Far away, in the empty, wide steppe,
a solitary light is burning...
my heart is full of sorrow and of love.
But whom can you tell, how can you explain
what calls you, what fills your heart? [6]

The rain has been falling heavily since this morning. Year-round resident birds have momentarily forsaken their nests in the forest surrounding Mondestin to take refuge underneath the chateau's shortened pencil towers. Geese and cormorants, fleeing from the wild, swollen Loire, joined them. These winged creatures perch along the edge of the corbelled walkways, like ancient gargoyles guarding over their fortress, their sharp eyes fixed at the sodden earth below.

Suddenly, without warning, a large beast unfurls its dark wings, and issues a triumphant call, rending the monotonous pitter-patter. The shrill sound echoes throughout the land, as the feathered edge cuts through the gray, wet curtain. It strikes at the muddy ground, wresting an unsuspecting earthworm from its sanctuary. Unwilling to share its prize, the conqueror flies away from the acropolis.

Pursuing the bird's flight, a cobble stone path, slippery and glistening with moisture, passes through a private, informal garden. Patches of jade green grass impatiently reached out from the damp soil towards the sky, portending a romantic, fragrant Spring. Towards the end of the passage, a fierce warrior with drawn sword guards the entrance to a small Gothic structure. Her brave mare reared, ready to charge at any enemies, just as it did some five hundred years ago.

Above the door, the head of a stag protrudes from the sculpted portal. It bears a crescent moon at the centre of its forehead, and is surrounded by other symbols representing the patronage of good and the destruction of evil. The entire motif, framed by elegant spirals, is the d'Estin emblem, as it has been for as long as the family existed.

The heavy iron gateway opened to a darkened chapel, its astoundingly high nave supported by delicate buttresses and flying buttresses on the outside, and sheltered by bold Corinthian columns inside. On a bright, sunny day, the interior is lit through a series of large stained glass windows, which flood the interior with magical shades of purple and blue. But on a day like this, the sombre hues simply add gloom to the melancholy.

Anyhow, the intricate leaded glass tells life-story of the warrior guarding the chapel outside. Depicted in the likeness of one of Michelle's ancestresses, Jeanne d'Arc first dismounted at a well in Chinon. She recognised her dauphin, the uncrowned Charles VII, among his courtiers. After arming herself in Tours and having her standard blessed in Blois, she led a small force into Orleans, and lifted the English siege. In the final panel just to the right of the altar, rendered in vivid colours, was her capture for witchcraft, her sovereign's betrayal and her martyrdom at the stake at the enemies' hands; circles lined the edges of the image, symbolising endless life.

Hidden from mortals' sight, the eternal lovers pause before each window, both of them returned momentarily to those days long past. Even though homage of any kind to the Maid of Orleans is common especially in the Valley of the Loire, this set is unique in ways unbeknownst to Man. Every stone in this entire place was laid, and every glass inset coloured and leaded, with their inspiration and guidance. And time and again, together they return.

*One day, Love,* the warrior comforts her mate, and wraps her arm about the trim form, holding her tight. *One day she won't be needed here anymore.*

*I know, I just miss her...* The bard responds ruefully, her bright green orbs shimmer with maternal pride. She leans back into the embrace and reaches behind with both arms to clasp close her partner. Eventually, Gabrielle turns around, her lips curl up to the glistening blue eyes, reassuring both Xena and herself. The warrior smiles faintly, and leads her beloved away by the hand.

They retrace their steps along both sides of the aisles, and send a prayer of gratitude to each Olympian god who helped their descendants when they were alive, and whose marble likeness now guards their remains. They give thanks to their children's patron saints as they pass by their statues as well, for the couple believes that all benevolent deities are from the same source.

Just as expected, the heavy door creaks open, and they turn in time to see a drenched figure walking in, bringing a gust of cold wind with her. The young woman pauses to take off her muddy boots at the entrance, juggling the large bouquet of flowers in her hands. Then without bothering to shake off the rain in her hair and clothes, she proceeds inwards, leaving a trail of water beads on the marble floor. The lovers look on with fond indulgence as their young child moves towards them. And they step aside when the blonde approaches where they are and stills her heavy gait.

Before the trio, on a raised platform which houses a double crypt, a handsome, mustached man lounges, his features pensive as he stares ahead. A woman with long flowing hair reclines in his lap, with the tenderest expression on her fair visage. The couple faces the same direction, with their linked hands resting on her left bosom. The last Marquis de Lorraine had the sculpture made from a photograph of his parents. Michelle's parents.

The warrior and the bard were overjoyed when the pair found each other, as they looked so much like their own younger siblings, who they join in Elysium. And they understand completely why Michelle avoids spending time here. Her father and her brother both loved her deeply, and tried hard to fill the void only a mother could; and she had never found herself wanting in that area. But once in a while she'd catch her father staring wistfully at her mother's portrait, and sometimes she wishes she hadn't been born. The lovers' hearts go out to the young woman as she walks away, after depositing the bundle of flowers she brought on the grave.

The fair blonde crosses the pews to the only lit area of the chapel; Xena and Gabrielle follow closely behind. On a small shrine before the plain, unadorned marble tomb, candles and incense burn in an intricately carved white jade urn, their orange flames flutter in the mild wind, sheltered from the elements. Cut hyacinths and daffodils frame the square crypt in a garland of blue and white. They were Etienne's favourite flowers, left there by Bernard before he departed for Marseilles earlier this morning.

Her thoughts turn involuntarily towards the War, and to her father who instilled in her brother and her the traditional values of "la France profonde". Le Marquis d'Estin never took his station in life for granted either, preferring to share with those less privileged and give back whatever he could to his country. It was he who taught Etienne Voltaire's patriotic maxims, and he would have been very proud of his son.

Frustratedly, Michelle flings her long wet hair back, and wipes away the fine droplets on her face. Silently, she curses the drizzling rain which Mother Nature needs, which Bernard excused as an auspicious sign for his voyage. Slim fingers tremble as they trace the unfamiliar designs carved into the marble.

"I take your hand," the four gilded characters read in its original language; and Bernard had explained to her the phrase's origin and meaning in a three thousand year old Chinese poem. Michelle was, and still is, utterly moved by the gesture, and their vow. Involuntarily, memories of the three of them together as they were growing up surfaced. She can recollect most vividly the times Etienne spent teaching Bernard the piano soon after the young man started living with them. She can still see in her mind's eye her brother and Bernard sitting side by side, practising, flirting with, and teasing each other... as if it were only yesterday.

