When The Bough Breaks
By Pink Rabbit Productions

Part Two

*****

Despite the evening's adventure, Gabrielle quickly fell into a peaceful sleep. With her back propped against the wall, Xena carefully petted her sleeping lover's hair as she watched the door. Gabrielle stirred now and then, but she kept her head pillowed on Xena's hip, her breath warming soft-worn leather as well as the flesh beneath. After and hour or so, Xena carefully disengaged herself from the sleeping bard, to ease out of bed. The fire she'd started earlier had burned down to little more than bright glowing coals, and she crouched in front of them, feeling the heat on her face. She sank down on the ancient, threadbare rug in front of the fireplace, folding her legs under her. Using a piece of kindling, she stirred the coals, bringing forth a few flames. As Xena watched the dancing glow, she found herself wishing Gabrielle didn't sleep quite so deeply. The bard's chattering voice would have been a welcome comfort.

She glanced back at the door, noting that Gabrielle's staff was still slipped safely through the bolt latches, in place of the missing metal bar. She didn't want anyone coming through that door without her approval.

She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there when a pair of warm hands descended on her shoulders. Xena tensed, then relaxed as Gabrielle sank to the floor behind her. Unlike Xena, she'd stripped her clothes off when she went to bed, and she was wearing nothing more than a blanket. "You all right?" she asked gently, as she rested her chin on her lover's shoulder, while wrapping her arms around her waist.

Xena shrugged, but didn't trust herself to speak.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

The warrior swallowed hard and shook her head.

Gabrielle sighed softly, reaching around her lover to turn her head until their eyes met. She carefully brushed silky hair back from her temples, studying the perfection of the warrior's face. "I love you...nothing can change that."

A watery smile touched Xena's mouth, and she couldn't stay silent in the wake of Gabrielle's patient waiting. "Rhiannon thinks her brother is the killer..." she spoke at last. "What if my actions helped create him? What if, somehow, he's doing this because of me?"

"No," Gabrielle snapped sharply. She slipped her fingers into Xena's hair. "Our lives are what we make of them."

"But, if I hadn't--"

"No," Gabrielle cut her off again. "By that logic, it's all Cortese's fault, because he attacked your village...or maybe, it's the fault of whoever created him...and so on, and so on...sooner, or later, the blame has to stop, and you have to take responsibility for who you are. You did that... Whatever his demons, Dayne, either has to grow up and do the same, or pay the price."

Xena swallowed hard, not arguing, but not quite giving way to Gabrielle's logic either.

Gabrielle sighed softly. "Not everything bad in the world is your doing, you know?"

"Sometimes it feels like it," Xena husked, her rich voice ragged with the effort to force the admission out.

"By the gods," Gabrielle sighed disgustedly. "Do you think that the rest of us are all such sheep, that we're just waiting to make a move in our lives according to what Xena, The Warrior Princess does?"

Xena raised a brow as she looked back at her lover. The question broke through the wall of self-pity that night and shadows had allowed her to build around her heart. "No," she said a little uncertainly. "I guess that would be a little...self-centered."

"Extremely self-centered," Gabrielle corrected dryly, grateful that Xena had seen her point.

Xena wrapped her fingers around the hands resting on her hips and lifted them to press light kisses to the back of Gabrielle's knuckles. "How did you get so wise?" she whispered.

The bard shrugged. "I met this warrior one day," she began and leaned in to nibble lightly on Xena's earlobe. "And she let me travel with her..."

"It's not like I had much choice in the matter," Xena chuckled.

"Hush," the bard chastened. "And besides, who said, I was talking about you?"

"You'd better be," Xena murmured mock-angrily.

"Well, all right, I admit, I was talking about you," Gabrielle intentionally babbled to distract her friend and lover. She dropped a light kiss over a sensitive chord in Xena's throat before continuing. "So, I traveled with this woman warrior. Now, she didn't think she needed my help, but I knew she did, so--"

"Gabrielle," Xena interrupted in a low voice. "Do you think you could do the short version of this story?"

"Huh?"

The warrior princess craned her head around to peer at her lover, and tightened her hold on her hands. "Because I distinctly remember you mentioning something about never having made love in a bed...it occurs to me, we really should rectify that situation."

"I thought you wanted to stay awake and guard the door."

Xena thought about it. "I think your staff will keep the demons out."

"Ah...okay...well, the woman warrior and I traveled together, had lots of adventures, and lived happily ever after. Short enough?"

The tall warrior turned in her lover's hands, a sensual smile curving her lips. "Almost," she exhaled, then claimed a pair of soft, full lips. "I don't know what I'd do without you," Xena exhaled, tasting Gabrielle's sweet breath as she bent her back over her arm. The bard shivered as she felt the faintly bristly texture of the worn rug against her back. She reached for the laces that kept Xena's leathers in place as she felt the warriors strong hands part the front of the blanket. The kiss broke as Xena suddenly moved downward to taste her breasts.

"As nice as this is," Gabrielle murmured dreamily, enjoying the spun-silk feel of Xena's hair as it slid through her fingers. "I thought we were going to try the bed."

Xena's chin came up, her pale, passion-dazed eyes focusing with effort. "The bed?" Her crystalline gaze swung over to the blocky silhouette. "That's right...the bed." She looked back down for a long moment, as if deciding whether or not she could wait until they crossed the room. Finally, she rose easily, then reached back and pulled her lover to her feet. She dropped another kiss on her lips. "I almost forgot."

"That's why you need me along," the bard pointed out helpfully. "To remind you of these things."

Xena gave her the smallest of shoves, and she fell back onto the bed with a chuckle. "That's only one of the reasons I need you," the warrior princess pointed out. She peeled off her leather shift in one graceful motion and tossed it aside.

"Oh, really...care to specify the others?"

"Well," Xena sighed as she climbed onto the bed, one knee on the mattress between Gabrielle's thighs, her hands braced on either side of her shoulders. "It's kind of nice to have someone handy to do the cooking and feed Argo when I don't feel like it."

"Is that all?"

"Well, the money you make telling stories is kind of nice."

"Xena," Gabrielle complained, and suddenly arched up, tumbling her friend onto her back. She straddled Xena's hips and braced her hands on her shoulders. "You're sure you don't need me for any other reasons?" she questioned, and leaned forward, kissing the point of her chin.

Xena lifted a hand to the back of Gabrielle's head, but her tone was innocent as she answered. "I can't think of anything."

"Not even this?" The question was softly whispered against the warm skin of Xena's breast. "Or this?" Gabrielle wrapped her tongue around a sharp nipple, then dropped lower. "Perhaps this....or this?" she slipped between her lover's thighs, laying the soft of kisses on damp, dark hair.

Xena shuddered violently. "Maybe that," she gasped a second later. "That's a good one too," she choked after a brief pause. Smooth hands slid up her sides, teasing and stroking, leaving nothing but pleasure in their wake. As good as it felt, Xena wanted to taste Gabrielle's mouth against hers, feel the length of her body pressed close. Finally, she caught slender shoulders in her hands, drawing the smaller woman up the length of her body. Their mouths met with almost ferocious hunger as arms and legs intertwined. Kissing, stroking, writhing together, in the search for satisfaction, they lost themselves in the moment. The sensual energy built with every caress, and touch, until, finally, they clung together, bodies so close they would have had to move into each other's skins to be any more intimate.

Gabrielle felt the moment Xena went over. The sheer eroticism of the instant sent her own orgasm burning along already overheated nerve endings. Her back arched, and every synapse in her brain suddenly fired. When she opened her eyes again, it was to find Xena cradling her very gently, and kissing her temple.

"Y'know," Gabrielle sighed. "I was going to make it like you did for me, by the lake...just for you..."

