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It is a beautiful night with a sky full of twinkling stars.  A full moon shines down, illuminating a path that goes from the castle, down a hillside, through a wooded area, and around a lake surrounded by low hills.  A few wispy clouds occasionally float across the moon, but it is otherwise clear, all signs of the rain from the day before gone.  We hear the calls of a few night birds, and a light wind rustles the tall marsh grass and the leaves overhead.  The lake seems almost to glow in the darkness, and the wind stirs the surface from time to time.


Xena and Gabrielle are following Merlin on the path in the trees near the edge of the lake.  Merlin is walking with his staff in one hand.   Xena still has Excalibur tucked into her belt, and her posture fairly bristles with agitation.



So, Merlin.  Where does this Lady live?

I would have thought someone important

enough to dictate the fate of your people

would rate a room in the castle.




She's no mortal lady.



(mumbling sarcastically)

Well doesn't that just figure?



Gabrielle takes her hand and squeezes it.



So she's a goddess?



She's the Lady of the Lake, the

Goddess of Avalon, the link between

mankind and the Earth Mother.



Avalon?  I don't believe I've ever

heard of Avalon or the Earth Mother.

Is she a goddess too?


Merlin slows his pace so they are walking three abreast with Gabrielle in the middle.  The path is narrow, yet the foliage on either side magically parts back from them as they pass, so they have enough room without having to push back branches or duck under them.


Xena watches this phenomenon with a look of intrigue on her face, her eyes darting all around. Gabrielle maintains a polite attitude as if nothing is out of the ordinary.  Xena occasionally glances sideways to study Merlin.  She lets go of Gabrielle's hand and falls back a few paces, and finds branches snapping back in her face as she walks.


She speaks low enough that Gabrielle can't hear her, knowing Merlin can.



So only those that walk beside you

get special treatment, eh, old man?


She stops, hands on hips, and Merlin glances back at her for the briefest moment, casting the barest hint of a wink at her before he turns his attention back to Gabrielle.  Xena dredges up a scowl, but after he turns his back, she shakes her head slightly, a smile tugging at her lips in spite of herself.   She catches up and re-claims Gabrielle's hand, and the branches begin parting for her again.


Gabrielle looks over at her with a puzzled expression and Xena smiles briefly.  Gabrielle smiles at Xena, and then turns back to Merlin.



Avalon is an island, sacred to the worshippers

of the Goddess.  There was a time, Gabrielle,

when the people of these lands honored the

Goddess, the Earth and the seasons,

and the natural order of things.



Sounds like a peaceful existence.



Yes, for the most part.  But gradually,

other people came to our shores, good

men and barbarians, some from just

across the water, and others from

halfway around the world.



Around the world?  What

an interesting concept.



Merlin’s eyes twinkle in the darkness.



Isn't it?  As I was saying... other religions

came into our land, clashing with the

older ways of the Goddess, and

causing contention among men.




Xena and I have encountered many gods

and religions in our travels together.  I've

found most gods to be selfish, and many

people seem to use religion for their own

selfish gain as well.  I've met only a few who

served the ways of their religion with pure

intent.  And about the only goddess I've met

who cared about people is my friend Aphrodite.



(eyes wide)

You're personal friends

with Aphrodite?




Yes.  We go back a long way.  We weren't

always friends, but she's come through for

Xena and me several times. I guess you

could say she grew on us after a while.

You know her?




Yes.  She does get

around, doesn't she?


Gabrielle laughs with him.



That she does.


Xena steps in closer, draping a possessive arm across Gabrielle's shoulders.



Is Britannia's quarrel with the Saxons

over this clash of religions?



Partly.  Part of it is a battle for dominion,

but yes, much of it is a desire on the part of

the Saxons to force their ways on our people.



And what of Arthur?  Does he intend

to force the ways of Britannia on

the Saxons, if he defeats them?



Don't you mean if YOU

defeat them, Xena?




Listen, Merlin.  I haven't agreed to do

anything for you, Arthur, or Britannia.  If I

don't get good answers, we're out of here.



Merlin abruptly turns off the path, and the foliage continues to make way for them.   Gabrielle and Xena almost collide as they turn to follow.  They clear the wooded area and come to the very edge of the lake.



As you wish.  Answers

you shall have.


He raises his arms out toward the water, pointing his staff toward the center of the lake.




Viviane, I bring you Xena, the

warrior who bears Excalibur.

She has questions for you.


Among the ripples of the wind, larger ripples appear on the lake's surface, and they begin to churn.  A glowing light is seen deep down, rising to the surface at a leisurely pace.





Xena stands slightly to the side and in front of her, in a protective stance, her fingers touching the edge of her chakram.  The light continues to rise, taking shape, and a luminescent ghost-like head rises from the water, followed by a body covered in a long, flowing diaphanous gown.  The Lady has long wavy hair, which flies out wildly all around her head.  Her face is serious, her eyes glowing icy blue in the moonlight.



(in an echoing voice)

Xena.  I've been expecting you for

many years.  You have questions?





