right, little one,” Xena said softly, not surprised when the green eyes burned her way. “We still don’t know if your baby is in danger or not and you can’t even sit up yet.”

“Why can’t you heal my shoulders?” Gabrielle demanded from the god of the Norse.

“Not my gig, not your fate,” he said easily. “Healing is that of the goddesses and I didn’t bring one with me.”

Gabrielle started to say something about smart ass gods and attitudes when Xena clamped a hand over the bard’s mouth and glared at Odin.

“Are you trying to piss her off?” she demanded.

Odin laughed softly and held up his hands in a gesture of peace. “Sorry, I haven’t gotten to know your mate and I was testing her a little. For a small one she is strong and stubborn, a well enough match for you, Xena.”

“I hate gods,” Xena muttered, removing her hand from Gabrielle’s mouth as the bard continued to glare at the god and then back at her mate.

“I’m not staying behind!” Gabrielle protested. “No more separations!”

“Gabrielle, we’re going into battle,” Xena countered. “Against gods, even if your shoulders were healed I wouldn’t let you near the field. You know that, not with a child coming.”

“Damnit!” Gabrielle yelled, trying not to tense her muscles in anger.

“I know, little one, I know,” Xena whispered, gently touching Gabrielle’s cheek.

“She can’t fight against gods!” Gabrielle protested, glaring at Odin again.

“She’ll be given back that power, so will you,” Odin said simply.

“I don’t want the power to hurt or kill gods if I’m not with Xena on this one!” Gabrielle protested.

“You may need it now since Mars has acted against both of you with Callisto’s help,” Odin countered and the bard fell silent.

Odin rose to his feet and offered his hand to Cyrene and helped her to her feet.

“I’ll be in the stable, Xena,” he said simply and walked out the door with Cyrene following.

Gabrielle fell deadly quiet as Xena got up and began stuffing things in her travel packs. The warrior tried to ignore the pain in her side as she lay back down on the bed next to her mate. One look at Gabrielle’s face and Xena knew the bard was more than a little upset with being left behind.

“Gabrielle,” Xena began softly.

“I know, I know!” the bard snapped. “Don’t expect me to be happy about it!”

Xena moved as close against her mate as she could as Gabrielle craned her neck, her lips reaching for the warrior’s. Both women fought back tears as their lips met and Gabrielle leaned into Xena’s hand.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly, quickly getting off the bed and grabbing her packs.

“I love you, Xena,” Gabrielle choked out. “Come back to me.”

“I’ll never leave you, one way or another,” Xena promised and was gone.

Gabrielle fought back tears as she heard the warrior going down the stairs. She knew Xena was in no condition to fight and hoped that one of the Northern goddesses would at least heal Xena’s wounded side before they went into battle.

Gods, the thought of a battle between the Viking gods and Greek gods was frightening.

Gabrielle frowned as the door opened again and Odin walked in. He smiled slightly and went to the table, grabbing up his cloak.

“Forgot this,” he said simply but Gabrielle’s eyes were narrowed.

“And?” she demanded and the god merely laughed and slowly approached her side of the bed.

“You are good, bard,” he commented. “What would you give to save Sasha and the known world?”

“I answered that once when Apollo told me her fate was to destroy the world if I didn’t return to Xena from slavery. I’ll do anything to save her and Xena,” Gabrielle answered easily.

“Then I need your help,” Odin began explaining. “I need Callisto distracted when we take to the battlefield and I think you can do it. I need Xena focused during the battle and frankly the sight of Callisto will send her into a berserker fury.”

“After killing Solan, that’s assured,” Gabrielle agreed.

“Can you do it? Can you keep her off the battlefield?” Odin questioned.

“I can’t even sit up!” the bard complained. “I can’t heal myself fast enough without endangering my child.”

Odin grinned and closed his bright blue eye and held his hands over the bard’s shoulder and Gabrielle felt the familiar tingling and rush of energy flowing from the god into her body. This was followed by the strange sensation of her muscles, skin and bones healing rapidly.

Gabrielle sat up easily after a moment and narrowed her eyes as she looked into Odin’s face.

“The child is fine and now you’re healed. Don’t let Xena know or she’ll insist you come with us,” he suggested.

“You planned this all along,” she muttered, half angrily.

“Yes, you’ll have the power to hurt and maybe even kill Callisto. Mars and Callisto wouldn’t dare risk letting Xena near them before a battle but they would be delighted to get their hands on you,” Odin said simply.

The thought of willingly giving herself over to those two maniac deities didn’t inspire hope in the bard and Odin nodded at her frown.

“It’s a lot, they may just kill you right away,” Odin agreed with her thoughts.

“Or torture me for awhile before the battle; even with god-killing gifts there’s no way I can handle both of them at once,” Gabrielle protested.

“You underestimate yourself, warrior bard,” Odin grinned. “You can take Callisto and Xena can handle Mars. Go to the temple of Ares where you fought before. Keep your shoulders bandaged and act wounded and then take her out.”

“Xena will kill both of us,” Gabrielle smiled at the devious deity.

“Nothing new there, bard,” Odin grinned back.

Xena frowned as Odin came down the stairs. “What took so long?”

Odin smiled easily. “Reassuring your mate I’d keep you as safe as possible. She’s really upset she’s not going with you.”

Xena continued frowning. “Me too. Let’s go.”

Gabrielle watched from her window as Odin and Xena left the village. She knew Odin would zap them to Asgard once they were out of view. The bard was careful to stay out of Xena’s sight.

Gabrielle knew Xena would never agree to Odin’s crazy plan to divide Callisto and Mars apart during the battle but the bard knew that it might be the only chance they would have to get close to Sasha.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena couldn’t help but smile after Freya ran her hands over the warrior and all her aches, pains and the wounded side were healed instantly. It always felt strange to be healed by the gods but Xena was grateful. If she was going up against Mars and Callisto, Xena wanted to be in top form.

The Northern Goddess smiled in return and turned to Odin with a satisfied look.

“You’ve got your warrior, Odin,” she said simply.

“We’ll need her, Freya,” Odin responded. “Xena, time to plan a battle that will rattle the world!”

Xena shook her head at his enthusiasm. “Vikings and their fights,” she grinned. “How did I hook up with you Vikings?” she asked with a grin. “You can be as bad as Ares and Mars.”

“Not quite,” he argued. “We fight for the joy of it, yes, but not for the blood and carnage like Ares.”

“Very little difference at times,” Xena countered and wasn’t surprised when the deity merely shrugged.

“You know how the Greeks and Romans do battle,” Odin began, changing the subject.

“Yes, I don’t expect the gods to fight like a Roman legion but I do know how they think, especially if Mars has learned from Ares,” Xena agreed, walking over and leaning over a table. On the table was a model of the ground where the gods from two different cultures would clash. It was a wonderful model, showing the hills, valleys, rivers, plains, everything down to the smallest detail. Xena envied the ability to have these kinds of maps and then shook her head. She didn’t need maps like this anymore, she argued with herself. Xena wasn’t the Warlord anymore.

Then why did she keep ending up a warrior and in battles?

Caesar had once said that his destiny was to rule the world and Xena was part of it. She had been; she had also been part of his downfall from that rule. He had felt the best thing anyone could ever know was their own personal destiny and how to fight for it.

What was Xena’s destiny? She questioned with a frown. Especially now since she knew she was immortal and practically a god. No longer did she have to look at retiring and being a full time mom or innkeeper.

It had always been unspoken that Xena would take over for her mom when Cyrene couldn’t work it anymore. Now was that the plan? The last two years had seen Solan and Reija working towards that goal, now Solan was dead and Reija crippled.

What was their destiny? What was right for her family?

Xena almost wished she could grow older and follow the pattern that life had set down for humans. Some things would be taken for granted and forced on you. Warriors either died or retired. They became Captains of city guards, teachers or generals. Very few warriors made it to old age in their profession.

Now Xena supposed she could go on forever as a warrior unless she was killed. Was that her destiny? Was that what she was meant to do forever? Was that the future she wanted for Gabrielle and their children?

Children, their children. What did destiny mean with children? A child with Gabrielle and Sasha and a grandson by Solan.

Xena frowned and caught Odin smiling at her.

“You think too much sometimes,” he teased.

“And you don’t? God of poetry, after sacrificing your eye for the gift of prophecy, knowledge and poetry. Hanging on a tree, stabbed with your own spear to gain the knowledge of the runes. Was it worth it?” she countered.

“Yes, I can tell you the future of the world but you wouldn’t believe it, any of the possibilities. Do I know that I can’t prevent some things from happening, yes? Do I know that I will die eventually, yes?”

“And Sasha? You’ve been rather quiet about that subject,” Xena growled.

“If we get her back to you, her future is glorious. If not, the future is short for most of us,” Odin shrugged, vague as usual.

“Let’s get to planning,” Xena said simply.

“We know some of the names of the Greeks joining with Mars, maybe you recognize the names,” Freya suggested.

“Who are they?” Xena questioned.

“Pluto and Morpheus,” Odin began.

“Pluto is the Roman name for Hades, king of the Underworld. Morpheus is the god of dreams. I’ve tangled with him before, he wanted Gabrielle in his kingdom,” Xena answered.

“Which would have meant her death,” Odin surmised and Xena nodded. “Erebus and Ixion.”

“Erebus is the son of Chaos, his specialty is darkness. Ixion is the son of Ares, brother to Mars,” Xena responded easily.

“Dis and Alphaeus,” Freya continued.

“An Underworld god and a river god,” the warrior answered, looking over the model map.

“Neptune I know is an ocean god, what about Orcus?” Odin questioned.

“A Roman god of death,” Xena muttered.

“Phobos,” Freya finished.

“Another son of Ares, his specialty is causing fright. What Vikings have joined with Mars?” Xena asked.

“So far only Loki and Hella and some of the giants,” Odin answered.

“Any Greeks on our side?” the warrior asked, moving around the table to get a different angle on the battleground.

“Yes, Cupid and Apollo,” Odin began.

“God of Love and the God of the Sun,” Xena grinned. “I expected them. Cupid likes us and Apollo is Gabrielle’s father.”

“Mercury and Museos,” Freya continued.

“God of Speed and Messages and a male muse, the son of Hecate,” Xena responded. “I guess that makes him my half-brother. Haven’t met him.”

“One named Evander and Artemis,” Odin finished.

“Strange, a son of Ares but a god of writing,” Xena frowned. “The Goddess of the hunt and Amazons, Gabrielle’s patron goddess.”

“Evander has pledged loyalty to Apollo and Zeus,” Odin mentioned.

“Good, not every son takes after the father, I guess,” Xena muttered.

“Now, about this valley here,” Odin pointed, beginning the strategy session.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle hated leaving a note for Cyrene, especially after the last note she had left. The note telling her mother-in-law she was about to take her own life because of her pregnancy. Now she was leaving another note for Cyrene to find and worry over, but Gabrielle knew if Cyrene was aware of what the bard was planning all of Tartarus would break loose.

The bard wondered, as she climbed out her window with a small travel pack, whether she was going crazy. The plan was insane and she knew it but was still willing to try it. To turn herself over to Callisto and Mars with no backup was more than insane, it was suicidal and the bard didn’t consider herself suicidal anymore.

Especially now since she was pregnant and knew without a doubt the child wasn’t the result of Bacchus’ sexual assault. A child of Xena and herself through magic.

Gabrielle hesitated in the stable as she put the bridle on her horse. How could she risk her own life now that she was carrying a child? Especially since the child was also Xena’s?

On the other hand, Odin was counting on her to distract Callisto during the battle. The details had been few and rough; he would somehow let Gabrielle know when the gods and their armies were marching against each other and it would then be up to Gabrielle to keep Callisto from the field.

The bard wasn’t sure how she was going to do that; Callisto was so unpredictable and Mars a total unknown. Odin had whispered a suggestion in her ear before walking out the door, leaving a stunned bard behind. A suggestion Gabrielle found she didn’t even want to think about yet alone consider.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena and Odin finally quit hovering over the model map with the other gods and goddesses after several candles-marks. The warrior found she was actually relaxing with the Viking and Greek deities as they argued strategy and weapons.

The warrior then found herself frowning; it almost felt too comfortable to her. Then she smiled as Cupid sat down next to her as Valkyries merrily served food and drink to the crowd gathered at the eating table.

“You’re thinking about your warlord days,” he commented.

“You reading my mind?” she demanded, losing her smile.

“No, it’s easy to read your body language and I know you,” he responded easily. “You have been wrapped up in the planning and then bantering back and forth about war. Then you frowned, actually scowling at yourself,” he explained. “You aren’t falling back into old patterns, Xena.”

“How do I know what you say is true? War was what I lived for and I have no idea what I’m doing now in life. We’ve been surviving for years without any real direction,” the warrior complained. “Coming together and then losing Gabrielle for almost two years, no time for planning while that was happening. Since then we’ve been off balance.”

Cupid nodded, “And most of those events were because of Ares messing with you both.”

“Now it’s Mars and Callisto. Just when I think we can settle down and raise our families, something happens,” Xena complained.

“Why can’t you accept that you’re a warrior?” he asked with a grin.

“I know I’m a warrior, I just don’t want to slip back into being a warlord,” Xena countered.

“You are a naturally talented warrior and more, just like your bard is. Maybe you two should raise your families outside the Empire for awhile,” Cupid, God of Love suggested.

“I’ve been thinking about it,” Xena admitted. “Especially if we don’t take care of Mars and Callisto.”

“Even if we do take Mars out, another God will come along to replace him, probably one of Ares’ other sons,” Cupid complained.

“What are Gabrielle and I destined for?” Xena muttered.

“You think too much right now,” Cupid grinned. “Right now your destiny is to get your daughter and grandson back, get back to your mate and help her during the pregnancy.”

Xena grinned back at the God of Love and nodded, accepting a horn of mead and almost choked when the god leaned over and nuzzled her neck.

He almost choked on his own drink as he laughed at Xena’s surprised statement.

“Hey,” he grinned. “You are beautiful, irresistible, and such fun when you blush!”

The warrior laughed and playfully smacked the God on his arm.

“Just never try that when Gabrielle is around, you imp!”

Cupid laughed as the warrior shook her head. He could be a handful, Xena thought to herself, like his mother. One thing about both of them, the warrior didn’t feel threatened by his playfulness. She knew he wasn’t serious and had gotten her to laugh and she was grateful.

She also noticed him carefully watching a couple of the Valkyries moving around the table and some of them watching him back. They seemed more than curious about his wings, which he tried to keep tucked behind him.

The night before a major battle could guarantee several things, the warrior knew; one would be alcohol and another would be sex. Not too much alcohol and not too much sex but it would happen among a lot of them, Xena knew. Some of the midnight connections would be out of the knowledge that death might wait for them the next day; others out of the incredible energy that would be building up between everyone.

Xena wished even more that Gabrielle was with her, the warrior’s eyes clouding over with thoughts of her bard.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle camped two marks away from the Temple of Ares. She knew the gods would be meeting on the battlefield during the daytime, probably at first light.

The bard leaped to her feet, sai in each hand when a figure appeared suddenly on the other side of her campfire. Gabrielle blinked as she took in the male smiling at her.

Wearing nothing more than a pair of cut off trousers, a shining helmet and tight shoes, the well fit youth looked like a swimmer. Or a runner, Gabrielle corrected herself and smiled, lowering her sais slightly.

“Hermes, or are you calling yourself Mercury these days?” she greeted.

“Either works for me,” he grinned as she took in the wings at his ankles and the ones behind his back, like Cupid’s, only these were smaller.

“What’s up?” she asked as she invited him to sit by the fire with her. The God of Speed and Messages sat with a smile.

“Xena and the others have planned the battle and now are settling in for the evening,” he said easily.

“Gods, I miss her,” Gabrielle muttered.

“She is missing you, badly,” Hermes smiled, “Especially with Cupid trying to nibble on her neck.”

“Excuse me?”

The Greek Trickster God laughed heartily. “He doesn’t mean it, he got her to laugh and relax a little.”

“I assume Odin sent you,” she guessed.

“Yes, just checking on things,” he confirmed.

“How in Tartarus am I supposed to get Callisto and Mars apart before a major battle?” Gabrielle complained.

“Well, they actually plan on it,” Hermes said cryptically.

“What do you mean?” Gabrielle asked, her curiosity now heightened.

“They plan on Callisto kidnapping you from your sick bed while Xena is in the middle of the battle,” he explained.

“And how do you and Odin know this?” Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed.

“Loki has joined with Mars and Callisto,” Hermes said easily. “What they don’t realize is he’s been feeding Odin information about everything. Hella may stand with them but when the battle begins Loki will be by Odin’s side.”

“Trickster Gods, so damned unpredictable,” Gabrielle complained with a smile and was pleased when Hermes joined her laughter in agreement.

“So, I go into the Temple when I get some kind of signal and I’ll find Callisto alone about to go off and kidnap me?” Gabrielle frowned.

“That’s pretty much it,” he agreed.

“Then I need to keep her busy, hopefully not busy killing me,” the bard said thoughtfully.

“Yes, and you have got to keep her busy and not simply turn yourself over,” he stressed.

“Why?”

“She can’t be given time to follow through with her plans for you, you have got to keep her off balance,” Hermes urged.

Gabrielle felt a chill run up her spine. “What is her plan for me?” she asked softly.

“To torment you, Mars to rape you and then turn you over as a slave to the Romans again,” he answered bluntly. Gabrielle fought down the urge to throw up at the rough description of Callisto’s insane plans for her. The bard clenched her hands into fists as her eyes closed in rage. The memories of her time as a slave came rushing back and she resisted the urge to scream.

When Gabrielle opened her eyes again Hermes was gone, leaving the bard with her thoughts.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena growled as sunlight hit her eyes as she mounted her horse. The few horns of mead she had the night before were making her grumpy this morning. The warrior was pleased with the horse, a beautiful black mare which reminded her a lot of Argo. Xena missed her beloved and well-trained warhorse and felt another stab of pain. It was getting time to retire Argo from her rough life-style and Xena knew it.

It was another loss coming up and another reminder of the passage of time for the warrior.

Xena frowned as she took in the sight of the deities also mounting their horses. Each lost in their thoughts before the upcoming battle. They each knew this was serious; everyone on the battlefield would have the ability to hurt or kill each other. No one was exempt from the potential of death in this battle. That was something the deities weren’t accustomed to.

Even the soldiers and warrior priests of the gods could kill them. Somehow the Fates, Norns or whoever had evened the odds between everyone.

Xena saw Cupid leaning on a doorpost as a Valkyrie leaned into him and began kissing him passionately and the warrior shook her head with a smile. Another Valkyrie walked out behind the Love God and pinched his ass with a grin and Xena continued to shake her head. At least he had kept busy the night before, she thought.

The warrior quickly checked her gear, once more. Everything in place, strapped down, buckled, and tied down. The shield was an excellent piece of work which had pleased the warrior when Odin had presented her with it. Her sword was as sharp as it ever had been, as was her chakram. Several daggers were hidden on various places of her body and a whip was hanging at her side.

Even Xena was impressed when Odin rode out of the stables to join them. His armor was bright and perfect; the tall God was imposing with his long spear in hand. Several whistles greeted the god and he grinned in response.

“Let’s do this!” he shouted and was greeted with massive cheers.

Xena felt her body beginning to hum.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle watched the temple and everything around her from a position in the woods, out of sight.

It was about a candle-mark past dawn and the bard was waiting impatiently. She had no idea yet how she was going to distract Callisto long enough for the battle to be decided. Some battles had been known to last all day, some even days.

Gabrielle looked up as two ravens began circling overhead, cawing loudly and circling her tree until she waved at them. The two ravens landed on a branch near the bard and she smiled slightly.

“Some sign, tell Odin I’m going through with it. I still don’t know what in name of Zeus I’m going to do but I’m going in,” she said softly to the birds as they watched her closely.

One more set of caws and the two dark winged creatures flew off, heading up into the sky and out of sight.

Gabrielle looked down at the temple and steeled herself.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena screamed a war cry and slashed out at one of the dark soldiers trying to impale her with a spear. She parried the spear easily and slashed backhanded, as the mounted soldier drew closer, and struck him solidly. Her sword ripped through his leather armor from the neck into his chest.

He was forgotten in an instant as she turned and met danger coming in from the front and the side.

Xena had been in the last wave of those going into battle. She and Odin had stayed on a high hill, overseeing and directing the battle.

Xena had been content to let Odin plan most of the battle; the warrior knew Mars would be familiar with everything that Xena had been taught by Ares and her experiences with the Romans. She was trusting Odin to be unpredictable enough to counter that knowledge.

The first unpredictable thing had been the opening feint of both armies. Mars had sent his priest army onto the field with the spearmen first and Phobos riding in front of them, instilling fear in the scout troops of Odin. One thing Mars hadn’t counted on with the Vikings, they didn’t run when afraid, they went berserk.

The scouts went insane and threw themselves into the middle of the mounted spear soldiers, many of them impaling themselves on the spears in order to break them. The small scout units were massacred but not before they had fought past the spears to sink their swords or even their teeth into their enemies. A third of the spearmen went down to the scouts.

Instead of meeting cavalry with cavalry, Odin met them with arrows and stake traps. With one of her famous war cries, Xena signaled the release of massive logs from the surrounding embankments leading to the woods. The logs had been embedded with spikes and pitch. At the sound of her cry the logs were set on fire and released. The cavalry found blazing spiked logs hurling at them from the sides and a massive wall of stakes facing their horses from the front.

Just as the logs hit the horses and men and the screams of both horse and man began, fire arrows rained down on them from the safety of the trees.

It was all common sense battle planning but it was something Xena excelled at. She was spectacular at all out battle and frontal assaults but she was also talented in ways of wearing down an army and thinning out its ranks before meeting it head-on. These were some of the same tactics she had used on Brutus.

The next tactic was unexpected though, something she had never used.

In typical Roman style, the army of Mars attacked in ranks. There were advantages and disadvantages; one advantage was the separate units could be directed quickly into changing directions and battle plans. The disadvantage was one the Roman god was about to learn.

As the next wave came to the forefront, foot soldiers with spears this time. They left a gap between the last row and the next rank.

The foot spearmen were surprised and confused when they had gotten near the front rank of Odin’s troops without any confrontation. They were even more confused when four riders broke out of the trees on each flank behind them and in between the ranks of Mars’ army.

Mars himself was confused until he saw they were trailing burning bundles of hay. The Roman God of War began cursing loudly when he realized the ground between his two ranks had been prepared before the battle with oil. The ground became a burning inferno in a matter of moments, cutting off the spearmen from the rest of their troops.

Screams of rage from Mars sounded out across the meadow and then were drowned out by the screams of pain from men burning or being killed by sword, spear and arrow.

Xena gritted her teeth against the horror as she slashed out again. One flank of Mars cavalry had broken through and had threatened Odin’s position. Xena had urged her horse into action and into battle.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle managed to hold open the door with her foot after a petitioner left the temple. She took a deep breath and pushed the door open further and walked inside, still pretending to nurse her shoulders but mentally prepared for anything.

Odin had suggested playing she was still injured and the bard had ensured that the white bandages and wrappings showed from under her simple tunic. It was times like this she wished she could still wear her old favorite clothing. What little of it there was, she reflected with a smile. Nowadays she didn’t dare for fear of being mistaken for a slave because of the lash scars across her back.

Gabrielle lost her smile and felt a shudder run up her spine. Which was exactly what Callisto wanted for her again, slave to someone brutal, maybe even the gladiatorial games again. A guaranteed short life, even for an immortal.

Gabrielle wondered for a moment how much Callisto knew about them since she had been in the lava rock. Obviously enough to fool Joxer into believing she was Gabrielle. Callisto must know that she was the daughter of Apollo and immortal now. The bard frowned, how much did Callisto know about them? She knew about Solan, Sasha and even Dex being Xena’s boss and friend. Did she know Gabrielle was now pregnant with Xena’s child? That would not be good, Gabrielle thought to herself.

The temple only had one priest this early in the morning and he wasn’t paying attention to the female in the cloak that kept to the back of the temple. When the half-asleep priest went outside for something the bard quickly moved behind the altar and towards the step to the hard wooden and leather throne.

Gabrielle really didn’t know what she was doing but she trusted her instincts. Whenever Ares had appeared in the temples or Olympus it was always on his throne first. The bard quickly moved up the stairs and sat down before the priest could come in and cause problems.

“Callisto!” she shouted loudly, startling several doves that had taken refuge in the rafters.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena shouted and waved her bloody sword over her head and the troops of Mars looked up with startled faces at the screams of horses and women above their heads. Even Phobos looked surprised and a little fearful at the sight of the well armed and battle frenzied Valkyries on winged horses diving at them.

At the same time, Odin’s troops pressed forward, two units of berserkers and werserkers leading the charge. The combination of the half-bear, half-wolf warriors and flying Valkyries was more than some of the Greeks could take and panic began to spread throughout the soldiers of Mars.

Xena grinned and saw Odin stand up in his stirrups, his cloak flowing behind him, his wolves standing on each side of Sleipnir, his eight legged horse. She was surprised when his two ravens appeared and landed on each shoulder.

