ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Heart of a Warlord
By Patricia L. Givens


Chapter Three-The Middle Ground

"Xena! Wait!" Gabrielle took three steps forward and then turned back to Zo. "I'm sorry….I have to…I'll see you back at the Inn!" She turned and chased after her best friend, leaving the Amazon to kick her boot into the dust.

"Xena!" She called again, following the sounds of Argo crashing through the underbrush. She was amazed, normally Argo was pretty quiet. Maybe Xena wanted her to follow…she couldn't be upset enough to be this careless. Gabrielle knew she worried about her, but it couldn't be the kiss…well, the almost kiss. "Xena?"

She came to a stop after ten minutes, panting hard from the all-out pace she had been trying to maintain. A shiver went up her spine when she realized that the only sound in her ears was that of her own labored breath. "Xena"? Gabrielle's voice was a whisper, but it echoed through the dead of the forest as though it were a shout.

"What do you want, Gabrielle?"

The bard let out a small squeak of alarm and spun on her heel. Xena stood behind her. She took a few deep breaths. "You know, I really wish you wouldn't do that. You scared the Hades out of me!"

The warrior's face took on a slightly sarcastic look. "I'm sorry."

Gabrielle was stunned. "What's wrong with you?"

"What's wrong with me?" Xena circled her. "Maybe you should be asking what's wrong with you."

"Me? There's nothing wrong with me."

"Oh no?" Xena stepped in close and looked down into her eyes. "She's a warlord, Gabrielle. You're consorting with a warlord."

"Consorting? I wasn't consorting. She's my friend. She saved my life."

Xena snorted. "Sure looked like consorting to me."

"Oh," Gabrielle crossed her arms. "You mean the kiss."

The warrior's head shot up, then swung away to hide the pain in her eyes.

"You still think of me as a child. Well, for your information, women can be betrothed to women. It happens all the time among Amazons."

Gods, Xena thought. She thinks I'm upset about her kissing a woman! She would have laughed if it hadn't been so depressing. "I know that."

Gabrielle did a double take. "You knew that?" Her voice was very small. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Xena smiled. "I am not mad that you kissed a woman."

"Well, I didn't really. You kind of interrupted. But that's not the point." She stared into her eyes. "I'm an adult and I can do what I want to do."

"Is this what you want to do? Or are you so grateful to Zo that you'd do anything-"

"That's ridiculous!" Gabrielle cut her off. "If that was the case I would have kissed you a long time ago…well… if you had wanted me to." She swallowed and turned away, unsure of the tremor in her voice. "I think you should trust me on this one."

Xena had had enough. She grabbed the bard by her arm and swung her around. "Gabrielle, you don't know what she's capable off. She'll use you…"

"No…no she won't. I know what she did to you was cruel, but it's in the past and she's changed."

Xena's face went slack at Gabrielle's words.

"That's right." She confirmed. "Zo told me about your past together. She told me what she did and she is sorry. But it doesn't color who she is now. People change, Xena. You, of all people, should know that."

"It isn't the same!"

"Oh, it isn't?" Gabrielle took on her stubborn stance.

"No! It isn't." The warrior took her face between her palms. "I wasn't an Amazon Princess."

Gabrielle's jaw fell. "What?"

"You are an Amazon Princess, Gabrielle. You can give her back the one thing she has always wanted…her name… her title, her place among the Amazon's. It's just a bonus that you took Terreis' place…this way she even gets her Princess!"

The bard pulled away violently. "That's why you think she likes me? It couldn't possible be because I'm nice, and warm, and yes, maybe even slightly good looking? It has to be because I have something she wants?" Gabrielle frowned. "Besides that, I mean."

"No.." Xena shook her head again. "Oh, Gabrielle. I don't think that's all your worth, but I know her. Zo will use you for what she needs and then get rid of you without a thought. She was always ruthless. She'll hurt you, Gabrielle. Don't give her the chance!"

Gabrielle looked at her, her face closed. "Why not?" She said quietly . "I gave you a chance."

