When The Bough Breaks
By Pink Rabbit Productions

Disclaimer: The following story contains sexual acts between consenting adults. If you are offended by these acts, not yourself of age, or if this is illegal where you are, please leave now. This story is not meant to infringe on copyrights held by MCA or Renaissance Pictures . On alternate Wednesdays, it hangs out in seedy bars, and attempts to pick up parrots. I have definitely been watching way too much Monty Python. If you've gotten the impression I don't take these disclaimers too seriously, you're probably right. Remember, you will be tested on this chapter. Author's note: This started as a silly little sex piece and suddenly plot snuck in. Wonder how that happened?  :-)

Part One

A warm wind blew across the calm surface of the small pond, the sun gleaming on tiny waves and bare skin. Xena dove gracefully from one of the high rocks that surrounded the deep, clear pool, spiking her dive with barely a splash. She swam underwater, for several strokes, before surfacing, washing dark hair out of her eyes with an automatic flip of her head. She glanced back toward the shore where Gabrielle was still undressing. "Well, are you coming in, or aren't you?!"

The bard nodded, and tossed the last of her clothes aside. Her dive was considerably less graceful, and the resulting splash sent large ripples outward from her entry point.

Xena watched the performance with a hint of a smile. Sometimes, it occurred to her just how lucky she was that Gabrielle had opted to follow her that first day. The little bard had cajoled, chattered, and won her way into her heart. Her stomach muscles clenched as she remembered that moment in Mitoa when she thought she'd lost Gabrielle. She'd gone half-mad with grief. If anything happened to her lover, she wasn't sure she wanted to go on. She shook herself abruptly, chasing away the demons with conscious effort. Gabrielle was alive and well, and a year later, the scars were nearly gone. Xena flexed her muscles, and felt the faint pull of her own recently acquired scars. Her own death hadn't been permanent, but it had been close. She shook her head. They were both alive. There was time to experiment with these new feelings.

Wanting to chase away the grim turn of thought, Xena dove deep, grateful for the feel of the cool water against her skin, washing away the sweat and dirt of the road. She came up near Gabrielle, head back, mouth open, sun glinting off her dark hair.

Gabrielle watched her with wide eyes, wondering if Xena had any idea just how beautiful she was. She was like some gorgeous, dangerous animal, all beauty and grace. Xena opened her eyes, head swinging around until her gaze met Gabrielle's. Electricity arced between them with shattering force. The bard jumped when Xena suddenly laughed, slapping the water with her hand to send a spray of water over her young friend's head.

A war broke out in full force as the two splashed each other like playful children.

Gabrielle ducked under and came up laughing as she spattered Xena directly in the face.

The warrior princess retaliated with a volley of return splashes that quickly swamped the younger woman, prompting her to disappear underwater.

Xena twisted around, hunting for her friend, and suspecting a trick. She felt a brief rush of water against her legs, but couldn't spin around in time. Gabrielle's hands landed on her shoulders and she pushed. Xena grabbed a lungful of air on the way down, then purposely went even deeper than Gabrielle intended, twisting around as her feet touched bottom. She kicked off a heartbeat later, and came up the length of Gabrielle's body, catching her around the waist as she swam upward. She hauled her lover up, lifting her halfway out of the pond as her head broke the surface.

"Xena," Gabrielle yelped, bracing her hands on Xena's shoulders to steady herself.

Treading water with powerful legs, Xena managed to keep her young lover well out of the water. "You surrender?" she demanded with a grin.

"Never," Gabrielle shrieked through a laugh, playing along with the game.

Xena's lips back in a grin. "Good." She opened her mouth over Gabrielle's ribcage, deliberately sinking back under water. Her lips ranged over warm wet skin for a long moment before she kicked off, again angling toward shore. She drew in a deep breath as she surfaced, then went back to concentrating on Gabrielle's flat stomach, keeping them both afloat with steady kicks.

"What are you doing?" the object of her attention gasped.

Xena's eyebrow lifted, but she didn't look up. "If you don't know the answer to that, I need to try harder," she chuckled. She spread her hands over the curve of Gabrielle's back, then spiked her feet to drop back underwater. This time, her mouth ranged lower, tongue brushing over her lower stomach and darting into the indentation of her navel, before the need for air drove her up again. She came up a few feet closer to shore, treading water with powerful kicks. She tilted her chin up, lips drawing into a sensual smile. "Ready to give up, yet?"

"Do I look stupid?" Gabrielle murmured dazedly.

Xena chuckled low in her throat. "I'll take that as a no."

"You do that," the bard sighed as they slid lower into the water. This time, Xena tugged her head under as well, ranging her mouth up her torso, wrapping her lips around a sharp nipple, before moving higher. Their lips met in a leisurely kiss that continued until they surfaced again. This time, close enough to the shore that Xena could stand with her head above the surface. Curving her hands along the underside of Gabrielle's ribcage, she hefted the young woman higher against her body, while the bard braced her hands on Xena's shoulders taking some of her own weight. The position gave her lover more freedom to explore her breasts, tasting, teasing, leaving nothing untouched.

Still carrying the bard, Xena continued closer to the smooth rocks that edged the pond, gradually taking more and more of her weight. She let her lover's smaller body slide down hers, murmuring, "Wrap your legs around my hips," she exhaled. She felt the soft shudders as silky soft hair and flesh slid down her belly, teasing sensitive nerve endings with the promise of more. Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the back of Xena's neck, grinning down at her from her higher position.

"Y'know, I think I kinda like being on top," she joked.

Xena's eyes narrowed faintly, and one brow lifted.

Gabrielle dismissed it as her usual "Xena look" and just kept grinning.

They stayed there, staring at each other for a long moment, losing themselves in emotions of the moment, and the promise of what was to come. Gabrielle could almost feel her pulse falling into sync with Xena's as erotic play turned to very real sensual energy. Near painful heat centered between her thighs. Gabrielle played very gently with the wet hair streaming down Xena's back. "Don't you...uh...think, maybe, we should...uh..." she nodded toward the shore only a few feet away.

Xena's pale eyes burned with blue fires of lust, but she didn't move. "Soon," she promised.

Their breathing was in rhythm now. Cool water lapped up over warm flesh, making Gabrielle that much more aware of the contrasting temperatures. Work roughened hands slid down over her hips, drawing lines of fire, before tightening their grip. She lifted her lover slightly away from her body, allowing cold water to wash between them and over flesh made warm by intimate contact.

Gabrielle gasped sharply, her head falling back as sensations fluttered through her. She lost track of everything but the hot flood of pleasure through her veins, until Xena carefully untangled her legs, and set her back on her feet. Shaky with passion, she would have stumbled and fallen if not for the supportive hold on her arms. She blinked, realizing Xena had move to within a few feet of the shore. Water lapped around her thighs, occasionally splashing her heated center. "Xena," she panted half mad with the need for more.

"Have I won yet?" the warrior princess drawled, the need to conquer glittering in her bright gaze as it held Gabrielle's softer one.

"If I say yes, do we do something other than just stand here?"

Xena nodded slowly.

"You win." she capitulated cheerfully. "So, what exactly do you get...for winning, I mean?" she asked on a suggestive note that sent a ripple down Xena's spine.

Xena reached out, trailing a single finger down the bridge of Gabrielle's nose, the over her lips.

Gabrielle wrapped her lips around her lover's finger, grazing sharp teeth against her skin before Xena moved on. She shuddered as that light touch brushed impossibly lightly down the center of her body.

"You," Xena breathed. Her finger reached the center of Gabrielle's heat and slipped inside, teasing and exploring, even as she leaned close, claiming Gabrielle's lips with commanding fervor. Gabrielle arched into Xena, losing herself in the rich feelings. She was shuddering by the time Xena lifted her leg, wrapping it around her hip. The warrior princess carried the delicate figure of her lover to the edge of the water, lifting her out with controlled strength to lay her on the sun warmed rocks. "You're the only prize I want anymore," she exhaled as she knelt over her, one knee resting on the rock between the spread of Gabrielle's thighs. She trailed light fingers down the bard's torso, outlining her breasts with languorous strokes, before moving on, following the indentations of her stomach muscles. Her fingers slid into the dusting of silky reddish/blonde hair at the junction of her thighs. Xena's eyes slid lower, following the same path her fingers had traveled, touching on each and every diamond bright drop of water.

Gabrielle swallowed hard, instinctively arching her hips into the feather light caresses between her thighs.

