Author's Note: Set shortly after the events in The Debt Part 2...yes, that does make it mid-rift. Please, don't write to lecture me on how I've butchered Greek Myth, history, and theater. I already know that <g>.


Part 1

Bodies twined close, moving together in a well rehearsed, nearly mechanical syncopation. Xena tasted Gabrielle's soft cry of pleasure, but didn't drink it in as she once had, didn't feel her heart hammer, or her body shiver in thrilled response to that soft sound. They were on the road home from Chin, and it was the first time they'd made love in a long time: the first since Hope's birth, since Xena's betrayal to the Green Dragon, since everything changed. The lovers knew each other well, and they were both gentle, but there was a forced quality to their joining, a sense of desperation that lacked the natural tenderness of earlier times. When it was over, both cuddled into their blankets, alone, even coiled close, bare flesh touching bare flesh.

*****

Xena woke suddenly, eyes instinctively searching the surrounding woods.

Nothing. The trees were silent, unmoving. Not even the faintest wind disturbed their branches.

The warrior princess sat up slowly, her movements stiffer than normal, serving as a painful reminder of the battle with the Green Dragon's men. There were far worse souvenirs. She remembered every one of them with bitter clarity as her eyes touched on Gabrielle's pallet. She tensed as she realized it was empty. The bard was gone…again. Xena experienced the briefest moment of distrust--instinctively spotting her sword--before she chased the automatic suspicions away. Whatever she'd done, Gabrielle's betrayal had come because she thought she was doing the right thing. Xena closed her eyes for a moment, consciously cooling the remaining embers of her temper, then rose easily, pulling on her leathers, before stalking off after her lover. She started to reach for her weapons, then thought better of it. Things were tense enough between them, as it was. No need to make them any worse, for no reason other than her own paranoia.

She found Gabrielle easily in a small glade a short distance away. The bard was seated on a fallen log, leaning against her staff as she stared upward at the moonless sky. She looked over at Xena's entrance, brows lifting faintly. Her expression was unreadable, but she sounded miserable, as she whispered, "Don't worry, I haven't sold you out to some passing bounty hunter."

Xena ignored her earlier fear, as she quietly answered. "I know."

"I just couldn't sleep."

Xena nodded. She knew that the bard hadn't slept well since Britannia. Mentally, she shied away from the specific date. She didn't want to think about Dahak, or what the dark god had done to Gabrielle. That had been the start of all their problems. She couldn't think about it, talk about it, or even vaguely consider it. If she could just pretend past it, maybe she could forget it had ever happened.

Gabrielle took a deep breath and let it out slowly, struggling against the threat of tears. "I don't sleep much anymore," she whispered, her voice little more than a shredded shadow of itself.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered very softly, shaken, despite the distance that had come between them. "Come back to bed."

Green eyes touched on the warrior. "What are we going to do?" the bard asked quietly. Her gaze slid away, becoming unfocused as she whispered. "I destroyed everything."

Xena sighed softly, startled by the wave of pain in her belly those simple words engendered. She didn't bother to argue. Wasn't even sure she could. "We both did our fair share of damage," she exhaled at last, though she didn't really believe it.

"Xena…I…"

"I know." The warrior sat down on the opposite end of the log, watching her lover silently. She worked a hand through her hair, massaging the back of her scalp tiredly. She started to reach out to touch the bard's bare shoulder, only to change her mind, and pull her hand back. "We both need time." She saw Gabrielle stiffen, but continued as gently as she knew how. "Earning trust the first time can be hard, but the second is sometimes nearly impossible." Xena's eyes dropped as she fiddled with a scrap of her leather skirt, mentally avoiding her own lies. She'd done it to protect Gabrielle after all. The bard wouldn't have understood why the warrior princess couldn't let Ming Tien live, or the silent message a long dead lover had left her in the form of a small gift. "But, I do love you…" she trailed off, the vague pauses making the words seem insincere.

Gabrielle stared at Xena for a long moment, taking in the smooth curves of her silhouette. She couldn't help wondering what the warrior would do if she ever discovered the truth about Hope--that she hadn't been pushed over a cliff. The bard experienced a familiar burn of resentment that her lover had forced her into a position of having to lie like that. Her eyes slid away, as she focused instead on the surrounding trees. "Yes," she whispered almost inaudibly.

"I failed to protect you from Dahak," Xena said softly. "I can understand why you'd be angry …."

Gabrielle's head swung around, amazed by Xena's total lack of understanding. What had the warrior expected her to do? Simply stand, and watch while an infant--her child--was slaughtered. She shook her head, and started to offer some meaningless answer, when Xena suddenly tensed, and hissed.

"Sshhh."

Gabrielle heard it only a second later. The distant thud of hoofbeats. Moving fast. More than one set. "Someone's running hard," she whispered.

Xena nodded, taking in the tightly packed trees. "Too fast for a forest this dense." She wished she hadn't left her sword at the camp, but there was no use complaining now. She waved Gabrielle into the thickest part of the woods. "Go around," she ordered briskly as the sounds drew steadily nearer.

Gabrielle grabbed her staff, nodding, as she hurried off.

Xena spared her lover a glance, then turned her attention back to the approaching riders. Shouts reached her ears as she climbed into a nearby tree, picking her position carefully. Within moments, she saw a fast moving shadow weaving between the trees. The first rider was bent low over his horse's neck, while a dark cloak whipped out behind him. Xena spotted his pursuers only a moment later. Soldiers--she could see the faint gleam of starlight on polished armor--four directly behind the first rider. Her chin swung around. And another four from the south. She didn't have anymore time to think about the situation. The first rider passed under her vantage point, followed by the first of his pursuers. She dropped onto the last of the four, paying scant attention to the man's startled screech as she hurled him into a nearby tree--though not before stealing his sword-- leaving him dead or unconscious. The rider just ahead of her glanced back, blinking when he saw the unexpected woman on his comrade's horse. His surprise didn't serve him well. He was still trying to figure out where she'd come from when she yanked him off and tossed his aside. The remaining two pursuers now knew they had a problem, and the leader shouted to the rear man.

