Whither Thou Goest

By Onora

This story takes place shortly after Return of Callisto.

Chapter 1

Screams of terror echoed through the quiet forest, stopping the tall, raven haired warrior and her smaller companion in their tracks. An eerie silence filled the air as the screams faded. "It came from up ahead." determined the warrior, breaking into a run as she spoke. Without a word the strawberry blond followed her friend.

In a small clearing they found three women being terrorized by five ruffians. One of the men held an auburn haired young woman by the waist, who was struggling in vain to pull away from her captor. His friends cheered him on as they surrounded the other two women.

"Oh come on precious," he taunted. "How's about a little kiss?" Pulling her closer as he spoke.

"NO!" she screamed, trying to turn away. Catching a whiff of the foul odor reeking from the man's mouth, a growing sense of nausea sweep over her.

From the woods behind the struggling pair came a calm but threatening voice. "Can't you hear? The lady said, no." Foul Breath turned to the source of the voice, momentarily forgetting his prey. As his eyes contacted with the large warrior's she continued. "Or are you just stupid?"

"Well, will you look at what we have here fellows?" laughed Foul Breath sarcastically. "Looks like we're going to have more than enough goodies to go around." Licking his lips as he hungrily eyed the warrior from head to toe.

'Scum.' Xena scoffed silently. 'Always thinking with everything but their heads.'

"Well there's your answer." quipped Gabrielle. "He's just stupid."

Foul Breath snarled as he glared at the smaller woman, standing next to the warrior.

"You're asking for trouble little girl." he warned, than his anger faded to a wicked smile as his eyes swept over her. Gabrielle felt repulsed by the look. "But, my friends might like a little 'trouble'." Leaning back to call over his shoulder. "Right boys?" Laughter from the other men helped to strengthen his stupidity. Pushing his forgotten victim away, Foul Breath stepped closer to Xena. "Come on, beautiful," reaching for her with grimly hand. "Let's have some fun."

Xena's lips curled back into a wicked snarl. "All right." purred the warrior as she drove a fist into his face, breaking his nose with a resounding crack. A little fact he would sorely realize when he regained consciousness.

Seeing their companion so easily defeated, the remaining men drew their swords and slowly advanced on the warrior and bard. Two of them approached from the front, while the other two tried to out flank the pair. Xena drew her sword as she and Gabrielle shifted their positions so each was protecting the other's back, waiting for the attack. They did not have to wait long.

With a loud curse the man on Gabrielle's right lunged, while the two facing Xena charged forward as one. Gabrielle easily deflected the downward strike aimed at her head. Swinging her staff upward she knocked the sword from the startled man's grasp. Following up with a solid jab to the solar plexus, which sent her attacker to his knees gasping for air.

Xena parried the closest man's weapon, using the momentum of the block to deflect the second man's weapon. Then followed through driving the butt of her sword into the first man's face, dropping him to the ground. Having recovered the second man swung full force at the warrior's head. Xena's sword met the oncoming blade with incredible speed and power, snapping her opponent's blade in half. Stunned the man stood for a moment looking from the broken sword to the smiling warrior. Dropping the now useless weapon he turned and sprinted into the woods.

Seeing his friend abandoning the fight, the remaining man retreated a safe distance from the bard's staff. Stopping to drag his still gasping friend to his feet, they turned and ran into the woods. Gabrielle smiled in satisfaction as she watched them disappear into the forest.

Certain the danger had passed Xena turned to her friend. She knew Gabrielle was unharmed. But, it had become habit after every fight to locate the young bard and give her a visional once over, just to be sure. Gabrielle's eyes locked with the warrior's and she smiled in answer to her friend's silent question. Xena smiled back warmly.

Soft whimpering drew the friend's attention to the three women, who sat huddled in the middle of the road. One of the women appeared much older than the other two. She knelt in the dirt with the younger women kneeling on either side, holding her tightly. As the warrior and bard approached all three raised their heads to stare at their rescuers. At first, none of them spoke the older woman appeared to be in shock. To her left was a dark haired woman whose eyes were filled with fear. But, the auburn haired woman to her right offered a look of gratitude. "Thank you." She said as her eyes met Xena's holding the warrior's stare.