Xena watched her walk away, her heart aching. "Not this one." She whispered.

Climbing up on Argo, she headed off through the trees.

"I don't believe her!" Gabrielle pushed her way violently through the bushes. "You'd think she would trust me, just a little bit by now!"


She squeaked in alarm for the second time that night and felt herself getting angry. "ZO? I thought I said I'd meet you back at the inn."

"I…I'm sorry. I'll go." The Amazon turned slowly, smiling when she heard the bard's voice.

"No. Wait." Gabrielle caught her arm. "I'm not mad at you. I'm the one who should be sorry." She returned Zo's smile. "You just startled me."

"Well, I do apologize, my Princess." She bowed gallantly. "But I wasn't about to leave you all alone in a thieves wood…I'm not like some…" She shot a look of distaste in the direction Xena had gone.

"She didn't." Gabrielle was irked that she defended Xena so automatically. "She knows I'll be okay. She has faith in me." Yeah, right. She added to herself.

"Well, whatever." Zo offered her arm. "May I escort you back to the inn?"

"Please." Gabrielle felt her mood lift as she strolled with the blonde warrior, her eyes traveling often to look at her face.

"I wanted to tell you, Princess, that I will be gone in the morning."

"Gone?" Gabrielle repeated and Zo heard the note of disappointment she was looking for.

"Yes. I'm taking my men up to Honor's Pass. It's a days ride from here. They need a place to meet their families in safety, and I'm going to give it to them. I'll be gone for five days." She turned to her and smiled. "I truly hope you are here when I get back."

Zo walked with her all the way to the bottom of the Inn's staircase, talking about her men as they went.

When they finally came to a stop, she relinquished the bard's arm with no small amount of regret. "Well, my Princess." She looked as though she would try to kiss her again and Gabrielle held her breath. But she only took the girl's hand, raising it sweetly to her lips. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Zo." She flushed slightly and headed up the stairs, the Amazon watching her as she went. When she had disappeared beyond the top step, Zo took her knife and carved her symbol on the bottom post, throwing a glare out to every man in the common room.

My property.

It was a message they all heard….and heeded.

Gabrielle knew before she even opened the door that Xena wouldn't be there. She felt a slight panic for a moment before her faith rushed in to save her. She'd be back. She always comes back. The bard felt a little ashamed of herself; she had said some things she shouldn't have. But Xena had always forgiven her in the past. She would again.

Wouldn't she?

With a bone weary sigh she lowered herself onto the bed and closed her eyes, her hand going unconsciously to the heat above her breast.

Xena rode hard. She wasn't going anywhere…well, not anywhere that she knew, her only thought was to tire herself out, to run until she wouldn't be able to do anything but sleep.

She smiled when she saw the lights of a camp up ahead, and her smile only widened when she saw the group of men gathered around the fire and heard the sounds of women crying from somewhere beyond them.

"Slavers." She whispered. With a dark grin, she unsheathed her sword.

The hands were soft and warm and Gabrielle smiled, her back arching as they brushed across her skin. They pulled away for a moment and she whimpered, wanting nothing more than for them to continue their lazy exploration of her flesh.


the sound of her own name came like honey, sweeping through her heart with a warm strength that took her breath away and left her aching and weak. "Yes…" She whispered.

I Love You…

"I love you, too…" She heard herself speak the words and fought to open her eyes. Fought to see the person she had just proclaimed her love for, had just offered herself to. But her eyes would not obey her, they were focused on a rainbow of colors, colors so bright and yet they did not hurt, that played across the inside of her eyelids. She moaned when she felt lips against her neck, traveling downward to dip into the valley between her breasts. "Yes…" Her voice was a whisper as her hands found hair and twined it between her fingers. One moment straight and then in curls, all softer than any silk she had ever felt. "Oh…oh…."

The lips had moved lower and been joined by hands, pulling at the belt around her waist. She lifted her hips to allow it to be pulled away. "Yes…"

The colors swirled brighter, and began to hum, drowning out the feel of the lips on her skin.


