Author: Penumbra
Story Title: Untouchable Face
Characters: Xena/f (Oberon), Xena/Gabrielle
Rating: R
Summary: Xena is assaulted by a mysterious pale warrior. Gab saves the day and the foe becomes a friend. A very close friend.... Too close if you ask the bard.

Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal/Studios USA and Renaissance Pictures. This story was made for fun, no copyright infringement was meant in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea and the story itself are the invention of my sick little mind and may not be used elsewhere without the express prior written consent of the author so get yer filthy paws off 'em! This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.

Explicit content and sex warning: This story features consensual sex between two adult women. All nice and clean, some hanky panky and the word 'nipple', nothing more, 'K? If this kind of love bothers you, get a brain. If it's illegal where you live, move.

Extreme violence warning: Where there's Xena or one of her descendants, there's violence. Can't help it. If her batting average gets worse than two cracked skulls per day, she'll get all aggravated and nasty. And we don't want that, right? Right. If violence bothers you, there's a lot of nice stories to be read elsewhere. In this story, extreme violence and its aftermaths are depicted in a realistic, graphical way. Lots of anatomy and blood.

History rape warning: Timelines, history and geography are raped in a heavy, if unsystematic way. My fault, entirely. Sorry. All in the name of love and storytelling

British spelling warning: Live with it.

Warning warning: If I have to put another warning up here I'll blow my top.

The title is a song of Ani DiFranco's, just borrowed the name. I draw inspiration from many fanfic writers, most notably Melissa Good and L N James. I lay my humble soul before them <splat>.

Started 16/5/98, finished 10/8/98.

You can find more work by Penumbra at her site u m b r a e

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U n t o u c h a b l e F a c e
© Penumbra
summer 1998

A divine creator's masterpiece soared silently across the blue sky. Small wispy clouds framed the sleek form of the idling hawk, lazily searching for prey. A master of the sky, its symmetrical figure, sharp claws and curved beak perfect for their purpose. To hunt.

Dark eyes, like two chips of flint, spied the ground with unerring accuracy. Flying along a riverbank, a dark figure grabbed its attention. The bird of prey circled downwards, towards the speck of dark, sitting in the shadow of a large oak.

Coming nearer, the predator recognized the lone figure as a human. A tall one, it judged. Raven hair, bronze skin, proud stature. And a hint of something around her that made the hawk's natural instincts scream 'danger' uncomfortably loud. A fellow predator then.

The warrior leaning against the old oak noticed the hawk with one strikingly pale blue eye but paid no conscious attention to it. All she could think of was strawberry blond hair. How the woman sometimes unconsciously brushed it off her forehead, irritated, as if it wasn't the silky fabric spun by gods Xena would've died to have caress her skin.

She sat, twirling a strand of her own dark and equally gleaming hair, staring as if in rapture at the water speeding by her but seeing nothing except the image of Gabrielle's hair, flickering in the sunlight. Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes and leaned back against a tree. I hope she comes back from her detour soon. Xena smiled inwardly. So very Gabrielle-ish for the bard to get excited by a flowers.

"Oooo, look at all the lovely wildflowers!" she had squawked. "You go to the river, I'll be right behind you. I'll just need to walk here for a minute," and off she was, dashing into the field, hair dancing and the young woman laughing and enjoying the beauty of Mother Nature. And it's so very nice to sit here, listen to the rush of the river and imagine how it would feel to have that hair brush against my cheek…

"With one strike of this sword I can cut a man in half. Diagonally. So don't move." Xena's inhuman senses registered a presence a millisecond too late. Her eyes flew open at the voice near her but before she could move one quarter of an inch, she felt something cold on her throat. Something sharp. Very sharp.

About half a dozen curses that would make a sailor blush raced through the warrior's mind. Damn damn damn DAMN! How could I be this stupid, let my guard down. That bard'll be the death of me yet… Carefully, with no drastic moves, she raised her hands in view and slowly turned her head towards her attacker.

The hand holding the sword was attached to a woman whose attire was most peculiar. Almost all black, she had an armour made of small interwoven metal plates, held together by a thick mat of… straw? Large angular shoulder pads and collar, chestplate and groin protector, and a low, plate-shaped helmet with a cloth hem. The helmet had a strange curved ornament attached to the front, as if she had horns. Wide skirt-like trousers hid her legs and a small sword was tucked underneath the wide belt, next to a long wooden scabbard. High cheekbones, beautiful features.

All this registered to Xena's brain later, her attention was firstly and foremostly grabbed by two things: the thin, slightly curved sword that was pressed to her throat and the mischievous look on her attacker's smooth indigo eyes. The shapely lips that adorned a handsome face were curled in a brazen smirk, taunting the hot-blooded warrior.

Xena gave the woman her best 'don't you mess with me or I'll rip off your spine and beat you to death with it' -look but it had virtually no effect. "What do you want?" she snarled at the strange woman. "Well, I'd settle for some food and information," she answered cheerfully and, incredulously, flashed an all-out white smile at Xena. But the sword didn't waver a hair.

"Can I get up?" Xena grunted.

"Sure, but keep your hands off your sword."

As Xena stood up, she noticed one more thing about the woman: She was as tall as her and that didn't happen too often. They stood there silently, Xena appraising her opponent and flexing her muscles in anticipation of a fight and the other woman still smiling a mischievously enigmatic leer. Xena noticed the woman watched her contract and release her muscles, following the ripple of tendons with a look that had something… odd in it.

The stranger opened her mouth. "So, who do I have the pleas-" BONK! She was interrupted by a familiar-looking staff whizzing through the air and connecting with her temple right below the rim of the helmet, followed by an agitated-looking Gabrielle who, apparently, fell from the sky.

"Are you OK?" the puffing bard asked. "Yes, I'm fine. How did you-" "I saw you two from between the trees. I silently climbed up that tree there" she said, pointing at a large oak nearby, "and jumped from that branch to the tree next to you. Then I just waited for her to get near enough and, well…" she concluded, beaming. I never thought I'd see this day, me saving the mighty Warrior Princess!

"Well, thanks but I think I could've taken her by myself," the warrior huffed.

"Yeah, right, and gotten your pretty throat cut at it," the bard teased. "How did she ever manage to sneak so close to you? Didn't your instincts warn you?"

"Hum… I was somewhat preoccupied with… something" the raven-haired warrior quietly replied to that, a small smile tugging at her lips. She cleared her throat and hiding the small blush creeping to her cheeks, turned to the prone form lying on the ground.

"Well, let's see how our mystery lady's doing." She kneeled at the stranger, checked her pulse and raised her eyelids to look at dark, unseeing eyes. "Nice swing Gabrielle, you knocked her out cold." Xena pried the sword from the woman's hands and appraised it with a critical eye. "What a strange-looking weapon this is." It was thinner than normal swords and it was single-edged and slightly curved. Below the blood groove near the grip there was scribbling in some unrecognizable language. The hand guard was just a small circle but very artistically decorated with a stylized flower.

She took the wooden scabbard from her belt and also the smaller sword, identical in shape, only shorter. No other weaponry besides small circular objects with a jagged, sharp edge were found on her. Xena set these weapons aside, quickly tied up the unknown warrior and turned to Gabrielle. "Well, we'll just have to wait for her to wake up to make some inquiries."

They set up camp, made a fire and in the dimming light of the evening Xena silently listened to an endless recital by Gabrielle about the beauty of spring flowers, occasionally rolling her eyes at the other woman's enthusiasm but mostly just concentrating on the soft, pleasurable flow of her speech.

It was already dark when Oberon (for that was the strange warrior's name) woke up, and as expected, with a splitting headache. And with a grumbling stomach. No wonder the short one was able to sneak up on me, lack of food has a terrible effect on my senses. She tested her bonds, quietly, to avoid attracting the attention of the bard and her formidable companion. Knots made by a pro. And she sure looks like a pro, too, she thought, appraising Xena between half-closed eyelids.

The Warrior Princess was indeed a sight worthy of a closer look. Sitting sideways to her, Oberon could see the strong profile, determined stance and strong musculature accentuated by the sharp shadows thrown by the flickering fire. Xena had removed her armour and sat in her leathers, nibbling on a rabbit foot. She looks menacing even while she's sitting down and eating, Oberon mused. Wait, not menacing, there's something else… she racked her brain. It's the eyes. They're… smiling. A grin crept across Oberon's face.

It's the girl. It's that young thing sitting across the fire that's got the raven-haired woman smiling. Hum, and the little one probably doesn't even have a clue at the… warm thoughts the proud warrior so obviously has for her, Oberon thought with a crooked if good-natured grin.

Deciding it was time to announce her return to the land of thinking, Oberon called out: "When you two have stared each other enough, how about sharing some of that lovely rabbit you still have left?" Xena snapped out of her reverie and looked sharply at the bound woman leaning against a nearby tree. The stranger was now grinning madly. Coughing, Xena rose and went to her attacker.

"Could you please untie me, I'm getting cramps," Oberon asked and flashed her best friendly smile at the Warrior Princess towering over her. "You'll be nice?" It wasn't really a question, more of a statement and the piercing look the warrior gave to Oberon hinted at the consequences of disobedience.

"Sure, my hands are too numb to fight anyway," she replied cheerily. "I promise, and besides, you've got my weapons." "Fine, but I won't untie your legs just yet. To make sure you don't run away."

Xena undid the bonds on her hands and Oberon rose and hopped awkwardly to the circle of the fire, Xena shadowing her sword unsheathed. "Congratulations on knocking me out. Nicely executed," she complimented Gabrielle who was still wary of the ever-smiling stranger. Oberon rubbed her wrists and turned to Xena.

"I wonder, though I was in a position to kill you, you trust me. Why's that so?" A shrug "You weren't seriously threatening me. Just playing." A hint of thinly veiled menace gleamed in the pale blue eyes. "And who says I trust you?"

"Riiiight. Well, I'm just out for some fun and games. It's just that I would be a late warrior if I approached someone with a sword without something sharp and long in my hands," she said, waving at the general direction of Xena's sword. "I was just hungry. Speaking of which…" she said, glancing at the remains of the rabbit hungrily.

"Help yourself." And Oberon did.

More relaxed now, Gabrielle asked Oberon: "So, what are you doing here, besides threatening people you shouldn't?" "Shouldn't, huh…" she answered, stealing a glance at Xena, still standing behind her. "Not much, wandering around looking for information. Which reminds me…," she set her plate down and started to get up but was stopped by a heavy hand on her shoulder and the glint of the business end of a very sharp sword in the corner of her eye.

"You're not going anywhere," Xena said in a low, determined voice.

"I need to call my horse, she'll be sick of worry by now. OK?" The hold of the hand relaxed somewhat but the sword remained as it was.

Oberon rose and whistled a shrill, strange tune and true to her words, a horse came galloping. It was a sight, a shiny black mare, as huge as Argo. Oberon hopped anxiously to her, almost falling down twice and hugged the mighty steed. "Hello Awase! Have you missed me?" she crooned, scratching her behind an ear.

Xena came silently beside her. The black horse neighed and stepped away from her but Oberon calmed her. "It's OK, this nice lady's going to take off your saddle," and Xena did, checking the saddlebags for weapons while trying to ignore the sound of muffled giggling coming from Gabrielle. She confiscated the huge bow that was a good two feet taller than Xena and the long arrows slung across the horse's back.

Awase settled next to Argo and the women sat down again. "You were saying about yourself…?" Gabrielle prodded. "Ah yes, well, I go by the name of Oberon the Whisperer and as you probably already guessed, I'm not from around here. No, that's not quite true, I'm Greek by birth but I haven't been here for 20 years. When I was five years old, my mother made Aeolus, the God of Winds mad for some reason (got involved in some family squabble at the Olympus again, she was a priestess) and the whole family was whisked off Greece.

After being whipped around by tumultuous winds for two days, I landed somewhere far away, into a river, where an older man saved me. He was a simple man but nevertheless a man of war. He gave me a home and taught me everything he knew of the art of war and self-defence. I became quite good at it and after he died, I went to work for a local warlord. I was happy and everything, until Aeolus decided my exile was over and whisked me back here. That was three months ago and since then, I've been trying to locate the rest of my family. That's the story, short version."

"Very interesting!" Gabrielle exclaimed, "Well, it's obvious you come from far away, your clothing and weaponry is nothing we've ever seen." Xena nodded in acquiescence.

"Nice meeting you, Oberon. Sort of," Gabrielle said. "My name is Gabrielle and this is Xena." The two warriors nodded at each other at this formal introduction, sizing each other and liking what they saw. "We're travelling east here, towards Anake. You can travel with us, if you wish." Xena clipped. "Oh, that would be extremely pleasant! I've been dying for some company!" Oberon said, delighted.

They discussed about current events and the weather and the usual stuff, Xena contributing with her usual grunt or two as the two more talkative ones babbled away. Gabrielle relaxed more and more as time wore on, helped by the strange warrior's sense of humour and friendly demeanour.

"Hum," Oberon sighed and rubbed her temples, accidentally grazing the spot where Gabrielle had hit her. "Ouch! You give a mean swing, my bard." Oberon grimaced and took off her helmet. To the other women's astonishment, she was almost bald, save for a small gleaming black nub of hair on the back of her head. She took off the rest of her armour as well, having assessed that the pair was not out to kill her. At least not yet.

Watching the warrior move and stretch her cramped muscles, Xena couldn't help feeling a small tingling in her lower abdomen. Gods she's gorgeous. I haven't had a woman since… I can't remember when. The strange woman's features were noble and proud and despite her form-concealing clothes, it was clear to see that her tall frame was clearly well-defined and muscular. I wonder how the muscles would feel under my touc- stop. Stop this now, Xena chastised herself. A few stern mental slaps helped.

Night was well on its way and so the three women settled for sleep, after Xena had tied Oberon's hands loosely -"So you won't try anything rash during the night, hope you'll understand" and she did - and setting her sword within hand's reach, as usual.

Gabrielle woke to the sound of clashing swords. Alarmed, her eyes flew open and she jumped up quicker than a lightning, to the sight of Xena fighting Oberon. "Xena!!" she involuntarily shouted, concern in her voice but she was transfixed at the sight of two so very mighty and so different warriors battling.

In the pale light of the early morning sun, the two warriors circled each other, swords at ready, eyes focused. Then Oberon lunged with a round overhead strike that was easily parried by Xena and the two swords hissed, sparks flying.

Oberon unleashed a fluid frenzy of strikes and the occasional false attack and Xena replied in kind. Two very different swords, one thin and curved but as strong as the other, the other heavy as a executioners' axe and just as accurate. Both were held by similar hands, large, hard and accustomed to fighting.

The battle of these two professionals reminded Gabrielle of a deadly dance. Both looked at the other with a trained eye, their gaze never wavering. They took no unnecessary risks, calculated every move and knew just when to release their muscles into a frenzy of swings and thrusts, so quick that lines blurred in Gabrielle's eye.

Their style was remarkably different; Xena battled in her compact, no-nonsense mode that was designed to optimize her strengths and avoid unnecessary risks, swinging her sword with a powerful hand in deadly precision. Oberon, on the other hand, looked softer. She moved in calm, circular moves with an occasional incoherent yell, using her sword very differently than Xena but both were experienced enough not to let different styles hinder their battle.

This ebb and flow of the battle fought by two magnificent creatures… It's beautiful. Primal. The most beautiful thing I've ever seen. How odd, me thinking violence is beautiful, Gabrielle pondered, a bit alarmed at her thoughts. But it has to be, she realized. With these two… with Xena… it's what they do naturally. Their gift.

After a moment's respite, Xena lunged forward, managing to get Oberon back a few steps by executing a very difficult thrust-parry-thrust -combination but then the other warrior stepped back a few more steps, took a defensive stance and unleashed a bellowing 'Kiiiii-aiiiii!!' -shout and just as she seemed to strike, she instead lowered her body and swept Xena's legs out from underneath her. Managing to stay up, barely, Xena hit her on the shoulder with the hilt of her sword, hard enough to send Oberon sprawling to the ground.

Gabrielle stood transfixed all throughout the match but snapped out of her reverie when instead of pointing her sword at her opponent on the ground, she smiled and rested the weapon on her shoulder. "Very nicely fought. Your skills are indeed fine," Xena said and Gabrielle, having just arrived at the scene and realized that they were just practicing, raised an eyebrow at the comment. My my, that's the Princess of Understatement's highest compliment, she thought. She's in a good mood.