"You're welcome." replied the warrior.

"Are you all right?" Gabrielle asked.

Pulling herself away from Xena's strong gaze, auburn hair turned to Gabrielle. "Yes, I think so. Those men were rough, but fortunately you arrived before they could do any real harm."

"Glad we could help." smiled the bard. "Is your village near here?"

"No, we are strangers in this land. We are just traveling through." auburn hair replied. The older woman groaned.

"Mother are you all right?" Dark hair asked, gently stroking the older woman's hair.

Nodding slowly, the frail woman tried to stand. "I...I'm fine. Help me up." Both women took her arms, gently pulling her to her feet. Smiling affectionately at each, before turning her attention to the warrior and bard. "Thank you for your help. If you had not arrived, they would have..."

"Glad we could help." interrupted Xena.

"Who are you?" asked auburn hair.

"I'm Xena." answered the large woman then she motioned toward the bard. "And this is Gabrielle." Trained eyes searched the surrounding wood line. "Is anyone else traveling with you?"

"No." Sighed the older woman. "Just the three of us." Then her mood seemed to brighten for a moment. "Where are my manners? I have not properly introduced us. I am Naomi and these are my daughters in laws. This is Orpah." Placing a gentle hand on the dark haired woman's shoulder while offering her a warm smile. Turning to the auburn haired woman, a weathered hand reached out to affectionately stroke a youthful cheek. "And this is Ruth." She paused for a moment to give the younger woman a loving smile. Which Ruth returned with equal affection.

Remembering the waiting warrior and bard, she turned to them. "We are returning to the land of my birth." Flipping her hand in the direction of the still unconscious Foul Breath. "That man offered to lead us." Disgust filled her voice. "Instead, he brought us here to meet his friends."

Xena glanced at the sprawled figure before turning back to Naomi. "Where are your kinsmen?"

A sad smile crossed Naomi's face as a distant look entered her eyes. "With our God. My husband and sons have died, which is why I am returning to my homelands."

"I'm sorry for your loss." Gabrielle said with such sadness and feeling even Xena turned to look at her.

Naomi stared at her for a moment, wondering what tragedy could have made one so young so sympathetic. "Thank you."

"Where are your homelands?" asked the warrior, feeling a need to change the subject.

"Judah." Naomi replied.

An eyebrow arched in surprise. "That's quite a distance from here."

"Yes, it is." agreed Ruth, gently brushing a stray strand of gray hair from Naomi's face. "But, we have no choice. Mother must return home."

"Judah is at least a three weeks walk from here," stated Xena. "with a lot of open country between."

"I know." Ruth replied.

Naomi raised her face skyward. "God will guide us through."

The warrior and the bard exchanged quick glances. "We're heading for Carinus," Xena explained. "It lays long the road to Judah. We'd be happy to travel with you at least that far. If you'd like?"

Naomi smiled at her graciously. "Thank you. But, you've already done so much. We would only slow you down."

"Well, we're not in any hurry." offered the bard with friendly smile.

"Please, Mother." pleaded Oprah. "We could use their help."

"She is right, Mother. We cannot make the trip alone." agreed Ruth. "You said that God would provide us with the means to complete our journey." Nodding toward their rescuers. "It would appear he has."

Silently eyeing first her daughter in laws, then the two strangers before her, the older woman finally shook her head in mock defeat. "All right, we will travel together." An audible sigh of relief escaped Oprah as she and Ruth hugged the older woman.

"What about them?" Asked Orpah pointing at the two unconscious men.

"They'll be all right." Xena assured her. "I won't worry about them." Looking toward the sky she frowned thoughtfully. "Come on. It'll be dark soon. We need to find a campsite." Quickly they gathered the women's belongings and strapping them on Naomi's pack mule. With the items securely in place, they began their journey.

