A Warrior by Any Other Name

By Melissa Good

Contact: merwolf@worldnet.att.net

 

 

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They broke bread with Lastan and Wennid the next morning, as they prepared to get back to Hectator's city. His guard had been well cared for, but Hectator was anxious to get home and stand down the troops which were probably still preparing.

"Well, this was an unexpected, but delightful two days." Hectator drawled, glancing at Xena, entering at that moment with Jessan in tow.

Xena shrugged, but smiled. "I offered you an explanation first." she commented, and sat down at the other end of the table. "It's not my fault you decided not to listen."

Hectator rubbed his still sore jaw. "Lesson for me." But he smiled at her. "I'd forgotten how hard you hit." He got a raised eyebrow in response. "I'll try to remember that next time."

Lestan watched them in some bemusement. Humans. Joking around. In his house. Impossible. He shook himself, and offered his guests mounts for the ride back. They gathered outside to take their leave - Hectator's guard, being held at the stream, was getting frantic. Hectator swung up on a beautiful roan stallion with a sweet eye, and patted his neck appreciatively. Xena mounted Argo, then, seeing Gabrielle's very pained expression on viewing her proffered mount, a pretty piebald mare, laughed, and extended an arm. "C'mon." The bard looked up at her in chagrin, but relieved. "She hates riding." she commented to Hectator, who was watching in amusement, as she pulled the bard up behind her on the patient Argo. "Argo's used to carrying double."

Jessan grasped their knees in farewell, having already administered hugs on the ground. "Take care." he cautioned. "drop back by when you get the chance."

Lestan stepped up on her other side and laid one large hand on Argo's neck. He glanced up at her thoughtfully. "As my son says, stop back by. I have a feeling we have lots of stories to exchange." He looked her in the eyes. . "Besides." He now grinned, and looked very much like his son. "All my warriors are demanding I petition you for some lessons." His and Xena's glances met, and exchanged a twinkling understanding. "Please come, when you can." Lestan finished, lifting his hand to grip hers.

Xena nodded at him. "We will." She turned Argo's head, and nudged her towards the village gate.

Gabrielle exchanged a wink with Jessan, and waved at Wennid. An extended visit, with the chance to absorb a whole new culture's stories... .she grinned happily. "Now that's going to be fun." she breathed closed to Xena's ear, and was rewarded by a low chuckle from the warrior.

"Yeah." Xena agreed, guiding Argo with practiced movements. "I have a feeling it will be, and not too long from now, either."

 

**************

 

"The harvest has been good." Hectator was commenting to Xena as they rode briskly towards the city, surrounded by his bewildered guard. "and we've started building on an annex inside the city walls. You'll see it. " He glanced towards the woman riding next to him. "You will stop in for a few days, right? I owe you at least a banquet."

Xena laughed. "Sure" she glanced over her shoulder at the momentarily silent Gabrielle. Probably planning yet another story. "We were headed your way before we got sidetracked." She stretched in Argo's saddle, and resettled herself. "I was serious - I would have rather been contributing to your local economy."

Hectator chuckled in response. "Well, it turned out OK." He glanced ahead, to where a small dust cloud was rising. "Ah. A welcoming party. " They watched as the dust cloud grew larger, then Xena stiffened . Her sharper eyesight had seen what Hectator's hadn't - the panicked faces and lathered flanks of the riders and horses headed their way.

"Looks like trouble, Hectator. " She kneed Argo into a canter, followed quickly by the prince and his guard. They met the oncoming riders in a flurry of shifting haunches and snorting beasts. The lead rider flung himself off his animal and went to Hectator's stirrup, chest heaving.

"My lord... .an army... headed for the city." He coughed. "my lord, there are thousands of them." He stared up at Hectator, eyes all white and pupil.

"Hades." the prince breathed. "Must be Ansteles." He turned to Xena. "Get out of here, Xena - I mean it. This isn't' your fight, and I can only muster about 400 men." He fought the reins of his now restive horse, who sensed Hectator's emotions. "At least we have a chance to scatter the noncombatants."

Xena sat quietly on Argo for a moment, studying him. She was painfully aware of Gabrielle, waiting with held breath just behind her. Finally, she sighed. "Sorry, Hectator." a slight smile, a sudden tenseness in Gabrielle's arms. "You're stuck with me for while." A squeeze from the bard. She responded with a light chuckle she knew Gabrielle could feel. "C'mon. We've got planning to do." A thought occurred to her, and she turned her head to speak to Gabrielle.

"Oh no." the bard barked, giving Xena a warning look. "Don't you even think about it."

"Gabrielle... " Xena began, making a calming gesture with one hand.

"I said, no. That's it." Gabrielle answered, glaring. She opened her mouth to say more, but Xena forestalled her by putting a hand over it.

"Shh. I'm not sending you out of harms way." She cautiously removed her hand, and was rewarded with relative silence.

'You're not?" Gabrielle asked, puzzled.

"No." Xena answered. "But I would like you to take Hectator's horse, and warn Lestan. If Ansteles takes the city, his village will be next." She saw the gathering storm clouds in her companion's eyes. "Then get back here as soon as you can." Her eyes pleaded with Gabrielle. "They deserve a warning."

The bard, slowly, finally nodded. She swung a leg over Argo's quarters and slid to the ground. To her surprise, Xena followed suit, so that they were out of the sight of the waiting guardsmen. Gabrielle hesitated, searching Xena's eyes for an explanation. "What?" she asked, when the warrior didn't speak.

"Look" Xena answered, very obviously searching for words. "If it were up to me, you'd stay in Lestan's village. This isn't going to be pretty, Gabrielle." She held up one hand to forestall protests already springing to her friend's lips. "But I know it's not up to me, and you won't. So, please, hurry, and be careful"

Gabrielle took a deep breath, and nodded. "OK. I'll be quick." I hope. She reluctantly accepted the reins of Lestan's roan from Hectator, who offered her a leg up. She gave him a wry grin. "S'okay, thanks. I don't like to do this, but I do know how." She swung herself up onto the horse, and patted his neck gently. "C'mon horse. Let's get you home."