Xena pressed a hand flat over her stomach, gently stilling her. "Not yet," she whispered. "Lie perfectly still, and just feel." With one hand braced near Gabrielle's hip, Xena leaned forward, kissing away the wetness that dripped from her skin. Her mouth slipped lower, exploring with the sharp point of her tongue until she tasted a new kind of wetness.

This time, Gabrielle couldn't restrain the need to press against the intimate caress. Xena pulled away, staring down at her with hungry intensity. "I told you not move," she whispered.

Gabrielle's head came up her eyes wide with disbelief. "You have got to be kidding." She whimpered.

Xena sat back on her heels, and shook her head. She drew a line down the center of Gabrielle's body, lifting her touch away every time there was the faintest glimmer of a tremor. "Not a muscle," she chastised. "Consider it part of your training."


Xena chuckled softly, and returned her place between Gabrielle's thighs, massaging them with strong hands. She leaned forward to explore her lover's intimate flesh.

Gabrielle jumped, and let out a soft cry, hands lifting to dig spasmodically into thick, dark hair.

Xena caught Gabrielle's wrists, pinning them to the ground on either side of her hips. "Lie still," she chided again, the warm vibrations of her voice making Gabrielle shudder with need. It took all of her self-control not to arch into her lover's wandering mouth, not to seek closer contact with the soft roughness of her tongue. She wrapped her fingers around Xena's wrists, holding onto her as the pleasure swelled steadily higher. It became almost too much, too good, and she whimpered low in her throat, begging for completion. This time, Xena didn't pull away, or chide her to be still. She deepened the hungry caresses, lips and tongue moving voraciously, until Gabrielle's back was arched, her muscles bowstring taut, teeth chattering with the need for orgasm. She let out a soft cry of disappointment as Xena broke off the caresses, moving up over her body, lifting her wrists over her head as she moved.

Xena stared down at her flushed, bright-eyed features with possessive hunger. "I love seeing you like this," she admitted huskily. She transferred Gabrielle's wrists to one hand, then ran her free hand down the younger woman's face, outlining her full lips with a light touch. "Excited." Her mouth followed the same path as her hand, and she kissed her very lightly, as she slipped her hand over a bare shoulder, then down the smooth skin of her arm. "Aroused."

"Please," Gabrielle begged, the brief respite from intense stimulation increasing, rather than cooling her needs.

Xena rolled a distended nipple between her thumb and forefinger, then ducked her head to nip the puckered flesh. "Swollen." She dropped her hand to its comfortable berth between slender thighs. "Wet."

Gabrielle bucked her hips against the pleasantly invasive touch. "I think you just like to listen to me beg," she groaned low in her throat.

Xena chuckled softly, strumming her fingers even faster. "You could have a point," she admitted and came down on full warm lips, kissing her with desperate fascination. Gabrielle wrapped her legs around Xena's thigh, trapping her hand as she rocked against the much-needed source of pleasure. Suddenly, her orgasm washed over her with blinding force. Lost in the tidal wave of sensation, Gabrielle couldn't have come up with something as simple as her own name, if her life depended on it. Xena released her wrists, and Gabrielle wrapped her arms tightly around the larger woman's torso, breaking the kiss to bury her face in the strong curve of her throat. She barely felt the gentle hand that curved to the back of her head, or the light kisses Xena pressed to her temple.

"By the Gods," Gabrielle groaned as she floated back to earth. She pressed a kiss over a sensitive chord in Xena's neck, breathing in the faintly musky scent of her skin. Still breathing hard, she tilted her back to peer up at her lover. "But you didn't..." she trailed off.

Xena kissed her on the tip of the nose. "I wanted this time to be for you," she murmured.

"But, why?"

Xena shrugged. "Does there need to be a reason?" She kissed the tiny bard again, a grin snaking across her lips as she broke away again. "I like watching you, feeling you..." She slid the hand at Gabrielle's sex up over her belly before finally cupping her breast. "You feel so good."

Gabrielle sighed. "You have no idea," she exhaled dazedly.

Xena chuckled softly. "I think I can guess," she drawled suggestively.

It was the bard's turn to chuckle. Fingers playing idly with Xena's still damp hair, she dropped her other hand to her lover's hip, urging her higher, until her breasts were centered over Gabrielle's waiting mouth. She laved a swollen nipple with her tongue, then dragged sharp teeth lightly over the puckered flesh. "You feel pretty good, yourself."

"You got that right," Xena sighed.

"Maybe we can make you feel great," Gabrielle suggested and buried her face in the warm valley between her breasts before working her way slowly downward, following the centerline of her torso. Xena straightened her arm, bracing herself higher to give her lover more room as she tasted and teased her way lower. Gabrielle's tongue followed the faint ridges that delineated her ribcage, then she scooted a little lower to outline tight banded stomach muscles in feathery kisses. Taut muscles rippled and flexed with every loving caress. Gabrielle abruptly pushed Xena over onto her back, moving over her, to kiss her way even lower.

"You're getting a knack for this," she gasped.

"I've been working on it," Gabrielle murmured, and turned her head to press a kiss against Xena's silky inner thigh, then returned to soft, damp flesh, while she ran her hands over her lover's torso, stroking and caressing.

The warrior princess groaned as if in pain, and her head fell back, eyes sliding closed as she lost herself in rich sensation.

Desperate to please her lover, Gabrielle ranged over well learned erogenous zones, until Xena let out a soft cry, every muscle in her body spring steel taut. She, who had never begged for anything in her life, abruptly uttered the single word, "Please."

It was an odd moment of triumph for the smaller woman. Xena commanded, demanded, and occasionally manipulated. She never asked. It was a sign of the trust that lay between them that she allowed herself that much vulnerability. She felt the harsh spasms as the warrior princess went over the brink.

Xena let out a low, keening cry, hips bucking in sync with the pulsations that ran riot through her veins. She came back to herself long minutes later, her muscles weak and trembling. Gabrielle kissed her inner thigh lightly. "That was amazing," she sighed.

Gabrielle laughed softly. "We aim to please."

"Good aim," Xena panted. She folded an arm over her eyes, breathing deeply in the aftermath.

"I think I got this round," Gabrielle teased.

"Oh, shut up," Xena groaned but she lifted her arm, wrapping it around Gabrielle as the bard stretched up alongside her.

Xena leaned forward into her lover's midsection, resting her cheek against Gabrielle's flat belly, while she wrapped her arms around her hips. Her eyes touched on the narrow scar that marred the younger woman's ribs. In the throes of passion, she hadn't thought about it, but now she laid her lips over the remains of the injury, her heart pounding painfully with the memory of how close she had come to losing her. She'd forget about it for months at a time, then something would happen and she'd remember those awful moments. She could lose herself in mindless sex, but somehow, it always came back to this when it was over. The sick fear that she'd wind up alone would burn in her heart, until she could force it down again.

Sensing the direction her lover's thought were taking, Gabrielle slid through her grasp to kneel in front of her, her forehead just touching Xena's. "I'm not going anywhere, you know."

Xena brushed a hand along her cheek, then smoothed gentle fingers back into her hair. "Don't make promises you can't necessarily keep," she exhaled darkly.

Gabrielle silently absorbed the quiet comment, before finally whispering. "I don't intend dying for a long time, but...if it were to happen..." She touched Xena's cheek, catching the edge of a tear on her finger. "In time, we'd be together again."

"Gabrielle, when it's your time, you'll be in the Elysian Fields...I..." she paused, shaking her head, and not giving voice to her dark fears that she could never atone for what she'd been. Her wrists almost seemed to ache from the feel of the hemp ropes binding her to the cross.

As if sensing the turn of her thoughts, the bard laid a finger over her lover's lips, drawing her attention. "I'll be with you," she whispered. "Wherever that is."

They shared a slow, loving kiss, until Xena broke away, a surprisingly soft smile curving her lips. "Enough of that," she said, intentionally dismissing the brief bout of depression. She rose gracefully, and reached down to draw Gabrielle to her feet. "I don't know about you, but I could use another swim to get over the effects of the last one."

Her young lover laughed softly, allowing the change of subject. She'd learned to push the warrior only so far when it came to emotional matters. Push too far, and it was likely to harden the wall Xena kept around her emotions. With care, she could sneak around the barriers, and see into Xena's heart. Any serious thoughts disappeared only seconds later, as her lover slung her up into her arms. Laughing, Gabrielle made only a feeble attempt to escape when she walked back into the water. She realized what her lover intended when good humor glinted in her pale gaze.