The warrior’s sharp eyes took in their cawing in each ear and the Norse gods’ close attention to his messengers. Then the deity stood higher and shouted a war cry of his own and raised his spear.

“All who fall come to me!” he shouted, his god-voice carrying over the din of the battle, causing an almost supernatural silence for a moment. In that space of silence, the god threw his spear over the heads of Mars’ army.

All of them, even the Greeks knew that was a dedication of souls to Odin upon their death. Whoever died this day as a hero would go to Valhalla and to Odin. A hero’s fate.

It also meant he was dooming the enemy army to failure.

Mars roared his anger and began shouting at his own troops to get back to the front and hold the line.

Xena sent her chakram flying as two of Morpheus personal priest warriors managed to use their ability to cloud minds to work past the front lines and were heading for Odin. The priests never knew what hit them. One moment their heads were attached to their bodies and the next moment they weren’t. The faces on the severed heads actually managed to look puzzled before dropping to the ground.

Odin looked over and grinned viciously at the warrior.

Both armies were holding their own but it was becoming obvious that Odin’s side was beginning to make progress. Mars may have started out with almost double the number of troops, but the surprises Odin and Xena had sprung at him and his troops had cut the advantage down.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle blinked as she took in the sight of the living space around her and wasn’t surprised to find it very masculine. Leather covered furniture, shields and various weapons decorated the walls with black, red and silver tapestries with intricate interwoven designs. A long table with gold goblets and plates ran down the center of the room. Off to her left was a large and comfortable looking bed of rich linens and furs.

In the center of the bed was Callisto, looking somewhat surprised to be looking back at the bard sitting on the throne of Ares, now the throne of Mars.

“Well, well,” Callisto purred, sitting up on the bed. Her movements reminded Gabrielle of a snake or a harem dancer – erotic and deadly at the same time.

Gabrielle resisted the urge to dive off the throne with sais in both hands. The bard knew she now had the ability to hurt the goddess in front of her and Callisto didn’t know it. Gabrielle didn’t dare risk it until she knew where Sasha was, however. One wrong move and Callisto could blast Gabrielle into flames and Xena would never see Sasha again.

“I didn’t expect visitors!” Callisto exclaimed easily.

Gabrielle stood up slowly, keeping her arms close to her body and moving stiffly.

“I thought I’d save you the trip,” Gabrielle taunted back.

“How did you know I’d be coming for you?” Callisto stopped as she stood up and drew her sword; Gabrielle losing her chance to surprise the goddess immediately with an attack.

“Logic,” Gabrielle said easily, moving down from the steps to meet the blonde chaotic goddess. “Xena is off battling Mars, leaving me unprotected and injured. You don’t want Xena dead, you want to hurt her.”

“Yes, go on,” Callisto muttered, her eyes burning brightly as she watched the bard move slowly to a well cushioned chair near the fire at the head of the room.

“You’ve killed her son, kidnapped her daughter and grandson,” Gabrielle continued, picking up a goblet of rich wine and pretended to drink. “Crippled her daughter-in-law, injured her brother badly, destroyed our friend Joxer, broke her mother’s ribs. What could be next except me?”

“Very good, you always were smart,” Callisto smiled, her eyes dancing with a manic gleam. “Many have underestimated you, haven’t they?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle admitted.

“You know something,” Callisto suddenly said thoughtfully. “You never did thank me.”

“Thank you?” a puzzled Gabrielle asked.

“For killing that boring farmer you picked for a husband,” Callisto grinned evilly. “If not for me you might never have gotten together with Xena after that disaster.”

Gabrielle felt her eyes flashing with anger, her breathing quicken and she quickly resisted the reaction of tightening her hands into fists and then attacking Callisto.

“Oh goodie!” Callisto cried, delightfully clapping her hands. “It still gets to you, does it? Is that because you really loved him or do you feel guilty because you’re glad he’s dead and you’re with Xena?”

Gabrielle somehow kept her anger in check but she could feel her cheeks blushing with anger and guilt. Callisto had hit a little too close to home for the bard. In fact, she had hit dead center, Gabrielle did feel guilty that Perdicus was dead because she was happy to be with Xena and only his death had made that possible.

Callisto laughed heartily at the bard’s statement of anger.

“So what do you have planned for me?” Gabrielle demanded, hoping to change the subject.

“Oh nothing much,” Callisto purred, moving closer to the bard and raising Gabrielle’s chin up with the point of her sword. “I thought I’d torture you for awhile and then turn you over to one of the more vicious gladiatorial schools in Rome.”

Gabrielle let the fear show in her eyes as well as the anger.

“Been there, done that,” she said bravely, hoping Callisto caught the tremor in her voice. “I survived and won my freedom.”

“I know, I saw that!” Callisto exclaimed and laughed at Gabrielle’s baffled look. “I had the ability to watch the two of you while I was stuck in that damned lava!”

The goddess looked furious for a moment and Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat as the sword bit into her throat slightly and then Callisto looked amused again.

“I got to see you sleeping with that other Amazon gladiator of yours; you are definitely more talented than you think!” Callisto said and then laughed as the bard blushed a bright red. “Both in bed and in the Arena. I never thought you’d get out of that one!”

Callisto lowered the sword and sat down in a chair across from Gabrielle.

“Then I got to see Xena’s brat being born, quite a sight!” she continued. “Vikings and blood everywhere, Xena screaming and helpless! Oh it was such fun!”

“Have you ever thought of having children, Callisto?” Gabrielle asked and wasn’t surprised by the shocked statement on the goddess’ face.

“Why would I subject a child to my life?” the blonde goddess demanded suddenly angry.

“Good question, then what do you have planned for Sasha and Kiryk?” Gabrielle countered.

“Mars gets Sasha to raise as he sees fit,” Callisto shrugged. “As for the other brat, you’ll have to guess about that one.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed in anger but she resisted snapping back at the goddess.

“Amazing,” Gabrielle commented and wasn’t surprised when Callisto leaned forward, her eyes flashing with anger.

“What?” she demanded.

“That you would make the same mistakes as Xena,” the bard said thoughtfully, appearing not to notice Callisto’s rising anger.

“Mistakes?” Callisto hissed.

“Creating another Xena. Really stupid.”

Gabrielle wasn’t surprised when Callisto backhanded her, almost tipping the chair over backwards. Again the bard resisted reacting physically.

“You better explain that, bitch,” Callisto growled.

“Xena was partly created by Ares. The Warlord Xena killed your family and created you. Now you’re going to turn a child over to Mars so he can create another Warlord Xena,” Gabrielle reasoned. “Sasha is as innocent as you were, now you get to create a monster, just like Xena did.”

Callisto frowned.

“You’ve killed Sasha’s brother and are going to turn her over to Mars to be turned into a monster. Xena may well have raised you herself,” Gabrielle snapped. “You want revenge on Sasha or Xena?”

“And what would you suggest, bard?” Callisto laughed. “I let Sasha and Kiryk go, send you back and forgive Xena for everything?”

“I know you won’t do that,” Gabrielle said simply. “I do know a way to get revenge on Xena without turning Sasha into the monster Xena was and which you’ve become.”

“So you haven’t come to argue for yourself or Xena,” Callisto commented, nodding to herself as if accepting the observation.

“No, that would be useless,” Gabrielle said simply.

“You are sharp,” Callisto admitted. “So in your mind what could I possibly do with Sasha that would hurt Xena without hurting Sasha.”

“Nothing,” Gabrielle admitted. “But I do know a lesser evil for Sasha. Give her to the Norse gods.”

“What in Tartarus are you talking about? They’re the ones fighting Mars right now!” Callisto demanded.

“Haven’t you asked yourself why they are fighting Mars?” Gabrielle threw a question back at the goddess.

By the frown on the blonde’s face, Gabrielle knew Callisto hadn’t bothered with the question and probably neither had Mars.

“They are fighting with Xena not because they’re friends with her!” Gabrielle said forcefully, as if instructing a slower student. “They want Sasha for their own. The Northern gods know she’s going to have powers and want her for their own. They intend to turn her into a Valkyrie and take her from Xena and me.”

“What the difference between Mars and the Norse and why should I care?” Callisto demanded.

“Do you want to do to a child what Xena did to you?” Gabrielle demanded. “Mars will warp her and turn her into what Xena was. Sasha will turn around and destroy many more families than Xena ever did. Families like yours. The Warlord Xena will win over you, Callisto.”

Callisto seemed lost in thought.

“The ultimate irony, Xena created you by killing your family. Now you’ll create a hundred more Callistos by creating the next Xena with her daughter.” Gabrielle said bitterly.

“So why the Norse?” Callisto was still frowning.

“They want to take and train her to become one of them, Xena isn’t happy with that and won’t give up her daughter to them,” Gabrielle said, hoping the truth would cloud over the slight lie under the sentence.

“What if I want her to become the next Warlord Xena?” Callisto asked with a grin.

“Why, everyone will know it’s your fault, you and Mars. Xena will be seen as the suffering mother who lost her child to an insane goddess and a power hungry war god,” the bard said simply.

Callisto continued pondering.

“Instead of Xena being blamed for her past crimes, you’ll be the one blamed for the terror. Cirra will be forgotten and you’ll be cursed for taking an innocent child and turning her into a monster.” Gabrielle pressed.

Callisto growled.

“You talk too much,” Callisto growled and Gabrielle nodded her head in agreement.

Gabrielle watched as Callisto snarled at her and then at herself.

“They’ll possibly turn her over to you again after the battle!” Callisto protested.

“No, were you watching when we fought the monster Grendel?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yeah, you actually stayed dead for awhile over that one!” Callisto grinned in pleasure and Gabrielle glared at her. “I saw.”

“Then you know Freya and Odin are demanding Sasha for their own.”

Callisto growled.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Part 3

Xena was getting tired, battle took energy very quickly and this one was lasting towards noon.

The warrior spotted Cupid falling back from the battle, wiping sweat from his brow and ignoring blood dripping from a serious cut along his left bicep and another under his right ribs.

He saw Xena and rode his horse over to her and smiled slightly.

“How goes it?” he asked.

“So far, so good. We’re holding our own and Mars is getting more and more frustrated,” Xena answered.

“Good, some of them are getting really tired out there,” he commented.

“I know, hopefully the last surprise we have in store for them will break it,” Xena grinned.

“What do you have planned?” the god of Love asked.

“Just wait and see, don’t get yourself killed before then,” she joked and he merely grinned at her and turned his horse back towards the battlefield.

Xena rode over next to Odin and they watched the battle for a few moments. They could both see Mars on an opposite hill doing the same. He was pacing his horse back and forth, obviously impatient and frustrated.

“Getting close, Odin,” Xena said simply.

“Not yet, I’m waiting for something,” he grinned.

“What? The troops are getting tired and we need a boost,” Xena asked.

“I’m waiting for your daughter,” Odin said, intentionally watching the battle and not the warrior. He didn’t want to laugh at her amazed statement.

“What?” she demanded after a moment.

“I’m hoping Sasha will show up,” he smiled.

“What have you done?” she demanded, her eyes narrowing. “What have you and Gabrielle planned?”

“We’ll have to wait and see, Xena,” Odin said simply.

“Gabrielle?”

“Don’t even think about it, Xena!” Odin said sharply. “If you leave now you could destroy everything and kill both Sasha and Gabrielle.”

“If either of them die, Odin,” Xena began threatening.

“I know, I know.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle resisted shifting uneasily in the chair under Callisto’s unrelenting stare and finally the goddess broke the stare and growled as she drained a goblet of wine.

She glared at Gabrielle again and snapped her fingers.

It took every bit of Gabrielle’s self control not to leap to her feet as Sasha appeared next to Callisto’s chair. The child rushed forward and hugged her adopted mom.

“Mum!”

Gabrielle carefully wrapped her arms around the child, cautiously watching Callisto.

“Say goodbye to Gabrielle, brat,” Callisto snapped and Gabrielle pulled Sasha back to look the child in her blue eyes.

“Callisto is going to send you to Odin a little early, okay? Your mom and I are going to get you back someday,” Gabrielle said simply, hoping Sasha would keep quiet and just listen.

“I don’t want to leave you and Mom!” Sasha cried and Gabrielle almost sighed with relief, somehow the child knew what to say.

“Just don’t anger Odin and remember I love you,” Gabrielle hugged the child tightly.

Sasha backed out of Gabrielle’s arms with tears flowing down her face and was gone.

“She’s with Odin?” Gabrielle demanded from Callisto, who now looked bored.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the goddess waved her hand, dismissing the subject. “Happy?”

“Yes,” Gabrielle admitted.

“Now what to do with you?” Callisto turned her attention back to the bard, her eyes dancing with insanity.

Gabrielle felt her heart skip a beat with fear. She had the power to hurt Callisto but Callisto had the power to zap things and she was unpredictable as Tartarus.

The bard knew the next few moments could determine whether she would go through torture and end up as a slave or maybe get out alive.

Gabrielle stood up and shrugged her cloak off as Callisto’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. The bard kept her movements simple and her hands away from her sais as she reached up and pulled her tunic off. It was revealed that Gabrielle was wearing one of her old favorite outfits, a leather top which barely covered her ample breasts and a leather skirt that left little to the imagination but her legs free for movement.

The bard noticed the flash of interest before Callisto masked it with a look of disdain.

“That god healing ability take care of your shoulders?” the goddess asked, trying to sound bored.

“Something like that,” Gabrielle shrugged. “So, after you send me to the Romans, kill Torris and his wife, then what?”

“I don’t know,” Callisto admitted.

“What would be left for revenge?” Gabrielle continued, throwing her tunic onto the chair with her cloak.

“You talk too much,” Callisto complained again.

“Yup, I admit it,” Gabrielle said softly and walked up to the goddess as Callisto’s eyes narrowed again with suspicion. Before Callisto could respond, the bard pulled the goddess to her and kissed her passionately.

Callisto protested for a moment and then began responding to the kiss, pulling Gabrielle closer.

The bard tried to shut off of her mind and let her body respond to the sensations. She had done it often enough when she was a slave and separated from Xena. Forced into a relationship with her female trainer, she had started out the sexual relationship by shutting off her mind and letting her body respond. Later she had needed the contact with Nikki, but the first time with Nikki had felt like this, somehow unreal and distant.

The bard moaned and kissed the goddess back even more roughly than before.

Not surprising the bard, Callisto suddenly thrust Gabrielle back, a shocked statement on her face.

“What in Tartarus are you doing?!” she shrieked.

Gabrielle slowly pulled her sais out and threw them on the chair behind her. She saw Callisto’s eyes narrow in suspicion.

The bard also caught Callisto’s eyes roaming over the bard’s body now the tunic was gone and Gabrielle was dressed more like she had in her traveling days with Xena. Skirt and very little for a top.

“Tell me something, Callisto,” Gabrielle said softly, letting her voice go a little husky. “Why haven’t you killed me yet?”

“What? Don’t be an idiot,” Callisto snapped. “If I send you to the slave pits, then Xena will go insane trying to find you.”

“I think there’s more to it,” Gabrielle said softly and gently stroked Callisto’s cheek and the chaotic goddess closed her eyes for a moment. Then the other blonde snapped her eyes open and grabbed the bard’s wrist tightly. Gabrielle ignored the pain. “Did you enjoy watching me with my trainer?”

Callisto refused to answer but released the bard’s wrist with a frown. Gabrielle moved slowly behind the goddess, keeping her hands trailing over Callisto’s shoulder and maintaining contact.

“Did you?” Gabrielle persisted, running her hand through Callisto’s hair.

“Yeah, you hated it so much and then couldn’t help yourself!” Callisto growled.

“Did I hate it?” Gabrielle purred and grinned when Callisto squeaked as the goddess felt her armor buckle being undone at her shoulder and then Gabrielle’s lips on her skin.

“What in Tartarus are you doing?” Callisto snapped again, this time her voice a dangerous growl.

“I don’t think you could even kill Xena if she were kneeling in front of you totally unarmed,” Gabrielle said, ignoring Callisto’s question.

“Of course I could! It’s just more delightful to torment her,” Callisto protested.

“Nah,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully and the goddess turned, her brown eyes blazing. Gabrielle appeared not to notice but continued ‘contemplating.’ “You’ve been so obsessed with her since you were a child. I don’t think you could kill her.”

The bard turned and sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned back on her elbows casually, seeming to be oblivious to the body she was presenting to the chaotic goddess in front of her.

“I know I confuse you,” Gabrielle smiled at Callisto and her sharp eyes caught the goddess clenching her fist and silently hoped she could play this out. “I’m not a warrior; I couldn’t even fight when you first met me.”

“That’s for sure!” Callisto agreed, grinning at the memory of Gabrielle dangling from the end of a burning rope and Xena desperately fighting Callisto to get to the bard in time.

“Yup, I become a warrior when I didn’t want to,” Gabrielle admitted. “I’ve heard you ask Xena several times why she kept me around. Have you figured out the answer?”

“True love?” Callisto sneered.

“Yes but also great sex,” Gabrielle caught the jerk of Callisto’s body and resisted letting her own revulsion show through. “Tell me the truth, Callisto; do you enjoy watching Xena and me together? I know you and Ares think my relationship with her makes her weak as a warrior, Does it help to watch us together?”

Gabrielle rolled out of the way as an energy bolt shot up the bed, catching the quilt on fire. The bard rolled the cloth onto itself, pulled it off the bed and stomped on it to put the fire out and turned to the goddess with a smirk of her own.

“Did you like watching Xena in such a vulnerable position, my hand deep inside of her?” Gabrielle taunted. “Her back arching, her hands clutching at my shoulders, crying out my name?”

Callisto screamed and released another fire bolt and Gabrielle back flipped out of its way and looked over at the scorch mark on the stone wall.

“Good thing Mars doesn’t like a lot of flammable stuff around, huh?” she grinned as Callisto’s eyes blazed at her.

“I can’t see the two of you!” the insane blonde goddess screamed.

“What?” Gabrielle asked, her voice reflecting her amusement at Callisto’s frustration.

“Aphrodite put a spell on the both of you!” Callisto admitted with a shout of anger. “No one can watch you two when you’re having sex!”

Gabrielle fell onto the bed laughing and continued laughing even when Callisto screamed again and jumped on top of the bard, hands wrapped around her throat.

“No wonder you’re pissed off!” Gabrielle said breathlessly with an impish grin, her hands holding onto Callisto’s arms lightly. “Not only can’t you have Xena, you can’t even watch!”

“Damn you!” Callisto growled. “I’m going to kill you!”

“How about letting me show you why Xena keeps taking me back?” Gabrielle offered, her voice soft.

“What?” Callisto demanded, her hands easing up slightly.

Gabrielle thrust her arms between Callisto’s arms and broke the hold the goddess had on her throat and knocked her arms out to the sides, sending Callisto right down on top of the bard. Gabrielle took advantage of the position and grabbed the back of Callisto’s head, kissed her roughly and brought her leg up between Callisto’s.

“You want to know what Xena feels? You want to know how I drive her insane,” Gabrielle whispered, nibbling on Callisto’s earlobe and resisted grinning when she felt the warrior shudder.

“Damn you!” Callisto growled. “You’re trying to trick me. You’d never betray Xena!”

“Use your powers, Callisto,” Gabrielle whispered, unhooking the other shoulder of Callisto’s leathers. “Do you seriously think Xena got me pregnant?”

“What!?”

The bard wasn’t surprised when Callisto fell off her with a stunned statement as she tried to recover and then leaned over Gabrielle on one elbow. Gabrielle saw Callisto’s eyes brighten somewhat and become slightly unfocused and felt a tingling all over her body. The bard instinctively grabbed at her abdomen and Callisto suddenly laughed.

“I know Xena has many skills but I didn’t think that was one of them!” Callisto grinned and Gabrielle couldn’t help but blushing. “She took you back?”

“Yeah, but do you think she’d take me back after being with you?”

Callisto’s face grew serious. “Why should I believe this?”

“Because I get to stay alive and you are irresistible in an insane way,” Gabrielle shrugged instead of shuddering. “I stay with you, it drives Xena insane and I stay out of the hands of the Romans.”

“I don’t believe you’d betray Xena just to stay alive. Not your style,” Callisto grumbled. “You’ve even died for the bitch.”

“If I become a slave gladiator again then I’ll either be killed when they find out I’m pregnant or be turned over to the kitchen. My child will be taken from me after he or she is born and I’ll be turned into a sex slave,” Gabrielle reasoned. “You know I’ve been through that. With you I’d have a chance of talking you out of whatever you might come up with.”

Callisto grinned a rueful smirk at the bard’s last bit of logic. “Now that sounds like you!”

“Don’t you want to take and conquer everything that is Xena’s?” Gabrielle taunted, her eyes flashing finally with the anger she felt and Callisto laughed.

“You know I do,” the goddess agreed and bent over to kiss Gabrielle roughly, her hand reaching around the bard’s ribs to pull her close.

Gabrielle put a hand on the goddess’ chest and lightly pushed Callisto back.

“Your word, no Roman slavery?” she demanded.

“You wouldn’t trust my word!” Callisto grinned.

“You sent Sasha back to Odin, I’ll chance it,” Gabrielle said firmly.

“Oh, alright,” the goddess said after a moment. “As long as Xena looks for you and you being with me drives her crazy, I won’t send you away.”

“And after the child is born you’ll send him or her to my family,” Gabrielle persisted.

“I am not a goddamn fishmonger to be bargained with!” Callisto snapped.

“It’s my life, damnit! You’re a god, I’ve got a child to think of,” Gabrielle snapped right back.

“Okay, fine! I agree!”

“Then let me show you what drives Xena insane,” Gabrielle whispered, turned her mind off and began pulling at Callisto’s leathers.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena broke into a smile when her daughter suddenly appeared next to the Norse god Odin. She quickly dismounted as Sasha caught sight of her and dashed towards her Mom. Xena easily lifted her daughter into her arms, hugging her tightly.

“Sasha!” Xena set her daughter down and wiped a tear of joy from her eye as the dark haired child hugged her tight around the ribs. “How?” the warrior questioned Odin.

“Apparently your bard is quite persuasive,” Odin grinned.

“What about Gabrielle?” Xena demanded. “How do we get her back?”

“I’m not sure if we can, that part is probably up to her as well,” Odin said reluctantly and wasn’t surprised when the warrior growled.

Sasha looked up her mom. “She was okay when I saw her,” the child said.

“Where was that, Sasha?” Xena asked gently.

“The Hall of Mars in Olympus,” Sasha answered easily. “Callisto was about to leave and kidnap Mum. Then Mum showed up in the hall and they talked. Callisto released me because Mum tricked her into thinking the Norse gods want me without your permission.”

“Gabrielle,” Xena muttered, her voice reflecting her admiration. “What does Callisto plan for Gabrielle?”

“To turn her over to a Roman gladiator school again,” Sasha said.

“No,” Xena whispered and turned to Odin.

“How do we get her back?” she demanded again.

“Just be patient and watch Mars, if he disappears then we spring our last surprise and, hopefully, get your mate back,” Odin urged.

“Hopefully?” Xena almost shouted. “You planned this with her, didn’t you?”

“Most of it,” Odin admitted. “I knew she’d be willing to sacrifice herself, if necessary, for your daughter and a chance at stopping Callisto.”

“Without consulting me?” Xena snapped.

“Without you, Xena,” Odin said. “You would never have agreed.”

“No, I wouldn’t have! I can’t lose her, damnit!” Xena protested.

“And she wasn’t willing to lose Sasha to Mars. Hopefully she can get Kiryk back too,” Odin said simply.

“Odin, you’ll wish you stayed on that damned tree with your spear stuck in your ribs if she gets hurt!” Xena threatened.

The Norse god laughed and turned to see how the battle was going, watching the opposing god closely.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle felt Callisto running her hands through the bard’s short hair and moaned into the goddess’ lips, her own hands running up and down the smooth back of Callisto.

“Oh gods,” the bard muttered as the goddess’ lips left hers and trailed to Gabrielle’s neck and she begin nibbling lightly. The bard cursed her own body as it responded to the chaotic goddess.

“I’m going to make you forget Xena ever touched you,” Callisto promised, pulling Gabrielle on top of her. Her hands were undoing Gabrielle’s top, freeing the bard’s breasts for her hands. They were different than Xena’s, Gabrielle reflected for a moment, rougher but her body was still responding and the bard fought down a sensation of shame and repulsion. Trying not to think or feel, just let her body react.

“Release Kiyrk, please,” Gabrielle whispered.

“Shut up about the boy brat or I’ll fry him!” Callisto warned, her hand firm in Gabrielle’s short hair in warning. Gabrielle continued what she was doing and stopped asking about Kiryk.

She had managed to get Callisto undressed and was now on top of the goddess, her leg pressing between Callisto’s, a hand on the goddess’ breast and her lips on the other nipple. Gabrielle pulled on the nipple with her teeth and felt Callisto jerk under her at the sensation and moved her lips up to the insane woman’s lips. The bard wondered if a Tavern wench felt like this, like something mechanical, going through the motions of being aroused and enjoying it? Did they hate this a much as she did or was it just because it was Callisto?