Xena kissed her again. "Believe me, it was," she murmured. She rolled onto her back, tugging Gabrielle against her side. She threaded a hand into her lover's hair, letting the strands slide between her fingers. "Get some sleep, now. There's time to worry about everything in the morning." Despite her softly uttered assurances, Xena didn't sleep well. She kept her arms around Gabrielle, waking at slightest noise. More than once, her eyes slid around the room, checking to see that her sword was still close at hand, the bolt still fastened by Gabrielle's staff. She'd be grateful when morning came, and they were free of this place. Xena rarely slept deeply. She'd learned early to keep one ear tuned to the world around her just to survive. Tonight was no exception.

She was midway into a dream about the first time she'd made love to Gabrielle, reliving again the moment when she'd sat across a fire from the tiny bard and admitted the truth of her feeling. Still suffering slightly from her brush with death, Xena had been sitting quietly by the fire in the hut loaned them by the Amazons. She'd looked up, eyes locking, the memory of the kiss shared between in their eyes. She'd stared in awe as Gabrielle rose slowly, before choosing to come around to Xena's side of the fire. Mouths tangling slowly, at first, they deepened the kiss as they began to explore with their hands.

Something scuffed near the open window that looked out onto the courtyard below.

Xena was awake in an instant, her sword in hand almost faster than she could think to grab it.

Something flickered in the open window, and she was out of bed in a heartbeat, her weapon ready to strike. She heard Gabrielle's soft groan in the background, followed by the sounds of blankets shifting. "Stay where you are," Xena hissed, putting herself between her waking lover and the window. Gabrielle was reasonably capable of defending herself when she was awake and doing well, but she was no good to anyone for at least a half-hour after she woke.

Another soft shuffle by the window.

"Whoever you are, I suggest you surrender now, before I get upset," Xena growled.

Nothing.

The warrior princess advanced carefully, crystalline blue eyes hunting the stone-laid outline of the window. There had probably once been a frame with some kind of hide covering that could be removed or put in place, depending on the weather, but now it was just an open hole in the wall. She leaned out, hunting the rough stone walls. A narrow ledge ran along the outer wall at the same level as the floor, and the rockwork was uneven enough to allow for solid hand holds. A stalker could hang there, and watch them with relative ease. She hunted for any sign of that nameless, faceless voyeur.

Still nothing.

She leaned a little farther, but still couldn't see any sign of movement. If there had been someone at the window, he was gone now.

She almost thought she'd imagined the sounds, until her hand brushed something wet and sticky. Several drops of something dark spattered across the sill. She touched a hesitant finger to a wet droplet, then lifted to her nose, first sniffing, then just touching her tongue.

Blood.

"What happened?" Gabrielle questioned as she came up behind her friend.

"Someone was up here...looking in...." Xena answered grimly. She glanced back at Gabrielle, noting the blanket wrapped around her slender frame with a raised eyebrow. "And I though I told you to stay back."

"Actually, you said 'Stay where you are.' I decided sprawled in the middle of bed, was probably a bad place to be if something happened."

Xena tapped Gabrielle's hand where she clutched the blanket in place. "And you think this would help?" she noted dryly.

The bard looked down, then shrugged. "Well, I..."

Xena cupped her lover's chin in a long boned hand. "Just remember...modesty's out the door, when it's a matter of survival."

"Right," Gabrielle sighed, then nodded toward the window. "Sooo...any idea who?"

She rubbed the blood on her finger off onto the stone wall. "Not really," she admitted. "But whoever he was, he was bleeding."

Gabrielle leaned out the window, noting the rough rock wall, someone would have to climb, to get to their window. "He could have torn it on the rocks."

"Maybe," Xena admitted, but she didn't sound like she believed it.

"So, what do we do now?"

Xena considered the question for a long moment. She'd intended to spend the night in the room, then leave early in the morning, but with someone attempting to come in the window, that plan was out. "Let's have a look around," she decided at last.

"You mean the castle...now?" Gabrielle questioned.

One dark eyebrow lifted. "You weren't planning on going back to sleep, were you?"

Gabrielle thought about it...shivering faintly at the thought of some unknown person watching them while they slept. "No...guess not," she admitted.

"Go, get dressed," Xena suggested, and gave her a little push toward the opposite end of the room. She stood perfectly still for a long moment, staring out at the courtyard and outbuildings below. Instinct told her something dark and vicious was close at hand, but she couldn't spot it. She tightened her grip on the sword in her hand, almost willing the nameless threat to appear before her. She was still staring out at the night world below her window when a light hand landed on her bare shoulder.

"Um...I realize I should remember to my life before modesty," Gabrielle said dryly. "But don't you think that's pushing it?"

Xena blinked, eyes dropping as she remembered her own nudity. "Point taken," she allowed, then moved away to dress. Moments later, she glanced over and saw Gabrielle start toward the open window. "Stay back," she ordered sharply, uncertain why she even said it.

The girl drew back from the open portal, her expression questioning.

The brief pause probably saved her life.

A flaming arrow sailed through the window, before arcing into the floor.

Xena yanked Gabrielle back from the flames, which quickly died away on the barren rock floor.

"That was--" Gabrielle started to speak, but Xena pressed a hand flat against her mouth, and snuck carefully up to the window, staring out across the night. Within moments, she saw a half dozen flaming missiles streak toward various site around the castle.

They all came from the same point on the far wall.

She quickly finished fastening her armor and grabbed Gabrielle's hand. "Come on! I know where he is!"

By the time they stepped out of the castle, people were beginning to wake and realize something was wrong. Xena pointed toward the point on the wall, where the archer had been poised as she saw a shadowed figure drop all the way to the ground. Zeroed in on her target, she barely noticed the world around her, or the sudden screams in the background. She'd taken a single step forward, when Gabrielle grabbed her arm.

"THE STABLES!" the bard screamed, pointing toward the quickly flaring thatched roof.

That was when Xena registered the frightened sounds echoing across the night. "Argo," she hissed and broke into a run, well aware of Gabrielle only a pace or two behind. The door to the stables had been barred, but she caved it in with one good kick. Overhead, the flames were spreading across the thatch roof as though it was a well-primed torch.

Argo was kicking madly at the walls of her stall in an attempt to escape.

Xena drew her sword and swung it in one smooth motion, taking out the barricade in one swipe. Freed, Argo leapt over what remained of the stall door and fled, nearly taking Gabrielle down in the process.

"GET OUT OF HERE!" Xena shouted at her companion, as she set about freeing as many of the horses as possible.

The bard shook her head, already throwing the bar up on the nearest stall. She danced out of the way, just in time to avoid being flattened by the panicked animal.

Xena didn't waste time trying to reason with her, just started freeing the horses. She pulled up short as she reached the last stall. Judging by the state of the hay spread across the floor, a horse had been kept there until recently. It was gone now. Instead, two soldiers lay sprawled amid the straw, their bodies twisted, and gutted like animals. Dead...no question about that.

Sparks and bits of burning thatch rained down on her head.

Her eyes flicked upward, noting how far the flames had advanced in the short moments it had taken to free the horses. No time to retrieve the bodies unless she was planning on joining them on Charon's boat.

Xena pivoted on one foot, eyes touching on Gabrielle as she freed the last of the terrified horses. A half-dressed soldier stepped through the main door.

"YOU'VE GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE!" he shouted in warning.

Grabbing her saddle with one hand, Xena shoved Gabrielle ahead of her with the one word order. "GO!"