Xena watched her go with a mixture of wistful pride, and genuine worry. Well, that went better than I had any hope of expecting. she snorted quietly to herself. My technique must be improving. She turned to where Hectator was remounting one of the horses ridden by his guard. "Let's go." she said. "that army won't wait."

Hectator glanced at her "Xena... ." his handsome face went grim. "I don't have the forces to stop Ansteles, if that's who it is. And we have an old, old hatred for each other. There won't be any chance for negotiating." he kneed his mount over to Argo and lowered his voice. "Please... .I don't want to be stuck in Tartarus with your death on my shoulders too."

Xena raised an eyebrow at him. "One, if you think you're going to die, you will." Her gaze unfocused for a moment, then sharpened again. "Two, there are always possibilities." She allowed grim smile to twist her lips. "Three, if I get stuck in Tartarus with you because of this, I guarantee you'll regret it." She cuffed him on the shoulder. "Let's see what our options are before we start planning our afterlife"

Hectator hesitated, but noticed his watching guard were gazing at Xena with something approaching relief. He glanced at her, then sighed. "Well, I had to try." he muttered sheepishly. "And I'll keep on trying." he turned his mount's head and motioned his guard to start moving. "Let's go then."

 

**************

 

Gabrielle didn't hesitate when she reached the boundary stream, but plunged right through. The horse's hooves kicked up a light spray, drenching her with icy cold water. "Brr." It only lasted a second, though, and she was through and up onto the grassland again.

She had made it partway to the treeline, when a large form rose up in front of her mount, and held up a hand to halt. " I need to talk to Lastan." she called to the guard. "it's important." The tall forest dweller regarded her solemnly, then waved her on.

"You have safe passage" he rumbled.

"Thanks." she nodded. She grimly turned her mount's head, and headed for the trees. Urgency now took hold of her, and she did something she had never done before - pushed the willing horse into a gallop. It was terrifying... and exhilarating. she was honest enough to admit to herself. She was not in control of the massive animal - he had smelled home, and was willing to run. It certainly looks much easier when Xena does it, though. Xena looks so natural on horseback... gods I wish I had her skills... ... it must be nice to be able to just *do* all that stuff.

Gabrielle could feel the horse stretching out in a flat run, whipping her hair back painfully. She held on to his neck for dear life, he didn't slow until they reached the village gates itself and even then it was not by much. He thundered through, and Gabrielle could barely get him turned in the general direction of Jessan's home. Footsteps were now thudding all around her, reacting to her violent arrival.

Gabrielle pulled her sweating horse to a ragged stop, and tumbled off his back, holding onto his thick mane for support. She glanced around, and spotted Jessan headed her way, leaping off the porch with a stunned expression on recognizing her.

"Gabrielle!" Jessan yelped, bewildered by her sudden appearance. "What are you doing here? Did something happen on the way back?" He gently grasped her shoulders, searching her eyes with a worried expression.

"No, well, yes, but not like you're thinking" Gabrielle managed to gasp out. "it's an army"

Jessan paled under his fur. "Wait." He turned to his nearest cousin. "Get Lastan"

"I'm here." the low rumble came from over his other shoulder. Lastan peered over his son's shoulder in concern. "an army?" He gazed at Gabrielle. "Whose? Where? When?"

The bard explained quickly, now that she had her breath back. "So, Xena wanted me to warn you -because she figures if they take the city, well... ." she finished.

Lastan looked at her, suspiciously. "And, what is it that she wants us to do?" Ally or no ally... this is not our fight, little bard.

Gabrielle stopped, and stared at him. "She didn't ask me to ask you to do anything." she answered, puzzled. "She just told me that you deserved a warning." She looked around at the gathered forest dwellers, noting the interest in their faces. "Is there a problem with that?"

"Ah" was all Lestan answered. "We take the warning seriously. Thank you." He motioned several people ahead of him into his conference room, and shut the door, ignoring the rising, interested buzz.

Jessan looked down at her in concern. "And does Xena think he'll take the city?" he asked, quietly. He still had his arms wrapped around her in support, and she was making no protest.

Gabrielle thought for a long moment, of Xena's parting words, and the look on her face. "Well, she didn't say, but, yeah... I think she does. " She gnawed on her lip. "Hectator can only muster 400 men." She looked back up at him. "I've gotta get going. I promised Xena I'd be quick."

Jessan threw his golden head back, and regarded the stars in thought. "Wait a moment." he said softly to the bard. This is it, I can feel it. I'm meant for this. The gods conspired to bring us all together for just this moment. I smell Ares' fine hand... .I know, and I walk into this with eyes wide open, and sword raised. "I'll take you back." he finally said, dropping his chin to his chest, and peering at her. "Let me just get my gear." He guided her into their dwelling, and pushed open a door in the rear area. His room, apparently.

Gabrielle looked around, curiously. The room was fairly small, and not as cluttered as she'd expected. There was a large round bed in one corner, rather like the one she and Xena had used, covered with thickly quilted spreads in blues and greens. The walls were hung with reed mats, covered with well done representations of the forest around them. "Pretty" she commented.

"Thanks. I painted them." Jessan answered, absently, as he pulled various items out of a trunk at the foot of his bed. "sword, battlecoat, leg armor... .I think that's it" He stood up with his arms full, and grinned at the surprise on the bard's face. "What... .did you think all we could do is make arrows or something?" His golden eyes twinkled. "And here I thought you had an open mind."

Gabrielle blushed. "I deserved that.' she acknowledged with a sheepish smile. "I should know better, after traveling so long with Xena."

"Oh." Jessan said, with a wicked grin. "Does she paint too?" His eyes danced merrily. "I had no idea."

"Paint? No." Gabrielle giggled. "But she has many skills." Another giggle at his mock innocent expression and raised eyebrows.

"Now that... ." Jessan drawled with a grin. "I can fully believe." He lifted his armor again, and turned towards the door just as it slammed inward from the force of Lestan's hand.

