Once they entered the woods, Gabrielle took the lead, racing along the dark forest path as fleet as a deer. She had memorized the way back to Jet and ran effortlessly, having noted previously the hanging branches, and groping roots. She was able to put even more distance between herself and her friends, and their pursuers. Suddenly, even as they neared the place where Jet was concealed, Gabrielle heard a familiar sound.... " Ai YI YI YI YI....cheeeyaw!" bounced off the tree trunks, echoing in her head. "Xena"...She hissed, knowing her friend had run amok among the soldiers of Atrius. She began to slow, looking back over her shoulder, just as Sera swerved off to the left and headed back towards the sound of fighting. "Sera!" She shouted, then turned herself and passing a startled and confused Gar, raced back the way they had come.
Gar stood looking at her for a moment, then shrugged and loped after her. Gabrielle entered a small clearing, washed in moonlight to find Xena and Sera, back to back and hacking away at the soldiers surrounding them. Xena leapt up and kicked two men in the head, both spun away unconscious, as Sera used the flat of her sword blade and slapped another into the following week. Using a sweeping back hand, Xena's sword cut through one soldier and on the follow through took the legs out from under another.
Gabrielle waded into the fray, she noticed one man break off from the group, but she was in the process of defending herself and didn't see that he had removed a bow from his back. It wasn't until she heard Sera shout, "Xena! Look out!" that she turned to watch in amazement, as Sera hurled her sword and batted away an arrow that otherwise would have taken Xena in the throat.
The warrior princess did not even pause for a second, her blade flashing in the moonlight, rising and falling like the tide, until only four soldiers remained. Sera had recovered her sword and the four of them advanced on the guards. They held their ground for only a moment, before they turned and fled back towards the encampment. "Is everyone all right?" The warrior asked, her glance skipping from one flushed perspiring face, to the other, waiting until each nodded before moving on. Lastly, her gaze fell upon Gabrielle, who winced at the barely controlled anger she saw in her friend's eyes.
"Xena..." She began, reaching out towards her, "Please...try and understand my motives and not the action...Xena?...Xena?! Are you all right? " Gabrielle's voice rose an octave in concern and she leaned closer to the warrior, peering into her face worriedly.
Xena answered by sweeping the bard into a fierce hug and whispering in her ear, "If you ever do that to me again....Gabrielle, I swear I'm going to..." She squeezed harder and Gabrielle felt her shaking with some suppressed emotion. Gabby eased her arms around her friend, and hugged her back, "You'll what ? ..."
"I'll whack you with your own staff," came the fierce reply, muffled by the bards hair.
"Then I guess I had better reconsider my options.." She said against the warrior's neck.
"That would be advisable." Came the dry reply.
Xena pulled out of the embrace, all business again, her face stony even in the dim light. "Gabrielle, I want you and Sera to take the horses and go back to camp." She paused, expecting an argument, but apparently Gabrielle felt she had already pushed the boundaries tonight and prudently nodded her acquiescence. Xena arched one shapely brow and inclined her head in sardonic amusement, "Gar and I are going to pay a visit to Atrius. Your little escapade has created a neat distraction that I can take advantage of." Her gaze softened as she saw Gabrielle fighting her tongue for supremacy, she so wanted to argue...but to her credit, she simply nodded again, her eyes downcast.
Xena placed warm hands on Gabby's shoulders and smiled when her friend looked up. "We shouldn't be more than two hours behind you, so be ready to break camp when we get back." She glanced at the stirring encampment, hearing voices raised in alarm and seeing men moving industriously in the flickering firelight. She gave a tight smile that didn't reach her eyes. "We're going to have a little chat with Atrius and then give his army a hot foot... chances are they'll be on our trail when we show up, so be ready to move..."
"OK." Gabrielle said meekly, though she clearly didn't like this plan one bit. "Be careful..." She whispered, "Please?"
Xena leaned against her for a moment, their foreheads touching, she smiled gently, her eyes infused with affection, "Don't worry my bard..." She whispered back, "You haven't heard the last of this..."
Bravely Gabrielle met her gaze and gave her a tremulous smile, "I was afraid of that."
"Now..." The warrior straightened, "Get going." She turned towards Sera, hesitated her face serious then said, "Thank you Sera... look out for her." She gestured at Gabrielle. Seras' face split into a huge grin at the warriors use of her shortened name.
Her eyes glistening with unshed tears, she nodded and replied, "You're welcome Xena. And rest assured...I will look out for your lady."
Gabrielle rode Argo and Sera took Jet as their mounts for their return trip to the camp. Gabrielle was mostly silent, mulling over the events of the past couple of hours and ruing the next few. She knew that once Xena got over being scared for her friend, she was going to be angry...probably really angry. It was not going to be pretty when Xena finally got the bard to herself and was able to vent that anger. But it wasn't as if she hadn't been expecting it or that she didn't deserve it, because she did. Well, she gave herself a mental shake. I'll just have to endure. She glanced over at Sera, who had been equally quiet, but for far different reasons.
Sera had watched Gabrielle throughout the ride, surreptitiously of course. It would not do to give away her feelings now...not when it was so apparent what Gabrielle's feelings for the warrior were. But still, she couldn't help the emotions surging through her. She opened her mouth to say something, then decided against it, snapping her jaw shut in irritation. "Come on Sera." She chided herself, how hard can it be?...
They had slowed the horses to a walk and were ambling along, each deep in their own thoughts. Finally Sera couldn't hold her piece any longer. "Gabrielle?" Her voice was unsteady, but she went on anyway, "Thank you for coming after us..."
Gabrielle gave her a quizzical look and replied, "Ummm, you're welcome. But you knew we would come...didn't you?"
"I hoped you would." She hedged, "But I really didn't expect you to risk your life for us...I mean...after all..." She trailed off, not sure what it was she was trying to say.
Gabrielle smiled slightly, thinking about all the times she had been rescued... all the times she had been the rescuer. She shrugged diffidently, "Comes with the territory." She replied blandly, "That's what friends do for one another."
Sera dropped her gaze, her eyes aching with tears she did not dare shed. "Then I guess I've never really had a friend before..."
"Until now." Was Gabrielle's reply.
Sera nodded, a ghost smile riding her lips as she glanced back at Gabrielle, "Yes... until now."
Gabrielle drew Argo to a stop and turned in the saddle to face Sera squarely. Her eyes were hooded. Her voice was so soft that Sera had to strain to hear her, "Sera...Thank you for saving her life back there..I...You can't know....umm..." She lifted her face and Sera could see the tears that streaked it.