The young blonde also recalls her brother's response when her curiosity drove her to ask about his relationship with their friend. To keep the ten year old interested, he retold the story he once used to explain to her why people have navels. At the time, she thought the idea of human beings with eight limbs and cartwheeling around awfully funny, and imagined Etienne and Bernard being stuck together like that. But even then, she decided the gods were cruel to separate a whole into two. It was not until years later when Michelle finally found out where Etienne got his story; and by then, she had already concluded her brother was right. And somehow, though she doesn't know how, she is convinced she is only half of one soul, just as she is certain of her faith in destiny.

Michelle's steadfast belief is partially the reason why she refrains from the "Paris routine" which many of her friends and other members of the haut monde follow. The young woman simply doesn't fancy the notion of having passionless casual sex or gambling excessively just to cure oneself of boredom; and Baudelaire's "Voyage a Cynthere" quest for erotic experience is just not for her. Of course the blonde also couldn't live with the idea of having just two meals a day even if she tried, but that's beside the point. However, Michelle is by no means an ingenue - a demi-vierge perhaps - and she has experimented enough to realise she, like Etienne, is also afflicted with "le vice anglais."

Thinking back, it was extraordinary that their father never said anything about the siblings' respective romantic involvements. He only told them to remember their happiness. And that was what she did during the summers right before the War, which she spent discovering herself.

Those had been interesting times, to say the very least. Not knowing what his sister wanted for her life, Etienne made sure she had every opportunity available to her. And the young aristocrat had her debut into the haut monde. Shortly afterwards, eligible young men began showing up at Mondestin, all wishing to gain her favours. First, Michelle was flattered and fascinated; but as soon as the newness subsided, she got tired of it and found the entire idea silly and taxing. And she kept comparing her suitors to her best friend, and wondered why they couldn't be nice and fun and unpretentious like her.

*Mimi...* Miriam de Villeneuve, the daughter of one of le Marquis d'Estin's friends. She and Michelle were about the same age, and because of her father's close business ties with the late Marquis, they saw each other often. Mimi was outgoing, sportive, and she was also tall and brunette. The two girls were complete opposites in many ways, but they became fast friends and they were inseparable for many years...

*I hope you found happiness, my friend,* she reflects, looking up to and through the stained glass at the still dark sky. Even now, the young woman still misses her playmate.

Memories of her childhood companion also reminded Michelle of Pierre, Mimi's older brother, the irksome man she confronted at the auction house. And inevitably, her mind wanders again to the mysterious woman who has occupied most of her waking hours and some of her sleeping ones...

Bernard was already disconcerted by Michelle's abrupt departure for the country after the auction; and he was instantly alarmed when the young woman returned late that night, looking visibly disturbed. He had sat her down, and despite the blonde's stubborn reticence, insisted that she share with him whatever that was troubling her. Like always, Bernard won with much prodding and encouragement. And in defeat, Michelle related to her confidant all that had transpired that day: the bidding war, the strange painting now in her possession and its story, her meeting with the artwork's previous owner... everything, including the last moments before she fled the apartment in Chinon.

*Mon Dieu!* She holds her hand up to her face and shakes her head emphatically, trying to chase away the sensations. *I can't believe I did that!* It isn't the fact that she had kissed a woman that had troubled Michelle, of course. And it isn't because it was a stranger either, for she had done that, too. But it is the curious sensation that grew from deep inside that had unsettled the young woman. She felt satiated and famished at the same time, fulfilled yet empty. The feeling wasn't sexual at all, but as she melted into the kiss, her passion also soared. And when she closes her eyes, even now, she could still smell the sweet, delicate perfume, and taste the tingle on her lips.

"Oh, Etienne, what should I do?" The fair blonde hugs herself closely as her kneeling form tumbles forward, until her forehead rests against the cold marble of her brother's tomb. For an instant, Michelle regrets sending Bernard away. He had time and again offered to postpone his journey until her crise de coeur is resolved. She, however, declined because she thought her crisis of the heart a trifling affair when compared to the matters of the state. The young woman still believes so, but she has also never felt as lost, as alone, ever.

She doesn't know how long she had stayed there, in a huddled position, her emotions in complete turmoil. And she remains inert until the loud, happy call of sea birds taking flight startles her back to the present. Michelle then realises by the magical blue tints about her that the rain has finally stopped and the sky cleared.

At that same time, an unexpected comforting warmth envelopes her; and a sudden moment of clarity hits. Picking herself up, the young blonde ties her finally dried hair back into a knot, straightens her clothes, and dashes out of the chapel. Soon, the red Delahaye zooms out of the garage and heads Eastwards.

And the bard hugs her warrior and smiles, her brilliant green eyes gaze tenderly up to their blue counterparts, gratified and relieved. After a lingering, heartfelt kiss, she takes her partner's large hand in hers, and together, at a leisurely pace, they follow the wheeled chariot.


Your body, of tortured soul
Of tousled tresses,
Your foot pursuing time,
Your shadow reclines
And whispers near my temple.

Here, this is your portrait,
This is how you are,
And I want to write it to you
So that when the night comes,
You may believe and say,
That I know you well. [7]

Under the bright afternoon sun, and accompanied by the crisp, clean, after-rain scent of evergreens, the small car races along the still raging river, leaving chateaux and troglodyte dwellings behind. With many residences still closed for the season, and their inhabitants vacationing elsewhere, the normally peaceful and tranquil region seems even more so.

And for the first time in too many days, Michelle feels a rare sense of serenity. Her mind remains free during her drive from Anjou to Touraine; and the mild wind blowing from the South fills her with bold liberty. A vivacious smile comes unbidden to her lips as her bright aqua orbs absorb the picturesque view of Candes-St-Martin, where the shimmering Loire converges with the River Vienne. In no time, the red mechanical steed enters the old fortified town, zips through the crooked streets, and passes the Grand Carroi where Jeanne d'Arc had dismounted. It screeches to a stop at the building with wrought iron balconies and a classical facade.

When the fair blonde finds herself at the bottom of the spiral staircase, however, she doesn't feel as brave anymore. And she stands there, leaning against the cold railing, thinking back to what the woman said to her right before she left the apartment, and half listening to the Chopin passages which drift from above, calling to her. Finally, she takes a deep steadying breath and turns back towards the lobby.

"Excusez-moi!" Distracted and in her haste to retreat, Michelle bumps into a tall uniformed man who must have just come in from the streets, nearly knocking the packages from his hands.
Regaining her balance, she apologizes once more to the guard and continues towards the foyer.