Then, only blackness and something hard beneath her body. She opened her eyes and sighed when she saw the mountain.

With a grunt of frustration, she climbed to her feet, her skirt nearly falling off in the process. She noticed her belt on the ground a few feet away and snatched it up quickly, embarrassment warring with anger. When she was dressed, she turned and contemplated the mountainside. It hadn't changed, same two staircases, same two directions. She saw a rock nearby and sat down heavily, blowing the hair out of her eyes.

"If this is my dream," Gabrielle muttered, her frustration strengthening her voice until it was a scream. "Why do I have to be here? I was perfectly happy where I was, thank you very much!" She listened to her words echo back from the alabaster, her lips curving into a smile. "If this is my dream…I can do what I want!"

Gabrielle stood and faced the mountain. "I don't want to choose."

The ground beneath her began to shake and Gabrielle lost her balance, falling forward as the mountain split open and a third staircase rose into view directly in front of her. She looked up and smiled. It went straight up the middle!

"Hmmm." She nodded. "That's more like it."

She climbed the steps easily, finding the path less steep than the other two appeared to be. When she reached the top, the steps ended abruptly, the last hanging off over the edge of a cliff. Looking to her left, and then to her right, she saw that the other stairs continued, winding down the far side of the mountain to disappear into the craggy rocks below.

Gabrielle grinned and stepped over to the edge, leaning as far out as she could to see what was beneath her.

"Oh…" She breathed. The view was incredible.

It was a beach. White sand stretching out as far as she could see, marred only by the mountain rocks that encroached on both sides, extending halfway down the sand to create a u-shaped cove. The water was a deep, clear blue that rang a memory in her heart. She could hear the waves lapping against the shore and the birds calling from overhead. It was beautiful.

"So this is the middle ground?" Gabrielle smile. "I think I can deal with this!"

She inhaled deeply, enjoying the peaceful setting, until she heard someone calling from beneath her. Gabrielle knelt down on the last step and bent over the edge as far as she could, surprised to see the rest of her staircase shattered on the rocks below.

A woman stood there, amidst the rubble, calling out sadly to the sea. Her hair was gold, shot through with red and silver, her skin very fair over a slightly muscular frame. She wore a dress that shimmered in the new morning sun, one half silver, one half black, her outstretched arms covered with leather gauntlets from her elbows to the top of each hand. Each gauntlet held one jewel, an opal on one side and an onyx on the other, both flashing brightly as she threw her arms out in supplication.

Gabrielle cocked her head to one side, trying to shut out the world around her, and heard the woman's cry carried faintly on the wind. There was a sadness in her words that broke the bard's heart.

"I will not!" The woman cried. "I will not…"

"Do you need help?" She called, her voice breaking with emotion.

The woman looked up and Gabrielle felt her heart stop beating. "No." She whispered as she recognized her own face, well lined with age and very bitter, staring back at her.

"I will not!" The woman called, rage in her voice, then turned back towards the sea.

Gabrielle was transfixed for a moment, her eyes glued to the small, sad figure below her on the rocks. Because of that, she did not see the sky darken until it had turned deep gray. Only then did she look around in confusion, the song of the ocean drowned out by a new, much more ominous sound.

The sound of horses and men…advancing from both sides.

The Generals came first, two striking figures atop large, pale mounts, one in silver armor, one in dark, dark black. Behind them came the soldiers, hundreds of them, some on horseback, some on foot, all heavily armed and strictly disciplined. They met in the center of the cove, both Generals turning to face the woman below.

The silver warlord pulled off her helm, spilling dark chestnut hair out into the wind. Her eyes were the color of the sea behind her and Gabrielle knew her immediately, despite the age and scars so evident on her face.

"Xena?" Tears fell from her eyes. "No…please…"

The black warlord tore off her helm and Gabrielle gasped. "Zo…Gods, no! Don't do this!" She saw the other Gabrielle look up at her. "Stop them!" She screamed.