Sera side stepped Jet so that she was brushing thighs with Gabrielle, they were so close. She reached out and took Gabrielle's hand and drawing it to her cheek, she closed her eyes to savor the contact. She whispered, "I love you Gabrielle...that's what friends do for one another."
"No Sera...You don't understand...She isn't just my best friend...I...I love her. And the thought of losing her?...But even that isn't the point...." Her voice caught on a sob and tears began an earnest trek down her cheeks. "She told me this would happen you see...That arrow never should have gotten any where near her. She was distracted.... By me, and it almost cost her her life. I...she...oh Hades!" Gabrielle's voice broke and she buried her face in her hands. "What have I done?" She wailed the silent question deep in her heart. Xena had been right, as usual.
Sera sat motionless for a moment, then reached out and stroked her new friend's hair tenderly. "You love her?....Reallyyyyy?" She drawled sardonically, making Gabrielle smile through her tears. "Gee...That's news to me.... Look Gabrielle, in the dark, in a battle with that many people, it's very easy to overlook one man. That is why you count on your friends to watch your back. It really is what friends do. Xena probably heard that arrow leave the bow anyway, but I just intercepted it, saving her the trouble. Gabrielle?"
She waited until the bard made eye contact before she continued. "See here, Gabrielle." She began using a stern, but humorous tone, "I know love and devotion when I see it. And while she is not demonstrative, your warrior's eyes tell all. Never in my life have I seen such love mirrored in any eyes. Gabrielle....She would not be parted from you under any circumstances, regardless of your feelings for her. She is driven by her love for you, inspired by it. If you were to leave her today in anger, she would follow at a distance. You would never know she was there, but she would watch over you the rest of your life. She needs you, even more than you need her. You are her compass, her true north. You might as well accept the fact that you will, at some point in your lives, be a witness to her death, or her to yours, because you will be together through eternity. Even the Gods cannot reshape your destiny, because your love is the greater power." Sera paused and gazed sadly into Gabrielle's eyes, hearing the truth in her own words. She dropped her gaze self consciously and cleared her throat with embarrassment. "Anyway." She finished with a sigh, "That is just an objective observation from an outsider.... And my opinion."
She lifted a grateful gaze when Gabrielle responded, "Not an outsider anymore." Gabrielle looked away, wiping the tears from her face determinedly, drawing herself up regaining her composure. When she met Sera's gaze again, she wore a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes, but she was making an effort. "Thank you again Sera. You are our friend now, I hope you know that?"
Sera nodded and grinned with real pleasure, which finally Gabrielle echoed, "Come on," she sighed, "We have work to do.... And I'm already in enough trouble for one day."
"Better you than me." Teased Sera dryly.
Gabrielle chuckled, her eyes reflecting moonlit humor, "You're right about that."
In tandem, they urged their horses into a trot as the sun began to color the sky and they drew closer to the hidden campsite.
Xena watched pensively, until the two young women were out of sight then she turned back to Gar briskly. "I scouted a way into Atrius' tent... Follow me." She bent low against the brush and slipped along the path almost in complete silence. Her darkness blended with the shadows and she moved with the grace of a cat. Gar hunched as far as he comfortably could and tried to keep up with her.
Gar picked up his pace as Xena neared the edge of the forest. They had circled around through the trees until they were behind the tents. Xena noted with satisfaction, the chaos within the encampment. "Same old Atrius." She muttered with a dark smile. "No guards at the perimeter and anarchy within the ranks... He's going to make my job much easier." She grinned at Gar in the dark and caused a shiver to run up his back. Her smile was feral and menacing and he was glad it wasn't meant for him.
They eased around until they were directly behind Atrius's tent. Xena slipped up next to the canvas and cocked her ear trying to hear what was going on inside. She removed her dagger from its sheath silently and slit a small hole in the cloth.
She waggled her brows at her silent companion and nodded, "He's inside, the arrogant bastard." She whispered, "It's time to say hello. You keep watch out here." She gave him an appraising look, "Can you whistle?" He nodded affirmatively, "Then do so if it looks like I'm going to be interrupted." She flashed him another tight smile, "See you in a few minutes." With that she edged around the tent to the darkest side and using her dagger made an entrance.
Atrius was an ugly man. His head was too large for his scrawny neck and wobbled from side to side when he talked. His face was a road map of scars and badly healed wounds. An ear was missing, as were several teeth and his nose was permanently bent to the left. He was huge... Maybe twenty stones and it was all muscle, but he was ungainly and awkward, with no discernible grace. He moved like a bull and with her agility, Xena was sure he was no match for her.
Xena unclipped her chakram from her waist since it was a much quieter weapon than the sword and she inched forward until she stood like a shadow over Atrius's shoulder.
On his lap were several maps, many of which had charcoal lines drawn on them. His weak strategies, she supposed. Atrius had never been one for subtlety, he tended to just charge in and kill at random, having no conscience. Xena despised him, mostly because she could see her past self in him, in his ruthlessness. Because at the height of her career as a warlord, Atrius couldn't hold a candle to her. She held the chakram loosely in her hand, but ready and said pleasantly, "Hello Atrius. It's been a long time... But not long enough."The head swivelled slowly, the lank dark hair falling across eyes the color of a healing bruise. He did not seem surprised to see her, which gave her a feeling of intense apprehension, but she continued on calmly, belaying her fears. "What's the matter Atrius? Aren't you glad to see me?"
His mouth smiled, revealing gaps and broken stumps and an obscenely pink tongue, which flicked out like a serpent's and moistened his lips. "I was wondering where you were Xena." He glanced down nonchalantly at his grimy fingernails, "I had expected you much sooner... But better late than never. Did you get held up saving some other useless peasant lives? That is soooo time consuming.... I say, kill them all and let the Gods sort through them."
Xena eyed him with distaste and replied, "Yes Atrius... Your compassion is legendary."
He grinned, saliva drooling onto his lower lip, "Almost as legendary as my ambition."
Xena's lip curled with revulsion and she favored him with one of her steeliest looks. "Well... Enough pleasantries. I am sure that reasoning with you is going to be a lesson in futility, so I'm just going to be blunt." She smiled coldly, her face giving away none of the doubt that had begun to insinuate itself into her thoughts. He is too casual, she thought pensively. He's got some sort of trap set... But what? "I want you to pack up this rabble you call an army and go back to Sumeria or whatever rock you crawled out from under. I will give you six candlemarks."
