Seated against an aged oak the large woman watched Argo drink from a nearby brook. 'She's looking thin.' noted the warrior. 'What she really needs is a long rest.' with a snort she added aloud. "We both do." Leaning her head against the old tree she tried to gather her thoughts from the last few days. Things had not worked out as she had planned, course lately they seldom did. After leaving Joxer she had intended to returned home, but when an exhausted messenger had stumbled into her campsite with a plea for help from a nearby village she had been unable to refuse.

Arriving in the village she had only to wait a couple of days for the raiders to return. Once the battle began it had taken least than a candlemark for her to kill the leader, his second-in-command and more than half of the small group. The rest had run for the hills not daring to look back. With the bandits gone for good the villagers planned a large feast to thank the warrior, but while they were busy with the preparations Xena had slipped away unnoticed. There was no room in her heart for a celebration, not when memories of Gabrielle's death still haunted her.

All she really wanted at the moment was to see her mother, to tell her of what had happened and perhaps to find some comfort from her loneliness. But such comfort would had to wait as Amphiplois lay more than a weeks ride away. Closing her eyes the warrior allowed her tired body to relax, though even with the quiet forest surrounding her, peaceful thoughts refused to come.

Once again she wondered if it had been a mistake to leave Joxer behind. Perhaps it had been too soon. Since leaving him the days had been lonelier then she ever imagined. While he was still the bumbling idiot he had always been there was a comfortable familiarity about his presence. And as much as she hated to admit, she missed him. If she left right away she might be able to catch up to him in a couples of days. 'No.' she thought shaking her head slowly, he needed to move on with his life and her presence would only be a painful memory of what he had lost. What 'they' had lost. For now it would be better if their lives traveled different paths, she decided.

Staring down at the leather bag resting in her lap she sighed heavily, though she had tried several times she could not bring herself to open it. Fingering the leather tie she tried once more, but something kept holding her back. While Gabrielle had never denied her access to the scrolls there had always been an unspoken understanding between them. The scrolls were Gabrielle's private sanctuary, the place where she went to deal with the troubles, challenges and changes life had dealt them. Though Gabrielle had reveled in telling every story over and over again, Xena knew there was much more then heroic tales written upon the tightly rolled parchments. It was these private thoughts, which make the warrior leery. By reading them now she was somehow peeping into the bard's heart in a way she had not been invited to before. Reading them without her friend being there somehow felt like a violation of the young woman's trust. What was worse the violation was an admission that her friend was gone and Xena just wasn't ready to accept that not yet. Caressing the unopen bag loneliness tugged harder at the warrior's heart, how could she read about their past when there was no longer any chance of a future together. If only there were some way to speak with Gabrielle to tell her all the things that needed to be said to ask all the questions left unanswered.

So lost in her thoughts was the warrior she did not notice the stranger approaching until Argo nudged her shoulder with a warning nay. Suddenly aware of the newcomer Xena rose to her feet with sword in hand. The man stopped in his tracks at the sight of the armed woman, for a moment he considered turning and running, but his legs no longer had the energy to comply. Dropping to his knees he raised his hands in surrender. "I have nothing to offer you, the others have already taken everything."

Xena stared at the beaten man for a moment. "What others?"

"The raiders, they attacked my village. They took everything and what they couldn't take they killed. Men, women, children even the animals." The man fell silent as the memories over took him.

"How long ago did this happen?"

"Least then half a candlemark." answered the man.

"Where is your village?" asked the warrior, a hint of excitement entered her voice.

"What?" asked the man.

Snatching him by the collar, Xena nearly pulled him to his feet. "Your village, where is it?" she demanded.

Stunned by the warrior's outburst the man pointed back the direction he had arrived from. "Just over the ridge."

Releasing the man Xena turned and mounted Argo. As the horse bolted forward the warrior's mind raced ahead as well. When entire villages were destroyed Hades would often oversee the handling of the dead himself. If she hurried she just might make it in time to catch him outside the underworld. Once she had Hades cornered she could convince him to let her speak with Gabrielle. And convince him she would one way or another. As Argo topped the ridge she could see the smothering village below. Ignoring the dangerous, sandy incline she urged the warhorse forward. Then Hades's chariot came into sight and she charged toward it. 'Soon, Gabrielle, soon.' she promised as she slipped from the saddle and stalked toward the God of the Underworld.

The end

Hope you enjoyed the journey.