As they stumbled back into the cool night air, both women gasped for air, dragging the cooling breeze into parched lungs. Only seconds later, one end of the roof began to crumple inward. Within moments, the entire building was ablaze. Xena pushed Gabrielle well away from the burning nightmare as soldiers, and villagers alike, began forming bucket brigades, drawing water from the keep's main well. The stables were a total loss, but they'd have to act quickly to keep the fire from spreading any further. The warrior's eyes slid around the walls of the castle, picking out at least another half dozen small blazes. As she watched men ran with wet rags and buckets, beating down what they could, and containing what they couldn't. She stood there long enough to see Purgamon and Rhiannon both half dressed, come running out of the castle. They must have realized what was happening and made any plans on the way downstairs, because they instantly separated, Purgamon going to his men, while Rhiannon jogged toward the still burning stable. Xena couldn't help but note that, while, she wasn't wearing the strip of fabric that usually hid her scars from view, a sword was strapped across her back. She'd learned her lessons about the uselessness of modesty in the face of disaster long ago.

"THE HORSES?" The warlord demanded of one of the soldiers fighting the fire. He spoke and gestured toward Xena and Gabrielle before going back to the backbreaking work of stopping the blaze.

"It seems I owe you a debt of gratitude," the warlord spoke quickly as she drew near the pair.

Xena shrugged a well-muscled shoulder. "Scant repayment," was all she said.

Rhiannon noted that they were both the only ones fully dressed, and one eyebrow rose in wordless question. "Did you see anything?"

Xena nodded. "Someone was firing burning arrows from up there. He jumped down and rode out on a waiting horse when the fire started." she said, gesturing toward the point on the wall, where she'd glimpsed the faceless archer. "And there were two soldiers--dead--in the stables...they'd been gutted." She didn't go into detail. She didn't have to. Rhiannon had been through enough battles to know perfectly well what she meant. "They were the two men who took your brother off last night."

Even in the faint light cast by burning thatch, it was obvious that Rhiannon lost all color. "Are you sure?" she demanded, her voice suddenly ragged.

"I'm sure," Xena confirmed. "I got a good look at them. They were in the last stall."

"The last stall," Rhiannon repeated as though she'd been struck. For just a moment, she looked like she might collapse, then she abruptly straightened herself. "We could use every hand, right now," she panted. "If any of the fires spread..." she trailed off, her meaning evident. The keep itself was stone, but the shantytown that had sprung up, where the peasants were living, would burn like a living thing if the flames reached it.

Xena nodded carefully.

"Thanks," Rhiannon said quickly, then disappeared into the night, shouting orders to her men.

"It was her brother, wasn't it?" Gabrielle questioned.

Xena nodded. "She certainly thinks so."

Gabrielle took a step forward, but Xena grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, hauling her unceremoniously back. She stuffed a finger in the bard's face, her tone brooking no argument as she ordered, "You don't get out of my sight, understand?" With everything blowing up, she had no intention of allowing anything to happen to her companion.

Eyes wide, Gabrielle nodded quickly.

"I mean it," Xena added to drive the point home.

"I will," Gabrielle assured her.

"It's just that you don't always do what I tell you, and this time, it may be important."

"I promise," Gabrielle said sincerely.

"Okay, let's go." She murmured, careful to keep her friend ahead of her as they moved through the courtyard.

Bare chested, his skin streaked with sweat and smoke, Purgamon moved easily among his men. Finished extinguishing a smaller fire in the courtyard, a small group of men appeared and he waved them toward the still flaming stables. He was about to head that way himself when he saw a slender figure move among the throng of horses, crowded into one corner of the courtyard. Close to half the animals had escaped through the open main gates before they'd gotten them closed. The remainder hung together as far away from the flames as possible. "What the...." He broke into a run, darting between the restless animals. He lost sight of her until she swung up onto one of the animals. His white shirt billowed about her slender frame, making her easy to find, even in the faint predawn light.

"Rhiannon!" he shouted as he stepped forward to catch her horse's hackamore.

The warlord backed her mount several steps, thighs tightening on its flanks to keep her balance. With most of the tack lost in the blaze, she'd simply used the lead line as a single rein and mounted bareback.

"What are you doing?" he demanded angrily.

Her gaze swept across the flaring blazes. "It was Dayne," she told him in a flat voice. "He started the fires to distract us, and ran."

"Are you sure?" her first officer questioned. It was the explanation he would have come up with, but he was surprised to hear her say it.

"Xena found the two soldiers who took him away after we...fought--dead--in Ares' stall....and...last night...I didn't tell you, because I thought he was safely locked up...but I found his dagger near the dead girl."

"Why the tartarus didn't you--" he ground out.

"I tried to tell you...but I couldn't," she admitted. "I could barely admit it to myself."

"You're going after him." It was a statement, not a question.

"He has to be stopped...I'm trusting you to look after things here...as long as need be."

Swallowing hard, he just nodded. It was all he could trust himself to do. There were so many things between them, both said and unsaid, that no words could do his feelings justice.

Rhiannon seemed about to say something, but just shook her head, wheeling her horse around as she shouted to the gate guards.

Purgamon watched her until she disappeared out the main gates, then went back to the fighting the fires. Despite his feelings, he knew she trusted him to see to things, and he had no intention of failing that trust.

Outside the walls of the keep, it took Rhiannon only minutes to find the torn up earth left by Dayne's sorrel gelding. Even in the predawn light, she could see the spread of the deep hoofprints. Ares had been running hard. Knees tight on her own mount's flanks, she kick the animal into a lope, well aware of the brush of stiff hair against her bare feet and the chill of the wind as it permeated her light shirt and breaches. She was hardly dressed for the hunt, but the only thing that mattered was the heavy sword slung across her back. Because, despite everything she might have wished, she knew there was a strong probability she'd have to kill her brother that day.

*****

Xena dunked her head underwater, and came up sputtering as water mixed with sweat and grime sluiced down her skin, cooling overheated nerve endings. Gabrielle did likewise, then pushed her hair, dark with soot away from her face.

The sun was well above the edge of the horizon and the fires were all finally out. The stables had been a total loss, and an upper section of the castle had suffered some damage, but they'd managed to keep the flames from the soldier's quarters, and the tents and huts that formed the peasant areas.

Gabrielle cupped water in her hands, splashing it over her face and down her arms. She felt grimy and nasty, and the sooner she could get a bath, to wash it all away, the better. She looked up to find Xena watching her carefully.

"You okay?" the warrior princess questioned.

Gabrielle shrugged. "Filthy, exhausted, hot...about like you'd expect, all things considered." She dipped her hands back in the water, scrubbing them against each other.

Xena nodded. "I'd be worried if you were much better," she sighed heavily, then reached up to massage her neck and shoulders. Fighting the fire had been back breaking work, and the strain was showing, even for her. Her eyes slid across the courtyard, taking in the exhausted, worn, men and women. A hint of a smile touched her lips as she noted the hunched figure bossing a couple of young men around, while they moved the huge cookpots of stew out, and began feeding people. She reached out and touched Gabrielle's shoulder. "Come on," she said quickly and started toward the old woman.

Gabrielle had to work to keep up with her taller friend.

Magda looked up as the two drew near, her shrewd eyes taking in their sweat streaked figures. She glanced back at the two young men feeding the gathered people. "You," she ordered briskly. "There's another pot inside. Grab a couple of men and bring it on out."

"Good idea, getting everyone fed," Xena said simply.

Magda nodded. "After the night's work they've all put in, it seemed the best thing."

Xena flashed a meaningful glance toward the keep. "What about the girl they brought in last night? How's she doing?"

The old woman shrugged. "Still no sign of waking up, but she isn't feverish." She paused to shout more orders to men carrying the food out before turning back to Xena. "It could go either way."

The warrior princess was about to enter the keep to check for herself, when Purgamon's deep voice reached her.

"Xena."

She spun in response to the sound of her name, but didn't speak.

"I wanted to thank you for your help," he panted. Scrapes and burn marks criss-crossed his bare torso in mute testimony to the brutality of fighting the fire. "And also ask a favor..."