"Thank you, never has anyone bested me in a match like this," Oberon replied, receiving the compliment. "Xena's one of a kind," Gabrielle said, flashing a smile.

"Indeed she is," Oberon said, returning the smile and looking at Xena with a strange glint in her eye, a glint that made Gabrielle feel slightly… jealous? Of what?! She huffed at herself and clamped down on her train of thought.

Oberon rose to sit on her feet and raised the wicked sword to her forehead. She said a small prayer in the strangest language either had heard and returned the weapon to its wooden scabbard with a formal, ritualistic motion, silent and smooth as silk.

The bald head rose and the pair of velvety indigo eyes was greeted with a mildly curious look in the two pairs of eyes. "I respect the spirit of my sword. Has saved my neck not to mention other bodyparts many times." She rose up, bowed at Xena who, taken aback by this wordless compliment, noted: "You are a good fighter. Very quiet, almost silent."

Oberon grinned. "Well, that's why I'm called Oberon the Whisperer, 'cause the only thing my targets hear is the whisper of my sword." Xena nodded, her being able to sneak up on her spoke volumes of her skills.

Since the two warriors were sweating profusely after their battle and no-one was in a particular hurry, they decided to take a bath. Gabrielle had found a place nearby where the river curved sharply and a small pond was formed near the shore. The women went there and it was indeed a lovely, calm place, protected by trees and the water was clear but not too chilly.

Gabrielle helped Xena unfasten her armour. My favourite moment of the day, Xena smiled to herself. I love the feel of her small, nimble hands all over me, unfastening clasps… undressing me… I wish the touch would one day be one of… passion instead of friendship. She sighed raggedly at the thought.

No, she's young and straight as a sword (my sword that is, not Oberons, she corrected herself, grinning inwardly at the irony), she would never want this old war horse with… too many inner demons. She needs someone young and bright…

"Are you OK?" Xena opened her eyes at the sight of Gabrielle's worried face peering at hers.

"You sighed twice in five minutes, are you sure she didn't hurt you?" Gabrielle asked, tugging at a buckle.

"Is this how much trust you have in my abilities?" Xena asked jokingly, with a crooked smile to distract Gabrielle, lest she see her true feelings. No, can't show her my inner thoughts. I'd rather have her near me as a friend than be without her. Gabrielle flashed her one of the smiles that always made Xena's knees turn to water.

In inner pain, Xena turned her head away from Gabrielle, to the sight of an undressing Oberon. Despite her intense feelings for Gabrielle, she couldn't help but feel smitten by the strange warrior. Oberon had removed her armour and was in the process of removing her white heavy wraparound shirt.

The thick cotton revealed a perfectly shaped upper body with bulging biceps and the shoulders of a swordwielder, an abdomen with strong muscles that rippled with every move and, most noticeably (to Xena at least), two perfect round breasts. Her skin was pale and so opaque large blue veins could faintly be seen through it. Like some precious stone, she is. Alabaster of the most expensive kind.

She also had a black, swirly tattoo that started from the base of her neck, extended to her left breast and ended in her knuckles, cascading in symmetrical, concentric curves. Its contours complimented her muscles perfectly. To Xena it looked like a thousand-tentacled octopus was attached to her and, gleaming in the sunlight, it seemed to be alive as it moved with the movement of her arm musculature, straining against the smooth skin. She followed the gentle tendrils with her gaze to a dark purple nipple, standing erect in the slight breeze.

Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze and she saw the faint gleam of lust in the warlord's eyes. A pang of jealousy tinged in her. She's so beautiful, no wonder Xena looks at her like that, Gabrielle thought, feeling small and grey. Well, Xena can have her, I'm not going to stand in the way of her happiness, I… care for her too much.

This noble thought made Gabrielle feel even worse.

After shedding all their clothes (and after the bard and the warrior princess had impatiently watched Oberon fold her skirt/trousers in some ritualistic, if long-winded way into a neat square), the women entered the pool. The water was warm enough and after a moment of content sighing and relaxing all around, a water fight ensued. As if on cue, Xena and Oberon teamed up against Gabrielle, their collective spraying drawing giggles out of the seriously outnumbered bard. "Hak! Not fair!" she laughed, all gloomy thoughts forgotten.

Suddenly, Oberon switched sides and teamed up with Gabrielle. After some splashing, she drew her to the side. "You distract her, I'll dive and surprise her. OK?" Gabrielle nodded in a conspiratorial way and the women smiled at each other and Oberon gave a small wink. Gods, she has a nice smile, Gabrielle reflexively thought.

Under the cover of Gabrielle's water frenzy, Oberon dove and headed for Xena. She was momentarily tantalized by the sight of Xena's strong legs looming near her but she remained focused on their plan as she swam on.

Distracted by - not the water aimed at her but by the sight of a naked Gabrielle visible from the waist up - Xena didn't sense the coming attack until too late. Oberon catapulted from the water, grabbing Xena by the waist and launching in the air, so powerful was her jump. They landed with a loud splash in the water near shore where they rolled over each other, both trying to get the upper hand. Finally, Oberon bested Xena, grabbed her wrists and slammed her on her back on the sandy shore.

Xena looked at the smirking woman above her and knew she'd had the other take the best of her, for some unfathomable reason. She could have taken the pale warrior with relative ease, but didn't. And then she looked into Oberon's eyes.

They were the most intense shade of dark blue she had ever seen. Not icy cold blue like her own but instead, two large pools of dark velvet, made darker still by her arousal. Xena took a sudden intake of breath when she realized the thinly veiled lust in their opaque tone.

Oberon appraised the naked, glistening form of the woman underneath her. She licked her lips with the tip of her pink tongue, making them shine in a beautiful shade of purple, exactly the same shade as her nipples, and leaned in close, near the trembling warrior's ear.

"I would very much like to repeat this, in more comfortable and private surroundings," Xena heard the woman say in a deep, raspy voice. The tone was full, promising the wonders of the world, her hot breath raising goosebumps on Xena's skin. She ran her fingers along Xena's side, raking the sensitizing digits over the bronze, taut skin in a way that made Xena feel the familiar tightening in her groin, lifting the small of her back off the ground. So long… since a woman has touched me like this. All this… thinking, Xena realized, I'm really wound up. All this thinking of Gabrielle - Xena snapped out of the trance the other woman had held her in by her smooth gaze. Gabrielle!

Gabrielle had watched the mock fight of the two women from a safe distance. She was reminded of the fight earlier this morning, two titans moving in a deadly dance. Sun glistened on taut bronze and pale skin, muscles strained against equal opponents as the two magnificent warriors struggled. Then Oberon slammed Xena to the sand. Her pale muscular back framed by the tendrils of the ink black tattoo twisted in a slow, feline way as she slightly moved herself to be on top of Xena, effectively pinning her down and bending over her. It was a very primitive, beautiful sight, the two glorious creatures writhing together.

She could see that Oberon whispered something to Xena and caressed her side with one set of long digits. The effect it had on Xena was disturbing. Gabrielle's mind screamed in hurt. Suddenly Xena looked at her, with alarm in her eyes, suddenly replaced by something resembling… guilt?

The tension in the air remained when the two warriors rose and Xena announced in a somewhat disturbed and breathy voice it was time to continue the journey.

After many candlemarks' ride, they reached the village of Anake and since the next settlement was more than two days' journey away, they decided to stay in Anake for the night. They found the local Inn, 'Anxious Boar' ("Where do these Inns get their ridiculous names?" Gabrielle asked, feigning exasperation and drawing a chuckle from Oberon). It was a moderate establishment, quite small but looked well-kept. They entered through a low door into a bar area, still quite empty at this early hour.

Xena sauntered to the counter and banged it with her fist so hard the jugs on the other end of it jumped. "Innkeeper! You got customers!" A small burly man came rushing from the back, wiping his hands at his apron. After initially balking at the sight of the women, of which two were taller than most men and attired in a very warlike way, he informed the ladies in a somewhat nervous way that only one room was available "-because this is a small inn, we have few rooms and the rest of them are already occupied," he hurriedly continued. The women surrendered grudgingly and headed upstairs to drop off their gear, after making sure Argo and Awase would be taken care of.

"Well now, how are we all supposed to fit into this closet of a room then," Oberon said, with a small grin. The room wasn't as much as a closet than a small outhouse, minus smell. Thankfully.

"I'll take the floor, you two get to have the bed," Oberon suggested, glancing sideways at the pair, satisfied at the small blush appearing on the bard's cheeks. Xena's remained as expressive as a slab of granite, as expected. So, I was right. The two have feelings… but can't admit it to each other. Well, can't help that but… maybe I can get some fun out of it. Smirking, she set her gear down (sans weapons, these were still held onto by Xena) with the others and they proceeded back downstairs for some dinner.

Dinner had been enjoyable and the local ale was sweet and full. The tension of the day had been forgotten, even Xena had forgiven Oberon for sneaking up on her and now the three women were telling stories of their colourful lives and the occasional jibe got all laughing. A warm feeling penetrated the table. They were getting some curious and interested looks from the other populace of the tavern but no-one dared approach and disturb them, for they recognized the legendary Warrior Princess.

"… and then she threw Hercules so hard he flew right into the manure pile," Gabrielle concluded but was cut off by Xena: "It was an accident! I meant him to land in the pool next to the pit!" "No you didn't." "Did too." "No, because you had a punch line figured out. Ha! Gotcha!" Gabrielle proclaimed victoriously and the three women burst into laughter.

"Oh dear me…" Gabrielle peeked into her now empty mug as laughter subsided. "I'll go get us another round." She went to the counter and waited for the innkeeper to draw three more ales.

Oberon and Xena got a small argument over knife-throwing techniques but it was resolved quickly and the dark warrior coaxed the last few drops of port from her mug. She set the wooden chalice on the table when she noticed a man approaching Gabrielle. He looked a bit unkempt and more than a bit drunk. With eyes of a hawk, she followed the man.

Gabrielle stole a glance at their table and noticed, even from so far away, the small tensing of her friend, slight drunkenness vanishing from her eyes, replaced by a calculating look they got when they narrowed a fraction as she looked... behind me? But before Gabrielle could form the question in her eyes into words, a hand landed on her shoulder and she felt a breath on the back of her head and a unsteady voice sounded.

"You apparently weave nice stories. How about telling the rest of us some of them too?"

She spun around, startled to see the bleary eyes of a strange man so close. "My my, you're sure a sight for sore eyes," the man drawled, belching a small puff of alcohol-smelling breath on Gabrielle's face. She cringed. Xena noticed Oberon starting to get up, impatience showing on her face, but was stopped by a sharp look from Xena. No. I'll go. The look in the ice cold eyes mellowed a bit. Hope you understand. Oberon replied with a crooked, if friendly, smile. Oh, I understand.

Better than you think, she added to herself.

The man took a hold of Gabrielle's chin and raised her jaw upwards. "Hey" she said and pulled back, jabbing a nasty look at the man. "Awww, c'mon, be nice. Maybe we could have some fun together, you and me, whaddya say girl?" the man leered, grabbed Gabrielle by her shoulder and attempted to draw her closer. Was stopped by a cold, smooth voice. Smooth as velvet on steel.

"Is there a problem?"

The man turned around, to be greeted at the sight of Xena's breastplate and a pair of tanned, muscular forearms folded loosely beneath it. He looked upwards, at the raven-haired Warrior Princess. Too drunk to think straight, Xena assessed the man. Moron. "Hey, I was just talking to the little thing here, y'know, about some entertainment…" he leered at Gabrielle with a lascivious grin and wrapped her arm around Gabrielle's shoulder before she was able to react. OK. That does it.

Faster than the wind, Xena grabbed the man by throat and slammed him forcefully against the wall. He sobered instantly. Mere inches away from his face, Xena's eyes, two chips of blue ice, bored into the man. "You keep your hands off her. Understand? If you don't I'll castrate you with a very" The strong fingers squeezed the man's throat a fraction more. "dull" Another fraction. "spoon." A beat.

"Are we clear?" she growled and gave him her best Xena: Destroyer of Nations -look. The man flinched as if she'd driven a hundred daggers into him and gurgled his acquiescence. She dropped him with a disgusted snort and the man crumpled to the floor, unable to raise his gaze.

"You OK?" Xena asked Gabrielle. "I'm fine," she replied and continued, whispering, "but I could've handled it myself, y'know," mock hurt in her eyes. "Yeah, well, I guess I'm a bit overprotective sometimes," Xena admitted, with a faint smile. She still treats me like a child, Gabrielle sighed. "And I have a reputation to maintain, right?" A wider smile and the ghost of a wink and the bard felt slightly better.

They returned to their table, oblivious to the more open looks the show had encouraged. Oberon had watched the entire spectacle with interest, intrigued by the dual personality of the Warrior Princess. Well, it's expected, after the rumours I've heard on her dark past and the way she is now, they're two different persons. No, she pondered, two sides of the same coin, a coin that is very easily, but with control, flipped over. Whenever necessary.

For the bard.

"With a dull spoon, eh?" Oberon mused, smiling enigmatically. "That's original." Xena was surprised she had heard her line at the man. Her hearing is as acute as mine, she noted. I'm really beginning to like her.

The warrior cocked an eyebrow in mock seriousness. "Well, Gabrielle has apparently had an influence on my creativity. Besides, I don't like to use the same threat too often so I have to invent new ones, right?" A wicked smile. A stunned look from Gabrielle.

And then they all burst to laughter, Xena's low rumble combining nicely to Gabrielle's melodious sound. "Wooo-hoo, that was the longest sentence out of you in weeks. And you should really find a way to bottle that intestine-withering look of yours… big money there. Definitely," the bard chuckled.

After their howling subsided, they relaxed and more normal conversation resumed both in their table and also around the inn. Just as they were about to turn in, loud commotion sounded outside. "What could be wrong now, at this ungodly hour?" Xena grunted, for the time was well past midnight.

A ragged young man came crashing through the front door. "Raiders! It's the Chynthon Raiders!" The three women looked at each other, all asking the same question in their glances. Who the Tartarus are the Chynthon Raiders? Xena rose, grabbed the nearest fleeing man by the shoulder and voiced the question.

"They're a local gang of highway robbers, they attack the villages of this area occasionally as well. We are just farmers and craftsmen, we can't afford an army so they do what they please. Now please let me go, I have to get to my wife," the man pleaded, fear strong in his eyes, unable to decide which was more frightening, the approaching raiders or being held in an iron grip by this woman, reputably more dangerous than a dozen raiding gangs.

Xena released the man and looked at Gabrielle and Oberon. Their eyes flashed at the same thought. Gabrielle said it out loud for everybody, "Let's kick some Raider butt!"

"Can I please have my weapons now?" Oberon asked when they reached their closet of a room. Xena jabbed a piercing, inquisitive look at her, gauging her trustworthiness, searching the soul deep within those velvety eyes. She saw nothing malicious, only a mirror image of her own focused pre-battle look and thus gave her consent.

Gabrielle grabbed her staff from the corner of the tiny room and turned to see the two warriors prepare. Oberon got her katana and tachi, the shorter sword and attached them to her wide belt. The small stars vanished into her ample sleeve and the low helmet crowned it all, all Gabrielle could see was the dark whirlpools of her eyes in the shadows beneath the brim of the helmet. Xena prepared in kind, sliding her armour on with one smooth movement, fastening her shoulder plates properly and attaching her sword to her back.

Gabrielle watched the two warriors prepare calmly and with deadly precision, in moves optimized by thousands of repeats, for the coming assault. She noted the striking similarity in them. Many times had she seen this look in Xena's eyes. I don't really know this person, she thought as she looked at the cold, unseeing glint in Xena's eyes. This warrior. The dark, hidden part of her soul, frozen in a silent roar of vengeance.

She's so different from her usual self when she's with me. No friendly bantering, no laughs. Just death in those eyes, deaths of people long gone and… the forthcoming ones of people still living… breathing.

Her past revisited.

There were differences in the warriors, she noted, after a more thorough look. While Xena looks impenetrable and as if made of stone, Oberon looks… mellow. Funny. Xena gets hard and Oberon relaxes. Well, they were taught two very different ways of how to make war.