Chapter 2

With darkness lingering at the edges of the camp, the small group sat around the warmth of the campfire. In her usual bard style Gabrielle told how she and Xena had saved a group of orphans from eviction on Solstice eve. Explaining how they managed to change the King's mind without having to rearrange his body. All three women laughed heartily as Gabrielle described the 'fieriest' pillow fight which ended the hard won 'battle'. Even Xena was laughing at the memory of the feathery fight. Tears flowed down Ruth's cheeks as she shook with laughter.

"Oh, Gabrielle..." she gasped. "that was...wonderful."

After the laugher had died down, Naomi was the first to regain her composer. "Well this has been most enjoyable. But, it is time for these old bones to rest. We have a long day ahead of us and I wish to reach the crossroads by midday." Ruth and Orpah grew solemn at the mention of the crossroads. The reaction was not lost on the warrior and bard.

"What's at the crossroads." Gabrielle asked.

"The road to Moad." answered Naomi.

"I thought you were going to Judah." A hint of suspicion entered Xena's voice.

"I am." answered Naomi, raising to her feet. "But, my daughter in laws are from Moad. Tomorrow we will part company at the crossroads. They will return to their kinsmen and I to mine." Ruth hung her head at these words. Orpah sat quietly staring into the fire.

Finally Ruth broke the uneasy silence. "Please Mother will you not reconsider and allow us to accompany you?"

"No Daughter. Today's events only confirmed my fears, this journey would only endanger the two of you and I will not risk you lives."

"But, Mother..." Ruth started to protest.

"Enough!" Naomi cut her off sharply. Soften her tone she reached down to stroke the younger woman's cheek. "We have already discussed this daughter. It is for the best."

Ruth opened her mouth, but stopped herself. "Yes, Mother." she whispered, dropping her eyes. Gabrielle felt her heart sink for Ruth. It was obvious the thought of leave Naomi was tearing her apart. For a moment her mind drifted back to another campfire. Only this time she was the one begging for a chance to stay. Xena had protested at first, even threatened to send her home. Much to the bard's relief the Warrior Princess had finally given in. She could not image what her life would have been like if Xena had refused her. After all they had been though she could not see herself anywhere other then at Xena's side. Glancing at the warrior, their eyes met and Xena smiled warmly. Gabrielle was almost certain Xena had been reliving the same memory.

Naomi's voice bought them out of their thoughts. "Xena, Gabrielle thank you for your help today. I know now that you are indeed gifts from God. Goodnight."

Xena nodded. "Goodnight."

Gabrielle laughed uncomfortably at the compliment. "Thank you, goodnight."

Naomi smiled at both women, then turned away to her bedroll. Orpah yawned widely. "Oh my, it has been a long day. I think I will turn in as well." Standing she placed a hand on Ruth's shoulder. "Are you coming, Sister?"

Placing her hand over the slender one resting on her shoulder, Ruth looked up at her. "In a minute."

Orpah squeezed her shoulder affectionately, before releasing it. Almost as an afterthought she turned to Xena and Gabrielle. "Goodnight and thank you for your help." Without waiting for a reply she moved to the bedroll spread out beside Naomi.

"Goodnight." Gabrielle called after her.

The three remaining women sat by the fire in comfortable silence. Each lost in her own thoughts.

"Xena," Ruth's voice shattered the silence. "how far is it from Carinus to Judah?"

Gabrielle jumped at the unexpected sound. Noting the bard's reaction, Xena tried to hide a smile as she answered. "Almost another weeks travel."

Ruth fell silent once more, returning to the internal battle she had been wagging. Reaching a decision her eyes rose to meet Xena's gaze. "I know I have no right to ask this of you. You have already done so much for us. But..." Losing some of her nerve the words trailed off, taking a deep breath she continued. "My mother is to old to make such a trip alone and she will not allow myself or my sister to accompany her. Would you...could you please go with her to Judah?" Her eyes pleaded louder than her voice ever could.