"Take her down!"

His partner abruptly wheeled his horse, bringing him around so the two animals were bound to collide, leaving his partner to continue the pursuit.

Xena wrenched the reins hard, grinding the bit in the horse's mouth in the effort to get him stopped fast. She didn't make the grade, and the two animals collided with a sickening thud that jarred her teeth, and sent both horses struggling for footing in soft earth. She blocked a fast swing from her attacker, punching him with the hilt of her sword, while they both struggled to control their panicked horses. She glanced back, and saw the second man she'd tossed to the earth, coming up fast, his weapon drawn. He was staggering slightly, but conscious. Making a fast decision, Xena backflipped off her stolen mount, landing lightly a short distance away. It didn't surprise her a bit when the third rider did the same. Within moments, she faced the two men with a man grin. "You have no idea how much I've been looking forward to a chance to kill something," she sneered as they advanced, confident that it wouldn't take long to deal with these two, and get after their still running comrade.

*****

Gabrielle ran hard, tracking the runner and his immediate pursuit, with one ear, and the horses coming in from the south with the other. The rider obviously didn't know company was coming, and was making straight for them. A sudden scream brought her to a skidding halt. It took no more than a second for her to decide it wasn't a human sound, but a horse. The lead animal, if she wasn't mistaken. The heavy hoofbeats stopped, to be replaced by shouts.

"Get back!"

The bard jumped in surprise as a woman's voice reached her ears, followed by a man's.

"Please… it must be done."

She regripped her staff, and redoubled her speed, running, until she broke from the trees only a short distance from the bizarre drama. A horse was down, its wheezing breath and whimpers of agony making it obvious that something had gone very wrong during the mad dash, while the cloaked rider stood, sword in hand, waving it at an advancing soldier. It took Gabrielle only the quickest glance to confirm that what she and Xena had both thought was a man, was a woman.

The soldier advanced another step, using his sword to bat her weapon aside. She swung her weapon again, making it painfully obvious that she had no idea what she was doing. Something rustled under the cloak behind her, and Gabrielle heard a plaintive child's voice, muffled only slightly by the heavy fabric.

"Mama."

The soldier tensed, his face twisting into an expression of rage. "Now, milady," he growled. "It must end." He slapped her sword aside, grabbing her by the collar with one hand, as he started to thrust toward the squirming child, hidden under the edges of the cloak.

"NO!" Gabrielle shouted and lunged. Somehow, she got one end of her staff under the tip of his blade, and lifted, throwing it aside, before the edge could do any damage. She spun her staff, snapping the other end into his shoulder with enough force to send him stumbling backwards. "RUN!" the bard shouted to the woman, who flicked the catch on her cloak, leaving it behind as she scooped up the child clinging to her, and took off.

The soldier would have followed, but Gabrielle stood blocking him, her feet well planted, her staff held up defensively.

His eyes narrowed dangerously. "Get out of my way, little girl," he bit out, and started to step around her.

She slammed the butt of her staff into his midsection, driving the air from his lungs, and forcing him back a step.

"You have no idea what you're interfering with," he gasped. "I have no quarrel with you." But when he straightened, he swung his sword in earnest.

Xena's training served Gabrielle well, and she blocked the blow with ease, falling back a step or two as he pressed his attack. She met each blow with a fast moving block, muscles rippling with the effort to stop the heavy blows. The hammering sounds of steel meeting wood echoed through the small clearing until the bard's arms ached. She quickly started to wonder how long it would be before he got under her guard.

She didn't have long to speculate. A shadow suddenly melted out of the trees to grab the soldier by the scruff of the neck. Xena yanked the man off his feet, punching her other fist into the back of his neck, before tossing his limp body aside.

"Are you all right?" Xena panted. She was breathing hard, and a few small nicks on her arms and shoulders were running blood over bare skin.

Gabrielle nodded. "They were chasing a woman and child..." She nodded in the direction she'd seen them run. "He tried to kill the child."

Xena cursed under her breath as she moved to bind the unconscious man's wrists, and ankles. "Those two back there were good…very good." She finished tying the last knot, then tugged his weapons free and hurled them off into the woods. "Somehow I don't think he was trying his hardest." She straightened her shoulders. "I'm going after them. You stay here."

Gabrielle shook her head. "If you're right, you may need someone to watch your back," she disagreed.

Her lover didn't argue, simply shrugged, and took off at a fast jog.

The sound of horses coming from the south had given way to muffled shouts. Obviously, the hunters had found their prey again.

Xena waved Gabrielle off, indicating she should go around, while she redoubled her speed. She reached her target in seconds, instantly spotting the slender figure standing a few feet from four armored men, waving a sword with absolutely no skill, while the soldiers seemed hesitant to advance. She didn't stop to wonder why they hadn't attacked such an obviously vulnerable target, just leapt. She rolled in mid air, tucking her knees for a brief second before curling out, and landing between the soldiers, and their prey. She heard the woman gasp, then saw the men tense. "Hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said with false cheer.

"Get out of the way, woman," the tallest of the soldiers commanded gruffly, and waved his sword, as though the gesture would frighten her off, like some small child.

The acid sweet smile never shifted. "Y'know, I really hate being called 'woman'…the name, after all, is Xena."

The men all took a half step back, their expressions suddenly nervous. Obviously, they recognized her name.

The apparent leader tried to retake the ground he'd lost, steeling himself as he tried to stare her down. "This is none of your business, warrior princess. We were sent by King Laius of Thebes."

Xena frowned slightly as she heard the name, but nodded to the woman behind her. "You…Do you want to make it my business?"

"Please," the woman sounded like she was scared, but holding it together. "They're trying to kill my son…don't let them."

"I think that makes it my business," Xena decided out loud. "So, I suggest you move along, boys."