"Madame? Madame la Marquise!" A woman calls from behind her, vaguely capturing her attention. But she keeps going without thinking too much of it, since she doesn't expect to run into anyone she knows, and there are other people in the lobby.

"Mademoiselle Destin!" The same anxious voice hollers again; and the young woman stops dead in her tracks.

Uncertainly, Michelle turns around, and is greeted by a grinning gray-haired woman. *Oh, great. Caught.* Tentatively, she smiles back.

"Bonjour, Mademoiselle. You come see Madame? Sorry I was out shopping," the older woman explains, motioning to the porter the blonde almost ran over.

"Umm... Actually, I... umm... haven't been upstairs," she stutters. Something about the woman's knowing look unnerves Michelle; but her kindly features also assure her. And the fair
blonde soon finds her frayed nerves assuaged by the warm, crease-lined smile.

"Why not? Madame not here? She not told me she was going out today." Without allowing the young woman a chance to respond, the housekeeper continues, "You drove all the way from Saumur, and you not go up?"

"No, it's not that far..." Michelle begins to answer. *Un moment! How does she know where I live?* She doesn't get the chance to ask, as the woman cuts her off and carries on.

"I'm sure she loves to see you," and the woman takes the young aristocrat by the arm and leads her back towards the landing, not giving her any opportunity to escape.

"Bonjour, Sofia!" The blonde coming down the stairs beams, the ringlets in her hair bounce in harmony.

"Bonjour, Iphigenie, Sylvie! Comment ca-va?"

"Ca va! Et vous?" Her brunette companion answers, while Iphigenie turns to the young aristocrat, "Bonjour. Madame, nice seeing you again."

"Bonjour..." She smiles hesitantly, not expecting the couple to recognise her, but quite taken by the fact that they do. *Fascinating...* She muses, looking back at the pair heading out the door. The dark woman's high collar and monocle attire threw Michelle off the first time she met them coming out of their apartment upstairs.

"Nice kids, those two. Sylvie is an excellent poetess; perhaps Mademoiselle has read her work? And Genie has the most wonderful voice," the older woman offers, giving the young woman very little time to absorb the information, but capturing her attention once again. "They are actually Dete... I mean, Madame's first tenants, and we hope to have them for many years to come."

Sofia prattles on. By the time they reach the top floor, Michelle learnt that she came from Bulgaria with the Anastasovs, who were escaping political unrest, and has been with her employer's household for many years. And she related with much pride in her voice that they had their roots from a time before Alexander the Great. During the older woman's monologue, one thing stood out: Sofia may have been the housekeeper, but the tenderness in her voice and the twinkle in her clear blue eyes whenever she mentioned her "Madame" told of a much deeper affection. And the young blonde is genuinely touched by the display and by the woman's open friendliness.

"Entrez-vous, Mademoiselle. Sit, sit." After the porter disappeared down the other end of the corridor, Sofia turns again to her guest, "Let me go tell Madame you are here." Blond brows knit together slightly as the housekeeper heads towards the library. Michelle swears she saw the beginning of a mischievous grin on the weathered face.

*Hey, you okay?* Gabrielle asks, tugging gently the string on her partner's laced-up shirt, evening the ends while she's at it.

*Huh?* Xena pulls the compact body to her own absent-mindedly, closing the narrow distance between them, and effectively halting the bard's busy fingers. She takes hold of the small hands and brings them to rest about her hips; and they slide to wrap around her waist. *Yeah, I'm fine,* the warrior answers, finally looking down, and greeted by her mate's concerned gaze. Her pale face shines with love and understanding. Lowering her head, she pecks the bard on the nose...

And decides she'd like another sampling, on the lips this time. A singular blond eyebrow arches as she eases into the kiss, *You're changing the subject.*

*Complaining, my bard?* Her large hands shift along bare midriff, following tight curves, kneading, running rapaciously all over her lover's backside.

*No fair,* Gabrielle barely manages, as a whimper escapes her throat. And her leg involuntarily curves about her partner's, pressing their bodies closer still. The warrior simply drinks from their connection, completely losing herself in her bard, in the sweet little noises she makes, in their love...

*Thanks,* she focuses on the flushed visage, the kiss-bruised lips, and feels her heart melt into the stormy green orbs as fair lids flutter open.

*What for?* The smaller woman asks, smiling up to her beloved.

*Just... For,* she shrugs lightly, blue eyes locking onto greens, never letting go.

*You'll always have me,* the bard promises, her eyes searching, reiterating the oath they took millennia ago. Slim hand moves up to cup the sun-kissed cheek tenderly, and the warrior leans into the caress.

"Mademoiselle," the older woman calls from half way down the corridor, waving, and smiling brightly. The young blonde hops from the divan and moves to join her.

Not bothering to hide her emotions from her mate, the warrior's gaze remains fixed at the older woman, drinking in the vision. Gabrielle leans against her partner and rubs her back comfortingly. She, too, watches as Sofia closes the door behind Michelle, and lets the brilliant smile on the kindly face bring back tender, warm memories. She misses their happy days in Amphipolis as well, especially Cyrene, who had loved the bard as if she were her own daughter. And the couple is grateful that a god has decided to let their children experience that love.

"Bonjour..." The greeting comes out sounding like a squeak, and Michelle clears her throat self-consciously, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything..."

"Non, I was only reading," the raven-haired woman leans back against her desk, and indicates with a sweeping gesture the book lying on top.

The bard, sitting in the recently vacated chair, looks down, then calls out to her partner excitedly, *Hey, come read this.* Very reluctantly, the warrior gets up from her perch next to the young blonde, and moves to stand behind her fair beloved.

*That's pretty good poetry,* she comments to her lover, as they read the open pages.

*Took her long enough to get the hang of it,* Xena replies wryly, still unable to forget the torturous time she spent listening to dark woman's attempt at romantic prose.

*Be nice!* Gabrielle backhands her partner on her stomach.

*Ow.* The warrior quips. She captures the small hand and starts tracing designs on the palm.

The bard looks up to the intoxicating blues, and grins as she recalls the Amazon likening her Regent's eyes to yet another set of sparkling jewels. She closes her hand and gives her mate's finger a tug, while scooting forward in the large seat. After her partner settles down, Gabrielle leans back again, her digits twine with the warrior's resting about her stomach. And they focus their attention on their still spellbound and dumb-struck children.

"I'm sorry..." "I am happy..." They both speak at the same time; and Michelle chuckles nervously, while the other woman tucks her dark tresses behind her ear. She then motions for the blonde to speak first.