"Don't!" she shrieked, clinging to Xena's neck as she moved deeper into the water.

The warrior princess only grinned. The ground beneath her feet dropped sharply as they moved father from shore, until the water was lapping around her hips. She suddenly stopped, her grin broadening a notch.

Gabrielle looked out across the water, then back at her lover. "You wouldn't."

If possible, Xena's grin broadened even farther. "Yes I would," she disagreed cheerfully, then tossed her slight burden.

Shrieking, Gabrielle flew several feet before splashing into the chilly water. She came up sputtering, her wet dark hair, draining water down her face. "Cute," she sputtered, and pushed the sodden strands out of her eyes. "Very cute. You know this means war, don't you?"

Xena only folded her arms across her chest, and chuckled. "You do need to work on your hand to hand combat skills," she teased.

Gabrielle leapt at her friend with a mocking growl, and they fell into a bout of wrestling, dunking and splashing, that lasted until they were both winded.

On the highest of the cliffs above the two lovers, an agile figure muted greens and browns sat back to watch the games with a dark, anger tinged expression. Barely muted rage flared to life as the two slipped from the water and fell into each other's arms again with soft words and laughter that carried surprisingly well across the water.

He'd already been there some time, watching, when he heard the laughingly shrieked name.


A gloved hand fisted tightly.

So, she'd come, no doubt, her army close behind.

He shook his head, dark eyes glittering.

They'd be ready this time. This time the warrior princess would be the one who suffered. He edged back toward the edge of the forest, where his horse was tethered.

Gabrielle leaned her head on Xena's shoulder, fingers tracing idle patterns on her flat belly, only to jerk upright, as the warrior princess abruptly stiffened and snapped to her feet. She grabbed for her sword, yanking it from its scabbard as her eyes searched the surrounding countryside.

"What is it?" Gabrielle questioned and reached for her staff. Experience had taught her to expect the worst whenever Xena got edgy.

"I heard a horse," the warrior murmured.


Xena shook her head. "I know what Argo sounds like," she hissed. Suddenly, she tensed, pointing toward the opposite side of the pond where a dark forest hillside butted into high granite cliffs.

Squinting, Gabrielle could just make out a figure riding away between the trees. "Well, unless I'm mistaken, we just gave someone a really cheap thrill," she said dryly.

Xena shook her head, her expression still edgy. "I'm not so sure," she muttered. She yanked on her leather bodice and boots, then picked up her sword again, noting that Gabrielle had used the brief moment to dress as well. "Stay here," she bit out without pause, as she started down the trail that led around the tiny lake.

"No way am I staying behind," Gabrielle disagreed, grabbing her staff and trotting after the warrior princess.

Xena flashed an irritated look over her shoulder. "I wish you'd learn to listen," she grumbled.

"I do listen," Gabrielle argued. "I just don't necessarily do what you tell me."

That earned her another flashing glare. "You can say that again."

Long minutes later, they clambered up the last of the cliffs. Xena reached back, steadying Gabrielle as she climbed to her feet. "Over there," she murmured as her eyes swept across the rocky outcropping. She broke away, well aware that Gabrielle followed close behind, and moved to one corner of the granite outcropping, kneeling down next to a scattering of disturbed leaves. Several had been ground into the rock, and tiny stones had been dislodged from the larger rocks. She rose easily, pacing back toward the edge of the trees. She noted the broken plants where a horse had been ground tied, and the hay-strewn droppings that surrounded the area. "He was here for quite awhile...watching..."

Gabrielle flushed with embarrassment. "Well, I hate to put it this way," she muttered, her skin turning an even deeper shade of red. "But I think that's kind of predictable...all things considered." She fumbled with her staff, unable to meet her lover's piercing gaze as she mumbled. "I mean, if he'd wanted to attack, it wouldn't have been that...difficult...when we were..." She trailed off meaningfully.

Xena frowned, unable to argue with her lover's logic, but somehow uneasy with the explanation, all the same. "Probably," she admitted at last.

Gabrielle waited a beat, then reached out a tentative hand, curving it to Xena's larger palm. "Let's go. There's no one here anymore."

The warrior princess stared into the depths of the verdant forest, hunting for any signs of movement that might belie her companion's opinion.


Her ears pricked, searching the winds for the jangle of a spur, or the soft blowing of a horse's breath.

Again nothing.

So why was she so damn uneasy?

Was it nothing more than a lifetime's paranoia that made her skin crawl? Or was something or someone waiting for her out there? She truly didn't know. She lost track of how long she stood there, but finally, she allowed Gabrielle to tug her away.


Workers toiled atop the walls of the city of Ajanus, repairing the damage wrought by years of neglect and abuse. The last warlord who'd used the place had faced plenty of attacks, but had never bothered to repair the damages. He'd just impressed a few more peasants from the village, and used them as human barricades.

The technique had worked for a time, but at some point, the peasants learned to disappear when a battle was imminent, and he'd been forced to face an attacking army on his own. He hadn't fared well, particularly since the families of the dead peasants had made up much of the attack force. They hadn't been happy with his previous means of defense...not happy at all. They'd left his head rotting on a pike over the walls for days as a sign of just how unhappy.

The new warlord of the keep was less inclined to waste lives, and more inclined to shore up crumbling rock. She strode through the courtyard, angular frame scarcely visibly under a dark billowing cape. Her gaze touched on the continuing repairs, then swept along to take in a returning hunting party. They had two deer slung over a packhorse. Good, that would feed the workers and soldiers for another night or two. Rhiannon was quite practical in her intention to feed the local peasants. With their bellies full, they were that much more loyal, and that much less inclined to sharpen the headsman's axe. She had no intention of dying in a pool of blood the way her predecessor had, his eyes bulged with disbelief, a peasant's pitchfork protruding from his belly. Her gaze swept along the castle walls. She never wanted her head on a pike, spat at by all those she'd harmed in life.

Her gaze swept on, touching on small party of soldiers ready to ride out. They were hunting a killer who'd murdered several women in the area. She prayed her men found the bastard soon. He threatened to undo the unity they'd created.

Despite the fact that she'd rescued them, and fed them, the peasants looked away as she strode past, fear showing in their eyes. If it bothered the warlord, she didn't show it. Rhiannon had been of royal blood, before she'd fallen in with brigands. She'd learned early to ignore the stares and whispers of those she considered her inferiors. Despite herself, she reached up, absently fingering the pitted scar that marred her right cheek, barely brushing the rough cloth tied around her head to hide her ruined eye socket. Evil eye--the peasants called it, and their eyes never met her dark gaze, lest they be cursed by the gods. Even her own men sometimes seemed leery of the injury.

That didn't stop any of them from following her. She'd led them to some degree of wealth and peace, put food in their bellies and a roof over their heads. She kept moving with long, confident strides. Her head swung up a moment later when a guard's voice rang across the courtyard.

"Rider approaching!"

She ran to the walls, bounding up the stairs. The loss of her eye made depth perception difficult, but she had no problem identifying the lanky figure, on a sorrel gelding, headed their way at a full gallop. "Open the gates!"

Her brother Dayne, stormed into the courtyard, pulling back on the reins so hard that his horse, Ares, reared, front hooves pawing the air. The animal was blowing hard, his chest and flanks lathered with sweat.

Rhiannon dropped from the walls to the courtyard, and caught the reins, forcing the animal's head down, as she dragged his front hooves back to earth. "What's happened?" she demanded of her younger brother.

"Xena," the boy panted as he swung down. "I saw her at Granite Lake."

Rhiannon flinched as though struck. She shook her head in denial. "Are you sure? How close were you?"

"It was her all right," Dayne insisted, flicking dark tangles of hair out of his eyes as he continued. "She was with another women, and I heard her call Xena's name...more than once."

It took all of Rhiannon's willpower to stay calm. "What about her army. Did you see them?"

The boy shook his head. "I didn't see them. I don't think they're in the valley yet. She was alone. We can finally kill her."

Rhiannon pivoted away from him, absently tracing the scar with one hand, outlining the well-known cuts in the flesh. "It's not that simple," she exhaled.

"Not that simple," the boy repeated and grabbed her arm, bringing her back around. "She's the reason Paracelsus managed to destroy Theros. If she hadn't stolen our supplies, and weakened the defenses--"

"I know what she did," Rhiannon said very softly, her mind already racing ahead.

"She made you a slave!" the boy screamed.