After a moment of dueling with Callisto’s tongue and lips she trailed down to Callisto’s ear and neck.

“You know what drives Xena right over the edge?” Gabrielle whispered.

“What?” Callisto gasped.

“My fangs,” the bard whispered and ran a tongue over Callisto’s neck.

“Your what?” Callisto sounded confused until Gabrielle bit down into her neck, hitting a vein perfectly. Callisto screamed in both fear and sensation as the Bacchae erotic magic hit her.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena paced relentlessly back and forth in front of Odin, glancing every other second at Mars, who was also pacing. Mars was watching the battle, Odin and Xena were watching Mars.

“What in Tartarus are we waiting for?” Xena demanded again.

“Not much longer,” Odin said gently. “If he doesn’t move soon then we’ll have to.”

“What are we waiting for? Gabrielle to die?”

“I hope not,” Odin said simply.

Xena shouted in frustration.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Gabrielle!”

The goddess dug her nails deeply into the bard’s shoulders and Gabrielle growled with the pain. The bard refused to release the hold with her fangs and felt Callisto shuddering again and again with waves of orgasms.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure if Callisto was pleading with her to stop or to continue but didn’t care. Her grip on Callisto’s neck was firm and she drank deeply from the woman she didn’t trust and almost hated.

The chaotic goddess fell back limply against the linen and furs, weakly trying to pull Gabrielle back from her neck but the bard held firm and continued to feed.

Gabrielle could feel the tears flowing down her face.

A few minutes later the bard felt Callisto’s heart slowing down until it almost stopped and finally released her fang hold on the goddess and rolled to the edge of the bed. Gabrielle looked back at the goddess and took in the sight of Callisto’s body as it began changing subtly, shaking as if still in the throes of sexual climax. The paleness became more apparent and the lips a fuller red. The goddess’ eyes took on a darker color around the lids and Gabrielle knew if Callisto opened them they would be a bright yellow rimmed with red.

Gabrielle recognized the signs of a Bacchae, exactly as she had hoped and planned.

The bard turned away and went to her knees, tears streaming and began vomiting up the blood she had seconds before drank from Callisto.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Odin caught Xena’s eyes and pointed across the battlefield.

The warrior’s sharp eyes took in Mars. The War God had stopped pacing and seemed to be listening to someone or something that they couldn’t see. Suddenly he screamed in rage and disappeared.

Odin rose up on Sleipnir and waved his sword in a signal.

Xena and Sasha looked up at the sound of the Valkyries taking flight again. This time the warrior grinned as she took in the bundles they trailed behind their winged horses with ropes. A team of exceptional archers stood by with fire arrows and, when the Valkyries reached a certain point in the sky, released their arrows. The arrows set the ropes on fire and the Valkyries cut the bundles loose over the enemy army.

Xena turned Sasha around away from the view of the pots catching fire and exploding just as they reached the soldiers of Mars. Greek fire rained down unrelentingly.

The warrior felt a shudder run over her body and she closed her eyes. Xena discovered once again she no longer delighted in the screams of the dying.

Both Xena and Sasha were knocked to the ground by a massive thunderclap which rattled everything for miles around. The warrior sat up in time to see monumental thunderclouds form almost immediately above the battlefield and let loose with an overwhelming torrent of rain.

Lightning bolts began raining from above in between the two armies, effectively separating them like a parent separating two fighting children.

Odin looked almost indifferent as Zeus appeared in front of them.

“This stops now!” he shouted.

“I agree,” Odin said easily. “I didn’t want this in the first place. Just put a stop to Mars taking Sasha. Your grandchild’s fate belongs elsewhere,” Odin said firmly.

“With you?” Zeus demanded.

“You damn well know it does,” Odin snapped, his bright blue eyes flashing at the challenge.

“Yes, I do and I’m pleased you’re willing to fight for her and the world,” the Greek god turned to his daughter and granddaughter. “Come, Xena, time to end this madness.”

The warrior accepted his hand in getting to her feet and she turned to help Sasha to her feet.

“Gods, Xena,” Zeus exclaimed. “She looks just like you and has gotten taller!”

Xena couldn’t help but grin proudly and wrapped an arm around Sasha’s shoulders.

“Yes, she’s a good kid,” Xena said, her voice reflecting her pleasure.

“And she would have been a demon if Mars had kept his hands on her,” Zeus muttered, losing his smile. “Come, my kin, let’s settle this.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena’s mind could barely take in the sight which greeted her and Zeus a moment later.

Mars and Callisto were attempting to choke each other; Callisto sprawled backwards over the large long table, her claws digging into Mar’s neck and his hands around hers.

Xena’s eyes widened as she took in the fangs and claws Callisto now had and the fact those same fangs were attempting to bite Mars as he tried to hold her down to kill her.

The warrior also tried to process the fact Callisto was naked in the middle of this battle.

A quick glance around told her Zeus hadn’t brought Sasha with them and Gabrielle was keeping behind the throne of Mars as the two deities in the room fought it out. The bard was holding her tunic against her chest.

“Xena,” she shouted with relief and Mars looked up with a snarl at Zeus and Xena. Then he growled and backhanded Callisto as her fangs managed to sink into his right arm.

“Damnit!” he shouted.

“Enough!” Zeus shouted and sent a lightning bolt between the two deities. Before Callisto could gain her feet, Zeus sent an energy bolt her way and the goddess disappeared, leaving Mars fuming and facing his grandfather and aunt.

“Alright, Mars,” Zeus said firmly. “Enough of this.”

“Where’s Callisto?” Xena questioned, keeping a close eye on Mars and a hand on her chakram. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Gabrielle starting to move slowly out from behind the throne towards Xena and Zeus.

“I sent her to Tartarus,” Zeus said simply. “As for you, Mars, it’s over. Sasha is not yours to play with and neither are Xena and Gabrielle. Your father is paying a heavy price for meddling in their lives and I’m not likely to look any more kindly on you.”

“Yes, great Zeus,” Mars responded, his jaw clenched in anger.

“The war is over. None of the gods were killed but several will require some special healing. Everyone is to return to their lands and people and not interfere with the humans like this again,” Zeus commanded. “Everyone is hearing this right now. This was too close, for both peoples. If this had spilled out into the mundane world it could have destroyed the earth and everyone on it!”

Gabrielle moved around an obviously angry Zeus and into Xena’s arms, tears of relief and regret racking her body.

“Sasha will stay with the Northern Gods, as agreed. Her powers are about to manifest and I agree she will need more training than you can give, Xena,” Zeus continued. “You will see her frequently, though. Even if I have to take you there myself or Apollo in his chariot. All those who fought on the side of Mars, Xena and Gabrielle and their kin are off limits. No revenge, no meddling and that is an order!”

Zeus turned to the two Greek women. “Stay here as long as you need to. Simply go back to the throne and it’ll take you back to the temple Gabrielle traveled from. Mars will go with me for awhile until he calms down.”

“Kiyrk?” Xena demanded and Zeus turned to Mars but the War God shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said in a sullen voice. “Callisto zapped him somewhere and I didn’t care. He was human.”

“Zeus, how do we find him?” Xena asked.

“I don’t know. I’ll question Callisto but if she won’t tell us then I don’t know what to do.”

“Callisto?” Gabrielle questioned.

“Deep in Tartarus, powerless and out of your hair,” he promised.

“Is she still a Bacchae?” the bard questioned softly.

“No, I took that away from her, just like you no longer have the power to hurt gods after this day,” he said gently and noticed the relief in the bard’s green eyes.

“Sasha?” Xena questioned.

“She’ll be at your mother’s inn when you get back. Sasha needs to travel North soon but I’m giving you all time to grieve and to adjust to the situation,” he said gently and then nodded at Mars.

The War God disappeared without a word and a moment later Zeus was gone.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

After a moment Gabrielle turned out of Xena’s arms to put on her tunic and the warrior’s eyes caught sight of the deep scratches on the bard’s back and the fact the bard’s sais were on a chair with the bard’s cloak.

Xena felt her jaw muscles tightening as she remembered Callisto’s state of undress as she fought the God of War as a Bacchae. The warrior’s hands clenched into fists and she saw Gabrielle flinch, even though the bard had her back to her.

Her empathic powers, the warrior realized. She’s picking up on me.

Then Xena frowned, Callisto had been a Bacchae, she remembered. Bacchae, turned into a bacchae by Gabrielle. The bard having used her Bacchae curse to turn the deity into a blood crazed vampire. Xena realized how Gabrielle got close enough to sink her fangs into Callisto’s neck long enough to drain the goddess to the point of turning. Xena had seen marks like those on Gabrielle’s back before but she had always been the cause of them, not someone else and especially not Callisto!

The warrior could see how tense Gabrielle was and that the bard was waiting, not moving and not reaching for her boots or anything. Waiting for Xena to explode and reject her.

“Gabrielle,” Xena said softly and noticed the bard flinch again, as if struck with a lash. “Please talk to me.”

Xena’s voice seemed to break the bard’s stillness and she moved forward to grab her sais, still keeping her back to her mate.

“I don’t think I can,” she whispered.

“You saved Sasha,” Xena pointed out. She wanted to take Gabrielle into her arms but wasn’t sure how the bard would respond and Xena wasn’t totally sure of her feelings right then either.

The warrior had to admit the image of Callisto and Gabrielle together sexually was more than she could take right then, no matter what the reasons.

“I betrayed us to do it,” Gabrielle countered bitterly. “I seem to be doing that a lot lately.”

Xena wanted to break something. Her first impulse was to shout, scream and rant but she tried to think rationally. It wasn’t like Gabrielle had sought Callisto out for an affair. Was it any different than what she had done as a warlord when she used sex as a weapon?

Yes, it was different, a voice shouted at her. She hadn’t been mated and it hadn’t been Gabrielle, damnit!

“Gabrielle, we need to talk about this,” she tried to reason.

The warrior felt her heart skip a beat when Gabrielle turned around and her normally green eyes were Bacchae yellow.

“I don’t know how we can talk about it, Xena,” she snapped. “I seduced Callisto to get close enough to bite her!”

The bard put on her tunic and then sat down in the chair and started with her boots.

“I let her kiss me and take off my top so I could use my damned fangs to change her!” the bard suddenly shouted and threw a sai across the room, flying barely a foot away from the warrior and embedding itself deep in a wooden pillar. “I lied about our relationship! I convinced her I was unfaithful to you all the time.”

“Well, we know differently and you used a weapon which she didn’t think about,” Xena countered, her rational mind trying to stay on top and not let her emotions take over. She wasn’t sure what would come out if she did that. She was angry as Tartarus with a lot of things and knew this wasn’t the time to hash them out or the relationship might be damaged beyond repair.

“I should have tried the sais,” Gabrielle muttered, lacing up her boots and swiped angrily at tears overflowing her eyes.

“What happened?” Xena asked softly, sitting down in the chair Callisto had occupied earlier.

“You figured out that Odin healed me and planned a bit of this with me before leaving the inn, right?” the bard questioned.

“Yes, once he said he was waiting to see if Sasha showed up, I knew you were somehow here,” Xena nodded.

“He healed me and said to keep Callisto distracted and from the battlefield,” Gabrielle continued. “He didn’t have any idea of how to make that happen except that I would have the power to hurt gods and he whispered in my ear before leaving that maybe I should consider my fangs.”

The bard looked up, her eyes glinting in the light of the hall.

“My fangs, I should consider turning someone else into a damned Bacchae!” she shouted, slamming a fist down on the arm of the chair.

Xena kept quiet, absorbing the information and Gabrielle’s emotions. The tears began flowing freely from her mate’s eyes.

“Turn someone into a Bacchae, Xena,” she whispered. “Using this damned blood thing to curse someone to an existence worse than mine! Even if it was Callisto, how could I do that?”

Xena’s anger broke and she moved forward to kneel in front of Gabrielle and took the bard into her arms. After a moment she pulled back and Gabrielle nodded.

“I talked her into turning Sasha over to Odin,” the bard continued. “I convinced her they wanted Sasha against our wills.”

“Why would she turn Sasha over to Odin instead of Mars?” Xena questioned.

“Because she didn’t want to be responsible for creating another Warlord Xena and repeating the cycle which had created her,” Gabrielle answered softly and wasn’t surprised to see a blush of guilt run across her mate’s face. No matter how many years they faced it, it seemed they would never escape Xena’s past or her guilt about it.

“She didn’t want to become you in that regard and let Sasha go to Odin, thinking that would hurt you just as badly,” Gabrielle continued.

“Sasha said she planned to turn you into a gladiator slave again,” Xena mentioned.

“Yes, that was her plan. After she sent Sasha to Odin I knew I had to think of something quickly. She was intent on torturing me and sending me back to that hell,” Gabrielle said simply, her thoughts becoming lost in the fear of what that would have meant.

“You stopped her,” Xena prompted and Gabrielle blinked, coming back to the present. She laughed bitterly.

“Oh yeah, I stopped her from that plan,” she said softly, fresh tears beginning again. “I initiated it, Xena, I’m the one who seduced her. She said she could watch us when she was in the lava. She saw me with Nikki when I was a slave. I taunted her with her obsession with you and asked if she liked watching you give yourself over to me.”

Xena fought to control the roaring in her ears and held her gaze firmly with Gabrielle. “You were lucky she didn’t kill you.”

“Yup, she fried the hell out of the top blanket,” Gabrielle agreed, a bit of humor coming through. “She let it slip that she couldn’t see us when we’re sexual with each other.”

“What?” Xena blinked as she tried to take this current revelation in.

“Yes, Aphrodite has apparently put a spell around us so none of the gods can see us when we’re sexually intimate with each other,” Gabrielle continued.

“But she saw you with Nikki?” Xena frowned.

“They can’t see me with you and apparently she didn’t see into the Spirit Realm any of the times we’ve been there,” Gabrielle explained.

“Why do you say that?”

“I figured if she couldn’t see us when we’re together sexually, she might not know about me being part Bacchae. Maybe that was what Odin was hinting at when he told me to use my fangs. She didn’t know I was pregnant and she believed me when I hinted it couldn’t possibly be you.”

“She didn’t know about the Forest Spirits helping us out in that department and she didn’t see the bacchanalia,” Xena said thoughtfully.

“She did see the Bacchanalia, she told Joxer about it, that’s how she convinced him we had broken up,” the bard snapped. “She couldn’t see us together and didn’t seem to realize I have bacchae blood already in me. I guess she just thought Bacchus wanted me as a Bacchae again and didn’t pay attention.”

“She probably wouldn’t, her warped mind was too busy watching and not listening,” Xena agreed.

Gabrielle clenched her fists tightly in anger. “Xena, I convinced her I was willing to leave you to save my life, I betrayed us!”

“Why did you do it?”

“So I could keep her distracted and to give me a chance at turning her,” the bard answered. “She had a sword at my throat at one point and was watching me closely. I couldn’t think of any other way to get her to drop her guard. It was unexpected for her.”

Xena grinned ruefully at the description. “I’ll bet! Last time you saw her you whacked her up side her head with your staff.”

The bard managed to smile slightly at the memory. “Not that it did any good. I kissed her and she responded and then demanded to know what I was doing.”

Xena reached out and took Gabrielle’s hands in her own, wanting to keep contact with the bard to reassure her.

“I pointed out this would be the ultimate revenge against you and that she was irresistible. She believed me, Xena,” Gabrielle said, turning her eyes away.

“Gabrielle,” Xena waited until the bard looked at her again. “I’m not going to lie to you and say I don’t feel anything about this but I’m beginning to understand. You’ve had to do worse before to survive.”

“Not with Callisto!” the bard attempted to grin.

“That’s true!” Xena managed to smile. “Although, she is kinda cute in a warped sort of way and extremely sensual without knowing it.”

Xena grinned when Gabrielle playfully hit her on the arm, looking more like the normal Gabrielle.

“It wasn’t hard to get her into bed once she figured she was getting revenge on you, enjoying herself and corrupting me. I was able to get my fangs into her and drain her.”

“Gabrielle?” Xena said softly. “How far did it go?”

The bard lost her smile and Xena wasn’t sure if Gabrielle was going to throw up right then, unaware the bard had already thrown up most of the blood she had taken from Callisto.

“I got her undressed and she got my top off,” Gabrielle admitted. “Some foreplay and then I sank my fangs in. Xena,” Gabrielle said softly and closed her eyes. “I changed someone, I fed on someone enough to change them.”

“I know but it’s probably what Odin was planning and it saved all of us. It distracted Mars into coming back here, broke the spirit of the battle, kept Callisto distracted and caused enough chaos so Zeus and Odin could put things right again,” Xena countered.

“I know all of that but it’s not helping! I consciously called my Bacchae curse to the surface and used it!”

“Maybe it’s time you faced it and dealt with it, Gabrielle,” the warrior said firmly, almost brutally.

Gabrielle opened her Bacchae yellow eyes with a frown.

“You are part Bacchae and you’ve found you can call it to the surface and it also comes up when it wants to,” Xena continued, firmly. “Learn to live with it, Gabrielle. It’s not going away and now you can use it if you need to.”

Gabrielle continued to frown.

“You’ve got some amazing gifts, lover,” Xena said, a little softer. “You have the ability to heal, you have premonition dreams at times, you charm everyone you meet…”

“Except Ares and Mars,” Gabrielle said with a grin.

“Well, maybe not the bad boys,” Xena agreed with an answering grin.

“I guess I leave them to you,” and smiled at Xena’s glare and then grew thoughtful. “Okay, I’m a Bacchae. I am a Bacchae, I can grow fangs and my eyes change color.”

Xena smiled, it was if Gabrielle was trying out a new pair of boots.

“I don’t know about this, Xena,” the bard said after a moment.

“I know, it’s taken years for you to finally get over the guilt of drinking my blood once a month,” the warrior said gently. “Speaking of blood, if you just drank enough to kill Callisto and change her, why are your eyes yellow and your fangs still out?”

Gabrielle began blushing. “I threw up her blood. I couldn’t take the thought of having turned someone.”

“Can you send the Bacchae part back consciously?” Xena questioned. This was a new development for both of them.

“I can’t, I’ve been trying since Mars showed up and started fighting with Callisto, especially when you and Zeus showed up. I didn’t want you to see me like this,” Gabrielle admitted.

“You need blood then,” Xena said simply and wasn’t surprised when Gabrielle jumped to her feet and angrily threw the other sai into the post next to the first one.

“You tell me to accept this!” she snapped. “I’m tired of it!”

“Well,” Xena began easily, watching Gabrielle’s eyes narrow in question. “I’m not.”

“What?” the bard demanded.

“I happen to like those fangs of yours, Gabrielle,” Xena said simply, getting up and grabbing her mate by the arms. “I like the connection we have. It doesn’t hurt me and I enjoy the daylights out of the sex which comes with it. I’m also grateful to a goddess for once, thankful to Aphrodite that none of those perverts like Ares, Mars or Callisto can watch us.”

Gabrielle blushed but looked calmer.

“So you need blood like everyone needs food,” Xena said firmly. “So what? It can be a pain if it gets out of control, we just won’t let it. It also gives you powers which most others don’t have and control that all other Bacchae don’t.”

“Okay,” Gabrielle said softly.

“What?” Xena asked, not sure if she heard the bard right.

“Okay, I give up,” the bard answered. “We learn to live with it. I’m tired of fighting it and it did stop Callisto.”

“Probably the only thing that would have right then,” Xena agreed.

“Let’s go home, Xena,” Gabrielle said softly.

“What about your fangs?”

“Not here, please!” the bard frowned, looking over at the bed and shuddering. She could still smell the blood and smoldering cloth in the room.

“Let’s go home then, take care of your fangs and find out if Zeus knows where Kiryk is,” Xena decided.
The End
Northern Scrolls
Storyline: Xena and Gabrielle head North for Sasha’s training, some time to relax and to see the pregnancy through.

We have arrived at the steading of Eddval; I still can’t believe the names they give each other up here. The Germans are happy to see us, as always and it is good to see them. They have news that Hercules and Iolaus are due in a couple of moons, before the High summer.

It’ll be really good to see them and to have someone from home around when I deliver this child. I’m at six moons along and definitely showing! I feel like I’m attempting to smuggle a melon under my skirt!

Gods, I would have loved to have been with Xena when she was pregnant with Sasha and then when she gave birth. I do give thanks that I’m with her now with mine. My back is killing me though! Xena says it’s because I’m small but that being in such wonderful physical shape will help with the delivery.

Although we’re glad to be among people who consider us family and would die to protect us, coming here wasn’t totally joyful. We spent four moons looking for Kiryk, Solan’s son with nothing to show for it.

Sweet Artemis, so much happened at once. I need to try and go over it once again for these scrolls. I know I haven’t written about it enough since that horrible time when Callisto came back. I haven’t had the heart to write about it but I guess I need to.

Seems like things went from messed up to worse in the matter of a day. After finding out the child I’m carrying wasn’t a child of Bacchus, as I had feared, we ran into Meg. She accused me of seducing Joxer and running away with him. How weird is that?

I love Joxer like a brother but never more than that. I know he’s loved me for years but I thought he had moved beyond the “head over heels” stage into an easy and comfortable stage between us. When Cyrene told me he had married Meg I was delighted. Yes, it felt strange that he wouldn’t be there anymore but it also felt right that he moved on and I know he was more than attracted to Meg.

Several questions came up at once: who was with Joxer that looked and acted enough like me to convince him? Who wanted to break up Joxer and Meg and hurt me and Xena? How could they look like me? Where were they and what did they have planned for Joxer?

When we got to Amphipolous we got the answers. Our family was staked out in the main square of the village like goats staked out to bait wolves. Everyone was there, even Dex, our blacksmith friend, and Joxer.

Xena and I rode into the trap, as someone had planned, to try and free our family. Soldiers attacked us and that wasn’t unexpected. Xena and I were holding our own pretty well until we heard that damned familiar scream.

Callisto.

How I hate that name! Somehow she had gotten free of the lava Xena and I sent her into with Valesca. She had taken my shape and pretended to be me to seduce Joxer away from Meg. Callisto fed him his ultimate dream of being with me in every way and promised a long future with “me”. Then she tortured and beat him almost to death, all the time posing as me. It was too much for Joxer and his emotional state as well as his body was shattered by the time that bitch chained him to a post in Amphipolis.

Next part of her plan was simple: kill as many of our family members as she could while we watched. Archers sent arrows flying and Xena and I grabbed and shielded as many of the family as we could. I took an arrow in the thigh and Xena took a poisoned arrow in the side but still caught most of the arrows.

Gods, how can I write of this? She saved Kiryk but one of the arrows got past her and hit Solan in the chest. He was dead within moments, before Xena could even cut his chains.

I thought it couldn’t get much worse than that. I was wrong.

I worked some of my healing gifts on Xena to fight the poison in her system. I didn’t dare risk too much of my own energy because of my own wound and my pregnancy. This is all so new to me, I was still adjusting to the news I was pregnant.

Xena had just broken her fever when Callisto attacked again. This time she brought help in the form of the new God of War for the Greeks and Romans: Mars, son of Ares.

During the fight I was pinned to the bar with my own sais through my shoulders and my back injured. Xena opened her wounds again leaping from upstairs. Cyrene had several cracked ribs and a massive headache. Dex was knocked unconscious and then kicked in the head again. Torris took sword wounds in his ribs and his thigh. Reija was crippled when Callisto intentionally slashed the back of her knee.

The worst of it was when Mars and Callisto took Kiryk and Sasha and disappeared.

I was laid out flat on my back with my wounds and the fear that my child might have been in danger because of the blows to my back. Xena could barely stand upright herself and then Odin showed up.

Odin, along with several Northern gods and some Greek gods were willing to go to war against Mars to get Sasha back. Mars had planned on turning Sasha into a chaotic War Goddess, someone even more deadly and blood thirsty than Xena had been. Sasha would be a goddess with her mother’s lust for power and blood. They were willing to stand against that.

Xena agreed to go with Odin while I stayed behind recovering from my wounds. Odin snuck back in the room and healed me. He wanted me to keep Callisto busy during the battle and get Sasha and Kiryk from her while they fought Mars.

Xena told me later that the battle was vicious and bloody. Odin and Xena came up with several ways to thin out Mars’ troops and worked up a few surprises.

I went to Mars’ space in Mount Olympus. I was told by Hermes that Callisto’s plans were to kidnap me while Xena was fighting, she wanted to torture me, rape me and beat me senseless and turn me over to a brutal gladiatorial school again as a Roman slave.

Just the thought of that was enough to almost freeze me with fear. I knew I’d never last as a slave again and Xena would go crazy trying to find me.

I surprised Callisto by showing up on her doorstep. Somehow I managed to talk her into sending Sasha to Odin. I convinced her that the Northern gods wanted Sasha without Xena’s permission and it would hurt Xena just as much as leaving her with Mars.

Callisto showed one of the few traces of humanity left to her insanity. She didn’t want Sasha to turn into the monster that Xena had been. She didn’t want to be responsible for Sasha destroying countless families like hers had been. Callisto didn’t want to create another Xena or another Callisto.

I promised myself long ago to be honest in these private scrolls but I find myself having problems keeping that promise.

How can I write about what happened next?