"Jessan... ." He stopped short, seeing what was in his son's arms. "What is this? Where do you think you're going?" He stepped further into the room, glancing at Gabrielle in some suspicion.

"I'm going to fight with our new allies, father." Jessan answered, putting down his burden, and instead, starting to put the gear on. "They could use the help." He avoided his father's eyes.

"What??!!" Lestan's roar shook the dwelling like an earthquake. His amber eyes burned a fiery path through his only son, as Jessan stood, calmly arming himself. "This is no concern of yours!" He moved closer to his son. "Are you mad? You're as likely to get killed by our new allies as by their enemies!" He slammed his fist against the trunk. "No, Jessan - I forbid you to do this."

Jessan paused, then looked up at Lestan. "You can't." he said, quietly. "I choose this path knowing it's end, father." He slid into the knitted battlecoat, and settled the layered armor plates over his broad shoulders. He turned and looked Lestan in the eyes. "Besides, what more tangible symbol of our new alliance could you possibly wish to have than your son fighting in defense of their city?" He bared his canines. "Father... this is calling to me. I have to go." He donned his swordbelt, settling the long broadsword from a long off battle securely at his back. Then he turned and, fastening his eyes on his father's shadowed face, knelt before him. He heard Lestan's sudden intake of air.

"Bless me." Jessan pleaded, softly. The traditional plea when a son of the forest took to the battlefield for the very first time. "You are my father, and the river who spawned the very stream that I am." He swallowed and went on. "Send me to battle with your blessing. Honor my choice." He thought for a moment that Lastan wouldn't do it, then saw the tears in his father's eyes.

"You are my son." Lastan managed. "You are the torch lit from the very fire of my heart, and you go forth to your future with my blessing." He laid both hands on Jessan's gilded head. "My heart cries out to send you on this path, Jessan, but... .Ares... .your choice and my choice would have walked as one in the forest." He grasped Jessan's face, and studied his son's eyes for a long time. "I honor your choice." He finally added, hoarsely. Then he was gone, and the room was in silence. Jessan rose, somewhat shaken, and glanced back at the silent Gabrielle... 

"Time to go." he whispered.

"Are you sure, Jessan?" Gabrielle whispered back. "This really isn't your fight."

"Ah... .Gabrielle." her tall friend smiled. "how wrong you are. It is just very exactly my fight." He gestured towards the door, then hesitated. "But... you could remain here, you know. You're quite expert with your staff, but that's not much against mounted swordsmen." He knew her answer before she spoke it. Of course. Silly of him even to mention it. She could no more stay away than he could.

"No." the bard sighed. "No, I have to go." She moved ahead of him towards the door. "I can't really explain it... ... "

Jessan laughed softly. "No, you can't ,can you." he murmured to himself, but she heard him, and gave him a startled look. "Uhh... I mean... Well, let's go." He gestured for her to proceed him, when his mother stopped them, gazing at him with aching sadness. Their eyes searched each other, and she wordlessly took him in her arms and rocked him like a child. Then she pulled back, and kissed his head. Only when he returned the kiss did she turn to Gabrielle.

"Child, bring him back again in one piece, and I'll explain it to you. I think I have a better perspective than my son." Wennid smiled sadly at her. She doesn't even realize!. How blind humans were.

Gabrielle waited until they were outside, and in fact, until Jessan was up on Eris before she managed to blurt. "What on earth was that all about??" She took Jessan's proffered arm, and was hoisted up onto Eris' broad quarters.

Ugh. Jessan was caught in a trap now. Should he explain? Wow... .that was a subject he didn't think he should get into with her... not now, not on the eve of battle. Not... without also talking to Xena. "Don't ask me that now, please, Gabrielle." He turned Eris' head towards the gate, and started the long ride to the city. "Ask me after this is all over."

Gabrielle glowered at his back. Secrets, again. She hated them. What on earth were Jessan and his mother talking about? She knew she was involved, in some vague way. Explain what? Better perspective on what? What did Wennid have that she would need her to explain a per... ... .Oh. Wait. The bard sat, stunned by a sudden thought. Nah. That's silly. She shrugged her shoulders, and settled back for this fourth version of what was becoming a very unpleasant ride. She had more than plenty enough time to think about how silly her idea had been.

 

***************

 

Xena and Hectator stood on his rampart wall, watching an approaching far cloud, and listening to the snapping as the wind ripped his banners to tattered shreds. They were both in a somber mood, having but 392 men to garrison the castle with, and faced with an approaching army that numbered near 1200, and was well armed, and well mounted. Xena had donned the extra armor she rarely wore anymore, and settled a few extra daggers into sheathes about her person. She sat calmly on the upper wall, her eyes gazing at the oncoming troops.

Hectator glanced at her, impressed despite himself. She knew this was a losing cause. There would be no amnesty, no treaty - not with Ansteles. His bone with Hectator was old, and well gnawed. He could only hope to make a brave stand, and send all the non combatants scattered over the surrounding countryside. He would die on this field tomorrow, as would his troops, and quite probably, this lovely woman sitting with deceptive tranquillity on his battlement.

One more time. "Xena." He, daring, grasped her shoulder, and she turned to gaze into his eyes. He shuddered . "Don't do this. You have nothing to prove, here. Leave... take Gabrielle with you." He touched on her weak point gently. He knew it, so did she. "Don't make her watch this."

Slowly, she smiled at him. "Hectator, I appreciate your thoughts. Really, I do." She returned her gaze to the horizon. "Gabrielle knows what the stakes are. It's not like we don't do this all the time." She's watched me die twice. Old news. "Let's just say, I'm betting my life, on my own better judgment." She stood and walked across the narrow wall, and stood looking towards the castle gate. Out of the forest gloom, tiny with distance, emerged a cantering black animal whose foremost rider caught the last rays of the sun which turned his golden coat ablaze. Glancing down, Xena smiled quietly to herself.