The last word seemed to galvanize the woman into motion. She grabbed her brother by the shirtfront slamming him backwards into his sweaty and stumbling horse. "I know that! Better than anyone!" she snarled with feral intensity. "But I also know how she can fight! And I won't throw away lives needlessly, if it can be avoided!"

The boy was as tall as his sister, but lacking the raw strength her life as a warrior had imbued on her. Nonetheless, he found the strength to push her back, his expression sullen. "She deserves to die."

"Maybe," Rhiannon admitted. "But the men she'll kill don't." She worked a hand through her long, dark hair, pushing it away from her face. She noted the crowd that had gathered and was watching, waiting to hear her decision. They weren't ready to face Xena's army yet, not by a long shot. They'd be cut down like the peasants and former slaves they were. "Purgamon," she called suddenly, waving her lieutenant forward.

He was an impressive man, tall, handsome in a rough hewn way. Gray flecked the hair at his temples and beard and his eyes showed the weight of a hard life. He stepped forward with easy grace. "Yes, General?"

"I want you to take ten of your best men out to Granite Lake...Bring Xena here.... try to avoid using force, but do what you have to."

"Then we'll snap the trap shut on her," Dayne gloated as he realized his elder sister's intention. "And remove her head from her shoulders."

Rhiannon's eyes shifted back to her brother. "And do what's necessary." She corrected grimly.

"Kill the bitch!" he shrieked. "Better yet, throw her to the men. Let every one of them have his piece, then slice out her eyes and--"

"NO!" Rhiannon bellowed, and grabbed his shirtfront again, rage glittering in her good eye. "MY men DON'T rape, and they don't kill, unless they have to...not even Xena!" She hurled the boy back, sending him stumbling across the stone tiles of the courtyard.

Purgamon watched with thoughtful eyes as she fought to control her raging temper. Finally, she turned a haunted gaze on the furious, and sullen boy, shaking her head as if to deny the hot emotions flowing between them. "I won't become an animal again...not even to kill her," she swore.

"Then you're a fool," Dayne snarled and strode away.

Rhiannon started after him, but Purgamon touched a hand to her shoulder with the quiet advice. "You're both too angry right now." A few peasants and soldiers were watching the scene with curious eyes, but they quickly went back to their work, when he turned a warning gaze outward.

"He's angry all the time," she whispered, her eyes stricken. "I can't break through it."

Purgamon nodded slowly. "He's dangerous...you know that, don't you?" He said carefully, uncertain how to broach the worry at the back of his mind.

"What those soldiers did to him before I bought him back..." she whispered almost inaudibly.

"Is no excuse for what he may be becoming."

She looked up at him, a frown drawing her brows together. She suddenly recognized the meaning, behind the words. "No," she whispered, sounding ill. "He couldn't..."

"Are you sure of that?" He pressed.

Rhiannon nodded, denial evident in every stiff line of her body. "Very sure," she growled, her voice cold and distant. "You should be leaving now...but before you go," she added. "Order picket riders to check the boundaries. I want to know where Xena's army is."

"Of course," Purgamon whispered, his own voice chill. He strode off, boots kicking up dust as he called his best men together and rode out.

Rhiannon watched him go, her expression worried. The keep unfinished, a killer in their midst, and now Xena. What more could go wrong?


Xena watched the reds and golds of the dying sun spread across the sky in dramatic streaks, with a hint of a smile. She tightened her hold on the slender figure pressed against her side. Gabrielle's head was pillowed on her shoulder, her red/gold hair spread across her arm. The tension that had come when she realized they were being watched had drained off, leaving her pleasantly mellow. She slipped a hand under Gabrielle's top, spreading her hand against her back.

Smiling, Gabrielle brushed her knuckles down the leather front of Xena's bodice.

Noting the advancing darkness, Xena sighed softly, loathe to surrender the comfort of the position. The boulder at her back was pleasantly warm, but she knew things would be getting chilly as soon as the sun fell out of sight behind the mountains. "I should build a fire," she murmured and started to ease her arm out from behind Gabrielle's head.

The bard lifted an eyebrow. "I thought you already did that pretty well," she teased.

Xena sighed with mock disgust. "I meant the kind where you rub two sticks together," she deadpanned.

"Well, we didn't try that, but..."

"Shhh," Xena hissed abruptly as her ears picked up the sound of hoofbeats.


"Horses," Xena hissed and snapped to her feet, grabbing for her sword. They were in a fairly hidden alcove, but if someone was looking for them, they wouldn't be hard to find. "Stay here," she ordered Gabrielle, and started forward, peering around the edge of the rocks. A dozen men on horseback entered the clearing below the rocks, their mounts moving in easy syncopation. Their leader held up a hand, calling the troop to a halt. Xena's eyes narrowed, studying the soldiers with a professional eye. Their armor was limited, but they were all clean, their horses well cared for. She noted that they rode together in automatic formation, and obeyed their leader without question. They were undoubtedly either soldiers for some minor local potentate, or in service to some relatively unknown warlord more interested in self protection than expanding borders.

"What do we do?" Gabrielle whispered as she pulled up behind her friend.

Xena glanced back with a frown. "I told you to stay back," she hissed.

"I needed to know what was going on, didn't I?"

Xena snorted something under her breath, then turned back, watching as the soldiers began to water their mounts. Their leader's eyes swept upward, and Xena stiffened the instant she realized they'd been seen.

"Hola!" the guard captain called out, and strode forward.

Waving at Gabrielle to stay where she was, Xena stepped forward, her sword sheathed, but in hand. "Hello."

"I'm Purgamon, captain of the guard at Ajanus," he introduced himself with a nod of the head.

"Xena," the warrior introduced herself without further fanfare, noting that the remainder of the guard flashed an occasional glance her way, but mostly ignored her.

Purgamon's eyes narrowed as he searched for the best way to bring the warrior princess without violence. He'd glimpsed the girl behind her, and a plan quickly formed. "May I come up. I'd like to ask you a question, or two, if you don't mind."

Xena considered the question for a long moment, before finally nodding. She watched the tall soldier climb the short distance with wary caution, careful to keep Gabrielle well behind her. She was in a defensible position, but she didn't want to fight, if she didn't have to. She was relieved to note he kept his hand well away from his sword as he scrambled up to join her. She felt his curious gaze as he noted her lack boots and armor, but didn't react.

"My men and I are on patrol."

Xena nodded silently, encouraging him to continue.

"There've been several killings in the area in the last...all young women...all..." His eyes touched on the diminutive figure behind Xena as he debated his choice of words. "Brutalized," he decided at last.

Gabrielle's eyes rounded at the implication, while Xena's darkened with disgust. She'd seen worse things in her time, but it still sickened her to see someone abused that way.

He gestured across the lake. "Two of the killings happened in this area. I was wondering if you've seen anything unusual."

Gabrielle sharp gasp of air drew his attention, and he looked at Xena, obviously hunting for clarification.

"We saw someone on the rocks up there," Xena informed him with a nod toward the opposite side of the lake. "He was watching us swim."

"Did you get a look at him?"

She shook her head. "By the time I caught a glimpse, he was riding away."

Purgamon cursed softly and smoothed a hand over his short-cropped hair. "No one's been able to spot any more of the bastard than that," he growled.

Xena saw the genuine frustration in his eyes. He was a man trying to stop something ugly, and she felt a wave of sympathy. "He was riding a sorrel," she murmured, remembering the glimpse she'd caught of the horse." It wasn't much, but it was all she could offer.

Purgamon's eyes darkened. She'd glimpsed Dayne. He couldn't help but wonder if the boy was the killer, scouting new victims, until he'd realized who the dark haired woman was. He was silent for a brief moment, lost in his own thoughts. Finally, he looked up. "Under the circumstances, we've been allowing the villagers, and any travelers who care to, to stay within the walls of the keep at night. You and your companion are welcome to ride back with us."

Xena started to refuse. She was quite capable of protecting their camp. Then she remembered how the man on the hillside had managed to stay there for some time without being seen. Once before she'd seem a madman whose pleasure was killing in the dead of night. He'd had almost preternatural skill at moving without being seen and near inhuman strength. It had taken an entire village to take him down. For herself, she didn't worry, but there was Gabrielle. She glanced back at the young woman, then back at the patiently waiting soldier. Finally, she nodded. "Thank you. I'd appreciate that."

"We'll be a few more minutes. If you don't have horses, you and your friend can each ride behind one of my men."