Sky blue eyes narrowed faintly, wondering what favor might be within her power to grant.

"It's Rhiannon...she went after Dayne."

"Alone?" Xena demanded. At his nod, she snorted something under her breath before getting another question out. "When?"

"Just after the fire started...I'd go after her, but someone needs to be in charge here...and I'm not...a good enough tracker..." the last admission came with difficulty. He wanted to go after his lover, but wasn't the right one for the job.

"And you want me to go after them?" Xena half questioned, half stated.

Purgamon could only nod. If it were in his power, he would have done so, but he knew the best chance for Rhiannon's survival lay with this woman.

"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" she demanded angrily. Hours had passed. She'd have a hard time catching the two of them, even on Argo.

"She left me with the task of getting the fire out first...to do anything else was to risk more lives."

"The greater good," Gabrielle said very softly.

Xena looked at her companion and nearly flinched at the wisdom in the quietly spoken words. She hated when Gabrielle diffused her anger by using her own words against her. "The greater good," she exhaled at last.

"And now the greater good means making sure that Dayne doesn't have the chance to kill again," the bard pointed out.

Xena nodded slowly. Her eyes met Purgamon's, and she drew herself up to her full height. The effect was impressive, even as tired as she was. "All right," she agreed. "I'll do what I can to bring them back, but I want a promise from you in return."

"Anything within my power," he swore.

She clapped a hand on Gabrielle's narrow shoulder. "You don't let Gabrielle out of your sight, for even a minute."

"Xena--" The bard started to argue, but Xena cut her off in her hardest, no-questions-asked voice.

" I mean it, Gabrielle." She looked up at Purgamon. "I won't leave without your word."

"You have it," he assured her. "I'll guard her life as though it were my own."

"No," Xena said grimly. "You guard it as though it were Rhiannon's."

Purgamon nodded in understanding. Xena was putting her life on the line for his lover, she expected no less of him.

"Xena?" Gabrielle whispered tightly, realizing that the warrior was about to go after a madman, and a woman who had every reason to want her dead.

"I'll be all right," Xena reassured her lover, and brushed a tender hand down her cheek. "He's a very sick boy...that's all."

A very sick boy who hates you, and apparently like carving women to bits--Gabrielle thought worriedly.

Xena must have realized what she was thinking, because she framed her face in both hands. "He doesn't know how to use a sword, and no one is going to sneak up on Argo or I."

Gabrielle didn't trust herself to speak for a moment, so she just threw her arms around Xena, enveloping her in a hard hug. She smelled of smoke, leather, and something uniquely her own, and Gabrielle never wanted to let go. Moments later, her mouth opened against Xena's as the warrior tipped her head up with one gentle hand. When the kiss broke, she felt the gentle brush of lips against her forhead, then Xena pulled free. Gabrielle stood stiffly, determined not to cry, as she watched her lover retrieve her saddle, then whistled for Argo.

The horse appeared from amid the throng, tossing her mane as though she was anxious to be moving. She probably was. Argo was used to freedom and open air, and after the excitement of the night before, she was doubtless impatient to be free of the keep. Xena threw her saddle onto the horse's back, quickly settling it in place, before tightening the cinch and chest straps. A moment later, she caught the reins and swung up, taking no more than a heartbeat to settle herself comfortably. Even exhausted, and smudged with dirt and grime, she was magnificent to behold. Argo pawed the ground, hooves clattering against stone tiles. Xena tightened her hand on the reins, bringing the restless animal under firm control. She turned a brilliant smile on Gabrielle, perfect white teeth gleaming against tan skin.

"Open the gates!" Purgamon's rich bellow broke across the courtyard.

The warrior princess tipped her head in acknowledgment, then wheeled Argo around, and kicked her into a lope.

Gabrielle shuddered gently as the gates were closed behind her disappearing lover.

"She'll be all right," Purgamon soothed in a kindly voice, as he curved heavy hands to her narrow shoulders.

"I know." She barely managed to force the words past the tightness in her throat. She knew Xena could take care of herself, but the fear was still very rich, and very real.

Purgamon ruffled her hair with a gentle hand. She was so much like his little sister, Livia, that he experienced a wave of longing for the past. "Come on..." he invited, and swung an arm across her shoulders, turning her toward the keep. "Let me get a shirt, and my sword, then we both need something to eat." The castle was still an incredible mess. "There's going to be a lot of work to do today." With luck, they could both lose themselves and forget their worry, by keeping their hands busy.

Gabrielle nodded, leaning against his support as he led her away.

*****

Rhiannon slid down off her horse, dropping lightly to the ground. She'd been following Dayne's track for several hours as it went steady higher into the mountains. He wasn't making much of an attempt to hide his route, and judging by the distance between hoofprints, he was still pushing Ares to his limit. He always drove horses too hard. He'd even run one to death a year before.

Her gaze swept up the granite climb ahead of her. After the way he'd been running, Ares would have a hard time with the treacherous climb. In the same situation, she would have gone around and used the easier trail, but Dayne was running scared, and his tracks definitely disappeared at the foot of the granite base. She briefly debated going around, then discarded it. She couldn't afford the risk that he might slip out of her grasp.

"Sorry, fella," she exhaled rubbing the animal's nose gently. Then she gripped his lead line, and began the climb. The animal had to struggle to keep its balance on the smooth rock. More than once, she had to backtrack to go around, when the route became too much for hooves never meant for such surfaces.

Well-toned muscles worked with rhythmic ease, her only concession to the sweat running down her face and torso, the neatly rolled sleeves that bared slender forearms. She was more than halfway up the climb, when she found Dayne's sorrel collapsed on the rocks. The horse's flanks were still damp and sticky with drying sweat, but the body was already starting to cool. Her brother was on foot now, but still a couple of hours ahead of her. With the thick forests ahead, she wouldn't be able to move much faster, by horse, than he could running.

*****

Gabrielle swirled her spoon in her stew, but only took an occasional bite. Food lacked any appeal so every mouthful sat like a stone in her stomach.

"I know it's hard," Purgamon murmured at last, his voice gentle. "But you need to eat."

She looked up through thick lashes, her smile weak. "I don't notice you being very hungry," she pointed out.

He sighed softly, and took a spoonful of the lukewarm broth. "I'll eat if you will," he grumbled.

Despite herself, Gabrielle laughed softly. She liked the tall soldier, and his company was a welcome relief from her own worries. "All right," she gave way quietly.

They both ate a few bites in comfortable silence before Purgamon broke in. "I'm curious...how did a girl like you, wind up travelling with Xena? Her sword once ruled most of these lands."

"She has changed, you know," Gabrielle bristled.

"I believe you. The warlord, she once was, wouldn't have stayed to help fight the fire. She'd have left us to the fates, or brought her men in and taken the keep."

Narrow shoulders relaxed slightly, and Gabrielle leaned forward, elbows braced on the wooden table. "She rescued my village-- Potedeia--from Draco. I never felt like I belonged there... so I ... followed her."

Her words caught the warrior by surprise, and he nearly choked on his food. "By the gods, she should have sent you home," he growled, disapproval evident in his voice and every line of his posture.

Full lips lifted in a puckish grin. "She tried...I wouldn't go."

Purgamon stared at her for a long moment, considering the comment. "I believe that," he murmured dryly.

Gabrielle chuckled softly. "She says I don't listen so well some days."

"So you followed her?" he prompted. "Then what?"

Gabrielle seemed uncertain how to continue. Her voice low with emotion, she told him something of their life together, touching on the major points without discussing any intimate details. Finally, the words slowed to a stop with the comment. "I think she finally understands that she needs me, as much as I need her."