"I'm afraid that's not possible." The four straightened themselves. The initial impact of their opponent's name had caught them off guard, but they'd had time to assess the situation and conclude she'd be a fool to take them on. If she was that over-confident, they had little doubt they could beat her easily enough. After all, they were all members of the king's highly trained personal guard.

Xena shook her head with mock sorrow. In truth, she was somewhat glad they'd opted to fight. She needed something to work off her frustrations. "Then we have a problem." She heard the faintest rustle of bushes somewhere off to the side. Gabrielle had arrived.

They lunged, and she blocked both blows by swinging her sword in a wide ranging arc, then shoved them back. A series of fast moving lunges, and ripostes followed. Xena had to resist the urge to curse. These men weren't dumb thugs. They were capable professionals. They couldn't beat her, but against four of them she couldn't get an easy win either. "Gabrielle!" she called over one shoulder, as she pressed her attack. "Get the woman, and go!" She heard the soft sounds as the bard slipped from the trees.

"Come on!"

One of the soldiers tried to get around Xena, and received a nasty gash in the arm for his efforts.

"Ah ah, you wouldn't want to leave the game early, now would you?" she demanded, and punched him hard enough to send him careening several feet. His comrades attacked full force, trading a series of brutal blows delivered with enough skill to force Xena back a step.

"Go after them!" their leader called to his partner.

Xena twisted, putting herself between the soldiers and the fleeing women, but the soldier leapt high, flipping as he vaulted over her. Xena would have gone after him, but his comrades launched another volley.

"GABRIELLE!!!" she shouted, her voice ringing across the night. "YOU'VE GOT COMPANY COMING!!"

****

The woman was exhausted, so tired she was stumbling badly, forcing Gabrielle to dig a hand into her collar and drag her along. Suddenly, the woman's feet skidded out from under her, and she slid hard to the cool, damp earth. The child let out a soft cry as his mother landed half on top of him, but didn't lose his desperate hold on her neck.

The bard dropped to one knee beside them, her voice low and urgent. "You have to get up." Xena's shouted warning still ringing in her ears, she flashed a quick look over one shoulder, hunting for any signs of pursuit.

The woman nodded, muscles quivering with the effort required to pull herself and her son upright. She'd been going too long on little more than anger and adrenaline, and it had taken its toll.

"What's your name?" Gabrielle whispered, hoping to reach through the shock, and exhaustion to get some kind of response.

"Aurora," she whispered.

"Aurora?" Gabrielle repeated softly, staring at the face that tilted up into the faint light. She had an impression of perfectly smooth, pale skin, and striking features under a crown of red gold hair. "Pretty," she panted. "Let me take--" Her offer to carry the child was cut off as a man's voice broke in.

"My queen."

Aurora's head swung around, terror lighting her eyes as they landed on the man who now stood no more than a few yards away. Hands tightening on her terrified child, she pushed to her feet in a surprising burst of energy. "I won't let you do this, Menandes."

Menandes eyes touched on his queen, his expression regretful. "Do you think I, or any of us like this duty, my lady?" He nodded to the child quivering in her arms, and his voice thickened as he whispered. "He's played with my sons. I've bounced that boy on my knee--"

"Then you know the oracles are wrong--"

"I saw the evidence for myself…" His voice trailed off as he started forward.

Gabrielle snapped to her feet between them, using her body and staff to form a barrier to protect the woman and child. "I won't let you hurt them."

A sad look touched the soldier's eyes. His comrades were doubtless dealing with the other woman who'd thought to interfere, and the queen was far too tired to run any farther. The last thing he wanted was to add to the body count. "I have no quarrel with you, girl." He shook his head sadly. "But I cannot allow you to interfere."

"How can you even contemplate this?" Aurora demanded, her voice hoarse and thick with tears. "What kind of monster could kill a child."

Menandes shook his head. "You know the prophecies," he whispered as his eyes touched on the boy. "He's no normal child…you know that...just as you know that as much as it pains us all, the price of his survival is too high…" He started forward again, but Gabrielle still blocked his way. "I know you think you're doing the right thing," he allowed as he eyed her, "but you must believe me, you aren't."

The bard shook her head, refusing to give ground.

The soldier straightened his shoulders, rolling his sword in an intricate series of arcs and rolls. "Then I will kill you." He sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as her.

"Menandes, no!" Aurora shouted, but he lunged.

Gabrielle parried the blow with well-trained skill, but she was already tired, and he wasn't like the poorly trained thugs she usually dealt with. He was determined, fast, and skilled. In moments, she was forced to fall back, muscles burning painfully.

"Surrender, girl, and I'll let you go," he offered, after drawing a shallow gash on her upper thigh.

Gabrielle flashed a glance at the woman and child, remembering herself in similar circumstances, and shook her head, redoubling her hold on her staff.

The brutal blows that followed made his initial attack seem like child's play, making it obvious she didn't have a chance unless Xena arrived quickly. Without help, she could do little more than delay the inevitable. Suddenly, he ducked under her staff and got a bare hand on her chest to give her a hearty shove. Gabrielle kept her grip on her staff, but stumbled backwards several steps, saved from a full tumble by a tree at her back. The bark bit into her bare skin as she used the impromptu brace to push herself straight. Too late, her chin came up, and she realized that was exactly what he'd intended. His hand brushed his sword belt, drawing a sheathed dagger, and tossing it up to catch it by the very point. Gabrielle didn't have time to do more than take a breath as he flicked the thing through the air. They were so close that its flight took only the tiniest morsel of a second to reach the bard. No time for her to escape the deadly path.

She let out a dull scream as the blade tore deep into her left shoulder before embedding itself in the tree at her back, pinning her in place.

Menandes shook his head sadly as he watched her struggles for a brief moment. He could admire the woman, and was relieved the wound wouldn't be fatal, if properly cared for. He pivoted slowly, his eyes falling on his queen as she stumbled backwards, desperate to escape him. He couldn't blame her. In similar circumstances, he wasn't sure he would have the strength for what was required. Tears ran down her cheeks in silver streaks, but she wasn't strong enough to flee any farther. The Gods knew, she had to be worn down to nothing after days of running. Strange that it only seemed to have made her more beautiful. He'd been just a little in love with her from the first day his lord brought her home on his arm. "I am sorry," he whispered very softly.