 

***************

 

"There's the castle." Jessan remarked, turning towards a largely silent Gabrielle. She hadn't had much to say on the ride in, which was unusual. "You OK?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Pretty much." She gazed at the tower turrets, where she could just make out a tall figure outlined against the sunset stained sky. She couldn't see the face at this distance, but the shape and an inner sense Gabrielle had just recently begun to notice told her who stood there, watching. A faint grin etched her face. "Let's go inside."

The gate guard was startled by Jessan, no doubt about that. Gabrielle hastened to reassure him, as the tall forest dweller looked on in silence. The man nodded as she explained. "Yes, we know of the treaty. We just didn't expect... ." He glanced up at Jessan. "Not that we couldn't use the help."

He was frightened, Jessan thought, surprised. Ah... the humans didn't really enjoy battle, except for a few. I had forgotten. "May we enter?" He asked, mildly, raising a golden eyebrow at the guard.

"Sure... sure." The guard, embarrassed, moved out of the way. "Uhm... " he turned to Gabrielle "Xena told me to keep an eye out for you... she and Hectator are... "

"On the upper battlements., Thanks." Gabrielle answered, absently. She moved past the gate and headed towards the large entrance, being prepared for siege.

Jessan trotted after her, grabbing an arm and slowing her progress down. "How did you know that?" He asked, tilted his big head in a comical expression. "Where they were, I mean?" At this distance, he certainly couldn't sense Xena, so... .

Gabrielle shrugged "I saw her up there, of course." She glanced curiously at him. "How did you think I knew?" Her brow creased. "You're not going to go all mystical on me, are you? I mean, it's a perfectly reasonable explanation."

"Ugh." Jessan stuttered. "Yeah. I mean, no. I mean... .oh Hades." He placed a hand on her shoulder and urged her towards the stairs. "Forget I asked." Knowing she wouldn't do anything of the sort. Knowing he was going to have to provide some kind of lame explanation. Ares, he was so stupid sometimes. "No, I mean, don't forget I asked."

Gabrielle just looked at him, and waited, continuing the long walk upwards.

"Uh. ok. " He finally sighed. "I thought maybe you could... ... I mean, we can... kind of... .sense... people." Jessan peeked at her face. "So... .I thought maybe... even though humans usually can't... but you guys are pretty unique, so maybe... .er... you could too."

"Oh." Gabrielle chewed on this for a bit. "Well, sure. I mean, Xena does that all the time." she commented. "And, I guess I sort of can, with her at least, a little bit." She glanced at him, relieved. "Is that all? You could have asked before, you know. The way you were carrying on, I thought it was something... .I don't know. what I thought it was."

"Xena does that all the time." Jessan repeated, blankly. "All the time?" He climbed in silence for a long moment. "Amazing."

"Well, yeah." Gabrielle laughed a little, grabbing the banister to help pull herself along. "I thought it was one of those, you know, warrior things. Like what they teach you guys in warrior school, or wherever it is you go to learn all that stuff." She eyed the top of the steps far above in irritation. "Top of the tower, huh Xena? I'll get you for this."

Jessan plodded upward, deep in thought. Finally, "Gabrielle."

"Yeah?" the bard answered, looking over at him. "What?"

"Can I ask you a question, and you won't get mad at me?" Jessan eyed her, apprehensive. Xena is much easier to gauge than this one. She has depths that I have no understanding of.

Gabrielle stopped short, and put her hands on her hips. "What? What could you possible ask me that I'd get *mad* at Jessan? "

The tall forest dweller stopped as well, and faced her, a serious look in his golden eyes. "Remember when I was telling you the story of my parents?" He watched her brow crease.

"Yeah." Gabrielle answered, slowly. Where was he going with this? Do I really want to know? Probably not.

"Remember when you asked me if they had fallen in love? And I said a lifebond is more than love, it's a link that endures beyond... " He stopped, seeing the look on her face. A mirror to what he had seen on the first telling. "Why does that mean something to you? " Jessan waited, uneasily, not sure she was going to answer. He cursed himself for meddling, for opening his mouth in the first place. This was none of his business. She wasn't going to tell him, anyway, he could see it in her eyes.

Gabrielle turned and continued to climb the stairs. After a moment, Jessan joined her. "I'm sorry." He said, carefully. "I didn't mean... ."

"No, it's all right, Jessan." Gabrielle muttered. "It was just the beyond death thing. We've been through that ." She glanced at his shocked face. "I guess it just touched a nerve."

"Oh." Jessan answered, in a very small voice. "that expl... gosh. I'm sorry, Gabrielle." So. Lesson one. Don't assume anything about humans. Especially these particular ones.

"S'okay, Jessan." Gabrielle replied. "I can deal with it pretty much OK now." She smiled at him. "Just one of those things, right?"

"Right." Jessan answered, in exactly the same tone Xena herself used when she meant precisely not right at all. They came to the top of the stairs, and Jessan reached out one huge hand to push the door open.

 

***************

 

Footsteps on the upper stairs. They both turned to watch as the door to the upper garrison opened, and Gabrielle stepped out, followed by the unmistakable bulk and hue of Jessan. Xena caught the bard's eye as she moved towards them, noting the slightly strained expression on Gabrielle's face. "You OK?" she asked her in a low voice as they got closer.

"Fine." Gabrielle answered briefly. "Just a little tired." She gave Xena a quick grin. "Way to many horses in one day." Xena nodded, then turned her attention to the forest dweller.

"Jessan". The Xena spoke his name as if tasting it. "You have no obligation here." She gazed up at him. "This won't be any sparring match." Her blue eyes captured his golden ones.

"I know." Jessan answered, a low laugh rumbling in his chest. "As I told my father, I walk into this with open eyes." He smiled, giving his ferocious face an unbelievable sweetness. "He has blessed me, and sent me into battle, and I'm loving it already." His face lit up . "I'm looking forward to fighting on the same side as you."

Xena pursed her lips thoughtfully. then let her gaze warm briefly in kindred understanding. "I feel better already." She commented, watching his face light with pleasure at the compliment. Unlike Hectator, unlike the vast majority of the troops preparing below, Jessan alone felt the intense stirring of excitement that she, too, felt. His eyes saw it in hers, and acknowledged it with a solemn twinkle.

