The Gift, Part Three
The Gift
by Spiritfox


They lingered on the soft grass, both reluctant to let the other go. They were content to simply hold one another, talking softly, careful not to plan any farther than after breakfast. Finally, Gabrielle said, "We better get back to camp before someone comes looking for us. Besides..." She grinned up into those incredible blue eyes, "I'm really hungry now." Xena smiled at her. Her eyes in the last half candle mark having taken on a softness that Gabrielle had never seen before. There was a wealth of tenderness in them that made Gabby's heart skip a beat. There was something so right about this Feeling that she could not conceive of a regret. Xena was sitting with her back to a cypress. Gabrielle leaning back against her chest, the warriors' arms tight around her, her chin resting on her friend's shoulder. She sighed deeply, "If we must... though I am quite happy to sit here the rest of the day."

Gabrielle chuckled as she got to her feet, "YOU! Content to sit? I don't believe it."

Xena's mouth quirked up at one corner, "You will find that there are a great number of things you won't believe about me Gabrielle."

"Such as?..." The bard asked.

"All in good time," The warrior grinned, "Wouldn't want to give too much away right at the would spoil the mystery."

"Ah yes," Gabrielle nodded sagely, "Xena the enigma...quite right...wouldn't want me to overload on information. Besides, if you strung more than five sentences together at a time, I might pass out from the shock."

Xena trying hard to keep a straight face, arched an eyebrow and replied, "Are you sassing me Gabrielle? Because if you're sassing me, there might be repercussions. Dire... repercussions." She climbed to her feet slowly, drawing herself up to her full six feet, towering over her smaller friend.

Gabrielle eyed her imperiously, "I think I can handle your repercussions." She said airily, "Besides, you'll have to catch me first." With a laugh she was off, pelting at top speed toward the camp.

Xena laughing too now, hurriedly gathered up her armor, dancing around on one foot when she stepped on a sharp rock, watching Gabrielle pull further away. "You are such a cheat!" She yelled scrambling after the bard, juggling the armload of things Gabby had strewn about the area.

Gabrielle's elated laugh wafted back towards Xena, as she entered the trees, a scant quarter league from camp. She could smell the pheasant roasting, hear the grumbling of the stream, see now the black and gold rumps of their horses... "Victory is MINE!" She crowed as she cleared the woods, entering the campsite breathlessly....."I WI...", she had begun to shout, then noticed there were three people sitting around the fire. She counted them again, one...two...three..."How the Hades do you DO That?!" She asked the smirking warrior resignedly.

Xena's eyes danced in challenge... "I cheat." Was her reply.

Misera watched the exchange between the two friends with a mixture of affection, humor and melancholy. It had been a long time since she had been a part of something,... anything. Especially something so intimate as the friendship between these two women. She had never known her mother or either grandmother, so she had been denied the benefit of a woman's love. Perhaps that was why she preferred women as bed partners, now. Her father had been wonderful, as a father, but he had not really understood his "daughter" as a woman. He had always just considered her "Sera," a separate entity, gender less. She felt tears stinging her eyelids and quickly looked away from the touching scene. "Why do I do this to myself?" She wondered morosely, thinking that she had a penchant for impossible relationships. It was apparent watching the two that. Gabrielle was hopelessly in love with Xena. But Sera saw a new dynamic now. While Xena obviously cared for Gabrielle, Sera had previously sensed a certain reserve in the warrior princess that didn't seem to be there anymore. It had not escaped her notice that they had melted into woods after she had passed them on the path. She hid a smile thinking that a whole lot must have happened in that half a candle mark, to bring about such a startling change in the "fierce one." But "startling" was the word for it.

Xena had entered the campsite at a dead run, only seconds before Gabrielle. She had thrown her armor on the ground as she passed behind Sera and Gar who were already seated by the fire. She was chuckling, an incongruous sound coming from that formidable frame, and she hissed "Play along" at them as she dropped into a place next to Gar. The dust had barely settled around the smirking woman, before Gabrielle had come pounding into the site, the words "I win" on her lips.

Misera had to admit, the look on Gabrielle's face had been priceless. Her shoulders drooping, Gabby slouched over to the empty spot left her by the fire and dropped to the ground. She eyed the warrior grumpily, but brightened visibly when Xena handed her a full plate. Gabrielle tucked in, mumbling appreciatively around a mouthful of the pheasant, "This is great Sera...seasoned really nicely." Then she lapsed into near silence, except for a humorous grunt every now and then.

Sera smiled, tilting her head in acknowledgment of the compliment. She glanced at Xena then, only to find the warrior's eyes already on her. Their gaze locked and then suddenly Xena was grinning at her. It nearly knocked Sera off her log eat . . . WOW she thought, gulping audibly, what a smile. No wonder Gabrielle adores her...I would too if she smiled at me that way. She returned the warrior's grin, with a shy friendly smile of her own, her eyes warm, basking in the aura of affection that permeated the quartet. Even Gar seemed to be enjoying the repartee`, a big silly smile of pure enjoyment slapped on his face, showing a wealth of even, white teeth.