Purgamon nodded slowly. "You're lucky. Not many people...find each other..."

She started to ask him about his relationship with Rhiannon, then decided against it. Most people won't start their life stories with the most private details. They have to work up to that kind of thing. "What about you? How did you get here?"

He shrugged and offered a two-word explanation that explained absolutely nothing. "Bad luck."

If he wasn't going to answer, Gabrielle would just figure it out on her own. "You speak like an educated man," she pointed out. "So, I'd wager you weren't born to this life. Let me guess, you're really a king in exile, just waiting until you can take back your kingdom from your evil uncle. Am I close?"

He shook his head, staring at her with a faintly bemused expression. "Not one word of it. I think you've spent too much time listening to the tales you tell."

"But you are educated?" Gabrielle pressed.

Purgamon's expression darkened and he nodded. "Yes." He held up a hand to forestall further questions.. "My father was a merchant, and he sent me to the academy at Athens. I wasn't a very good student, and when his business fell on hard times, the only thing I was fit to do was enter the army. I was in the war with Sparta...captured...and made a slave...by the time I returned home, my father was dead...and my sister too." Sadness permeated the hunch of his shoulders at the memories, and Gabrielle experienced a touch of guilt for dredging up the old pains. She was surprised when he continued. "Livia was dark, where you're fair, but you remind me of her. She never took orders either." A smile touched his mouth. "And she could tell stories...all the old favorites...but she made you feel like you'd never heard them before..." For just a moment, he was in the past, but he abruptly threw the feeling off.

"What happened?"

"Livia married a friend of the family, and died in childbirth," He responded, his voice flat in the face of the unwanted memories. "My father was killed by brigands on the road to Corinth."

Gabrielle laid a hand over his, sharing a bit of human contact. The words were inadequate, but she said them anyway. "I'm sorry." They were both silent for a long moment, before she felt the need to fill the gloom with words. "What about Rhiannon?" she asked, hoping to distract him. "How did you meet."

"Rhia?" A hint of a smile, and something Gabrielle suspected was often visible on her own face--whenever she looked at Xena--showed in his dark eyes. "One of the minor city-states north of here was hiring mercenaries. The king wanted us to flatten a village ... I was working for the king...she was working for the villagers..."

"You were on...opposite...sides...Well, it has the advantage of being a unique approach to a relationship."

"Very unique...with the help of a few ill fed villagers, she kicked our asses. She learned a few tactics from Xena"

Gabrielle giggled despite herself, then struggled to repair the obvious insult to his ego. "That is...I mean...it could have happened to anyone."

Purgamon held up a hand, halting her. "We were stupid and arrogant...full of drink...convinced we were gods..." he said disgustedly. "Several of us were taken captive, and she offered us a chance to swear fealty to her...or die."

"So you swore an oath to her?"

He took a long swallow from a mug of wine. "No. Actually, I chose to die...it didn't seem like much of a loss at the time."

"What happened?"

"She didn't do it...tossed me ten dinars, told me to sober up, get a bath, and stay out of her way...I sobered up, got the bath...then rode out and offered her my sword arm. It's a decision I've never regretted."

"You love her." It was a flat statement, not a question.

"As much as you love your warrior woman," he admitted practically.

She remembered the words spoken by Dayne in anger. "And the scars?" the question was gently asked, but curious about the answer.

He shook his head. "It's not a problem...what about you? Even in these times, one woman openly loving another isn't very acceptable to a lot of people."

"It's not a problem," she repeated his answer with a hint of a smile.

There was a long comfortable silence between them, then Purgamon suddenly laughed softly, the sound ironic. "If either one of had the intelligence of a donkey, we'd run off together, get a small farm, and live quiet, dull lives," he theorized aloud.

Gabrielle nodded, accepting the comment in the spirit it was intended. "But we won't," she responded simply.

"Too true," he sighed, and clapped a hand on her shoulder. "Come on...let's see what we can get done toward cleaning up this mess." It wasn't much, but it was all they could do.

*****

Xena stared up at the granite sheers that led up the mountainside. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Both idiots had taken their horses up that climb. The fact that Dayne, running scared, and none too bright to begin with, had chosen the direct route didn't surprise her, but Rhia should have known better. She patted Argo's heavily muscled neck. "Don't worry, girl. There's got to be another way."

The horse nickered softly, as though she understood the comment.

"We just have to find it," she sighed, bringing the animal around. She kicked Argo into a lope, running along the bottom edge of the granite fall. She had no intention of risking her horse on the slick rocks, but she wasn't letting her prey escape either.

*****

Rhiannon cursed softly, searching the soft forest earth for some sign of her brother's passing. Nothing. His footprints disappeared as though he'd never been. She'd found his tracks easily enough when she reached the top of the granite hillside, and followed them deep into the dense forest.

But now she'd lost them.

She flipped her horse's lead line around a tree branch and proceeded to hunt in ever expanding circles. There were a dozen directions he could have taken, including climbing down a treacherous cliff into a narrow canyon. She stared down the sharp cut cliff for a long moment. It was what she would have done if she were on foot, and pursued by a rider. It was what Xena had taught her so many years before. Do whatever you have to, to put yourself on even keel with your enemy. She stepped near the edge of the cliff, staring down for any sign that someone had climbed the walls recently.

There wasn't so much as a pebble out of place, as far as she could tell.

She backed away from the cliff, unwilling to consider the climb if she wasn't certain. Besides, Dayne didn't think like a warrior. He thought like...

She couldn't decide what he thought like...a madman maybe.

The thick trees threw dark shadows across her narrow face as she searched the verdant undergrowth for any kind of clue, a broken branch, a disturbed rock...anything.

Still nothing.

She fingered the scarred side of her face, absently running a thumb along the ridge of tissue that ran just under the eye socket. She just wasn't seeing what she needed. No surprise really. Vision definitely wasn't her strong suit.

And, it wasn't just the missing eye, either. In fact, that looked to be the least of her problems. Blind on one side and no depth perception wasn't such a big problem when stacked against the fact that she'd managed not to notice her brother was the mad killer terrorizing the local countryside.

No, that wasn't right.

She'd noticed it. She just hadn't wanted to see.

Her blindness had led to the deaths of two men and at least a half dozen innocent women.

And now, he'd just disappeared. "Where are you little brother?" she whispered almost inaudibly.

"Right here, big sister," the voice was acid with hate as he came crashing in from her blind side. He'd been hiding in the trees, waiting for her to get into the right position to strike.

Rhiannon barely got an arm up in time to keep from having her skull crushed in by a heavy sword hilt. Even the glancing blow was enough to send her tumbling end over end, but she used the momentum to her advantage, regaining her feet with agile grace. She dodged an ugly thrust from his stolen blade, and knocked a fist into his jaw to send him flailing backwards. Her hand snatched out, tearing the heavy weapon from his hands.

Rhiannon chalked her hand back and hurled the sword high and hard, watching with some satisfaction as it went sailing into the deep ravine she'd been contemplating only moments before. "It's over, here and now," she growled furiously.

"Over?" Dayne whispered. "I don't think so."

She should have drawn her sword when she had the chance. More caution would have been the ideal course of action. Unfortunately, by the time that thought occurred to the young warlord, her brother was already hurtling at her, his mad eyes glowing with rage.

They went tumbling together into trees and bushes and her head slammed painfully into something solid...a rock, or maybe a tree stump. She lost consciousness for just a moment, and came awake again to the realization that she was lying on her stomach. A booted foot landed in the center of her back and rough hands grabbed for the scimitar sheathed across her back.

"Should've been me," Dayne muttered as he struggled with the weapon. Because of the way the blade widened at end end, there was a trick, a particular way of angling it to pull it free of the scabbard without having it catch. "I should have been the one the warrior princess took. It should have been me..."