"About my last visit, I'm sorry if I offended you," the younger woman apologises, her attention focused on the swanlike neck, so pale against the dark Prussian blue shirt; and she catches glimpses of the round token on a leather cord above the half-buttoned shirt placket. Michelle had left the small metal case and its content on the desk right before she fled the apartment last week. In a way, she's sorry she did... but she's also secretly delighted to see the woman wearing it again.

Suddenly realising where exactly the medallion rests, she tears her eyes away. And she looks up to see intense aqua eyes focusing on her, sparkling with amusement and something else she can't quite recognise.

*She looks just like you when she blushes. So cute,* the warrior nuzzles her partner's ear, and comments on her child's flushed cheeks, which are beginning to match the pale rose coloured shirt she's wearing. That earns her a mock scowl from the bard.

"It was quite all right," the woman smiles. "I am glad you decided to come back... I was afraid I will not see you again," she purrs, her deep voice sending a wild tremor through the young blonde.

*Gods, you guys are wicked,* Gabrielle remarks, remembering what the warrior always does to her, as her younger child becomes even more flustered.

*Guilty as charged,* Xena concedes, smirking as she feels the delightful heat creeping up her partner's cheeks and spreading down her throat.

*Stop it,* the bard complains, capturing the wandering hands in hers. *Do I have to tie your hands together?*

*Is that a promise?* Her partner teases, then turns solemn when she sees the entreaty in her beloved's eyes. *Oh, alright,* she acquiesces, but not before stealing a kiss from her bard's willing lips.

"Let me introduce myself properly," the tall woman reaches the large divan in half a dozen long strides and holds out her hand to Michelle, "Je m'appelle Vesselina; you may call me by it if you wish."

"I know, Sofia told me," the fair blonde reveals, as she clasps the hand and takes in the intoxicating sweet floral scent. "Sure, il vous plaira; and call me Michelle," she somehow manages.

"She did, huh," the older woman's smile expands fondly, "What else did she tell you?" Moving to the other end of the couch, she asks, "Vous permettez?" And sits after Michelle nods her assent.

"Not much, except that your family was from Bulgaria," she shifts in the pile of cushions to face her hostess, and trying to remain composed. "What does 'Dete' mean?" The young woman queries, as she heard the housekeeper slipped and used the word several times.

"That means 'child' in my language. Sofia was my 'galens ime...' umm... bonne d'enfant, my nanny," she clarifies, struggling a bit to find the right word.

*Ah, that explains a lot,* the blonde reflects. "And Vesselina? It's a beautiful name."

"Merci, that's 'happiness' in Bulgarian," she replies sincerely. Her cherry tinted lips quiver as an idea occurs, "And before you ask, Anastasova has a Greek meaning as well; the same as your given name, in fact."

Michelle is stunned beyond belief at what she heard. Even though she doesn't speak the language, she does know the word's meaning. *How's that possible?!* The young aristocrat has always, always used her confirmation name, and can think of two persons alive who know of her secret, herself included. This latest disclosure becomes even more unnerving as she recalls what Vesselina had said right before she left the room at the end of her last visit.

As if reading her thoughts, the older woman restates her message, "I meant it when I said I have known you since your birth."

"How?" Michelle croaks, her normally bright voice hoarse.

The taller woman runs the tip of her finger along her lips in a familiar way, her dark bob falling to one side, then closes her green-blue eyes briefly as if making a decision, "Please stay, s'il vous plait." And she leaves the room only after Michelle gave her silent consent.

The fair blonde reaches behind and pulls forward one of the fluffy pillows, and hugs it close to herself as she waits for the raven-haired woman's return. She feels anxious and slightly apprehensive, and tries to prepare for more shocking revelations. *Mon Dieu! I should be scared, but I'm not... What's this I'm feeling? Who is she? What brings her to me? And me to her?* Michelle ponders, utterly confused. *And she's so very beautiful...*

When the young woman made no move to bolt again, her ancestresses expelled a large puff of air they didn't even need. It was a risky decision they had made, putting the idea in Vesselina's conscious thoughts, and they weren't sure how their younger one would react. They can, however, read her mind, and the bard finally relaxes into her warrior, who sinks into the chair.

Three bodies tense collectively as the door swings open again, and Michelle throws the cushion back, though a little too late. The warrior pokes the bard in the ribs as their young child flushes once more. Meanwhile, their older one drops a heap of bound books onto the low table before the divan, and sits again.

"Here, I started keeping these when I was about ten years old," she explains as she hands the top one to the blonde.

"This is me?" The young woman gasps, as she turns the pages, each revealing a sketch of an infant. Some of them were done in graphite, and some in pastels; the ones in colour show a cherub-like child with honey-blond hair.

"I think so," the brunette responds, somewhat hesitantly. "One late summer night, when I was almost seven, I had a really bad nightmare, I still remember it... There was a lot of screaming, and a lot of yelling; everyone in the room seemed to be scared, and worried. I was standing next to a blond boy who looked somewhat older than me, and I could tell he was frightened, too. But I could not move away, nor could I do anything. So I just stood there and cried. Then I heard a baby cry, and the boy rushed over and took the bundle in his arms; and I stood on my toes and tried to see. Suddenly, everything got quiet, then this loud, almost inhuman wail woke me up... I think that was when you were born..."

She pauses, waiting for a sign from Michelle to continue. Moments later, she begins again, "Then I started seeing this blond infant in my dreams. I also saw places that I was not familiar with. As I grew up, the baby did as well..." She stops, and searches for the appropriate words, "I never saw anybody else in the dreams though, but sometimes I was sure I could feel what the girl felt. Like, when she was happy, or excited, or when she was sad..."

"Non, I never told anyone else about the dreams," Vesselina reveals, reading the younger woman's unasked question, "Just Sofia. And she told me I should not be afraid of them."

"No, I was not fearful, not after the first night," she explains, easing a little the pained look in the blue-green orbs. "Actually, it was Sofia who made sure I got drawing lessons, and encouraged me to keep the sketch books..."

Remaining silent, Michelle let her eyes drop to the bound pages in her lap. Myriad of questions run amuck in her mind, but she doesn't know where or how to begin asking. It's all too strange, too incredible to be real, but her entire short life unfolding before her eyes tells her otherwise.

The older woman continues to tell her the different images and things she saw that she remembers. Then blonde begins to relate and explain to her the different visions, and their various significance.

And for hours they remain in the study. Together, the two look carefully through all the drawings; and they ask and answer each other's queries, getting to know more about the other.


Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land...
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you planned...