Gabrielle glanced around the fire, from one face to another, well satisfied with the morning. This was going to be a good day....


Xena was finishing her tea, sipping slowly, absently, a dreamy sort of smile on her face. Gabrielle was watching her serenely, knowing where the smile had come from and thoroughly enjoying its significance. She glanced at Sera, who seemed to be alternating between looking at Xena with a bemused expression and looking at Gabrielle with something indefinable in her eyes.

Their eyes met and Gabby blushed, realizing that Sera had put two and two, together. Sera grinned at her when she colored, then cleared her throat to get Xena's attention and asked, "So . . . what is on the agenda? When do I find out if my application for membership in this "tribe" has been accepted?"

Xena's thoughtful gaze passed from Sera to Gabrielle, weighing her response, "Well," She said, "I can't speak for Gabrielle . . . but I have no objection to you traveling with us . . . at least for now." She looked away suddenly and Sera could have sworn that the warrior was embarrassed.

Sera looked to Gabrielle then a question in her eyes.

Gabrielle met her gaze, her green eyes penetrating, boring into Sera, seeking any hidden designs. But in the end, she smiled warmly and said, "I have no objections . . . welcome to the Bard and Warrior Traveling Circus . . . "

Sera turned to Gar, her face lit up by the duo's acceptance, "We're IN." She laughed.

Gar grinned, clapping his huge hands together and shaking them above his head in victory.

Xena smiled absently at them saying, "After a few days of trailing along looking at horses' butts . . . you might not find the prospect of membership so attractive."

Sera chuckled, "Actually, Gar and I had decided we would go into the next village and try to buy a couple of horses. I don't relish the idea of trying to keep up with you two. At least not on foot." She eyed her big companion critically, “Although I'm thinking it might be difficult to find a horse strong enough to carry Gar."

Xena glanced over at the big man, her smile warm, "That could prove to be a problem. Then again, we could all walk. After all, we aren't in a hurry . . . yet. There is a village about three leagues to the west, I seem to remember a horse trader there. We can check it out."

Sera considered for a moment. If she and Gar were to leave now, they could be back by early afternoon. Besides, she got the distinct impression that the two women could use a little time alone. She tried not to smile when she made the suggestion and both of their faces lit up. Just as I thought . . . She stood up briskly and motioned for Gar to join her. As the big man rose to his feet, she looked up at the sun, gauging the time. "We should be back early this afternoon." She slanted a grin at her new friends, "I assume you'll be here when we get back?"

"We promise not to move from this spot." Said Xena laconically, yawning for effect.

"Right . . . " Sera marshaled her features, "We'll be off then."

She glanced at Gabrielle and the bard smiled, assuring her that the time would be put to good use. She turned and headed west, as Gar fell in step beside her.

Xena and Gabrielle sat in companionable silence until the pair were out of sight, then Gabrielle got up and went to sit by the warrior. Xena leaned back against a rock and pulled the bard into her arms, her chin resting on top of Gabby's head.

Gabrielle sighed contentedly, "What do you think?" She asked.

"About what? ....them?"


"Their timing could have been a bit better." She replied dryly.

Gabrielle laughed, "You're right there..., are you satisfied?"

She felt the warrior chuckle, her frame vibrating, sending delicious shivers of response along Gabrielle's spine. "Not yet . . . oh . . . you mean about Misera?"

Gabrielle slapped the encircling arms in mock irritation, "Yes. I mean about Sera."

"I think I like her." Xena replied hesitantly, "But . . . she's a little flippant . . . don't you agree?"

"She is a bit cheerful, but that could just be a defense. Like your grumpiness."

"I'm not grumpy," the warrior said grumpily.

Gabrielle laughed, tipping her head back to look at her friend, “Uh...sure Xena," She said placatingly, "Anything you say."

Which earned her a playful cuff on the shoulder. She snuggled back against the larger woman and turned her head so that her forehead was pressed to Xena's jaw. "I really like it here." She said softly.

"What?...this camp site?"

"No...being in your arms."

"Oh..." She felt that smile again, "Me too."


"Do you need to ask that question Gabrielle?" Her voice was gentle.

Gabrielle reached up and stroked the soft cheek above her, "No...I don't suppose I do. I love you Xena."

"I love you more Gabrielle."

"Prove it."

"I thought you'd never ask."

Their interlude was short-lived, they had no sooner begun, than Xena was drawn up short by the sound of a horse pounding at a gallop, on the roadway. She unceremoniously pushed the bard off her lap and sprang to her feet, drawing her sword with an audible ring.

The horse was close enough that they could see it now. A lathered and spooky bay, with a figure slumped over its neck, trotted into their camp, snorting and blowing uneasily. Xena approached the horse talking softly, soothing him. She laid a hand on its trembling neck. Her eyes on the man draped across it's back. She prodded the figure none too gently with her sword, but got no reaction.