Xena was busy with the fight, Northern gods and Greeks against Greeks and the Northern goddess Hella. It was quite a battle, enough to shake the earth and cause a volcanic eruption on one of the islands and cause several earthquakes throughout the land.

Callisto. My task was half done in getting Sasha away from her. Now I needed to get Kiryk free and keep her busy. Busy enough not to torture me and send me to slavery again. Or busy enough not to kill me out-right.

Odin promised that he would try and save me when the battle turned against Mars but couldn’t guarantee anything.

I had to think fast with an insane goddess considering various ways of hurting me. I reacted without thinking and kissed her. Gods, can I write this? I seduced Callisto, my worst enemy other than Ares. An enemy who had been more dangerous than Ares ever thought about being.

She was surprised but enjoyed the idea of sex with me as an ultimate revenge against Xena, thinking she could still torture me later, and corrupt me was a kick for her. Maybe it is part of my inheritance from my father Apollo and that irresistible sexual energy he has that she gave into the feelings and let go of the control.

I lied about my relationship with Xena and convinced Callisto that I’ve strayed from Xena before and that’s why I’m pregnant. She couldn’t believe it but finally accepted it when she realized I am, in fact, pregnant.

She also revealed that she and the other gods can’t watch me and Xena when we’re sexual together. Aphrodite’s gifting to us, so Callisto didn’t know about my Bacchae side or the Spirit Realm journeys.

Having Callisto kiss and touch me was enough to sicken me, having that woman making love to me was maddening. Somehow I kept my anger from coming out as I touched her and seduced her. It didn’t get below the belt-line, thank the gods! I’m not sure I could take that after the Bacchanalia and I’m not sure Xena could either, willing or not.

I was able finally to sink my fangs into her and begin drinking her blood. I willingly called my Bacchae self to the surface in order to drain Callisto to the point of death and change her into a blood hungry Bacchae.

I’m getting sick just remembering this and writing about it. My body wants to throw up, my hand is cramping, my head is aching and the baby is kicking up a storm.

I did get sick after turning her. I couldn’t face keeping her blood in my system for long and threw most of it up.

I’m just praying that the blood of an insane chaotic goddess doesn’t affect my child. It’s bad enough that he or she might inherit my blood cravings, what could he inherit from Callisto’s blood? I shudder at that thought!

Then things got confusing again.

Somehow Mars knew something was wrong and showed up. Callisto attacked him immediately. Xena and Zeus showed up and Zeus put his foot down. He declared that Mars couldn’t touch Sasha, Xena, me or our families. He sent Callisto to the deepest ends of Tartarus and removed her Bacchae curse.

The thing remaining was where Kiryk was and Callisto wouldn’t tell where she had sent him. Zeus couldn’t track him because he’s totally human and Mars didn’t even ask what Callisto had done with him.

Then I had to face Xena with the fact that I seduced Callisto and that she had responded, that the sex hadn’t gone far but far enough for me to sink fangs into her neck. Xena says she forgives me and understands but it hasn’t been easy.

We went home and had to let our family know that we had lost Kiryk. Sasha was safe with us again but we had no idea where to look for Kiryk. A small little boy zapped somewhere away from his family by an insane goddess.

We didn’t mention how I had managed to distract Callisto, thankfully.

Xena and I buried Solan and sent word to Joxer and Meg about Kiryk. Joxer still isn’t talking to me. Xena and I then went looking for Kiryk, trying to figure out Callisto’s warped mind and way of thinking. We’ve been everywhere in Greece in the last few moons and no sign of the boy.

Xena and I finally had to put our search on hold while we traveled North with Sasha for her training with the Northern gods.

How much stranger can it get? Sasha, the daughter of a god and demi-god, is about to come of age and the gods say her powers will develop and she’ll go insane without training. Our daughter, our Sasha could be dangerous.

So here we are, I’m very pregnant, we still don’t know where Kiryk is, Xena is unhappy with turning Sasha over to Odin and Freya and it gets worse.

Something is wrong with my relationship with Xena.

At first I thought it was our grief over Solan’s death and worrying as to where Kiryk was. Then worrying about bringing Sasha north and my pregnancy. Now I’m not so sure.

We’ve made love a few times but something is off.

I think my time with Bacchus and Callisto is coming between us and I’m not sure how to fix that. Maybe I’m just over emotional because of the child, all the women say that’s normal. Breaking into tears for no reason doesn’t feel normal to me but Svenda, Eddval’s new wife, just smiles and holds me and tells me it’s normal.

I feel a distance between Xena and me. The last few moons I’ve managed to get by with only animal blood but the cravings are getting worse each time. I need that connection with Xena again for that damned Bacchae blood in my veins and I need her love for my sanity.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gabrielle wasn’t surprised that it took Xena well past dinner to seek her out. The bard had been feeling down and even more distant from Xena than ever. She knew that Xena was emotionally distant because they were getting close to having to let Sasha go but Gabrielle was still feeling down about it. The bard had slipped out of the large hall of Eddval’s and began walking around the area inside the defensive log wall.

She merely nodded at the guards and those roaming around the area in the warm evening night that called to her. Gabrielle kept her hands inside her open cloak because she knew they were shaking.

Xena had barely noticed the bard during dinner; the warrior had been caught up in conversation with Alfhild, a priestess of Freya and Sasha. The discussion had been detailed and intense and normally Gabrielle would have been fascinated with the conversation but tonight she couldn’t follow along and she felt disconnected.

It was almost a candle-mark past the last platter being passed around the long table that Xena had apparently looked around and noticed Gabrielle wasn’t in the Hall. The bard felt Xena come up behind her and the warrior placed her hands on Gabrielle’s shoulders.

“What’s up, Little One,” the warrior asked softly.

“Can we talk?” Gabrielle asked easily.

“Sure,” the warrior answered just as easily but Gabrielle caught a touch of question and doubt in the answer and knew that Xena was probably picking up on her nervousness or tense body.

A few moments later Gabrielle led her warrior to the stable. The Steading of Eddval was large enough to have a stable for the livestock, unlike smaller holdings that usually had a building that was open on one side for summer care. The animals would be taken inside during the snow months for warmth, along with the humans.

The lack of privacy and sharing space with the cows, sheep and horses was something the bard wasn’t sure she would ever get used to in the North.

Once inside the stable Xena held back as Gabrielle began to pace, her face troubled and Xena’s concerned.

“What is it, Gabrielle,” she asked.

“I need you to talk to me and I need you to be honest,” Gabrielle said after a moment’s hesitation.

“Okay,” Xena’s voice was cautious and Gabrielle was nervous. The warrior motioned for the bard to sit as she sat down on a hay bale herself. “What is it, Little One?”

“Do you still love me?” the bard asked softly.

Xena was stunned and blinked in surprise. “Of course I do! What’s brought this on?”

“Do you believe I love you?” Gabrielle continued.

“Of course!”

“Are you sure, Xena?” the bard fought back the tears that threatened to fill her eyes and she struggled to continue the conversation. “You barely touch me, my love.”

“We’ve been a little stressed out,” Xena frowned.

“It’s more than that, there’s a distance between us and I can feel it,” Gabrielle responded softly.

Xena started to protest and stopped. Gabrielle wasn’t a whining or nagging wife that complained her husband no longer loved her if he forgot to kiss her good morning. She owed her bard careful thought. Xena felt her jaw muscles tightening.

Finally the warrior couldn’t take it and jumped to her feet and began pacing herself.

“What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of me sexually?” the bard asked softly.

“What do you mean?” Xena asked with a frown.

“What do you see?”

Xena didn’t answer but continued frowning.

“Do you see me with Bacchus? With the others at the Bacchanalia or with Callisto?” Gabrielle suddenly demanded.

Xena looked like she had been hit with a cold fish upside the head and felt like it. She sat back down hard on the hay bale. Again she immediately wanted to deny those images but hesitated as Gabrielle’s green eyes watched her closely.

“I don’t know,” Xena finally admitted. She was surprised when Gabrielle almost seemed relieved by the answer.

“Okay,” the bard muttered. “Maybe we can talk through this. I can see Mattita with you in my head too.”

Xena was stunned. She knew that Gabrielle’s sexual abuse during the Bacchanalia wasn’t the bard’s fault but it was still hard to deal with. Especially when Alti had shown her a vision of Gabrielle enjoying the sexual arousal. It didn’t help imagining Bacchus with the bard either.

Then Callisto! She wasn’t sure which she hated more in the universe, Alti or Callisto. Okay, she thought, Alti. She felt hatred plus guilt for Callisto and some of that guilt lessened the hate. Maybe.

That didn’t make the thought of Gabrielle being sexual with the insane blonde easier.

It surprised Xena that Gabrielle was having the same problems with the thought of the vampire Mattita feeding on the warrior. Xena knew she shouldn’t have been surprised but she was.

Xena continued frowning, deep in thought.

Neither of them had been at fault in any of the incidents but it still was apparently coming between them.

Xena’s eyes were bright when she looked back up at her bard.

“Okay, how do we fix it?” she demanded, equally of herself as well as of Gabrielle.

Gabrielle couldn’t help but grin. “Typical warrior, if there’s a problem, what’s the immediate solution?”

Xena smirked back at her mate.

“I don’t know,” the bard admitted. “I know I love you more than life itself and that I need you.”

“Back at you, Gabrielle,” Xena said easily. “I know it hasn’t been easy being pregnant and coming up here. I know your mom wanted you to stay in Greece.”

“I know but my place is with you, always,” Gabrielle said softly, taking Xena’s hands in her own. “If we’re going to lose Sasha for a couple of winters or more, then I belong here with you.”

“Won’t be easy letting her go,” Xena agreed.

Both mates seemed lost in thought for a few moments.

Suddenly, Xena went to her knees in front of Gabrielle, who looked very surprised. The warrior moved slowly and pulled her sword out and laid it at the bard’s feet. Next she laid her dagger and then her chakram.

Gabrielle’s breath caught in her throat along with the lump from her heart.

How many years before had Xena done the exact same thing in her parents’ barn?

“Gabrielle, I love you as I have never loved anyone or anything before,” Xena said softly. “I will always love you and pledge my heart and soul to you. I also need you physically and I want that back between us.”

Once again, a warrior’s pledge to the bard and Gabrielle felt the emotions filling her eyes.

“I swear before all the gods that there is no one but you in my heart and soul and I desire no one but you,” Gabrielle answered, a tear escaping her eyes. “I will love you forever, my love.”

Xena smiled and picked up the dagger and looked at the bard with her eyebrows rose in question and Gabrielle smiled and nodded.

With quick strokes the warrior slit the palms of their left hands open once more, just like at their Amazon bonding ritual.

Both women closed their eyes as blood and energy began to mix as they clasped hands, drawing their blood bond closer again.

After a few moments Xena got up and grabbed a clean rag from a pile near the tool area and split it in two. She gently wrapped the bard’s hand and let Gabrielle wrap hers.

Xena felt the heat beginning all over her body and could almost hear her heart pounding.

Gabrielle, feeling an equal level of arousal, could see the passion in the warrior’s eyes as Xena began to reach for her and caught Xena’s surprised look when Gabrielle held out her hand and stopped her mate.

“Not yet, my love,” she said finally, trying to get her voice back without it cracking. “I want the past images totally gone. I want to take the next few days and drive you insane again. I want to come up behind you and run my hands up the inside of your thighs until I can hear your breathing increase. I want to nibble on your neck at night until you whimper and then go to sleep.”

Xena sat back on her heels, her blue eyes intensely watching the bard closely.

“Okay, I get you,” she answered and moved closer to Gabrielle. Her sharp eyes saw the flush on Gabrielle’s face and caught the increase in the bard’s pulse at her neck. She pulled the bard close for a kiss that was tender; soft and yet spoke volumes of what she wanted to do to Gabrielle. She pulled back after a moment and heard the small whimper from her mate.

“Turn about is fair play, Little One,” she whispered and stood up before they both forgot about the plan to rekindle things between them. The warrior wasn’t sure if things weren’t already rekindled just having talked things out.

“How in Tartarus do you do that?” Gabrielle demanded, her breathing quick.

“I have many…..”

“Arrrgggghhhh!” Xena laughed and ducked as Gabrielle threw hay at her mate.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

For the next two days the Greeks found themselves behaving like lovesick teenagers who could barely keep their hands to themselves. More than once the bard felt the heat rising to her face as Svenda grinned at them both. The bard’s plan for rekindling the spark between them was working, working so well that they were almost driven insane with desire for each other.

Then Sasha approached them and said that they needed to go for a ride that day and wouldn’t say anything else.

“What do you mean, Sasha?” Xena questioned her rapidly growing daughter.

“We need to take a ride,” the child had answered, a slightly puzzled look on her face as well.

“Which direction?” Gabrielle asked. She felt a little more comfortable with Sasha’s vagueness than Xena did. Occasionally her own vision-dreams left her with little information and feeling confused.

“Any direction,” Sasha answered, still vague and a distant look in her eyes.

“The gods want to talk,” Xena deduced with a frown and Gabrielle touched the warrior’s arm reassuringly.

It didn’t matter that they all three agreed that this was the best thing for Sasha, it still wasn’t going to be easy to let the child go this soon in her life. At 11 summers, Xena and Gabrielle both felt it was too soon.

The bard decided they would make the best of the ride and packed a picnic lunch and insisted she was still able to ride a horse over Xena’s objections.

“I am not that helpless!” the bard had snapped.

Xena had caught the unconscious movement of Gabrielle’s hand over her very large stomach and smiled and pulled the bard to her for a hug.

“No, but you’re getting harder to hug,” Xena teased and was pleased to see Gabrielle’s momentary irritation turn to a blush as she playfully smacked Xena on the arm.

They settled on a spot near the river and Gabrielle and Sasha both tried their best to get Xena to relax and enjoy the lunch that the bard had packed for them but Xena was constantly glancing around impatiently.

Finally Gabrielle threw a piece of bread at her mate.

“Settle down, damnit!” she snapped. “Don’t rush it.”

Xena grinned and leaned back. “Sorry, guys.”

“Expecting Odin to fly in from the sky on Sleipnir with a chorus of Valkyries shouting to the skies?” a voice asked simply, the humor thick.

Xena was on her feet with sword in hand and Gabrielle had sais in both hands. The bard couldn’t quite get to her feet as fast as she once did so she had one arm moving Sasha behind her as they looked towards the source of the voice.

A beautiful woman in Viking clothing stepped out from behind a clump of trees and approached the Greeks easily. Xena, frowning, lowered her sword and Gabrielle sheathed her sais with a slight smile.

“Freya!” the bard exclaimed.

Gabrielle couldn’t remember a lot about the time she was dead for five days in the North but she had vague memories of the time being made easier by Freya and so held a fondness for the goddess.

Sasha’s eyes went wide at the sight of the Goddess. The last time she had seen the Northern Goddess of Love had been right after the battle with Grendel and the child had been tired, stressed and had been grieving over losing Gabrielle along with her mother. Now she got a good look at the most beautiful woman she had ever seen and her eyes kept going back to the massive necklace of amber, gold, silver and jet the goddess wore around her neck.

“Hello, Freya,” Xena said simply, her eyes still unhappy.

“Let’s sit, shall we?” Freya invited and Sasha’s eyes lit up brightly at the sight of two large grey-stripped tabby cats emerging from the trees and following the goddess. They meowed and ran straight to the child; Sasha went to her knees and began petting the exotic animals as they in turn delighted in rubbing up against the child and purring loudly.

Xena’s eyes went up at the sight of them and Gabrielle was grinning as well.

“We’ve heard of cats, especially among rich Romans. It’s hard to get them out Egypt,” Gabrielle mentioned.

“They are my favorites and you’ll discover that Egypt doesn’t have a total claim on them. These are bigger and stronger than the cats of Egypt and are native to the forests here. They are just very hard to see and even harder to catch,” the goddess explained as Sasha laughed, delighted with her new friends.

Xena, who had seen cats in her travels, agreed that these were bigger. Almost the size of small herding dogs and they looked very strong and agile. The claws that showed as they danced in delight as Sasha petted them were almost the size of some of the other forest creatures.

“What do we talk about, Freya?” Xena asked, inviting the goddess to share their picnic with her hand. Gabrielle handed the goddess a drinking horn of good mead.

“When Sasha will come with me and when she can visit and some of what her training will consist of,” Freya said easily.

“Freya, this isn’t easy for us,” Gabrielle said softly and Freya’s face softened even more.

“I know and I understand,” Freya responded. “But with her potential it has to be done. None of us can think of any alternatives, the only teacher strong enough to handle her and her training is on a small island off the island of Eire. She’s stubborn and probably wouldn’t let you visit the child.”

Xena’s growl was audible to everyone, even Sasha looked up from her new friends for a moment.

“Exactly!” Freya agreed. “Scathach might be an option for warrior training if that’s where Sasha’s talents lie but not now. It’s either someone like Mars or me, Xena.”

“I know, I know,” the warrior grumbled, “doesn’t mean I like it.”

“What will Sasha be learning from you, Freya?” Gabrielle asked.

“She already has strong mental abilities, from seeing the future to empathic abilities. Sasha will have prophetic visions and she will have the ability to control people’s bodies through her mind. She will be able to stop someone in mid-swing of a sword, or force them to even drop that sword, just by thinking about it.”

Xena blinked in surprise and Gabrielle looked as stunned as she felt. The warrior quickly glanced over at her daughter and was pleased that the child wasn’t paying attention to them. Sasha was playing with the cats with a twig and squealing with delight as they cats playfully swatted at the moving branch.

Xena and Gabrielle both agreed that might not be the exact knowledge someone should have before developing those abilities. It would be easy to get cocky or even arrogant with such powers. They had both seen something of that in Mars and his father Ares.

“She’ll also be a natural at shamanism, like you,” Freya continued. “And she’s inherited that energy bolt throwing thing from your family.”

Gabrielle grinned at that one: Zeus, Ares, and Xena had the ability, why not the child?

“Anything else?” Xena sounded tired and Gabrielle thought she probably was, it was a little overwhelming discovering your child was going to be a god and have awesome powers.

“She’ll be able to read strong thoughts from people,” Freya finished.

“Gods,” Xena muttered.

“You’ll teach her how to control these and not abuse them?” Gabrielle asked, her face reflecting her concern.

“As much as anyone can,” Freya said simply.

“What will happen to her?” Gabrielle asked.

“She’ll also be taught shamanism and when she had her powers pretty much under control she’ll be offered the position of Spae-woman for Axel Skull Splitter’s area until she’s grown,” Freya explained.

Xena’s frown deepened. “She won’t come back to Greece?”

“Are you going back to Greece?” Freya countered and the warrior looked over at her mate and Gabrielle shrugged.

“We haven’t talked about it but I think Xena is wanting to settle somewhere and she knows I am. Neither of us care for Rome and its expanding power,” Gabrielle said thoughtfully. “No matter where we go trouble finds us.”

“Your mate is warrior born and you’ve learned you have a natural gifting for it as well, it happens,” Freya shrugged. “The North might be friendlier to you both and you would see Sasha.”

“Why won’t she go back to Greece?” Xena asked again.

“You know the changes happening in your homeland, Xena,” Freya said softly, watching Sasha laying face down on the grass and giggling as the cats playfully leaped over her and chased the twig in her hand. “How would they treat someone as psychic as she is going to be?”

Xena frowned. She knew that her mother kept her own worship of Hecate quiet from most everyone because of the hostility towards anything to do with Dark Goddesses and Dark Gods. Both Xena and Gabrielle had seen some village women stoned who were thought to be witches because they were psychic and it was getting worse.

“They’d demand that she be an oracle in a temple or kill her,” Gabrielle answered, echoing Xena’s thoughts.

“Yes, here those with giftings are still respected if the gifts aren’t used for darkness,” Freya responded.

“What happens when she’s considered an adult?” Xena questioned.

“She becomes a Valkyrie, a hero, a wife,” Freya shrugged. “The future isn’t set in that regard. Most likely all of those.”

“When do you take her?” Xena continued frowning.

“Now,” the goddess answered softly. “She will be protected, loved and trained.”

“When can we see her?” Gabrielle asked and Freya looked pained.

“At least one moon,” she said in a low voice.

Xena didn’t seem surprised. “Or longer, right? To give her time to adjust and get past the homesickness.”

“Yes,” Freya looked relieved that Xena understood.

The warrior growled her displeasure.

“Now?” Gabrielle whispered.

“Want me to wait three days and build up the anguish?” Freya asked gently.

Xena jumped to her feet and began pacing under the trees.

Sasha, catching the movement and her mom’s mood, turned away from the cats and approached Freya and Gabrielle. She noticed the bard attempting to hold back tears.

“It’s now, isn’t it?” she asked simply.

“Yes, it’ll be easier on everyone if it’s sudden,” Freya explained.

The child looked confused and with the frown on her face, looked very much like her Mom. Gabrielle held out her arms and Sasha’s attempt at being an adult crumbled and she crawled into her mum’s arms, attempting not to sniffle.

Gabrielle held the child and fought back her own tears. After a few moments she pulled Sasha back to look into the child’s blue eyes.

“You heard what was said and what powers you could develop. Serious stuff, kid,” the bard said gently. “You’ll need help dealing with that stuff.”

Sasha nodded unhappily and Gabrielle could hear Xena pacing and growling.

“You be smart and take advantage of everything that Freya and the others will teach you,” Gabrielle continued.

“I will, I’ll make you both proud of me!” Sasha declared.

“I know you will, you already have,” Gabrielle said, almost choking. “I love you very much, Sasha. We’ll be around waiting to see you.”

“I love you too, Mum,” Sasha whimpered and Gabrielle drew her into a hug again.

“Now, go talk to your mom,” Gabrielle said simply and brushed away the tears as Sasha scampered to Xena.

Freya reached out and gently took two fresh tears onto her fingers and Gabrielle’s eyes widened as they turned into two perfect pieces of amber. The goddess placed them in Gabrielle’s hand with a sad smile.

Xena felt the familiar irritation that came with feeling helpless about anything. She hated that feeling, both of them. Sometimes it felt like she didn’t have control over much in her life, especially lately.

She had heard Gabrielle talking with Sasha and heard the child approaching her. The warrior turned and took the child into her arms without a word, as mother and child cried softly. It was more than a few moments before Xena could look down at Sasha.

“You listen to Freya, okay?” she said softly. “She’s good people for a god.”

“I will,” Sasha promised.

“Remember we love you and always will! You were the only thing that kept me going when I lost Gabrielle, this is hard for me.”

“Me too, I’m nervous,” Sasha admitted.

“You’ll be great, Sash,” Xena quickly hugged her child again as Freya and the cats walked up behind the child. The goddess placed her hands on Sasha’s shoulders and Xena saw the momentary panic in the child’s eyes.

“I love you, Sasha,” she said softly and looked up into Freya’s eyes.

Before Sasha could protest or break down totally, they were gone.

Warm arms enveloped the warrior as her strength faded and her strong front collapsed. Together two mothers cried.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

We’re both hurting so bad with Sasha gone. We didn’t think it would hurt this bad but it does and always in the back of our minds is Kiryk. Where is that little boy? What hell did Callisto send him into? He’s so small, younger than Callisto was when her family was killed. What if we can’t find him soon, will he still remember us?

Trying to figure out Callisto’s twisted mind isn’t easy. She would send him somewhere that would hurt Xena as much as possible, but where? As a slave, never to be found among the thousands of slaves in the Empire? To the Arabs as a slave, a fate even worse than a Roman slave? To someone who will raise him as an enemy to Xena?

Gods, it gives me a headache even thinking about it. How do you protect your children?

Xena is one of the greatest warriors the world has seen and yet she couldn’t stop Solan from dying. We’re both fairly formidable opponents and we couldn’t stop Callisto from crippling Reija and hurting Cyrene and Torris. I think about the child I’m going to have and become frightened.

When we learned that we are immortal I had a lot of thinking to do about that one. Part of those thoughts was relief, eventually those who had been affected by Xena’s past would grow older and die and maybe we could move past that finally.

Then Callisto gets out of that damned lava. As a god, she’ll never die and may haunt us for centuries. And Mars is a god, the new War God and we’re not exactly on his good side either. Hades, we haven’t even dealt with Anthony yet and his slaughter of my Amazons.

When does it end? Will we continue to make enemies that last for years as we go along? Will we be dealing with conflict and battles the rest of our lives, which could be forever?

What does the future hold for my child? A child of Xena, a demi-god and me, an immortal. We both have powers inherited from our parents who are gods and the child is from both of us, will that mean he or she will also be gifted and maybe immortal? What if he or she isn’t? How hard will that be to watch a child grow up into an adult, have children of their own and then watch them die and you don’t grow older? We were beginning to feel that with Solan before his death. He had turned into such a fine young man, married with a son of his own.

Xena certainly doesn’t look old enough to have had an adult son.

How will our families deal with the immortality? How will the children of Torris and Lila explain Xena and me to their children? With people beginning to turn away from the gods, how will we, the children of gods, be received over time? I remember how hostile Asher, the Hebrew Zealot, was to any god other than his.