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad. [8]

When the immortal lovers first met Renee de Lorraine, they were surprised. The charming, mild-mannered aristocrat looked so much like Lila, yet as far as the bard knows, they were not of the same blood. Still, it mattered not; and they felt a special kinship towards the young woman, and thought of her as their own. The pair was delighted when in a very short time, the lovely brunette captured Louis d'Estin's heart, as he did hers.

"They reminded me of us sometimes," the blonde thinks aloud, as she reminisces their children's happy marriage, and how very much the couple cared for and complemented each other. She continues as she recalls the past, her soft voice wistful with regret, "I can't ever imagine..." Her partner draws her small body close, and clings onto their connection as they share one thought. Eventually chasing the frightful images away, the lovers focus their consciousness on a happier time.

Both Xena and Gabrielle were ecstatic when Etienne was born. With his soft blue eyes and his father's fair hair, the young child reminded the warrior of the boy they lost. The pair rejoiced in his first steps, and watched him grew up to be a brave, gentle young man, full of compassion and love for the world, especially for his little sister. And they couldn't help but wonder how similar things would have been, had the Fates' tapestry been woven differently...

*I'm so sorry...* Her green eyes close at the stark visions that invaded her mind, still tormented by wounds long ago healed by Love, her throat too tight to speak.

"Shh..." The warrior strokes her mate's soft golden hair, and places a tender kiss on the knitted brows. "I'm only glad I got another chance... That we did... Like they're going to..."

*I just wish the price weren't as high...* The bard's thoughts turn inwards, contemplating many things at once. Light lashes flutter as a gentle thumb reaches up to wipe away salty beads.

*Me, too, my bard,* she sighs, and with effort focuses their musing to their current concerns. *Me, too.* She twines her body tighter about her fair beloved's, comforted by the warmth of their union.

When Xena and Gabrielle discovered their children were about to have another baby, they were utterly thrilled. They knew how much the pair had wanted a second child, and were thankful that the gods had finally decided to answer their prayers. And the eternal couple spent much time in Mondestin, watching over their young ones. They made sure as best they could that everything went smoothly, like they had done all through time and generations. As the blessed day drew near, they became almost more excited and anxious than the expectant parents, especially when they found out the little one was going to be a girl. Neither warrior nor bard could wait to meet the newest addition to their family, and find out whom she took after...

And both remember the night of Michelle's birth too well...

Throughout the pregnancy, the couple was blissfully happy, and Louis a doting husband and father-to-be. Since Etienne's birth, le Marquis d'Estin had begun conducting much of his business from home, preferring to spend most of his time with his family. His wife was radiant and healthy in her fecundity, and his son turning into a fine young man; for Louis d'Estin, things couldn't have been better. And nothing could have prepared him for what was to come.

It had taken his ancestresses by surprise as well. As soon as the labour began, they knew something was very wrong. Their fear was only confirmed when the midwife suggested that le Marquis send his young son away. And the maturity that Etienne had shown when he stubbornly refused to leave, and insisted on staying with his mother became their only solace.

Unable to offer any assistance and feeling completely helpless, the pair did the only thing they could: they stayed with their children. This was not the first time for the warrior and the bard; they had seen the same thing happen time and again, especially in the earlier days. But their experience didn't make it any easier... With Louis, it was most difficult not only because the couple looked like their younger siblings, but because of their special connection with him. Somehow, the lovers could feel in their own heart the cruel rending of the pair's bond; they shared his desperation, and his sorrow...

In the middle of all these, unexpectedly, Gabrielle felt a fierce tug inside, before a wave of familiar yet foreign emotion threatened to overwhelm her. Collapsing further into her partner's embrace, she extended her sight towards the source. With horror and disbelief, they realised only then that Vesselina was a witness to the trauma as well.

In the birthing room, dark and small with smothering pain and anguish, the bard relived her warrior's fear and felt the distress beneath her stoic, courageous exterior. And Gabrielle was at a loss what to do. She needed to stay with her mate, and didn't want to leave her children, but she also couldn't bear leaving their young one alone in her nightmare...

Finally, with the urging of her lover, the bard returned to their old country, to be by their little girl's side...

When the blonde got there, Vesselina was already awakened by Louis' tortured howl, and she almost doubled over at her warrior's pain at the loss. But it was at the child's distraught state that her heart almost broke.

*She was so brave...* Gabrielle saw much of her partner in the young girl, who had tried so terribly hard to stifle her tears, to not wake up her nanny.

*She still is,* the warrior remarks, as she recalls what her child went through. *They both are,* she smiles, thinking also of the young woman who is so much like her partner.

The bard feels her heart skip in response, as it did that night, when, amazingly, a crooked smile appeared on the child's pale face... That was the same time she felt her lover's intense joy at finally catching a close glimpse of their youngest. And with that, the bard held vigil over her little Xe, and made sure she slept peacefully through the night.

Then a tidal wave of cold, dark thoughts sweeps through, catching Gabrielle off guard. She hangs on to her partner, as the warrior's recollection takes another turn.

"Gods, I can't imagine... either..." Xena ponders out loud, "I wouldn't know what to do..." Her voice hoarse with emotion, as her musing returns to their shared earlier course. Trembling fingers weave their way through honey-golden tresses, then clasp closer still the soft body already sprawled atop the warrior's own. She needs to feel their togetherness, and for it to anchor her.

"It's okay, Love," it's Gabrielle turn to assuage her mate. "Shh... None of It was real," she reaches up to stroke her partner comfortingly, and winces slightly as she follows the barrage of different thoughts. It had taken them both a long time to work through their guilt and misgivings, but 'nothing worthwhile comes easily', her father always says; and she has never given up on them... "It's okay..." She soothes, reaches into her warrior's mind, and steers her away from the violent bumps and crashes, all the while suffusing her consciousness with the golden warmth of their love.

The blonde calms after her lover did, then raises on her elbows for a hungry, reassuring kiss, before settling back in her sanctuary, and into another remembrance of the past...

For Xena, the ordeal of Michelle's birth was not one she would want to experience ever again. In addition to the agonizing loss, it was also only the second time since they crossed over that she and her mate had to be away from each other. And she couldn't help but remember the first time, its cause, and its lasting consequences... Even though knowledge of Vesselina's connection with Michelle has renewed her hope...

The trauma Louis went through also reminded the warrior of the birth of their own child, and of her own dread which grew as the due date drew near...

"But nothing of the sort happened, Love," the bard reasons softly, hugging her partner's tense form, and willing it to relax.