"Yeah?" The bard spoke at her elbow and Xena jumped.

Xena gave her a dirty look and said, "Get my medicines out of the saddlebags please and heat up some water? This guy looks as though he's been fighting, he's covered with blood." She put her sword back in its scabbard, then pulled the unconscious man from his horse. She had to cut his hands from the horse's mane, where he had twined them before he passed out. She carried him, (Gabrielle was ceaselessly amazed by the warriors' strength, she lifted the man as though he were a child ) to the fire and set him gently against the rock she had so recently vacated. As Gabrielle set the medicine pouch on the ground beside her, Xena began to examine the man.

He was probably in his 30th year, dark brown hair and almond-shaped brown eyes. He was bruised and battered, but aside from a nasty sword cut in the fleshy part above his hip, he was in very good shape. Xena bathed and bound his wounds, then tipped a small amount of some herbs into a cup of hot water. She leaned his head back and trickled a little down his throat.

"What did you just give him?" Gabrielle asked, Xena's skill with medicines always seemed somewhat incongruous and she was fascinated.

"Something to help him fight infection and something to wake him up." She replied absently.

"Wouldn't it be better to just let him sleep?"

Gabrielle wasn't really questioning Xena's knowledge so much, as trying to increase her own, so the warrior was patient when she answered, "It would probably be better for him to sleep....yes...but he has been in a battle and I would like to know where and when."

"Oh...of course," Gabby subsided sheepishly.

After a quarter candle mark or so, the man began to show signs of waking. He shrank back against the rock fearfully, when his eyes opened onto the warrior princess kneeling in front of him, a scowl on her face.

"It's all right." She soothed, replacing the scowl with a smile, "You're safe now. My friend and I have treated your wounds...."

The man's hand went to the bandage at his waist, but Xena gently steered it away. "You're going to be fine. It was not a bad injury. My name is Xena." She indicated the bard over her shoulder, "That is my friend Gabrielle. Can you tell me your name, and what happened to you?"

He sat back, relaxing and nodded, "My name is Donecles...pleased to make your acquaintance." He glanced first at Xena, then at Gabrielle his eyes still haunted with wariness. But holding Gabrielle's gaze for a minute, must have told him that he was quite safe.

"I come from a village about twelve leagues from here called Metadius. The day before yesterday an army of mercenaries swept down on us from the forest. We stood firm." He paused, his eyes glittering, his voice fierce and proud. "They took everything...animals, stores, everything with value. Many were killed...many of ours, my brother Andresus among them. But we made them pay far more dearly." He was on fire with hatred, but looking into the compassionate eyes of the two women, caused the fire to burn out and weary grief to replace it. A single tear rolled down his cheek, as he shifted against the rock and wiped it away angrily. "They burned the common buildings...those that housed our scrolls and accounts. Many of the villagers were scholars and we had three retired bards. They had accumulated many lifetimes of knowledge within those scrolls....what a shame. But the innocent lives they stole, those can never be replaced."

Gabrielle became incensed at the news of all that information being lost and she clenched her fists, itching to mete out punishment for such crimes. Not that she felt any less compassion for the human beings that had been lost, it was just...well...being a bard herself....

Xena touched the man's knee gently to get his attention, "Do you know who was leading the army Donecles?" She asked him gently.

The injured man met her gaze, his blazing with wrath, "Oh yes..." He ground out, "That maniac made sure everyone knew his name....Atrius, that was the murderers name, Atrius...."


Xena rocked back on her heels, "Atrius..." she whispered, her eyes far off and troubled, "I haven't heard that name in ten years...and I could have gone another 10 hundred before I did." She stood and began pacing the campsite in agitation. "This is BAD." She was grumbling to herself, "This is very, very BAD."

Suddenly fearful, Gabrielle intercepted the warriors' pacing and pinned her with a gaze, "Who is Atrius?" She hissed, "And why are you so afraid?"

For a moment, Xena gazed into Gabrielle's eyes measuring her resolve, wondering just how much she should tell her. But in the end, she told the truth because Gabrielle deserved it. She sighed. This was what she had feared. Atrius was the most evil of Are's Lieutenants. He gleefully wiped out every human being in his path. He was the apple of Ares' eye. And ohh, how he hated Xena. She lifted her hands and laid them on Gabby's shoulders, her thumbs caressing her collarbone and her voice soft. "Atrius is one of Are's, Gabrielle. He was a captain in Caesar's army, but was exiled from Rome and the service, because he was a cannibal."

"By the Gods..." Whispered Gabrielle, her eyes wide. Xena nodded, their eyes locked. "Ares' recruited him, around the same time he did me. We trained in the same camp. He always hated me. He was brutal and viscous and the feeling was mutual. I hope you never have to meet him, but if you do, you'll notice a scar that runs from his Adam's apple to the point of his chin...I gave him that. He entered my tent one night...'uninvited' ." She gave a small mean smile, "I made sure he did not make the same mistake twice."