This Xena actually scares me. Not as in I'd be scared she'd hurt me, no… mostly because… I don't know. Gabrielle racked her brain, trying to pinpoint a vague feeling. Xena looked up at her, first with her detached cold stare that quickly switched into something resembling a … smile? Ah! Gabrielle thought, laying her mental finger on it. I know this preparation, this… change in her. It means she's out to ride into danger, to the very lively possibility of getting killed. And I'm afraid… afraid I'll never see the other Xena again. That would surely kill me too, losing the possibility of investigating further her… lighter side.

On horseback and Gabrielle riding with Xena, they calmly paced to the village's main street, all senses alert as they silently listened to the sound of nearing hoofbeats. The two war horses skittered some, anticipating the coming battle as much as the women whose only reaction was the twitching in the corner of Xena's left eye, Gabrielle's reflexive loosening and tightening grip on her staff and Oberon's silent breathing exercises, calling for her spirit, ki, to serve her well.

Twenty, maybe twenty-two. No problem. Xena gave a wicked smile to no-one particular. She wrapped her long fingers around Gabrielle's arm that encircled her waist and gave a light squeeze. It was returned and a small smile rose to Xena's face. She'll be alright.

Xena stole a glance at the other silent warrior besides her, the tall black form of Oberon and her equally dark horse. My my. Aren't we scary-looking. A wan smile. She has that same Ares's spirit in her. For good and for bad.

She closed her eyes, concentrating. The twirly mists of battle fever encompassed her mind, glowing almost visible, a sense of ghostly red. It was a familiar feeling, this fire. Almost comforting. She knew too well what she felt. Her nostrils flared at the smell of blood to be shed, the sharpened senses, the adrenaline that would protect her from feeling injuries until the battle was at end. Truly alive… she thought … but then again, not quite.

And then the raiders were in view. Two battle cries bellowed in the cool night air and the attackers were rammed as if two bolts of Zeus's fire had hit them. The women rode to the attackers' midst, slashing, kicking and swords and staffs twirling like hurricanes. Xena urged Argo towards the leader of the raiders, in the back wearing something resembling a proper armour, barking orders at his men.

More a band of over-conscious loudmouths than soldiers, these men. She kicked a rushing man in the face, sending him flying and at the same time, parring a blow of a sword wielded by a man sporting a nasty scar running from chin to ear. He struck at the man and hit true. The hapless man clawed at his throat where blood flew in a sharp, crimson arc, staining Xena's left side. She paid no heed to it, concentrating instead on parring a coming blow from another attacker and simultaneously, keeping one eye on the man running the show.

The leader seems like a man who has seen too much blood to have any emotions left. He could be dangerous. Nahh. She shifted her gaze. Gabrielle's holding her own, she noticed at the momentary lull, instinctively checking the men near her for immediate dangers.

The bard took a man down with a nasty blow of her staff, tripped another one rushing at Argo from behind and managed a quick glance and a determined smile at Xena, before a new wave of men forced them to concentrate on fighting. Gabrielle de-saddled to be able to use the full range of motion of her staff and did so, thinning the attacking force by knocking two men very unconscious with a beautifully intricate set of swings, ending in her favourite reverse sweep.

Oberon, on her part, fought like a devil with a dozen arms. When the crowd became too thick, she jumped off her horse in a high, twisting motion and landed, feet first, into an attacker's face. She felt his nose break with a crunch under her boots, followed by another, more muted crunch when the back of his head hit the ground.

She hit Awase's loins and whispered. "Go girl, go back to the stables!" The huge black mare neighed and with powerful grace jumped over the heads of two men and sped towards the Inn. Oberon stole a glance at the madly grinning Xena, hacking away near her. Ares' balls, that woman fights like ten of my masters' apprentices combined… and she's not even breathing hard.

As she got off Argo, Xena caught a sight of their new comrade. She does move like a dancer. Oberon performed a complicated nine-stroke, 360 degrees movement that left four opponents sliced in half. Diagonally. As she promised. A huge man rushed at the pale warrior and managed to get a hold of her wrist but before he could slash at her, she had turned sideways, applied a wristlock and the man flew in the air, eyes wide, before landing on his head. He was out cold like a stone.

While she exchanged furious sword strikes with her above mediocre opponent, Xena watched Oberon notice a man approaching Gabrielle from behind. A pale if bloodied hand flicked one of the small stars Oberon carried with an almost imperceptible wrist move. The man fell silently to the ground, the star sticking out between his eyes, blood trickling from his nose.

Xena gave a wicked smile and a half a wink that was answered in kind. She's enjoying this as much as I am. She let out a ringing laugh, feral glint in her eyes, daring the next man, a huge lumbering mass of flesh, to come at her. He did, a hint of fear in his eyes but with a determined, set jaw.

All of a sudden, Xena felt something was wrong. Deadly wrong. A nagging feeling in the back of her head. Instinctively, she looked around and true to her gut feeling, over the gaggle of disheveled raiders she spied a young boy standing in front of the Inn, looking at the battle wide-eyed. She more sensed than heard a longbow being drawn in the opposite direction, the twisted gut complaining as it was pulled taut and then released. The whisper of the wind on the feathers, the slight twang of the gut returning to its original length. Time froze.

She knew she'd never be able to catch the arrow in time with both of her hands tied to fighting her current opponent, twice her size and strong as a pair of oxen, so she did the only thing possible. She jumped. And caught the arrow. With her shoulder.

White hot pain shot through her arm as if she was being flayed with hot pliers. She mentally cringed but allowed none of it to show on her face. She quickly dispersed with the man she was battling with and stopped for a moment.

Breathe, she reminded herself. Get a grip. With pure willpower she pushed the intense pain to the back of her head. Flood flowed from her shoulder, cascading in thick, dark rivulets, down her arm, dripping off her nimble fingers. Blocking out the pain, she gave out a terrifying battle cry, raised her blood-dripping sword and dashed headlong into the cluster of still remaining raiders, stunned as to what in Hades had happened to them. This was supposed to be a peaceful village, ripe for taking.

At the sight of a huge, blood-covered fierce warrior, raven hair flying, icy eyes burning with the most intense, deadly gaze, running like a demigod from Hades towards them, paying no attention to the arrow sticking from her shoulder, they lost the last of their feeble courage and backed away from her path, scrambling over themselves in an attempt to evade the berserk Warrior Princess.

"XENA!" Gabrielle's eyes were mile-wide. "Xenaaaa!" she ran towards her. Xena lifted her gaze towards her and her heart jumped to her throat "Gabrielle! Watch out!" The leader of the raider pack, angered beyond reason at his unexpected loss, had silently meandered behind Gabrielle who was distracted at the sight of the arrow sticking in Xena's shoulder.

The leader lifted his sword and slashed at Gabrielle, who somehow sensed it and managed to turn halfway round and raise her staff. She parried the sword partially but the blow was so powerful that her staff rotated uncontrollably and hit her on the base of her neck. She crumbled to the ground like a rag doll. Xena's heart nearly stopped.

Gabrielle! No! The feeling of rage blocked out the pain in her arm. She snatched the chakram from it's holder and threw it at the man who was now leaning towards Gabrielle, poised to give her a coup-de-grace. The chakram flew with a high, raw scream and with deadly accuracy, taking the man's head clear off his shoulders and he fell to the ground next to Gabrielle. This was the last straw, the few remaining aggressors fled like there was a fire at the seat of their pants.

Xena jumped over a few fallen soldiers and kicked the leader's head off her. She kneeled at the small, prone form besides her feet, took a hold of the form's smaller shoulders and shook them, oblivious to the fact that the movement caused a new gush of blood to flow from her shoulder wound. "Gabrielle! Talk to me!"

She found her pulse and though it was thready and weak, it was there. A finger put under her nose confirmed she was breathing as well. Partially relieved, she took the bard to her arms and rose to her feet.

Whoa. A cloud came over her eyes and she took a few balancing steps. Must be getting dizzy for all the lost blood. Her sight cleared somewhat and she too a few steps towards the inn. So fogged was she still, she didn't notice a wayward spear and tripped on it. Stupid stup- was all she had time to think before she hit the ground, unable to brace herself, lest she drop her precious cargo.

She twisted in mid-air and to avoid hurting Gabrielle, she came to ground shoulder first. Her wounded shoulder. At the impact the arrow twisted in her wound, tearing flesh and sending a wave of pain that rippled from her shoulder in screaming white-hot waves. At this and for the loss of blood, she felt blackness roll over her vision. Oh no, no time for thi- and she was out.

"Where are you going?! Cowards!" Oberon's yell and mocking laughter followed the retreating raiders. She laughed to herself as well and lifted her katana high over her head. Her sword ran red, blood dripping from the tip. Her arms and clothes were in it, as well as the left side of her face where a dying man had clamped her in his last cramp before falling to the ground, lifeless.

She sounded an ululating war cry, closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the thick air, heavy with the smell of death. Opening her eyes she swept them across the now lifeless battlefield. She tsked at the dead and unconscious soldiers. "Sloppy. Very sloppy. Riding into an ambush like that."

Steadying her breath, she flicked the excess blood off her sword and sheathed it. She clapped her hands and offered a small prayer to her Master's spirit that guided her. Looking around, she searched for Xena and Gabrielle and saw them lying on the ground, Xena still holding the bard. And the ominous form of an arrow, sticking out of the black-maned warrior's shoulder.

Bad. Bad bad bad.

An unmistakable feeling of the cold finger of fear brushed the length of her spine. Oberon ran to the two women on the ground, made sure they were both alive. OK. They're just passed out. First things first. Get them somewhere safe and take care of that arrow.

She scooped up the unconscious bard and ran towards the Inn, hardly noticing when her arms trembled, anxiousness about her comrades' safety overriding her tiredness. Bursting in through the door, she was greeted with many pairs of bulging eyes, shying away from the gory apparition at their door.

"Get the healer!" she barked at the nearest woman who scurried away. "We don't have one here now," the innkeeper volunteered from behind his counter. "We're just a small village. He visits here every week but now he's at Crescen."

"Fine. I'll take care of them then. Get some hot water at our room. Now!" she commanded, leaping up the stairs two at a time, vanishing upstairs in a rustle of cloth, now stiff with drying blood.

She laid Gabrielle on the bed, checked that she's ok and went back out to get Xena. She steered her course through the battlefield, oblivious to the carnage, due to too many similar sights seen in her short life. Reaching for the warrior, she was greeted by an iron grip at her elbow. Whoa. Didn't even see her move. Xena had grabbed her reflexively, well-honed instincts acting out. "Xena. Let me go. Please. I can't help you if I have no circulation in my hand," she whispered at Xena, trying to soothe her.

The warrior's eyelids fluttered and she let go. Sighing with relief, Oberon picked her up with a groan. Straining under her surprisingly heavy burden, she gathered her strength and started towards the tavern. Xena moaned softly, turning her head. "Don't move, OK?" Oberon said, glancing at the arrow, covered in coagulated blood. Don't want to start the bleeding again, right?

Reaching the room, she settled Xena next to the worryingly pale Gabrielle. Checking the bard, she saw no external injuries, just a menacing lump at her neck that was turning into a disconcerting shade of purple. Turning her gaze on Xena, she was greeted by two cloudy blue eyes. The warrior groaned and tried to get up.

"No, don't do that. You have an arrow in your shoulder and there's no healer here," Oberon warned her and pushed her gently back onto the bed.

"Gabrielle?" the warrior asked looking around, voice straining.

"She's OK," Oberon assured her. For now.

The cloudy eyes refocused on her with some difficulty. "You'll have to push it through, you know. It's so deep it'll tear too much tissue if you try to pull it," she stated in a raspy voice, matter-of-factly. "Yeah," the foreign warrior replied quietly. "Now," Xena croaked. Understanding, Oberon got the bandages and healing herbs at reach.

She lifted Xena from the bed and settled her on the floor. How calm she seems, she mused as she gave her a drink of water. Ohh-kayyy… She gave a small nod to Xena who replied, incredulously, with a small smile and grabbed a hold of a chair leg. Here we go…

Grabbing the arrow near the once innocently white feathers, she gave it a sharp, powerful push and it exited the sombre warrior's sweating skin with a sickening sound of tearing flesh and a gush of dark blood. No sound came out of Xena but Oberon was startled by the sound of a breaking chair leg. She took a steadying breath and pushed the arrowtip all the way through, snapped the thin wood in half and neatly pulled out the length of shaft inside Xena. She grabbed her shoulder to extinguish the flow of blood.

"You grab a hold here, I'll do the stitches," she said, indicating the shoulder. "Don't worry, I'll be gentle." She afforded a small smile at the look of doubt at Xena's eyes, below dark, perfect eyebrows that held small beads of sweat. Her lower lip was crimson with blood, having bitten there to avoid screaming at the unbearable pain that tore at her shoulder.

Making neat, small sutures, Oberon closed the two gaping holes, watching Xena straining against her natural instincts, screaming against letting someone so near her with a needle. "OK, done. No permanent harm done, it went clean through the muscle. You lost a lot of blood though," Oberon stated, appraising her work. Eyeballing the once more calm warrior, still grabbing the wrist-thick chair leg she had unconsciously broken, she smiled. Heh. One small arrow doesn't have snowballs' change in Tartarus against Xena.

Xena lifted herself from the floor, despite Oberon's protests. A shudder went through her. Hurts. Really bad. The pain flowed from her shoulder in white-hot cascades, her whole left side was numb with pain. "I have to get Gabrielle to a healer," she stated darkly, upon seeing the odd-looking bruise at her neck. "Poteidaia is near. I…" She sighed. "We… need to get her there."

Baby blue eyes, tinted violet in the warm glow of the crackling fire in the room, turned to the pale warrior next to her with an unspoken request. "Your shoulder is in no condition to ride, let alone carry an unconscious woman with you. I'll go with you," Oberon stated. A wan smile in return.

"Now, get some sleep. Your body needs to heal."

"Yes, mother." The familiar glint was returning to the eyes. Oberon stripped from her armour and clothing, sighing at the thick coat of blood, gore and dirt on the said items. Settling down on the floor, she luxured at the feeling of the soft fur of her sleeping roll, the coarse fur tickling her ear. The ache of the bruises and small insignificant cuts she'd received mellowed and sleep started to claim her. It's going to take forever to get all that caked blood off my gear. Well, all in a day's work for a warrior…too tired for that now…

As the first rays of the morning sun appeared, illuminating the stoic interiors of the room and it's occupants, favouring them with a barely perceptible pink glow, the woman on the floor stirred. She rose, stretching her aching muscles and cringed at the sound of popping vertebrae. In the quiet of the morning, she quietly dressed and took a look at the two prone forms lying on the bed.

Gabrielle was still in the same position they had left her in the evening. Xena's facial muscles were twitching as her instincts kept a mind's eye on her surroundings, ready to act on the barest hints of danger. She had one of Gabrielle's small hands enclosed in her own, large tanned one, long fingers softly curled to protect the more fragile ones inside them.

Oberon stood silently for a long time, a small smile on her face, brought out by the peaceful sight in front of her. Shaking her head, she snapped out of her reverie. She opened the small window in the room, took a deep breath and rested her gaze on the windowsill, feeling the warmth of the new sun soak her bald head.

Rising her indigo eyes, she clapped her hands to awaken the sprits of her ancestors and her Master and said a silent prayer, asking them to protect her companions. She took a deep breath and released it with a sigh and went to the task of cleaning her gore-soaked armour.

Her exit was quiet and didn't wake the others, or so she thought. A pale blue eye opened at the sound of the door and seeing no imminent danger, stole a brief loving glance at the figure next to the supple body the eye was attached to and closed again.

Oberon bought a villager's cart and reined Awase to it, despite the horse's protests. Returning inside, the innkeeper would accept no money for their stay - "That dark companion of yours saved my son's life. No, I'm obliged to you." - and so she thanked him and carried the bard to the cart, settling her on a small pile of hay as comfortably as possible. The worried Warrior Princess came after her and rose to her horse, somewhat stiffly but without a wince. And off they were, urgency in their gallop.

They rode until the horses' sides gleamed with sweat, stopping only when necessary for a quick break and then going on, driven by their fear for the bard's well-being. When night fell they were forced to stop, lest their horses fall to the ground. Awase's mouth was already frothing and Argo's breath had a disquieting whining tune to it when they finally came to a suitable camp site, a depression on the ground near the road with a small stream gurgling nearby. They set up camp and Oberon carefully lifted and carried Gabrielle to the site while Xena made a fire with practiced ease.