Gods, I’m tired all the time and getting grumpy. Xena just smiles and says that it gets worse the closer my time. My feet hurt, my back hurts, I can’t walk anymore, I waddle!

The closeness between Xena and me is better. With Sasha leaving the plan to drive each other insane until we couldn’t stand it any longer has been put on hold. Xena is either depressed and brooding or angry and brooding. The warriors she’s been training have paid for it too and I smile as I write this. I’ve seen them coming in at the end of the day dragging their swords, exhaustion all over their faces.

Xena’s fighting skills are well known up here as well and we’re starting to get inquiries from other steadings about Xena training some of their warriors too. Jarl Axel says we always are welcome in his steading. They also want me to train them with daggers, sais and staves after I deliver the child. I know I surprise a lot of them with my fighting skills, being so much smaller than most of them.

It’s coming up on my blood craving time and I’m starting to get really irritable. I’ve been working with rare meat all week, the women of the steading aren’t surprised by the request for almost raw meat, seems they expect it out of pregnant women. That helps hide my Bacchae side. In some ways the Northerners are more superstitious than we’re accustomed to and they really fear the vampiir, umpir, and werewolves up here. I’m not anxious to announce to everyone that I’m part “vampiir” and drink blood.

I don’t know if I can get by on drinking just animal blood. It’s hurting worse than usual this time.

Gods, it brings up all kinds of fears I don’t want to face.

Is the blood hurting the baby? Seems that trying not to drink would hurt my child worse, I nearly died when I couldn’t get blood a couple of times. Will he or she inherit this damned craving? I still feel guilty that I nearly took my own life but just thinking about having a child from Bacchus but I can understand how I got to that point. Xena says I may never get all my memories back from the Bacchanalia Bacchus tortured me with, especially if I did end up with Bacchus sexually. I suppose that’s best, I’m not sure I could take those memories. The few that are there are bad enough to deal with.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Xena had a different way of dealing with her grief, anger, irritation and feeling of being helpless. She slashed at things with her sword, practiced fighting drills until she dropped, and worked the warriors she was training into exhaustion.

After several days most of the edge of the pain had worn down, much to the relief of her recruits, and Xena began to take a closer notice of her mate.

Neither one of them had been sleeping well; especially with Gabrielle being uncomfortable but the last few days were worse. Xena had attributed that to the grieving over losing Sasha but her sharp warrior eyes began to take in the bard’s shaking hands, darting eyes, and request for rare/raw meat.

For some reason the bard’s blood craving coincided with the moon turning full. Xena wasn’t surprised by this, knowing that most rituals and spells were planned around the movement of the sun, the earth and especially the moon. She had almost lost Gabrielle to Bacchus the first time during the Harvest Full moon of the Fall season. Since the craving had surfaced, it became unbearable on full moons and it was getting close to a full moon.

With the recent distance between them and all the stress, the warrior decided this full moon shouldn’t be torture for the bard and began planning.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Come on, Little One,” a voice whispered in the bard’s ear and she moaned, pulling the blanket over her head.

Xena chuckled in Gabrielle’s ear and a warm hand moved slowly under the bard’s sleeping tunic, lightly playing over Gabrielle’s large womb lovingly and then moving up along the bard’s ribs.

The warrior felt Gabrielle’s breath catch for a moment and her body shift slightly closer to Xena and the warrior grinned and began nuzzling Gabrielle’s neck from behind.

“Hmmmm,” the bard muttered softly.

Xena moved her hand slowly down Gabrielle’s body, softly over her waist, now resembling something of its former shape with the bard on her side, and over hips that had expanded nicely to accept the child. The warrior always marveled at Gabrielle’s body and how it felt to touch her mate. Xena frowned to herself for a moment, how could they have let something come between them, she wondered. What had happened to both of them wasn’t their fault. Then again, Xena reflected, they were both human.

Gabrielle’s body shifted slightly again and Xena knew the bard was somewhat more awake and her body was beginning to respond to the touch of the warrior.

As Xena’s hand and fingers slipped between her legs from behind, Gabrielle twisted enough to capture Xena’s lips with her own.

“Oh gods, you do know how to wake me up,” the bard muttered as Xena’s head dropped to the bard’s neck once more. She gasped as Xena began stroking her, bringing her even more awake. Then the warrior bit down on the bard’s neck and entered her at the same time and Gabrielle’s body jerked and she clutched at the sleeping fur under her. She bit into her pillow as the familiar sensations rocked her body and Xena held onto her tightly.

After a few moments, she turned over and grinned at her mate’s intense eyes.

“Good morning to you too,” Gabrielle muttered and pulled Xena to her lips.

“After breakfast I have a surprise,” Xena announced, her hand gently touching the bard’s belly, feeling the baby kicking or punching lightly.

“Really? What kind of surprise?” the bard’s voice took on the childish curiosity that Xena adored about her mate. Even after all the years together, Gabrielle still had an air of naiveté around her that Xena didn’t think would ever go away. Even with everything they had been through, the bard could still only see the good in things first and always looked for peaceful solutions.

Xena grinned. “Not telling,” she taunted and laughed at the bard’s narrowing eyes. “Just pack some overnight clothes.”

“We’re going to another Steading?”

“Nope, and that’s all I’m telling you!” Xena laughed and managed to crawl out from under the covers and jump over the bard on the sleeping bench. That was a feat that brought a smile to the bard’s face again – jumping over her large belly wasn’t easy, thank you.

After breakfast and helping out with morning chores around the steading Xena brought out a small wagon and grinned down at the bard. With exaggerated chivalry, the warrior leaped down and held out her hand for the bard to help Gabrielle onto the seat. The bard looked in the back and wasn’t surprised to see several packs already there, including her travel pack.

She smiled and accepted Xena’s help up into the seat. The bard blushed slightly as Svenda walked around the corner of the Hall and saw the Greeks. The Norse woman grinned brightly.

“Enjoy, you two!” she called and Gabrielle waved back as Xena climbed into the seat and took the reins.

“What about your warriors?” Gabrielle questioned as Xena started the small cart towards the main gate.

“They’ll get along fine without me for a couple of days,” Xena smiled.

The weather was good and Gabrielle fell into a comfortable silence as they rode along a rough wagon trail. At times she clung to both the seat and her warrior in order to stay on the wagon and Xena merely shrugged, as if apologizing for the rough road.

After a short ride further up into the woods and away from the local dwellings, they came to a small clearing and Gabrielle smiled at the sight of a small cabin at the edge of one of the tree lines.

“The hunting cabin where Sasha was born,” she guessed.

“Yes,” Xena smiled a slightly sad smile. “This is where Sasha was born and Eddval’s wife Sasha died. I thought we could use a few days to ourselves.”

Gabrielle smiled gratefully. “I’d like that, very much.”

“I’m going to get us settled in and then I’m going to see if I can hunt some small game for dinner, sound good?” Xena asked easily.

Gabrielle wasn’t fooled, she knew Xena was offering her animal blood and that her mate had figured out how close Gabrielle was to the most intense nights of the blood craving.

“That’d be good, if you brought some vegetables I can get those started later this afternoon,” Gabrielle said, just as easily.

“Good,” Xena agreed.

Both of them had acknowledged the blood craving coming upon the bard without talking about it. Gabrielle knew Xena must have noticed that she hadn’t turned to the warrior for blood for several moons and wondered if Xena was going to offer it this time.
With long time travel experience, it didn’t take long to settle into the cabin for the few days Xena had set aside for her and Gabrielle. It did take longer than usual for Gabrielle because she was beginning to tire easily and her back was aching after the wagon ride.

Gabrielle was grateful when Xena took most of the duties on herself and the warrior just grinned.

“I remember what it was like,” she merely said.

“Wish I had been there,” Gabrielle said wistfully.

“Me too, my love,” Xena agreed. It had been one of the worst times of Xena’s life. They didn’t know where Gabrielle was for almost two Spring seasons. Taken as a slave by rogue Roman soldiers, those almost two years had been spent as a Gladiator and the bard had missed most of Xena’s pregnancy and Sasha’s birth.

The two travelers quickly settled into the cabin; Gabrielle had a fire going in the hearth and Xena was shaking out the bedding from the bed. The bard had been surprised to find that the bed was bigger than the usual sleeping benches the Vikings were fond of and Xena had explained that the cabin was used by other couples over the years when they wanted privacy. Gabrielle had grinned and then blushed as she thought about sharing that bed with Xena with no one else around.

The bard was pleased, she could feel the sexual spark between her and her mate again and was thankful.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Xena has surprised me with some quiet time together away from the Steading. She knows it’s time for my blood craving and it’s time for us to reconnect sexually. We’ve been playful with each other until we’re beside ourselves with desire.

My wonderful wife has brought me to the same cabin where Sasha was born. I know she feels a bit of guilt around it because of the death of Sasha, Eddval’s wife but I think it’ll be good for us to be alone.

I’m as big as a stable now and it feels strange. Our son is really kicking up a storm lately, it’s almost like he doesn’t want me to get any sleep before he or she is born.

Xena has that old gentleness and light in her eyes when she looks at me and touches me. I’m glad I found the courage to talk to her about the problems between us sexually. I feel like we’re back on the right track and not as scattered.
By evening Xena had already been hunting and returned while Gabrielle had set about cooking the vegetables and then preparing the two rabbits Xena had caught.

Neither of them said anything when Xena handed Gabrielle a familiar wine skin. They both knew what it continued and the bard noticed the warrior turn away to finish skinning the rabbits.

Even after years of dealing with her Bacchae side, Gabrielle still hated drinking the animal blood in front of Xena and felt guilty about having to do it. The bard had promised to work on accepting this part of herself but that was easier said than done, she found. She still thought of Bacchus and his blood running through her veins as evil and was having a hard time getting past it. Gabrielle felt her eyes change from their usual lovely green to a Bacchae yellow and her fangs instantly extended to full length, even the lower ones.

The bard stifled a whimper at how bad it was this moon, she normally didn’t have two sets of fangs, upper and lower but when the craving was really unbearable she did, like now.

Even after finishing off the entire contents of the flask she could still feel the craving and spent several moments willing her fangs back into place. Gabrielle wasn’t sure if her eyes had gone back to their normal color or not and knew she needed more. She needed her mate. Gabrielle needed human blood and the heightened sexual energy that went along with Bacchae feeding.

When Xena looked up from the rabbits to hand them over to Gabrielle for cooking, they both caught the warrior’s hesitation and Gabrielle knew that her eyes were still yellow and Xena knew she was hurting.

“Gabrielle,” Xena began but the bard merely shook her head and took the rabbits from her mate.

“After dinner, love,” she said softly.

The dinner was good and reminded the bard of their many travels. Gabrielle was quiet but it was a comfortable silence between the two women.

Xena had cleaned up the plates quickly and settled in next to the fire. She pulled Gabrielle between her legs and the bard leaned back into Xena’s arms with a contented sigh.

Xena felt Gabrielle relaxing and smiled to herself that the trip to the cabin was probably a very good idea. She had noticed that the bard hadn’t come to her in the last several moons for help with the blood craving. Xena had thought it was because they were both grieving over losing Solan and trying to find Kiryck. Now she realized it was the distance their recent adventures had thrust between them.

Gabrielle had been right, there had been the images of the bard being tortured and then sexually abused in the warrior’s head. Then, there were overwhelming images of Gabrielle sexual with Callisto. Xena scolded herself over and over again that Gabrielle hadn’t been at fault in any of it but it didn’t seem to help. It also didn’t help that Callisto was so damned attractive and sensual in a warped sort of way. Xena knew that Gabrielle would never be attracted to Bacchus, the warrior wasn’t sure of anyone who would outside a Bacchanalian drunken frenzy, but Callisto was a different matter. Callisto was desirable, the warrior had to admit and the images of Gabrielle with Callisto had thrown a cold bucket of water on any arousal between them for several moons.

The warrior cursed the images Gabrielle had been dealing with as well. Images of Xena being fed on and probably sexually abused by Matitta, their Amazon enemy turned vampire by Alti. Xena counted herself lucky in most regards with that mess: Gabrielle had saved her and the Northern Amazon village and she hadn’t been turned into a full vampire as Alti and Matitta had planned.

She was also fortunate that she didn’t remember much about the times Matitta had fed on her blood. Both Gabrielle and Xena knew what a vampire feeding could be like and how sexual it could get.

On the negative side, Xena knew that Gabrielle remembered a lot about the torture and sexual stimulation she had been forced to go through at the hands of Bacchus. It was not going to be easy to get totally around all those images and memories.

“I’ve got a question for you, love of my life,” Xena said somewhat playfully.

“What, my love?” Gabrielle responded softly, pulling Xena’s hand to her lips and beginning to kiss each finger and then the palm.

A flicker of her tongue across Xena’s palm caused the warrior to flinch and catch her breath. It took the warrior a moment to continue the conversation.

“Well, I’m certainly up for a go around with those lovely fangs of yours, are you?”

Xena resisted laughing as she the blush spread over Gabrielle’s body and the bard playfully hit her mate on the leg.

“Imp!” the bard laughed. “You know I am, why?”

“Well, given the current size of your womb, I’m not sure about positions.”

Gabrielle knew that Xena was grinning from ear to ear at the opportunity to tease the bard.

“We’ve been driving each other crazy for several days and now you’re worried about minor details?” the bard teased back.

“Nope, just curious,” Xena laughed and began unlacing the bard’s tunic.

“Well, how about I get the fangs out of the way?” Gabrielle suggested and ran her tongue over the inside of Xena’s wrist, right at the sensitive nerve endings. The bard didn’t miss the shudder which ran through her mate’s body.

Xena felt her body twitch and shudder and was once again amazed at how the Bacchae magic could instantly turn her body into a mass of quivering need at just a touch. The warrior moaned and Gabrielle lightly nipped at Xena’s wrists without sinking her fangs into the skin yet.

Xena could hear Gabrielle’s breath become rapid as well and could feel the energy radiating from her mate. She pushed the bard out of her arms enough to pull Gabrielle’s tunic off and then her own. Both mates groaned with the sensation of skin-to-skin as the bard settled back into Xena’s arms.

Gabrielle whimpered as Xena’s free hand found how aroused the bard already was when Xena began massaging Gabrielle’s breast and nipples. One advantage of impending motherhood, she thought, sensitive and enlarged breasts that begged to be touched.

Xena also thought so and began nibbling on Gabrielle’s neck at the same time.

Gabrielle moaned and sank her fangs into Xena’s wrist.

To Xena it felt like a bolt of lightning shot through her body and she cried out. The warrior sank her own teeth into Gabrielle’s neck feeling the bard’s body jerk in reaction.

“Gods, don’t stop, Little One,” Xena muttered, clinging to her mate.

Gabrielle had no intention of stopping as her own body connected with Xena’s and began to tremble as well.

Xena had no idea how long Gabrielle fed from her except that she was light-headed and wasn’t sure how many times she had gone over that sexual edge as a Bacchae feeding could always bring out of her.

Xena managed to get her breath back as Gabrielle gently stroked the warrior’s skin, the bard’s eyes now her beautiful green shade again.

The warrior was lying on the fur next to the fire in Gabrielle’s arms, the bard gently stroking the hair from Xena’s forehead. Xena began running her hands over Gabrielle’s body, lightly touching and sending shivers through the bard’s body. She noticed the bard’s breath begin to quicken and Gabrielle’s pulse increase.

The warrior gently encouraged the bard over onto her side and curled up behind her mate, skin to skin and felt as well as heard Gabrielle moan with desire. Xena wrapped one arm under Gabrielle for easier access to her mate’s lovely breasts and the other began dancing over the bard’s hip and through Gabrielle’s reddish blonde curls.

“Oh gods, Xena!” the bard gasped.

“Yes, my love,” the warrior whispered in her mate’s ears and moved her hand between Gabrielle’s legs from behind.

“How do you know about these positions?” the bard managed to tease and then gasped when Xena entered her. Gabrielle’s hands clenched at the fur under her. She could still taste Xena’s blood on her lips and the feeling of Xena’s breasts against her back was exquisite.

“Unfortunately you weren’t there when I was pregnant with Sasha, but I was with Borias when I was pregnant with Solan,” Xena whispered, beginning to set a rhythm with her mate. She wasn’t sure if Gabrielle was paying attention to her answer or not. “We got pretty inventive there close to the end before he left me.”

“Gods, you are incredible!” the bard moaned.

“Of course, Borias was incredible in the sleeping furs but nowhere near as talented as you are, Little One,” Xena continued, pleased when Gabrielle began making little noises as her desire heightened.

“No one touches me like you do, Gabrielle,” the warrior said softly. “I don’t mean the fangs, either.”

“Shut up, woman!” Gabrielle snapped, crying out and then biting her lip. “Xena!”

The warrior thrust a little deeper and harder and ran her thumb over the bard’s clit, sending Gabrielle over the sexual edge she had been hovering at with a scream of Xena’s name again. Xena felt the bard’s muscles contracting and trying to hold on and thrust Xena out at the same time.

After a few moments she wrapped her arms around her mate.

Xena’s eyebrows shot up in question as Gabrielle gasped and then the warrior grinned. The bard pulled Xena’s hand onto her stomach and both grinned as the baby inside kicked or punched once again.

“I wish I had felt that with you,” the bard said a little wistfully.

“Me too,” Xena answered simply.

“I love you, Xena.”

“I love you more than anything, Gabrielle.”

“Let me show you how much, woman,” the bard said softly in a husky voice and moved down the warrior’s body. Xena turned on her side so Gabrielle could be more comfortable and then the warrior’s thoughts became jumbled as the bard’s talented fingers, lips and tongue began dancing all over her body, especially around her sex.

“Oh gods, Little One!” she heard herself crying out. “It’s been so long, please!”

Gabrielle was more than willing to please her mate and added more fingers, depth and strength to her strokes. The bard was taking her time; she wanted this time to be everything they had been missing.

Xena moaned in frustration, her hands clenching into fists. Her body was trembling uncontrollably and she heard small whimpers escaping her throat. There had been a time when it was a struggle to get the warrior to vocalize her arousal and desire and only Gabrielle had ever gotten that out of her. Now it was natural to make those noises whenever Gabrielle touched her like this.

“Gabrielle!” Xena cried out and grabbed the fur under them.

“Begging, my love?” Gabrielle teased.

“Yes! Damnit!”

The bard moaned with her own passion and gladly returned her attention to pleasing the warrior. Once again the thought flew through the bard’s mind that she could never get enough of her mate. She whimpered as she felt her own edge approaching and pulled Xena’s clit lightly with her teeth and held on tightly to Xena’s hips as the warrior screamed and bucked. Gabrielle refused to release her hold on her mate until Xena was a trembling mass in her arms and almost whimpering with the intensity of the orgasms that the bard pulled from her.

It was a quarter of a candle-mark before Xena really took in her surroundings and pulled a blanket over the bard and herself. Gabrielle was asleep in the warrior’s arms and Xena’s whole body felt like jelly.

“I love you, Gabrielle,” she whispered softly. “I’m sorry about losing the connection with you.”

The bard mumbled in her sleep and snuggled closer to her mate.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena grinned and held her arms open as she heard Gabrielle laugh with delight as Sasha yelled enthusiastically as she ran to hug her mom and then her mum.

It had been two moons since they had seen the teenager and Xena had been more than ready to see her daughter. Freya had shown up at the steading hidden under a cloak hood and had approached the warrior while she worked with the blacksmith. Xena had practically sprinted in order to find Gabrielle when Freya offered them the chance to see Sasha.

Xena stood back and looked her daughter over with a mother’s critical eye and reluctantly thought to herself that Sasha looked good.

Sasha, her black hair now pulled back, looked healthy and happy. Xena felt a pang of pain at how much her daughter had grown. It felt like it had happened overnight and much too soon, especially for the warrior who had missed most of her son’s growth.

Gabrielle, grateful to Freya for the magical transportation rather than having to ride a horse or wagon, continued to grin and sat down heavily into a chair. At eight moons into her pregnancy, the bard was more than anxious to get off her feet.

Sasha laughed and placed a goblet of apple cider in front of her Mum and a goblet of excellent ale on the table in front of a chair for her Mom.

The young girl was dressed in typical Viking style and the small hall they had been transported to was magnificent with silk tapestries, shields and beautiful paintings decorating the walls. A warm and welcoming fire filled a hearth of granite stones and gold was everywhere, it tinted the paintings, it was woven into the tapestries and the goblets were of gold. The table was beautifully carved with mythical beasts and scenes of Viking legends and gods. It, too, was inlaid with gold.

“Freya’s Hall?” the bard asked as Xena sat down at the table as well.

“One room of it,” Sasha asked.

“How’s it going?” Xena asked, trying not to choke up.

“Freya says I’m doing well,” the young girl answered easily. “I’m learning beyond the basics of trance that I learned from you and the Amazons. I’m also learning how to balance feelings, emotions and power in the middle of stress.”

“Not easy to do,” Xena commented.

“No, neither are the voices that’s beginning to bother me,” Sasha admitted.

“Voices?” Gabrielle questioned with a frown.

“Thoughts from others, I can pick up strong thoughts now. I’m learning how to block that, how to listen and how to tell them apart,” Sasha explained as she sat across from her parents.

“Whoa,” Gabrielle muttered.

Sasha smiled a rueful smile. “Yeah, it’s not easy stuff.”

Gabrielle and Xena both thought once again how much older Sasha seemed than her 12 summers.

“I miss you both,” Sasha also admitted, her eyes beginning to mist over.

Xena resisted the urge to grab her daughter in a massive hug again, understanding that Sasha was struggling to be an “adult” in front of her moms right then.

“We miss you too, kid,” Xena said simply and Sasha finally broke down a little and jumped up from the table into her mom’s arms again. After a moment the young teenager sat back down as they both dried their eyes.

“How do you like Gabrielle’s expanding waist-line?” Xena teased with a grin.

“Yeah yeah yeah,” the bard muttered. “Just you wait, warrior.”

Sasha joined in their grins. “The child is a boy, you know.”

“What else do you see or know, Sash?” Gabrielle asked.

Sasha’s eyes clouded over and became unfocused.

“You’ll name him after a friend but one day he’ll be called Robin. He’ll be a good man and will revere the forest and the land,” she said softly.

After a moment she blinked and shook her head.

“Sorry, that’s it,” she muttered.

“That’s fine, Sash,” Gabrielle grinned. “I’m not sure we should know the future of our families and children.”

Xena, remembering being tormented by the vision of Solan with an arrow through his chest months before the actual event, agreed and nodded. She also caught a flash in her daughter’s eyes and quickly glanced at her mate, she found Gabrielle looking down at her stomach, hands on her body protectively. The warrior knew the bard hadn’t seen the concern rush through Sasha’s eyes and face.

The next two candle-marks were spent in general talk, discussion of Sasha’s training, the happenings around the Steading, and the message they had received that Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli would be delayed for another two moons.

After a while, Sasha’s smile turned sad and she began to glance around.

“Time to go?” Gabrielle asked.

“Yes, I’m sorry,” the girl answered.

None of them were surprised when Freya appeared.

Gabrielle managed to hug Sasha without too much trouble with her current condition and watched with a sad smile as the young teen turned to hug her other mother.

Xena held her daughter tight, reluctant to let her go again.

“What is it?” she whispered.

“Can’t tell, it’s not clear. Danger of some kind,” Sasha whispered back.

“What else is new?” Xena complained.

“Be close for the birth,” the teen answered and then was out of her Mom’s arms and dashed out of the room.

Xena was still frowning when Freya worked her magic and the Greeks found themselves back outside Axel’s Hall.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gods, I am tired of this! My back is killing me, I can’t sleep, I can’t get comfortable and everyone just smiles and tells me it’s normal to feel like this. I want to scream in frustration.

I keep reminding myself that the pain is nothing like when I was poisoned on Caesar’s orders at my wedding but that’s not helping. That was so long ago and this is now. Now hurts!

I wish Sasha was here with us, I wish Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli were here. I wish this child was here already!

I still have another moon to go before our son is due.

Xena is adapting to not having Sasha around but it still hurts her. I see her eyes become pained when she watches the young girls listening to the older women as they work at their spinning. Watching them checking out the young men over dinner.

I miss Sasha too. I know the training is needed and Xena and I certainly couldn’t handle everything that Sasha needs but it doesn’t help.

I’m so tired and the pains are annoying. I’ve been having them off and on for a while – again I’m told that it’s normal. I want to scream at the next woman that tells me that!

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Xena watched Gabrielle as the bard worked a drop spindle, spinning raw wool. Her mate looked tired, uncomfortable and irritable. The warrior’s blue eyes could tell that Gabrielle wasn’t paying attention to the tales being woven by the women as they wove the wool into thread. Normally, the bard would be engrossed in the tales but not today and Xena could tell.

She walked up with a smile for her mate and Gabrielle smiled a tired smile back. The bard started to stand up but decided against it and Xena resisted grinning at how heavy Gabrielle’s stomach now looked. With the bard’s small frame the pregnancy seemed even more pronounced.

“Stay put,” the warrior ordered and knelt down beside her mate.

“What’s up?” Gabrielle asked.