The weight of her friend's words, caused Gabby to shiver a little then she puffed out her cheeks and vented a shaky breath, "This is very BAD." She agreed.

Xena sighed again and inclined her head. Suddenly, apparently anyway, an idea came to her and she spun back to the injured Donocles. "Which direction was your village?" She asked sharply.

"West..." came the weary reply.

Now Gabrielle felt a trill of fear, Misera had gone west.

"How big is his army?" Xena squatted in front of Donocles her penetrating stare telling him that she had more than casual interest in his answer.

"Two....maybe three hundred foot soldiers, half that in cavalry, why...?"

"We have a friend that has gone to the next village west, to buy some horses," said Gabrielle, before Xena could answer, her troubled eyes followed the road in that direction.

"The next village is only two leagues from here," said Donocles watching the two women carefully, "It is called Zediar," he swallowed painfully, his eyes drifting closed for a moment. "Your friend and Atrius' army have probably arrived there at about the same time. I hope he can take care of himself?...." with that the man slipped into unconsciousness again.

Xena stood abruptly, her eyes on fire, then she glanced at Gabrielle. Actually..she thought, this will work to my advantage...she glanced at the injured man, yes...someone had to stay with him...he couldn't be left alone. She turned then and fixed Gabrielle with a no-nonsense stare. She knew discouraging Gabrielle from going with her was going to be next to impossible, but Donocles and Gabrielle's infinite compassion, may just play in her favor. " know I have to go after them...don't you?"

Gabrielle stared right back at the warrior, her gaze icy, "Not without me, you aren't." She said flatly.

Xena squeezed Gabrielle's arm urgently, "Gabrielle...someone has to stay with Donocles..." She glance at him, forcing Gabby to follow her gaze.

Gab was considering it...she could see it on her face. The war between her humanity and her love for Xena had commenced. She dragged her tortured gaze back to the warrior's face, "He'll be all right..." She said without conviction, "I'm not going to let you leave me behind...not this time...not against this man." Her voice grew more firm, "You can't ask me to sit here while you face an army, led by a cannibal, that hates your guts. NO ....I will not!"

"Gabrielle..." Xena crooned gently, her face filled with tenderness....she did not deserve this...did not deserve Gabrielle and her loyalty. " Gabrielle...I have to...I'm the only one who can." She said softly...afraid of the look on her friend's face...the resignation, the pain.

Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears and she turned away, "They will recognize you..." She whispered, then turned back angrily, "They will recognize you and capture you, and who knows..." She hissed like venom, "Maybe even eat you and I won't know until they show up here and tell me. Or eat me too..."

"Gabrielle..." Xena sighed, "You're being dramatic. I'll wait until tonight and sneak into the village. I'll come back before dawn with Misera and be ready to move. She looked around the campsite reluctantly. "We'll have to move you and Donocles further back into the trees. You'll be safe until I return."

" If you return..." came the sullen reply.


They spent the remainder of the morning looking for, and then finding an alternate place to wait. They packed up everything they could and saddled all three horses.

Xena worked on the gelding that Donocles had ridden in on, "This poor horse is almost done in." She said to no one in particular. She hated cruelty to animals, a lot more than she resented cruelty to people.

Gabrielle smiled at her affectionately, it was one of the things she loved about the warrior. The incongruous mix of tenderness and terror. "He'll be fine." She said softly, "He looks better already."

"I suppose we haven't got a choice in any case." Xena replied laconically.

"I suppose," Gabrielle echoed wistfully, though her meaning had been quite different.

Xena turned from her task, facing Gabrielle squarely, “Gab..." Her voice was hushed, her eyes refused to meet those of her friend and love. "I'm going to be fine...really...if anyone knows Atrius, it's me, and I promise you...I promise...I will be back for you." Her eyes lifted and locked on Gabrielle's, hers all soft and warm, Gabrielle's haunted by her fear, "I told you...remember?...I'll never be able to leave you now.... I love you Gabrielle." There wasn't any more she had the words for. She wished sometimes that she had Gabby's gift for language, for expression. There were so many things she didn't know how to say. But that was the beauty of Gabrielle, she heard them anyway. Instead Xena reached out and cupped her hand to the back of Gabby's head, pulling her closer. Her eyes bright with feeling, she leaned down to her and pressed her lips gently against Gabrielle's.

That was all the invitation Gabrielle needed. She leaned against the warrior bonelessly, her hands resting idly at her waist, her entire being centered on the lips that caressed hers. Her eyes closed in a sort of religious rapture, her heart racing, thudding painfully against her ribs. Her lips separated unconsciously, inviting Xena's tongue inside. Invitation accepted. Xena groaned into Gabby's mouth as Gabrielle responded with a passion that, Xena had to admit, was not that surprising. And it strummed a harmonious chord inside the warrior as well. Every good feeling she had ever experienced, had emanated from this fragile creature in her arms.

Gabrielle slipped her arms around her lover...her lover...she had wanted to be able to say that for so long...and hung on for dear life...wondering in an instant, if she had ever possessed enough strength to live without this. Or if she ever would.