"Don't worry," Xena assured him. "I have a horse." She watched for a moment, as he started to climb back down, then turned.

Gabrielle turned a startled expression her way. "I...uh...didn't think you'd agree."

Xena shrugged as she moved to tug on her boots and armor. "Put things together while I get Argo," she ordered, noting that Gabrielle had used the brief moment to pull on her own boots and grab her staff.

The girl caught her hand before she could turn away. "You're doing this because of me, aren't you?" she whispered perceptively.

Xena shrugged. "We'll be safer at the keep." She nodded toward Purgamon and his soldiers. "He seems like a good man. I trust him...and I don't trust whoever that was watching us this afternoon."

Gabrielle swallowed hard, a flicker of fear showing in her eyes before she covered it.

"Now, go on and finish getting ready. I want to ride out with them."

Gabrielle watched her disappear around the side of the boulder and heard a sharp whistle, before she moved to pack their things.

Within a very few minutes, Gabrielle passed Xena the small pack that contained their things, watching as she tied it to Argo's saddle. The soldiers were ready to leave, but they waited while Xena mounted, then helped her companion up behind her.

Purgamon trotted his own animal over. "Ready to leave?" he questioned.

Xena nodded.

Since the trail was wide enough for two horses, the soldiers were riding in pairs. The captain had ridden in alone at the head, which left the space next to him open, so Xena found herself in the position of riding there, or at the back, where the dust and dirt would be at their thickest. She chose the front of the small troop, keeping easy pace with their leader.

Purgamon looked over, meeting Xena's eyes, before letting eyes wander back to the woman behind her. "I'm afraid I didn't get your name," he murmured over the sound of pounding hooves.

The bard's mouth turned up in a friendly smile. "Gabrielle."

"Somehow, you don't seem like the...warrior...type..." he noted hesitantly.

She shook her head. "I'm a bard...well...in training anyway." She felt Xena stiffen, and sensed that her friend was none too anxious for her to continue the conversation.

Purgamon seemed to sense the vibrations as well, because his gaze swung back to Xena. "Xena..." He repeated her name. "You're the one they call the warrior princess, aren't you?" he questioned, curious whether or not she'd answer honestly.

"Once..." Xena admitted. "A lifetime ago...some people called me that."

"I'd expect to find you riding with an army...not a bard."

Xena shrugged one muscular shoulder. "Not anymore," she said grimly.

"Does that mean you don't have one anymore, or just that you don't ride with them?" he pressed, trying to understand her behavior.

Xena looked over at the tall captain, and saw the worry in his eyes. She couldn't really blame him. In his shoes, she'd have been equally uneasy letting a famous warlord into her castle. "Look, I realize what has you worried. Let me put your mind at ease. I don't have an army, and I'm not out to take your master's keep. I just want a safe place for my friend and I to spend the night."

"Fair enough," the soldier allowed, but an odd expression remained in his dark eyes.

They rode the rest of the way in silence, and didn't reach Ajanus until some time after nightfall.

Xena noted the ongoing repairs and fires that dotted the inner courtyard. Purgamon hadn't lied about one thing, most of the villagers did appear to be spending their nights within the safety of the keep. She watched as he trotted his mount over to one of the gate guards, and picked out a few words of their conversation.


"...went out...another killing..."

She would have known instantly what had happened, even if she hadn't overheard the words, by the way Purgamon's shoulders sagged at the news. His soldiers disappeared, stabling their horses before bivouacking for the night. Uncertain what she should do, Xena reached back and helped Gabrielle down before dropping to the ground. She waited until the captain of the guard returned, his expression grim.

He made no mention of the bad news he'd gotten, just swung down from his horse. His dark eyes touched on Xena and Gabrielle, taking in their features under the dim glow of torchlight. "The villagers always stay together at night...and any single men who spend the night are bivouacked with the soldiers."

Xena realized suddenly that she and Gabrielle presented something of a logistical problem.

"If you like, there are spare quarters within the castle proper. We can put you up there," he offered.

Which meant that he wanted them somewhere safe, but also somewhere he could keep an eye on them. "Thank you," she agreed. "That would be appreciated."

Purgamon retrieved a torch, and led the two women into the crumbling castle after ordering one of his men to see to Argo's care. "I'm afraid it's not in the best of condition," he apologized. "We felt it was more important to get the outer walls repaired first."

Xena nodded. "You haven't been here long, have you?"

He shrugged. "A warlord named Childus had set up residence here. He was killing off the local peasantry. They didn't like the idea too much, so they threw in with us, and we cleaned him out...then stayed..."

"You're mercenaries?" Xena questioned.

"Some of us were," Purgamon admitted. "But not anymore...now..." he shrugged. "It's good land. It only needs a gentle touch." He led them up a narrow flight of stair that ran along one wall, then down a corridor. "Here," he said quietly as he pushed a heavy wooden door wide.

By the look of it, the chamber had once been incredibly fine. The wall frescoes were chipped and stained, but the pastoral scenes were skillfully done. Little furniture remained--though Xena suspected it had once been well appointed--but there was a large bed, and a huge fireplace.

"I'm afraid this is the only spare room with a bed," Purgamon explained. "If you want separate rooms, one of you will have to sleep on the floor."

Xena shook her head. "This is fine." She didn't add that she had no intention of being separated from Gabrielle in this place, though she suspected he knew it.

"More than fine," Gabrielle agreed cheerfully as she paced around the other two. "I haven't slept in a real bed in ages."

Purgamon allowed himself a hint of a smile at the young woman's good humor. "There's a communal eating area on the first floor. If you're' hungry, feel free."

Xena's brows drew together in a surprised frown. "You're feeding the villagers?" she questioned, surprised by the idea.

"A man with food in his belly makes for a loyal citizen." He stared at the two women for a long moment, and seemed about to say something, only change his mind. "I should go see to my men," he exhaled at last, and started to back out of the room.

"Thanks for your help," Xena offered.

Purgamon nodded and disappeared, pulling the door shut in his wake.

Gabrielle tossed their things into one corner of the room, then dropped onto the bed, leaning back on her hands with a particularly satisfied grin. "I like him," she admitted.

Xena nodded. "So, do I...which is what bothers me..." she murmured thoughtfully.

"I don't understand," Gabrielle said in confusion.

Xena brushed her bangs back from her eyes. "Unless, I'm mistaken that man was lying about something...something that was bothering him very much."

Gabrielle bounded up off the bed to slip her arms around Xena's waist from behind. She kissed her shoulder, just below the edge of an armored epaulet. "Are you sure? I didn't pick up anything like that."

"Oh, I'm sure," Xena exhaled grimly. She lifted her arm, reaching back to tug Gabrielle around in front of her. "Which is why I want you to stay close, and be careful as long as we're here."

Gabrielle leaned against the taller woman, resting her chin in the valley between her breasts as she stared up at her. "Close?" She repeated. "I like that idea." She waggled her brows suggestively, then laid a kiss over her lover's sternum. "Do you know we've never made love in a bed?"

Xena cupped the bard's face in her hands, and dropped a kiss on her forehead. "And we're not going to tonight."

Gabrielle made a soft sound of disappointment. "Let me guess. You're going to sit up and guard the door all night."

"That's right," Xena agreed.

"Do you have a reason, or is it just...a feeling?"

"Point one," Xena began. "There is a killer on the loose. Just because we're in a castle, doesn't make it safe. Point two....I have a bad feeling about this. Did you notice that Purgamon didn't tell us who's in charge around here? It was almost as if he didn't want us to know." The last was said more to herself than Gabrielle.

"Okay," Gabrielle sighed, sounding disappointed. "No lovemaking... I suppose it would also be against the rules for us to go get something to eat?"

Xena considered the question for a moment before finally nodding. "I think that'd be all right. Besides, I'd like to get a look around." She set Gabrielle back and pushed her towards her things. "Bring your staff," she advised. "And you might want to wear your cloak. It's going to get cold tonight." In the end, she took her own advice, slinging a heavy dark cape on over her armor. Wrapped in a warm, wool cloak, Gabrielle followed her friend from the room, eyes searching the gloomy interior barely illuminated by Xena's torch. They went back downstairs the way they'd come, then wandered the lower level, until the smell of food drew Gabrielle. She found the huge back room that had obviously been set aside, as a cooking and eating area, with unerring accuracy. Long, rough hewn tables and benches dominated the room, barely illuminated by the torches on the walls. Several large, cast iron pots hung over bright coals, their gently simmering contents tended by an old woman who went from pot to pot, her shoulders hunched with age. She looked up, bright, bird eyes locking on the newcomers.