No.  I have statements.

This sword....


She draws Excalibur from her belt, and it glows in Viviane's presence.




I didn't ask for this.  All I did was pull it

from a rock and hold it for all of a few

seconds.  I don't want Camelot.  I don't

want to lead their army, and I don't care

about the Saxons.  With all due... respect...

for you and the people of these lands, I'm

giving it back to you.  Give it to Arthur.  He

seems like a decent fellow.  He's your

warrior.  Me, I just want to go home with

Gabrielle and pick up where we left off.



It's not that simple, Xena.  The sword

was meant for Arthur, but you drew it

from the stone first.  Now you must

bear it, and the destiny that goes

with it.  You can't give it back.




Destiny.  Now there's a

million-dinar word.


Xena crosses her arms, Excalibur dangling loosely from one hand.




I've learned something, Lady.  I make my

own destiny, and I refuse this... gift.  Just

tell me what I have to do to give it back.



Very well.  You must die in battle, after

which the sword must be cast back into

my lake.  Then and only then will you

be released from this responsibility.






She lunges forward, and snatches the sword from Xena's surprised grasp.  With a mighty heave backward and forward, she flings the sword through the air and into the water, where it floats for a moment, before it slowly sinks out of sight.


She rubs her hands together, as if cleaning them of filth, and gestures angrily with both arms. Her expression is a mixture of fear and anger.




There!  We skipped that dying step.

It's all yours.  Do with it what you will!



Viviane ducks below the surface, then shoots out of the water, the sword held high over her head.  With one great swing of her arm, she sends it back to shore, where it lands at Xena's feet, the point embedded firmly in the soft ground.


Gabrielle reaches down and determinedly picks it up, intent on tossing it back again.  Xena steps in behind her and touches her shoulder.






No!  If I keep trying....




If you keep trying, she'll just

keep sending

it back.  We have to find another way.



(almost sobbing)

But she said....


Xena takes Excalibur from her and tucks it back into her belt.  She takes Gabrielle's hands, and examines them for a moment.





She looks over at Merlin, and a knowing glance passes between them.




I heard her.  We'll find a way.



Xena!  We can just walk away.  Let them

fight it out without Excalibur.  Seems like

they've been doing that all along anyway.



And we might do exactly that.  Let's

take some time to think this through.



(in a booming angry voice)

If you two walk away from this, you

automatically sentence Camelot to

defeat by the Saxons.  Think on that.


With no further word, she disappears and the water swallows her up until there is no sign she was ever there.


Gabrielle shakes a fist toward the lake.





She spins around and faces Xena.  Gabrielle holds her hands out, palms toward Xena, stopping just short of shoving her.




Okay.  We'll find a way,

but dying is not an option, even

for a minute.  You got me?


She storms off, back up the path, leaving Xena and Merlin behind.



Feisty, that one is.




She can be, yes.



Her gaze follows Gabrielle, until she disappears through the trees.




Merlin, Gabrielle touched Excalibur....



With no lightening bolts?






Only a fool couldn't see that you two are

much more than friends.  Even the Lady

saw it.  You did notice she said if the two of

you walk away, you've doomed Camelot?



Gabrielle... she's been through things that

would fell men much bigger than her.  She's

the strongest person I've ever known.  But

I'll NOT put her through pain over this, Merlin.

I won't.  You can tell me what it means, but

I swear I'll walk away and Camelot can

go to Tartarus, before I'll allow her to suffer

any more than she already is.




The two of you share the same spirit.  Thus,

Gabrielle can also wield Excalibur unharmed,

and this has become her fight as well.



It already was....  Now, if you'll

excuse me, I need to go find her,

so we can figure this out.


Merlin watches her leave.



And I've no doubt the

two of you will.






Xena opens a wooden gate in the castle wall, and steps into a well-tended garden.  It's peaceful there, and she sniffs the air as she passes a large flowering vine that grows on the wall.  She makes her way along a cobbled path, the moon lighting her way.


When she's halfway across the courtyard, she stops, cocking her head to one side, listening.  Then she quickly ducks behind a tree, watching as Lancelot and a beautiful young woman comes running past.  Lancelot is leading the woman by the hand, and they are both laughing merrily.


Lancelot leads her off the path and under a tree across from Xena, taking both of the woman's hands in his own.  The wind plays in her hair, and he reaches up, also pushing it back from her face.


The woman’s eyes dart around.



We must be careful.



I don't feel like being careful.


He pulls her into his arms and kisses her passionately.  Xena watches, smirking in amusement.  The woman pushes him back, but keeps her hands on his chest.



We might be seen.



And someday, my lady, I hope to

proclaim my love for you from

the top of the castle walls.


He pulls her close and kisses her again.  It goes on for several moments, and Xena appears impatient, as her fingertips drum against the tree trunk.  Finally, she rolls her eyes, and as the couple continues to tryst, she sneaks past them.  Just as she passes them, the woman opens her eyes and sees Xena over Lancelot's shoulder.  Their eyes meet, then Xena takes off.  The woman pushes Lancelot away, as Xena reaches the side door to the castle.