But the woman only shook her head, whispering into the wind, "I will not choose."

Gabrielle watched in horror as both warlords nodded, pulling their helms back on before backing up to face each other. Each raised a hand…and charged, their armies following behind them.

"NO!" Gabrielle fell to her knees, her eyes shut tightly against the death below her. She heard Xena's battle cry, heard it cut short as though by a blade, and then nothing…

She didn't know how long she stayed like that, down on her knees, her head hanging into her hands. It might have only been an hour, but when she finally started to move again, it felt like an eternity.

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly, surprised to see brown earth beneath her knees, instead of clean, white alabaster.

She was back at the base of the mountain, three staircases winding up away from her.

"Can you still handle the middle ground, Gabrielle?"

The bard turned quickly, relieved to see the beautiful, dark face, and the pale honey eyes staring intently into her soul.

"Emony…" Tears still slid down her cheeks and she looked very lost. "Why?"

The alchemist walked to her side, taking her hand gently. "Choose one, one loses… choose none, all lose. You had to know."

The bard dashed her tears away. "Well, I certainly know now. It felt so real."

"It was real." Emony moved away. "One reality that might have been."

"They would have gone to war for me?" Her voice held something of a child's wonder. "Like they did for Helen?"

The witch shook her head sadly. "Think on that, little bard. How romantic did you find that end?"

Gabrielle nodded. "I have to choose. Whatever that means." She sighed. "But, choose what? Zo…she wants…me, I think. Xena…"

"Do not think on it as what they want. Think on it as what you want. And then you take responsibility for your own choice." She smiled. "Listen, Gabrielle. Listen for your name!"

"My name?" An edge of steel crept into her voice. "Would you mind telling me exactly what I am supposed to be listening for? They've both said it..."

Emony came to stand right in front of her, so close that the bard could feel her breath. "In love, Gabrielle." She smiled. "The person that says your name in love, the way it is written on your heart, is your destiny."

"Oh, well…that would have been nice to know-" Her words were cut off by Emony's lips, soft against her own. She felt her body react strongly, felt her hands go to the back of the alchemist's neck as her senses left her unguarded.

A moment later, Emony pulled away, and Gabrielle could feel the regret in her lips as she did. The witch swallowed. "Remember what I have told you."

Gabrielle raised her fingers to her lips, touching them where they still tingled. "Why?" She whispered.

Emony smiled sadly. "Because. It is in your nature for a woman's lips to evoke in you such a response. I wanted you to know it. One will get there before the other, neither should be first." She trailed her hand down Gabrielle's cheek. "If I had a life…" She shook her head fiercely and moved away, turning her back. "The name on your heart, Gabrielle." The witch faded from view.

Listen for the name on your heart…before it is too late.

It was barely a breath, carried on the wind, and Gabrielle turned to watch the middle staircase crumble behind her.

She woke just before sunrise, a name on her lips that she couldn't remember.

Gabrielle looked over to where the saddlebags sat against the wall. With a determined look, she went to them and pulled out her quill and parchment. She scribbled a note as fast as she could, then grabbed her staff and left the room.


Chapter Four-Warlord

Xena looked around her, smiling at the men groaning at her feet. "Had enough, boys?" She heard a twig snap behind her and slammed her leg out, catching her assailant in the throat. "It's not nice to sneak up on a lady." She looked down at him. "Now, why don't you make this easy on yourselves and just give me the key." She glanced over at the box across from them, it was no more than six feet long and six feet high, but they had crammed five girls inside of it, leaving them nothing but tightly spaced bar's to see out of. One of the girls was crying...

Rage closed around her heart. "This is that last time I'm going to ask. If you make me look for it, I guarantee it's going to hurt."

"Here...here." One of the bleeding threw her a large iron key. "Take them. There will always be others."