"I know..." The pregnancy had proceeded normally, and relatively without complications. Gabrielle was still young, and it should be easier this time. Besides, the warrior didn't think Artemis would give them a child then take her bard away, especially since she's the goddess' chosen... Yet, armed with these and other rational suppositions, Xena still wasn't able to shake away her groundless concerns. Nevertheless, she had never shared her fears with her lover, at least not in Life.

"And," her bard drums her fingers to make her point, "You shouldn't keep things like that to yourself." She thinks her partner should have told her what she was feeling, so she could talk some sense into her dense, dark head. But Xena didn't want to worry her mate then.

The warrior removes the tapping digits from her chest and brings them to her lips. *I do believe this is moot, my bard,* she wiggles her dark brows at her fair beloved, as she vividly reminds her partner of their connection, and grins wickedly at the rapidly rising flush...

... Eventually, Gabrielle sinks back into her cocoon; and Xena sends a silent "thank you" to the gods who watched over them, then joins her love in recollection...


Child, if I were sovereign, I would give my empire
My chariot, my sceptre and my yielding subjects,
My golden laurel, my porphyre baths
And my fleets that overfloweth the sea
For one look from you!

If I were God, I would trade the earth, the air and the oceans,
The angels and devils who obey my decrees,
And the fertile depths which were profound chaos,
The eternity, the space, the heavens and the worlds
For one kiss from you! [9]

Amphipolis during the Winter months was usually a tranquil place. Merchants kept away from the rough seas and the hazardous winds. And fishing boats remained docked along the harbour, while their owners stayed home and relaxed by the hearth, sipping warm liquor, and enjoying the company of family and friends. Only occasionally would a traveller or two stumble in and seek shelter at the local inn, to rest their weary feet for the night. So, for the most part, the innkeeper kept her tavern open solely for locals to congregate in.

These were not normal times though, and the proprietress found her establishment swarmed with visitors. Half a dozen Amazon escorts arrived from Poteidaia a little over a quarter moon ago with their queen's family. They were followed a few days later by Ephiny and her group of warriors, complete with a priestess. Cyrene was fond of Gabrielle's parents, and thought Lila was a delight; they all got along fabulously. She concluded that the Amazons, though armed to the teeth, were really not the bunch of wild savages they were rumoured to be. And she even found the Regent and her dark shadow adorable. But her small inn was just not equipped to house so many people, especially not with her daughter trying to help in the kitchen.

*Just what in Tartarus were they doing?* Her brows furrowed at the piles of dishes from the night before that Xena had promised to wash, that Gabrielle was to stay in the kitchen to make sure her partner did. Shaking her head at a fleeting thought, she decided she didn't want to know. The innkeeper smiled indulgently, and secretly admitted that she wished for peace and quiet only because she wanted to have her daughters to herself.

Cyrene wasn't too shocked when they told her they were expecting, and that the gift was from a goddess. *After all, I even met Ares in person,* she mused. *Too bad it weren't under better circumstances,* she sighed, and shook her head some more. When she recovered from her fainting spell, she was deliriously happy with the news. In fact, the prospect of being a grandmother was the only thing on the older woman's mind. At least until she realised she had to tell people how her daughter begot the child. *Mother? Father? What is she?* She paused, rubbing her chin unconsciously. *Oh well, I'll tell them when I figure it out,* she decided, wiping soap suds from her face with mild disgust, *Hopefully before the baby learns how to use that round metal thing.*

Meanwhile, the Amazon Queen and her consort had been trying to get away from their visitors all morning. Gabrielle was tired of everyone milling about and fussing over her, *You'd think they've never seen a pregnant woman before.* She silently groused. The blonde didn't think she'd ever feel this way, but she wished even her partner would stop. In fact, she was surprised her mate hadn't insisted on chewing her food for her. *Gods, will you please come out already?* The bard stroked her seriously enlarged midriff lovingly, and begged.

The Warrior Princess, on the other hand, was certain her eyeballs would fall out from their continual strain. Ever since the Queen's subjects arrived, she found herself constantly needing to glare down brazen Amazons who were bent on putting their hands and heads on places they had no business touching. *MY bard, MY baby,* her fierce blue eyes warned dangerously at the approaching warrior. It was bad enough for Xena that she had to watch her own mother, Hecuba and Lila committing the same crime and couldn't say or do anything. The former warlord smiled with morbid satisfaction as her gaze met Toris' bandaged wrist. She had to endure a thorough scolding from her partner for that, not to mention the undignified task of having to make her brother's bed for a week, *But, by the gods, it was worth it.*

Desperate, and running out of ideas where she could be alone with her warrior without eliciting too many sly glances from her Amazons, the bard announced she needed a bath. In her current state, her mate would have to help her, *Naturally.* She was a little irritated at the soft snicker from Solari when Xena jumped from her perch too enthusiastically at her declaration.

*Watch it,* she narrowed her eyes at the dark Amazon, and silently conveyed, *Or else...* She shifted her gaze between the warrior and her Regent, and smiled when the knowing smirk disappeared. Gabrielle decided she would have some fun with Ephiny for not telling her sooner about their budding romance. *Later,* she thought, rubbing her belly, and relaxing to her partner's hand massaging the small of her back, as they walked down the hallway, *Much later...*

"Gods, Amazons!" She shook her head slightly, and with her partner's help, eased onto the special bench the warrior made. A breath of relief escaped from her lips.

After helping her bard to her seat, Xena went back to close the door. "Well, they're your Amazons," the warrior retorted good-naturedly, pausing for a brief instant, then reached for the wooden plank. She decided to bolt the door as an extra measure of assurance for their privacy.

"I just wish they'd all go home and leave us alone," the bard complained as her fingers worked at unlacing her dress. Her partner quick-stepped over and took over the task, which Gabrielle gave up with a defeated sigh.

"You know we can't stay here forever either," the warrior teased as she put the undone laces aside, "My Queen." Large hands reached up involuntarily to cup the swollen breasts.

"I know," she gasped, as her sensitive nipples arched to her lover's touch. "Do you always have to be so reasonable?"

*Yeah, right,* Xena thought to herself, *Only wish I were,* as she tried once again to suppress the nagging dread. She laid her head gently against the slightly heaving bosom, then dove to captured her mate's lips with her own, probing and needful.

Blond eyebrows furrowed briefly at the sudden onslaught. Soon, however, her mind was consumed by only one thought...

"You sure I can't take a bath?" She breathed, when their lips finally parted. "What I wouldn't give for a good soak."

"Hmm..." The warrior nuzzled against her lover's ear. "I like the sound of that," she purred, and grinned at the familiar flutter against her palm. "But you know the answer..." The smile expanded when she felt her partner's hands tearing impatiently at her tunic. And she pulled away from the fiery warmth only long enough to rid them both of their light wool shirts.