Xena could feel Gabrielle staring her, but she refused to look at the bard. Instead, holding Ruth's gaze. "We will see to it that she arrives safely." Xena assured her. From the corner of her eye, she could see Gabrielle smiling broadly.

Though it was nothing compared to the smile Ruth offered her. "Thank you. I know you will take good care of her."

"Ruth," Gabrielle asked. "Why won't Naomi let you go with her?"

Sighing the auburn haired woman allowed herself a sad smile. "She believes she will only be a burden to us."

Gabrielle finished the thought for her. "That no man would want a wife and her mother in law."

"Exactly." laughed Ruth sadly.

"Do you want to leave her?" Xena asked pointedly.

Ruth's head snapped up quickly. "No! No, I do not." Glancing at the sleeping woman, she added softly. "She is my family."

This time Xena met Gabrielle's gaze and held it for a moment. Gabrielle finally broke the contact to look at Ruth. "Have you told her that you don't want to leave her?"

"I have tried but she refuses to listen. She is a very stubborn and proud woman. She does not like to be dependant on anyone. Besides, I know she is only trying to protect me."

"I understand." Gabrielle looked knowingly at Xena as she spoke. In reply the warrior merely raised an eyebrow. Causing the bard to turn away biting back a laugh.

Silence lingered in the air once more. For a change Xena was the first to break it. "It's getting late, you should get some sleep."

Ruth nodded and rose to her feet. "Thank you again for your kindness." Xena and Gabrielle smiled at her in reply. She turned and went to her family.

"I'm glad you agreed to help Naomi." said the bard as Xena leaned forward to place a large log on the fire.

"Huh, it's not like I had a choice. I knew you wouldn't give me a moments peace if I had said no." teased the warrior without looking up from the fire.

"Oh, so now it's all my fault that your going soft." Gabrielle teased back, enjoying the rare moment.

Xena's head snapped up. Slowly a warm smile spread across her face. "Well, someone did tell me once that sometimes it's good for the soul to be soft."

"So you actually do listen to my stories." answered Gabrielle unable to hide her surprise.

"Always." said Xena softly. "Now get some sleep. We'll leave at first light."

Chapter 3

Early morning sunlight streaked through the trees as Apollo's chariot began it's daily journey. Xena gave Agro's saddle strap a final tug, assuring herself it was tight enough. Laughter drifted from the area of the slowly dying fire as Gabrielle and their traveling companions sat enjoying breakfast. Strolling toward them, the warrior stopped next to Gabrielle. Reaching down she playfully tussled reddish gold hair and was reward with a smile. "I'm going to ride ahead and make sure the roadway is clear. Finish up and start moving as quickly as you can."

"Okay." replied Gabrielle still smiling at her.

Xena returned the smile, before heading back to Argo.

"Be careful." She heard the bard call after her.

"Yes, mother." jokingly replied the warrior over her shoulder. Smiling to herself as she was rewarded with a chuckle from the bard. Mounting Argo, she gave the mare a quick kick and they were gone.

Gabrielle sat watching the Warrior Princess disappear in the distance.

"Does she expect to find trouble ahead?" Orpah asked.

Turning her attention to the woman, Gabrielle could see the concern in her eyes. "No," assured the bard with her warmest smile. "she just wants to make sure the road is clear. So we won't have to waste time doubling back."

"Have you and your sister been traveling long?" asked Naomi from across the dying fire.

"My sister...?" asked Gabrielle clearly confused by the question. "Oh, you thought..." Laughter shook the small woman. "Xena's not my sister. At least, not by blood, she's my best friend."

Ruth raised an eyebrow in surprise. "Really. I was certain you were family."

Gabrielle laughed again. "Well, we are family. Just not by birth. We met a little over two years ago when Xena saved my village from raiders. When she left, I followed her and we've been together every since."