"Not for you." She jabbed her fingers into his throat. "Do you feel that? Getting a little painful up here?" She thumped her fingers against his brow. "You'll be dead in seconds, unless you pay attention. You're a soldier, you must have some sense of duty. Tell your leader that if I hear of any more slaving in this area, I'm going to come looking for him...." She leaned down to stare into his eyes. "After I finish with you. Do you understand?" The man nodded quickly, gritting his teeth against the pain, and she released him.

He fell to the ground, gasping for air. "She won't like it...she'll probably kill me herself."

Xena turned back. "She?" Her eyes turned even colder as her hands ran over his armor, roughly pulling it away from his body. "Where is it?" The man remained silent, wincing when her hands ran over his arm. With a snarl, she ripped the leather away...to see an emblem on the cloth beneath.

Twin dragons, curling in on themselves.

She wrapped her fingers around the emblem and tore it from his shirt. "Zo..." She growled, her voice feral. The man started to rise and Xena slammed her hand into his head, knocking him unconscious. She tucked the emblem into her bodice and strode over to the cage.

Sliding the key home, she twisted the lock open, "Come on. Everyone out."

They filed out one by one, each of them looking at her fearfully. They hadn't heard anything she had said to their captors. Before she could speak, one of them stepped forward and there was something about her that reminded Xena of Gabrielle, even though she was blond with brown eyes.

"Is this going to be much better?" She put her arms out to the sides, a protective gesture towards her friends. "Who do we get sold to now?"

Xena smiled. Yep, definitely reminded her of Gabrielle. "You're not going to be sold." She said softly. "You're free. Get out of here." She walked over to the fire and picked up a water skin, throwing her head back to take a long drink.

"You're bleeding."

She turned around to see the blond standing behind her. "I know."

"Let me help-" The girl reached out to touch her and Xena pulled away.

"Look-" She put her hand up. "What's your name anyway?"


"Look, Kyla, I'm fine. I can take care of myself. It's your friends you should be worried about. Take them home."

"And why do you think I'm trying to help you?" She crossed her arms in a gesture so distinctly Gabrielle that Xena felt her heart ache. "This wood belongs to thieves and brigands. How far do you really think we would get? Did you save us just to let us die?"

Xena looked from her face to each of the faces behind her. She pulled the emblem from between her breasts and stared at it for a few moments. Gabrielle would be back at the inn by now, asleep and safe. With a sigh, she realized it would keep. "All right. Give me a minute and I'll take you home."

But Kyla didn't listen. She tore a piece of cloth from her skirt and knelt in front of the warrior, wiping the blood away from a short gash in her thigh.

"I said I could do it-"

"Listen," The girl said softly. "you saved us and I acted like an idiot. Let me apologize okay? I am very good at this."

Xena looked at her for a moment before nodding quietly. She stood very still as the girl continued her gentle ministrations. A few moments later, even the slight pain she had been feeling disappeared. She looked down at the pale hand against her thigh and stared. There was no mark, no cut...no scar. "Who are you?"

"Just a girl. My grandmother was a great healer. She taught me everything she knew." Kyla stood. "No more to it than that. Now, about taking us home...."

Xena grinned. "Which village?"

"Well, Tala is from Menos...to the east, Rylan is from Treton...to the north, Seian and Larina are from Meztlan, and I'm from Denal...to the west."

The warrior cocked one eyebrow up as she took in the girls impish grin. With a sigh she tucked the emblem away. "All right. Tala, Rylan, Seian, and Larina...you girls are first. If I have to ride all night, so does Kyla." She smiled and whistled for Argo. Grabbing the saddlehorn, she swung herself up. "Are any of you hurt?" Xena looked at each of them closely. "Argo can carry two."

Each girl turned to look at Kyla.

"What's wrong with you?" Xena demanded.

"I can't walk very far. They broke one of my legs when I was captured. It's still sore."

The warrior's look turned to one of respect. "You are a good healer."

"Unfortunately, some things still take time." She waited expectantly until Xena offered her arm and managed to control most of her shock when she was lifted bodily onto the saddle in front of her. "You're a strong woman."