She stood up, and gestured to the door. "We should get some rest while we can. " She cast one last look at the horizon. "they'll be here by sunrise." She glanced at Gabrielle, who was leaning against the nearby wall, looking exhausted. "You too. How much horseback riding did you do today?" the warrior added, teasingly. " Think you're developing a taste for it?"

Gabrielle managed a grin, although she failed to see anything that required one. The sight of the extra armor strapped around her companion had sent a chill down her spine in reflex. She also sensed the suppressed, rising fever in Xena, and knew this was one side of the warrior she had no window into, no possible understanding of, just as Xena couldn't fathom how she assembled scattered details into a powerful narrative story. Well, no time for that now. "I know I'll regret it tomorrow." She pushed off the wall, and crossed over to them. "Did I hear someone mention dinner?"

Xena chuckled, and guided her towards the stairwell with one hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Well, you're consistent." She motioned for Hectator and Jessan to proceed them down, and watched as they disappeared into the darkness of the stairwell. Then she turned to Gabrielle, and her face lost it's humor. "You sure you're OK?" Xena studied the bard's face. "You look a little rattled."

Gabrielle gave her a brief smile. "Yeah, I'm ok. I'm really just tired. Thanks for asking, though." She started down the stairs. "And I'm starving." she added, with a sly grin in Xena's direction.

Xena snorted. "When aren't you?" she said, muffling a laugh.

They descended into a courtyard filled with somber activity. Now that dark had fallen, even sounds seemed muted, as the soldiers and citizens of Hectator's city prepared for the fast approaching attack. The courtyard itself was full of piles of arms and armor, and the sound of torches being whipped in the steady wind.

Jessan was aware of the surreptitious glances in his direction, surprised there wasn't more animosity than he sensed, then realized these people were far more preoccupied with thoughts of loss and dying than of strange forest creatures walking into their midst. He could see it in their faces, in their steady, deliberate motions, in the grim looks. So strong was the feeling it sat over this place like a shroud, clouding his Sight more than his vision. He glanced at Hectator, who strode along, lost in his own dark thoughts, and sidled a bit closer to him. "Hectator." he murmured, softly. The prince looked up, a bit startled. "I know this isn't much comfort, but I'm really glad I'm here to help." the forest dweller continued, quietly. "Maybe things will go better tomorrow than you expect."

Hectator sighed. "Jessan, I don't know why you're even here. Not that I don't appreciate the act." He looked at the taller man with despair in his eyes. "Why? Why throw your life into this, when two days ago I was preparing to attack your village? Why help us? I don't understand. I don't understand you, and I don't understand her." He threw a quick glance over his shoulder at the dimly seen following women. "If it were me, I'd be riding out of here as fast as my horse could take me."

"Would you?" Jessan asked, mildly. "I doubt it." He smiled his warm, sweet smile. "Life is a struggle, Hectator. We all know that. I guess when you can choose your places to take a stand, you do." He glanced at the ground and back up. "At least I do." A glance behind him. "And, I can't speak for Xena, of course, but I think she does too."

"Have you known her long?" Hectator asked, diverted from his melancholy for a moment by a dim curiosity.

Jessan laughed. "A fortnight." His eyes sparkled. "that feels like forever." He met Hectator's amazed glance. "She rescued me from a village on the other side of the region." He read the unasked question on the princes face with ease. "And, yes. I'm doing this more for her than for you. Satisfied?"

Hectator remained silent for a bit, digesting this information. Then he nodded, and gave Jessan a tight smile. "I can... .understand... your motivation." he allowed. "But I think you'd be here anyway." He raised an eyebrow at Jessan, who gave him a toothy grin in response.

"You humans are not so bad after all." He noted cheerfully. "Some of you, anyway." The forest dweller raised one hand to push open the door to the inner chamber, where the castle workers had assembled food for the denizens of the city. "Hmm... smells good." he noted appreciatively.

Hectator led them towards the head table, lifting his hand in acknowledgment as his captains noticed his presence. Small knots of men and women were clustered around the trestle tables scattered across the hall, some of the women holding small children, obviously family members spending time with their solder fathers and husbands. Hectator grimaced. He had no lady, as of yet, though there were several prospects in the offing. I'll miss having known that. He thought to himself. He held no illusions of surviving - Ansteles would see to that, even if he allowed part of his forces to surrender and disperse. Sighing, he pulled out a chair at the high table, and seated himself, as his three companions did the same. A castle steward glided up, carrying a pitcher and a bread trencher.

"Thanks." Hectator murmured, absently, as he passed the bread towards Jessan. A hand touched his arm and startled him - he looked to his left, and was captured by Xena's pale blue eyes. He raised an eyebrow in question.

"Hectator." Xena said, in a low voice. "You have to snap out of it. You can't lead troops like this."

"Like what." Hectator answered, mildly, propping his chin up with one hand. "Sorry, Xena, I can't pretend either enthusiasm or optimism when I feel exactly none." he gestured around the room. "Would it be fair to them? They know, Xena. Look at their faces. Look into their eyes. We don't have a chance tomorrow. And some of them may even escape to the forest." He lowered his voice and returned her intense gaze. "So, for the last time, would you please get out of here! And take Jessan with you."

"Look" Xena said, reaching over and grabbing his lapels, startling him with her sudden violence. "I've been around a while, long enough to know that anything can happen in war, Hectator. Anything. But if you go in defeated, you'll come out that way. If you want to believe you're going to die out there, fine. But you have to give everyone else here a fighting chance. That includes Jessan. That includes me. I am not going to go out there tomorrow thinking that I'm not coming back. I can't. " her voice dropped to a sibilant whisper. "I can't." She flashed a glance to her right, where Jessan was talking in a low voice to Gabrielle. Hectator didn't miss the glance. "So you'd better decide if you can put on a good enough act for your people, or I'm going to have to do something about it. You hear me?"