“I’m going out with the hunters this morning. We should be back by tomorrow night, you going to be okay?” Xena asked, her face concerned. Even though it was still another moon before their son was due, the warrior wanted to stay close. Sasha’s warning had her a little spooked.

“I’ll be fine,” the bard’s voice was a little sharp but then her face softened. “We’ll both be okay.”

Xena smiled, remembering how irritable she was in the last couple of rounds of her pregnancy.

“Don’t kill anyone before I get back?” she suggested and Gabrielle smiled back.

“I’ll try not to,” the bard promised.

Xena hugged Gabrielle as best she could, considering the bard’s protruding stomach, and stood up.

The warrior frowned, still feeling uneasy.

“Go, I’ll be fine!” Gabrielle grinned and then winched, her hands going to her belly.

“Pains?” Xena knelt down quickly by her bard.

“Nothing new,” the bard said reassuringly.

“Okay, you sure you don’t want me to stay?” the warrior questioned.

“No, I’m fine, love,” Gabrielle said gently. “What can you do here? Watch me be grumpy?”

“I love you, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly, kissing the top of her mate’s head.

“I love you too, Xena,” Gabrielle answered. “Now go.”

Gabrielle watched Xena walk to the end of the hall to the doors with her own concerned face. She also felt unease with Xena leaving, even for a night but it seemed silly. Probably one of those emotional up and downs that everyone told her to expect with being pregnant.

It was just past the sun’s high point of the sky when shouts came to the wall of the steading and passed along the guards inside and then to everyone.

Herkervar, Ivar the One Hand and Ketli Axe Hand, known to Xena and Gabrielle as Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli, were on the trail and heading their way.

Gabrielle looked up from peeling carrots and grinned. She wanted to jump up and rush out to see them at the gate but decided against it. Her back was still hurting and she hadn’t seen her feet in forever.

The bard’s pain was forgotten as the three travelers entered the hall among the clamor afforded visitors and homecoming family. Axel was laughing heartily, Svenda was offering a huge drinking horn as a welcome. The Greeks were well liked and loved among the steading and everyone wanted to greet them with hugs, laughter and drink.

Gabrielle waited, finally standing when they got closer to her end of the Hall. Her smile broke into laughter at the sight of their stunned faces as they took in her condition. Obviously Cyrene hadn’t told their best friends about her condition when they had passed through Greece. Gabrielle knew very well where Xena got her wicked sense of humor and wished her mate was there at that moment to meet the males.

The bard had her own moment of surprise as she took in the tall Viking next to Hercules and Iolaus. Process of elimination told her this could only be Ketli and she could see the child he had once been in his face and eyes but standing before her was a young man. A very tall, handsome young man who reminded her of Beowulf.

Hercules shook his head in amazement at her pregnant condition as Iolaus tried to figure out how to hug her with his one arm and her very swollen belly.

The rest of the Vikings began pulling back to let them greet each other and catch up.

“Gabrielle, your family forgot to tell us something,” Hercules laughed and confirmed the bard’s suspicion.

“I can tell by your faces,” she joined in his laughter and hugged him once Iolaus released her. “You forgot to send word that you were bringing a huge Viking along with you.”

Ketli Axe Hand blushed beneath his smile and hugged her.

“You are beautiful, Gabrielle,” he said in perfect Greek.

“And you’ve grown, Ketli Axe Hand,” she countered and then winced, her hand immediately going to her stomach.

Instantly, all three males were attentive and concerned.

“Gabrielle?” Iolaus questioned.

“What is it?” Hercules asked and Ketli reached out to steady her.

“Just some pains, they told me to expect that,” she said, trying to reassure them all. “I need to sit down.”

“When are you due?” Iolaus asked as they all moved towards the chair the bard had vacated when they had entered the hall.

“Next moon,” she responded, gritting her teeth through a sudden sharp pain.

“Are you early?” Hercules demanded.

“No, just uncomfortable, irritable and just want it over.”

“You sound just like my wife before she delivered,” Hercules laughed as the bard sat down.

She smiled at her adopted family and all three men thought to themselves how tired she looked. Wonderful with impending motherhood but tired.

“Where’s Xena?” Ketli asked.

“Out with hunters for the night,” the bard responded and accepted a drinking horn of cool water from one of the women as everyone began to settle back into their routine.

Another wince and Hercules looked more concerned.

“You sure you don’t want to lay down for a bit?” he suggested.

Gabrielle started to snap that she was fine and held her tongue. She knew her friend and Xena’s half brother was just concerned and the suggestion was a good one.

“Might be a good idea,” she agreed and then squealed in surprise when the Greek demi-god reached down and swept the bard into his arms. “Hercules!”

He laughed and turned towards the benches lining the walls. “Quiet you! Which one is yours and Xena’s?”

She laughed and pointed to the sleeping area she shared with Xena and found that one of the best men at her wedding was strong but also gentle as he carried her across the hall and placed her on the sleeping furs.

He further surprised her by gentle removing her short leather shoes and began massaging the bard’s feet.

“Oh gods, that is wonderful!” she exclaimed, laying back onto the furs.

“I remember how much my wife used to complain how much her feet hurt at the end of her pregnancies,” he explained.

She glanced over and saw Iolaus and Ketli talking with Axel near the hearth and looked back at Hercules.

“Do you miss them?” she asked softly.

“Very much so. I loved them very much,” he answered, moving his hands up to rub her lower legs as well. “I love Iolaus deeply and believe that he’s my true mate but I loved them very much.”

“Ketli is huge!” she commented and was delighted with the pleased look on the adopted father’s face.

“He’s turned into quite a young man. We decided we should stay up here in the North for awhile until he decides what he wants to do with his life,” the demi-god explained.

“He’s well past a manhood ceremony, what does he want to do?”

“He’s not really sure,” he continued. “He’s very gifted with sailing. That’s one reason we wanted to come back up here. We’re hoping he go out on the raiding next summer after spending the winter here and adjusting to Viking life again.”

“What do you want for him?” Gabrielle asked as he sat down on the bench next to her, pulling one of her legs over his and continued rubbing her foot.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “He was meant to be a Viking and we don’t want to take his heritage from him. I’m not keen on the thought of him on a raiding ship but that’s the life here.”

“Xena and I are thinking of staying here for awhile too,” Gabrielle commented. “Did Cyrene tell you about Sasha?”

“Yes, she and Torris filled us in on what’s happened since we last saw you, including Solan’s death and the kidnapping of Kiryk,” he informed her. “She did not tell us about your pregnancy though!”

Gabrielle grinned. “I guess they wanted me to see the look on your faces.”

He grinned back at her. “Good one,” he agreed.

“How much did they tell you about Alti and Bacchus?” Gabrielle forced herself to ask.

Hercules lost his smile as Gabrielle’s face tightened.

“Just that you both went through Hades fighting those two,” he hedged and then sighed. “Cyrene told Iolaus and me that you were tortured.”

“I was physically tortured and raped,” she said softly.

“Gods, not again,” he muttered, laying his hand against her cheek. Then the fear hit his eyes and he was surprised when Gabrielle nodded in understanding.

“That’s just what I thought when I found I was pregnant, drove me right to a vial of poison,” She continued. “Xena and some of the Gods stopped me. The Gods finally explained that Bacchus wasn’t the father but that the Forest Spirits of the Siberian north had worked magic. The child is from Xena and me.”

“Thank the gods!” he said softly.

“I agree,” the bard smiled.

“I’ll fill Iolaus and Ketli in that you and Xena are fine and we don’t have to kill some guy somewhere,” the demi-god grinned and was pleased when Gabrielle began blushing. “Now get some rest.”

Gabrielle tried to keep from crying, she was glad the guys were there and especially grateful for their love, understanding and kindness.

He merely smiled and wiped one of the tears away.

“My wife used to do that too,” he said softly and turned to join Iolaus and their adopted son.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle felt a cold chill run over her body at the sight of Roman soldiers trotting with their javelins and shields at the ready.

The bard quickly took in a group of people, mostly men, standing under an awning. It felt warm and dusty and the air was stifling. The Romans were heading right for the group.

Gabrielle realized suddenly that the man at the head of the group, apparently conducting a meeting, a speech or teaching was Eli. The Hebrew mystic that had come seeking Xena’s help in stopping the War God Kal from getting a magical chakram.

“No!” Gabrielle screamed as the Romans drew closer, some of the men on the outer edge of the group starting to turn at the sound of the rhythmic sound of pounding feet.

No one seemed to be able to see or hear Gabrielle, including Eli.

One of the men turning at the sound, she noted, was Asher, Eli’s zealot brother.

“No!” she screamed again as the fanatic drew a sword along with several of the other men as they caught sight of the Roman soldiers.

The bard wanted to turn away but couldn’t as the two groups met. Half of the men and few women gathered under the shade began to scatter, and Gabrielle kept shouting at Eli and Asher to join them but they didn’t hear her.

“Eli!”

“Asher! No! Come on!” Eli shouted at his brother.

“Go, get away, we’ll hold them!” Asher shouted.

One of the men grabbed Eli’s arm and began pulling him away as Asher met several soldiers, sword against javelins and shields.

Gabrielle blinked, trying to understand that the scene had abruptly changed.

She was now standing outside the dry city along a road. There were lots of people along the road, all waiting for something. No one talked loudly and no one seemed to want to move or leave.

Then she saw them. Roman soldiers surrounding several prisoners. The bard glanced in the other direction and saw more soldiers on top of a small hill, also waiting.

Gabrielle felt her heart stop. She knew what was waiting for those prisoners, she had been on the receiving end of Roman “justice” once and had died for it.

A quick twist of her head back to look at the prisoners confirmed what she already knew, Asher was among them. He was about to be nailed to a cross.

Gabrielle screamed and no one heard.

Gabrielle woke up with Svenda shaking her and talking to her gently.

“Its okay, Gabrielle,” she kept saying. “Only a nightmare.”

The bard blinked and nodded that she was finally awake and then cried out in pain, grabbing at her stomach again.

“Sweet Freya!” Svenda exclaimed loudly, causing the women to stop at their work and glance over. “Her water has broken!”

The hall became a flurry of activity at once.

Hercules, Iolaus and the other men moved back out of the way as the women rushed in to take over the situation.

Within moments screens had been brought from somewhere and established some privacy for the bard and the women helping. Word spread throughout the steading that the bard was giving birth and it was early. The men continued on with their few duties around the steading but stayed close to the main hall.

Axel, Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli tried to settle in next to the hearth and wait. Fingers and feet drummed nervously as they listened to the sounds behind the screens.

“How far apart are the pains?” a voice asked.

“How long have you been having pain?” another asked.

Moans were recognized as Gabrielle’s voice.

Hercules, having been through births with his family before, tried to calm his nerves and wait patiently.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena gasped as a sudden pain hit her womb and then yelped as the earth was suddenly no longer under her feet.

A moment later and Xena screamed in frustration and pain as she hit the bottom of a cave opening, the first pain having distracted her from noticing where her feet were stepping. She looked around, barely able to see anything in the darkness; the only light was coming from above, from where she had fallen into what was obviously a cave. She was at the bottom of a cave and the entrance was like a well shaft.

The warrior tried to scamper out of the way but only managed to cover her head as logs and deadfall began raining down on her. The downed tree limbs and trees that had hidden the entrance to the cave were now falling on top of her. She screamed as a large log hit her legs and pinned her to the cave floor.

Xena tried to pull her legs out and growled in frustration, as the log wouldn’t move. The lightning shooting from her legs hurt as they were probably broken and other parts of her body were hurting from the fall as well.

Then she remembered the pain that had distracted her.

“Gabrielle!” she screamed.

She began yelling for the other hunters.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“How long has it been?” Iolaus finally asked.

It was long past the nightly meal and most everyone had gone to their own sleeping furs.

“Eight candle marks,” Axel commented, looking to the time candle kept on the mantle of the hearth.

“How long can this go on?” Ketli complained.

“A lot longer than this,” Hercules responded.

A weak cry caused the young Viking to jump again.

“I sent a rider out to find the hunters,” Axel informed the Greeks.

“Good, thank you,” Hercules commented.

“I hope they find them soon,” Iolaus muttered.

“Me too,” Hercules said softly as another tired scream sounded from behind the screens.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Hercules snapped his head up and then moaned as the pain of a very stiff neck hit him. A quick glance around told him that it was just before dawn and the steading was starting to come to life.

He stood up and stretched, he could still hear movement behind the screens and moans of pain.

The Greek rushed forward as Svenda came out from behind the screens.

“How is she?” he asked.

“A difficult birth,” she answered, looking even more tired than he felt. At least he had gotten a little bit of sleep, even if it was in a chair at the long table.

Iolaus and Ketli were still asleep, leaning over the same table.

“She’s exhausted and the child won’t come,” Svenda complained.
“Hercules!” a voice unexpectedly filled his head. “Uncle Hercules!”
“Sasha?” he asked softly and wasn’t surprised when Svenda looked at him, her face confused.

“Grab a horse,” the voice ordered. “Xena is in trouble and only you can help. If Xena doesn’t get back here we’ll lose Mum!”

Hercules looked down at Svenda. “Freya and Sasha are going to guide me to Xena.”

“Axel!” she shouted across the Hall. “Have the fastest horse we have ready!”

“Yes, my love!” he shouted back and dashed out of the Hall.

Hercules shook Iolaus awake.

“I’m going after Xena!” he explained while Iolaus was still trying to wake up.

“Okay,” the Greek muttered.

It wasn’t long before he was riding fast in the direction the voice, Sasha, told him to.

“Sasha,” he spoke as the horse sped along the rough trail.

“I’m with you,” Sasha’s voiced responded.

“Where is Xena?” he asked.

“At the bottom of a cave, the hunters are having trouble getting her out,” Sasha informed him. “Her legs are trapped under a huge fallen tree.”

“She needs my strength,” he commented.

“Yes, and Gabrielle needs Xena,” Sasha confirmed.

“Why? How can she help where the other women can’t? They have shamans, healers and the women have assisted at births before.”

“The boy will be healthy but Gabrielle will have problems, they won’t be able to stop the bleeding and she will die,” Sasha answered.

“The pressure points,” Hercules commented.

“Yes, only Xena knows enough to save Gabrielle,” Sasha said.

Hercules urged the horse to move faster. He had seen women bleed to death in childbirth before.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Iolaus paced restlessly along the table as the sounds became more frantic behind the screen.

“Has the child finally turned?” a voice asked.

“Yes, thank the gods! Frigga, help us!” another voice responded and Iolaus added his own small prayer to the Greek gods.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

“Herkervar!” Vikker shouted as he saw Hercules come into sight. “Ysla is trapped below!”

Hercules bounded off of the horse and over to the area where Vikker had pointed and looked down. He could see how Ysla/Xena had missed the deadfall; you had to be right on top of it to even see it now.

The Greek could see Xena at the bottom of the cave with several Vikings surrounding her, some with torches. A climbing rope had been dropped down to the floor.

Xena looked to be barely conscious and he could see a small pool of blood seeping out from under her legs into the torchlight.

“Herkervar! Thorryke shouted up, taking in the sight of Hercules.

“Tie the rope around the tree and have the horses pull it up,” he called down.

“The tree is at an odd angle, it will rip her legs off,” Thorryke shouted back. “And we can’t get enough leverage down here.”

“Alright, I’m coming down!” he shouted back.

“Hercules!” Xena blinked, spotted her half-brother and shouted. “Hurry! Gabrielle is in trouble!”

The Greek merely nodded and dropped into the dark hole, not bothering with the climbing rope.

He ignored the surprised looks on the faces of the Vikings as he stood up from the crouch he had landed in. Any other man would have broken both ankles.

The Greek demi-god knelt beside Xena and quickly looked her over.

“Just get this damned thing off of me!” she snapped, sweat dripping from her brow.

“Do my best,” he promised.

The demi-god stood and took a position at one end of the tree. After several deep breaths he squatted slightly and grabbed the tree firmly.

“Get ready to pull her out,” he instructed.

“You can’t lift that!” Thorryke protested. “You’ll kill yourself!”

“If I need to!” Hercules said and began to lift.

The Vikings and even Xena was amazed at the effort it took the Greek known for his strength. The muscles throughout his body stood out, veins pulsing, sweat pouring off his body as he struggled. His normally tanned skin became flush with the effort and everyone was convinced he was going to fail.

With a stubborn shout he finally heaved the tree up to knee level.

Thorryk quickly pulled the wounded Xena out from under the tree and Hercules dropped the tree and fell back against the cave wall. The men quickly looked over the warrior’s legs.

“Both are broken, she can’t ride,” one announced.

“She can ride,” Hercules said in a firm voice. He lifted the warrior up and moved her around until Xena was clinging to his neck from behind. “Hang on, Sis,” he instructed.

“You got it!” she responded.

The trip up the rope and out of the cave was longer than it took both of them to get down and both were stretched to the end of their strength by the time Hercules reached the top. Vikker helped Xena up off Hercules’ back and onto the ground.

Xena was breathing heavily and biting her lip in pain. They could all see the twist in one leg and a large gash in the other.

“She can’t ride!” Vikker protested as the other Vikings began climbing the rope back up to the upper world.

“She has too or Gabrielle is dead,” Hercules informed them.

“I knew she was in trouble,” Xena muttered.

Vikker threw his hands up in frustration and went to a nearby dead tree and began breaking off branches for splints.

Once the rest of the hunters were above ground and the warrior’s legs had been splinted, Hercules lifted her up onto the horse and grabbed another one for himself.

“Can you stay in the saddle or do you want me to ride behind you?” he asked.

“I’ll ride, we have to travel fast!” Xena answered and turned her horse towards the Steading.

“Let’s go then!” he urged.

“How did you know?” Xena asked as they began riding, trying to concentrate past the incredible pain.

“Sasha called to me and led me to you,” he answered and smiled at her raised eyebrows.

“I knew she was in trouble but I got caught in that damned cave,” she responded.

“She’s been in labor since mid-point between high sun and sunset,” he told her.

“She was still in labor when you left?” she demanded.

“Yes, Sasha says that the baby will be healthy but they won’t be able to stop the bleeding,” he explained.

“Damn!” Xena swore, urging her horse to move faster. She remembered the last of Alti’s visions: Gabrielle sweating and screaming in pain.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gabrielle screamed again. Someone wiped her forehead with a cool cloth and soothing voices encouraged her to relax between the pains. The bard was exhausted, she wasn’t sure how long it had been going on but it felt like forever. She wanted to scream out of frustration but her voice was long gone. Gabrielle had no idea where she was finding the energy and the voice to scream with the pain.

“Xena,” she whispered.

“Brie!” someone insisted that she pay attention and she wanted to strangle them.

“What!?” she snapped, gripping the piece of wood someone had thrust into her hands.

“The baby is almost here, push as hard as you can,” Svenda instructed.

“What do you think I’ve……” the end of her angry words were cut short by another scream.

Gabrielle wasn’t sure she had ever felt anything like this before. Not even when she was poisoned by Cows’ Bane, this was different and painful.

“The head!” someone said loudly and then Gabrielle screamed again.

“Xena!”

Suddenly it was over and the bard collapsed into someone’s arms behind her. Excited voices surrounded her and the gentle hands continued to wipe her forehead. After a few moments the woman behind her was raising the bard up slightly and Svenda was talking to her.

Gabrielle managed to open her eyes at the sound of the small cries.

“You have a son, Brie,” Svenda was handing her a small bundle and Gabrielle let the tears of joy stream down her face as she took her son into her arms. “He is beautiful and healthy.”

“Thank the gods,” the bard said softly.

“Svenda,” one of the women at the other end of the bed called Axel’s wife away but Gabrielle barely noticed, she was entranced at the sight of the small creature in her arms.

“I wish Xena was here,” she said softly to her son. He was crying but not screaming, almost seeming to listen to Gabrielle’s voice. Like a typical new mother, Gabrielle checked that all fingers and toes were there and the limbs seemed intact and worked correctly. He had a shock of blonde hair that was full and thick.

The bard knew that she needed to feed him but she felt so tired. It was becoming impossible to even hold him. Gabrielle began to struggle against darkness trying to overcome her.

“Gabrielle!” Svenda yelled. “Stay awake! Stay with us!”

“Asher, his name is Asher,” Gabrielle muttered, struggling to keep her eyes open and failing.

“How do we stop the bleeding?” a voice drifted to her but it seemed so far away.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Half way back to the Steading and that same darkness was crowding Xena as well. She yelped as a strong arm wrapped around her ribs and held her upright.

“Quiet,” Hercules ordered and gently pulled her into his arms onto his horse. She growled as they began moving quickly again, this time Hercules holding her close.

“Goddamn legs!” she muttered.

“Your healing abilities will take care of them,” he commented. “If you weren’t mostly a goddess you would have lost both of those legs.”

“Or died, I know that,” she growled. “Just get me to Gabrielle.”

“As fast as I can,” he promised.

The guards saw them coming and Hercules was grateful that the gates were open for him and Xena. He took the horse right up to the doors of the hall and he slid off the horse with the warrior in his arms, landing heavily on the ground.

Fortunately the doors to the Hall were already standing open in the heat of the summer and the Greeks rushed in.

“Xena, Herc!” Iolaus called as they entered. “Thank the gods!”

The large Greek demi-god moved swiftly down the hall to the screens. Without waiting for someone to anticipate his moves, Hercules kicked one of the screens aside.

“Gabrielle,” Xena whispered.

The bard was unconscious and Svenda and other women were working frantically trying to stop the bleeding from Gabrielle’s womb with sea sponges and moss. The bard was deathly pale and her breath was rapid and shallow. The experienced warriors could both recognize the effects of blood loss.

Hercules sat Xena down on the bench bed next to her mate. Both of them tried to ignore the large amount of blood already soaked into the birthing blankets under the bard.

“Can you help?” Svenda demanded.

Xena heard a baby crying near but her attention was focused on her mate. She quickly gauged the amount of bleeding from what healer training she had acquired over the years and hit several points on Gabrielle’s body.

She watched Svenda watching Gabrielle and after a few moments the Headwoman and healer nodded, sighing with relief.

“How long can you hold those on her?” the Headwoman questioned.

“Not long, I’ll have to release them in a few moments, let the blood flow for a bit and then hit them again,” Xena answered. “She won’t bleed to death now but it’ll take time to stop the bleeding this way. She’s still going to lose some more blood.”

“Raforta, keep the sponges and moss rotated,” Svenda ordered one of the women. “Guorior, get bandages and fresh water for Ylsa’s wounds and something to splint those legs.”

The next few candle-marks were spent taking care of the Greek women. Xena had been right, it had taken time to stop the bleeding by using the pressure points but the bleeding had finally stopped.

Svenda ordered that the screens be kept up for the night while both women slept after the bedding was changed. Gabrielle was still unconscious and the Headwoman was worried she might not survive such a massive blood loss but Xena thought that the bard’s god healing abilities would save her.

Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli peeked around one of the screens and smiled at the sight of Gabrielle, still groggy but awake, being held in Xena’s arms, the bard’s new son feeding at her breast.

“Thank the gods,” Hercules muttered and Gabrielle managed to smile at him.

“Thank you, Herc,” she whispered and Xena nodded gratefully.

“He’s handsome,” Ketli said softly. “His naming?”

“Asher, his name is Asher,” Gabrielle smiled.

“All of you! Out!” Svenda said loudly and rushed the men away.

“Asher?” Xena questioned as Gabrielle shifted their son to the other breast. The warrior caught the happy expression leaving the bard’s face.

“I had one of those vision dreams, Xena,” Gabrielle started to explain. “Eli and Asher were somewhere in Palestine or Judea, I saw a Roman unit attack them and Asher was captured.”

“Little One,” Xena whispered. “We knew it was likely to happen with his fanaticism.”

“I know, I know, I just didn’t expect to see it,” the bard complained. “I saw him being led to a cross, Xena.”

Xena felt her jaw muscles tighten. She remembered how she felt watching Gabrielle being led to a Roman cross. The warrior had gone berserk and nearly ripped her hands off from her manacles.

“What about Eli?”

“I don’t know, I just saw Asher at the end,” her mate answered.

“Asher may not have been my favorite person in the word but I agree, he was loyal, brave, and a good man overall,” the warrior responded.

“We’ll see Eli again; I have a strong feeling on it.”

After a few moments of both of them watching young Asher drifting off to sleep in his mother’s arms, Gabrielle glanced up into Xena’s eyes.

“What happened with your legs?”

“I felt a very sharp pain in my abdomen and missed stepping into a deadfall that happened to be over a very deep cave opening. Damned thing was almost like a mineshaft. The logs, fallen trees, and brush followed me down. One of the trees fell on my legs and trapped me.”

“Pain?” the bard questioned.

“Yeah, I knew when you went into labor,” Xena grinned. “The others couldn’t get the thing off my legs until Hercules showed up.”

“How did Hercules know where you were?”

“He says that he heard Sasha’s voice telling him where to go,” Xena smiled sadly.

“Sasha? Using her psychic powers?” Gabrielle tried to keep her voice down but there was a tone of surprise there and Xena heard it.