"How's the shoulder?" "Fine," she grunted, despite her sickly pale appearance and the creases on her forehead, caused by the ever-present pain and loss of blood. The dark warriors's gaze flicked constantly to the small bundle nesting near her, the uncanny hearing searching for some change, good or bad, but alas, in vain. The bard's breathing was steady yet shallow, her colour still pale.

And occasionally, the indigo-eyed warrior would catch a glimpse of the tumult of emotions raging behind those outwardly icy calm eyes that appraised the bard with a soft gaze. The gaze combined love, concern and… fear? She could see all that, until the eyes lifted their barriers and then they felt no more.

Xena's eyes felt dry. She wanted so much to touch, to wrap her arms around the so small-looking woman she so dearly… cared about, loved perhaps? Sitting on a fallen body of a tree and staring at the fire with a distant look in her eyes, Xena felt a churning hurricane of emotions inside her. The feeling was so strong it made her dizzy. But she remained still, knowing that moving the bard was an unnecessary risk. Gotta think about something else…

"So, why Oberon? Sounds like a man's name?" The question startled the other woman. She lifted her gaze to the warrior whose eyes were cast on her hands, fingering the laces of her ornate bracers, obviously trying to get her thoughts elsewhere with the question. The lengths she goes to forget. Warrior Princess of Smalltalk. Now really, c'mon… A small, dry laugh from Oberon. "A long story. Gory, too. To make it short, let's just say that it's a nickname I got for slaughtering a village."

Upon the startled, sharp look at Xena's narrowed eyes, she gave another mirthless snort. "No, nothing mindlessly dreadful. The village harbored the man who had killed my master. He was a witch, an evil man and he had cast a spell that turned the peaceful villagers into monsters, forced to obey him.

When I came to revenge my master's death, the village attacked me and I was forced to plow my way through them. I injured and killed many innocent people, for revenge." Oberon focused her gaze on the tips of her boots. "Husbands, wives, even children. They just kept on coming to me, like rabid hounds. I had no choice. Or that's what I keep telling myself, to be able to sleep at night."

She looked up and was captured at the intense look in the two pools of pale blue that were slate gray in the moonlight and the small illumination the fire provided. A small, tired smile from Oberon who turned her eyes back to the flickering fire.

"I got to the witch all right and made him pay for all the evil he'd done. And took a souvenir." She pointed at a scalp, complete with long, coal-black locks hanging from her saddlebag. "To remind me of all the evil in the world and that it can be fought. And won." A small, unconscious nod from the silent warrior next to her.

"And also that revenge is not the answer." Another nod.

"… Anyway, the story got around and since I had no name since my master just called me 'kohai', 'beginner' but a name was clearly needed, a fellow Greek traveller named me after the King of the Fairies. Can't imagine why but somehow it stuck." Looking down at her hands, studying the deep lines and powerful fingers, she let out a ragged breath.

"So much blood we have seen, you and I. Barrels of it have flowed because of these hands. Hope innocents like her never have to live with the smell of fresh blood always on their mind," the pale warrior said, small tense lines forming in the corners of her eyes as she looked at the bard. In the insufficient light her eyes were almost black, like two bottomless wells, hollow and cold.

Xena nodded, knowing what she meant. The acrid, copper smell was forever present, etched in her very being. It followed her everywhere. As did the faces of all the people she had killed. In her dreams they flashed, all having the same look of surprise and then, immense pain, a silent scream forever frozen in their throats as their life drained away.

They talk about the glory of conquering. Of ruling. Of it feeling like being a sort of a demigod, having the ability to decide on people's fates, kill them on a whim. The art of swordwork. The noble words on the beauty and honour of war.

What they never tell is how yellow human bone is and how much blood there is.

The sickening soft feeling when you slice someone in half, the small resistance delivered to your hands by your trusted blade. It feels like as if you were hitting a ripe watermelon.

The faint gurgle of escaping blood and the small prickle on your skin as it rains on you in large droplets.

The dull, wet thud of a lifeless corpse as it hits the blanket of rusty mud that used to be dry, hard-packed earth but now soddy from all the gore it has absorbed.

And I used to do that for… fun.

Shoving the disquieting thoughts back to their corner with a conscious effort, Xena rose and stretched herself. She winced when she moved her shoulder to test it but the pain had subsided to a dull if powerful throb. Not bad. Good thing I heal fast. Gonna be sore for a long time though. She saw to Gabrielle, tucked her in and the women lay on their bedrolls and waited for sleep, both haunted by old memories best forgotten. Sleep claimed them at last and then, all was quiet save the hooting of a lone owl.

"We'll reach Poteidaia by midday." A curt comment from Xena and off they were at the break of dawn. Gabrielle was still unconscious, though she emitted a faint sigh now and again and her eyelids fluttered, yet the eyes themselves held no recognition of their surroundings.

The morning was uneventful, endless small roads in rich landscapes sparse with population. After a few hours' ride, dark clouds gathered and it started raining. Heavy drops pounded their armour and blended with the sweat on the two horses' sides. The animals nickered nervously at the occasional bolt of lightning and the deep rumble of thunder but kept their pace.

They came round a bend in the road, another in an endless series of similar ones and suddenly, Xena lifted her hand in a familiar gesture, ordering them to stop. What, Oberon mouthed at her, calming her horse to be quiet. She couldn't hear anything. Xena turned in her saddle and gave a wicked smile, the sharp glint in her eyes visible even through the sheet-like rain that enveloped them, making the day almost as dark as the night. "Men, in light armour. Haven't bathed in way too long time. Probably highway riffraff."

They came around another bend and spotted the men in question. Riffraff indeed. The usual collection of half-armour, dullish weapons and bad teeth. Gathered in a few small knots around a wagon, plundering the owner family's possessions.

A stocky man was in the process of shaking a young girl by her long, blond hair, his intentions crystal clear in his lascivious leer. An older woman, her mother probably, was held in a similar manner near her. A bearded man was lying unconscious next to the wagon, a nasty bruise decorating his forehead.

"You an' me, we're gonna have some fun," the stocky self-appointed soldier cackled at the frightened girl and gave a black smile, reaching for her breast. He was stopped cold by a low, demure voice.

"Hey, soldier-man. Why don't you get a real woman instead of threatening children."

The man whirled around and was greeted by a sight straight out of a nightmare. As the next lightning flashed, the harsh light created sharp shadows below high cheekbones and in the hollows of the eyes, where two chips of ice gazed him with such an undescribable look of contempt that it made shivers run down his spine. Muscles rippled beneath the smooth rain-soaked skin of the six feet tall apparition, coal black hair clung to the bronze surface and to the curves of the intricate armour. Water ran in the smooth shapes and meandered down the spectral shape and the steely look of contempt in the eyes of the palest blue matched that of the gleam of the large sword that was balanced against her shoulder with nonchalant expertise.

Xena's blood boiled. Her rage at her impotence in helping Gabrielle made her edgy and nothing better to help her calm down than to vent some of that rage in a convenient fight. She fingered the hilt of her sword, adjusting her grip and continued to smile crookedly at the dumbfounded man, gaping at the woman who seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.

No, two women, he thought as another woman appeared next to the dark warrior. The other one was pale with black, many-folded outfit that swayed heavily. The woman moved like a wraith, without a sound.

"Now, be a sensible man and leave them alone." Xena said the words reluctantly, wanting the man to resist but she had learned from Gabrielle to try to reason first. However unlikely success would seem, she sighed, looking at the cretin in front of her. A small flicker of intelligence came to the man's eyes but apparently, not enough since he released the girl who fell to the ground, grabbed the attention of his men with a shout and drew his sword. Ahhhh… a corner of Xena's mouth curved in a small, cruel smile that never reached her eyes. An idiot after all.

She flexed her fingers around the sword, noticing Oberon besides her. The other woman was still as a statue, breathing silently and looking through half-closed lids, calmly, at the riffraff that vastly outnumbered them. And then the men came, with a yell that was responded in twofold.

The battle was a quick one, leaving unconscious and dead men to the ground. Oberon got a long but shallow nick in her biceps, Xena survived without a scratch save a bruise from a wayward mallet, despite her one useless arm, its shoulder now giving warning signs in the form of throbbing, nagging pain, agitated at the day's riding and the fight. She walked back to Argo, mentally pushing her slight fatigue to the back of her head. Stupid thing to fight in this condition, lost too much blood, she admonished herself. Lifting an armour plate, she peeked at her wound. Damn. It's started bleeding again. But not dangerously so. Leaning against a quietly whickering Argo, she turned towards the battlefield, partially obscured by the heavy rain.

The dark shape that was Oberon moved silently to the man lying on the ground next to the cart and bent to assess his condition. The woman and the girl rushed next to her, babbling. The deafening clatter of rain droplets on the ground and on the leaves of the surrounding trees drowned all words but the voices were obviously agitated. The pale warrior comforted the worried family members, lifted the man effortlessly and rested him in the wagon. She turned and wiping off the bloodstains from her sword, approached Xena, the two women in tow.

"Thank you so much! How can we ever repay you?" the older woman asked them. The younger one, more a girl than a woman, smiled shyly at the two warriors, now standing besides each other.

"Think nothing of it," Xena said, more brusquely than intended.

The mother appraised the two tall women with a curious eye. They had appeared out of nowhere, challenged the very dangerous raiders with nonchalant carelessness and then dispersed with the men in few short moments, fighting with half-bored looks, broken only with, most disturbingly, an occasional savage smile. The woman on the right with the flowing clothing and black, odd-looking armour she didn't recognize, noting only the very pale skin and weapons of a very strange kind. She glanced at the dark-haired warrior leaning against a very handsome-looking golden mare, looking for similarities.

They could be sisters. Not that they look alike, on the contrary, but… something. In the eyes. The stature. The… atmosphere. The way they control the space around them… commanding it. Shifting her gaze fully to the woman on the left, she felt a sense of familiarity. Something about that woman, reminds me of… I don't know.

She peered harder at the warrior, now searching for clues. Noting the well-worn but good-conditioned armour, the loose, powerful musculature, hair dark as the night sky on Solstice… "You're… Xena," she finally recognized, paling at the thought. She stepped back a few steps, suddenly more scared now than scant minutes before when she was being held by the ill-smelling raider.

Xena sighed at the apprehensive tone in the woman's voice. "Yeah, the one and only. Don't worry, I only kill bad guys now," she breathed, slowly turning towards the woman. "Relax." She gave an attempt of a smile that came out more of a grimace, the pain growing in her shoulder. The village woman still had a wary look in her eyes and she held her daughter behind her in a protective gesture.

"I had heard stories of you mending your ways but no-one believed them," the woman ventured. Xena sighed. "Well, I-"

She was interrupted with a faint moan emanating somewhere within Awase's cart. All other things forgotten, she dashed to the cart, joined by Oberon seconds later. "Oh Hades. She's getting worse. Her fever is rising," the foreign warrior assessed, worry creasing her forehead. She turned her head, balking at the look of utter fear in Xena's eyes.

"Let's get going, only a few candlemarks' ride to go. We'll have to ditch the cart." "Yes, we'll make better time that way. I'll ride with her, you need to take it easy with that shoulder of yours, it's bleeding again," Oberon noted, pointing at the thin droplet of dark red edging along Xena's arm.

Grabbing the now restless bard, she handed her to Xena. With quiet hurry, Oberon unreined Awase from the cart, saddled her and rose to the coal black horse who was snorting and skittering, sensing her rider's agitated state of mind. Xena lifted the precious bundle she was cradling to the silent noblewoman who could see the pained effort it took to raise her injured shoulder. Xena bore the pain with stoic facelessness but felt the wound tear some more and cringed inwardly.

Saying absentmindedly a few sparse words of comfort and good luck to the family they'd rescued, Oberon kicked Awase's loins and off the two warriors rode, into the endless downpour of heavy rain, fire in their horses' hooves and in their eyes. In just a few moments they vanished from sight, like two ghosts, into the gloom that had spawned them.

The rain stung Oberon's face, making her eyes squint and water. Her cheeks felt cold and raw and she offered a sympathetic look to her horse who was turning her head away from the whipping wet wind in a vain attempt to protect her sensitive muzzle. It felt as if they'd ridden days and days since their brief encounter with the riffraff although it couldn't be more than just a candlemark or two. Time seemed to slow down at this moment of utmost hurry and she felt as if they progressed with the speed of two snails instead of the two lightningbolts on hooves that they were.

The other bolt of Zeus' fire that was riding besides her had been silent. Not that she was the chatty type anyway, Oberon thought wryly. Besides, the howling of the speeding air passing them, the thunder of powerful hoofbeats and the ever-present onslaught of rain that battered Oberon's helmet and their armour and already soaked clothes made idle chit chat impossible.

She must be freezing in that skimpy outfit, she thought as she appraised Xena from the corner of her eye. Practical, yes and very… enticing. Yessir, indeed. She leered at her sudden thought, so much in discordance with their current situation. OK, snap out of it. Not really the right moment for that. She's a big girl and she's been through much worse than a small summer drizzle. Still, can't be very warm, Oberon sympathised as she thought of her own heavy cotton clothes that covered her from neck to toe.

Xena looked like she was made of stone. Face expressionless and pale, she rode like Tartarus' fire was on her heels. Argo was frothing, her sides lathered, but she kept her pace, sensing the painful urgency in her mistress. The only errant movement in the pair was the flicking of Xena's long mane of black hair that whipped behind her in an ever-cascading stream of water and gleaming raven tendrils, movement mimicked by Argo's golden tail and mane. It was as if the rider and her steed were one, so effortlessly and seamlessly they fit together.

Oberon focused again on the smaller woman balled in her lap. She looks so small and vulnerable. Like a child. She wrapped her thick arms more securely around Gabrielle, flexing her biceps that were numbing from the endless barrage of freezing water. Cradling the bard, she tried to support her head as well she could while trying to protect her from the worst onslaught of the rain. She had her woollen cloak wrapped around her but even that was soaking wet. She was paler than before if possible and moved restlessly in small shivers. "Hold on, Gabrielle. Hold on…"

"We're close. A mile, maybe one and a half." Oberon turned at the yell, barely perceptible through the howl of the tumbling wind. Xena had fastened her gaze at her, a disturbingly slack look in her eyes. "Not gonna make it. Go on, get her safe…please…" she managed to say and then the beautiful blue eyes dimmed and heavy lids hid them. "Ares' balls," Oberon muttered as she slowed down her frantically galloping horse, seeing Argo do the same, her rider now going limp in her saddle.

Approaching Xena, she spotted something she hadn't seen through the rain: her wound had started bleeding again. Bad. Her arm was coated in rich crimson and the left side of her leathers were tinted in a dark, russet colour. Blood stained Argo's side where it had streamed off her rider's side.

"Silly woman, why didn't you say anything?" Oberon asked quietly at the unhearing tall figure, although she knew why. Stopping to dress the wound would've meant a delay and delays to someone in Gabrielle's condition could be deadly.

Ignoring the sense of impending doom and failure inside her head, she snatched Argo's reins from Xena's hands and clicked her tongue to the frantic-looking horse, coaxing out her last reserves. And like her owner, she performed beyond her strength, gathering speed and galloping next to the powerful black steed that carried the anxious Oberon towards their nearing goal.

She was standing in a hayfield, eyes closed. She could sense the gentle kiss of wind on her cheek and the faint but not unpleasant pungent smell of young hay that surrounded her. She could feel small pricking in the soles of her feet and the gentle whisking of straws against her calves.

A low rumble began to ring in her ears. She thought it to be the thunder but as she cast her eyes towards the sky, all she could see were a few, small wispy clouds, all white and happy. She openend her mouth to voice a question but no sound came out. Puzzled, she tried again but was stopped when the world began to grow dark around her and somehow, the hayfield seemed more and more distant until…

Malene's eyes flipped open. It took her a while to return to reality, to assess that she was actually in her bed, sleeping, not in some goddamned hayfield. But the thunder was real. No, it's hoofbeats, she realized, all sleep gone from her eyes now. Grabbing a wollen tunic and lighting a candle she rushed to her window to peer at the source of the pounding sound, coming from the general direction of the road leading to the village. Raining like all the gods at Olympus decided to take a piss at the same time. Pity the one caught outside at this weather.