He cocked a scruffy eyebrow, an arrogant smile on his thin lips, "Or what Xena?... You and your 'army' of little girls will best my 'rabble'?"
She tried hard not to let her fear betray her, but Atrius could smell his advantage and he pressed it. He stood slowly, his hands clasped behind his back and turned to face her, all humor gone. "Oh yes Xena.... Your little friends may have escaped the village... But they have a little surprise waiting for them back at your camp. You see." He turned his back on her in supreme confidence, heightening her fear for Gabrielle even more. "That poor villager you rescued on the roadway... Well..." He smiled coyly, "His name is Atamus... He's my son and second in command." He grinned again, seeing the comprehension dawning on her. "Were he not such a convincing spy, he could have turned his hand to acting. Wouldn't you agree?" He walked away from her casually, "At this moment he is marching your little band of 'do-gooders' back here." He turned back to her, his little pig eyes glittering with malice, "Then... We will have a little fun, as you watch your friends die. If you're a very good little warrior princess, perhaps I'll even share some of that tender young flesh with you...."
That was all Xena would listen to. She drew her sword with a resounding ring. Perhaps killing him outright was not such a great idea and she was probably going to regret this decision later, but she certainly wasn't going to stand here passively, with the image of this monster carving up her friends, taunting her. She sprang forward, her battle cry filling the tent with fury. He was ready for her though. From the back of the chair, he smoothly drew his blade from its scabbard and danced out of reach. "One shout from me Xena and an archer loosens a flaming arrow into the sky, dooming your friends to instant death. You might want to consider that."
He laughed then, a sound that grated along her sensitive nerves, but she simply smiled, tightening her grip on the hilt of her sword, "As always Atrius, you have overestimated your cleverness. My friends can take care of themselves. You don't really think a warrior of my ability, would travel with any thing less...do you? YOU might want to consider that."
Before he could even grasp the implication, she was on him. Their swords met ringing in the air above their heads. Xena slashing and spinning. She had judged him correctly, he had always been slow, but the years had weakened him further. She was stronger now, lithe and supple and she easily evaded his clumsy attempts to close with her. She flicked at him with the tip of her sword, opening a cut below his right eye, drawing first blood. He howled in rage and lunged at her. Part of her wanted to delay the kill, to punish him, draw out his pain. But the part of her that was filled with Gabrielle and tutored by her compassion, won out.
She spun and thrust backward burying her sword to the hilt in his gut killing him instantly. For a second she worried that she showed him no mercy, but the pile of human bones beneath the littered eating table, banished that thought immediately. She withdrew her blade and wiped it casually on the corpse. Turning she caught Gar with his eye pressed to the slit in the canvas. It was large, round and unblinking. She beckoned to him and he appeared inside the tent through the hastily enlarged opening she had made previously. She sheathed her sword, whispering urgently, "Sera and Gabrielle may be in trouble, we have to get to them as soon as possible. Which means..." She moved the tent flap cautiously, peering out into the encampment beyond, "We have to get out of here without drawing a lot of attention to ourselves or the fact that I just squished their venerable leader like a bug." She grinned wickedly, no remorse at all in her manner. "Once his men find out he's dead and who killed him, we're in for a Hades of a fight. Unless...." She paused, her face thoughtful.
Gabrielle and Misera entered the campsite, perhaps not as cautiously as would have been prudent. Neither of them noticed anything amiss, except that the injured man Donecles, was not at the fire. Gabrielle assumed that he was off in the bushes somewhere, taking care of business. She thought briefly, that it was a good thing that he was up and around already, as they might need his help.
They dismounted under the trees and pulled the saddles off the horses to give them a much needed rest. They were still deep in conversation, when the twelve hidden men stepped out from their concealment.
Misera reacted immediately. All of the men held swords or spears and they completely surrounded the two women, but Sera quickly bent and pulled her throwing knives from her boot tops. Instantly, two men fell with daggers in their throats, as Gabrielle, not to be outdone, threw herself at a cluster of four men, her staff a blur of motion. She dropped three before the other seven began to close on them.
The two pint size warriors stood back to back, Gabrielle with her staff and Sera with the sword she had retrieved from the village. Two more men went down. But they were tiring and the remaining men circled them, spears jabbing, swords cutting the still morning air.
"If you have any bright ideas Gabrielle." Sera wheezed breathlessly, "Now would be a good time to implement them."
Taking a swipe at one of the soldiers who shuffled within range, Gabrielle hissed back through clenched teeth, "I'm working on it...I'm working on it."
Suddenly an idea came to her, clenched teeth...That's' IT! She let out a shrill whistle, hoping that Argo, for once in her contentious life, would respond.
The golden mare's head shot up and she reached forward grasping the tied reins in her teeth and pulled the knot loose. She turned to Jet, bobbed her head a couple of times and nickered. Jet bobbed her head in answer and Argo pulled her reins free as well. Both mares, the light and the dark, turned as one and plunged into circle of men surrounding their friends.
Argo butted one man in the back, sending him careening into Misera's sword. That left four. Jet plowed through the line and as soon as she cleared them, began kicking with both hind legs, her hooves thudding dully into the chest of one man and clipping the chin of another.
By this time the soldiers had enough and the two that remained in relatively good condition, helped up those of their fallen comrades who could walk and faded back into the trees.
Watching them go, Gabrielle and Misera leaned against one another, breathing hard and trying not to fall down. Gabrielle beckoned to Argo and the war-horse approached slowly. The bard reached out and gently stroked the mare's nose, "First chance I get Argo, I'm going to compose a scroll dedicated to you...'The ballad of Argo', I'll call it. I owe you a big one girl..." She whispered, tears standing unshed in her eyes. The mare nickered softly and nuzzled the front of Gabrielle's shirt affectionately. Gabrielle glanced sideways at Misera and grinned, the younger girl grinned back then began to chuckle. "Who needs tea in the morning, when a good ambush wakes you up just as effectively." She sobered quickly, "What are we going to do now Gabrielle? Those were Atrius's men, so obviously they know we are here. Which means they also knew about Xena...which means...."
Gabrielle had ceased to listen to Sera as her eyes wandered the camp, looking for... "Where is Donecles?...." She mused absently, then her eyes widened and she glanced at Sera, her words just registering, "Xena!" She whispered, her voice a terrified squeak. "By the God's... It was a trap for her. They knew!...."