Xena pulled back, her blue eyes fathomless in their regard, and everything and everyone she had ever loved was embodied in this ...her friend...the one person she knew ...she knew...was devoted to her. Gabrielle had forgiven her so much...more than she had a right to expect, certainly. That this wondrous person could look at her so...with such trust and was nothing short of a miracle.

Even while Gabrielle enjoyed the kiss, her mind was whirling with possibilities. Xena was NOT going to go after Misera and Gar. Gabrielle would see to that one way or another. The chance of her being recognized was too great and Gab would not be able to live with herself, if something happened to Xena. Besides she reasoned that Xena was far more qualified to care for Donocles. Therefore, she should stay in camp with the injured man, and she, Gabrielle, should go after her new friends. End of discussion.


"I think you should try and get some rest." Gabrielle said softly, her cheek resting against Xena's shoulder, the armor leaving an unfelt crease on her face. She felt the warriors chin move up and down against the top of her head in agreement. Gabrielle nodded too and pulled from the embrace, her face averted, her eye's downcast. "I'll fix you some tea and roll out your bedding..." She said her voice soft, but resigned.

Xena watched her move away, letting her heart ache just this once...she had to go after the others and she had to find out what Atrius was up to. There was no other choice. She followed Gabrielle back to the camp silently, not knowing what to say to her to assuage her fear. She mutely accepted the cup of tea she was offered, drinking it down more quickly than she usually would. The sense of pressing time was evident in her posture and demeanor. She looked at Gabrielle fussing with the small, smokeless fire with a sadness she couldn't restrain. She understood how hard it was for Gabrielle to be left behind, especially now, with all these new feelings to explore. But there was nothing to be done. "Don't let me sleep more than a couple of hours." She said, fighting the tenderness that threatened to overwhelm her. She willed herself to be resolute, to stand firm. Much might depend on the events of the next hours and she could not afford to be distracted.

Gabrielle did not look at her when she replied and Xena could see the shimmer of tears in her eyes, "All right..." was all she said. But she stood and walked over to Xena's bedroll. She crouched down and pulled the furs up over the warrior's shoulders, letting her hand rest briefly on her hair. She picked up a raven stand and let it slide silkily through her fingers as she withdrew. "Just sleep now." She whispered as Xena's eyes drifted shut, "And...." the last words were lost as she fell into Morpheus's realm. " Try to forgive me..."

It would be many hours later before those words would register.....

Gabrielle waited a full half candle mark, before leaving the campsite. She wanted to make sure Xena was well and truly asleep. It had been a dirty trick she had pulled, drugging the warrior with her own medicines. She hoped she would have the opportunity to regret that decision later, she hoped there was a 'later.' She knew she was taking a terrible chance here, but in her mind there simply was no choice. She hoped that Xena would not just leave Donocles alone and follow her. But somehow, she knew it was going to happen and when the warrior caught up with her, there was going to be Tartarus to pay. She squared her shoulders resolutely, if that was the price, so be it. This time, I am making the decision.

She thought about leaving Jet behind and traveling the two leagues to the village on foot. But discarded that idea when she realized that one of them might get injured in this venture and swift feet might be all that stood between them and annihilation. So she led the game, little mare a short way from camp, still being cautious. It never paid to underestimate the warrior princess...then mounted and turned for the village. She would hide the mare somewhere close by and enter the village as stealthily as possible.

She stuck to the forest was longer, but quieter, so the two leagues took a little time. Her conscience bothered her the whole way and she nearly turned back twice. She knew how important trust was to their relationship, but sometimes Xena just couldn't be reasoned with. For all her fierceness, there was a heart of pure Elysian goodness beating in her chest and she was often ruled by her emotions. At some point, she will have to scale down her battle for redemption to a minor skirmish now and then. Somewhere along the way, atonement must result. Otherwise, what was the point? In Gabrielle's opinion, humble as it was, Xena had long since made restitution. But she knew the warrior would never consider the possibility of enough.

She topped a shallow rise and moments later, and the dim lights from the village began to flicker between the tree trunks. She drew Jet to a standstill, calmly surveying the scene. In a common off to the left of the front gate, twenty or thirty campfires burned, casting an eerie glow over the clearing. She could see figures moving in and out of the firelight, men....armed men. She gave herself a little mental shake, "Well, Amazon Queen...what were you expecting? A knitting circle?" Her eyes passed over the tents across the common, butted up against the forest. Several glowed with candlelight or lanterns...officers' quarters. She scanned the tops of the tents looking for flags or pennants, or some sort of standard that might give her a clue as to Atrius' whereabouts.