"Please, Menandes--."

"Give him to me," he demanded, his own voice rough with the effort required to force the past the tightness in his throat.

"You'll have to kill me first," Aurora swore, as she tucked her son's shivering body tightly into the crook of her shoulder, wrapping him protectively in her grasp.

Teeth clenched against the pain, Gabrielle managed to get a grip on the dagger, yanking it free with a single hard pull. She almost let out a scream as she stumbled forward, and only managed to avoid complete collapse by hanging onto her staff with her injured arm. "Get away from them," she snarled, and somehow found the strength to lunge, laying the staff across Menandes shoulders in a wild swing as he spun to face her. He caught her weapon in one heavy hand, yanked, then shoved hard, to send Gabrielle sprawling.

The bard cried out as agony flared through every muscle in her body.

"RUN!!" Aurora shouted as she dropped her son to the ground.

"No," Menandes bit out as he spun back, intent on his duty. He saw the small figure of the child running away, his small legs hardly up to the task of escaping the adults bent on his destruction. "I am sworn to his death," he reminded himself, hardening his heart to the task. Zeroed in on his target, he barely registered Aurora until she stepped between his blade and her child. He felt the faint resistance as the weapon sliced through flesh, while still a good two feet short of the boy. A brief second later, he felt her knife tear into his gut, the blade slipping inside the edge of his armor to tear at soft flesh. Startled eyes lifted to meet the woman's determined gaze. She'd lost her sword in the mad dash, but she'd still had a knife.

He hadn't thought of that.

"I won't let you murder my son," she whispered, her body already trembling with the effort required to stay upright. "I'd do anything to stop you…anything."

His eyes dropped to the point where his sword had entered her body, taking in the blood and damage with raw horror. "Aurora," he whispered, his voice little more than a strangled rasp. He stumbled back a step, his blade sliding free again, while hers remained impaled in his side.

Blood poured from a gaping wound in her midsection, and she spasmed, coughing blood onto suddenly pale lips.

"My queen," he exhaled, unable to believe what had happened. He suddenly had to make her understand. "The boy…he would destroy us all…he is a beast, not--" This was not what was supposed to have happened. Not at all.

"I wish he was," she gasped as she slid to her knees. "So he could fight you."

"XENA!!!" Gabrielle screamed desperately, and pushed to her feet. She grabbed her staff, and stuck one end between the stumbling soldier's feet, tangling them to send him sprawling. She scrambled past him to the woman, who turned into her body, leaning heavily against Gabrielle as her own strength drained away along with the blood pouring steadily from her body.

"My son," she groaned weakly. "You must take him to my father."

Menandes tore the blade out of his side, hurling it aside with a soft curse, as he pushed to his feet. The wound was painful, but not life threatening. He'd had worse. His eyes turned to the woman he'd spent the last several years dreaming of, and the girl holding her. "Aurora?" he whispered again, as he spotted the amount of blood running down her dark tunic. He gasped, as though he might break into tears. "You shouldn't have…I would never have harmed you."

Gabrielle faced him with a mad kind of courage. "Don't you think killing her child would have done some harm?" she demanded furiously.

He fell back a half step under the impact of her furious gaze. "You don't understand," he said desperately. "The boy is the spawn of evil…I saw it…"

The woman shuddered, burying her face in Gabrielle's shoulder as she sobbed, "No."

"Gabrielle!" Xena's voice rang across the night, sounding vaguely panicked.

"HERE!" the bard yelled back, holding tight to the woman leaning against her side.

No more than a single heartbeat later, Xena landed between the soldier and the two women. She glanced at Gabrielle long enough to note the amount of blood, and the wound in her shoulder. When her head swung back, rage danced dangerously in ice blue eyes. "You're dead," she hissed.

Menandes stared at her, taking in the madness in her gaze, and the blood on her sword. His side was starting to throb painfully, and Laius needed to know what had happened. As far as he knew his comrades were all dead. He whistled sharply, praying his horse would hear the summons. If the warrior princess had already murdered the others, then he stood little chance against her. His eyes fell on the young woman holding his queen so tenderly, and he mentally chastised himself for being taken in by seeming youth and beauty. Obviously, she was as evil as her master. "They say you're in service to Ares," he sneered at Xena. "So I guess it's no accident you're here."

Xena's eyes narrowed, but she held her attack to demand, "Meaning?"

"The God of War protects his own…but know this, King Laius will not allow this to happen. He will see to the safety of the world….from that…thing," he hissed, forcing himself to remember what he was dealing with. "No more children will die for him."

Aurora whimpered softly in response to something, either her own pain, or the soldier's hate soaked reference to her son.

"Xena," Gabrielle called, sounding desperate. "She needs you."

Menandes heard horse's hooves, and knew his mount had responded to the summons.

Xena flashed a glance back to see that Gabrielle had lowered the woman to the soft forest floor, and was trying to stop the bleeding without much success.

Offered his chance, Menandes turned and ran.

Xena cursed as she swung around again. She started after the fleeing man, but Gabrielle's voice stopped her before she'd gone more than a step.

"Please Xena."

The warrior princess pivoted back, falling to her knees beside the injured woman. Her eyes touched on Gabrielle's injury, noting that the blood had already slowed to little more than a slow trickle, but the flesh was starting to color. It wasn't life threatening, so long as it was kept clean, but it was going to hurt like Tartarus. "Your arm?" she whispered.

"I'll be all right," the bard whispered.

Xena's eyes dropped to the woman lying sprawled in the grass. She carefully peeled her tunic aside, wanting a better look at the damage. "Do you have the strength to find the child?" she questioned, worried that the fleeing soldier might decide to double back. She let out a soft shuddery breath as she saw enough of the injury to know there was nothing she could do.