Sera placed a calming hand on the bards shoulder and said firmly, "Easy now Gabrielle... You know the 'fierce one'. She can smell a trap downwind for twenty leagues... She can take care of herself."
"Against an army Sera?..." Gabrielle hissed angrily, her eyes bright with it.
Sera stood silent for a moment, then her face split into a menacing smile, her eyes glittered with danger and she replied, "With a little help from her friends..."
Gratefully Gabrielle put her hand over Sera's, where it rested on the hilt of her sword and she smiled with genuine warmth, "Well, come on then friend. It's the bard and archer to the rescue."
They had finished packing up and were about to mount, when Sera hesitantly touched Gabrielle's arm. Gabrielle turned from Argo, a little impatiently and faced her, "Sera?... What..?"
It took a second for Sera to screw up enough courage to look Gabrielle in the eye and when she did, she almost backed down. The frustration that etched her features, told of Gabrielle's inner turmoil and her desire to reach her friend in time to help her.
The worry and fear in her eyes made Sera momentarily reconsider, but in the end she lifted her eyes and followed her heart. "I'm sorry Gabrielle... I know you're impatient to get to Xena... But...I...ummm, I wanted to give you something for luck." She smiled then, her eyes searching Gabby's uncertainly, "My father once told me that a gift, should mean more to the giver than to the person who receives it. That it should hold a place of esteem or the idea of a "gift" is wasted. He said, if the receiver is someone you love, who loves you in return they will see the value of your gift, regardless of its intrinsic value and will cherish it. I believed him then...." Her smile softened with sadness, "And I still believe him. So in that spirit..." She reached out and took Gabrielle's hand and pressed her fathers' coin into the palm, curling the fingers back over it firmly.
Gabrielle searched her new friend's face about to object, but in light of Sera's attitude, kept her peace and accepted gracefully. "What a beautiful gesture, Sera... I will treasure it." She smiled tenderly and stroked the younger girls face with real affection. "Thank you."
Sera ducked her head, averting her eyes and tried unsuccessfully to be nonchalant as she wiped the tears from her face with the sleeve of her tunic. "All right." She sniffled, but smiled as she did, "Lets' go save the day... Shall we?"
Gabrielle nodded, but did not return Seras' smile. Her eyes had gone flinty and her voice grated, "Yes...we shall."
Xena and Gar had placed Atrius back in his chair, arranging his maps in his lap, just as Xena had found him. "With a little luck," said the warrior, "They won't find him until we are well down the road." Gar nodded skeptically, then shrugged... He certainly hadn't any better ideas and so far the warrior princess had kept their skins whole. He saw no reason to doubt her now. "Lets' get the Hades out of here, while we still can." Xena said, moving to the opening at the side of the tent. She slipped out and paused in a crouch to survey the encampment. Men were already formed into ranks, officers striding up and down the lines barking orders. A detachment had been sent up the hill and they were approaching Atrius's tent.
Xena and Gar faded back into the trees, even as dawn broke above the clearing. They stopped under the forest's draping darkness and watched as the soldiers hesitated outside the tent, apparently arguing about who was going to enter and incur their leaders' legendary wrath. Finally, one man stepped away from the group and entered the tent resignedly. He was only gone a few seconds, when he returned. From his gestures and the raised voices, Xena knew their ruse had not held up long enough.
She signaled to Gar to follow her, but as she turned to leave, she noticed a group of people huddled together inside a corral. There were several men, but most were women and children. She had not noticed them before, under the cover of darkness, but now that she had seen them, she couldn't leave them in the hands of these cutthroats. Atrius might be dead, but his evil lived on in his army. Besides, Atrius's son Atamus might still be alive and when he found out about his father's death, he would slaughter the villagers just to taunt the warrior. She wasn't going to let that happen. "Gar." She turned to the mute giant, her eyes pleading for his cooperation. Her heart was torn, she knew she had a responsibility to these people. She had killed Atrius and had brought the vengeance of his son and army down on them. She could not... Would not desert them. But....Gabrielle?... She was so worried for her friend, so frightened of losing her...Again.
Her face twisted in frustration, "Gar...I have to do something about those villagers before they massacre them in retribution. But...Gar...Misera and Gabrielle..." She paused and swallowed thickly, her fear rising like bile in her throat, "Please? They might be hurt or... Can you?... Will you go? Please?" Her voice was hollow like an ache and it brought tears to his eyes. He gazed at the warrior princess for a moment, thinking about the wife he had left behind, that she had worn that same look the day he left. That look of fear. He simply nodded in response and turned to go. She stopped him with a hand on his arm and when he turned, she whispered, "Keep her safe?" He smiled at her then and patted her hand with one of his own, giving her a thumbs up, he faded off into the forest like a shadow.
When he was gone, she stood drawing herself up to her full height and pulled her sword from its scabbard. She twirled it once or twice, feeling its comforting weight and balance. She sucked a deep breath through clenched teeth, her eyes glittering with hostility, "Time for that hot foot I promised..." She hissed and descended from the trees like a wraith.
Gabrielle and Sera pushed the horses hard, throwing caution to the wind. Gabrielle knew that Donecles had been some sort of spy and that he was probably somewhere between her and Xena. She hoped with some maliciousness, that she had a chance to pay him back for his duplicity. But first things first. Xena needed her help, whether she knew it or not and she was going to get it even if it killed Gabrielle in the process. At least, they would die together.
They were only a half a league from the village, when they rounded a corner and very nearly plowed into a mounted patrol. Among the six men was the object of her recent musings. Donecles. Her eyes narrowed as she drew Argo in, the great golden war horse sensing an impending battle, neighed a challenge and reared, her hooves pawing the air. Jet pranced nervously at her side, as the soldiers advanced.
"I don't have time for this. " Gabrielle ground out furiously. She drew her sai from their fittings on her boots and clapped her heels to Argo's sides, spurring the mare forward. She made a pass at the nearest rider, her sai slashing, opening a bloody wound on his arm. He howled with pain, and swung his sword at her awkwardly. But she was already gone, lunging for another man. To her left, Sera was engaged with two other riders. Their swords clashed violently as they passed one another. Sera was quick and Jet spun on a dime.
Gabrielle watched as first one and then another soldier fell from his saddle, Sera's sword red with their blood. The last three, Donecles included, charged Gabrielle in a line, blades flashing.