Finally, she found what she was looking for, though the sight caused a lump of revulsion to form in the pit of her stomach. The tent was no larger than any of the other's, but the human skull perched on a pole above crossed arm bones, told her all she needed to know. This was the lair of Atrius... she grinned at herself...still barding after all these years...making a note of the tents location, she continued to study the camp. She looked for guards, but saw none until she turned her attention on the village itself. Zediar was nothing to fill a scroll with. A simple dirt track, running between run down huts, a tavern, an inn, a merchant. Xena would have loved it. She had a penchant for village taverns. Halfway down the road, on the right, was a stone building. It was far grander than most of the other buildings in town, but still only comparatively. She squinted into the gathering gloom, seeing what she believed were spear points, silhouetted against the brighter horizon. Looked like two, maybe three men on the broad steps leading to the door. Other than that, the town looked deserted and that was too bad, it would have been better to be able to blend in.

Watching for sentries, she urged Jet closer to the forest edge, where she could see better. From where she stopped, she was no more than a hundred yards from the roadway, and perhaps three times that from the front gate. She saw no one posted on the road, either before or behind her and only two men were at the gate. Everyone else seemed to be in the encampment. Something about that stunk...though Gabby couldn't quite put her finger on it. Still...she smelled a trap. She sat at the forests' edge pensively, for many long minutes wondering what Xena would do in this situation. But in the end, it was ultimately a question of what she was going to do.


Xena awoke some hours later, to the soft moaning of the injured man Donocles and the not so soft moaning of her own head. She rubbed her temple irritably, her eyes darting around the campsite. Gods, but her head hurt...what could have caused?...where was Gabrielle?...what time?... Suddenly the silence surrounding her, permeated her fuzzy mind. The fire was down to embers and judging by the moon, the night was almost gone.

Her eyes sought out her companion, who should have been rolled in her sleeping furs at this hour or standing sentry. But Gabrielle was no where to be seen, a moment further investigation, revealed the absence of Jet as well and the reality settled on her uncomfortably. Gabrielle had gone after Misera and Gar herself. On the heels of that revelation, came the understanding that her headache was a result of being drugged. For a minute she was coldly furious, then with a small tight smile, she had to admit a certain grudging respect for Gabrielle's deviousness. "Clever...but ill advised." She thought waspishly, "I think she will have to do a LOT of chores to make up for this...."

Almost instantly, that thought was banished by a gnawing worry. Gabrielle, the little idiot, had gone to Atrius's camp...ALONE...what had she been thinking? Suddenly she knew exactly what Gabrielle had been thinking "And I missed the signs because I assumed she would just do as I she usually does...." Gabrielle had voiced her worries, emphatically, but Xena had not listened, had in fact ignored Gabby's concerns. No wonder she knocked me out... it was the only way as far as she could see...Stupid, stupid, stupid... she tapped her aching forehead with a balled fist. She was supposed to be getting better at this. She stood, a little too swiftly for her head's liking and paused while her swimming vision cleared. She walked over to Donocles...first things first and checked on him. He was slightly feverish, so she made him another poultice and urged him to drink a few sips of water. She covered him gently with Gabrielle's sleeping furs and saw him comfortably sleeping, before she tried to tackle the problem of what to do about her wayward friend.

She mixed herself a cup of herbal tea, to counteract the residual effects of Gabrielle's earlier drink and sat down to think out the situation. She could possibly put Donocles on his horse and lead him to safety, then go in search of Gabrielle. But by the time she found him shelter, it would be full on daylight. Trying to gather intelligence on Atrius and his army during the day, would be tantamount to suicide. She would have to wait until dark and by then Gabrielle and the others would have been in Atrius's possession for many hours. That was not an option... Atrius was far too dangerous. He would kill Gabrielle outright, without any qualms, if he found out that she knew Xena. He would delight in it, if he knew Gabrielle actually meant something to the warrior princess. No, she thought pensively, whatever I do has to be now...before dawn...but how? And more importantly....what? Draining her cup, she rose purposefully, but unsure what she was going to do, but deciding action, even unfocused action, was better than sitting here. I'll make it up as I go along, she smiled grimly, like I always do....

She set some dried fruit and strips of cured meat close at hand for Donocles, along with a waterskin. She thought about leaving him a note to explain her absence, but decided against it. He'd figure it out. She also left enough wood close by for him to keep warm. After banking up the fierce saddled Argo and with a last sweeping look around the campsite, headed for Zediar, and almost certain trouble.


Gabrielle made a mental note of where she tied Jet and crept out of the trees towards the village gates. She had a brilliant idea, and a plan formed around it. She rummaged around in her saddle bag until she found what she needed. For several weeks, she had been practicing secretly with a sling she had made of scrap leather, hurling large smooth stones at imaginary enemies. She was becoming rather proficient with it. She had gotten the idea from the Israelites and was intrigued by the misleadingly simple weapon. Later, the Amazons had shown her some tricks as well and to avoid Xena's inevitable ribbing, had begun to practice far away from the warriors' critical eye. She had wanted to get used to the sling, and admittedly better with it before she approached her friend with her accomplishment. In the dark, it would be just the thing. With any luck, she would be able to dispatch both gate guards without raising an alarm. The quieter she accomplished that goal, the better. Her whole plan of escape, depended on stealth.