"I drink a lot of milk." Xena grunted and headed them towards Menos.

Xena looked up at the sky, taking in the moon as it disappeared slowly into the horizon. She sighed.

"What's the matter?"

The warrior looked at the woman sitting in front of her. She had thought Kyla was asleep. They had already returned the others to their villages and all that remained was the healer. It was very late...or very early...Xena hadn't decided which. "I thought you were sleeping."

"I was...I was dreaming," She shifted and Xena became very aware of her hair as is blew softly across the top of her breasts.

"About what?" She tried to redirect her thoughts.

"About you. About the camp and the men you defeated. About how incredible it is going to sound to the people of my village. I think they might believe it a bit more if you told me your name."

She chuckled. "Xena."

Kyla turned abruptly to stare up into her eyes. "The Warrior Princess?"

Xena nodded. "Once."

"I've heard about the things you've done. The people you've helped." She slid a little further back and Xena's arms had to go around her waist to hang on to the reins. "So?"

"So…what?" It was a little terse, but Kyla was making her nervous...and she didn't like to be nervous.

The healer only smiled and leaned back a little bit more. "So where is she?"

"Who?" Xena did NOT want to discuss Gabrielle with this woman.

"You know." Kyla grabbed her arm, shaking it lightly. "The little strawberry blonde bard you're rumored to..." Her voice trailed off.

"Rumored to *what*?" The warrior's voice turned to steel.

"Travel with." Kyla finished, a smile curving her lips. "Or is she just part of the myth? Something light to make up for the dark? Someone to 'change' you...someone to 'save' you."

Xena pulled Argo to a stop. "Are you a healer or just a bad storyteller?" Her voice was cold.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit a nerve. There are so many stories about the two of you, how you fight together, take care of each other, how you're inseparable and, well, here you are....separated."

Xena opened her mouth to argue and closed it slowly. Kyla had a point. "She's...waiting for me."

"Is she? Hmmm." The healer chewed her lip. "You are very beautiful, Xena. But just how long do you think she'll wait?"

The warrior slid off the horse, leaving Kyla's back cold where it had just been so warm. "Enough." Her voice was very soft as she took up Argo's reins and began to lead her. "I don't want your opinion. You don't even know me...or Gabrielle."

"No...but I know OF you both. Sometimes that can be enough."

"Enough for what?"

The girl smiled. "To understand what's beneath the stories and the legends. Some things can not be defined within friendship. They go beyond it."

Xena looked up at her, taking in her pale skin, so radiant in the waning moonlight, her dark eyes that still seemed to sparkle. She couldn't be more than eighteen. "How would you know?" She was shocked when the healer dropped her eyes.

"I know." Her voice was very soft. "She won't wait forever, Xena. They never do."

In that moment, she looked so much like Gabrielle that Xena's mouth fell open. She started to speak but Kyla jumped down off of Argo's back, wincing when she landed on her sore leg. "Home's right there." She pointed to a hut, one of many, tucked away between the trees. "Thank you, Xena. For saving my life And the lives of those other girls."


"Another time..." Kyla stepped in close and drew herself up to the warrior's cheek. She place a gentle kiss there before turning and heading home. "Another time..."

Xena watched her go, curiosity burning in her chest. She stood there, thinking about what the girl had said, until a pink light caught her attention and pulled it towards the horizon. With a determined look, she jumped into the saddle and rode towards the Raven's Claw as though Hades himself were at her heels.

An hour later, she stormed into the Raven's Claw like an errant tornado, scaring the innkeeper quite badly when his door hit the wall hard enough to knock down mugs from across the room. He watched as the warrior took the stairs three at a time, her long legs recoiling powerfully beneath her. When he realized where she was going, his eyes widened. "Sweet Athena!" Grabbing a clay pitcher of wine, he hurried to his room, barring the door behind him.