"You have only known each other two years?" asked Orpah in surprise. "But, you seem so close."

"We've been through a lot together." Sadness flickered in the bard's eyes as she spoke. "Good and bad."

"The road is no place for lovely young women like you and Xena." declared Naomi shaking her finger at Gabrielle as she spoke. "You should both find yourselves good husbands and settle down. Start families."

"Mother!" Orpah chimed embarrassed by the older woman's words.

"It's all right." Gabrielle assured her. "The truth is I had a good husband, even tried to settle down." Dropping her head, she added quietly. "But the Fates had other plans."

"Where is your husband now?" asked Orpah softly.

Tears welled in Gabrielle's eyes as she raised her head. "The Other Side."

Ruth placed a gentle reassuring hand on the small blond's shoulder. "We understand your grief my friend."

Seeing the sincerity in Ruth's eyes, Gabrielle smiled. "I know you do. Thank you." For a moment they sat in silence, each reliving a memory of the love they had lost.

Mentally shaking herself, Gabrielle started to raise. "If we want to reach the crossroads by noon, we'd better get going." Packing the last of their supplies on the mule, Gabrielle turned to the others. "Are we ready?" All three nodded in agreement. "Good. Let's go." She said stepping onto the road.

A candle mark had passed when Gabrielle noticed a wagon and rider approaching. "Looks like Xena found some company." As they drew closer Gabrielle recognized the wagon driver.

"Melas!" she called jogging forward to greet him. "How are you? It's good to see you. What are you doing here?"

Pulling the wagon to a stop Melas stared down at the bard, overwhelmed by her greeting.

"It's all right, Melas." Xena assured him, as she halted Argo near the wagon. "You don't have to answer all of her questions at once."

Gabrielle's face flushed slightly as she realized what she had done. "Sorry." She said with a shrug.

"No harm done." smiled Melas, reaching down to offer his hand. "It's good to see you, Gabrielle. I'm glad to see you're still in one piece."

Accepting the offered hand the bard frowned slightly. "Why won't I be?" She asked innocently.

"Well knowing the kind of attention you and Xena attract, I'm just glad to see you still have your head."

"So am I." laughed Gabrielle. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm on my way to Moad. I met Xena on the road this morning and she asked if I would escort your friends there."

"She did?" asked Gabrielle looking at the warrior and smiling before turning back to Melas. "Good. I know they'll be safe with you."

"This is Melas." announced Gabrielle to the women standing behind her. "He's a friend. Melas, this is Naomi and her daughter in laws. Ruth and Orpah."

"Greetings." said Naomi. Ruth and Orpah nodded politely.

"Hello." replied Melas.

"Come on let's get loaded up." ordered Xena.

Ruth and Orpah helped Naomi onto the wagon seat next to Melas, before climbing into the rear of the wagon.

After tying the mule to the rear of the wagon, Gabrielle started walking down the road. Xena moved Argo into her path. "What do you think you're doing?"

"Well, it's such a pretty day I thought I'd walk after all we..."

"You're not walking." Xena cut her off.

"But..."

"Come on." commanded the warrior offering her hand to the bard. Gabrielle eyed it for a moment, sighing she reached up to take it. Effortlessly Xena pulled her up onto Argo's back. Gabrielle struggled for a moment trying to get comfortable. Finally she wrapped her arms around Xena's waist. "Ready?" asked the warrior.

"Ready as I'm going to be I guess." replied the bard.

"Good." grinned the warrior nudging Argo forward they fell in beside the wagon.

Chapter 4

Apollo's chariot had not reached the midway point of it's journey, when they arrived at the crossroads. Xena and Melas took the horses for water, while Gabrielle and the other women sat up camp. With practiced ease Gabrielle build a small fire, while Naomi prepared the food to be cooked.

Near the edge of the clearing Ruth and Orpah sat talking quietly. Appearing to have reached an agreement, they approached Naomi. As they drew near, Ruth spoke. "Mother we must speak with you."