Pale blue eyes fluttered open. "Phobos," Aurora rasped. She dug a hand into Xena's armor as if she might lift herself upright.

"Please, don't….don't use your strength," Gabrielle pleaded. "You need it."

Xena flashed her lover a look, as she gently curved a hand under the woman's head. "Is there someone we can take him to?" she whispered urgently.

Aurora managed a scant nod. "My father…King Tithonus…of Attica…" she rasped, her body spasming as blood bubbled up from her lungs.

"Xena, you've got to stop the bleeding."


The warrior princess didn't look. "Go find the boy, Gabrielle," she commanded in an unbending voice. "He should be here."

"Xena--"

"Go."

The bard still didn't move.

"Phobos," the dying woman repeated, barely able to get the words out. "His name is Phobos."

Xena carefully lowered her head back to the grass, with the barely audible whisper, "Gabrielle, go."

The bard rose hesitantly, her movements stiff with pain, and disappeared, her soft voice ringing in the night. Xena tracked her carefully, while listening for any sound of the soldiers returning.

Aurora's strength was fading fast, weakness spreading through her limbs, as the world receded. "I'm dying," she exhaled very softly.

Xena didn't argue. The damage was too serious for her to do anything. "I'm sorry," she murmured, petting the woman's forehead with a soothing hand. "I promise you, we'll see your son safely to your father's hands."

She nodded weakly, her voice so soft that Xena had to lean close to hear her. "Thank…you…"

"Is there anything you can tell me that will help?"

Aurora coughed up more blood, struggling against the coming darkness. Her gaze was unfocused, staring somewhere past Xena, as she whispered, "He's just a little boy." Her muscles went slack, eyes rolling back in her head. "Just a little boy," she sighed her last words, as the life force drained from her body. It seemed to Xena that Aurora's body was already starting to cool when she heard the soft sound of returning footsteps.

She twisted to see Gabrielle leading a small figure. The bard was staggering badly, and Xena experienced a moment of guilt for ignoring her lover's injury.

"Mama?" the little boy at her side exhaled as he set sight on the sprawled figure of his mother. He let go of Gabrielle's hand, and rushed forward, falling to his knees beside the unmoving woman, prodding her with panicked hands. "Mama…please." He was perhaps seven, with thick chestnut curls, a small sturdy body, and features so fine they were almost girlishly beautiful. Small hands dug into Aurora's tunic as he shook her, sobbing for her to wake up.

Gabrielle reached out, curving a hand to the child's shoulder, but the boy shook her off in his desperation. Xena saw the bard wince, and was about to reach out in an effort to calm the boy, when he suddenly sat back on his heels, his hands resting on his thighs. He tipped his chin up, staring at Xena through clear blue eyes.

"She's dead isn't she?" Phobos' voice was small, and rough, but the natural sweetness showed through.

"I'm sorry," Xena whispered softly.

He nodded, and looked down at his mother, reaching out with one hand to gently brush back the tangled hair at her brow. Xena was braced for childish tears, but he didn't shed any, simply leaned down and kissed his mother's cheek. "She shouldn't have tried to fight them," he decided out loud. Narrow shoulders lifted, then sagged as he let out a ragged sigh. "Are you going to kill me?" he asked at last.

Xena's eyes were shadowed with worry, but she didn't have time to formulate an answer before Gabrielle stepped in. "No, we're going to take you to your grandfather in Attica." She looked up. "Right Xena?"

The warrior princess didn't answer, just nodded. "We've got to get moving as fast as possible." Her eyes touched on Gabrielle's bloodied shoulder. "But first, I need to clean and dress that."

Phobos was still gently petting his mother's brow. "We'll take her home, won't we?"

"Yes," Xena answered seriously. She straightened her shoulders to pin a hard look on her lover. "I’m going to go back to our camp, get our things, and Argo. I want you to stay here. I'll treat your arm when I get back, and then we're moving." She looked around worriedly. "I have a feeling we may not have much time."

*****

Long hours later, Phobos lay sleeping deeply, and Gabrielle sat with her feet curled under her while Xena carefully stitched the wound in her shoulder. By rights, she should have done so earlier, but in the midnight dash to escape, she'd opted to simply wash and bind the injury. Now, with more time, she was making a better job of it. The bard whimpered softly, muscles rippling with the effort not to twitch.

"Almost done," the warrior princess soothed and brushed a hand lightly over Gabrielle's other shoulder. Finally finished, she carefully smeared salve over the wound in the bard's shoulder and upper back, then bound it tightly in a strip of clean cloth. "The salve should help dull the pain," she offered as she moved around and saw how pale Gabrielle was. She brushed red gold bangs back from her brow. "Sorry it hurt so much."

The bard smiled blearily. "Only way to keep it from infecting," she mumbled shakily.

"Get some sleep," Xena advised. "I'll stay on guard." They had camped in a niche high on a hillside, where she could keep an eye on the valley below. Alone, she would have gone on for the rest of the day, but even riding, Gabrielle and the boy had been on the verge of collapse. Her eyes lifted to where Argo and two horses she'd stolen from the dead soldiers were grazing peacefully. They were safe enough for the moment, but everything she'd ever heard about Laius painted him as a determined man who didn't surrender easily.

"You have to get some sleep sooner or later," the bard murmured as Xena helped her into her blankets.

"I'm fine for now…I'll catnap later. We'll travel again tonight, when it's safer."

Gabrielle nodded and mumbled something inaudible, her eyes slipping closed as exhaustion and shock settled over her. She wrapped an arm around the sleeping child, and he snuggled close, instinctively seeking her comfort in slumber.