Rhiannon twisted sharply, lashing out with the heel of her hand. Dayne whitened as her hand glanced off his inner thigh, close enough to set stars to flaring behind his eyes. She grabbed a leg and shoved, hurtling him away as she scrambled for her feet. They came together again, like warring armies, both unwilling to back down, ready to fight until both sides were dead.

"I should've been the warrior." Dayne growled.

"You can't even learn to use a sword," Rhiannon taunted and blocked his best blow. She hit him, then again and again. Blows that should have taken a man down, glanced off his body with no apparent effect.

"You always were weak." He hissed and returned the blows, strike for strike. She fell back under the onslaught, blocking and hitting with all of her strength.

It was a scant match for the mad boy. He drove Rhiannon back, chanting and screaming with every vicious swing. "It should have been me! I should have become a warrior! I was the son of Timolous! You should have been the one sold as a soldiers' whore, NOT ME!"

For a moment, they were twisted together on the ground, Dayne's body pressed against her back, his mouth near her ear. "And when I'm done here, I'm going back to Ajanus, and finish your precious lover, and that blonde whore of Xena's...do you know what I'm going to do to her?" He twisted his sister's arm behind her back as he whispered the foul details.

"You're sick Dayne...what those men did to you...it's twisted you," she panted raggedly, then wrenched free, kicking her brother back.

"I'm not sick. I'm the son of Timolous, and when you're dead, Xena will teach me to be a warrior."

She shook her head, backing away from his insanity. "No she won't. She isn't the same..."

"I will be a warrior...take what I want..."

"Like you've taken for the last two months," she breathed.

"That's right...I took what I wanted...then I did what the warriors in the camps taught me, and I killed them."

Rhiannon swallowed hard, staring at him with raw disbelief.

"You left me there while Xena taught you about being a warrior, but I learned all about warriors." His eyes were glazed and there was an odd meter to his words.

"I came for you when I could," she gasped.

"NOT SOON ENOUGH!!!" the boy howled and struck again.

Too late, Rhiannon realized what he'd done, driving her back so the cliff face was to her right. She was too to the sharp descent, and the ground started to crumple away. She skidded, then scrabbled, dislodging rocks and dirt, arms pinwheeling in the attempt to regain her footing. Suddenly, solid ground became a thing of the past as she dropped away from her brother's mad smile.

She tumbled for only a heartbeat before branches tore at her, scraping and slashing at soft flesh, even as they slowed her wild plunge. She pitched on through the now shattered greenery and had a brief impression of the ground coming up fast, before the world went black.

Dayne stared down into the ravine at the body sprawled in the dirt. He considered climbing down to retrieve her sword, and make sure the fall had done its work, then discarded the idea as too time consuming. "I wouldn't have gone back for you," he whispered, then turned away and caught her horse where the animal was placidly chewing grass.

*****

It didn't take Xena long to find a way around the granite sheers. She gained time on the better trail. At the top, it was easy to find the tracks again, and she followed them until she reached the break in the track. Broken branches, upturned plants and a dozen other signs told her as clearly as words that a fight had taken place. She swung down from Argo with easy grace, boots silent as they touched the ground. Senses alert, she searched the area, checking for any threat that might be hiding, until she was satisfied it was safe. Only one horse had left, and no footprints. She frowned slightly. The hoof prints didn't look deep enough for an animal carrying two bodies, but she couldn't be certain. She did a slow pivot, instincts telling her the answers were still here.

*****

Rhiannon regained consciousness with a gasp, pleasantly surprised not to wake up dead. A moment later, the pain caught up with her, and death suddenly had more appeal. She moved slightly, and bit back on a dull scream of agony as the bones in her left arm shifted. She collapsed back to the dirt, eyes tightly shut. Broken--the arm was definitely broken--probably several bones in her hand, too. She waited a moment, then somehow managed to fight her way into a sitting position. An opportunely placed boulder made for an adequate backrest, though it occurred to the young woman, that had she fallen a foot or so to the right, pain wouldn't be a problem. The solid rock surface would have seen to that.

As it was, she had a badly broken arm, a couple of ribs that were feeling none too good, and world was barely in focus. Not the ideal situation, but far better than the alternative. Shattered branches hung off the trees that spread over her head in mute testimony to their unwitting attempts to slow her mad descent.

Rhiannon tried to move again. Big mistake. This time, she did scream, a small strangled sound that barely got past her clenched teeth.

She was still struggling to bring the pain under control, when gravel rattled down on her head. Terrified, for a moment, that it was Dayne, come to finish what he'd started, she sat still, peering upward and squinting to bring the world into focus. It took a moment to recognize the tall, leather-clad figure leaning over the edge of the cliff. "Xena?" Rhiannon called, her voice sounding dry and raspy, even to her own ears.

"RHIA!!" Xena called as she recognized the figure at the base of the ravine. Staring at the shattered limbs over the young woman's head, she realized instantly what had happened. The warlord was lucky to be alive. "I'LL BE DOWN IN A MINUTE!" she shouted down, then hurried to fetch a rope from the saddle-packs on Argo's back. She looped one end over the saddle horn, and hurled the other into the ravine.

It was, perhaps, twenty feet to the base of the cliffs where Rhiannon lay. The ravine cut steeply down from there. Not much margin for error, but she didn't have time to be neat about it. With a short, sharp yell, she leapt off the edge of the cliff, curling into a tight tuck in mid air. She spun twice, then straightened out to land surprisingly lightly. Her boots skidded in gravel, but she quickly regained her balance.

"That always was an impressive trick." The groan was low, barely conscious.

Xena rushed to Rhiannon's side, slipping to one knee beside the young woman. Blood ran from a dozen small cuts, and she kept her left arm cradled against her chest. "How bad is it?"

Throat muscles bobbed as she swallowed before answering. "Left arm's broken�I think the ribs are only bruised...and I can't see straight."

Xena brushed her hair back with a gentle hand, noting the slightly unfocused cast to her good eye. "Do you think you're bleeding inside?"

A slow shake of the head. "Don't think so," she groaned weakly. She tipped her chin up to peer at the branches overhead. "I was lucky�branches broke a lot of the fall." She looked at Xena again." You've got to get back..."

"Don't worry, we'll get you out," Xena soothed, but Rhiannon knocked her hand away with surprising strength.

"No time," she panted. "You have to get back to Ajanus...Dayne..." the last word came out as little more than a whimper. "He's after Purgamon and your friend."

"Gabrielle?" Xena whispered, sounding ill.

Rhiannon nodded, but couldn't find the energy to do anymore than that.

Xena cursed very softly, then forced herself to calm down. Hysterics weren't going to help any of them. She caught Rhiannon's chin in one hand, and spoke, in very clear, concise terms. "I am going to get you out of here...all right?"

A faint shake of the head. "You need to get back to Ajanus."

Xena nodded. "And we'll be out of here that much faster, if you help me, because I won't leave you down here. Do you understand?"

Rhiannon saw and accepted the determination in the warrior's eyes and managed a dull nod.

"I have to set your arm and wrap your ribs first."

Another weak nod.

"Okay," Xena exhaled. Using her breast dagger, she carefully cut away Rhiannon's sleeves and sliced the fabric into strips. Two branches made reasonable supports for the shattered bones in her arm, and Xena quickly bound them into place. Finished, she quickly wrapped Rhiannon's narrow ribcage, in an effort to stabilize any cracked or broken bones that might shift and puncture a lung. She might be right that they were only bruised, but Xena wasn't taking a chance.

The smaller woman let her forehead rest against Xena's shoulder, totally absorbed in remaining conscious.

When she was finished, Xena carefully lifted Rhiannon's head away from her shoulder. "The next part's going to be a little harder," she began gently.