"Awfully late for eating," she complained as they drew near.

Gabrielle turned on her brightest smile, while Xena continued to look forbidding.

"Sorry," the bard apologized instantly. "We only just got here." She leaned over a pot, breathing in deeply. "Venison stew isn't it?" she murmured, noting the old woman's disapproving nod out of the corner of her eye. "I just love venison stew and this smells like it's worthy of the gods."

"Well," the old woman hesitated. "It is a pretty good batch."

"I'm sure it's just wonderful," Gabrielle babbled in her struggle to get on the woman's good side. "My mother used to have the most wonderful recipe for venison stew...and this smells just like it. She always used fennel root and it was just the right touch."

"I use fennel root too," the old woman admitted, slowly being charmed by Gabrielle's insistent good humor.

Gabrielle, who'd noted the remains of the plant on a cutting board, nodded as though the statement was a shock. "Then I'm sure it will be just wonderful. That is, if we could have some."

Xena let out a soft, long suffering sigh.

"Of course, of course. Just have a seat. I'll bring you a bowl. There isn't any bread left, but the stew was just made tonight." She bustled off to dip them servings in wood bowls, while the two found seats away from the fire.

"See," Gabrielle began as she leaned close to her friend. "You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar."

Xena's nose wrinkled at the smells floating through the room. "Actually, I think you can probably catch the most flies with that stew," she observed dryly.

"Be nice," the bard chided as the old woman drew near again.

She set bowls in front of each woman, then folded her arms, waiting expectantly while Gabrielle lifted the wooden spoon standing in the thick stew. "It's wonderful," she praised lavishly after taking a bite. In reality, it was somewhat flavorless, but probably better than anything the local villagers had eaten in a long time. Her village had generally been fairly prosperous, but there had been bad years, when hunger was a constant companion. The people she'd seen gathered around their fires outside had the look of a population unused to regular meals.

Xena took a tentative bite of hers, apparently satisfied that it wasn't going to poison her...at least not instantly.

"Soo..." Gabrielle continued the conversation intentionally. She'd learned early that one of the best places to get gossip (and, after all, a bard survives on the quality of the gossip she hears--heroic tales are all well and good, but people like to hear about the seamier side as well) was from the old ladies who populated the keeps and tiny towns they passed through. They seemed to have some secret network that let them in on all the nasty little secrets a town had to hide. "I hear the master of this castle cuts a pretty imposing figure."

The old woman's chin bobbed in agreement. "Yah, what with that missing eye and all."

Xena allowed herself a hint of a smile as she realized that Gabrielle had heard her comment about Purgamon not wanting her to know who was in charge. The bard could be pretty sneaky when she was of a mind.

"Missing eye...really? Why I heard he's hideously scarred too."

The old woman's eyes brightened. "Yah," she agreed. "But it's not a he...it's a she...her right side all cut up like an animal got to it. From one side, it's as though she was formed by the god's themselves. From the other, a demon from the pits of Charon...And it's her right side what's destroyed..."

Gabrielle blinked, not quite understanding the reference.

"They think she has the evil eye," Xena offered.

"Yah," the old woman agreed.

"I'm surprised the villagers have agreed to work for her," Xena said thoughtfully.

Their informer sat down, leaning arthritic elbows on the table, obviously grateful to have someone willing to listen to her. "I'm Magda, by the way," she introduced herself.

"I'm Gabrielle...and this is Xena."

"Pleased to meetcha," Magda said quickly, then leaned in close, her voice dropping conspiratorially low. "When she and that army of hers came, we hoped they were demons. Prayers to the gods hadn't helped, so we thought maybe the evil ones would. Childus and his bunch were still stealing our young men, and throwing them in front of Platarch's army to slow down his attempts to take the keep. We offered them our loyalty if they'd drive the two warlords out...." she grinned, something bloodthirsty showing in her eyes as she continued her tale. "And they did...led into battle by her. She usually wears a rag over the missing eye, but that day, she went without...it was hideous to see. Shield on one hand, sword in the other, she rode through Childus' men like they were children...cutting them down with that huge curved sword of hers..."

"Curved sword?" Xena repeated, suddenly all tension. She leaned in close. "Does it look like this?" she demanded hoarsely, drawing a scimitar like shape on the table top with her finger.

Magda nodded. "Yah, and yay long," she said, marking an overlong blade with her hands.

Xena swallowed hard. "Her name?" she demanded.

The old woman suddenly realized there was something very wrong and started to pull away.

"Xena, what is it?" Gabrielle questioned, in an attempt to blunt the hot emotions suddenly coursing through her friend.

Xena ignored her, instead yanking the woman back. "Her name?" she growled in a voice that brooked no argument.


Xena shoved Magda back, grabbing Gabrielle's hand and rising so fast, she knocked the bench over. "Come on, we're getting out of here," she snarled and dragged Gabrielle toward the front entrance, ready to forget what few belonging remained in the room overhead to get free of this place quickly.

Involved in what she was doing, she never noticed the dark eyes that watched them from the shadows.

"Xena, wait," Gabrielle called out as she was unceremoniously hauled along. "What's going on? Who's this Rhiannon?"

Xena pushed Gabrielle ahead of her into the chilly night. "Later," she snarled. "Right now, we're leaving...."

"Xena...wait..." Gabrielle tried again, this time fighting to pull them both to a halt.

"I'm surprised he didn't put a guard on us," the warrior princess muttered to herself as she started across the courtyard to where she thought the stables must be.

"No!" Gabrielle snapped and finally yanked her hand free.

Xena spun to face her. "Gabrielle, we have to leave now...while we can..."

The bard shook her head. "Not until you tell me what's going on," She hissed.

Abruptly realizing they were being watched by several of the villagers camped in the courtyard, Xena grabbed her lover, dragging her into the shadows as she answered ambiguously. "She's someone I used to know."

"A lover?" Gabrielle demanded, startled by the jealousy suddenly flaring in her heart.

Xena waved the idea off. "No," she dismissed. "She wasn't much more than a child the last time I saw her...I thought she was dead..." she shook her head, swallowing hard as she muttered, "She must have survived the battle somehow."

"I don't understand, Xena...who is she...and why are you so afraid of her?"

Xena slowed, catching her breath, and forcing down her own emotions to answer. "She was the daughter of King Timolous of Theros. I'd just taken a beating against Paracelsus when I ran across his lands, intending to take them. The king's keep was well fortified though, and Timolous had heard I was coming, so he prepared his supplies, ready to wait us out...I could have done a lot of damage, but my men were already injured...and I wasn't ready for a long siege...so we made a deal. I'd leave his lands untouched...and in return, his wife would see to my men. She was a healer, the finest I've ever seen...and with her touch, my army was soon on its feet..." She trailed off, unable to continue the tale.

"And you didn't keep your word?" Gabrielle whispered in a dead voice.

"Oh, I kept it," Xena denied, her voice rich with shame. "But I knew Paracelsus was only a week's ride behind me...so I made sure the castle's stores were depleted, the fortifications weakened, then I rode out...sat on a hillside above the keep, and watched it fall..."

Gabrielle swallowed hard. She knew about Xena's past, but sometimes she found it hard difficult to resolve the woman she knew and loved, with the one who had ridden over her enemies with such callous disregard. "Why?"

Xena swallowed hard, struggling against tears. "I wanted the Queen...wanted her skills in service to my army. When it was all over, I rode in, and offered to buy her...Unfortunately, neither she, nor the king's three elder daughters survived the attack. Only his youngest daughter lived..."


Xena nodded. "She was only about twelve, but she already had her mother's skills...I paid thirty dinars...and they brought her to me in chains....terrified…alone...." Xena shook her head. "I felt I was doing her a favor," she whispered raggedly. "She lived in my tent, saw to the men's wounds, and tended to me...but no one was allowed to touch her..."

"Xena," Gabrielle prompted gently when her lover trailed off into silence.

"She had a face that could have driven the god's mad with envy. I intended to have her when she was old enough...and I don't share what's mine...But, I wanted her to be more than a healer...I wanted a warrior as well. I gave her that sword, and I taught her to use it...then I dragged her into battle." Xena's eyes became distant, staring into the past, rather than the present. "The first time she killed a man, she was nearly killed, because she couldn't stop throwing up..."

"That's why you don't want me to learn how to use a sword, isn't it?"