Xena stopped outside of their room to pull the scrap of fabric from her bodice. She opened the door slowly, not wanting to startle the sleeping bard, and latched it quietly behind her. She had only taken two steps into the room when she gave in to the truth.

Gabrielle wasn't there.

She had recognized the way the room felt as she opened the door, but she hadn't believed it. It felt like any house, any room, when it's owner wasn't there. Too still…inanimate. She looked to the wall and saw her saddlebags leaning there, a brief hope passing through her chest that Gabrielle might have just…gone for a walk?

She sighed. Stupid, that was stupid. Gabrielle was hardly ever conscious before dawn. And they 'went for a walk' every day.

Xena sat heavily on the bed, her hand running down the cool, neatly made sheets. Gabrielle *had* been here. She could still catch a hint of that oil she was so fond of rubbing on her wrists and, just faintly, the scent of her hair. She shook her head, "Is this how much she's gotten to you?" Xena berated herself. "You've fallen to talking to yourself and sniffing pillow cases. Damn it!" She laid back, and heard something crumple beneath her head.

Xena rolled over, her hand reaching back to pull out a folded piece of parchment, her name across the front readable in the new morning light. She felt something go cold inside of her as she unfolded it, felt another wall go up where Gabrielle had worked so hard to tear them down. Her eyes checked every point in the room, only falling to the paper when she had nowhere else to look.


I'm sorry I couldn't wait until you got back, but I would have missed Zo.

She's taking her men out to a safe spot for them to meet with their families.

And I decided to go with her. Maybe it's better that we spend a little time apart

anyway. I'll be back in five days. If you're not here, I'll meet up with you in

Delphi. And Xena, I'll be there. I promise.


The warrior's hand closed around the parchment, crushing it within her fingers. She knew that Zo would use the next five days to try and persuade Gabrielle to break her word. Xena was standing and halfway to the door before she realized that she had moved, only stopping when she heard a memory ring in her ears.

*I am not a child, Xena*

No…no, she wasn't. But she didn't know the truth about Zo. Would she listen? Would she care? Or was it too late?

With snarl of frustration, Xena threw the crumpled paper to the far side of the room. No matter what, she couldn't go chasing after her right now, or Gabrielle would think she was treating her like a child again. That would be slightly less than productive.

For the first time in her life, Xena didn't know what to do.

'She is beautiful.' Zo thought to herself, looking down at Gabrielle's sleeping face. She had been surprised when the girl had shown up at her door, and even more surprised that Xena wasn't right behind her. She had asked to come with her and Zo had been more than happy to acquiesce. The bard had even managed to stay awake for most of the morning, even though she looked like she hadn't slept very well the night before.

When they had made camp early in the afternoon, Gabrielle had eaten half of an apple, and fallen soundly asleep. Zo had carried the girl herself, to lay her in the pillows of her own tent.

"Excuse me, sir."

Zo turned to see her second standing at the tent flap. He knew better than to enter her quarters...ever. Every man in the camp did. "What do you want, Draxen?"

The soldier cleared his throat nervously. "We have a problem." Her eyes rose to meet his and he felt his hands begin to sweat.

"When you say problem," She pulled a blanket over the sleeping bard and joined him outside. "Do you mean a 'you forgot to have someone wash my horse' kind of problem, or a 'there's an army advancing on us' kind of problem?"

Draxen looked at her in astonishment. His warlord was…in a good mood? He smiled. There must have been more to the little redhead than he had thought. "Somewhere in between, I think."

She rolled her eyes. "Let's go."

Zo followed him casually, throwing dispassionate glances at the men around her. They were all well trained soldiers, but they were still just men. Draxen was the only one who even had her complete respect. But then, he feared no one but her. Which made him brave…and smart.

Their destination was the general's tent, a large enclosure that faced the path leading up the mountain. Draxen pulled the flap open before her and she stepped inside, her good mood evaporating when she saw the men within.