"You're gonna tell me I have to climb back up that cliff, aren't you?"

"That's right. I've got a rope, and Argo will pull us up. I'll do most of the work, but you're going to have to help."

Rhiannon's gaze swept up the suddenly huge space of the cliff. "I really don't want to do this," she groaned weakly.

"I know," Xena exhaled. She was in no hurry either. It seemed unlikely that the injured woman could make the entire climb without losing consciousness, and she wasn't looking forward to carrying a deadweight the distance. "Just lean against me," she whispered and tugged Rhiannon's uninjured arm across her shoulders, muscles tensing as she lifted the woman to her feet. Moments later, she helped her lean against the cliff wall, while she tied the excess rope into a support harness around her own waist and hips.

Riannon leaned back, her breathing coming in pained gasps. "You should just go on without me...I'll only slow you down."

"I'm not leaving without you." Xena responded without looking up from her task.

"And if Dayne gets back before you do..." She left the answer unspoken, just shook her head. "I don't want anyone else hurt...not because of me..."

"Whatever he's done...it isn't your fault."

"Isn't it?" Rhiannon demanded in a voice thick with disgust. "I've known he had problems since I found him, but I...I thought I could reach him....I thought...I don't know what I thought."

"You thought you could save him," Xena responded for her.

"It's all my fault...I should never have let them take him--"

"No!" Xena cut her off sharply, catching the smaller woman's narrow jaw in a strong hand. "You were a child with no choice in the matter."

"But I--"

"But, nothing. What happened to you and Dayne was wrong, but it's not your fault."

"I was relatively comfortable while he was being...brutalized..." She shook her head, survivor's guilt, sick and raw in her expression. "In his shoes, I could have become what he is...I almost did anyway..."

Xena brushed her thumb very lightly over the tail end of the scar, where it tapered out at the curve of her jaw. "Did this happen that day?" she whispered tersely, needing to know if she'd left a dying child alone on the battlefield that day.

A slow shake of the head. "It happened later. I got involved in someone else's fight, and came out the loser."

"What happened? Why did you run?" And they both knew she wasn't referring the day Rhiannon had been scarred.

Rhiannon blinked, suddenly lost in the past again. Flames licking at her skin, terrified, and far too young for battle. The brush of a sword against her arm startled her, and she spun, striking as she'd been taught, without thinking, without mercy...to kill. It wasn't until she saw the wide eyes, and small hands clinging to the sword embedded in a narrow chest that she realized the truth. "There was a child...maybe seven, or eight. He must have picked up a fallen sword, and tried to fight. He startled me...and I killed him...I couldn't be...that...so I ran."

Xena brushed her thumb rhythmically along Rhiannon's jaw. "None of it was your fault...none of it. I put you in a situation where it was the only way you could survive. If anyone is at fault, it's me."

"But I'm the one killed him, and it will always be a part of me."

Xena couldn't argue. She understood what it meant to carry that kind of guilt, and no words could alleviate it. "It's time," she said simply, and tugged Rhiannon's arm over her shoulder, then slipped a supportive hand around her waist. "Let me do the work. You just hold on." One foot braced against the rock wall, she whistled sharply. One arm holding the rope steady, the other keeping Rhiannon pressed against her chest, she stepped from rock to rock as Argo began pulling the rope.

Rhiannon attempted to help for about half the distance before the pain bore down on her. Xena felt the instant she lost consciousness, and tightened her hold. "Just another fun day in the life," she grunted, muscles straining with every step. Finally, she flung them both onto the grass at the top of the cliff. Concentrating to stay calm, she regathered the rope, and replaced it in the saddlebag, before focusing her attention on the figure sprawled in the grass. The years had put some muscle on Rhiannon's frame, but Xena lifted her with relative ease. Climbing onto Argo offered more of a challenge, but she managed to lift the unconscious woman into the saddle, before climbing up behind her.

She patted Argo's neck very lightly. "Your smoothest gait, girl, and best speed," she whispered huskily, before urging her forward.

*****

Gabrielle massaged the back of her neck, absently noting the streaks of soot and ash that marred any patch of bare skin showing through her clothes. She blinked rapidly to clear stinging, red-rimmed eyes, then glanced over at the man standing next to her. Purgamon's arms were folded across his chest as he stared out at the castle courtyard. Working together, the soldiers and peasants had managed to finish putting out the last of the fires, and even cleared away some of the debris. They'd also caught the escaped horses, and jerry rigged an impromptu corral.

He'd organized, prodded, and masterminded everyone into getting an amazing amount of work done. He'd also kept his word to Xena, and not let her out of his sight. In fact, she'd started to slip off on her own, a time or two, and he'd unceremoniously hauled her back by the scruff of the neck, threatening a leash, if she didn't do as she was told.

In short, he was almost as bad as Xena when it came to protectiveness. On the other hand, the work helped keep both their minds off the fact that they hadn't heard a word from Rhiannon or Xena, and nightfall was fast approaching. Gabrielle's eyes flicked from the courtyard below the castle walls where they stood, to the broad, green plain that stretched away from the keep. She frowned suddenly, as she caught a hint of movement. Within moments, the distant figure melded into a recognizable figure. "Xena," she exhaled as she discerned Argo's distinctive coloring. She grabbed Purgamon's arm, and he swung around in response. "It's Xena...it's got to be," the bard said hopefully.

"It does look like her horse," the soldier allowed. He whistled down to the two exhausted looking guards at the gate. "Incoming rider."

"We can ride out to meet her," Gabrielle said and started toward the stairs. Purgamon grabbed her back.

"No...." he snapped impatiently, dark eyes narrowing as he watched the rider. "You aren't leaving the walls of this keep."

"But--"

"No argument," he cut her off. "With everything that's happening, I'm not taking any chances."

*****

Xena's eyes narrowed faintly as she tracked the figures moving on the walls of the castle. Relief swept through her as she neared and recognized the distinctive shock of Gabrielle's hair. She was all right. Dayne hadn't reached her.

A crowd had gathered in the courtyard, by the time she rode Argo through the main gates.

Purgamon swallowed hard, and terror glittered in his dark eyes when he saw the unmoving figure in the warrior princess' arms. Rhiannon hung so limp he thought she was dead for a moment. He caught Argo's bridle, reaching up with his other hand to touch her thigh. "Rhia?" the name was so softly spoken that Xena wouldn't have been certain the voice was his if she hadn't seen his mouth move.

"It's not as bad as it looks," she assured him. "Careful," she ordered as additional hands reached up to carefully lift the slack woman from the saddle. "She's got a broken arm and a couple of badly bruised ribs."

"What happened?" Purgamon demanded.

"Dayne tricked her and she fell into a ravine," Xena answered. She swung down from Argo to accept a hard hug from Gabrielle. The warrior wrapped her arms around her lover, resting her cheek briefly against the top of the smaller woman's hair. "Get her onto something flat, and keep her as still as possible!" she ordered the men carrying Rhiannon into the keep.

Purgamon caught her arm when she would have stepped past him. "What about Dayne?" he demanded furiously.

Xena shook her head. "He was already gone by the time I arrived. To track him, I'd have had to leave her where she was." Xena clipped.

Purgamon stiffened, and for a moment, he looked as though he meant to go after the madman on his own. Xena caught his arm, shaking her head. "She needs you right now," she said nodding toward the men carrying the injured woman.

He nodded his head with a jerk, then pivoted and broke into a jog to catch up with them.

Exhausted by a day and night's steady activity, Xena allowed herself a moment to catch her breath, leaning against Gabrielle ever so slightly.

"Will she be all right?" the bard questioned, staring after the crowd that disappeared into the keep.