Xena nodded. "It changed her...she became harder with every passing battle, until suddenly, she we were in the middle of a battle, and she froze. I tried to get to her, but she disappeared into the crowd. By the time I got to where I'd seen her, she was gone. I thought she was killed."

"She ran," Gabrielle murmured with an odd sense of insight. "She's the one who taught you so much about medicine, isn't she?"

Xena nodded, then suddenly snapped back to the present. "Do you see why we have to leave? I don't want to fight her...I'm not sure I could to save my own life..." Xena cupped Gabrielle's face in one hand. "But, if it came down to a threat to your life, I might have to."

Suddenly understanding her friend far better, Gabrielle nodded in agreement. "Let's go."

Xena linked hands with her young lover and turned toward the stable, only to pull up short as she realized their conversation hadn't gone unnoticed. A tall silhouette stood only a few feet away. For the briefest moment, she thought it was Purgamon, but the frame was too narrow, and she was fairly certain the captain of the guard wouldn't have been caught skulking around. "Who's there?" she demanded as she eased Gabrielle behind her.

"Don't you know me, Xena?" a man's voice whispered.

She shook her head. "No."

The shadow let out a soft chuckle, the sound sepulchral in the thick darkness. "You took everything from me, and now you can't even remember me," Dayne snarled as he stepped from the shadows.

Xena's eyes fell on the hawk-faced young man with no recognition. "Unfortunately, I've hurt a lot of people in my life," she whispered, her voice thick with shame.

"Don't I know it," the boy sneered. "My sister may not have the courage to kill you, but I do..." He drew the weapon sheathed on his left hip.

Xena straightened, pushing Gabrielle away, in case the boy lunged. "I don't want to fight you," she said without touching her sword.

"Then I'll just kill you," he snarled, advancing a step at a time.

Xena watched the floating tip of the sword. Either the boy had never had any lessons with the weapon, or his teacher had been a poor one indeed, because he didn't know to hold the blade steady as he advanced. "Make sure you make a clean hit," she told him almost conversationally. "Because if you don't, I'm likely to lose my temper... then I'll rip your throat out." She pointed at her own throat, still holding the boy's dark eyes. "This is the best place, if you want to kill with one blow...the heart's good too, but you don't look like you have the strength to push the blade all the way home," she taunted.

With an inarticulate roar of rage, the boy lunged.

Xena neatly sidestepped the blade, catching her would-be attacker by one wrist and the scruff of the neck when he stumbled past her. With the speed of a striking snake, she stripped the sword from his hands, and flung it away, before slamming him into the wall of the keep. "Never fight unless you know you can win, boy," she snarled furiously. "And never raise a sword to me again, unless you're ready to die."

Dayne struggled wildly, but his strength was no match for the warrior princess'.

"Xena," Gabrielle spoke gently, hoping to calm the situation before it got any more heated. She knew Xena wouldn't mean to hurt the boy, but she also knew how her friend's temper could explode.

"Let him go," Purgamon instructed with quiet authority. Drawn by the sounds of combat, he'd come, ready to make a drunken soldier calm down, only to find Dayne trying to face down Xena. The boy was a mad fool who'd get them all killed if he wasn't careful. When Xena didn't immediately comply, he retrieved the Dayne's sword and stood ready to face her down.

Xena shoved the boy away, sparing him hardly a glance as he fought for his balance. Purgamon caught him by the scruff, and shoved set him on his feet.

The boy whirled, flinging his arms wide, his courage sufficiently bolstered by the arrival of the soldier. "Kill her now..." he urged, his eyes glittering with mad lights. "Kill her for everything she's done...kill her for every time, you look at my sister as a woman...until she turns her head, and you see she's a monster instead."

"Shut up," the soldier snarled, and grabbed the boy by the shirtfront.

Dayne leaned in close to the older man, his voice conspiratorial. "Kill her because you know you'll never be able to bear the idea of making love to that."

Purgamon hurled his tormentor away, but the boy only hit the stone tiles laughing. "Kill her," he urged.

Danger danced in the air around the big man. "Perhaps, I should kill you instead," he hissed, rolling the sword in his hand in a series of intricate loops and whirls. "You're the monster."

"No," Xena said sharply, her hand landing on his shoulder with reassuring weight. "It would be no better than murder."

"No!" Dayne screamed. "I won't be saved by you...bitch!"

Whatever response either warrior might have made was cut short by a call from the walls. "RIDERS COMING!!"

Cursing under his breath, Purgamon stormed forward, hauling Dayne to his feet by the scruff of the neck, and dragging him along as he stomped toward the main gates. The boy abruptly broke from his hold and disappeared into the night, but he made no move to fetch him back. There were more important matters at hand.

Despite her better instincts, Xena found herself following him, her long strides keeping easy pace.

Jogging to keep up, Gabrielle took up the rear. The young woman pulled up short, as the gates swung wide for a rider.

The heavens seemed to conspire to make note of the moment as lightning spread behind the clouds overhead, momentarily lighting the countryside as bright as day. Gabrielle's breath caught as she saw the rider coming through the gates.

So this was Rhiannon.

Dark hair flung back like a cape, a twisted strip of cloth covered the ruined half of her face, she clutched a delicate figure in one arm, and held the reins with the other hand, controlling her wildly running mount with a strong grip.

The lightning winked out, and Gabrielle was momentarily blind, but she could hear the clatter of hooves on stone, followed by a woman's hoarse shouts.


When she could see again, Gabrielle realized that the woman was lowering the figure draped across her saddle into waiting arms.

"Get her into the keep!" Rhiannon panted, struggling for breath after her wild ride. She felt Purgamon's hand on her shoulder, and heard the question.

"What happened?"

"We found her a ways from the dead girl. They must have been together. I'd have waited for a wagon, but wolves were drawn by the smell of blood." She flipped her hair off her brow, and tossed the reins to a waiting servant. "The others are behind me. They took up the rear to keep the wolves off my back." She jogged toward the keep, following the men carrying the unconscious girl. "If we can keep her alive, we may find out who our killer is."

The men carried their burden into the eating area at the rear of the keep, laying her out on the smoothest of the tables.

"Bring the torches closer, then go get more. I need light!" Rhiannon shouted, already rolling up her sleeves and probing the sharp slashing wounds that littered the young woman's body. "Magda, I need--"

"I already got 'em," the old woman cut her off as she brought forward a box of various healer's implements.

Rhiannon flashed the old woman a hint of a smile. "Thanks...also water and rags." She turned back to her patient, brushing blood spattered blonde hair back from her face. "Come on, you just hold on," she whispered intently.

At the edge of the room, Xena watched the scene with a faintly lost expression, as if she couldn't quite resolve the child she remembered with the woman she was watching now. She knew she should grab Gabrielle's hand, and leave in the confusion, but she couldn't quite make herself do it.

Gabrielle slipped through the crowd, eyes locked on the scene before her. Coming up on the warlord's left, all she could see was the cut glass perfection of her profile, and it struck her that this woman was only a few years older than she was. Her eyes swept down, taking in the way fine boned hands soothed and repaired at the same time. She recognized the quick competent motions. She'd seen Xena use them enough times and wondered where she'd learned. Now, as she watched this woman coax life back into her charge, she knew.

The woman on the table let out a sudden cry, surging upward as she returned to consciousness. Rhiannon instantly tried to press her back to the table before she could hurt herself, and a soldier stepped in to help. The girl only screamed and struggled that much harder.

"Get a woman to hold her down! Dammit!" Rhiannon shouted, and pushed the confused man back. "She's thinks she's under attack again. Someone get these men out of here!"

Gabrielle let out a startled yelp as a meaty hand grabbed her shoulder and she was thrust forward.

"Tell her a story, bard," Purgamon ordered.

Gabrielle pressed her hands down on the frightened woman's shoulders, holding her down, even as she began to speak, her voice low and soothing. "You're going to be fine. Do you hear me?"

At the back of the room, Xena experienced a sick burst of terror, as she saw Gabrielle pushed forward. Lost in her own thoughts, she hadn't even noticed when her friend left her side.

Rhiannon's hands continued to work with gentle insistence, but she looked up, gaze meeting Gabrielle's, giving the younger woman her first real glimpse at the scar that marred the right side of her face before disappearing under the rags. It didn't seem that awful to her, but then she had no fear of evil eyes.

"Purgamon said you're a bard?" the warlord said quietly, her hands never slowing.