“Apparently, I’m just glad she and Freya were looking out for us,” it was difficult to admit gratitude to a goddess and Gabrielle knew it. “Get some rest, my love. My legs will heal in a few days, you’ll regain your strength and we have a son to raise and a daughter to visit.”

“Okay,” Gabrielle agreed sleepily.

Nearby, Hercules curled up with Iolaus in their sleeping furs, both muttering similar comments and sighing with relief that things finally seemed to have gone right for their favorite Greek couple and relatives.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Asher has made his way into the world a little early. I was in labor for almost a full circle of candle-marks. They tell me that I almost died from bleeding, fortunately I don’t remember a lot of it. What I do know is that Xena saved my life once again.

I look over our lives and sit back in amazement at how rough it’s been. At the same time I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s. Not as long as I’m with Xena. How many times have we died? How many times have we come close to dying? How much pain have we lived through?

On the other side of the coin: where would I have ever found a love like Xena and I have? So many good times as well. I love being with her so much and I see sides of her that no one would believe, maybe not even Cyrene.

Asher is sleeping now, I probably have half a candle-mark before the next round of feeding. I wish even more now that I had been there for the first part of Sasha’s life. I have more than enough help with all the women of the steading and Xena but I’m still tired from losing so much blood.

Why does my life seem to revolve around blood? I need to drink blood every moon, now I nearly die from losing it giving birth to our son.

Asher, named after a man that thought Xena and I are condemned by his god to a horrible eternity. Because of our relationship and my need for blood condemns us in his eyes. At the same time I know we made a connection and we got him to think about his stubbornness. He understood the life of a reluctant slave.

Xena calls him brave and loyal, especially to his religion. I guess that’s true. I do hope that we tamed some of that fanatical behavior of his though. At least the vision showed me that he and Eli were together.

I’m not sure why I insisted on naming our son Asher. The last time we saw Asher he tried to kill me with his sword because he caught me feeding from Xena’s wrist after the fight with the War God Kal. The Hebrews have very strong views and actual laws about blood and I broke the main one. My relationship with Xena is also a stoning offense in their culture.

Why name my son after him? Maybe to honor Eli, a tolerant and peace loving mystic and teacher. I have the feeling that Eli is still alive and that we’ll see him again. I truly pray we do, I liked Eli and his message. He reminds me of what I wanted for the world so many years ago, the difference is that he’s working to make it happen while I fell from that path of peace. Xena and Eli both try to convince me that it wasn’t my fault and probably not my path but it’s difficult. I never wanted to kill. Before I truly knew what it was to kill and be in battle I thought I wanted to be like Xena. Then I realized I couldn’t kill. Unfortunately that changed as well when I was thrown into a damned arena with a sword and shield and told to fight or die.

Xena keeps reminding me I did what so many thousands of others have done; I did whatever was necessary to survive. I learned to kill and I learned very well. Well enough to win my freedom from the Arena in Rome from Caesar himself.

Maybe Asher is a reminder of what I wanted for my life and for the world. No more senseless killing. Eli’s brother ended up just where we knew he would, on a Roman cross as a criminal because he continued to follow his path of armed rebellion against Rome. I hope that he and Eli stayed close these last few years and that Eli’s teaching gave Asher comfort. From the vision it appeared that Eli was being a teacher and Asher was listening or protecting him. Maybe the fanatic calmed down a bit.

Did Eli have something of the same effect that I had on Xena in helping her turn from a path of violence? I hope so, for Eli’s sake. Both brothers loved each other very much and I hate to think that religion came between them.

We talked with Freya about maybe staying up here; I think I’d like that. It’s such a hard decision though, Mom is getting older and we’re not. Xena and I haven’t talked about it but it was a bit of a shock seeing Ketli as a grown man and how much older Iolaus looks. A reality smack on the head.

Hercules is like Xena and me, immortal and it appears that we don’t age. Iolaus is totally human and does and it’s beginning to show.

I think it’s beginning to hit Xena and me about our families. We’re not going to get older but our family and friends are and eventually they’re going to die. The only way we’re going to die is if we’re killed. How in Hades am I supposed to watch Lila grow old while I stay the same age? What kind of life is that? We’ll go through eternity watching our families and friends grow old and die? Or do we move constantly, leaving our friends before they figure out we’re not aging? Probably.

Given that Xena and I are both immortal and Asher is a child from both of us, does that mean he’s going to be immortal as well? Will he have gifts like Sasha?

Gods, I’m tired and I think Asher is beginning to stir.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Xena grinned as she watched Sasha playing with Freya’s cats in the same meadow they had been in before.

The Greek warrior and Northern Goddess leaned against a large oak tree and relished the coolness of the shade it offered. The sat in silence but Xena reflected that it was a comfortable quiet as Sasha giggled and romped with the huge cats.

After half a candle-mark Freya turned to the warrior.

“She is a remarkable child,” she commented and smiled as Xena blushed with pride.

“That she is,” Xena agreed. “How is her training going?”

“Very well. She does have a major stubborn streak that gets in the way sometimes,” Freya grinned. “She must have gotten it from her father.”

Xena’s eyes narrowed in mock anger and then she grinned.

“Thank you for letting me see her,” Xena said softly.

“I’m glad to see you and to give her a break,” Freya smiled as the child gave up playing with the cats and threw herself on the grass at her mom’s feet.

Both the goddess and Greek found the child’s grin contagious.

“How’s it going, kid?” Xena asked.

“Okay, I miss you and Mum but it’s okay.”

“Gabrielle misses you too,” Xena smiled.

“Wish she could have come along,” Sasha said wistfully.

“She’s still tired from the birth and the complications,” Xena explained again. Sasha had almost pouted when Xena had arrived in the meadow without the bard.

“She’s okay, though,” Sasha demanded.

“Yes, she’ll be fine and Asher is doing great,” Xena answered, hugging the child. “He’s big, bigger than you were when you were born. He’s got thick blonde hair and the greenest eyes.”

“Excellent!” Sasha clapped in delight. “She named him Asher? She knows that Asher is dead, then?”

“You saw it? She saw it in a dream,” Xena asked.

“Asher is dead. The Romans thought that Eli was getting too popular and attacked him while he was teaching. Asher tried to protect him and they were both captured,” Sasha explained.

“What happened to them? Gabrielle thought Asher was going to a cross,” Xena asked.

“Asher was crucified. They didn’t want to execute Eli publicly, they were afraid of making him more of a martyr than his brother,” Sasha continued explaining, her eyes slightly unfocused as she remembered her vision. “They sent Eli to the galleys.”

“Oh gods,” Xena muttered.

The galleys, Roman war ships. Powered by sail when the wind was right, powered by slaves when the wind wasn’t right. Slaves chained to oars or below lower decks in darkness. An endless existence of brutality and pulling an oar, even worse than what Gabrielle had been through in the gladiator school.

Life expectancy wasn’t long in the galleys.

“How do we find him?” Xena questioned and Sasha blinked, losing her concentration.

“Not for a long time, Mom,” Sasha responded sadly.

Xena frowned. “Gabrielle has the feeling that we’d see him again.”

“We will, but not for a long time,” Sasha answered.

The warrior continued to frown.

“How are Hercules, Iolaus and Ketli?” Sasha asked bringing the smile back to Xena’s face.

“Doing well, Ketli is grown and quite handsome. They are all extremely proud to be uncles,” the warrior commented.

“You are all thinking of staying in the North,” Freya joined the conversation and Xena nodded.

“Yes, none of us have talked about it much but I think Gabrielle wants to settle down, especially with Asher here,” Xena agreed.

“So are Hercules and Iolaus,” Freya smiled. “They want Ketli to choose his own path and give him the opportunity to settle with his Viking background.”

“That would be good,” Xena commented.

“Why not all of you settle down for a while?” Freya asked. “I know with your talent for getting into trouble that it might not last long but you might be able to grab a few years.”

“You’re encouraging,” Xena complained with a smile.

She knew the goddess was right though. No matter how hard they tried, she and Gabrielle couldn’t seem to take any time off. Everyone around them complained that they never seemed to slow down and sometimes Xena agreed that it felt like it.

Part of that was making up for her past, another part had been dealing with Ares.

Now that Ares was gone and Zeus had ordered Mars to stay out of their lives, Xena wondered if that part was now closed. There was always a pissed off Kal but he seemed content to stay in his native Arabic lands.

As for her past, as the world got older around them, the warrior figured that maybe her past would become just that, the past and so stay there. There would come a day when she and Gabrielle would have to change identities or pretend to be their own daughters or something.

Freya and Sasha watched the thoughts running over Xena’s face expectantly. The warrior was unaware that she was echoing Gabrielle’s earlier thoughts and those of Freya and Sasha.

Hercules had gone through a very long life without changing but the warrior knew the world was changing and belief in the gods was waning. There might even come a time when the Greek gods would fall out of favor and worship, just as the gods of the Assyrians, Persians and others had and just what was happening to the Egyptian gods.

Xena didn’t think that they could continue on without meeting those changes. The warrior and Gabrielle mostly kept quiet about being the children of gods because most people wouldn’t understand and be afraid or jealous. Others wouldn’t believe and still others would want the opportunity to try and kill them to gain a reputation.

Telling someone you meet that you’re immortal and not going to die was not an easy thing and difficult to form a friendship around.

Xena looked up at the Northern Goddess of Love and her own child and grinned, slightly embarrassed at having been lost in her thoughts.

“It won’t end, will it?” she asked in a slightly tired voice.

“You are a born warrior, Xena,” Freya responded as Sasha leaned into her Mom’s arms, much like Gabrielle usually did. “Your fate will always come back to that, just as Gabrielle will be drawn to her writing and teaching. She’ll also attract trouble, it does seem to follow you both.”

“I’ll admit I’m tired,” Xena commented. “We’ve planned to stay here for a couple of winters while Sasha is going through the training and Asher’s first couple of birthdays.”

“I love you, Mom,” Sasha said suddenly and hugged her mom tightly, causing the warrior to grin and hug her back. “I want you to stay up here.”

“I do to, it’s just that your grandma’s going to need me and so does Reija,” Xena said, wiping a tear away.

“Your brother’s wife is taking over the inn more and more and Reija wishes to return to the Amazons now that no one can find Kiryk and she can’t go looking herself,” Freya informed the Greek.

Xena frowned, thinking about what Freya had just said. “Can you find Kiryk?”

The goddess lost her gentle smile and shook her head sadly. “No, I’m sorry. That strand of Fate is clouded and lost to the future.”

Xena’s eyes filled with tears, remembering Kiryk, holding him, changing him, feeding him, playing with him, loving him.

“How do I find him?” she asked.

“I don’t know, honestly,” Freya admitted. “Spend some time up here, take some time for you and Gabrielle to heal and raise Asher.”

“I think so,” Xena agreed.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Hercules grinned as Xena rode back through the gates and glanced over at the large tree next to the door of the main hall. She caught the smile on Gabrielle’s face as the bard saw her mate.

He put down the iron he was working on with the blacksmith and walked over towards the bard as Xena rode up.

It was easy to see that both agreed that the bard looked better than she had in a moon.

“Hey, my love,” Xena said easily and dropped down to the grass beside her mate.

“Hey,” Gabrielle smiled and handed Asher over to the warrior and her smile got wider as Xena took the small infant.

Hercules joined them. “How’s Sasha?” he asked.

“Doing good but upset with me because I didn’t take Gabrielle and Asher with me this time,” Xena grinned.

“Next time, I really want her to see Asher,” Gabrielle promised.

“I made a stop on the way back,” Xena said as Hercules sat down, wiping his brow off from the hard work of the blacksmith shop. “Freya dropped me off somewhere.”

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed slightly, Xena was being vague and her blue eyes were sparkling brightly with amusement. “Where and what have you been up to?”

“Jarl Axel’s steading,” Xena continued with her vague answers, she loved teasing her bard and making Gabrielle pull things out of her.

“And?” the bard demanded, not sure who she wanted to playfully whack; Xena for her mystery or Hercules for his smirking.

“Well, Herc and Ioluas are wanting to stay up here for at least a couple of winters and I know you’re wanting to settle down for awhile, especially with Asher being so small and then there’s Sasha’s training,” Xena continued.

“Yes?”

“Jarl Axel has given us a good plot of land near here, part of Eddval’s holding,” Xena smiled at the bard’s raised eyebrows. “I took a look at it on the way back. A good size small hall on the edge of a clearing, with a small river nearby. A good patch of land for farming and the meadow is perfect for a little cattle and sheep.”

“You’re asking us to settle down in our own place?” Gabrielle grinned.

“I thought maybe you, me, Herc and Iolaus could have a go at this settling down thing and raising Asher. I know Ketli is going out with the next raiding party and will be gone until Fall,” Xena responded.

Hercules was grinning widely. “I think Iolaus would like that a lot and I know I would.”

“So would I,” Gabrielle agreed.

Xena joined their grins, looking very pleased as she held her new son.

“You said there’s already a building on it?” Hercules asked.

“Two, actually,” Xena continued. “A good sized one room hall and a stable with vegetable bins already built in. Wouldn’t take much to turn the hall into a home, with private rooms.”

“I’d like that!” Gabrielle exclaimed.

“Let’s talk to Iolaus and Eddval,” Hercules suggested.

“Maybe we can get some peace?” Gabrielle asked.

“I hope so, my love,” Xena said softly. “I hope so.”

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Gods, will we actually have a chance to settle down for a while? I truly hope so. I miss our home in Greece, it seems almost like we never really got a chance to make it a home. We had a couple of good seasons there and then everything went crazy again.

Is this going to be a down-side of being immortal? Going through life always facing a conflict? Xena and I will always be young and a challenge, no growing old gracefully or retiring. Even if we disappear and re-emerge somewhere else where they have forgotten Xena and Gabrielle, just our skills and youth will make us a target to some.

Then there’s the fact that our relationship will make us a target in some places. What happens when we try and find Eli somewhere in the Roman Empire? We try to stay clear of Arabic and Hebrew lands as much as possible because of their laws and hatred of our kind of relationship. Even the fact that we carry weapons is a stoning offense in some places.

I’ve already written about how they feel about blood drinkers, not that I go around advertising that fact. Even the Vikings here don’t know about that little part of me. So far we’ve managed to keep that private and I’m grateful for that. I still remember the looks on the faces of the Northern Amazons when they realized I’m part Bacchae, part vampire. Gods, that hurt so badly. Xena says they’ll adapt and learn to trust me again – Otere does and she was even there when I was a full Bacchae in the Spirit Realm and killed Queen Arja. Yakut says that she understands but she was also a victim of the vampiir, the vampires, when we got to the village last time. It hasn’t been the same between us. They fed on her like someone bleeding a cow or sheep, her own Amazon sisters who had been turned into vampires.

I think she’s still having problems dealing with the fact that I NEED blood to survive as well once a month. She rationalizes it that I don’t kill, I don’t injure anyone and I don’t attack them, Xena and I use it as part of our connection. Knowing what it’s like to be fed on though and does put a wall up between us.

It’ll be nice to not be on the move for a while. Asher is so small and helpless. He’s got a great set of lungs on him, though. I’m smiling as I look over and watch him cooing softly in his bedding. I see a pained look come over Xena’s face occasionally when she watches or holds him. I think it’s his blonde hair and that he’s male. I think he reminds of her Solan and how much we’ve lost when he was killed. Also how much Xena lost when she gave him up to be raised by the Centaurs. Solan wasn’t even three candle-marks old when she gave him up.

I know that hurts her to this day. Being able to see Sasha a little more frequently than she did with Solan is helping with this partial loss in our lives. I miss having the kid around but we know it’s best. How can two humans, even if we are immortal, raise a child that’s destined to become a goddess? I know Xena would prefer to raise Sasha ourselves but we’re already out of our range with her inherited skills.

Hades, we don’t even know how to control our own. I don’t know if I can call those bolts of light again. I think I was about to succeed when we fought Callisto and I don’t know if Xena can throw lightning bolts like her father outside of the Spirit Realm.

I know I’m fairly empathic and can pick up on things, especially now that I’m older. Xena’s a natural fighter, like her brother Ares. There are so many unanswered questions about our lives and our future.

I know, the only way to find the answers is to seek them out. I’m just hoping to take some time off for once.

If the gods are kind: no more poisoned grain, no more of Xena’s past coming up to haunt us, no more monsters, no more Alti, no more Callisto, no more Bacchus, and let Velaska stay in the lava, and let our family stay healthy.

I ask for a few turns of the Wheel of the Year, please.
The End
Old Problems in the Night

Storyline: Gabrielle, Xena, Iolaus, Hercules and Asher try to settle down in the North to raise Asher but old problems have a way of creeping up on them.
Gabrielle laughed softly and threw a piece of flat bread at her mate. Xena’s eyes blinked and she began blushing at the sound of Gabrielle’s laughter.

“Reality to Xena?” Gabrielle teased.

Xena, having been busted at not paying attention to her bard, growled softly and saw a chance for distraction. The warrior grinned and moved out of the chair with the grace of a huge stalking cat and grabbed Asher as he attempted to crawl out of sight under the table. The toddler squealed with delight as the warrior pulled him onto her lap.

“I’m sorry, Gabrielle,” Xena said softly, relieved that her mate’s green eyes were bright with humor and not irritation at her. “What were you saying?”

“I was asking if you realized it’s been an entire turn of seasons since we’ve been here?” Gabrielle repeated. The warrior bard felt whatever irritation she might have for the distracted warrior melt away as she watched Xena with their son. Gabrielle knew that Xena could terrify most anyone they came across with just a look but they didn’t see the many sides of the warrior that Gabrielle felt privileged in seeing. Gabrielle wasn’t even sure if Xena’s mother Cyrene would ever believe how goofy her daughter could get at times. Or how romantic, soft, gentle, or even how emotional.

There was even a few times when Gabrielle caught Hercules shaking his head with an amused grin on his face as he watched Xena with Asher or her interacting with Gabrielle now that no one else was around.

Xena had reminded Gabrielle when the bard questioned her about Hercules’ surprise that the demi-God had been searching all of Greece for the missing bard when Xena gave birth to Sasha. Her half-brother had missed out on watching Xena raise the small child until Gabrielle had returned to them almost two full spring seasons later.

Gabrielle looked around the decent sized cabin and smiled. It had been a year of struggle for the two couples, especially with Gabrielle having just given birth and almost dying during it. Asher was a handful when he finally learned to crawl and had to be watched, constantly. Xena had finally gotten exasperated when the curious youngster had banged his head on a table when he tried standing up on his own. Gabrielle and Iolaus had laughed for almost a quarter candle mark when Xena came back from a morning spent in the work shed with a brand new harness. Only this harness wasn’t for a horse, it was for her errant son and had a ring at the cross section at the back for a rope. Asher hadn’t thought being confined to a limited space was funny but the adults had been amused at his frustrated looks and Xena’s satisfied and smug look.

The bard was pleased with the life they were building with Hercules and Iolaus.

They had cleared the land enough for a good harvest of grain, vegetables and hay. Sheep and two goats grazed in a small pasture area, cows and horses were in another area and chickens clucked a way in a small pen along side the barn. It was getting close to the winter season and a couple of wild pigs had already been hunted and killed along with one cow. The meat had been salted and the harvest of vegetables and fruits preserved as well. The last harvest of the grain was coming up soon and the Greeks didn’t think they would need much help from the larger settlement of Axel, their adopted Viking family.

Xena’s words brought Gabrielle back from her musing with a smile.

“Yeah, this one growing by leaps and bounds reminds me everyday,” the warrior grinned at her wife.

Gabrielle sighed, feeling content. It had taken all four of them some time to actually relax in their new home. It wasn’t the hard work, none of them were strangers to work and welcomed it. It was the warrior paranoia of looking over your shoulder for bandits all the time and waiting for the sword to drop out of the sky if you stayed in one place for too long.

Even the time at home in Amphipolis had been difficult for the couple. Xena and Gabrielle made a home for themselves with Gabrielle helping Cyrene at the inn and Xena working with the local blacksmith and training the militia.

It seemed like the Elysian Fields to the couple. It was just the life both of them avoided by fleeing to the road when they were young but now they found themselves drawn back to and welcomed it. Gabrielle still hated making bread but had found making a home for Xena, Solan, Sasha and herself satisfying.

Romans, Ares, Bacchae cravings and the need to take care of things in distant lands always interfered with that quiet life, though. A simple day could turn into trouble in an instant and it seemed to follow the couple.

Gabrielle wondered if it was that way for others or just her, her mate and their friends? The bard had seen villages that seemed to exist without too much trouble or very little of it. Then there was Xena and Gabrielle; merely walking into a town could start a fight. The bard wondered if it was part of that Destiny thing for the two of them.

Just walking by a small troop of Roman soldiers one day had nearly gotten the bard arrested and Xena into a major fight with them. They had seen the scars on the bard’s back from the lashings and the brand she had received at the Gladiator school and took her for a runaway slave.

Just another day and close call for the couple, the bard reflected.

She even felt the uneasy feelings when they tried to settle down in the cabin. All of them worked hard, even Iolaus with his crippled arm had put in a good day’s work by sunset but Gabrielle caught all of them glancing to the woods, their hands never quite far from a weapon.

Little by little the small group began to relax. Of course hands still rested on weapons whenever anyone approached their homestead, mostly men traveling to do trading with other steadings. Iolaus sold several barrels of his ale and had several kegs of mead fermenting as well. He traded a few of the barrels for enough feed for the animals for the winter and a new spinning loom for Gabrielle.

With Xena’s “many skills”; Hercules’ strength, Iolaus’ cleverness and Gabrielle’s stubbornness, they had managed to turn the good sized cabin into a very nice home and had a thriving farm after only a full turn of the seasons.

Gabrielle smiled and pulled Asher in her arms and the little boy cooed happily while he snuggled next to her.

Xena also became reflective as she watched her mate and their child. This was one time she thanked the deities for their magical involvement in their lives. If not for the Forest Spirits of the North, she might not know what Gabrielle was like as a mother and they wouldn’t have their son.

Xena was not amused with the thought of either of them conceiving children the old fashioned way by having sex with a male. She still had her own nightmares about the sexual abuse the bard had suffered through during their travels together, especially the most recent at the hands of Bacchus. The guilt of not protecting Gabrielle from all of it still chipped away at the warrior’s mind and soul.

Xena was unaware of her growl and the look of anger on her face but Gabrielle caught it and had a excellent idea of what was going on in her warrior’s mind. After all their years together, she had gotten pretty good at reading Xena’s moods. Gabrielle was pretty sure the cause of the scowl and the frown was either Bacchus or Alti. Xena didn’t’ blame her for anything that happened in the Spirit Realm but it was still a nightmare for both of them to live with. Sexual assault, torture and Gabrielle turning into a full bacchae was enough to drive Xena into whacking anything in her sight and swearing vengeance daily against Bacchus after watching Gabrielle go through the nightmares that still plagued the bard. Too many times the bard had awakened to find Xena gently holding and comforting her, the nightmare still fresh in her mind. The warrior would cuddle her while Gabrielle cried herself back to sleep.

Now, after Asher’s birth and a year of carving out a home in the wilds of Germania, the nightmares were easing up for all of them.

Xena looked over at Hercules and Iolaus as the demi-god helped his mate put on his boots and smiled. They each had their demons and their past, Xena thought. The loss of Hercules’ family, the crippling of Iolaus, Gabrielle’s assaults and slavery, and Xena had way too many things to make up for to list, she cursed.

Maybe after all the winters they had been through, the Fates would ease up on them and let them have a break and a chance at a normal life.

It pained Xena to see the gray appearing in Iolaus hair and beard compared to youthful faces of Gabrielle and Hercules. It was one thing she didn’t look forward to, Iolaus was going to continue to age while his mate and best friends didn’t.

Xena wasn’t sure being an immortal was all that great of a prize and the warrior continued to scowl. Xena, Hercules and Gabrielle would never age, would never grow old, never get sick and wouldn’t die without outside trauma. The same couldn’t be said for their friends and families. Already Cyrene was feeling the effects of raising three children, running a tavern alone all those winters and was slowing down. It was getting harder for her to haul the kegs of ale and wine back and forth.

The warrior felt tears springing to her eyes as she remembered her family. Solan and his wife Reija had been planning on taking over the inn slowly until Cyrene could no longer work. They were going to continue the inn and take care of his grandmother.

Callisto had shattered those plans for the future by killing Solan and crippling Reija. Kidnapping their son, Kiryk, had just finished destroying the family, especially when they couldn’t find him. He was still lost these three Spring seasons later.

Now with Solan dead, Reija had returned to an Amazon tribe and Cyrene was left to deal with the Tavern. Xena felt guilty whenever she thought about it. She knew that it had been expected of her when she was younger to someday take over and to help her mother. Taking the road to a path of becoming a feared warlord hadn’t been what Cyrene had wanted for her daughter. Continuing a path of being a warrior wasn’t going to lead Xena back to that inn either, and although they both knew and accepted it, that didn’t make it any easier to live with the guilt though.

Xena thanked the gods that her older brother Torris was more than willing to take over the inn in addition to his own merchant business with his wife.

The warrior didn’t know how she was going to handle watching her Mom get older and finally die. What if Asher didn’t inherit his parent’s immortality? How were they supposed to watch him grow up, live his life and die while they didn’t age a day?