The warrior princess watched silently for a long moment as she turned what little she knew over in her head. The stories she'd heard had also described the king as a fair man, temperamental perhaps, but not an unreasoning brute. She studied the child's delicate features. He looked normal enough. Bit too pretty for a boy perhaps, but no monster. She shook her head slowly. Hope hadn't looked like a monster either. And Gabrielle had been equally protective of her child, until the demon turned on her. Gabrielle's description of the soldier's behavior certainly hadn't jibed with that of a madman, or a man blindly adhering to his insane master's commands. The soldiers she'd fought certainly hadn't been crazy. They'd been businesslike and skilled, wanting her to surrender. She hadn't liked killing them anymore than she suspected they would have enjoyed killing her.

She massaged the back of her neck tiredly, throwing off the musings. She'd considered the problem most of the night, and was no closer to an answer than she had been when she began. Silently, she straightened to her feet, wandering to the vantage point she'd picked out when she decided to camp here. As the first fingers of dawn began to spread across the valley, Xena hunkered down, making herself comfortable as she settled in to watch for any signs of pursuit.

*****

The sun was high in the sky, long hours later, when Xena rose from her lonely watch, her footsteps soft, as she paced a memorized route around their campsite, checking in all directions for any sign their position had been compromised. When she was satisfied they were still undiscovered, she silently moved to kneel beside Gabrielle. The bard was deep asleep, her breathing slow and even. Xena rested a tender hand on her brow, relieved to find her skin pleasantly warm to the touch. There was no sign of fever. She carefully lifted the dressing on her shoulder aside enough to get a glimpse of pale flesh. It was pink and bruised, but there was no sign of infection. Xena let out a soft sigh of relief. With luck, they could keep moving some time tonight. She hadn't seen many riders in the valley below, but enough to convince her that staying where they were was a bad idea.

She replaced the blanket around Gabrielle's shoulders, and rose. Her eyes touched on the sleeping child. Long dark lashes fanned out over his cheeks. She'd feel better about all of this if she just knew more about him. Shaking her head, she paced back to her viewpoint, ice blue gaze tracing over the valley before she hunkered down again. She had a good view, so no one was going to sneak up on them anytime soon. It was as good a time as any for a catnap. She folded herself in a moderately comfortable position, and settled in to get some rest.

Xena rarely dreamed, and when she did, they were nearly always nightmares, so it was strange to her to realize she was dreaming something soft and sweet. Thick green grass tickled her toes, while warm sun beat down on her face, and a gentle hand stroked her back.

"You have to help him." The voice felt as though it should be familiar, should be known to her, but wasn't.

"I can't," she breathed, not knowing why she had to refuse, but suddenly knowing it was important.

"Yes you can," that soft voice disagreed. "If you choose to."

Xena frowned slightly, digesting the words, as a small figure appeared at the edge of the glade, playing in the thick grass with the mindless pleasure of a child. "I can't change fate, anymore than I can change what I am."

"Perhaps those are the only two things you can change. Prophecies are often self-fulfilling. Break the pattern, and you can change the interpretation."

The warrior princess glanced back in her dream, a frown drawing a line on her brow as she caught sight of the slender, strawberry haired figure at her back. Not Gabrielle, but the Queen of Thebes, who'd so recently died while she watched helplessly. The queen's eyes were an incredible shade of blue. She hadn't noticed that when she was dying in the dead of night. "I can't fight him," Xena whispered, uncertain exactly who she meant. "Every time I try, it ends badly."

A gentle hand brushed her cheek. "You fight him every day…as you fight yourself…" that soft voice whispered. "You must do what's right."

"But I never know what that is…and when I think I do, I'm usually wrong…"

"I know how you feel," a small voice murmured.

Xena's eyes snapped open, as reality and dreams blended for a moment. Warm sun beat down on her face, and ice blue eyes were studying her through a veil of thick dark lashes. It took her a moment to realize she was awake now and it was the boy, not his mother, who was looking down at her.

"I'm usually wrong too," the boy murmured sadly.

Xena shifted into a crouch. Her eyes leaving the child to scan the valley below, as she regained her bearings. For reasons she didn't understand, the dream had left her feeling faintly unbalanced. Finally, she glanced back at the boy, eyeing him curiously, wondering why the soldiers were so desperate for his death. He looked like a sweet enough child, and he'd given them no trouble during the day, simply clinging to her, though she'd felt the dampness of tears when her arm brushed her cheek. As she watched, he hunkered down in a position similar to hers, and pale eyes scanned the valley below in perfect imitation of her gesture. "What are you usually wrong about?" she questioned.

Phobos continued to stare at the valley below, his small brow drawing into a frown. "Everything," he whispered, sounding heartbroken.

Xena absorbed the small comment silently, mulling it over for a long moment, before she questioned, "What happened? Who's trying to kill you?"

"My father," that small voice whispered, cracking mid-word. "He says I'm evil…he says I killed Andarus, but I didn't." The small head shook, and in profile, the boy's expression was sadder than any child's had a right to be. "He fell. I tried to hold him up, but I couldn't."

"Why do the soldiers think you killed him?"

The boy was silent for a long moment. "We weren't supposed to play in the tower. It was old. Nobody went up there…but us."

Xena frowned at the boy. "You and Andarus."

Phobos nodded. "His father was my father's first general…we were born a week apart, and we were always best friends." He looked like he wanted to cry. "The tower was our fort. I was the King, and he was my general….we'd look out the windows, and plan our battles."

"What happened?" Xena asked gently.

He was silent for a long moment before answering. "He leaned too far…I tried to pull him back, but I couldn't."

"Why do they think you killed him?"

Another long pause preceded his answer. "Menandes and the others were in the courtyard. They looked up as Andarus fell. They heard him scream, and they thought it was because I'd pushed him. It wasn't though. He was my best friend. I wouldn't have."

Xena was silent for a long moment, simply watching the child. Instinct told her he wasn't lying, but she didn’t think he was telling the full story either. She looked up, noting the way the sun was waning in the sky, then rose gracefully, reaching down to catch the child's hand in her own. "Come on, we should make Gabrielle something to eat and look after the horses before it gets dark again."

"Will we reach my Grandfather's kingdom tonight?" Phobos questioned.

Xena shook her head. "Probably not until some time tomorrow night."