Gabrielle nodded, then realized the woman had looked down again, and didn't see the gesture. "I..yes..."

"Then tell a story," she repeated Purgamon's request with quiet authority.

"Once...there was a village named Amphipolous, and a girl child born to a tavern owner there. She was destined to be a hero. She lost her way, for a time, but then she found herself again, and fought for all that was good and strong. Her name was--"

"Xena," Rhiannon's husky voice cut Gabrielle off, and, for the briefest second, the bard thought she'd been finishing the sentence for her, then she realized the warlord was staring toward the back of the now empty room where a tall figure stood alone. Her gaze swept back to Gabrielle, and the recognition of what she'd been saying suddenly glittered there. "Xena?" she whispered again.

Gabrielle nodded. "Xena," she whispered, hoping her words would convince the warlord. She launched into the tales she'd practiced so many times, telling of Xena's near death at the hands of her own men, her heroism, and the many people she'd helped. She told them as she had never told them before, because instinct told her it might make the difference between life and death for both of them.

Rhiannon never spoke, except to demand something from Magda or Purgamon. At one point, Magda broke in to say she'd sent a runner to the girl's farm to bring her family, but the interruptions never slowed Gabrielle, or threw her timing.

It was well into the night before Rhiannon finished stitching her young charge back together. She backed off, and began to systematically wash the blood from her hands in a wooden bowl of water that Magda brought. She stood staring down at the unconscious figure laid out on the table for a long moment, before looking up, her lone eye finding her lieutenant where he stood back some ways. Some indefinable communication seemed to take place between the two of them, because she suddenly straightened her spine. "I want a guard on the girl at all times...and Magda..."

"Don't worry, I can sit with her until her family gets here," the old woman offered.

Xena had come up behind Gabrielle, and she curved her hands to the bard's shoulders, drawing her back to make room for Magda. "We'll be leaving now," she said very softly, the warning implicit in her tone.

Rhiannon's brow lifted, but she didn't argue, just sank down onto a bench, narrow shoulders hunched as though she'd been beaten. "I really wouldn't recommend it," she sighed at last.

"Are you saying we're prisoners?" Xena whispered dangerously.

Rhiannon let her head fall forward into her hands. "I don't know what I'm saying," she admitted, wishing the world would just go away. She looked up a heartbeat later, noting Gabrielle with a worried expression. "But I do know that our madman's tastes run to your young friend here," she informed Xena with a loose gesture toward the bard. "The women we've found have all been small and young."

Gabrielle felt Xena's hand tighten on her shoulder, and the shift in her breathing pattern.

The warrior princess looked to Purgamon, who nodded in confirmation.

"Why did you have me brought here?" Xena demanded of her former charge.

Rhiannon let out a sharp bark of near hysterical laughter before catching herself. Massaging the scarred side of her face as though it pained her, she answered with grim humor. "I reasoned that your army might not attack if you were inside the castle walls..." She gestured to their surroundings. "As you may have noticed, we aren't really up to a prolonged confrontation."

"Then why didn't you have us locked up?"

Another sharp bark of laughter, then Rhiannon answered the question. "My soldiers are mostly freed slaves. They can swing a sword well enough to deal with lowlifes like Childus... but I know how you can fight...also, strange as it may seem, I don't particularly want to kill you. I just want you to move on without causing any more pain."

Xena stared at the top of the younger woman's head, noting her exhaustion, and wished she could offer some form of recompense for the wrongs she'd done. Unfortunately, the biggest favor she could do Rhiannon was to leave. "I don't have an army anymore," she said quietly. "They really did come close to killing me."

"She's used what you taught her about medicine to save so many people," Gabrielle added, hoping to dull the pain she could sense in the young warlord.

Rhiannon's chin lifted. She didn't know whether she believed them or not, but she didn't have the strength for further confrontation. "Spend the rest of the night here. I won't try and stop you from leaving in the morning."

Xena stood torn, uncertain whether to stay or go. Whatever response she might have made was cut off by a dull scream of agony.

"No!" Dayne bellowed as he stumbled forward. He carried a mug of something, and his face was visibly flushed with drink. It was impossible to tell how long he'd been listening in the shadows, but the rage in his eyes made it clear he'd heard enough of the conversation to infuriate him. "You're just going to let her go?" he demanded of his sister. "After everything she's done."

Rhiannon's chin lifted, and something dark and dangerous lived in her expression, as her gaze touched on her younger brother. "Quiet," she hissed, and her gaze touched momentarily on the injured figure at the opposite end of the room.

"I don't care about any peasant slut," the boy shot back, defying her in his fury.

For just a moment, Gabrielle had the strongest impression that she was about to snarl at the boy, before the emotions disappeared behind a wall of icy control. "I'm still in command here," she husked, rising gracefully. She didn't have Xena's height or sheer presence, but there was something imposing about her stance.

Dayne was beyond common sense. He took another swallow of alcohol, glorying in the strength it gave him. "But I should be. I'm the only son of Timolous of Theros. You're only his youngest daughter."

"And, if we were in Theros, you might rule...and then, the gods help us all."

"I should rule here. It's what I deserve." he swore.

"You should be grateful I don't let you have what you deserve," Rhiannon shot back, her voice thick with hate.

Purgamon stared at the two, not understanding the acid that flowed between them. When he'd last seen Rhiannon, she'd been frustrated with her brother, but this raw fury was new.

The siblings stood staring at each other for a long moment, before something suddenly snapped.

With an inarticulate roar of rage, Dayne hurled the cup in his hand aside, and lunged forward. Somehow, Purgamon got his arms around the boy from behind, twisting him up into a full nelson.

Rhiannon was little saner than her brother at that moment, and would have thrown herself into the fight, if Xena hadn't gotten one arm across her throat. Using raw strength, she grasped Rhiannon's arm and twisted it up behind her back. "Get 'em outside," she ordered Purgamon, already, forcing Rhiannon's smaller figure toward the doors.

Moments later, she shoved the young woman into the cold night air, releasing her to stumble away. Rhiannon whirled, breathing hard and glaring, as she fought to control her own flaring temper. It made for a horrifying contrast to the competent figure who had fought to save the peasant woman's life.

Purgamon appeared a moment later, Dayne still bound up tightly in his grip. Even the heavily muscled captain of the guard was pushed to the limit to keep the boy contained.

Gabrielle followed no more than a pace behind, her staff clutched tightly in one hand, as though she expected to have need of it.

Purgamon called to two of his men, and shoved Dayne toward them as they drew near, ignoring the boy's obscenities to order, "Get him out of here, and sobered up...and keep him out of my way."

It took considerable effort on the parts of the two guards, but they managed to drag the boy away.

Rhiannon slipped to one knee as though drained of life, and buried her face in her thigh. Her shoulders shook violently, as though she was sobbing. Her cheeks were dry when she finally lifted her head.

"Go on back to your room," Purgamon told Xena, but his eyes were only for the woman on her knee. "I'll see to her."

Her expression infinitely sad, the warrior princess slowly nodded, backing away. She caught Gabrielle's hand, and started to turn. Purgamon's voice brought her head back around.

"Please, don't leave," he husked. Strange as it seemed, he trusted Xena. Something in her manner, coupled with her companion's utter faith gave him hope that she might be able to help halt the implosion taking place.

Indecision glittered briefly in Xena's eyes, and a muscle ticked in her cheek, before she finally nodded. "Come on, Gabrielle," she said softly, and tugged her young companion back into the castle.

When they were gone, Purgamon turned back to his leader. She waved hand toward the keep, before he could speak. "See to guards for the girl...she may not be safe within this keep..." It was as close to admitting the fear burning through her chest, as she could come.

He seemed on the verge of arguing, but finally gave way, and disappeared back into the castle.

Rhiannon watched him go with grim intensity, before letting one hand float down to her calf. She drew the dagger stuck in the top of the boot. Blood had crusted in the intricately wrought designs on the hilt, and it flaked off on her fingers as she handled the weapon. Dayne had been terrified all the time after she found him again, and bought his freedom from the soldiers, so she'd given the boy the blade, hoping it would convince him he would never be a slave again. She rubbed her thumb over the carved hilt, not wanting to believe her brother was capable of such a crime.

Finally, she tucked the weapon back in her boot. Things were settled for tonight. She could worry about it all tomorrow. As she passed into the keep, she heard the distant sound of Purgamon's voice, and wondered if he'd come to her. She hoped he would. Despite the strain between them, she didn't want to be alone.


Onward to Part 2

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