Sera moved to intercept them, but before she could intercede, a huge form rushed from the trees between the soldiers and Gabrielle. Arms wide as if in welcome, Gar swept all three of the remaining men from their mounts.
Donecles was the first to regain his feet and his weapon and he threw himself at Gar furiously.
"I know you big man..." The man Gabrielle knew as Donecles circled Gar, his sword slashing, "I have seen you before.... On another battle field.."
It was obvious he was trying to place Gar, when suddenly his face split in a feral grin and he laughed, "I remember you now..." He pointed his sword at Gar's throat indicating the scar, "The battle between Caesar and Pompey.... You refused to kill children when you were ordered to." He laughed again sarcastically, feinting an lunge at the huge man. "So I cut your throat." Atamus raised his sword for a killing stroke, "You should have stayed dead big man." He hurled himself at Gar, but his opponent side stepped easily and as he passed by overbalanced and over confident, Gar reached out with his huge hands. He wrenched the sword from Atamus's grasp as if he were taking it away from a child. Atamus suddenly disarmed shrunk from Gar in fear. Gar took the man's head in his hands and with a simple twist, sent him on his way to Tartarus.
Gabrielle surveyed the scene with the same sick feeling she always got after a battle. She was never going to get used to the bloodshed. No matter how much she believed in her partner, this just couldn't be the way. Xena's heart was true, but there had to be another method to achieve the goal. As the warrior had once said, there were always choices. "Gar?" She leveled a piercing look at the big man, standing casually over the body of Atamus. "Xena?"... She couldn't trust her voice to ask any more and when he smiled, the wave of relief that washed over her, left her shaking in its' wake. She swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump that had formed in her throat the instant she saw him... Alone, and she sighed, "Thank the God's... Is she on her way?"
The lump returned with a vengeance, when his eyes clouded and his expression turned grim. In answer, he drew the sword he carried and brandished it at the bodies strewn about on the ground around them. She nodded, in her heart she had known. "Hostages?" She asked. But his nod was academic. "Can you find a horse to carry you Gar?... We need to hurry." Her voice was firm and crisp, belying the terror she was feeling.
He glanced around, locating a big sturdy Gelding and leapt into the saddle. Gabrielle spared Sera a bleak smile, their eyes locking for a moment. Sera felt her stomach tighten... Then she gave her friend a fierce grin, "I think we have some work to do... Wouldn't you agree, Lady Gabrielle?"
Gabrielle searched both faces with something like adoration in her eyes and she replied softly, "Indeed."
As one they clapped their heels to their mounts and galloped like thunder towards the village.
Xena watched with satisfaction for close to a half candle mark, while Atrius's army lost it's cohesion. The ranks began to mingle, small groups of dissenters muttering amongst themselves, casting furtive glances at the surrounding forest. The officers were in a close huddle. It was obvious they were arguing. It was time... She stood resolutely and strode with supreme confidence to the top of a small knoll she had chosen for just this moment. She waited several seconds, then her battle cry pierced the early morning, silencing the army below her. As one, every man's head swivelled towards the sound. She stood alone, the first rays of the sun glowing behind her, casting an exaggerated shadow down the face of the hill. Her voice carried in the resounding silence, "Hear me warriors of Atrius... I have killed your leader."
She began to walk towards them, spinning her sword with deadly accuracy, the blade whistling as it cut the air around her. Her eyes were shards of blue Crystal, merciless and cold. She exuded an aura of menace. The lines before her began to retreat step by step, matching her advance. "If you lay down your weapons now and leave this place today, I will spare your lives. Otherwise?..." She drew her chakram and hurled it, bouncing it off a hitching post. It rebounded and took out the spear points of the first line of soldiers. The men's eyes grew large and round while they dropped their useless weapons and fled. As she got closer, many more men threw their weapons to the ground and pelted for the trees. She stopped within arms reach of the remaining Army and let her voice crash among them like thunder, "Otherwise... You will meet the same fate."
One soldier stepped forward, his face twisted with a sneer, "What will you do Xena? Fight us all by yourself? Are you mad?"
A smattering of nervous laughter greeted his jibe and several men gathered to advance upon her, when someone shouted and several arms pointed to the top of the hill she had just descended. She turned to look, as Gabrielle, Sera and Gar topped the rise behind her. Silhouetted against the blinding glare of the rising sun, they drew their swords as one and waved them in the air above their heads. Then Gabrielle's voice rose above the din below, "Surrender...or DIE!" Then behind her rose the voices of a hundred men, as an army of peasants and farmers from the surrounding countryside, joined their silhouettes to hers and flowed down the hill towards the army of Atrius. As Gabrielle drew abreast of her friend, she slipped from Argo's back and would have fallen, if not for Xena's steadying hand cupping her elbow.
Xena grinned in welcome, her voice gruff with emotion, "It's about time you showed up... Oversleep or something?"
Eyes bright with relief and unshed tears, Gabrielle touched the warrior's arm, her fingers stroking the bronzed flesh, her hand trembling. Her voice was tight when she replied, "I had to recruit a little help... Someone to pick up the slack."
She shot the warrior a weary smile, "I didn't get much sleep last night, so I'm not really into this battle thing..." She looked out across the sea of faces before her, knowing that they were not going to avoid a fight, "But it looks as though I'm not going to have a choice in the matter." She sighed with resignation and tightened her grip on the hilt of the sword she was carrying.
Xena let her gaze fill up with love and admiration for her partner and she smiled gently, "I love you Gabrielle."
She looked at Sera and Gar, who had discreetly averted their eyes during their friend's reunion, and smiled at them as well, "Thank you both. " She paused and shot a side long glance at the bard, "Thank you for everything." Sera grinned happily. Even in the face of this impending battle, she felt enveloped in security. Finally... Included. Gar nodded shortly, his eyes darting towards the army in front of them, then back at the trio of women questioningly.
Xena faced forward again into the inevitable and gave the order to attack.
Gabrielle stood at the hub of a wheel of warriors. She was surrounded by at least eight heavily armored and weaponed men. No fear was evident in the posture of her sweat, slicked body or the fierceness in her eyes. She lazily took an attack stance, her staff twirling idly, simply waiting. A short man, his mace spinning, hurled himself at her. She stepped negligently to her left, spun and delivered a resounding whack against the back of his head, propelling him into a warrior across from him. He slumped to the ground, unconscious and Gabrielle smiled. "Come on boys." She hissed in true warrior fashion, "I need a bath... Can we get this over with?" Two men from opposite sides of the circle advanced on her, growling insults. She lunged at the first, jabbing him hard between the eyes and he dropped like a stone. Turning back, she swung her staff in a whistling circle above her head and caught the second man on the jaw, felling him with deadly accuracy. She was beginning to have fun and the light danced in her eyes as she took a silent head count. "Only five..." She taunted the soldiers, "Where is the challenge in that?"