Suddenly, a lightning flashed and illuminated a sight so intense she flinched away from the window. A pair of mighty war horses galloped at their top speed towards her small cottage, deflecting rain like two boulders of granite. The leading horse, a huge mass of gleaming black hair and mane carried an equally dark rider that cradled something in her lap and with a free hand tugged the reins of a golden horse that was reflecting the stark light like a huge block of amber. Its rider was swaying as if unconscious.

Snapping out of the sight, she ran to her door and opened the wooden panel just as the two animals screeched to a halt next to her porch. The foremost rider hopped off the heavily lathered horse and was running to her like the Titans were after her, heavy dark folds of clothing flapping. She was still carrying the small bundle, now recognizable to be a human. A small one. A woman or a child, then.

"Where's the healer?" the running figure barked as she reached the porch. "Quick!" At the soft glow of the candle she clutched, Malene was startled to see that it was a woman. Taller than the average man and a low, rumbling voice with a twinge of sore rasp in it. A voice used to commanding people.

The figure she cradled was that of a woman as well, though a smaller one. With something familiar in it… Malene's face paled at her recognition. "Gabrielle!" she sucked in her breath. Tearing away her gaze from the pale face and blue lips she craned her neck to look into the dark, bloodshot eyes of the woman carrying her.

"You're in a luck. I'm the healer. Bring her in."

The tension in Oberon's shoulders relaxed minutely as she carried the cold form of the bard into the warm hut and onto a bed pointed by the healer. Malene lighted more candles that created a warm, fuzzy glow in the room and kneeled next to the stranger who was settling Gabrielle to the bed and wrapping blankets around her. "Let me," the healer said in a quiet, comforting tone and took a gentle hold of the wet woman's wrist. She felt the wiry muscles move and tense under her touch and could feel the intense dark eyes boring to her temple as she took a good look at the bard.

What she saw wasn't promising. The woman was shivering, her lips were cold and turning her to a side, Malene could see a nasty purple swollen bruise that extended from the nape of her neck to the middle of her shoulderblades. A sharp look at the woman next to her who gave a tired look. "Not me. Long story, I'll explain lat-" A loud bang sounded from the door and the large form of Seolus, the village smith that lived in the next house filled the opening. His dark brown hair was matted against his head and small rivulets of rain water ran down his face.

"I heard horses and loud voices. Is something wrong?" he asked, a curious look in his eyes, taking in the sight of the healer kneeling next to a pallet, accompanied by far the most strangest looking… person he'd ever seen. "It's Gabrielle. She's injured," Malene clipped. The stranger, a woman, rose.

"Come out. There's someone else who needs help as well," she asked quietly, boring two intense indigo eyes into him. "Please," she added, almost an afterthought.

With a wary look, he followed the stranger outside, to a magnificent light-coloured mare that held a limp form on her saddle. The horse skittered and her nostrils flared at the sound of thunder that was right above them. Seolus thought he recognized the dark figure the horse held but wasn't sure, it was difficult to see in the the darkness and the downpour that suffocated any moonlight the night sky might offer. Pushing all thoughts aside, he grabbed a swaying arm brusquely, before Oberon could shout a warning to him.

He never saw nor felt the hand flinch and move, so fast it was. In the murky darkness time froze as he stared at the long fingers covered in coagulated blood that had grabbed his wrist in a death grip, attempting to block all circulation to his hand. Another lightning flashed as he darted his eyes up. Hair in wild disarray, the hollowed eyes of a figure he finally recognized, staring at him in a look that was utterly mindless, like that of a rabid wolf. A chill ran through him as all the stories he'd heard of this demon of a woman flashed through his mind. And then the still moment ended, time lurched forward and he discovered the pale, tall woman besides her again.

"Uh, she doesn't like to be grabbed," the woman explained, giving a small smile. Slowly she pried the fingers off his wrist and took a gentle hold of Xena, half lifting half dragging her down from the saddle. Grabbing her under her arms, Oberon asked the smith to take her feet and so he did, with a stupefied, scared look plastered on his face.

They carried her inside and lowered onto another pallet that was a bit too short for her tall form. Oberon lifted the edge of the soaked bandage gingerly and cursed silently in at least five languages at the sight. "Silly woman. That 'I'm too tough for my leathers' -attitude of yours will be the death of you yet…" she whispered into a delicately shaped ear that felt like a sliver of ice to Oberon's touch. Not that I feel my extremities either, she thought wryly and let herself be pushed away from the unconscious warrior by Malene who by now had taken off Gabrielle's wet clothing and wrapped her in thick blankets. The healer eyed Xena with a coolly professional gaze, clucked her tongue and with brisk, knowing moves, cleaned the wound, sutured it again and covered it with a dry bandage.

"Gabrielle is worrying me. It appears she has a cracked vertebra." At the look of alarm in the dark eyes she sighed. "I can't promise you anything. The ride here sure didn't help matters much but I understand it was necessary. I did what I could which wasn't much. As for her…" she stopped and turned to Gabrielle's formidable companion. "Help me take off those wet things. I can't lift her by myself."

Together they pushed the upper body of the warrior upright and with much fumbling, unfastened her armour and leathers, carefully avoiding the shoulder. Xena's skin was ice cold and the muscles underneath stiff. Oberon felt as if she was undressing a slab of marble. "She's strong but she must've lost at least quarter of her blood and with the chilling weather out there…" she left the sentence hanging in the air. Wrapping the statuesque form in another set of blankets, the healer sat down and sighed from all the exercise she hadn't counted on to appear on her door in the middle of the night.

She was interrupted with another loud bang at the door and a middle-aged greying woman rushed in with the smith who had disappeared moments ago in tow. "Gabrielle!" Her eyes searched frantically, eyebrows furrowing at the sight of an unconscious Xena and then shifting to the familiar form of her… "Daughter!" Hecuba took the few remaining steps to the pallet and grabbed a hold of the bard's shoulders, only to be stopped by the healer.

"No, don't move her. She has…," casting an uncomfortable look towards the dark form still hovering nearby who nodded minutely, having figured out who the anguished woman was. "… her spine is damaged. Moving her could aggravate it further. Hecuba, she has to stay here, at least for a while," the healer intoned gently, removing the hands of the mother from her still cold daughter.

Turning away with clenched fists, Hecuba lashed out at the first convenient target, Oberon. "Who are you?! What have you done to my daughter?" Sighing, Oberon explained herself and reassured once again that it was neither her nor Xena's fault Gabrielle was in this condition.

"I'm sure that madwoman she travels with had something to do with it…," Hecuba still muttered as Malene gently but firmly pushed her out of the door. "She needs to rest and so do you. Get some sleep and come back tomorrow. I'll know more then."

She sighed with relief and exhaustion as the older woman relented and plodded back to the waterfall-like rain followed by the smith who talked to her in low mutters, alternating his wary gaze between Oberon and the healer, until the rain swallowed them.

Looking around the finally peaceful cottage, her eyes stopped to rest on a large lump of wet, black clothing and stained armour that was sitting on her floor near the fire. Water was dripping off the figure as it silently shivered, gazing into the flickering fire with unseeing eyes. "You too, get off those wet clothes or you'll catch something too." It felt like a small eternity passed before her words had any effect. "Horses first," Oberon said, rising with uncharacteristic awkwardness from the floor and trodded with numb legs outside despite the healer's protests.

The horses had found shelter under the low roof of an old shack that was used for storing wood. She took of their saddles and briefly brushed their sides clean of the dirt and froth and guided them to a small pale of hay that laid in the corner. "Sorry girls, this'll have to do for tonight." Lifting the saddles with a groan, she walked back inside with unsure feet. Thudding the two heavy leather objects to the floor, she sauntered back to the fire.

Malene watched the silhouetted form of the pale warrior undress and change into a set of strange-looking garments, a pair of wide pants and a long wrap-around tunic that was made of some fine, shining fabric… silk perhaps… and reached her in mid-calf. Curiously enough, the robe-like item was decorated with large intricate flowers, making her appear almost peaceful. The image was spoiled by two things, firstly the many-shaped collection of scars accentuated by the supple movement of powerful if tired muscles that had vanished underneath the ample clothing and secondly, the unmistakable annoyed look in the tired eyes, a look that spelled many a uncomfortable moment for those who would get on her nerves her at this moment.

Annoyed wasn't really the word. I get really crabby when I'm tired. Feeling helpless makes me grabby, too. Well, now I'm both so… I better get some sleep before I smack someone to next week for sneezing to loud. She curled to the soft fur and in two breaths, she was asleep.

A pale blue eye cracked halfway open. Blurred at first, an exquisitely shaped eyebrow furrowed above it in an effort to concentrate. Finally, the small patterns of the wooden ceiling, pink in the early light, came to focus and the eye, along with its companion, flew all the way open.

Whe- she thought and attempted to lift her upper body, only to be stopped by searing pain. Agh. Forgot the shoulder. Another, more wary attempt succeeded and gingerly, she threw her legs over the edge of the pallet and shook her head to clear it. A wave of dizziness came over her and she breathed in small, shallow gulps until it passed.

She put on a linen shift and rose with a silent groan and patted to the next pallet that held Gabrielle. Checking her, she clucked her tongue at the still visible pallor in the bard's face and the ragged sound of her laboured breathing. Gods, what have I done? She doesn't deserve this… Unable to stop herself, she kneeled and rested her head gently on Gabrielle's chest, listening to the faint but steady heartbeat under the feverish skin. She wrapped her long arms around the smaller woman, willing her to hang on.

She lay there for a long time, an eternity it seemed, feeling the warmth of her body and the unmistakable smell of herbs and ink that was embedded in her clothing and then, the utterly pleasant scent that was… Gabrielle. The faint whiff of something that reminded her of sunny days, their genial bantering on the road and the incomparably heartwarming tinkle of the bard's laughter that had proved to be more and more contagious as time passed. The nights spent laying side by side, stargazing, and Xena listening to the rich, pleasant voice spinning a tale or two. And the occasional hug, those moments that Xena would've stopped the time in if she'd had the power.

Sighing, the warrior reluctantly let go of the lithe body and rose. A small movement caught her peripheral vision and she whirled around, regretting it instantly. The ground below her feet seemed to sway like a ship in a serious storm and black dots clouded her vision. And then she was gently supported by two strong hands that helped her to sit back down.

The annoying black clumps in her eyes faded and her vision caught a towering form bending to peer at her. "Xena, are you OK? … no, of course you're not. You lost a bucket of blood yesterday, that's why you feel dizzy. Stay put." A wry eyebrow rose. Oberon came back with a steaming mug of herbal tea. "I put on some broth to warm." Handing over the cup, "Now drink it."

A small grin twitched at Xena's mouth and she thought about making a snide remark about clucking warriors or perhaps giving her one of the patented 'I'm tough as nails and if you fuss over me I'll have your rump for breakfast' –looks but thought better of it.

The tea felt good in her hollow stomach and the soothing smell of it was like aloe on her nerves. Every ragged breath the bard took felt like someone twisting a dagger in her chest. Every small uncomfortable sigh her acute hearing caught made her heart skip a beat. Blinking, she subdued the nagging feeling in the back of her head and focused on her own body's messages.

Shoulder's bad but I'll manage. Tearing it open again wasn't very sensible. A morbid chuckle. Well, since when was I known as the sensible one?

Tired, dizzy and weak. That about covers it. She turned her eyes back on Gabrielle. A hidden door in her unconsciousness opened at the sight of the bard, the hollow light of early morning casting deep shadows on her face and accentuating the black rings under her eyes and the two red blobs of fever colouring her cheeks.

I'd really give my life for her, Xena realized. I almost died there yesterday, on the road. In half a candlemark I would've bled to death if I had been alone with her. But the thought of stopping… never even crossed my mind. Surprisingly she felt comfortable with this thought. No, not surprising. It's the truth. Always has been. Just haven't been able to put it into so many words before.

In the quiet of the morning, the muted silence broken only by the occasional call of an early bird and the faint sounds of the pale warrior seeing to the broth, Xena made an admission to herself. I've broken all my rules. No love, ever. Let no-one near. Let nothing get so close and dear to you that it can be dangerous. That it can hurt you. She closed her eyes, dry lids scraping the sensitive surface of her eyes. And here I sit, a gaping hole in my shoulder, having lost pints of blood and the part of me that really, really hurts is my heart. For her.

I've fallen. Hard. And it feels… fabulous. Despite the grave situation the object of her affection was in, a mad grin spread on her face, unstoppably. Mushball.

"What're you smirking about?" A tall form sat next to her, a question in the indigo eyes peering at her own set of a very different blue. "Uh, nothing, um…" She fished for a palpable excuse, frantically. "I, uh, feel better. Just happy about it I guess." Got a raised eyebrow at that but Oberon let the subject be and just handed her a bowl of steaming warm broth that tasted like the nectar of gods to Xena and made the queasiness in her stomach settle a bit.

After this meager breakfast they woke the healer who protested vainly about one of her patients with a mortal wound being up and about and the other one… she couldn't say anything more about her condition than what she had said the night before. "We'll just have to wait and see." Oberon could see Xena's jaw clamp, making the muscles in her cheek stand out in wiry cords. She must be frustrated like Tartarus. I am and she's the one, well… the person closest to Gabrielle. "C'mon. Let's go out for a while," Oberon said, indicating the cleared weather outside with a tilt of her gleaming bald head.

The morning air was brisk and cold from the rain and it still held a hint of the metallic smell of a thunderstorm. Xena took a deep breath of the mist and released it, hoping the rich air would help her pounding headache. She carefully rotated her bad shoulder and was rewarded with only a mild stab of pain. They had changed into more normal clothing, Xena into a woollen tunic for her leathers were still damp and Oberon into her usual, black wide-belted skirt-like trousers and heavy white cotton wraparound shirt. Her ample sleeves hid her hands that clasped each other in order to keep warm.

They started for the small shack that had housed their mounts for the night and upon reaching it were greeted by two warm, wet muzzles and two quite similar snorting sounds. Giving them a thorough brush and a couple of carrots for their efforts on the previous night, they reined the two horses and headed for the village inn.

Leaving the pair of horses to a stable boy, they went inside. At this early hour no-one was sitting in rough tables illuminated poorly in the murky light the small windows allowed inside. At the sound of the door, however, a short young man with a small paunch belly appeared from the back, stretching his arms and yawning. "Who's disturbing me at this unbelievable hour… oh." He focused his eyes on the pair of women approaching him and blinked. Hard.

He and his family had moved to these regions not long ago to start the inn but he nevertheless recognized the one with dark hair and eyes of iciest blue. The legends about her had travelled far, he had heard the stories of her many times and occasionally related them to his son, at night when he took him hunting. The boy had sat wide-eyed and the innkeeper had given a quiet smile at the look of amazement mixed with… fear in the young lad's eyes. For some reason, the boy loved to hear the stories, bloody and full of death as they were.

And here she stood, patiently waiting for the man to collect his jaw from the floor and stop gaping at her. In outer appearance she seemed so much less than what the legends spoke of her, a quiet figure rapping a set of digits at his counter. Raising his eyes to meet hers, he corrected himself. She was every bit as intimidating as the tales told. The wells of ice water that were her eyes held nothing but a mildly bored look but he felt that the range of possible emotions they might hold, he'd never want to see the extent of it. Her posture was relaxed as she leaned against the wooden surface but still held an air of ever-ready alertness.

What they never told was how the air crackled around her, the feeling of dark energy it held that made the hair on the nape of his neck rise. The emotions this woman standing in front of him produced in him were primal, animalistic… at the signature of the soul of a predator.

What the tales never got right was how beautiful she was. The perfect six feet of sinewy muscle, the slightly angular face that made her features a bit too cruel to be called pretty. But… noble. Yes… that's the right word. And the eyes, of the most amazing shade of blue he'd ever seen.

The combination of the two things, it was very… disturbing. And downright sexy.

"When you're through goggling, we'd like a room," the Destroyer of Nations intoned in a low, bored tone, inured to startled receptions. He remained frozen and Xena sighed, rolling her eyes towards the ceiling, praying the blackened rafters for patience.

"Do you always have this effect on people?" she heard Oberon whisper to her. A perfect eyebrow hitched up at the smirking bald form next to her.