Hectator studied her in silence, getting a glimpse for the first time of an understanding about this very extraordinary woman. "All right." He answered, throwing his life, his beliefs, his honor into the swirling currents of fate. He didn't believe in his future, but, inescapably, he believed in her. That would have to be enough, at least for now. "I hear you." He took a deep breath, and then released it. When he raised his eyes, defeat was no longer in them. He scanned around the room, exchanging glances with his captains, giving those scarred faces a little nod, a small smile. Unaccountably, the pall in the room lessened, voices rose to more normal pitches. Hectator felt a small thrill, chasing down his spine. I did that. He glanced at Xena, saw the faint smile chasing across her lips, and returned it. "I keep forgetting you've been here before." He admitted, sheepishly.

Xena snorted. "Yeah. Once or twice." she leaned back and bit thoughtfully into a chunk of meat as she listened to Gabrielle relating some story or other to a fascinated Jessan. Suddenly the words caught her attention, and she smiled. She would be telling him that story. Wait. The woman's a bard... ."Gabrielle." Xena interrupted, leaning forward to catch her attention.

"Hmm?" Gabrielle answered, tilting her head towards her companion. "What's up?"

"Feel up to giving this lot a story?" Xena jerked her head to encompass the room. "I think they could use some encouragement." She watched Gabrielle scan the room, then nod in understanding.

"See what you mean." she commented, taking a deep breath. "Ok. I think I've gotten my second wind here. Let me see what I can come up with." She sat silent for a moment, then a smile crossed her face. "I think I have one."

Xena watched the bard as she gracefully crossed the to the front of the hall, and perched on a low table, gathering the eyes of the citizens on her. As she started to tell the story, and the crowds attention became focused on her, Xena recognized the tale. Oh Gabrielle... good choice. she laughed in delight to herself. Another tale of a small force against impossible odds, where the outnumbered, outclassed victims overcame the odds, the opposition, and their own natures to win the day. It was one of her own personal favorites, and the bard knew that. She settled back to enjoy, keeping Hectator's now engrossed face in her peripheral vision.

 

******************

 

Gabrielle sat in the room they had been shown to after dinner, watching Xena make some last minute preparations with armor and weapons.

"Great job with that story, by the way." Xena commented, glancing at her over one shoulder. "it was perfect."

"Thanks." Gabrielle answered, absently. "I know you like that one, too. " She started to say something else, but fell silent. After a moment, she started again, only to close her mouth uncertainly. "Xena." she finally managed to ask. "There's no way we're going to win tomorrow, is there?"

Xena looked up at her companion, noticing the expression in her face. She quickly finished what she was doing, and walked over to the bard, sitting down on the bed facing her. Gently, Xena... don't scare her to death. "Nothing is impossible, Gabrielle." She glanced down at her armored bracer, then back up to meet the bard's green eyes honestly. "But, no. It doesn't look good."

"Oh." Gabrielle murmured. "You'll be careful, won't you?" What a dumb thing to say, Gabrielle. "Remember, you promised me." she added, with a weak smile.

Xena sighed softly. "Yes, I did, didn't I." She examined the bracer again. "I'd rather not be known as a person who doesn't keep promises." She looked up and found herself gazing right into Gabrielle's eyes at a short distance. Well, it's now or never. I hate doing this, but I'm not sure I have a choice. Not and have a hope of keeping that promise. "Will you do something for me?"

"For you? " Gabrielle blurted, puzzled. "Anything, sure... what... ." What could she possibly ask for?

"No matter how it looks... .Gabrielle, don't come out onto the battlefield tomorrow." A clipped, precise, deadly serious tone.

"Wait a minute." Gabrielle snapped. "You are NOT going to do this to me." she clenched her fists. "No way. I am not going to be left behind here like so much baggage. We've been over and over this, Xena. No way."

Xena's voice hardened. "Gabrielle... ." she started, a low warning in her tone.

The bard threw her hands up in upset outrage. "Look! I am really tired of being treated like some little kid! I can take care of myself, Xena!"

Ok. Wrong tactic. Let's try plan B. "Please." Xena captured her hands, and leaned forward, softening her voice and eyes. ."Gabrielle, I've never asked you for anything. Have I? "

Gabrielle was caught by the question. "No." she finally whispered. "Don't ask for this. Don't ask me to stay on the sidelines while you go out there, gods, Xena please... "

"I'm asking." Xena's blue eyes sparked as she let loose the reins on her forceful personality for just a moment. "Promise me." Her voice dipped a pitch lower. "PROMISE ME."

"OK... OK... " the bard answered, gritting her teeth. . "I promise." Her eyes were stormy. "but... Xena, why ? I mean, I know it's dangerous, but everyone including the farmers with pitchforks are going to be out there... ." her voice trailed off at the expression on Xena's suddenly still face. Uh oh. I don't think this is about my skill with a staff, is it... ...

Xena dropped her eyes for a long moment, then let out a long held breath. Plan B does require an explanation, Xena... that's why you hoped Plan A would do the trick, right? Right.

"Look, It's going to be... .pretty rough out there tomorrow. I'm going to need all the concentration I have just to... well, anyway. " Xena finally said, watching Gabrielle's face as she gently chafed the bard's hands, still held in her own. "And If you're out there, Gabrielle, my mind will be wherever you are, not with the guy with the sword in front of me." She lifted her eyes and met Gabrielle's startled gaze. Never figured that out, did you?  She smiled, briefly. "And I'd like a fighting chance at keeping that promise."

The words rang in Gabrielle's ears, in a sudden, still quiet. I always wondered why she always makes me stay out of things. Now she tells me. "Oh." she sighed. "I never realized" A flash of countless close calls presented itself to her minds eye, where Xena just happened to be in the right place at the right time to stop an arrow, a knife, a sword... . 'I guess I should have." How much denser could I have possibly been? How much blinder? Gods.

In a silence so profound, Xena swore she could hear the stones in the building settling, they just sat and looked at each other. Finally, Xena looked down at their still linked hands, and sighed. She squeezed once, then released the bard. "We need to get some rest before tomorrow."