Two more danced towards her... She blocked a sword thrust and hammered the blade from the man's stinging fingers. Twirling gracefully, she stabbed the second in the stomach, driving the air from his lungs. Using her staff like a pole vault, she drove herself into a third man feet first, knocking him senseless. She looked around briefly, watching the ebb and flow of battle around her. She sought and found Xena a few hundred feet away. As usual, the warrior princess was mopping up half the army single handedly. The pile of bodies surrounding her was alarming. Gabrielle turned her attention, looking for Sera and Gar. She found Sera only a few feet away, her bow singing with arrows flying with blurring speed. Gar was a little to her left, his mace thudding into Atrius's army like the fist of Zeus.
The battle was going well. All around her, she could see Atrius's men falling like wheat before a scythe. She returned her attention to the two men left in her circle. They were watching her carefully, stalking her, waiting for a mistake that they could capitalize on. Before she could move to finish them, she heard Sera scream her name..... "GABRIELLE!!!!!...."
Misera was already moving when Gabrielle began to turn towards her. Sera was pointing towards a rooftop, where six archers bent their bows in her direction. As if in slow motion, Gabrielle turned to see a flight of six arrows, winging their way towards her. There was not enough time for her to react, her mind flashed with a brief terror, quickly replaced by sadness as her eyes instantly sought those of her best friend.
"So... This is how it ends..." She thought ruefully, as her gaze found Xena's for the instant before the arrows found their mark. She smiled gently at her terrified friend, whose mouth was forming her name even as she began to move towards her. Her sword flashing, hacking futilely at those who stood between them, in a useless effort to reach Gabrielle. Even as Gabrielle felt the first stab of pain, a body intervened taking all, but two of the arrows intended for her. In terror, she thought Xena had performed some miracle of movement and had intercepted the deadly missiles, but even as she slumped to the ground, she recognized the auburn hair and slight figure of Sera.
Sera lay only inches from Gabby's outstretched hand. Her eyes were dull with pain, but a small smile curled her lips as she reached for and found Gabrielle's hand, clasping it with all her remaining strength. The battle waned, as their eyes met, an eerie quiet settled on them, as Gabrielle strained to hear her friends words, "My gift to you Gabrielle..." She whispered, the darkness closing rapidly, "And to your Warrior... Love each other always... Give me..... Meaning....." Her last word and last breath were one and the same.
Even in the depth of her physical pain, Gabrielle howled her anguish at Sera's passing. Unmindful of the two arrows bristling from her own body or the alarming amount of blood on her clothing and hands, Gabrielle dragged herself to Sera's side. Pulling the younger woman's lifeless body into her arms, her tears running freely, falling unnoticed on Sera's upturned face. She turned her face to the heavens, in a bitter parody of losses from the past and mourned aloud, her voice undulating rising like a wolf call, then softening to a miserable wail. Her strength was failing, she didn't even seem to have the energy to cry. She rolled onto her back, her eyes closed, the weight of Sera's head on her arm all, but forgotten in the swelling pain. She felt a presence above her and fought her weariness to open her eyes. The battle lasted several seconds and during it the figure drew nearer. When she finally forced her eyes open and commanded them to focus, Xena's face swam into view. There were tears in her eyes.... That usually means bad news.. Gabrielle thought to herself with a small internal smile. "God's...." She thought, "I'm so tired...." "Sera is dead." She whispered to her friend, as if she couldn't see that for herself. She chided herself for wasting this precious time, she could feel the other boot dropping. This was going to have to be short and sweet, there was no time for flowery speeches.
Gabrielle tried to lift her chin to see where the arrows were placed, but even with Xena's trembling hand supporting it, her head just felt too heavy. She willed her eyes to lock on the warriors, "Did I ever tell you I foresaw this ending?" She asked watching the tears roll down the cheeks of the bruised and bloodied warrior princess.
Xena could not speak... Her eyes had expertly traveled Gabrielle's body, noting the placement and depth of the arrows and she knew what they meant. The arterial blood that oozed from around the shaft buried in Gabrielle's chest and the thin froth of blood on her lips, told the warrior that she had also foreseen this ending. Or one very similar. Xena's breath caught in her throat, lodged somewhere back behind her heart. "Did you foresee this?..." She asked pulling Gabrielle into her arms, cradling her against her chest. Her eyes open, shining like a beacon, then descended upon Gabrielle, erasing any lingering pain. Gentle lips brushed her brow, slid down her temple to kiss her eyes shut, brushed her dry fevered lips tenderly, as that warm voice soothed her from the darkness.
"I love you Gabrielle... From that first moment when I saw you challenge Draco's men, I have loved you. I wanted to be like you, share the warmth of that trust you give so freely. You have always been my hero Gabrielle..." The voice quavered as familiar fingers soothed the worry lines at the corner of her eyes. "And you aren't going anywhere without me...."
The next sound brought Gabrielle to attention and weary or not her eyes snapped open in understanding.... It was the sound of a blade exiting a sheath. Gabrielle watched as the tearful warrior placed the tip of her dagger against her own breast. She laid both palms flat against the top of the hilt, the better to drive it into her heart in one thrust.
Gabrielle summoned all her strength, and pushed against her friend's hands, trying to pull the knife from her grip...."No, Xena!..." She wailed breathlessly, "You can't... They need you... Please no..." Her tears streamed down her smudged face, cutting tracks in the grime, standing out in relief as the warrior slowly complied. "I can only bear to leave you... If I know you are alive.... And fulfilling your goal... Please?..." Xena sat back on her heels in defeat, her hands still holding the dagger, lay limp on Gabrielle's heaving chest. "I love you Xena...." The voice was so soft and distant, as though Gabrielle had already begun her journey to the other side.
The sobbing warrior bent over her friend, gathering her close, stroking her hair and face. "No! NO!!! Please Gabrielle.. It's not supposed to happen like this... Please don't leave me...." She lamented, "I can't do this without you...I don't want to do it without you... Please?..."
But it was no good...