"Gods, I want you." Her body shivered in reaction to her partner's touch.

"Always insatiable," a deep voice glided across her skin seductively, "My bard," leaving a provocative trace of moisture behind.

"Your fault," the blonde managed, capturing her warrior's sun-kissed face in her hands, and her lips with her hungry, open mouth.

*Probably,* the Warrior Princess mused happily as she returned the fervour. Intimacy was the last thing on her mind when she was carrying Solan, and she wasn't sure how her bard would be through a normal course of pregnancy, *Oh, gods... My baby...* She still hadn't allowed herself to believe, *It's just too good...* Then a torrent of desire surged through her as her tongue swept along her bard's throat and curled around a dark rose nipple. *Gods!* The lingering sweetness triggered a fiery vision, and the warrior latched onto her lover's arousal, as she recalled their earlier tryst...

"Let me do something," Gabrielle complained from her seat at the end of the counter. She had been humming with excess energy since they awoke at dawn.

"Just sit," she responded, scraping food bits off a plate.

"But I could just..." Her partner got up and started reaching for a knife.

"Will you just leave them?" Xena swiftly removed the utensil from her bard. "Humour me," she added with a pause, "Please?"

"Fine," she sat back down, "I'm pregnant, not dying," and grumbled in frustration.

"You're pregnant, I know," the warrior managed, catching the platter that almost slipped from her hand, and concentrated only on her chore.

Moments later, she heard Gabrielle moving, then felt a slight pressure against her back. Soon, a small hand joined hers in the soapy water. "What do you think you're doing, my bard?" She almost choked, as slim fingers began a sensuous exploration of her arm. Trying to be sensible, Xena grabbed a towel and began wiping water off her partner's hand; the motion slowed when the bard reached under the warrior's tunic and began tracing lazy patterns with her dry, warm palm, "Gabrielle..." Very reluctantly, she broke away, "We shouldn't..." Only to be held captive by her lover's eyes, glistening with love and desire. "You're almost..." She tried again, but was quickly silenced by insistent fingers and lips.

"Let me," she breathed, having realised long ago that resisting her determined bard was futile, and turned away from the sink with Gabrielle in her arms. Supporting the smaller body with her own, Xena bent to kiss her lover's jaw, and nibbled on her sensitive ear, tracing the edges with her tongue, while loosening the leather ties on her dress. Soon, the heather violet wool cloth gave way, and she dusted the path along exposed neck and shoulders with tender kisses.

The warrior reached around to cup her mate's full luscious breasts, and shuddered when she felt the pressure of the bard's palms on the back of her hands, guiding, as she squeezed and teased the swollen flesh. Xena revelled in the sounds her partner's whimpering moan, as excited digits rolled and tugged at hard, ready points, "Gods..." and groaned when her fingers came away with moisture. Unable to resist, she smeared the honey-thick liquid on her lover's flushed lips, then captured them in a sensual, ravishing kiss, sucking and swallowing hungrily the sweet taste.

"Gods, you're so sexy," she gasped, her voice low, as memory and reality intermingled. *Did I just say that?* She pondered fuzzily, but the thought was chased away by her partner's throaty call, and her silent but forceful command.
Following Gabrielle's lead, the warrior's hands began their exploration of her bard's body. Gentle fingers played over curves and dips, each stroke, each caress a tender expression of desire. She knelt before her mate, and clung to her bosom in love and submission, feeling the divine design of their union, as she listened to two sets of heartbeats responding to her own.

The excitement and affection they shared earlier in her mother's kitchen, the pleasures of getting away with the prank, of trying to act innocently afterwards and suppress guilty giggles every time their eyes met, simply could not compare not to the intimacy and delight she felt at this moment...

As the warrior lavished kisses on her lover's navel, she recalled all the mornings they spent in bed. When she would lay with her head against her mate's stomach, and speak to their unborn child, feeling her move to her own deep soothing voice. *My little girl...* she thought, as certain as she was of stars in the sky, as her lips travelled downwards, being consumed by a most miraculous joy.


Unexpectedly, she felt her bard tense to her light, teasing caresses, "Gabrielle?"

Small hand on hers pressed firmly upon extended belly, while fingers reached down and twined themselves in her dark mane, bringing her close... Then she heard...

"It's time."

"It's time?" the warrior repeated, in a whisper. Her blue gaze locked onto deep green, searching, uncertain, dazed. Dark lashes fluttered close when soft lips met slightly quivering ones in a gentle, anchoring kiss...

"Yeah," her fair partner breathed, "It's time," and smiled the most beautiful smile...

In the couple's room, Cyrene took charge. She made sure everyone remained focused on their tasks, and that items necessary for the delivery were properly prepared. Occasionally, she would stop to make sure her daughters had everything they needed. More often though, the grandmother-to-be would pause impatiently by the door, alternately to check if Toris had returned with the midwife, and to chase away nosy Amazons who kept disturbing their queen.

"Now I know where you learnt that from," Gabrielle grinned weakly at her partner, when her mother's fierce blue orbs narrowed in a most familiar way, and scared away the curly blond head that kept popping in.

"Yeah, got that a lot when I was a kid," the warrior explained with a soft chuckle. "Are you doing okay here, my bard?"

"Couldn't... be..." came her gasping reply, "...better!" She gripped at her partner's arm crossed about her shoulders, as another wave of contractions hit.

"Easy, Love... Come on, breathe in..." Xena coached, clasping Gabrielle close, "Out... In... That's it...," her own heart palpitating in triple-time. She might have thanked the God of War for inspiring her years of discipline and training, had she not been as consumed; her whole focus was on taking deep, slow breaths, and getting her mate's to match hers after each contraction. Soon, as always, their breathing became in synch again.

"Gods," the bard expelled, when the pain finally subsided. "Good thing we're not in Poteidaia," she observed as Hecuba and Calandra squeezed into the room, "Mother and Father's house would explode."

That drew a tentative smile from the warrior, who placed a gentle kiss on her beloved's flushed cheek. With her bard in her arms, Xena was glad they decided to hire a midwife, so that she could be a birthing partner for her mate. Brushing blond locks away, she cooled her sweat-soaked brows with a moist towel, her voice vibrated low, "I love you, Gabrielle..."

"Love you, too, Xena." She laced her fingers with her beloved's and sank wearily into the comforting embrace.

By the time the midwife arrived, the sky had darkened considerably. Even though it was barely past midday, the village was enveloped by a haze of dim, gray orange gloom...