"What have we to talk about my daughters?" Naomi asked.

"We wish to go with you to Judah." Orpah blurted out, then dropped her head in embarrassment at her own outburst.

Naomi eyed them thoughtfully before speaking. "I see. And for what purpose?"

"Because," answered Ruth. "You are our mother in law and we love you."

Naomi smiled warmly. "Yes, you are my daughter in laws. Your devotion to my sons and myself has been unequaled. I love you both." Allowing her head to drop. "Which is why I cannot allow you to come with me." Ruth started to protest, but Naomi raised a hand to silence her. "My sons, your husbands are gone and I am too old to bear more. Ever if I were to bear more, would you tarry for them till they were men? No, my dear daughters." Cupping Ruth's chin, she gently raised her face till their eyes meet. "I could not ask you to make such a sacrifice. You must return to the homes of your mothers and start new lives."

Ruth threw her arms around the older woman, unable to hold back the flood of emotions. Sobs cut through her words. "Please Mother...I beg of you...do not ask this of me. It is...more than I can bear."

"Hush, my child" whispered Naomi wrapping her arms around the sobbing woman. "You should not weep so. Not for an old woman like me."

"I will do as you wish, Mother." agreed Orpah hanging her head in defeat. "Though it would be easier to bear knowing at least one of us traveled with you."

Naomi stroked her cheek gently. "Thank you, my child."

Taking Ruth by the shoulders, she held the younger woman at arm's length. "Your sister has seen the wisdom in my words. Why do you still resist?"

Brushing away her tears, Ruth answered. "You are my family."

Naomi shook her head. "Yes, but, those who brought you into this world and share your blood are your true family."

Ruth swallowed hard. "Mother, I was born a stranger to you and your kin. But, through love and faith, my heart and yours are intertwined by a bond, stronger than any which could be made by mere flesh and blood."

"Please, Mother." Orpah begged. "Listen to what Ruth has said."

Closing her eyes to drive back further tears, Naomi started to protest. "It would not be right..."

A soul-wrenching wail stopped her in mid sentence.

All eyes turned to Ruth. Dropping to her knees before the older woman, the auburn haired woman continued to plea for the right to stay with this woman she called family. Gabrielle silently watched the emotional exchange. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she listened to Ruth's pleas, each word striking a chord in her own soul.

Finally, Naomi could stand no more. Blinded by tears she pulled Ruth unto her, holding her tightly. "Cry no more my daughter. I have heard your words and they have touched my heart. It will be as you have said."

Ruth collapsed against Naomi exhausted from the intense emotions and relieved she would be allowed to stay. Orpah embraced them and the three stood silently, none willing to release the other.

When Xena and Melas returned to the camp they found Naomi, Ruth and Orpah huddled together on a fallen log. They appeared to be engrossed in deep conversation. Gabrielle rose from a nearby stump, moving to greet them. Upon seeing Xena, all she wanted was to throw her arms around her friend and tell her all of the things Ruth had said. To tell her how beautiful and heartfelt the words had been. But most of all how perfectly they described her own feeling and thoughts. Instead she managed a weak smile, saying simply. "The food is ready."

"Great," replied Melas. "I'm starved."

Seeing Gabrielle's tear stained face, Xena felt a knot form in her stomach. As Melas left them, Xena moved close to the bard and spoke in a low tone. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." replied Gabrielle managing a weak smile. "You should eat before your food gets cold." Seeing the concern in her friend's eyes, she placed a reassuring hand on the warrior's arm. Holding her friend's deep blue gaze. "I'm okay, really." Managing a more convincing smile this time. "We'll talk later."

The assurance seemed to satisfy Xena as she smiled back. To Gabrielle's relief she could feel the warrior's arm muscles relax beneath her hand. Releasing Xena's arm she moved to join Melas by the fire. Xena watched her for a moment, before moving to join them.

