The Silver Fox

by Maggie

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny and Argo belong to MCA/Universal, Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. Neither is any intrusion toward those appreciable rights proposed by any reference and/or insinuation concerning the recent broadcasted scenarios alluded to here. However, all other characters, as well as this specific depiction of events, have sprung from the somewhat fanciful mind of this author.

DEDICATION: Once more, I must offer thanks and appreciation to my ‘Canadian Muse’ for her steadfast faith, support and understanding during the creation of this piece. As usual, she kept my head straight and my spirits up. Thanks again, my friend. As before, I couldn’t have done it this time without you, either.

COMMENTS WELCOME: Any comments, impressions or questions you wish to submit will be happily accepted at the email address above. Remember, that’s the only way my pen, my parchment and I have of knowing whether or not we should keep doing this sort of thing.

Enjoy, Xenites! Love, MMG.


Prologue ~~~

Ephiny trained worried eyes on the entrance to the Amazon Village. She scanned the horizon for the familiar golden mare and the two women who traveled with her. The outbound sentries had relayed the message that the young queen and her companion had recently entered Amazon territory and were headed toward the main settlement. They had also passed along a disturbing piece of news with their report; that both women seemed spent, physically and emotionally, and the normal rapport between them was all but non-existent. It had incited an unusual foreboding in the statuesque Regent.

Gabrielle’s note had been cryptic, almost deliberately ambiguous. It had arrived more than a week ago, explaining the upcoming visit only as a "need to rest and restore ourselves". The little monarch had alluded only vaguely to a recent journey that had somehow depleted not only the corporal reserves of the two friends, but had left them both "spiritually barren". It had seemed a rather odd term to the Amazon surrogate-queen, even though it had originated from her very imaginative young friend. The precise wording had brought a tightness to Ephiny’s chest and a dread to her very being. The ensuing days until the young bard’s arrival had stretched long and apprehensive.

Finally, Ephiny recognized the great steed and her well-known passengers passing through the front gates to the village. The warm smile of welcome that had emerged automatically on the lovely warrior’s face faded almost as quickly as it had appeared. As she moved to welcome the approaching travelers, several conditions apparent in the two women caught the Amazon’s immediate attention.

The first was the fact that the tall, dark-haired warrior was not wearing her customary leather garment with its accompanying metal armor, but was clothed instead in a long, heavy, hooded woolen cloak, its belted thickness gathered at her slim waist, the long mantle falling in deep folds from her shoulders to her boots. The tall blonde also noticed the dark circles under the clear, blue eyes and the hollow shadows that riddled the solemn, stoic face.

As the warrior dismounted wearily, Ephiny felt an uncontrollable impulse to assist her, to offer comfort and solace to the exhausted, haggard-looking form. Instinctively, she sensed such an action would be an effrontery to the control the tall warrior was trying valiantly to sustain. Instead, she offered Xena a strong forearm, the normal gesture associated with the greeting of a welcome guest. The Amazon was even more unnerved when the warrior’s grip on her arm proved rather timid and weak.

Ephiny turned to search Gabrielle’s expression as the young blonde slid tiredly from her seat behind the horse’s saddle. She returned the girl’s warm embrace, then held the little bard at arm’s length to consider the next disconcerting factor in the two visitors’ manner. Ephiny immediately noticed the sorrowful, almost haunted quality that glimmered in the young queen’s green gaze.

The Amazon Regent let her eyes travel quickly over the bard’s equally unusual attire; the little blonde also wore a hooded, woolen garment, the long robe engulfing the slender form and drooping ingloriously about the girl’s slim figure. But it was the clear brand of sadness apparent in the soft verdant pools which brought a deep wave of concern to the Amazon’s heart. She gathered the young queen close again, recouped her own control and released the girl, leaving one arm draped over the little blonde’s shoulders.

"Ephiny," Gabrielle began, her voice wavering. "Xena needs to rest. We can talk later. Right now, she needs a soft mattress, warm food and some quiet, peaceful time."

Ephiny watched the young queen’s face carefully. She could sense the controlled fear riding beneath the calm tone. She turned to the silent warrior and realized the urgency conveyed by the little bard’s quiet instructions. The Regent saw the obvious fatigue and the ravaged reserves in the tall woman’s pallid face, and the cloudless despair and degradation evident in Xena’s expression sent a thunderous apprehension through the Amazon’s being. She put a gentle hand on the warrior’s arm and tried to control her own shocked response to the woman’s dazed reaction.

"Of course," Ephiny said, motioning quickly to another female warrior hovering near the horse’s head. "Take Argo to the stables, Kieva," the Regent instructed. She turned to the little blonde. "Your hut is ready, as always. I’ll have something warm and nourishing sent over at once."

Ephiny touched Xena’s arm again. The blue eyes slowly swept up to meet hers, then floated uncertainly to meet the bard’s. The warrior blinked slowly, a dispirited tedium showing across the chiseled features.

"Follow Cassandra, Xena," Ephiny said gently. "She’ll take you to the Regal Hut. All right?" She addressed the young Amazon. "Help her, Cass’. Make sure she’s comfortable, do you understand?" The young warrior nodded.

The dull, azure gaze lingered on the Amazon’s compassionate face. The young, red-haired soldier stepped closer to the warrior, wrapping a comforting arm around the tall woman’s waist and taking one slender arm with her other hand. She carefully led the trembling form toward the Regal Hut as the queen and her Regent quietly watched. When the warrior’s despondent figure had moved far enough away, Ephiny turned to Gabrielle, a nervous concern coloring the tall blonde’s lovely features.