Xena sat huddled over the body of the only person in the world who had ever really believed in her. At first she had held out hope... After all, they had endured poisoned arrows, sword slashes, tumbles into Tartarus, betrayal, ambush and crucifixion. They had always emerged from the other side, stronger, more closely bound than before. They had always prevailed... Together. But there was a finality to the blood pouring from Gabrielle's chest and the absence of movement, the obvious cessation of breath. She was gone... Still the warrior princess could not get her mind around it. She grabbed Gabrielle's shoulders, lifting her to eye level and giving her a gentle shake. "Come on Gabrielle." She gritted out, "This isn't funny. It's time to go..." She glanced wildly around the scene of battle. Men were moving from one body to another, checking for life she supposed, but the meaning behind the battle was irrelevant to her now. Her meaning had just perished and was growing cold in her arms.
She glared skyward, her voice like thunder in the macabre silence that surrounded her. "I do not accept this death from you!" she hurled at the stoic sky. "Her destiny has not been fulfilled... You can't have her yet! You can't have her....." Her voice broke on a wall of pain so thick and solid, that it choked the words from her.
Xena bent over the still form, sobbing uncontrollably....Oblivious to the gentle hands trying to pull Gabrielle's body from her. Suddenly she realized someone else was there and trying to take Gabrielle from her yet again. She struck out viciously, blindly, with the dagger still gripped in her fist. But a hand closed around her wrist, applying gentle pressure holding her attack at bay. She focused and found herself gazing into Gar's one perfect eye.
The misery the big man saw there, made him wince in empathy. Gently he eased his grip on Xena's wrist, pulling the dagger from her. She forgot about it as soon as it left her fingertips, her attention once more on the peaceful bard in her arms.
She gazed lovingly down at Gabrielle's face, her voice distant, "Isn't she beautiful Gar?" She asked the mute giant, slowly she bent over and pressed a gentle kiss to Gabrielle's forehead. "I love to watch her sleep...." Her voice trailed off, her mind was screaming at her..... She is NOT dead. All evidence to the contrary.
Gar put two fingers under the warriors chin and forced her to meet his eyes. To her amazement, he opened his mouth and a beautiful, melodious female voice, issued incongruously. "She is not asleep Xena. You know the truth." The voice was filled with pity and compassion, but it was definitely not Gar's voice.
"She must be..." She cried wretchedly, "It can't end like this.... It can't....Don't you understand? She does not deserve this..." Stubbornly she faced the big man before her. Gabrielle had always fought for Xena, had always been her defender. She had persuaded countless villagers against stoning or hanging or ripping the warrior apart. Using only her reasonable tone, her command of language and her deep commitment to her friend.
It was time Xena returned the favor. She glared at whoever the entity was before her and pleaded for the life of her best friend. "This is NOT how this is supposed to end...Gabrielle has earned better than this. If not for the interference of the Gods on high." She spit out scathingly, "My friend would have lived into old age. And she has earned it. All her life." She glanced down at Gabrielle suddenly, fresh tears flowing, "Her unfairly short life, she fought for the sake of goodness. Not once, even in her mistakes, did she take her eyes off the goal of peace. Within this body." She bent again to Gabrielle's forehead, laying her cheek there for support, "Beat a heart so pure, the God's themselves should aspire to emulate it. She was wise, compassionate, loving and merciful.... No more could be said of the best of Zeus's get. Ares.... Ares tampered with Gabrielle's destiny, but she will have her revenge on him...I swear she will. The way of Love will conquer Ares in the end and Gabrielle will be sung of for a thousand years...."
As she raised her voice towards the heavens, it was clear and sharp as the first rays of morning sun, "Do you hear me Ares? " She cried, pulling Gabrielle closer, holding her tightly for courage. "I will not raise my sword against another human being again... But I will still defeat you. I will spread Gabrielle's name and sacrifice cross the continent. I will sing her praises until the day death takes me to be with her again. I will turn even the hardest hearts against you... Gabrielle will be avenged." She laughed shortly and without humor, "And the best part is.... You did it to yourself."
"ENOUGH !!!!" Ares's voice, disembodied, thundered in the silence.
The echo of it bounced up and down the alleyways of the nearly deserted village. "Just do it Artemis...I can't stand anymore of her babbling... Just DO it and get it over with..."
"So be it, " Came the voice from Gar. The big man reached down and grabbed the arrow shaft embedded in Gabrielle's chest. Slowly he drew it forth and an amazed Xena, watched as the wound opened around the arrowhead, then closed behind it as Gar pulled it free. He repeated the process with the arrow protruding from Gabrielle's thigh. He tossed them aside in disgust and the voice from within him began to speak. "Xena, it is Artemis...I agreed with your denouncement of Ares and petitioned father to intervene on Gabrielle's behalf. He has reversed Ares's decision and has granted Gabrielle the chance to fulfill her destiny. Make it count, warrior princess. This will be the only time I may interfere and only because Ares broke the rules." Gar leaned over Gabrielle, placing his palms flat against the wound in her chest. His hands began to glow with a golden light that throbbed and swirled like an Aurora Borealis. The glow enveloped Gabrielle and lifted her from the warriors embrace, suspending her two feet off the ground.
Xena let hope stir within her, as she watched the big man smile gently and leaning over, press a kiss to Gabrielle's lips.
Gabrielle herself began to glow, her spirit suckled from Gar the life energy it needed. As Xena watched enthralled, Gabrielle's eyes twitched open and she drew a harsh, shuddering breath. She gulped air deep into her starved lungs, gasping out the warrior's name. Her eyes darting to and finding those of her friend.
Artemis's voice issued forth from Gar with authority, "Hear me fellow Gods of Olympus... These two shall be under MY protection from this day forth. They share a joining as binding as any presented to the Gods and I shall not have their destinies tampered with again. Gabrielle is a queen of my Amazons and as her consort, Xena is one as well. I will tolerate no more interference... These two belong to ME. Is that UNDERSTOOD?"
On the wind, the word echoed in many voices.... "Understood"... And then faded.
Gar gently lowered Gabrielle back into the impatient arms of her warrior.
Xena grabbed Gabrielle's shirt with a proprietary air and Gabrielle's startled, "Hey! What in Tartarus?...." not withstanding, skinned Gabby's shirt up and examined her chest. Gabrielle couldn't help the laugh that bubbled through her as she pushed at the fabric gathered in Xena's fists, trying to cover herself. "Geez, you pervert." She giggled, then sobered, tears spilling from her eyes as she reached for her warrior and the safety of her arms, "Glad to see you too."