Someone's out here.  A woman.






He spins in a circle, looking all around, but Xena has slipped inside the castle, out of sight.






The room is luxurious, compared to the sparse entry chamber.  A large canopied bed is in the middle of the room against the wall, flanked on each side by ornately carved bedside tables.  A privacy screen sits in one corner, and behind it is a long rack of various gowns and other articles of clothing.  Next to that is a dressing table and padded chair.  Off to one side is a private bathing room with a large sunken oval tub.  To the other is a window and a door that leads to a balcony.  A side table holds a silver pitcher of water and matching goblets, along with a platter of bread, cheese, and fruit, and a wine flask sits next to that.


Gabrielle stands at the window, staring out into the night.  She's dressed in a fancy nightgown.  She appears lost in thought, when Xena enters the room.  She approaches Gabrielle hesitantly, her steps measured, her face sad.







Remind me the next time I ask to

be pampered to be a bit more

specific as to the circumstances.



Xena stops completely for a moment, and her posture relaxes, as she releases a relieved sigh. She chuckles lightly.



And remind me next time we

go to an inn for the night to

bolt the window closed.


She closes the distance and places her hands on Gabrielle's shoulders.  They both laugh together.



(in unison)

I'm sorry....


Gabrielle turns and places her hands against Xena's chest.


Xena pulls Gabrielle closer.



I don't plan on

dying for Camelot.


Gabrielle touches Xena’s face.



And I don't intend to let you.

Xena, what do we do?


They move out to the balcony and sit down on a marble bench, facing each other.  The night breeze stirs their hair, and an owl hoots somewhere off in the distance.




Merlin seems wise.  I don't know

why, but I trust him.  And Arthur

seems like a good man.



I've still got a bone to pick with Merlin,

but I agree on both points.  Still....



You'd like to get to know Arthur better?

Me too.  I have a good idea of what kind

of person he is.  A selfish man would have

been planning your demise before you ever

got here, not bowing at your feet.  I have to

think he truly has the good of Camelot at heart.



Yes.  Agreed, but I want to hear what his

intentions are; how he plans to handle the

Saxons if we do defeat them... because

I don't plan to hang around and take

care of the details for them.  Assuming

I fight for them at all.


Gabrielle sits back a bit, crossing her legs on the bench and looking down for a moment.  Xena's eyes roam over her, her expression pleased.  She reaches out and touches a flounce on the hem of the nightgown.




You look beautiful.




Thank you.


She takes Xena's hand, playing with it as she talks.




Xena, if Arthur is the good man he appears

to be, I don't think we have a choice.  The

Saxons... from what little Merlin said, they

sound like barbarians.  I don't think I can

in good conscience walk away from

Camelot and doom them to that.



True, but there's that whole nasty

dying problem to get around.

I've got some ideas.



Gabrielle looks up, studying Xena's face, her own face reflecting her love for Xena.



Me too.  I've been thinking on that.  What

about that poison?  The one Callisto put

on that dart the first time she attacked you. We

sure thought you were dead, but you weren't.

Maybe you could use just a little of that.




Mmmm.  Too risky.  I can't control the

battle.  Sure, I can control it to a certain

extent, but I can't control the exact timing

of things.  If I take the poison, and don't

manage to win in time, I risk dropping on

the field in the middle of the fight.  If I finish

things up sooner than I anticipate, I risk

not dying during the battle, so to speak.



Okay.  Well, we'll think

of something else.



You could put the

pinch on me.


Gabrielle stares at her in outrage.



(with finality)




All right.  I could put the pinch on

myself, and you could take it off.



And if I don't get to you in time?





Gabrielle, I've got to play dead somehow.

I have a feeling they'll actually check for a

heartbeat.  How about this?  As soon as

I pick off their leader, I fall down on

the field and pretend to be injured....


Gabrielle interrupts and rises partway up.



That works.  Problem solved.

Let's go to bed.


Xena pushes her back down, stifling a laugh.



Hold on.  They'll check.  Let me finish.

I wait until you get to me, then I put the

pinch on myself, just long enough to

stop my heartbeat.  Then you take

it off.  How about that?




Xena, I don't like it.


She scoots forward, taking Xena's other hand.




If it comes to that, all right.  I can live with

that.  But I think we're putting the cart before

the horse here.  How about I talk with Arthur

tomorrow, get a feel for where he's coming

from?  Meanwhile, you go check out the

army, see what you need to do if we do

decide to fight for them.  Then we can

figure out the rest of the details.



Sounds like a plan.


She stands and pulls Gabrielle up with her, and leads her back inside while slowly nudging her toward the bed.




Right now, I've got a plan that involves

me, you, that nice big bed over there,

and maybe that wine flask on the table.


Gabrielle urges her forward, pulling her head down for a kiss.  They part, still standing nose-to-nose.




Now that's a plan I have

no argument with.


They laugh and exchange a few more kisses, while they undress each other.  Then they make their way to the bed as we....