Drawing on years of keen observation, she drew soundlessly closer to her quarry. When she had gotten within thirty feet, she fitted a heavy round stone to the sling. Still in a crouch, she whirled the sling over her head and then released it. The rock hurled unerringly at the guard on the left, slamming him a direct hit between the eyes.

He did not fall, but simply leaned back against the gate, giving the impression he was simply resting. The other guard didn't so much as flinch. So good, thought Gabrielle with satisfaction, as she slipped another stone into the leather sling. This one caught the guard on the right, a resounding whack against the jaw, felling him like a tree. The way inside the village was now open.... but a niggling doubt still pestered Gabrielle. There wasn't time to analyze however, those soldiers would not remain unconscious for very long.

She raced forward in a crouch, stopped briefly to make sure both men were truly decommissioned, then slipped silently through the gates. Darting furtively along the darkened street, she kept her eyes on the guards that manned the steps of the building ahead of her. She slipped around the back of the structure and began looking for a way in. Finally she found a window, heavily barred, just beyond her reach. She quietly drug a barrel across the alleyway and stood up on it so she could peer in. As luck would have it, the Bard of Potedeia had been right. Below her, in the dim light of a single candle, were the familiar forms of Misera and Gar. Both were chained to the wall. She glanced around nervously, then hissed down at the prisoners. "Misera?...Gar...up here."

As one, both heads swung up at her voice. The transformation in Sera's face, as her eyes found Gabrielle, was breathtaking. From complete abject misery, to joyous amazement. Sera smiled at her friend, but shook her head in warning and drug her shackled hand closer to her face, pressing one finger against her lips to indicate that Gabrielle should be quiet.

Gabby nodded in understanding. "Guards?" She mouthed.

Sera grinned, held up two fingers, then pointed right. Two guards in the hall to the right. Two more fingers, and pointed to the left.

Gabrielle nodded again, her eyes troubled. She gnawed on her bottom lip, two at each end...supposing I can find a way am I going to catch them all by surprise?... Then she had another idea...and not a bad one either, even if she did say so herself. She mimed a candle, pointing at the one next to Gar. Both captives nodded. She held her thumb and forefinger apart about a candlemark width. Sera immediately understood and grinned. Gabby pointed at each one in turn, then mimed throwing punches, and yelling. This time Gar grinned and nodded at Gabrielle. Her course now set, she gave them a thumb up, and slipped down out of sight. She dragged the barrel back to its original place and brushed out her foot prints, then turned and headed back around to the front of the building. She moved eight or ten doors down from the jail, then darted from shadow to shadow crossing the street.

Carrying her staff tightly in her sweating fists, she got behind the ramshackle businesses and headed back towards the jail. When she was directly across from it, she paused to catch her breath and got a closer look at the guards. Only two of them, that was good... she squeezed between two of the structures and piled up the twigs and grasses she had gathered in the alley behind her. She struck her flint and got a small blaze going. She blew on it, coaxing it into life then from a small jar she took from a pouch at her waist. She poured lantern oil down the side of the building on her right. She poured a thin trail along the ground towards the tiny fire, making a fuse of sorts, then she backed out of enclosed area.

She retraced her steps to the other side of the street again and crouched out of sight in the shadow of the jail. Then she waited. Before even a few minutes had passed, she could see the glow of her fire dancing on the walls across from her. It wasn't too much longer, before one of the guards noticed it too.

Thrusting his spear at his partner, one of the guards said, "Fire!...go get help..." and he raced down the steps and across the road. The other guard leaned into the building and shouted, "You men?!...get out here now, there's a fire on the street!"

This wasn't exactly what Gabrielle had in mind, but she was going to have to go with it. The four men from guarding the prisoners, thundered up the inside ramps and poured out onto the steps, their weapons held at the ready. In a line, all five men moved to head of the stairs.

Gabrielle hesitated only a moment, before she slipped over the low stone railing and slithered into the gloomy building beyond. She paused inside the door, hearing the guard who had gone to investigate the fire say, "This fire was deliberately set...someone is in the village."

It wasn't until then that Gabrielle realized her mistake. Except for the soldiers, herself and her friends, there was no one else in the village. It was a trap. Gabrielle peered intently through the gloom at the group of soldiers and she had forgotten one other key detail...the keys. Even if she got below without being seen, she couldn't get the cell door open or release her friends from their bonds. If I live through this, she thought glumly, Xena is going to give me a great big 'I told you so' and I'll deserve it. Still, there was nothing else to do, but go forward or give herself up and that simply wasn't feasible. She knew Xena would kill herself to get Gabrielle and the others' out of here. She had no intention of letting that happen.

Suddenly, the second door guard, elbowed one of the cell guards in the ribs and whispered, "Whoever it is, might be after the prisoners...go check on them."