It was a very bad case of deja vu for the Warrior Princess but she didn't have time to think about it.

She didn't even pay much attention to the old healer's final preparation; and the Amazon priestess' incantations were just as completely lost to the warrior.

Contractions more frequent and steady.
Pain stronger; screams louder.

She felt a range of intense emotions: joyful and excited, fearful and despondent.

"It's not..." the bard wheezed, "so bad...," while Xena cooled her face with a wash cloth.

Through waves of contractions, the warrior pressed further against the pillows propped up along the wall, supporting her's mate's body and weight, offering encouragement and praise.

Contractions ceased.

"Lean forward, Gab...," she prompted gently, helping the bard onto a pile of pillows; she massaged her back and shoulders, and could breathe again when the muscles relaxed under her ministrations. "Remember, Love, in... out... in... slowly..."

Through the breathing exercises, she tried to distract her bard with soft kisses and murmurs of love, with stories Cyrene sang to her when she was young. Vaguely, she saw her mother's eyebrows rising...

"Oh, Gods!" It started again.

"It's almost time," someone said.

The small form in her arms was tired, shivery, anxious and stretched to physical limits, the warrior knew.





"Corin... thian!?"

"Keep going. Easy... In... out... in... out..."

"I can't... Tell me who..."

"C'mon, guess... Almost there..."

Another scream. Her heart constricted.

"Time to bear down and push!" They heard. "Remember to breathe... That's it... You're both doing fine."

*Breathe.* "Breathe," reminding herself and her bard. "Push!"

"I need... Lie down..." She pressed against Xena.

"No, my bard," trying to keep her upright, "Just hang on," and supporting all her weight, "I've got you..."

Both tired and overwhelmed.


Piercing, painful. Remembering another time...

"It's not that bad."
"I hardly felt a thing."

Stark. Fear. *Nooo!*

"Push... Push!" Someone took over the instruction.

*I've got you,* communicating her love and encouragement and assurance through touch.

Everyone focused on getting the baby out.

"That's it. Ah, yes, I can see the baby's head." She heard.

Gabrielle cried out involuntarily...

She looked over and saw the entire head. *Oh, my bard...*

Hands wiped fluids away from the newborn's face. The bruises from birth disappeared. Under a different set of circumstances, questions would be popping up in her mind faster than she could catch them with her chakram...

At that instant, the shock of dark hair was all she saw.

"Keep pushing, Gabrielle. We're almost there. Xena, you're doing fine."

More contractions. More painful screams.

The baby's shoulders and body slid out. "It's a girl."

"Thank the Goddess!" Calandra praised.

The midwife wiped the newborn clean of blood and fluids, and ran a gentle hand throughout the small body. "She's perfect."

Little nose wrinkled and sneezed. Bringing forth a sigh of relief from the grandmothers.

Little mouth opened and cried lustily. Evoking a new profound joy in her heart.

She was unprepared for the feeling. Shell-shocked.

Engulfed in waves of emotion. Overwhelmed.

Suddenly, all the pain their togetherness had caused them seemed even more a bearable price to pay. *Our Little Miracle... My bard...*

She willed her hands to not tremble, and they stilled barely enough to cut the cord. And felt a loss when the midwife took the infant back. Her eyes torn for a moment between following the woman, and staying. "I love you, Gabrielle."

Soon, the baby was brought to her partner's breasts.

Tiny hands reached out from the blanket for warmth and comfort. Drawing from her depths an immense tenderness for the bard and their child.

A series of mild contractions began again. Both parents barely noticed it.

At the signal of a small gush of blood, skilful hands pulled on the remaining cord gently, and the afterbirth was easily delivered. The older woman checked it, and nodded her approval.

She then ran a gentle hand along the bard's body. Fierce dark brows furrowed briefly at the unexpected gesture, but relaxed at the healer's smile of satisfaction.

Shortly after the midwife left, the sky cleared again. And Cyrene shooed everyone out, leaving her daughters and their newborn alone.

Cocooned in their own private surrounding, the couple were finally able to relax. Gabrielle was still slightly shaky from the ordeal; but her fair features glowed, shining with love and tenderness for the infant and her mate.

Xena held them both, gently touching and stroking, showing them how much they are loved and cared for. *Can you see your little sister from where you are, my son? What do you think?* She asked, closing her eyes, and hoping he could hear her, *Thank you...,* thinking back what he had done for them.

When the baby was done feeding, Gabrielle gazed up to her partner, and saw the silent plea in glistening blue eyes. She answered it with the tenderest smile.

*There you are!* The warrior thought, euphoric, as the tiny new life was laid gently in her arms. Theirs was an instant recognition, an immediate bond. And she felt with the child a special closeness which she never allowed herself a chance to have, *I never thought I'd get another...*

She looked at the bard, whose soft body curled up against her own, and realised for the first time that she was no longer just her lover, her life-mate, but also her companion in parenthood...

And that their life had been forever changed...

*I promise you... and you...,* and sealed her pledges with a kiss...

Continued...Part 3

Return to The Bard's Corner


A series of mild contractions began again. Both parents barely noticed it.

At the signal of a small gush of blood, skilful hands pulled on the remaining cord gently, and the afterbirth was easily delivered. The older woman checked it, and nodded her approval.

She then ran a gentle hand along the bard's body. Fierce dark brows furrowed briefly at the unexpected gesture, but relaxed at the healer's smile of satisfaction.

Shortly after the midwife left, the sky cleared again. And Cyrene shooed everyone out, leaving her daughters and their newborn alone.

Cocooned in their own private surrounding, the couple were finally able to relax. Gabrielle was still slightly shaky from the ordeal; but her fair features glowed, shining with love and tenderness for the infant and her mate.

Xena held them both, gently touching and stroking, showing them how much they are loved and cared for. *Can you see your little sister from where you are, my son? What do you think?* She asked, closing her eyes, and hoping he could hear her, *Thank you...,* thinking back what he had done for them.

When the baby was done feeding, Gabrielle gazed up to her partner, and saw the silent plea in glistening blue eyes. She answered it with the tenderest smile.

*There you are!* The warrior thought, euphoric, as the tiny new life was laid gently in her arms. Theirs was an instant recognition, an immediate bond. And she felt with the child a special closeness which she never allowed herself a chance to have, *I never thought I'd get another...*

She looked at the bard, whose soft body curled up against her own, and realised for the first time that she was no longer just her lover, her life-mate, but also her companion in parenthood...

And that their life had been forever changed...

*I promise you... and you...,* and sealed her pledges with a kiss...

Continued...Part 3

Return to The Bard's Corner