"Yeah." Gabrielle responded. "I guess we do." Her voice sounded choked.

Xena removed her armor, then settled against the headboard, half reclining. She folded her hands across her stomach, and turned her head slightly to watch Gabrielle, who was curling up next to her, far too slowly, a stricken look on her face. OK OK... .now what? I've used up all my clever sayings this round - not that I have many... . She tilted her dark head, and met Gabrielle's troubled gaze. "Hey" she said softly, lifting one arm and reaching around the bard with it. ""C'mere." she continued, pulling Gabrielle into a hug. With a small choking sound, her companion complied.

That just scared me worse than that battle tomorrow. Xena mused to herself. Gods, I'm so unprepared to fight on this battleground, it's pathetic. She regarded at the top of Gabrielle's head, as the bard relaxed . At least I made her feel better. I know she likes hugs Her lips quirked into a wry grin. I never thought I'd get used to that.

She settled back, idly remembering her early travels with Gabrielle. She'd explained, and explained, until she was about blue in the face to the stubborn girl that touching or especially grabbing Xena was a bad, if not deadly idea. My body doesn't know you're a friend, Gabrielle. It assumes everyone is an enemy, and it doesn't stop to ask my brain what to do. You could get hurt. If you do it just the wrong way, you could get killed. And Gabrielle was pretty good after that, always making sure she approached Xena from the front, no surprises - and when she occasionally forgot and reached out to grasp an arm, Xena at least saw it coming, and kept from knocking her into next week.

So, then one day, after they'd been traveling around for a while, they met some bad guys trashing a village. Which one? Who knew. They stopped the pillaging, and scared off the marauders, but it had been a hard, tough fight. Xena had been sitting by the fire not long after, tired, sore, and depressed, when Gabrielle, thinking who knew what, had just walked up behind her, grasped the back of her neck with both hands and started kneading.

Xena laughed to herself now, thinking of it. Right after an ugly battle, and me in one of my darker moods. I should have broken half her ribs. But she hadn't, and the bard's hands had released tension in her shoulders by their very touch...  Not a twitch from her dependably hair trigger reflexes. Not a twitch from her much vaunted defensive instincts. Nothing.

I should have known it then. Xena thought, gazing down at her companion affectionately. Was I ever surprised. So was she. What sarcastic comment did I make? Oh yeah... ."Guess I was more tired than I thought. You were lucky" Xena mentally rolled her eyes. Now look at us... She shook her head in disbelief. And I could even lie to myself and say I only do this for her sake. Right. And just exactly how many people in my life blindly trust me, like this?

How does she know? Gabrielle wondered, as she willingly snuggled close, throwing one arm over Xena's waist, and letting her head rest on Xena's shoulder, where her ear could detect the steady heartbeat. She always knows when I need this. Not words, not explanations, just... .this. Blessed if I don't spend most of my time just peeking in the window, and then she just opens the door and invites me in. And it's so warm and safe in here, I don't ever want to go back outside. "Thanks." she whispered, glancing up. "I know you as a rule don't like this kind of thing."

Xena gazed down at her with an unfathomable expression. "As a rule, no." She drawled, coolly. Then she smiled all the way to her eyes. "But you're an exception to the rule, Gabrielle."

"Am I?." the bard breathed. glad that Xena couldn't see the dumb look she was sure was on her face.

"Mm hmm." Xena confirmed.

Gabrielle was silent for a bit, drinking that in. Then she asked, thoughtfully "Xena, are you ever scared? I mean, when you know you're going to have to... ."

"No." Xena replied, thoughtfully. "Not when I'm fighting." She hesitated. "There really isn't time to be."

Gabrielle blinked at her. "Any other time?" she asked, curious. With one ear pressed against Xena's chest, she could hear Xena's heartbeat pick up a little.

An extremely simple question, with extremely complex answers. "Sometimes I get scared when I think about the consequences." The warrior finally answered, in a measured tone. "Will my plans work, how many people will end up dead because of them, what happens to the people who are left... that kind of thing."

"Oh." The bard considered for a moment. "Well, your plans usually work out... but, do you ever... .I mean, are you ever... ." Gabrielle paused. She had a captive audience here, and she was going to ask this question.

Xena looked down at her with a surprising amount of compassion. "Am I afraid of dying?"

Gabrielle fell silent. She was really glad Xena didn't have the opportunity to hear her heart right now, because it was pounding so hard she was surprised it wasn't audible. "Yeah. Something like that." she mumbled, and felt Xena's chest move as she took and released a long breath.

"I didn't used to be." Xena finally admitted, a smile beginning to etch itself on her face, unseen by the bard. "In fact, at one time I would have welcomed it." She felt Gabrielle stiffen under her protective arm. "There really wasn't much to worry about leaving. Now... ." she laughed slightly. "Let's just say it's an area of serious concern for me."

"Please be careful. " Gabrielle said quietly. "I'd really miss you."

"I will." Xena replied, just as quietly. "I'd really miss you, too." She reached out with her free arm, and doused the candle by the bedside. "Get some rest." Xena added, and gazed thoughtfully at the bard, who showed no signs of moving an inch. The warrior grinned resignedly, then firmly closed her eyes.

 

***************

 

It was still dark out when Gabrielle was woken by a soft pat on the back. She blinked sleepily, then looked up to where she could just make out the glint of Xena's pale eyes in the low candlelight. "Oh... sorry." she mumbled, realizing she'd fallen asleep on her companion's shoulder. "You shouldn't have let me do that, Xena. It couldn't have been comfortable " She looked up at the window. "How long did I... "

Xena chuckled. "It's almost dawn." She gave the bard's dismayed expression an amused look, and shrugged. "I slept just fine. Don't worry about it." she yawned slightly. "I'm going to go wash up before I have to put all that armor on."