"I think so," Xena sighed. "But I should check." She hugged Gabrielle a little tighter, grateful to feel the warmth of her body pressed close. She couldn't have admitted it to anyone, even herself, but she'd spent the last few miles terrified of what she'd find when she returned to Ajanus. If anything had happened to Gabrielle...

She couldn't even finish the thought. She looked down at the bard, carefully cupping her face in one hand. "Was there any trouble today?"

Gabrielle shook her head blankly. "Nothing. We just worked on getting the mess cleaned up."

Xena nodded silently. Nothing had happened. Gabrielle was safe...for now. But Dayne was still out there, plotting and planning, and if Rhiannon was to be believed, her lover was one of his primary targets. "I want you to make me a promise."

"What?"

"I don't want you to be alone until Dayne is captured."

"But--"

Xena's hand tightened reflexively, almost hurting the younger woman. "He's mad, Gabrielle...and he wants to use you to get some sort of revenge on me. The only way he can't hurt you, is if he can't get to you."

Gabrielle had lost all color, and she fiddled mindlessly with the trim on one of Xena's epaulettes. "He wants to kill me?"

The single word answer was harsh in its simplicity. "Yes."

Gabrielle swallowed hard. She'd been threatened before, her life in danger. It was a part of the life she'd chosen to lead when she followed the warrior. But this was different...and blood chillingly personal. She nodded slowly. "Don't worry."

A half smile touched Xena's full lips. "I won't stop worrying until I know he's been dealt with." She kissed Gabrielle's forehead lightly. "Don't worry. I'm not going to let him get to you, but it'll be easier if I know where you are at all times."

Gabrielle nodded, but any further comments that might have been made were cut off by Purgamon's loud bellow. "COME ON, YOU TWO! YOU'RE NEEDED IN HERE!"

Xena pushed Gabrielle in the direction of the keep.

They found Rhiannon stretched out on a table in the kitchens, most of her clothes, and the makeshift bandages cut away to reveal bruised flesh. Magda leaned over the young woman, her gentle hands moving with a knowing touch. Xena pulled alongside of her.

"How is she?" she questioned.

The old woman shook her head. "It doesn't look like she's bleeding inside."

Xena nodded and ran her own hands over the warlord's torso, hunting for any telltale swelling that might indicate internal bleeding. "I think you're right, but I need to set that arm ... Purgamon ..." She glanced over at the waiting soldier. "Hold her good hand, and talk to her." She searched the room. "I'll need something to brace--"

"Here," Magda said and held up a large paddle and flat bladed spoon that she used to stir the contents of the huge iron pots. Xena grinned, noting they were already clean. Rhia had taught her that trick long years before. The bowl of the spoon fit the natural curve of the palm, while the paddle spread across the back.

Moments later, Rhiannon groaned and fought up through the darkness as Xena carefully realigned the shattered bones in her forearm.

"Hold her down!" the warrior princess ordered as she strapped the makeshift braces in place.

When she was done, Rhiannon sank back onto the rough wood surface, chest heaving as she fought to control the pain.

Purgamon leaned over her, gently brushing the hair away from her forehead. "How're you feeling."

She swallowed hard and a hint of a smile touched her mouth. "Been better."

"You're lucky to be alive," Xena pointed out dryly.

"Don' feel so lucky at the momen'," she slurred weakly.

Xena only nodded. Barring any unseen injuries, she wasn't really hurt badly, but between her wounds and shock, she wasn't likely to be any good to anyone for awhile. That changed everything, and not for the better. The warrior glanced around and noted her lover, sitting cross-legged on a nearby table. She waved her over with a brief hand motion. "Gabrielle, sit with Rhia, while I speak to Purgamon, " she ordered quietly.

The soldier let go of his lover's hand with some reluctance, leaning down to press a light kiss over her forehead, before allowing himself to be drawn into a far corner. Gabrielle took his position, though she didn't take up his hold on the injured woman's hand. Rhiannon twisted fractionally, and Gabrielle realized that she was on the woman's blind side. With Purgamon in that position, she'd been completely comfortable, but she obviously wanted to at least catch a glimpse of the newcomer who'd taken his place.

"Gabrielle, right?" the woman rasped.

The bard nodded, her gaze flicking up to touch on Xena and Purgamon, where they were talking quietly. Judging by Xena's hand motions, she was explaining what had happened before and after finding Rhiannon. She was also probably telling him about the threat Dayne posed, and making a plan to deal with it. She let her gaze drop back to the woman on the table. "So, you knew Xena..." she trailed off, uncertain how to phrase it.

"In the bad old days?" Rhia murmured wryly. "Yeah...I knew her..."

"What was she like?" Gabrielle started to ask, then changed her mind, quickly waving the question off. "On Second thought, I don't think I want to know."

"No...you don't," Rhia breathed.

"Do you hate her?"

Rhiannon managed the faintest shake of her head. "No...she was as...kind...to me as she knew how to be...I wasn't afraid...of her...but...at some point...I became...afraid of myself..." The words came choppy, and disjointed, but the meaning was there.

"She's not like that anymore," Gabrielle exhaled defensively.

"I know."

"Because she rescued you from that ravine?"

"No...because the woman I knew...couldn't...love...and she obviously loves you...very much..."

"I think so," Gabrielle sighed, a touch of uncertainty showing in her voice. Sometimes, it was hard to tell with Xena. She kept her emotions so shut away. The sex was easy, the emotional part was sometimes harder.

"She does," Rhiannon confirmed, thinking of the fear she'd seen in the warrior's eyes at the thought that Gabrielle was in danger. She wet her lips, and swallowed hard, trying to alleviate the dryness in her throat.

"Would you like something to drink?" the bard asked gently, then moved to fetch it when the woman nodded faintly.

Across the room, Xena saw the gesture, and called to her lover. "Not much..." just in case there was internal bleeding. She kept an eye on the two out of the corner of her eye, satisfied that the injured woman only wet her dry mouth.

"Is she really going to be all right?" Purgamon whispered

Xena nodded. "It looks worse than it is."

"Thank you, for bringing her back."

"The only thanks I want is to see is sunrise, and no more deaths," she said grimly.

Purgamon's eyes slid closed for a moment. "With Dayne out there, that may be easier said than done."

Xena's intense cerulean gaze swept around the room, taking in the sprawled figure of the warlord, as well as the injured peasant girl and her family. "Put as many soldiers as you can on the walls, then bring half of the remainder in here...and put the other half with the peasants. Nobody goes anywhere alone. There's safety in numbers."

"All right?" His tone made it a question.

Xena grinned. "And while you're doing that, I'll be checking the grounds. If he's already here, maybe I can find some sign of him."

"Do you really think he's crazy enough to come back here?"

She nodded. "I think he's too crazy to do anything else," she answered darkly. "And you be careful too...Gabrielle's one target, but you're the other."

Purgamon nodded. "No surprise. Dayne and I never got along."

"Just be careful."

They broke apart, Purgamon leaving to speak to his men, while Xena crossed to her lover. As she drew near, she brushed a gentle hand up Gabrielle's arm to reassure herself that she was fine. The bard looked back up at her, her expression questioning.

"I'm going to have a look around. I want you to stay here, until I get back."

Soldiers entered through both doors into the kitchen. They were dirty from the day's work, but surprisingly quiet and circumspect. It made for an interesting contrast with most of the mercenary armies Xena had known. Somehow, Rhiannon had found a reasonably decent group of men to lead.

"Be careful," Gabrielle said softly, her voice rough with emotion.

Xena chucked her gently under the chin. "Don't worry. I will be." Then disappeared out the back door.

"Don't worry," Magda clucked, her voice unusually comforting. "That one knows what she's doing."

Gabrielle could only nod and pray the old woman was right.

*****

Onward to Part 3: The Conclusion

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