Four of her soldiers, all of them beaten black and blue, stood with their heads hanging, eyes hidden from her view. She didn't even have to ask who did it. "The girls?" She nodded at Draxen's negation. "Anything I should know?" The four men looked at each other. Slowly, one of them stepped forward. She didn't remember his name. "Well?" She asked impatiently.

The soldier pulled his armor off to show her the rip in the tunic beneath.

Zo's lip curled, "Ahh…well. I can see how that might become a problem." She smiled. "BUT! I do think I have a solution." She turned to Draxen and nodded. "Do it. Thank you for your honesty, boys." She called over her shoulder as she left. "For that, I'll make sure you don't die...if I can help it."

Six well armed guards entered the tent as she left, stripping the men of their weapons and armor. "Stake 'em out." Draxen growled. "Cover their eyes and gag them." he watched the men being led away, then hurried off to make sure his lord's horse had been washed.

Gabrielle stretched and sat up, smiling at Zo's back as she worked at a makeshift table a few feet away. "Good afternoon."

"You mean 'good evening' don't you?" The Amazon turned, her heart aching at the sight before her. The bard's hair was tousled, strawberry blond locks that had freed themselves from her binding lay in disarray across her bare shoulders. Zo's eyes widened. "Where's your shirt?"

Gabrielle looked down at herself and blushed. "Sorry. It was hot."

"Ahh." Zo rummaged through a trunk beside her and came up with thin, white cotton shirt, the sleeve's long and voluminous, the collar a low V tied across with a strip of leather. "There are some breeches in the trunk on the other side of the room. They're fairly light as well. Both would be better up here than what you normally wear, for more reasons than just the weather. Besides," Zo's finger rubbed casually against the shirt's collar. "It's called a poet's shirt. I couldn't imagine anything more fitting for you." She smiled. "Except maybe me."

Gabrielle flushed again, had she really just heard that? "How…how long did I sleep?"

"About five hours." She picked up a glass of cider and placed it in the bard's hands. "You're just in time for the celebration."

"What celebration?" Her eyes brightened.

"My men always celebrate when they're with their families." Zo stood up and Gabrielle noticed that her armor was gone. In it's place, she wore a black shirt, styled exactly like the one she had just given her, and dark red breeches tucked into black kid boots. The color was a little brooding, but all in all, she looked much softer.

"You look...nice." Gabrielle smiled shyly.

"Thank you." Zo came towards her and sat on the edge of the platform. Leaning back into several large pillows, she reached out and picked up a lock of the bard's hair. "So do you." Her eyes were very green and when they met Gabrielle's pale blue, the bard felt her heart skip a beat. "Gabrielle, I was wondering…"

"What?" Gabrielle wasn't sure if she had said the word out loud, she couldn't hear over the pounding in her chest.

Zo smiled and leaned forward, placing soft, full lips against the bard's trembling mouth. She felt her hands begin to shake slightly when the girl's arms went around her neck and slammed them against the bed to keep them still. She had thought she might be falling for this spunky, little blonde…now she knew for sure. Reluctantly, she pulled away, her smile widening at Gabrielle's sound of protest. "Later," Zo whispered. "My men are waiting for me. Get dressed."

Something in the Amazon's voice sounded very much like a command and Gabrielle felt her back stiffen.

"Please?" Zo laughed, holding her hands up. She had seen the quick look of defiance flash in the bard's eyes and it delighted her more than any subservience ever could. She took Gabrielle's hand. "Please, I would like it very much if you accompanied me to the celebration."

Gabrielle smiled. "Give me a couple of minutes."

After Zo had left, Gabrielle stood and let the blankets fall away. There was a mirror directly across from her and she studied her self in fascination, thinking that the girl looking back at her was different somehow.

She didn't know if that was good or bad.

Gabrielle grabbed up the clothes Zo wanted her to wear and began to pull them on, glancing up occasionally to watch the stranger that was wearing her face. When she was done, she nodded in satisfaction. Breeches suited her.

Her last thought before leaving Zo's tent was of Xena. She wondered what the warrior was doing with her time alone.

Part 3

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