Gabrielle watched her pad silently into the bathing room before she sat up and stretched. Hmm. Not as sore as she had been expecting, given all that blasted riding yesterday. Maybe she was getting used to it. In fact, she felt amazingly good, considering... incredible what a good night's sleep... .her thoughts paused. A good night's sleep without nightmares, she realized with a start. Huh. that hasn't happened in a while. Not really surprising, she mocked herself. Hard to have your worst nightmare when you fall asleep with the subject's very alive heartbeat pounding in one ear, huh. Too bad I couldn't do that all the time she muffled a sigh as she tugged her boots on, and selected a piece of fruit to munch on as she walked to the balcony to peer out at the darkness.

"See anything?" Xena voice drifted out towards her, and she turned to see the warrior emerge into the room carrying her leathers and wringing excess water out of her dark hair. Gabrielle grinned at the sight.

"Nope." She commented, biting into the crisp fruit. "That was quick." she added, stepping back inside the room.

"Very cold water." Xena drawled, wryly, as she slid into the leathers, and fastened the shoulder straps. "Now I'm really awake." she commented, walking over to where she'd left her carefully arranged armor, and lifting the shoulder and breastplate sections over her head.

"Here, let me get that." Gabrielle put down the piece of fruit and reached for a strap. She snugged the buckle tight, glancing at Xena's face for an indication of correct fit. Xena nodded, busy with her right vambrace, which was always a nuisance. Gabrielle finished the other shoulder strap, then took over lacing the stubborn bracer, with a faint grin. "This stuff is worse than an Athenian puzzle box, sometimes."

"Sometimes." Xena grinned, and stood patiently as the bard finished lacing. Then she strapped on the extra upper leg and upper arm plates, slapping the shoulder protection into place with practiced ease. Extra daggers, the chakram, and finally her sword, fastened securely at her back. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet once or twice, settling all the pieces. "OK." She took a deep breath. "Let's go." She riffled her fingers through her dark hair, and freed it from it's entrapment under her armor, then moved towards the door, as a soft knock came from the other side.

Jessan opened the door to Xena's room, as he heard the warrior's voice call out to enter. The scant candlelight in the room reflected off the armor plating she was wearing as she crossed towards him. He moved back into the hallway to let her pass, and grinned a hello at Gabrielle who was following.

"They're still about two hours out" He commented to Xena, who nodded. "Looks like they'll try a full out frontal assault - we're not going to be able to hold the walls. We need to meet them in front, if we've any chance."

Jessan's calm analysis matched Xena's own, so again she merely nodded. Hectator's troops were, at least, all mounted, and fairly experienced soldiers. She could have worse to work with, and had before. There just weren't enough of them. She matched Jessan's long strides down the hallway towards the courtyard, where she began to make out the orderly activity of battle preparation. Hectator spotted them, and left his men immediately, crossing towards them with a brisk stride.

"My friends." Hectator said, as he drew even with them. "My allies." He nodded shyly at Jessan. "The time as come to go forth." His eyes searched theirs. "It gives me no joy to have you here, preparing to go under arms in a fight that is rightfully not your own."

"Hectator." Xena said, forcefully. "Stop telling me what fights I should, or should not get involved in." She gazed into his eyes. "Look at me, and tell me you don't want me fighting on your side."

Hectator's mouth twitched. That blue gaze saw right through him. "No.' he smiled. "I won't tell you that." he dropped his gaze, then lifted it again, this time pleading with her. "In fact, may I ask a great favor of you?"

Jessan quirked an eyebrow at the human, amused. He had a good idea of what Hectator was about to ask, and wondered if Xena would agree. He certainly agreed. Already, the rising tension around him was making his hair prickle. Little tingles of excitement traveled up and down his arms, and he sniffed the rising dawn wind in eager anticipation.

Xena eyed him warily. "Sure. Ask."

"Since I can't convince you to leave, would you do us a great honor?" Hectator paused, waiting. It was going to be a very ugly day, and he wanted to have at least one bright moment to take into it.

"I don't know" Xena said, raising both eyebrows. "You haven't told me what it is you want!"

"Lead us." the prince asked, simply.

Xena was stunned. She studied his face in silence, as they all waited for her response. Finally, she flicked her gaze to the horizon, then back. "All right." Saw relief in Hectator's eyes, and glee in Jessan's. A grim smile from Gabrielle, but a little nod as well. "Let's get going, then. They won't wait all day." Silently, she glanced up at the stars. Ares, I hope you're watching. This one's payback for keeping your word and giving me my body back. She swore she heard an satisfied chuckle in response.

"We won't be able to hold them for a siege." Xena said, as they headed towards the assembling troops. "We need to form up on the little slope between those two hillock arms." She gestured towards the front of the castle. "If we can funnel them between those escarpments, we can slow their advance." She slowed to a stop beside Argo, who snorted at her. The golden mare wore a woven padded coat under her saddle, along with leg and chest protectors. Xena stroked her neck lightly, and prepared to mount, aware of Hectator and Jessan moving towards their own steeds. Gabrielle stepped up quietly and grasped Argo's bridle to hold her still.

Xena paused, and let her hand rest on Argo's back, while she regarded her companion. Gabrielle returned the look, for once seemingly without words.

The bard cleared her throat finally. "Take care." she said, her voice slightly hoarse, and released Argo's bridle, stepping back out of the way.

"I will" Xena answered, moving away from Argo and opening her arms. "Don't squeeze too tight." She cautioned. "You'll get poked." She clasped the bard to her gently for a moment, and felt Gabrielle's arms tighten convulsively around her, regardless of her armor. She closed her eyes, and let her cheek rest on the top of the bard's head until she felt Gabrielle's grasp relax and only then released her own hold. They both stepped back a pace, gazing at each other, still loosely linked in each other's arms.

Something passed between them. Not in words, perhaps not even in thoughts. Xena smiled a little, then bent forward and gently kissed the bard on the forehead. "Be good." she warned.

Gabrielle nodded a little. "Be careful."

"See you later." Xena drawled, and mounted Argo in one fluid move. "I promise." She grinned, and headed the horse towards the gate.

"You promise." Gabrielle echoed, softly. "I'll remember that." She took a breath, then turned and headed inside the castle, where the castle steward was frantically trying to prepare for the worst. Gabrielle gently took over for him.