With the meal finished they broke camp. Naomi and Ruth said tearful good byes to Orpah. Xena and Gabrielle said their good byes as well and wished she and Melas good luck on their journey. Xena was surprised to learn Naomi had agreed to allow Ruth to go with her. Though she had to admit, she was glad the woman had changed her mind. It was obvious Ruth cared deeply for her mother in law.

Chapter 5

Over all the journey to Carinus had been a pleasant one. Aside from a couple of run ins with roadside bandits, which the warrior and bard had easily dispatched, the journey had been a safe and uneventful one. Though Naomi and Ruth had not cared for the ambushes, Gabrielle knew Xena enjoyed the temporary distractions from the long trip. Much to Gabrielle's delight, Naomi and Ruth shared stories of their homelands. In return each night the bard would weave colorful tales of her adventures with the Warrior Princess. Xena would sit near the fire quietly listening, while tending to her armor and weapons.

Being almost in sight of Carinus, they decided to camp for the night. Shortly before sunset a wagon had passed their camp. To Gabrielle's surprise and delight it's driver was an old friend. Remembering the bard from her first trip to Amphipolis and later her journey home the old man actually seemed pleased to see her. After exchanging introductions she learned he was en route to Judah. With a little convincing from the bard he agreed to escort Naomi and Ruth there. It was decided they would spend the night in camp and meet him in the city in the morning.

As had become the custom for their journey, Naomi retired to her bedroll shortly after dinner. While Xena took Argo to a nearby stream for a drink and a rub down. Leaving Ruth and Gabrielle to chat by the fire.

"Ruth?" asked Gabrielle turning to the auburn haired woman.

"Yes?"

"That day at the crossroads, when Naomi wanted to leave you."

"Yes," asked Ruth, cringing slightly at the memory. "What about it?"

"Those things you said to your Mother they were...beautiful."

Ruth blushed at the praise. "Thank you, Gabrielle."

"You have such deep commitment for her." said the bard.

Ruth eyed her for a moment. "You seem surprised by that."

"Yeah, I guess I am, a little." answered Gabrielle. "You don't see devotion like that often."

Ruth chuckled loudly. "On the contrary Gabrielle, you see it every day."

Gabrielle could not hide the questioning look on her face.

Again Ruth laughed at Gabrielle's response. "You really don't understand what I mean do you?"

"I'm not sure." answered the bard slowly shaking her head.

"Gabrielle." began Ruth slowly. "I've only been with you and Xena for a couple of weeks, but even I can see the devotion you share for each other. You told me how you and she meet. How you left your family, friends and home to follow her. In what way does it differ? Do you not go where she goes? Do you not lodge where she lodges. Are you not her family and she yours. Would you not die by her side if need be? No, Gabrielle you are more fortunate than you know. For you have the greatest gift God can give. You have someone who loves you."

Gabrielle sat quietly, digesting the woman's words.

"I have seen the way she treats you, Gabrielle. The way she makes sure you are safe and protected. Well fed after a long day, warm by a fire at night. And I have seen the love in her eyes as she watches you. Especially when you don't realize she is watching."

"Yeah," smiled the bard. "she does have a habit of watching me. She doesn't think I notice."

"Yes, Naomi does the same."

The women shared a knowing laugh, which was cut short as Xena entered the clearing.

Gabrielle smiled to herself. 'Yes,' She thought. 'we are family.'

Unaware she was the topic of conversation, Xena dropped onto her bedroll.

"Think about what I have said my friend." Ruth patted Gabrielle on the knee, as she started to rise. "I am sure you will find it to be true."

Gabrielle smiled up at her. "I already have."

Ruth returned the smile. "Goodnight, Xena." She called as she moved to the other side of the camp where Naomi lay.

"Goodnight." answered the warrior.

Gabrielle watched Ruth pull the blanket up on the sleeping woman, before laying down to sleep.

"Did I interrupt something?" Xena's voice snapped the bard out of her thoughts.

"No." answered Gabrielle turning to meet her gaze. "We were just talking."