Gabrielle pressed her self into invisibility behind the door and held her breath as the guard passed beyond her. Her mouth twisted into an ironic smile, as the light from the hall torch, accented the ring of keys jingling at the man's belt. Angel on my shoulder, she thought wryly. Maybe I'll avoid that lecture yet... She slipped down the hall behind the unwary soldier, like a trout through a stream...silent and cunning. She followed him to the head of the stairs and worried briefly that Misera and Gar might choose this moment to begin their distraction, calling all of the guards inside again. But it was quiet beyond.... they must have heard the shouting and guessed that the plan had gone somehow awry... if they knew me better, she thought to herself with rueful acknowledgment, they would EXPECT as much.

She watched as the guard moved to the door and peered through the bars at the prisoners. From the depths of the dim cell...Misera's voice whispered out..."At the window...a man...sounded like there were several..." The guard spun on his heels to alert his compatriots and came face to face with Gabrielle and her mighty staff. She caught him a stunning blow across the bridge of his nose and dropped him like a bad habit. She plucked the key ring from his belt and was inside the cell in seconds. She kneeled next to Gar, his oversized shackles snapping audibly as she unlocked them and handed him her staff. "Keep watch." She hissed, indicating the door, even as she began to unlock Misera. Her eyes met those of the younger girl briefly, but between them passed all they needed to know about each other. A friendship was formed, forged and tempered in the space of a few seconds. They grinned at each other, "Later..." Gabrielle promised and her friend nodded as her bonds fell away. "Come on you two." She grinned largely, looking an awful lot like Xena in that moment, "We're getting out of here." She handed Sera the unfortunate soldier's spear, while she had Gar help her strip the man.

She donned his uniform and gave a playful little spin, waggling her eyebrows. "Height of fashion...wouldn't you agree?" she chuckled at Misera's incredulous look.

"I think the humor could wait until we are outside these walls...wouldn't you agree?" Was the sardonic reply.

"Yeah well....laugh and the world laughs with you...cry and the world laughs at you..." She shrugged and retrieved the soldier's sword from its scabbard, handing that to Gar in exchange for her staff back. She indicated the cell door and followed them out. "There are four of them outside on the stairs." She whispered, "And an entire army in the field outside the gates."

Sera gave her rescuer an unfathomable look, but her voice was colored with wry humor when she said, "And this is your idea of a rescue?"

Gabrielle snorted a laugh and whispered back, "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Lead on then, oh fearless Lady Gabrielle." Sera cocked an eyebrow expectantly.

Gabrielle grinned impishly and indicated the men in the street, "Dressed like this I should be able get close enough to them to surprise them, as soon as I engage them, you two can wade right in. But we have to be as quiet as possible or we aren't going to get out of here in one piece. We'll have to take out this four and make a dash for the trees before someone from the camp comes up here." She looked from one to the other, all humor gone from her face and voice. "Ready?" she asked, and she stood as they were nodding? She walked boldly out onto the stairway, trusting in the darkness to disguise her from the others, until she could get close enough to do some damage. As she descended the steps, Gabrielle noticed that there were only three guards on the street now. She glanced around furtively, looking for the stray man and was jolted when the door guard turned at her approach.

"The prisoners safe Setan?'re not Se...." He never got to finish that sentence, because Gabrielle swung her staff up and caught him under the chin. He lifted onto his toes with the force of the blow and then toppled like an axed tree. The other two spun on her, advancing only to encounter a wall of muscle, with a really big sword.

Gar made short work of them, crashing their helmeted heads together with a dull thump and letting them slide bonelessly to the ground. He grinned at Gabby, showing white teeth in a grimace of amusement.

"Let's get out of here." She said softly, gazing at the big man warily. He nodded and they all headed for the gates.

Everything was going fine, they reached the gates unmolested...and then ran headlong into a platoon of soldiers, led by the missing cell guard. Thinking quickly Gabrielle stepped out of the torchlight, and dropped her voice an octave. "There's trouble in the village...Setan told me to take the prisoners to the camp...there's too many of better hurry!"

The cell guard looked suspiciously at Gabrielle, but the soldier in charge of the platoon immediately turned towards the gates, ordering his men to advance into the village. The soldiers filed past at a trot and Gabrielle held back a sigh of relief until the last man had gone through the gate.

Wild eyed she looked at Sera and Gar and whispered.... "RUN!"

As she pelted for the treeline, Gabrielle was pulling off the rancid uniform, "When I get back to camp...I'm taking a long soon as Xena is done telling me off that is..." She almost smiled, but then the shouting began behind them and she urged her friends to greater speed. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw the platoon that had just entered the gates come pouring out the other way giving chase to the fugitives. Since stealth was not a factor any longer, Gabby shouted as she ran, "Once we get into the trees, we turn and fight....try and be as quiet about it as you can, the fewer of these guys we have to fight...the better."

Gar and Misera nodded, they were eating up the distance between themselves and the trees, but the soldiers were gaining faster. Gabrielle looked towards the far, these 20 behind them, were the only pursuit and they would make the trees before they were caught. I hope the forest muffles the battle sounds or we're in for some trouble... she thought, but she was feeling pretty good about their chances.

Continued in Chapter 16 ---->