Finally able to breathe after almost two hours, Xena drew a ragged, tear soaked breath and sighed into Gabrielle's hair. Her voice was shaky and weak, but the joy in it rang like a bell, "Thank the Gods.... Thank you Artemis.... Thank you for giving her back to me...." Xena tightened her arms around her friend, her meaning, the only thing that propelled her forward...."Gabrielle..." She whispered her name. "You're alive..." She shoved Gabrielle away abruptly, her eyes wild, "You are alive?.... Aren't you?"
Gabrielle could see she was holding her breath. She smiled tenderly, cupping her warrior's cheek with her palm, "Well after such an eloquent speech....I should hope so."
Xena hesitated for just a second, then with a groan, gathered Gabrielle back to her and sobbed into her neck, "I did it....I made them give you back....I did it...."
She stiffened momentarily, then relaxing she eased back and looked into Gabby's eyes. "You heard that?"
"Did I do OK?" She gave Gabrielle a tearful smile, loving the fact that she was animate again.
Gabrielle smiled, leaning forward she pressed a kiss to the corner of the mouth of the former 'Destroyer of Nations'. "You were stellar." She assured her friend earnestly.
"REALLY... The evidence sits happily in your arms." She teased gently.
"Where I intend it to stay." Growled the warrior... Then silence ensued... For several hours.
Xena sang her funeral song for Misera, the torch burning bright in her hand as she lowered it to the dry wood. The flames leapt high into the air, the smoke billowing on the gentle breeze. Gabrielle stood a few yards off to one side, her face contorted in grief, tears streaming unnoticed down her cheeks. She held in her hand, the coin Misera had given her, thinking about the girls sacrifice. Xena, sensitive to Gabrielle's pain, moved to stand beside her friend but said nothing... Waiting for Gabrielle to say what was in her heart. As she knew she would.
"She gave her life for me... And I died anyway." Gabrielle sobbed, "It was a useless waste..." She turned away from the pyre, unable to bear the truth.
"But you're alive Gabrielle... So her sacrifice was not in vain." Xena tried to comfort her friend.
"I am alive because of you and Artemis, not because what Sera did made any difference."
A voice, soft with weeping, came from the very air... It was Artemis. "Gabrielle... Listen carefully to me. Misera was my child, I was her mother. Her father told her the story of her mother's life and death, at my behest. I wanted her to feel complete... Normal... But I could not foresee the effect your friendship would have on her. The need she had to be a part of something bigger than herself. The kind of love you share with Xena. There were several things that drew me to intervene on your behalf,
Xena. Ares... But mostly... Because of Sera. She loved you Gabrielle and she felt loved in return. For that, if for no other reason, you stand here to mourn her. It is my way of thanking you for giving her peace...."
A form shimmered into solidity before them, a beautiful woman dressed in soft leather, looking very much like Sera.
"If you could bring me back." Gabrielle whispered painfully, "Then why couldn't you bring Sera back? She had so much potential and now she is gone... Because of ... Because of me...." Gabrielle turned away from the brilliant shine of the Goddess, sobs wracking her body. She fell to her knees, covering her face with trembling hands.
Xena ached to go to her, to enfold her in strong arms, to turn the pain of the world aside for her tender friend. But she knew... From her own experience that nothing she could say, would take away the guilt and pain Gabrielle was feeling at this moment.
"Sera chose her destiny Gabrielle. She chose to give her life for yours because she loved you more deeply than herself. How could I deprive her death of meaning? She chose nobility, sacrifice, for the sake of her love for you. I couldn't take that away from her. She died happy, at peace... Just as she would want you to be.... At peace." The goddess moved to Gabrielle's side and gently placed a hand on the sobbing woman's head, "Be at peace Gabrielle, miss her, but do not mourn for her. She has gone on to the Elysian Fields... Remember always that your love for her, give her life and death meaning. Move on Gabrielle... And be at peace." The Goddess stroked Gabrielle's head... And then disappeared.
Xena stepped over to Gabrielle and knelt down in front of her. "Gabrielle?" She said softly, "I'm sorry..."
Gabrielle looked up at Xena and brushed the tears from her face with the back of her hand, giving her a weak smile. "What do you have to be sorry about ?"
Xena shrugged uncomfortably and gestured at the blazing pyre, "If I had been faster.... Paid closer attention, I might have been able to...." She trailed off, knowing in her heart that there was nothing she could have done, but wishing for Gabrielle's sake there had been. It wrung her heart to see her friend like this.
"You saved me. " Gabrielle smiled at the warrior, reaching up to brush a strand of raven hair back from her friends unhappy face, "For that, I am grateful." She stood suddenly, some of her former happiness shining through the tears. She actually grinned at her formidable friend, "Besides... It does my heart good to see that you have paid attention to me all these years."
"I have?" Xena asked, wary of her tone.
"Yes indeed... That speech you gave to the Gods.... Well it was inspired. Obviously my influence on you has been greater than either of us realized." She said airily, knowing the warrior was about to sputter some denial. But instead she said nothing. Gabrielle turned to her friend, worried that she had said something out of turn. But the look on the warriors face stopped her from making a trite remark. Tears were spilling from those wondrous blue eyes and Gabrielle was immediately contrite. "Oh Xena." She whispered, "I am sorry...I didn't mean to make light of you... What you said to the Gods...I can't even begin to tell you what that meant to me. If not for you, I too would be wandering around the Elysian Fields.... Missing you with every breath I took. I love you Xena."
Xena smiled warmly and gathered Gabrielle into her arms with a sigh of pleasure, "No Gabrielle... You're right... Thank the Gods for that. You have influenced me... All the good I do is because you believed in me. All the love in this tired old heart, stems from you. You have taught me so many important lessons... Compassion, patience..."
She smiled ruefully when Gabrielle replied, "Yeah... You still need a little work on the patience thing..."
"Just being able to walk in the shadow of your goodness, gives me some redemption. I meant it when I said I couldn't do it without you. Without your light to guide me... I'd be lost forever in the darkness. Thank you for coming back to me Gabrielle..." Her voice dropped to a whisper, "Thank you for loving me... For believing in me. I pray the Gods give me the strength to never disappoint you."
Gabrielle burrowed deep into Xena's arms, her head resting comfortably on the warrior's chest and replied with conviction, "You have enough strength for that already, you don't need the Gods... You could never disappoint me."