Xena growled. This would be the downside of being immortal.

Hercules walked up beside the bard as she continued feeding the livestock. She looked up from the pitchfork of hay and smiled.

“Where Iolaus?” she asked.

“Xena is helping him with dinner while Asher plays under their feet,” he said as he continued smiling.

“Do you think we’ve got enough supplies? It’s turning cold,” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” the demi-god responded as he leaned on the fence railing. “Ready to be cooped up for the winter with a toddler?”

Hercules laughed at the bard’s expression of joy and then a look of stunned realization of how many candle-marks that would mean with the handful of tiny terror known as Asher.

“Do we have a choice?” Gabrielle grinned. “It’ll be good.”

“Yeah, with the four of us taking care of him. We’ve been on the road for so long, so many seasons. It’ll be good for us to have a normal life for awhile,” Hercules agreed.

Gabrielle mumbled and reached out for Xena. It registered after a moment that Xena wasn’t in bed next to her. The warrior bard sat up and realized there was movement and noises in the cabin that seemed out of place.

She jumped up and checked on Asher, asleep in a bed not far from theirs. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief as she took in his sleeping face, blonde hair falling over his forehead.

Gabrielle moved towards the sounds and frowned as she took in the sight of Xena and Hercules at an open door.

Xena’s sharp ears heard Gabrielle approaching, even on bare feet. “Gabrielle, quick!”

Gabrielle knelt down beside Xena as Hercules moved back into the cabin to light a lamp. The bard could see a figure lying in the doorway. All she could make out was that the figure wasn’t moving and was dressed in Northern clothing. Her Bacchae senses could smell fresh blood and quite a bit of it.

Xena’s hands were moving over the figure, seeking injuries and signs of life. Hercules returned with a light and Xena carefully turned the wounded figure over. She heard Gabrielle gasp as both of them recognized Hallvor, the Northern Viking of Gabrielle’s Black Forest Amazon tribe.

The woman was unconscious and badly beaten.

“Herc, help me get her inside,” Xena instructed. “Carefully, I don’t know where she’s hurt. Gabrielle, bar the door and set arrows and bows at the windows, just in case she was followed.”

“Right,” Gabrielle agreed and moved to grab her boots from the bedroom and then the weapons.

After finishing that she went to the table where they had laid Hallvor. She watched as Xena and Hercules cut leather lashes holding clothing together and fur in place and striped the Viking down to simple woolen tunic and trousers. Then Xena and Gabrielle both began examining the warrior as Hercules lit another lamp.

“Where’s Iolaus, Herc?” Gabrielle asked as she ran her hands over one of Hallvor’s legs.

“His arm and hand were hurting bad tonight so he took some herbs to help him sleep,” the demi-god answered.

“Change of weather coming, seeps into the bones as we get older,” Xena commented.

“Not for us,” Hercules muttered, once again reminded that he was probably going to watch his mate grow old and die while not age another day himself.

“We need to cut the rest of the clothing off,” Xena stated and Gabrielle agreed with a nod. “Herc, grab some blankets and put on some water for some tea. She’s awfully cold already.”

Once striped and in the light of two lamps, the Greeks were dismayed at the sight of their friend. Whoever had given her the beating had done it recently and they had been very serious in attempting to kill the warrior.

Xena began muttering. “Her legs aren’t broken but that ankle might be; the swelling is bad. Her ribs are cracked on the left side and her left forearm is broken, probably from fending off a blow. There’s a broken nose, bruised eyes along with that. A good lump on the right side of her head and she’s bleeding internally, that’s where the blood from her mouth and nose are coming from.”

“Can we do anything?” Gabrielle questioned, grabbing some of the water and a clean cloth, beginning to wipe away the road grime, battle dust and blood from the Viking. She also dapped at the fresh blood trickling from her friend’s mouth.

“Not much except splint the arm, wrap the ankle and hope she wakes up from the blow to the head,” Xena admitted.

“What about the bleeding?” Hercules asked. They had all seen too many deaths from bleeding on the inside. A warrior’s fear; wounds like that couldn’t be treated and could be fatal more times than not.

“Keep an eye on it and hope it doesn’t kill her before the head wound does,” Xena said grimly.

“Who or what could have done this?” Gabrielle growled.

“Human, the cuts are from a blade and the bruises from a blunt object, either the flat of a blade or a war hammer and fists. Maybe even some feet, that’s probably what caved in those ribs of hers,” Xena frowned.

“Had to be more than one,” Hercules commented. “Her necklace and bracers identify her as Viking and Amazon; they’re usually tough to take down.”

“She’s one of mine,” Gabrielle informed him. “This is Hallvor, a Viking who joined the Black Forest Amazons after leaving her tribe.”

“How did she find us?” Xena wondered aloud.

“Herc, could you keep an eye outside?” Gabrielle asked her best male friend. “She couldn’t have gotten far like this.”

“You bet.”

Xena began rummaging through Hallvor’s clothes while Gabrielle began bandaging the warrior’s wounds.

“What are you looking for?” Gabrielle asked.

“Maybe a message for you. She may have been on the way to find us,” Xena commented and Gabrielle looked thoughtful.

“Gods, why would anyone attack Hallvor?” she muttered.

“I don’t know,” Xena complained. “All we can do is wait and see if she has some answers.”

“I hate waiting with wounded friends,” the bard muttered back.

Dawn was finally turning the sky purple when Hallvor began to stir, slightly. Xena smiled somewhat in relief.

“I don’t think she’ll give into the concussion, now we just worry about the rest of her wounds,” she muttered and glanced up at the other two people in the room.

Gabrielle was putting water on for tea and Hercules was still watching outside the window, his head swaying with boredom and lack of sleep. They had been working hard with the last bit of the harvest before the first frost and had been hoping for a few days of rest when they found Hallvor on their doorstep.

Gabrielle walked over and watched Hallvor toss lightly in her wounded sleep.

“This is a good sign,” she commented.

“Yes,” Xena agreed, checking for fresh blood around the Viking’s mouth and nodded encouragingly when she didn’t find any.

“Any idea when she’ll wake up?” the bard asked, pulling the wool blanket tighter around her shoulders. Hercules had built up the fire but there was still a chill in the air.

“No, not really,” Xena frowned.

“We’ve got company and they’re not friendly,” Hercules announced, reaching for a bow next to the window.

“I’ll wake Iolaus to watch over Asher,” Gabrielle muttered, dashing towards the room he shared with Hercules.

Xena’s eyes narrowed as she moved up next to the demi-god.

A group of riders stopped just outside the tree line of their clearing. In front of them was a man with several hunting dogs, large wolfhounds that were howling and barking as they pulled at their leads.

The riders were obviously Northern by their clothes and weapons; Xena and Hercules quickly evaluated and counted ten riders and three on foot including the dog handler. They brandished mostly spears and swords among them and all carried shields.

“I don’t see any archers,” Hercules commented, grabbing his fur cloak.

“Hail the steading!” the lead rider stood up slightly in his stirrups and called to the cabin. Xena and Hercules quickly took closer note of him.

The Viking was probably as tall as Hercules with reddish blonde hair that reminded Xena of Gabrielle’s when they first began traveling. He had a thick but trimmed beard, much in Roman style and his hair was also shorter than most Vikings. He wore a wolf fur cloak held together with a gold cloak pin and his bracers were silver and gold. The hilt of his sword was also inlaid with gold and silver which caused Xena to frown.

“Prince, a Jarl,” she muttered and Hercules nodded as he opened the door, sword in hand.

Xena grabbed up the bow he left and notched an arrow as she felt Gabrielle re-enter the room and take up a position at the other window.

“Iolaus is watching the back, so far they haven’t split up and surrounded us,” the bard informed her mate.

“Good, so far they’re behaving.”

“Greetings,” Hercules said simply in Germanic.

“A blessing of the gods upon your home and kin,” the Jarl responded. “We seek an outlaw, one of the hated werserkers. The dogs have tracked her this far, have you seen a wounded woman traveling this way?”

“Oh gods, this is not good,” Gabrielle muttered, notching an arrow herself.

“We have taken in a wounded member of our family,” Hercules answered and wasn’t surprised when the Jarl looked stunned.

“Her former name was Hallvor, she travels under the name Jaeger,” the Jarl said flatly. “Her family is many winters dead.”

“Hallvor was adopted into an Amazon tribe, the tribe of my sister,” Hercules answered.

“Amazons?” the Jarl was clearly puzzled. “You’re Roman?”

“Greek, actually,” Hercules grinned. “Also Northern, adopted into the clan of Axel, of the family of Eddval Skull Splitter, Jarl of this region.”

“She was declared outlaw many spring seasons ago, you cannot offer her sanctuary,” the Jarl declared. “I don’t care if you have adopted her or not, it was after she was declared outlaw.”

“And who approaches my home without properly telling me his name and his lineage and wants respect from me?” Hercules demanded.

Xena pulled back slightly on the bowstring as the Jarl began blushing in anger.

“I am Jarl Svenkender, brother to the Jarl that Hallvor brutally killed and I haven’t heard your name or lineage, Greek,” Jarl Svenkender growled.

“I am Hercules among my people, here I am known as Herkavor the Strong,” Hercules responded, still with a smile but Xena knew from his voice that he was tense. “My mother was an honorable woman and my father is the mighty Zeus, God Supreme of Olympus.”

Xena grinned as most of the Vikings shifted uncomfortably. The Vikings weren’t accustomed to meeting demi-gods, Greek or otherwise.

“You cannot deny my family claim!” Jarl Svenkender snapped. “She is outlaw and cannot be granted safe keeping. Turn her out.”

Xena and Gabrielle could well imagine Hercules losing his smile.

“She is of my sister’s tribe,” Hercules stated firmly.

Gabrielle sighed and reached for the door.

“Gabrielle, Hallvor is my friend, let me,” Xena suggested.

“I’m the Queen, Xena,” Gabrielle said firmly. “She’s my responsibility and my family, just as much as Eponi or any of the others.”

Xena pulled back the bowstring as her mate stepped out onto the porch, the warrior’s eyes watching the Vikings closely for any sudden movements.

“I am Brie the Dancer,” Gabrielle announced. “I am Queen of the Black Forest Amazons and Jaeger is one of my tribe, she is under my protection in my home.”

“You have a warrior’s name for a small one,” Jarl Svenkender grinned a vicious smile.

“Many have made that mistake, they sang their death song while I wiped my blade free of their blood,” Gabrielle growled back and Xena’s eyebrows rose in amusement and surprise. She hadn’t expected her little bard to be able to taunt so well. Then again, Gabrielle was a bard first, the warrior part came later, Xena reflected.

Jarl Svenkender’s eyes narrowed in anger while his men laughed at the clever retort.

“My fight is not with you, small one,” the Jarl frowned. “Send out Hallvor and we’ll end this and be on our way.”

“Not with one of my Amazons,” Gabrielle said firmly and felt Hercules shifting on his feet next to her, ready to move forward or back into the cabin.

“You aren’t on Amazon land and I don’t recognize your rights, I will give you until sundown to decide,” Jarl Svenkender stated. “Then you risk war with my family and those families under mine.”

Xena relaxed her hold on the bow as the Vikings turned back to the forest once more. The warrior turned back to the inside of the cabin at a growl and she was surprised to see Hallvor half sitting up watching her. The warrior quickly crossed the room and began examining the wounded Amazon as Hallvor collapsed back onto the furs.

Xena heard Gabrielle and Hercules enter and gather close.

“I heard,” Hallvor muttered.

“Quiet,” Xena ordered and continued feeling along the Viking’s body now that Hallvor was awake and could tell her where it hurt, it made examining her easier but more painful for the Amazon.

After a moment Xena straightened up a bit.

“The internal bleeding has stopped and she’ll live. With those ribs bound tightly, it may help the lung heal,” Xena announced, helping Hallvor sit up a little to slowly drink some water. “You won’t be doing any running or riding for awhile, though.”

“Nein,” Hallvor agreed and glanced at Gabrielle. “My Queen, I’m sorry for bringing them here. I thought I had lost them in the river two days ago.”

“How long have you been traveling with these wounds?” Gabrielle questioned closely.

“I don’t know anymore,” Hallvor admitted. “I was in the north selling some of the harvest of the wild berries in our forest and some of the summer hides for grain, and bringing you news of Reija. Somehow Sven recognized me and set his men and dogs on me.”

“He must have been just a boy when that happened!” Xena growled. Like Xena, Gabrielle and Hercules, Hallvor didn’t look her age. To outsiders she looked barely twenty summers old, in reality she was closer to double that. It seemed that the werserker wolf blood in her slowed her aging process down while their immortality status stopped the aging of the Greeks.

“He was barely 10 summers old when I was to marry his brother, but he remembered and hates me,” Hallvor agreed.

“Gods, that was so long ago!” Gabrielle complained. “I wasn’t much older than Svenkender.”

Xena smirked at being reminded that she was older than Gabrielle.

“What about Reija?” Gabrielle demanded.

“She’s healing well,” Hallvor responded. “She still won’t use that leg again but she’s planning on going out in the Spring with one of our Sister Amazons and look for Kiryk.”

“Where will she look?” Xena frowned. “We don’t have a clue where to look for him.”

“Reija plans to just start looking, she doesn’t really have a plan,” Hallvor answered.

“Knowing Callisto’s warped way of thinking, he could be anywhere,” Gabrielle complained. “How will she know him if it takes months to find him?”

“She told me about a birthmark just under his left ear, almost like a star,” Hallovr muttered.

Both Xena and Gabrielle nodded.

“Why the hell is this Jarl so bent on revenge for something that happened when he was so young?” Gabrielle complained, bringing the conversation back to the original subject.

Xena reflected that it was probably closer to twenty five summers when she had been traveling in the North and had found a wounded Viking woman outside a small town fort. She had cared for the Viking and discovered that the woman, Hallvor, had been outcast by her tribe and declared an outlaw.

The warrior looked over and saw Hallvor closing her eyes, her jaw tight with pain.

“Gabrielle, make up some of that tea with the sleeping powder, she needs more sleep to heal from this,” Xena instructed and the Queen of the Amazons moved back to the fire.

“I’m going to say good morning to Iolaus and Asher,” Hercules declared, leaving the warrior to watch over the wounded Amazon.

Gabrielle said down and reflected back on what the young looking Viking Amazon told them before about her past. Hallvor had married the minor local Jarl out of duty to family and people. It was expected to marry, produce children and provide a safe and good home by both parties. It wasn’t uncommon to be attracted to others outside the marriage and it was up to the married couple to decide how to handle it. Most times husbands had servants or close male friends for companionship and relied on their wives to fulfill marital duty, not necessarily to provide love to the marriage. It wasn’t uncommon for the wife to have close female friends, servants or even to be allowed a close male friend as long as duty to house and marriage came first.

Hallvor had been what was known among the Vikings as a Shield Maiden, a female warrior chosen by Odin, the AllFather of the Norse gods. She was also known as a werserker, a warrior seized with battle madness from the god. Insane and deadly in a battle.

Knowing Hallvor was in love with his sister and attracted to her more than himself hadn’t been allowed though and the Jarl turned out to be very jealous. The night before the wedding he had found them together and killed his own sister and then attempted to rape the young Hallvor.

It was then everyone discovered that Hallvor was a full werserker, cursed and gifted by the god Odin with the ability to change into a mixture of wolf and human. Cursed and blessed with superhuman strength, battle insanity that made her almost immune to wounds at the time, and a desire to kill when in wolf-human form. Watching her lover die and being attacked and sexually assaulted had caused Hallvor’s mind to snap like it never had before. She changed into wolf-human form and ripped the Jarl to shreds.

Because the Jarl had killed his own kin and had attempted to rape the young female warrior, Hallvor was spared a death sentence for killing the Jarl. She was declared an outlaw and banished by her tribe, family and the Viking people. An outlaw could claim no friend among the Vikings, could only be offered minimal shelter in deep winter for a span of half a turn of the moon – one dark to full moon or full to dark (what would later be known as two weeks). Hallvor could own no property and marry no Viking and could be killed by any Viking without fear of reprisal.

As she was driven from the gates, the new Jarl grabbed a war hammer and shattered the woman’s lower spine and dragged her outside the gates. Having been declared an outlaw, no one offered to help her, not even her own family and the Viking warrior crawled to a nearby stream to die.

That was when Xena found her.

“You should have let me die those years ago,” Hallvor muttered as Gabrielle approached them.

“You reading my mind, Hall?” Xena asked softly, taking the mug from her mate and grabbing a quick hug.

“Easy, your eyes lost in memories,” Hallvor mumbled.

“I wronged you then,” Xena admitted. “Not by saving your life but what came later. The sentence against you was unjust, Hall.”

“Doesn’t matter now, does it?” the Viking growled. “I won’t let you fight this battle for me, neither you nor Gabrielle.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Gabrielle smiled a rueful smile. “You can’t even stand up and I won’t turn over one of my Amazons to an unjust death.”

Any protests Hallvor might have had were cut short at the sound of a delighted laugh coming from the hallway to the bedrooms. The bard turned with a large grin and knelt to grab Asher as he dashed from the hall into her arms and then bounded into Xena’s.

Gabrielle smiled at the surprised look on Hallvor’s face as the Viking drank the tea.

“He’s ours,” Gabrielle answered the unspoken question and refused to go into it further as Xena tickled their son. Asher giggled and looked down at their wounded visitor.

“This is Hallvor, she’s a friend of ours,” Xena said as she saw the boy watching the Viking. “She’s not feeling well so you can’t climb all over her, okay?”

The boy nodded and waved at the Amazon and Hallvor smiled into his blue-green eyes. Gabrielle grinned and grabbed the boy up as he squealed and laughed.

“Breakfast, you big oaf!” she declared as they moved towards the food storage.

Hercules and Iolaus were both smiling as they watched the bard manage to hold onto a laughing and struggling child and begin gathering things for breakfast.

Iolaus joined Xena and their visitor while Hercules went to the window and checked the surrounding area.

“He looks like Gabrielle but has your smile?” Hallvor questioned.

“He’s both of ours,” Xena smiled, watching her mate and son. “He is a gift from the gods of the Northern Amazons.”

“I give thanks to them,” Hallvor said formally. “You both look happy.”

“Yes and don’t worry about upsetting that,” Xena warned. “You’re a friend, Hall, and we take care of our friends.”

“I’m Iolaus and the big guy is Hercules,” Iolaus grinned.

“This is Hallvor, from Gabrielle’s tribe,” Xena introduced her friends.

“Herc told me what was going on, sort of,” Iolaus sat down in front of the fire and Xena noticed him unconsciously rubbing his crippled arm and hand, trying to rub the pain away.

“Let’s have some breakfast and see if we can figure a way out of this,” Xena suggested.

Two candle-marks later and none of them had come up with any answers.

Gabrielle rubbed a hand over her forehead and eyes in frustration.

“I can’t see where we can merge Viking law and Amazon law and satisfy everyone,” she complained.

“Neither can I,” Xena mumbled, gently rocking Asher as the boy played with her hair. “If we refuse Svenkender then we risk eventually dragging both provinces into a blood feud.”

“At the very least we’ll have to take on at least five Viking families,” Hercules commented. “Not good odds.”

“I’m not turning Hallvor over!” Gabrielle growled.

“You don’t have a choice!” the Viking snapped from her position near the fire. “I’m not going to endanger you and your child, my Queen.”

“There has to be a way!” Gabrielle complained. “Why is he pursuing this?”

“Because he thought I was dead and I know the truth about him,” Hallvor responded.

“And what would that be?” Xena asked as Asher grew restless and crawled down out of his Xena Mom’s lap.

“He has built a reputation as a warrior by claiming he fought me and captured me the night I killed his older brother,” Hallvor explained.

“What?” Xenas eyebrows went up in surprise. “You didn’t mention that in all these years.”

“That’s because it didn’t happen,” Hallvor grinned ruefully. “He was about 13 Spring seasons that night and he was the first through the door. Sven took one look at me in werserker form and ran screaming into the dark.”

“So he’s been telling everyone that he challenged and captured you that night?” Iolaus asked and the Viking nodded.

“He’s in a panic,” Xena said grimly. “With Hallvor alive, she can dispute his reputation and courage.”

“Why would he worry though?” Gabrielle asked thoughtfully. “That was so long ago and Hallvor has been declared an outlaw. His word will be taken over hers.”

“Officially by everyone but the doubt would be there and he’d be vulnerable to challenges,” Hercules explained.

“So it comes back to what do we do about him?” Gabrielle asked.

“Tell him no and stand against him,” Xena volunteered.

“We can’t go to war with a Jarl, it would drag Eddval and Axel into it,” Hercules frowned.

“Hallvor is family. We’re not turning her over!” Gabrielle growled.

“I suggest we start getting supplies inside in case we have to stand him off,” Xena said and everyone except Hallvor nodded.

“Xena,” the Viking began but the warrior shook her head.

“No, we won’t even consider turning you over,” Xena growled and Hallvor knew that stubborn look on the warrior’s face.

There would be no arguing with Xena at that point or her even more or as stubborn Queen.

The day was spent gathering supplies into the house: food stock and especially water. Everyone was more quiet than usual, each lost in their own thoughts of trying to solve the problem of what to do about Sven’s demands.

Hallvor was able to sit up close to dusk and attempted to convince Xena to send her out according to Jarl Sven’s demands but neither Xena nor Gabrielle would hear of it.

The Greeks stood on the porch watching the sun setting lower on the horizon. Inside the door and along the few windows in the cabin were stockpiled weapons. They were also very well armed as they watched the tree line for any sign of Jarl Svenkender.

“Xena, I think I’ve figured something that might work,” Gabrielle said softly, watching the sun and listening for movement in the woods.

“I’m all ears, Little One,” Xena said agreeably, wrapping an arm around her smaller mate.

“Hercules said that if everyone knew the truth about Jarl Sven then he’d be vulnerable to challenges,” Gabrielle began. “What kind of challenges?”

Xena frowned. “Challenges to his manhood, his courage, his right to lead. A challenge means a fight, a duel.”

“Then why not settle that way?” Gabrielle asked. “I challenge him to a duel, calling his courage into doubt. I win; he goes away like a beaten puppy and leaves Hallvor alone. We get her back to the tribe and to safety before the winter snow.”

“It might work, she has the right to challenge him as leader of the Amazons,” Hercules said thoughtfully.

“Then I’ll challenge him as her Champion,” Xena declared firmly.

“The Vikings might not recognize a Champion stand-in,” Hercules warned. “Especially you, Xena. Your reputation as a warrior is very well known in the North. Jarl Svenkender can refuse.”

“He’s right,” Iolaus agreed. “The Vikings are used to everyone doing their own fighting, that’s why the challenges exist in the first place. It might have to be Gabrielle.”

“Damnit!” Xena growled, “no, no way. We’ll stand and fight him rather than risk that.”

“Xena, it’s my right as her Queen,” Gabrielle argued.

“And my right as your mate to beg you not to risk this,” Xena snapped. “Think of Asher and me, we can’t lose you!”

“You won’t,” Gabrielle said firmly, her face determined but the eyes loving.

“Think about it Gabrielle,” Hercules warned. “Just because he made his reputation on a lie doesn’t mean that he can’t fight. He didn’t get to be Jarl just by talking.”

“I know that and I didn’t earn my freedom from the Arena with talk either,” she snapped.

Xena was about to continue the argument when movement caught their eyes and the Greeks waited patiently as Jarl Sven and his men rode out of the trees and into the clearing. Neither the Greeks or Vikings had drawn weapons but hands rested on sword hilts on both sides.

“I have given you the day to consider your actions,” Jarl Sven began. “What is your decision?”

Gabrielle was about to respond when Xena vaulted over the railing of the porch and placed her hands on her hips.

“I don’t recognize your right to demand anything on my land,” the warrior said firmly. “It is known in this household that you were a coward as a boy and I claim you are less of a man now.”

Jarl Sven’s light complexion face turned an extreme color somewhere between purple and red. His men shifted uneasily on their horses.

“You dare question my courage!” he finally sputtered.

“That’s why you’re chasing a long dead issue,” Xena continued. “Hallvor wanted nothing to do with you and your family; she’s moved on past that night and doesn’t talk about it. Your family name never even gets mentioned, Sven.”

“She’s outlaw and cannot be granted protection!” he yelled angrily.

“She’s also an Amazon and I am the Champion of the Amazon tribe by my marriage to their Queen,” Xena countered. “You beat her almost to death and chased her to finish the job because she might say that a small boy ran like a frightened rabbit at the sight of a werserker in wolf form.”

Jarl Sven resisted looking around at his men but could hear their mutterings and their horses continued to shift, sensing their owners’ discomfort. The Greeks knew by their reaction that Hallvor had been right. Jarl Sven had built his reputation on the lie that he had faced her down as a werserker when he was but a small boy.

“Hallvor lies, what do you expect from a wolfshead outlaw?” he spat.

“She is a werserker, called on by AllFather Odin himself as one of his warriors,” Gabrielle countered. “She’s willing to take a blood oath in Odin’s and Tyr’s names as to the truth of her statemen