"Oh," the boy exhaled, sounding disappointed. She couldn't help but pity him, trapped on the road with strangers, his mother murdered, and his father determined to kill him. It was an unfair burden for any child, but especially for one who seemed so small and fragile.

His manner perfectly serious, he attempted to help her as she cared for the horses, then watched as she fetched a hare from a snare set earlier, and set about skinning it for their dinner. He was a polite child, intelligent, well mannered, and sweetly tempered as far as she could tell. She saw no sign of duplicity, no hint of malice, and nary a trace of ill will. In fact, all things considered, he was almost too polite, but she quickly diagnosed that as shock. She suspected he really hadn't accepted the fact his mother was dead.

The rabbit was nearly done, when Gabrielle's nose twitched and her eyelids fluttered. She blinked, bringing the world back into focus. A faint frown creased her forehead as she struggled to remember the events of the night before. Xena was crouched in front of a small fire, slowly turning a spitted rabbit, while Phobos knelt next to her, silently watching. "That smells wonderful," the bard exhaled as she pushed stiffly into a sitting position, her body protesting the small movement.

Xena looked up, eyes meeting Gabrielle's. She noted her slow, stiff motions with a raised brow. "How are you feeling?"

Gabrielle shrugged her good shoulder. "Sore," she sighed, then nodded toward their dinner. "How long?"

"Just a few more minutes," Xena responded, then looked regretful. "Sorry it won't be as good as what you'd make…" she trailed off.

Gabrielle offered a wan smile. "Right now, anything I don't have to cook sounds wonderful." Moving carefully, she climbed out of her bedroll, wincing in pain. Xena started to move toward her to help, but the bard held up a hand, forestalling her. "I'll be all right."

Xena froze, still holding the spitted rabbit as she watched her lover's flinching movement. She was surprised a heartbeat later, when Phobos scrambled over, curving a small hand to Gabrielle's forearm in an offer of support. The bard smiled at the child, leaning on his arm as she moved in front of the fire. She noted the position of the sun in the sky, and sighed softly. She'd slept most of the day away.

As if sensing her thoughts, Xena spoke up. "Don't worry about it. You needed the rest, and I didn't want to try and move during the day anyway."

"Any sign they've found our trail?"

Xena shook her head. She knew she'd been careful, but there was always a chance of pursuit. "I haven't seen anything."

The bard sank into a sitting position, absorbing heat from the tiny blaze, while Phobos dropped down next to her, pressing against her side. Gabrielle glanced down, then hooked her arm over the boy's shoulders.

They ate in relative silence, with Phobos providing most of the chatter as he told them how the king's huntsmen had always prepared rabbit on the king's hunting trips.

Xena watched closely. She didn't know much of children, but he seemed an unusually well-behaved one. Perhaps not unlikely for a young prince required to present the proper appearance at all times. She looked on, studying her lover. Gabrielle was unusually reserved, but it might just have been the pain making her so quiet.

Finally, they finished dinner at dusk, and Xena made quick work of cleaning up the remains of their campsite. She took the time to put a fresh dressing on Gabrielle's injury, then disappeared into the woods to see to the horses. It was time to be moving again.

As she saddled the horses, Xena could hear the soft sounds of Gabrielle and Phobos talking, though their voices were too low for her to pick out actual words. It struck her that Gabrielle sounded stressed…nervous even. When she returned, the bard watched her carefully, while she kept a protective hand on the boy's shoulder.

"He can ride with me," Gabrielle offered. "I'm lighter…it'll be easier on the horse." At Xena's arch look, she added somewhat defensively. "Besides, if any soldiers show up, you'll need to be free to fight."

Xena stared for a long moment as it occurred to her what was going on. Gabrielle had obviously gotten the boy's story while she was saddling the horses. Distrust glittered in her eyes, until Xena felt the need to mutter. "Don't worry, Gabrielle, I'm taking him to his grandfather." Even though Hope had turned on the bard, it was obvious she still harbored some distrust over Xena's intent to kill the thing. Xena had to squelch a sigh. Did Gabrielle think she had liked what she'd felt she had to do? But the child had been evil, a demon in human form. Despite Hope's nature, it had damaged their trust, and events in Chin hadn't helped either. She tamped down a flare of resentment that they didn't have time for. "Fine," she exhaled.

The sun was little more than a dull glow on the distant horizon when the riders set out, wrapped in heavy cloaks to ward off the chill, their horses plodding slowly along the narrow track through the trees.

Several hours had passed when Xena suddenly held up a hand, bringing the horses to a halt. "Off the trail," she hissed as she swung down, landing without a sound. She caught the horses' reins to lead the animals into the thick woods. Gabrielle would have dismounted, but Xena touched her calf. "Stay." She drew her sword. "I want you ready to run if need be."

Gabrielle was about to speak, but the sound of hoofbeats--audible now to her ears--echoed through the night. Shivering, Phobos turned into her body, pressing close, as though to escape the coming sounds. The bard tightened her hold on the boy, and cast a frightened glance at Xena.

The warrior stood perfectly still, praying the trees would shield them, because they were in no shape for a fight, and she was less than confident of Gabrielle's ability to maintain her seat if she had to whip her mount to a full run. Minutes passed as the riders drew nearer. Finally, she spotted the first glimpse of men and horses through the trees. They were arranged two abreast, cantering in perfect unison. There were at least twelve soldiers on horseback. More than enough to make it a very bad proposition should there be a fight. The lead rider stood tall in the saddle, his ornate armor glittering in the faint moonlight, while the high plumes on his helm and his dark cloak played on the faint wind.

"Papa."

Xena heard the very softly uttered word, and glanced back, noting Phobos' rounded eyes. She reached up and patted his leg, hoping against hope that the soldiers wouldn't notice them. The last thing she wanted was to face the boy's father while he looked on.