"Occasionally. Can't figure out why."

"Yeah, right," a mocking tone in a voice as low as her own hissed, the statement followed by a gurgled muff of barely held laughter. "I'll handle it."

Oberon snapped her fingers in front of the innkeeper's eyes. Again. He snapped out of it and turned to regard the other woman, really noticing her for the first time. Unlike her companion, he didn't recognize her but she was, if possible, even more odd-looking than Xena. Almost bald head, pale composure and eyes of so different blue but no less dangerous. "Earth to innkeeper? A room." "Ah, yes…," he replied, glancing nervously at Xena. "Relax. I promise to try not to break anything," a smooth, warm voice caressed his ear and, incredulously, the Butcher of Cirra flashed a tired smile at him.

The pudgy innkeeper managed to get them a room and promised solemnly that their horses would be well taken care of. Upon returning to the healer's cot, Oberon grabbed Xena's good shoulder. Noticing the flinch of reflexes she scolded herself for making such a rash move. "Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you." "Um, it's OK. Just a bit preoccupied." Oberon stole a glance at Gabrielle. "Yeah… listen, let me get our stuff to the inn, you stay here. In case she wakes up or anything. I'll come and get you for lunch later." Xena gave her a look of silent thank you and joined the healer that sat next to the bard's pallet on a low stool.

Oberon lifted their gear and the two saddles and sauntered out. She was almost bowled over by a dark-haired, young woman, a girl really, who crashed right into her and bounced off like a rubber ball when Oberon reflexively tightened her abdominal muscles. "Oh…" the girl uttered, regaining her balance after bumping again, this time into a burly man behind her. The man had somehow familiar looking eyes… Oberon searched her mind. Ah! This must be Gabrielle's… father? They two newcomers peered at the curious person the girl had collided with.

"Hi. You must be Lila," the stranger drawled at the young woman and flashed a white smile that reached the velvety blue eyes. "She's inside." Oberon jabbed at the door with her chin.

"Right. Thanks." the girl replied, glancing a last curious look at the tall, bald figure that swaggered away whistling an old chcked-plucking tune terribly off-key. They stepped inside the dimly lit cot, Herodotus shaking his head, mutterin something about his daughter and the motley company she seemed to keep.

At the sight of the warrior he seethed. A dark head rose and two eyes of intense blue gazed at him, a look of sympathy and carefully hidden pain in them. He trodded forcefully towards the large form, looking very unthreatening in the simple tunic, crouching over his long-gone daughter.

"You. Get out."

The look in the pale blue eyes became cool and cruel as they locked with Herodotus's. "No," a stark word, said in a low ominous rumble.

"I want you out of here. Haven't you caused my daughter enough pain and trouble already? She doesn't want you here." The blue eyes flashed and Herodotus took a step back, startled at the dangerous look in them. Nevertheless, he continued bravely. "I'm going to take her home and that's the end of it." And gulped, as the warrior rose in one fluid move to her imposing height and glowered down at him. "I said no. Where she goes, I go. And judging from your attitude, I believe," she smiled a dangerous, feral smile that didn't lessen the icy look in her eyes."I'm persona non grata there. Correct?"

"She's my daughter!" Herodotus couldn't think of anything else to say. Gathering his courage, she stepped in front of the warrior. He had to tilt his head up to talk to her. His suddenly dry throat swallowed convulsively. "And she's coming with me."

Xena flexed her hands, clenching them in an effort not to reach out and rip the man's head off. Her nostrils flared and a low rumble like the growl of a wild cat started in her throat as she bared her teeth. Paling, Herodotus backed again. Just as she was about to grab the man and introduce him to the concept of disemboweling with bare hands, a faint sigh sounded from the pallet next to her knee.

Quicker than a lightning, she was kneeling next to the pallet. Its occupant stirred and slowly, painfully, lifted her eyelids. A misty green eye appeared, searched unsteadily and found its mark. "Xena…" the bard croaked and an attempt at a smile creased her mouth. "I'm here," the warrior replied in a voice suddenly gone hoarse and took a small, still feverish hand and gingerly wrapped her own long fingers around it. "I'm here." "Good…" and the eyes closed again but this time, the slumber wasn't pained, it was healing.

Xena felt her heart begin to descend from her throat where it had been for the past two days. She felt like she could scream of relief and a wide grin began to tug at the corners of her mouth. She wiped it off and brought some of the wolf back to surface when she felt Herodotus move behind her. She rose and turned slowly and took a purposeful step towards the sulking man but was stopped by a small hesitant hand on her forearm. Lila.

"Please," she whispered. "Don't make a scene. For her." She gave the girl a nasty sideways look but knew she was right. The only way she could stop Gabrielle's father was to beat the living daylights out of him but that wouldn't go well with the bard, now would it. And so, with the consent of the healer, he lifted the heavily sleeping form of her daughter off the pallet and disappeared with Lila and the nervously chattering Malene in tow to the mid-morning sunny weather.

The apprehensive look and frown vanished from the stolid face of the warrior standing in the shadowy room, to be replaced by a rare look of defeat.

She crumpled to the now-empty pallet that still held Gabrielle's scent in the linen covers. The warrior sat there for a long time, resting her elbows on her knees and letting her head droop between her shoulders. She stared at the tips of her well-worn but sturdy boots and listened to the small sounds of an empty house listlessly. Breathing heavily she blinked back the tears that threatened to come out any minute. Herodotus' words rang in her ears. … Haven't you caused my daughter enough pain and trouble already? … She doesn't want you here… doesn't want… She blinked again but the tears came anyway.

And so the morning wore on. Shadows crawled across the small cot and minute dust particles danced in the golden rays in a many-formed light dance, like a cluster of fairies. The dark, huddled form sat there without moving ever so slightly, slowly dripping tears forming a slowly expanding dark stain on the worn wooden floor, impacting the uneven surface with minuscule splashes.

After many a candlemark, the raven head shook the last tears off and the look in the intense eyes was no longer one of hurt but as cold and cruel as the wind of the winter at the Northern Sea.

To escape the pungent haziness in the small room they had rented, Oberon had grabbed her still uncleaned armour and her repair kit and sauntered outside, looking for a warm, sunny spot to sit in. She had found a sturdy wooden bench outside the inn, facing the small village square and now stood next to it, stretching her long limbs sensuously, aching from the long ride they'd had to suffer. The occasional man or woman walked across the square, making the odd curious glance at her but no-one had approached her.

She sat down on the rough wood, feeling the comfortable warmth of the sun on her bald head. She had put on top of her other clothing one of her robe-like long tunics that concealed her form in endless silken cascades, decorated this time by patterns of hummingbirds. The fabric gleamed softly in beautiful shades of sky blue and yellow.

She raised a dark eyebrow and clucked her tongue at the shoulder plate she lifted from the clump of muddy stuff that used to be her armour. Gonna take me forever, she sighed, glowering at the flexible angular pad. It was covered in mud, gore, gray matter and all topped with a rusty brown crust of dried blood. It had caked between the small plates and embedded deeply between the straws underneath the metal plates. The previous night's rain had helped some but… Damn. Teaches me to leave the thing uncleaned for the night. And she got to work, muttering through her reservoir of curses in all of eight languages.

The morning saw her get through all the many-shaped and numerous pieces in inhuman patience. The pile of rust-coloured lumps on her left decreased and the pile of shining, squeaky clean armour on her right increased. At last, only her helmet remained but it had taken her the better part of the morning to accomplish that, she noted, squinting at the sun now high in the clear blue sky and flicking a glance at the more busier square, many a footstep rising small puffs of dust from the packed earth.

Patting the plate-shaped object against her knee to scare off any loose crust, she dipped a rag to the already crimson water to wash the stains off the curved head ornament. Long, gentle, professional strokes uncovered a shining metal surface that reflected her face, deep in concentrated furrow, in clear detail. Suddenly her hands paused for a blink of an eye, only to resume their duty as if nothing had happened.

Small feet. Four, maybe five. Yes, five. Young voices… whispering. Her mind analyzed the small moves and voices she more sensed than heard around the corner. … whispering about me, she realized and a small smile crossed her face. "You can come here and talk to me in person," she called in a low, clear voice. And was rewarded with a wild tuft of ash-blonde hair and a pair of eyes wide as cartwheels.

She smiled encouragingly at the peeking form still mostly behind the corner. Reassured, the boy came round, followed by four companions of the same small height.

Gathered in a loose semi-circle around her, the children whispered furiously with each other. Oberon continued her methodical cleaning, rediscovering the intricate filigreed patterns on her helmet. When the last piece was finally done, she looked up at the apparent leader of the pack, the blonde boy. He was fidgeting slightly but put on a show for his pals. Oberon smiled.

"So, what's your name?" "I'm, uh, Chelton." A small white smile. "Hello, Chelton. My name's Oberon." The boy mulled over the syllables for a while and then turned his warm brown eyes at her again. "You're really weird," he informed the warrior, with the chorus of his friends hissing him to silence, too late.

Oberon gave a surprised chortle and the small smile broke into one large bona fide grin. "Yeah, I get that a lot. Why's that?" "Well… you're really big… and you have no hair." A tingling laughter from Oberon and the kids relaxed a bit. "This's really purty," a small, blonde girl peeped and tried the silk robe Oberon was wearing with a hesitant hand. "Thanks. I like it too. One of my favourites," Oberon smiled down at the girl who looked shyly up at her and, encouraged, clutched the fabric a bit more and let go with a sigh of regret.

An awkward silence followed. Oberon had finished attaching a new hem to her helmet and flexed her fingers. "Stand back a bit," she intoned casually and with one swift move rose to her full height.

Chelton craned his neck so far it almost hurt to look at the tall figure. He stepped back a few paces when the figure stretched and then, suddenly, drew her sword. Silvery metal glinted in the sunlight, reflecting every ray and turning the weapon into an arc of blinding light. The children gasped and the smallest of them, a red-haired boy, almost ran but was stopped by a warm voice. "It's OK, relax. Sorry." Another smile and Oberon sat back down, reaching for her sharpening stone. The children still muttered nervously so she made a point in looking extra relaxed.

"So, uhm… you travel with Xena." More a statement than a question. The boy cleared his throat. Oberon quirked a mischievous eyebrow at him. "Mmmm-hmmm…" she yawned and cast a sideways look at the bramble of wide eyes and plump cheeks around her. An eyebrow edged up. "Wanna hear a story?"

A sudden screaming brought the sauntering villagers' necks up with a snap. Trouble? But no trouble was in sight and in fact, the screaming seemed to come from a pack of children squealing in delight at the stranger that had rode into town last night in somewhat… unusual circumstances. The heads bent to their tasks again and forgot the momentary wailing.

To the rhythmical whiff of the sharpening stone against the thin sword, Oberon related the story of Xena and Hercules Gabrielle had told them a few nights ago. The children listened her in rapture, drinking all the words, thirsty for more. It took her more than a candlemark to come to an end.

"… and so, Xena thew him into the manure pit." The children giggled at the mental image and Oberon smiled as well. She put away the stone, tested the blade carefully with her forefinger and rested it balanced on her thighs.

"Woh… thanks for the story." the blonde boy puffed. "Hey, is that sharp now?" he quizzed, fixing his gaze on the sword and reaching with one pudgy hand that was stopped by long, strong fingers curling around it. "Yes, it's really sharp and you can cut yourself badly if you touch it," she admonished softly. "But…" Reaching into her ample clothing, she pulled out a leather scroll casing and from it, a rectangular piece of delicate pale green paper. With one flourish of a stroke, she sliced a sliver from the paper, the remaining piece a perfect square. "Yeah, sharp enough."

As the children watched in rapture, she laid down the sword again and neatly folded the square, transforming it as if by magic into the shape of a frog. "Hereyago," she said, handing the delicate paper statue to the boy. He cradled it in his hands, peering at it curiously. "Wow."

The brown eyes tore away from the fragile shape to look at the calm, indigo ones that looked at him from the sculpted alabaster face with mild amusement. "You're not so scary after all." Oberon muffled a guffaw. "Now why would I be? Hmmm?"

The boy shifted his feet. "Wuh, well, y'know… like, I hear Xena drinks blood. And eats nothing but raw meat." Before Oberon could even open her mouth, a dark shadow descended on the small boy.

A low, rumbling voice that tickled his ear sounded. "Only on full moon." Swirling around, he was greeted with the sight of a tanned thigh, muscles rippling underneath the silky smooth skin, marred only by a few nasty scars. The Warrior Princess in all her glory, the mane of black hair swaying lightly, armour gleaming and her eyes gleaming in a far more intense way as she fastened her piercing gaze on the boy. A dark eyebrow rose at the suddenly silent children whose jaws hung limply. She shifted her gaze.


The pale warrior nodded, biting her lower lip to stifle her laughter. "Full moon tonight, it seems. Raw meat sounds great," she replied solemnly when she managed to compose herself.

If the kids' eyes would've bulged some more they would've popped out of their sockets. She couldn't say another word or she would've burst to laughter so she just nodded at the children and went to Xena's side.

"Panther meat ok with you?" she asked the warrior who turned to hide her grin and they strode towards the inn, Oberon stealing last stealthy gaze at the kids. Who still stood frozen. A choked laugh escaped her lips. "You're bad," she whispered to Xena. The eyebrow arched again.

"No-one's ever accused of me being nice. Reputation and all that, y'know."

The strangled, choking sounds coming from Oberon might have been worrisome under other circumstances but now, they just produced a ghost of a smile on the dark warrior's lips.

Gabrielle's first sensation was… darkness. It was cold and it hurt. Bad.

She opened her eyes and instinctively searched for her best friend who, unfortunately, was nowhere in sight. Sighing mentally, she cast an eye at her surroundings. Somehow... familiar. The thin straw mattress prickled her skin in a way that brought back memories. The wooden small desk and the landscape showing between the narrow edges of the window. Home.

No, she corrected herself. Not home. Not anymore. This place had stopped being that one sunny day she and Lila had wandered to the river and were almost captured by slavers. And where she had for the first time seen the person that would change her life irrevocably. Her best friend. And more…

OK, I know where. The question is, why and how? All she could remember was a godawful moment of pure pain in her neck and then, darkness had swallowed her for a long time. A vague feeling of warmth and strong comforting arms around her had driven away the darkness for a while… and the eyes that had been above hers when she had returned momentarily to this world of hurt… ah. The undescribable look in them made Gabrielle smile a small smile. I'll never forget that look.

And here she was, back in her childhood room. It hadn't felt so constricting before but now, it seemed the ceiling was bearing down on her and she couldn't wait to get back on the road, walking next to the comforting presence of the dark warrior. She gave another small smile at the thought of Xena. How the warrior, in her own silent, kind way looked after her. Usually she hated people doting over her but in Xena's case… it was different. More times than she could remember she had been saved from a myriad of dangerous situations by the strong, tanned arms and for her thank yous she had received a crooked smile and a wink of those marvellous eyes.

Mmmm, the eyes...

She had tried many times but had failed to find a word to describe the colour of her partner's eyes. It was the iciest of blues and yet still, full of warmth. They were enigmatic but so thoroughly familiar to her, showing depths that she never dreamed to reach, let alone understand. Some bard I am, she mocked herself playfully.

With the image of the vivid blue eyes etched onto her retinas, sleep claimed the strawberry blonde woman again.

She was woken again a few candlemarks later by Malena and her mother. Hecuba brought her some soup and they helped Gabrielle sit up, both sporting a very worrisome look when the bard grimaced from the pain on her neck. "It's healing nicely so it's only dented, not broken and your fever is down," the healer said, probing near the sensitive spot with knowing fingers. "You'll live." A wan smile from her mother.

Gabrielle gave a small smile as well. "Why am I here?" "Your father thought it would be better for you here and not near that… strange companion of yours." Gabrielle sighed, the constricting feeling back in her chest. "Her name is Xena you know… and she's not strange. She's my friend."

Her mother patted her knee sympathetically, clearly not understanding. "No matter. You're home." Somehow, that didn't help me much, the bard thought wryly.

An awkward silence followed. Finally, Hecuba took an uneven breath. "Your father wants to talk to you… about this…situation." Gabrielle nodded silently, trying to compose herself. They don't see it. They don't, can't understand why… a sigh.

OK, let's get this over with.