Shrugging Xena turned her attention back to the leather strap she was braiding. Gabrielle sat watching her work. She was always amazed at how precise Xena was with such things. "Are you going to sit there staring at me all night?" Asked the warrior without looking up.

"Well why not, you do it to me all the time." teased the bard she was rewarded with a slight chuckle from the warrior.

Once more Gabrielle sat and watched. Finally she rose and moved to sit next to her friend.

Xena looked up from her work with a questioning look. When Gabrielle did not say anything, she prompted her. "Is something wrong?"

"No," answered Gabrielle meeting her stare with a thoughtful grin. "nothing's wrong."

"Okay." said Xena confused by her friend's actions. Certain the bard would offer no more information she turned her attention back to the strap.

After a few more minutes of watching Gabrielle finally spoke. "Xena?"

"H'mm?"

"Do you remember the day at the crossroads, when we left Orpah with Melas?"

"I remember." nodded the warrior. "You had been crying." Her tone hinted at the question.

"What? Oh yeah I had." Gabrielle felt tears threatening to pour forth again as she remembered Ruth's pleading words.

Xena broke her pondering. "How did Ruth convince Naomi to let her stay?"

Gabrielle sighed heavily, causing Xena to look up from her work. Concern etched on the warrior's strong features. Gabrielle almost laughed at the look, almost. "She spoke from the heart."

"What did she say?" Asked the warrior, turning back to the strap.

Gabrielle did not answer at first. Xena looked up to see if she had heard the question. Before she could repeat it Gabrielle leaned in close so she was looking directly into her friend's beautiful blue eyes. "Her words were beautiful and so full of truth." In her best bard voice Gabrielle recited Ruth's words, about their being family and how they were closer than any blood kin. Certain she held the warrior's full attention she rushed on without releasing her friend's gaze. "But, what truly convinced Naomi was Ruth's promise, the oath she made to Naomi." Lowering her voice, Gabrielle continued. "Ruth said, 'Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God." Gabrielle held fast to Xena's gaze the entire time she spoke. Try as she might, she could not control the quivering in her voice as she spoke the last lines. "Where thou diest, will I die and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me and more also if ought but death part thee and me." When she finished she sat back waiting for Xena's reaction. The warrior sat staring at her.

When Xena was finally able to tear her eyes away, she dropped them back to the strap. Gabrielle sat quietly waiting for her friend to say something. As the silence dragged on Gabrielle began to wonder if she had said something wrong. She was about to ask when Xena raised her head. Staring off into the darkness, she whispered. "That was beautiful." There was a strange softness to her voice as she softly spoke Gabrielle had almost missed her words.

"Yes, it was." agreed the bard. More silence. "Xena." When the warrior did not look at her, she placed a gentle hand upon a broad shoulder. Slowly bright blue eyes turned to meet her. Too Gabrielle's surprise they were moist with restrained tears. "Those words, Ruth's words they..." Dropping her head for a moment. Taking a deep breath she raised her head and continued. "They say everything I have always wanted to say to you but I couldn't seem to find them."

"I know." replied Xena smiling warmly

Biting back a sob Gabrielle threw her arms around Xena's neck holding her tightly. Too her surprise and joy Xena returned the embrace. "You are my family." whispered Gabrielle. She felt the warrior grip tighten.

"Always." Came the soft reply.

Xena's reply caused Gabrielle to tighten her embrace as a new flood of tears slid down the bard's cheeks. Enjoying the rare moment for a minute longer, Gabrielle reluctantly released the warrior. Sitting back on her heels, she watched as Xena quickly brushed away tears, before focusing once more on the strap in her hand. Brushing away her own tears, the bard moved to her bedroll. Knowing Xena would say no more about the matter tonight, she lay down pulling the blanket over her. Finding a semi comfortable position, she closed her eyes. "Night, Xena." She called softly.

As she slipped gently into Morpheus's waiting arms, she heard the warrior's reply. "Sweet dreams, Gabrielle."
The End First posted 1996