Long minutes passed, while the riders continued on, then disappeared down the trail. Xena stood listening, tracking the faint sounds, until they faded into the night. Finally, she sheathed her sword, and swung up onto Argo. "Obviously we won't be going that way," she murmured thoughtfully. She flashed a worried glance at the woman and boy huddled together. Overland wasn't a choice she liked, but with Laius and his men on the roads, she didn’t see any other option. "We're going to have to do this the hard way," she explained to Gabrielle. "Do you think you can make it?"

The bard nodded. "I'll be all right," she claimed, but her voice was hollow with exhaustion.

Xena considered challenging the assertion, but decided it wasn't worth the effort. Gabrielle could be unbelievably stubborn when she was of a mind. "Okay," she whispered, then nodded in the direction she intended to take. "That way."

The overland trail was rocky and steep, forcing Xena and Gabrielle to dismount and climb. Xena had Phobos ride, while she led his horse and the one carrying the body of his mother. Used to trailing on her own, Argo simply followed along behind.

At some point, the warrior became aware of Gabrielle's rasping breath punctuating her every step. She glanced over, noting the bard's downbent head, and the visible effort it cost her to keep moving. She pulled the horses to a halt, calling out, "We'll rest here."

Gabrielle didn't argue, just sank to her knees in a small patch of stray grass.

Xena hefted Phobos down, but her attention was on her badly flagging lover.

"I…uh…need to…" the boy whispered hesitantly.

Xena noted his blush, and pointed to a small stand of bushes that was still in clear view. "Over there, and come straight back," she instructed.

Gabrielle was concentrating on not throwing up, as she knelt taking in deep breaths of air. She barely felt the hand that landed on her shoulder until she heard Xena's voice.

"We'll top out soon. You can ride again, then."

Gabrielle nodded weakly. A hand tucked under her chin.

"Look at me, Gabrielle," Xena whispered as she lifted the bard's chin. A worried frown touched her expression as she noted the dazed look in green eyes. After the solid crack to the skull she'd received the night before, it wouldn't be too surprising if she had a bit of a concussion. "How are you feeling?" she asked gently.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Been better," she answered simply.

Xena sighed. "Let me look at your shoulder. I don't want to risk an infection."

Gabrielle nodded, but made no attempt to move when her lover rose. Xena returned a moment later, to kneel beside the bard, carefully peeling the bandages back from the wound. Xena frowned as she noted the way it had continued to bleed. There were pull marks around the stitches, a reminder of how hard she’d been pushed since the attack. Wishing they could take a few hours to rest, she carefully began smoothing a fresh coat of salve on the injury.

"This should help with the pain," she whispered.

Gabrielle managed a weak smile. "Good."

"I’ve considered leaving you behind and taking the boy on alone," Xena admitted, and felt Gabrielle tense. "But Laius or his men might find you. You can’t fight right now, and I’m afraid of what might happen."

Gabrielle relaxed ever so slightly.

"If you can possibly make it," the warrior whispered worriedly, "I want you along."

The bard nodded. "I’ll make it," she promised.

Their conversation fell off as Phobos rejoined them. He silently leaned against Gabrielle’s good side, playing idly with her hair while they rested.

A frown drew a line between Xena’s brows as she noted the gently affectionate way the bard slipped an arm around the boy, teasing him lightly as he continued to chatter. She hadn’t seen anything terribly unusual about the child, but she was uncomfortable with the notion of Gabrielle becoming too close. There was still a chance he wasn’t at all what he seemed, and she didn’t want to see the bard get hurt again.

They rested for nearly an hour, before Xena finally moved to Gabrielle’s side and offered her a hand. "It’s time," she said simply.

The bard nodded, her expression exhausted, then reached back, allowing Xena to draw her to her feet.

The remainder of the night passed with the steady plodding boredom of their travel. When the path leveled out, Xena helped Gabrielle back onto her horse, noting her shakiness with a helpless frown.

Near morning, they neared another main road, and Xena left her charges waiting in a thick copse of trees, while she scouted ahead. When she came back, her expression was grim.

"What is it?" Gabrielle questioned, and tightened her hold on the boy pressed against her side.

Xena nodded toward the road. "An army’s been through in the past couple of hours. There were a lot more men than we saw last night, and they appear to be headed toward Attica.

"My father’s army," Phobos said in a very small voice.

Xena nodded. "Undoubtedly," she agreed.

"What are we going to do?" Gabrielle questioned.

Xena sighed very softly. "We can try and use the lesser roads, go around the longer way to avoid troops, but if Attica’s being sieged by Laius’ army, we’ll have to go through them sooner or later." She fiddled with a bracer, tightening a lace with a distant look. "Our other chance is to go overland and push our speed hard. Armies don’t move fast, and they aren’t very far ahead of us. We might be able to get to Attica first." She flashed a worried gaze at her lover, wondering if she could take the punishment of a breakneck pace.

Gabrielle understood the look and shrugged with forced indifference. "We’ve got to try."

Xena nodded, then grabbed Phobos around the waist, swinging him onto her horse with the flat comment, "You’ll be riding with me now."

Gabrielle nodded. She’d have enough on her hands just keeping up. She didn’t have anything left to look after the boy as well.

When Xena decided to push hard, she did so with brutal efficiency, driving their mounts at just the right speed to get the most out of them, without going over the line. Never much of a rider, Gabrielle was left simply clinging to her horse, riding directly in Xena's wake, and praying she was choosing a route free of chuck holes. At the pace they were moving, if her horse went down, the animal would be injured, and so would she.

They rode through the day, stopping only twice. Once for a few minutes to allow the horses to rest, while Xena checked Gabrielle's injury. And a second time to down a cold lunch of bread and cheese.

Phobos was quiet, almost too much so, until Xena watched him carefully, trying to understand how a child that young could pull himself so thoroughly together after the traumas he'd had. As if sensing her perusal, he clung to Gabrielle during their breaks, staying close and watching Xena from under girlishly long lashes.

The warrior just met his pale gaze with an assessing one of her own, and when it was time to ride again, she swung him up with businesslike efficiency.

Continue to Part II

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