With another grimace, she slowly rose from her bed. The screaming pain had subsided to a dull if pounding ache that roared only when she made too rash a move, like shaking her head. Ohhhhh… her mind went wild as the room spun around her, sharp jabs of pain clouding her senses. A ragged breath and the spinning stopped. "I'm OK. Still hurts a bit." The healer's eyebrows rose at the nonchalant comment but she said nothing, just shook her head as they descended the narrow steps downstairs.

Sitting gingerly on the sturdy bench opposite her father, she carefully rested her forearms on the table and entwined her fingers to hide their shaking, partly from pain and partly from fearful anticipation of what was to come. I'm all grown-up now. A woman, she reminded herself and scolded for feeling like a frightened kid again in front of her gruff father. Raising her head, she summoned her best blank pokerface and fastened her gaze on her father. Hecuba rested a cup of cinnamon tea next to her hands, the tangy smell bringing more ghostly memories to the surface. I wasn't unhappy here. Just… bored, she thought vaguely.

"I want you to stay."

Apparently no beating around the bush here.

"I want you to stay home and be with your family again. I've had many would-be suitors here, wanting to marry you. You weave nice stories and cook well so finding a good husband for you should be no problem." At her hesitation, he harrumphed and continued. "What's wrong with you? Can't you see that animal bitch you travel with is going to get you killed? This is your home. You belong here. I don't understand why you insist on following that madwoman."

Gabrielle fumed at the openly sneering tone in his voice when she spoke of Xena. She wanted to scream at him, from the bottom of her heart, make him see that.... what? Her throat felt swollen and tears started to well into her eyes. Unable to utter a word, she quickly rose and ran outside, the weight of the house and its atmosphere bearing down on her like a cartload of anvils.

Herodotus started to get up to follow but was stopped by the pleading look in his wife's eyes. "Please. Give her time." Grumpily, he acquiesced. With a slightly worried look he tried valiantly to mask he followed the lithe retreating form, running towards the hayfield.

She slowed down when she reached the field. The running had agitated her still fresh injury and caused a throbbing headache to come pounding down on her. Swallowing convulsively and blinking back tears she stopped to collect her breath, the clump in her throat refusing to disappear. A familiar structure was on her left and she angled towards it.

It was an old barn. She remembered many a rainy day spent here, listening to the patter of rain on the tarched roof and huddling her scared little sister if thunder rose. A huge, hollow building it had been but now, in the sunlight and many years later, it was just an ordinary barn, no longer the magical world it had been to her and her sister. Alternatively, it had been a mighty castle and they royal maidens to be married to dashingly handsome princes and then, a snowy cabin where they had mock snow fights with clumps of hay. Warm memories of her sister surfaced, the round smiling face and appearance so different from her own flashing in front of her eyes as she approached the weather-worn structure.

The ancient door creaked softly, the grayed wood warm beneath her fingers. Inside, a cool air soothed sweating temples and caressed her lungs. Her nostrils flared at the comforting smell of dry hay, cobwebs and tarch from the roof, gone sticky and soft in the relentless glare of the sun and dripping inside from small cracks in the old structure.

"Hello, Gabrielle," a familiar voice said.

"Hi, Lila," the bard replied. She trodded to the hay shelf her sister was sitting on and with one easy swing, flung herself sitting next to her sister. "Are you ok?" she asked, worried of her big sister's health.

"Hmmm? … Oh. Yeah, the injury's healing nicely. Still a bit weak." And silence fell.

Lila watched out of the corner of her eye the distant look in Gabrielle's eyes, took note of the small sighs. She bit the arrowhead, took a deep breath and turned to the strawberry blonde woman. "What's eating you, sis?" "It's father… and…" And then she could continue no more since the tears she had held back came flooding out and she buried her face into the young woman's thin shoulder, wishing it were the more familiar firm one that had often comforted her, whenever she had nightmares. The smooth-skinned, muscular shoulder and the long, warm arms that wrapped themselves around her whenever life's injustices became too much.

Like now.

The lunch had been fairly uneventful if you didn't count the barely veiled looks of apprehension they had gotten from the other lunchers, looks that had skittered away when she had swept her icy gaze across the small space. She was used to it, being regarded with hate mixed with fear. She wasn't self-conscious about it and neither was Oberon, she had noted. Probably because she looks even stranger than me, she thought with a humourless laugh.

So, oblivious to the attention they had eaten, discussing about horses and debated briefly on battle tactics, talk escalating to an almost all-out fight, neither willing to budge lest their warrior honour be tarnished by loss of face.

Instead of a fist fight they had settled the matter with an arm-wrestling competition that had gathered a small crowd around the table, including a very relieved innkeeper, his furniture spared of a fight between the two hot-blooded warriors. Xena had won, of course, but just barely. Oberon had given a hearty laugh after her palm had been swatted by Xena to the ale-soaked planks and shook her wrist in appreciation of the other's strength.

So different she is, Xena mused. Such a different way to look at things. She kicked a small pebble off the road absentmindedly and squaring her shoulders, prepared for the imminent confrontation she was heading towards.

She was pacing towards Gabrielle's… home.

I'm not even sure why I'm going there. After all, it's her real home. She blinked a few times and took a ragged breath. She'd be better off here, safe… Herodotus is right. I'm constantly putting her in danger. She deserves better company than a moody, half-witted ex-warlord with too many skeletons in the closet.

And yet…

I can't bear to leave her without saying goodbye. Without looking into those vast seas of green but… I'm not sure I can tear myself away from them. She almost stopped and turned back, but one thought kept her going. She deserves a decent goodbye.

For everything she is to me.

And suddenly, the proud, fierce warrior felt… lonely.

She rounded the last bend and the small house that was Gabrielle's home came into view. The intestine-twisting feeling in her guts would not subside but nevertheless, she summoned her best mean warlord act to the surface, eyes glinting dangerously. She paced the last few yards to the gate in her familiar feline gait and headed towards the small porch. A figure came out before she could reach the two steps that led to the raised platform and so she stopped. The figure was Herodotus.

The burly man came down the steps and stopped. A few armlengths apart, the two very different humans sized each other. Again. Suddenly, before he could react, Xena took the few remaining steps in her trademark fluid pace and stood before the glowering man. Raised an indignant eyebrow at him, daring him to try to stop her.

"Go away."

Instinctively, Xena's fingers brushed the cool surface of her chakram and it comforted her, letting her just smile a feral grin at the man's blurted command. "Make me," she drawled, daunting him with a sneer.

"She doesn't want you here." Herodotus' words stopped her train of thought.

"How would you know that?" she asked, a cold feeling edging itself out in the back of her mind.

"She told me so."

The few words had an impact of unprecedented scale on her. She had fought countless battles, seen people close to her die without a flinch. Killed people close to her for talking too loud, without sparing another thought at their pointless lives. Survived injuries that would've been fatal if her will had been less strong. And now, her world was shattered by four words. She told me so.

Unable to utter a word, her face a stoic mask, she turned and walked away. She didn't know where she was heading and didn't care much. She just knew, hoped, that if she went far enough, this feeling of being… hollow… not whole… would go away.

As soon as she had cleared Herodotus' line of sight she broke into a desperate run, covering ground faster than a running steed. She did not why, she just knew she had to get far away from that house. Her heart pounded fiercely but not of exertion, matching the pounding in her head. She rounded another bend and preoccupied as she was, plowed right into Oberon.

The dazed warrior didn't first understand what she had hit, she just felt as if she had rushed headlong into a marble pillar and then, a pair of arms flew around her as they lost their balance and stumbled to the ground in a twisting maze of silk, leather and long limbs.

Oberon opened her mouth to quip at the tumbling warrior along the lines of 'oh Xena, we barely know each other…' but the words died in her mouth at the utter look of emptiness in Xena's ragged eyes. "What..." she started to ask but a moment of insight stopped her. "It's Gabrielle," more a statement than anything else. The haggard warrior openend and close her mouth a few times but then clamped it shut with an audible snap and turned her gaze to the ground not wishing the impeccably perceptive pale warrior see her emotional turmoil.

Oberon rose silently, picking up the distressingly slack and quiet Xena with her. "C'mon. Let's take a walk."

When she exited the barn it was well past midday. The expressive hazel-green eyes squinted at the glaring sun and turned to her sister and regarded her with a warm gaze. "Thanks, Lila." A warm smile graced the round features of the dark-haired woman. "Anytime, sis. So, what're you going to do?"

"Find Xena and get the Hades out of here."

The sudden look of hurt in her sister's eyes made Gabrielle continue hurriedly "No, no, nothing to do with you. This just doesn't feel like home… not anymore. Home is… out there," she said, pointing to the vague direction of the inn. Lila couldn't understand but with a sigh she realised there was no change of turning her stubborn sister's head on the matter, so she just grasped her forearm gently, surprised at the feeling of sleek musculature and gave it a slight squeeze. "I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too." A wan smile was returned and Gabrielle gave a small pat to the plump hand clasping her below left elbow. She needed some time alone. To think.

Lila had to go help prepare dinner, of which Gabrielle was glad so that she didn't have to chase the young woman away. A last look at the retreating woman and she started for the nearby woods.

There was a favourite place of hers, near the river. She had gone there often when she was little, to think, to make up stories and conjure up worlds of magic, a thing that came so easily to her but was never appreciated by her family. But alone, she could just close her eyes and picture herself elsewhere, before a cheering crowd, at the Academy… wherever and whatever she wanted to be when she grew up.

She slowly padded along the small path that meandered in the woods, missing her staff that was still at the healer's cot for all she knew. She sniffed the air, cooler here under the easy shade of the huge trees. It was very comforting and quiet here and she felt her still ever-present headache give in a little. Her back still hurt but not excessively so.

She stopped to look at a squirrel that stood in her path, clutching a pinecone in the small, sharp-clawed paws, whiskers twitching. Large for its small head, unblinking brown eyes gazed into hers, slightly nervous. The tiny paws shifted minutely as the small animal took in the furless towering giant that loomed above it. It felt no danger but better to be safe than sure, it sprinted towards a nearby oak and skittered up the rough bark faster than Gabrielle's eye could follow.

A small smile edged its way to Gabrielle's lips. A sad smile but a smile nevertheless. "Thank the gods your life isn't as messed up as mine," she whispered at the retreating furry form. A few more yards and she was there.

It was another old oak, this one overlooking a small clearing near the riverbank. A huge tree it was, hundreds of years old, it had weathered years good and bad with stoic stubbornness, its shaft too big for even three people to ring with joined hands. It had changed little since she had seen it the last time, over two years ago and tactile contact on its warm, dark brown surface was very soothing.

She grabbed the first hidden handholds and pulled herself up to the first branch. It seemed somehow easier than before to make the few meters' climb to her very special place on the tree, until Gabrielle glanced a look at her mildly bulging biceps. I guess travelling with Xena: Warrior Marathoner has had a positive effect on my stamina…

She climbed the few remaining yards and flung her legs over a particularly thick branch, so huge the surface she sat on was almost flat. Leaning with her aching back carefully against the trunk, she took a long breath, letting her brow that was wrinkled at the unexpected test of strength smoothen out, the slight breeze drying the sweat and ruffling the leaves around her ever so slightly. Xena. Yeah.

The true nature of the warrior still eluded her. She was probably the most complex person Gabrielle had ever known and probably would ever know. Violent, yes, but not to her. Ever. Kind and funny, yes to that too. Having travelled with her mysterious friend for over two years now, she still could make only vague guesses at the depth of character the warrior had, her two-faceted, extremely polarized nature. Never in-between, never halfway.

The atrocities she was capable of… and had done. And the wry, wonderful sense of humour.

The ringing laughter of pure joy she let out at the heat of a battle, her truest element. And the occasional different, deep laughter the bard's stories got out of her sombre companion on a rare moment.

The utterly bored look she had plastered on her beautiful features when she dispersed of some annoying drunk that had tempted his fate too far in some nameless inn they were staying for the night. And her kind, silent doting over the bard whenever she was sick or tired, the quick wink and smile to make her feel better. And the wolf that came out when someone dared to approach the bard with unkind intentions, the female incarnation of Ares let loose on her oppressor.

A conundrum of the most complex kind, that woman. And the bard loved every inch of the dark enigma that was the warrior.

Lost in thought, she snapped a leaf from a nearby branch and twirled it in her fingers. The twirling stopped when she heard a faint noise from across the clearing, coming from the path that led to the small clearing from the village's direction. Two people, on foot… and she relaxed a bit, until the two wanderers cleared the last tree that obstructed her perfect view to the opening and she saw the familiar dark form of Xena, Oberon matching her pace on her side, muttering to the warrior in such a low tone that Gabrielle couldn't distinguish words.

The two tall warriors sauntered across the clearing quietly. Even Oberon ceased her talking and both looked immersed in deep thought. Oberon's light silken robe fluttered in the fitful wind, as did Xena's hair. They stopped near the riverbank on a soft patch of grass and sat down, Xena flicking small pebbles to the quietly gurgling stream while another long arm was wrapped around her legs and her chin rested on a knee. Oberon laid almost down, propping her upper body on her elbows.

Plok. Plik. Plonk.

The small pebbles flew to the river in a steady pace, thrown by a very steady hand. And my hand is probably the steadiest part of me right now, Xena thought idly. I feel like I've been through Tartarus and high water and all that because of… four words. A sigh escaped her lips.

Gabrielle. She savoured the syllables. I'm going to miss her. Gods. Her heart wrenched as she thought of her wandering life without the bard. No. I won't survive very long without her. Too much darkness in me. A good reason for her to stay here as any. She needs a steady life, some happiness.

She's always wanted kids… Should be no problem for her to find a… husband. She stifled a groan. Aphrodite and all the gods, a husband. The mental image of seeing Gabrielle on some man's arms made her see red. She threw another pebble so hard it missed the river altogether and landed on the opposite shore, hitting another rock with such a force a shower of sparks flew.

She gave another sigh and stretched herself to the ground, one arm behind her head, the palm of the other one with the bad shoulder resting on her leather-clad stomach. I feel like an earthworm. She was peripherally aware of Oberon turning to her side, the all-seeing indigo eyes boring into her temple. Xena snapped out of her trance. "Uhhh… what?"

"I said, dinar for your thoughts," the pale woman next to her repeated.

"Uhm… nothing. Just… wondering." Oberon knew she was lying but she let it drop.

"Shoulder any better?" she asked instead, reaching a tentative finger at the still obvious wound. Xena peeked at the spot in question, looking briefly at the angry red gash that had healed rather nicely and was now virtually painless.

"Yeah. Good as new." Transfixed, she followed the long, pale finger that was brushing her skin in small, feather-light circles, goosebumps rising in its wake. Oberon slowly, absentmindedly, traced the taut lines of shoulder muscles straining against the smooth, bronze skin.

Suddenly, Xena was very aware of the presence, the closeness of this… glorious woman. The touch that sent sparks through her body, the faint smell of musk and exotic spices emanating from the being next to her, so close… the scent that was a warrior only inches away, a kindred spirit, and something completely else. A primal presence, one that demanded attention. And she felt her body responding to it.

Oberon's finger froze when she felt the blue eyes hot on her skin. Uh oh. Forgot she didn't like being touched. Their eyes met and both were shocked at what they saw. Shocked… and aroused.

It was desire.

Without a word being passed, they locked their gazes. The intense look in the two whirlpools of ice didn't change and Oberon felt drawn to those fierce eyes, the most amazing shade of blue she had ever seen, now dark with lust, sending a silent invitation. An invitation that promised the world and more, an invitation that was irresistible to the alabaster-skinned warrior, an invitation that was mirrored in the deep indigo eyes.

Painfully slowly, she lowered herself to the warrior below her. Their lips were barely a finger's width apart when Oberon breathed a small warm gust of air that travelled across Xena's dry lips, eliciting a small shiver in the warrior. Xena licked her lips with the tip of her tongue and fastened her eyes back on the ones of velvet blue, so close to hers she swore she'd be able to see her soul in them. And then the soft lips of the purest shade of colour purple were on hers, their exquisite softness caressing her sensitive ones.

Oberon set whole of her upper body on top of Xena's breastplate, never losing their mouths' contact. She parted her lips ever so slightly and licked the warrior's lips, entwining one hand in the jet black hair that felt like long strands of silk to her delicate fingers. Never had she tasted nor felt anything, anyone so… perfect. A purring sound, like a large cat, rumbled deep within her throat.

She gently smoothed the black hair with her long digits, savouring the taste of the warrior's lips and tongue that touched hers tentatively. A shuddering sensation passed through the length of her body when one long powerful arm wrapped itself around her waist, the other one brushing hesitant fingertips across her flushed cheek.

She wanted to make it last, last a forever, but it was so hard. The feeling of Xena's body, so strong and yet so soft and smooth, the exquisite tenderness of her lips and the heat of passion radiating from the dark warrior beneath her, it made Oberon's head swim and her loins ache. The remains of her self control were blown away as the warrior below her moaned softly and she gave herself to the moment, to the primal need in her.

Gabrielle was… stunned. Perplexed. Angry. Hurt. Confused.

She'd watched the two women lounge near the riverbank, both minding their own business, apparently lost in thought… and then Oberon had touched Xena's shoulder. For a long time they had been that way, Xena on her back and the silk-clad warrior at her side, resting on a propped elbow. And then everything had changed. Gabrielle's world had come crashing down. The two warriors, they had kissed.

The bard closed her eyes. Her mind twirled and screamed like two hurricanes battling. She opened her eyes again, just in time to see Oberon's deft fingers tug at Xena's armour buckles, wrestling them free and sliding the breastplate over her head, pausing their contact only momentarily. And then she was on the raven-haired warrior again, tugging at the leather straps that held her leathers together. And Xena was…

Undressing the other woman.

A groan of anguish built in Gabrielle's throat and she barely managed to stop it. She couldn't go down the tree even though every cell in her being screamed her to do that. They would hear her and she wasn't sure what she would say… do… if Xena would catch her here, now. So she remained where she was, transfixed.

She watched with horror as Oberon finally got the leathers out of her way, no small feat considering she had her eyes closed and her mouth glued to Xena's. The dark warrior had managed to remove any extraneous clothing Oberon had and they were practically naked, long arms entwined. They rolled in the soft grass, ending with Xena on top of the alabaster-skinned warrior.

The bard saw Xena rake her fingers along Oberon's sides, making the warrior's hips buck ever so slightly. They rolled again and this time, Oberon let her lips leave Xena's and started to trace a path down her neck, along collarbone, across chest and ending on one perfect, round-

Gabrielle couldn't bear to watch any longer so she closed her eyes and slowly leaned her head against the warm bark of the oak. The visions of what was transpiring on the small patch of grass so near to her still plagued her, vivid scenes played on the insides of her eyelids. The moans of pleasure coming from the clearing certainly didn't help, so she just hummed quietly to herself, unconsciously grabbing the sturdy branch she was sitting on so forcefully her knuckles were white and small dents appeared to the soft bark where her fingers pressed with power beyond what she thought she was capable of.

A moment was an eternity, a candlemark felt like a whole lunar cycle. A growl of passion, in a painfully familiar deep voice, drifted to her ears. The guttural growl slowly transformed into a raw, hot scream that tore at Gabrielle's insides. It was Xena.

After an eternity and a half, she snapped out of her trance, to find the two warriors entwined in each other, Xena's bronze skin contrasting vividly the paler one and the enormous black tattoo on it, gleaming in the hazy light of the early evening. Sleep had claimed the lovers, the warm blanket of sun resting on their finally peaceful bodies and smoothened foreheads.

With inhuman quietness, she descended from the tree and started on another path, seeing none of the beauty of nature surrounding her, feeling only the dark blob of lead that had invaded her heart.

The warm, fuzzy feeling that permeated her mind thinned a tad and she became aware of herself again. Without opening her eyes, she extended her other senses to encompass the immediate surroundings. The sun, warm but already setting, the heat of the day still clinging to the air. The grass, soft and slightly moist under her, small sharp points pinching her skin when the wind ruffled the strands. Water nearby, birds and a cricket a few yards away. And a pair of hard, strong arms around her.

She opened her eyes, slowly, and peeked at the aforementioned arms. One was barely in sight, everything below shoulder disappearing under her back, the other resting on her chest, the delicate tendrils of jet black ink turning the muscled arm into a many-faceted intricate puzzle. I can't believe I fell asleep. In the middle of afternoon. On a clearing in the woods, open to any predators. After…

She gave a small sad smile to the paling sky and shook her head minutely. For a quiet moment, she traced a thin tendril of the tattoo with her forefinger, a tendril that curved around perfect knuckles, crossed the veined back of the hand, disappearing for a moment under the heel of the palm and continuing along the thick forearm, accentuating the perfect muscles underneath the opaque skin. She followed the black lines to four parallel fresh scratches, red and long. The sign of her passion, she had marked her partner at her moment of release.

Time to get up. The weight that had been momentarily been gone settled back in her guts. And get on with my life. Such as I have one. She gently shook the still-slumbering Oberon.

An indigo eye opened a blinked. The pale warrior rubbed her bleary eyes and offered a tentative smile to the sombre warrior. C'mon Xena, lighten up. We're adults. You needed to relax and you… we needed this. To her credit, Xena squared her shoulders and smiled back. They dressed in silence.

"C'mon. Let's head back. Night's falling soon."

Silently, the Warrior Princess followed, the heat of physical pleasure still glowing in her but not diminishing the darkness that was growing inside her.

The road was dusty, the day had dried up all dew and the moisture of last night's rain. The two boot-clad pairs of feet made small clouds of loose sand rise from the hard-packed surface. The twirp of mating birds was the only sound, save the thumping of the boots.

Oberon's cascading tunic flapped against her boots and occasionally brushed Xena's bare thigh. The smooth silk surface felt cool and slippery, like elusive water flowing along her tensed skin. Her senses were overly sensitized. She could hear the chatter of a squirrel chewing a pinecone on her right, the swish of leaves when the gentle wind rubbed them together. The creak of her leathers and the small clinking of armour plates and the quiet whining of an armour hinge somewhere near her shoulder blade. Gotta get that fixed, she thought absentmindedly.

The heavy smell of a sunblazen countryside threatened to overwhelm her senses. Flowers, the musty smell of fresh soil… and the faint, spicy scent that was Oberon. The whisper of the other warrior's clothing, the tingle of the small rings in her scabbard holder… all was so clear to Xena. All except her own inner self, her thoughts.

As they came to the outskirts of the village, she was trying to sort out her emotions and attempting to get used to the idea of living without Gabrielle when she spotted a vaguely familiar woman running towards them. Squinting, she peered ahead. The speck coalesced into Lila.

She came to them and slowed down, her chest heaving. "It's… Gabrielle… She's going… soon…"

"Calm down, Lila. Easy…" Oberon steadied the young woman. Xena waited, fidgeting, eyes fixed, for Lila's breathing to return to normal pace. "I saw Gab… at the village. She said… you've found your happiness," a pointed glance at Oberon whose eyes widened at the statement. "…and that you didn't … need her anymore…"

"What?!" Xena couldn't understand what the disturbed young maid was babbling to her. "Run that by me again!"

"Um, well, I spoke earlier with Gab and, well… she said, her home is… with you. Then she goes into the woods and a few candlemarks later she comes back, all flustered and down and says that you," she jabbed a finger at Xena's breastplate, sounding a small thud ", you don't want her anymore. Because of her," a nod towards the Oberon whose jaw hang slack.

It all came together for Xena. "Gods… she must've seen us… there… doing…" she couldn't finish the sentence, just looked at Oberon, bewildered. "And she thinks I don't… that I don't… oh Hades." Her shoulders slumped.

A hand on her shoulder. A firm grip. "Go." Oberon's eyes, serious this time, caught hers, an urgent look in them. "For the love of the Goddess, go." The stoic warrior gave just a small nod and started for the stables, just a few houses away. Sooner than two breaths, Argo burst out, Xena riding her bareback, like the fires of Hades were at their heels. They disappeared into the setting sun, growing crimson as it neared the horizon.

The ride was like a dream to her. Remembering nothing, feeling not the low-hanging branches that whipped her skin, opening small gashes that bubbled with her precious blood. The thunder that screamed inside her head beat even the deafening thrum of the powerful hoofbeats as the rider and her horse plowed onwards.

It didn't take her long to reel in the lead Gabrielle had gotten on her. She felt the lithe bard before she saw her and slowed Argo's pace. Now that she had reached her target, she was unsure of what to do. C'mon, Warrior Coward. Let's face the rap.

She got off Argo and guided her into the woods, to a small spring. "Stay here girl. Be back soon," and she set back for the road. Jogging along the road quietly, she was soon rewarded with the sight of Gabrielle's graceful back, advancing away from her.


The soft, low voice made the bard stop and square her shoulders. She turned around and Xena gasped at the puffy, red-rimmed eyes and the haggard look in them, the sparkling green gone dull. "Gabrielle…" she rasped and without thinking, she extended her hand towards the bard. The green eyes moved to look down, to the dusty road. And suddenly, the familiar body was near her and she couldn't stop the tears anymore.

Firm arms caught her as she sobbed uncontrollably, wrapped themselves around her and pulled her into the comforting feeling of warmth, the creak of leather and the cold metal of the armour against her burning cheek. It felt wonderful. The smell of cinnamon, rawhide and spicy herbs that was her big, strong warrior, it was… home.

Confused, she lifted her head and found the concerned blue eyes. "But… why are you… I mean, you and Ob-" She was cut off by a trembling, callused finger on her suddenly dry lips.

"Shhhhhh. No. You are… everything to me." The trembling finger danced from her lips to her cheek, brushing it gently. "You. Not her, not anyone else. Ever." Something in the blue eyes changed. A look came upon them, a look Gabrielle had never seen in them. A look she felt her eyes mirroring. And for once, the bard was speechless.

They stood there for a long time, standing on the musty road, just holding each other, the sun blessing them with all the colours of the rainbow. Colours they knew nothing of, for they knew only each other.

It was well past sunset when Oberon spotted the pair coming back into the village. She paused in her task, namely braiding Awase's flowing mane with cords of black scrap leather, and wrapped an arm around the mare's neck. The mare turned her head and nuzzled Oberon's chest who repaid by scratching the quietly puttering mare behind one sensitive ear.

Tensed at first, she was relieved when she saw the easy look on Xena's face and the unusually subdued but nevertheless cheerful stream of babble coming from the bard. Their hands, clasped together. The tender looks of affection they gave to each other. "Ah, they've started to discover Aphrodite's gift, I believe," she whispered to the attentive steed and grinned a welcome.

"You wanna stay here for the night or get going?" she asked, as if nothing had come to pass. Xena arched an eyebrow at the grinning Oberon - Does she ever stop that infernal smirking? - and made a questioning glance towards Gabrielle. "Let's go. I don't want to spend any more time here than necessary." Xena nodded as well.

"OK, but I need to change and you need to get something to eat." Gabrielle was about to protest when her stomach betrayed her. A sigh. "Fine." "Never could keep you away from food, my bard," Xena said in mock seriousness and got a reply in the form of a backhand slap into her middle. "Ouch… Lead the way." They went inside, Oberon retreated to upstairs while Xena scared the innkeeper out of some late dinner. They ate quietly, making small conversation, both preoccupied with the happenings of the day.

Something had happened. A door had opened. They had glimpsed one another in a new light, a hope that a deep feeling might be echoed in kind was born. In time, they would explore it but now they were just content with enjoying one anothers' company in this quiet inn of a sleeping town.

They had finished their sparse meal by the time Oberon came clinking downstairs. The warrior, once more in her strange but by no means unthreatening armour produced a coin pouch from inside her huge cloak and paid the cowering innkeeper, quite distraught at the wicked-looking curved dagger with which Oberon was cleaning dirt under her fingernails.

A flash of a feral smile, a swish of a cloak and the travellers were gone, to the relief of the 'keeper. Hoofbeats got farther and farther away until they were just a memory and the man was glad he could go back to sleep.

Oberon took a deep breath. Glorious. A wonderful day to be alive.

Indeed it was. The sun was slowly rising and it made the landscape shine in a cold pink glow. The air was cool and just moist enough, not yet the musty, heavy air of a scorching midday. The best part of the day. Ah, yessir…

They had ridden through the night, in the feeble illumination provided by the moon. Now, they were already a good distance from Poteidaia and nearing their parting point, a crossroads a mile or two ahead. They ate the distance quickly and soon they stood on a fork in the road. They countryside was sparse of trees so they could see the road stretching into the distance in both directions.

"Wake up, Gabrielle." Xena shook gently the hands of the bard who slept soundly, cheek resting against the warrior's scabbard.

"Whu… what…?" She rubbed her eyes. "Oh, Hera's tits, I fell asleep on you? While riding Argo?!" Disbelief in her mumbling voice, Gabrielle shook her head. She felt Xena stifle a chuckle. Boy, am I gonna hear about this, she mentally rolled her hazel-green eyes.

Xena guided Argo to stand next to Awase so she could face Oberon. She offered her forearm and it was grabbed in a firm grip. They locked their eyes Xena gave the other a ghost of a wink. "Be seeing you. Thanks… for everything. Artemis be with you." Oberon nodded and gave a real full-out smile, pointy canines and all. "Glad to be there… for everything."

They released their hands. Oberon looked the dark, proud warrior with keen eyes. "Farewell… may Amaterasu guide your way and see that no harm comes to either of you." She brought her hands together in a prayer, palms flat against each other. "Victory at the speed of sunlight, warrior…" and she bowed her head to Xena and said a prayer in her own, strangely flowing tongue.

Grabbing Awase's reins tightly, she smiled at the bard "Farewell to you too, warrior of soul. Take good care of her," she smirked, nodding at Xena. She barked a few syllables to her horse and she was off, heading towards the road to Athens. They followed the retreating form, upright in the saddle of the beautiful coal black mare and then started on their own path.

They had passed no more than half a mile when Xena suddenly tensed. "Arrow, " she hissed and Gabrielle felt the warrior's arm tense to catch the quarrel.

The move never came, instead the bard was startled by a loud twang of an arrow hitting its mark sound near her. The arrow had hit a tree, one of the few around here, one they were about to pass. The shaft was long, more than Gabrielle's armspan and it had black feathers. Xena turned Argo around and the two women strained their eyes to see the small figure clad in black that was Oberon. Her enormous bow was in her hand, and she faced the other riders. For a moment, the two chargers and their riders stood still and then the distant rider turned and raced away until she was just a small speck on the horizon.

Xena dismounted and went to fetch the arrow. It was embedded deeply into the center of the tree and she had to give it a full-powered yank before it budged. She walked back to her honey-coloured steed, twirling the shaft between her fingers. A piece of thin fawn-coloured parchment - What did she call it… paper? – was rolled around it and tied snugly with a long piece of thin silk embroidery, glowing black and pale blue in the bright light.

She leaned her side to the saddle and slowly untied the delicate bond. She handed the slip of silk to Gabrielle and unrolled the thin material. A shapely black eyebrow arched. The other joined it a beat later.

"C'mon, c'mon. Let me see it," Gabrielle huffed and snatched the thin film from the warrior's grasp. Turning it to the light, she was greeted with a sight of… gibberish.

"What is this? I have never seen anything like it." It was handwriting but resembled none of the languages the bard knew. The paper was filled with three columns of delicate letters, painted in a sure hand with a large brush and black ink. The letters were abstract shapes, made of bold lines and perfect curves and though she didn't understand any of it, she was sure it was something… beautiful.

"Must be in that odd tongue she speaks." She rolled the scroll and mused "Y'know, I don't think this was the last we saw of her." She felt Xena's warm hand on her thigh and she gave a flashy smile to the warrior.

The warrior's shapely mouth curved in a small grin. "Now, how do you know that?" The grin was answered by a full one as the bard replied in an impish voice, "Oh it's just… one of my many skills."

The hearty laughter of the two women echoed down the sun-streaked road.

-The end-

Continue on to the sequel Divine Boredom

That's that. I like feedback as much as the next dyke, so please tell me your opinions. Just remember, it's my first try at this and I ain't a native English speaker, grammatical errors are inevitable.

One more note: Oberon was not originally named after the King of Faeries but instead, the programming language Oberon. I invented the character a long time ago, years before I read A Midsummer-Night's Dream. 'K? Just liked the name so much. Retrospectively quite funny actually, her being a queer and also the king of faeries.
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