The young queen’s eyes followed her friend’s departure until she saw Xena and Cassandra disappear through the door of the Regal Hut. Then the bard dropped her gaze, a great trembling overtaking her slim form. Gabrielle drew a deep, shaky breath and brought shaking hands to cover her tear-covered face.

Ephiny pulled the little blonde to her, wrapping both arms around the sobbing form and holding on tight as she waited for Gabrielle to regain control. After a few moments, the bard pulled back from the Amazon, wiped her face and took another unsteady breath. Ephiny slowly directed the little bard toward the slightly smaller hut which occupied the place of honor next to the Regal residence. She focused her attention on the little blonde’s heartbroken expression.

"What’s happened, Gabrielle?" the Amazon asked softly. "You both look ... terrible," the Regent finished bluntly. She saw a tiny glimpse of the absent sparkle return to the little blonde’s eyes, only to mark its equally rapid departure as the girl sat down heavily on the bench in front of the nearby ‘honored visitor’s hut’. Ephiny sat beside the queen, her eyes anxious on the young woman’s wounded expression. "Your note didn’t mention any battles or any serious injuries. What have the two of you .... what has hurt you both so badly?"

Gabrielle swallowed hard around the ache in her throat. She trained her eyes on the door of the hut where she’d last seen the figure of her best friend. After a moment, she transferred her attention to her own white-knuckled fists, clenched painfully in her lap. Finally the little bard began to speak, in a voice so thin and frail, her Regent had to lean closer to hear the words.

"We’ve just come from the kingdom of Chin. Xena was made to ... she endured a terrible ordeal there. Someone she trusted betrayed her. She was captured ... put in a filthy prison ... condemned to death ... nearly killed. I think it will take some time before she ... recovers from this ... I only hope she ... I pray what has happened doesn’t ... destroy her ... and us."

Ephiny waited a long moment before voicing her next question. An alarming dread was constricting her stomach as she watched a wave of terrible pain transform the young queen’s manner. She tightened her arm around the girl’s thin shoulders and put one hand on the small fists quivering in the young woman’s lap. Slowly, painfully, the green eyes rose to meet hers.

"Who betrayed her?" the Regent asked softly. She gulped against the crushing anguish she saw in the little queen’s face.

"Her best friend," the bard said quietly. "It was me, Ephiny. I was the one who betrayed her."


Chapter One ~~~

Xena allowed the young Amazon to help her shed the long cloak and the heavy, woolen tunic underneath. She let the redhead lead her to the large cot, sat down on the edge as the girl directed and watched dispassionately as the young warrior removed her boots and leg coverings. Cassandra carefully held open the soft, warm robe to the quiet woman on the bed, gently pulling the warrior’s long arms into the sleeves. She tied the cloth belt around the slender bronze form, noting wordlessly the many bruises and scrapes clearly evident on her charge’s body, particularly the raw, purple bruise that completely encircled the woman’s neck. She made a mental note to report her observations to the queen’s Regent; she knew Ephiny would require the transfer of such information.

The young Amazon gently coaxed Xena to her feet and, keeping a careful hold on the woman’s arm, drew back the down quilt covering the large pallet. She turned back to the silent warrior and carefully guided her onto the large mattress. When the slender form was settled, Cassandra draped the warm coverlet over the reclining figure and waited patiently until she saw the blue eyes close. Then the young woman moved to the door, noiselessly pulled open the panel and left the hut. She had no way of knowing that the blue eyes had drifted open again after the sound of the closing door faded from the room.

Once she had dropped the latch securing the door, Cassandra searched the courtyard for the tall Regent’s form. She found her sitting next to the young queen on the bench in front of the nearby hut. The young woman quickly deduced an intrusion into the private conversation would be totally unacceptable at that moment. She dropped her gaze and moved toward the stable; she knew Kieva would be waiting to hear what she had learned during her task.


The look of complete astonishment on Ephiny’s face brought a deep shame to the young queen’s soul. Gabrielle pulled her gaze from her Amazon friend’s and gulped nervously, trying hard to offset the nausea gathering in her throat. Even as she focused on the ground in front of them, she could sense the raging confusion in her Regent’s reaction.

"Gabrielle," Ephiny gasped. "That’s impossible." The Amazon tried to turn the young blonde to face her. "Surely you don’t mean it."

The little bard shuddered and wrapped her slim arms around her waist. She let her tears wash down over her face, her spirit so depleted she barely noticed their journey. She turned a tortured expression toward the blonde warrior’s questioning gaze.

"No, it’s true, Ephiny," Gabrielle whispered, shivering pathetically in the Amazon’s grasp. "I betrayed my best friend. Nearly got her killed. It’s true. It’s all true."

"Sweet Artemis!" the tall Amazon whispered, then regretted the comment as soon as she heard the sobs bursting from the girl next to her. Ephiny pulled the little bard close, stroking the slender back and gritting her teeth at the outpouring of pain from the young woman in her arms.

"It’s all right," she crooned into the soft, blonde hair. "It’ll work out. Everything will work out." The Regent held onto the trembling queen, gently rocking her small friend, while her mind worked frantically to make sense of what she’d just heard the little blonde confess.


Chapter Two ~~~

Gabrielle sat quietly in the Regal Hut, watching the warrior sleep. The little bard listened carefully, straining to gauge the sound of the tall woman’s breathing. She remembered the ragged, labored rhythm of the first night in the hut as well as the panic and terror in the blue eyes when the warrior had awakened abruptly, a sheen of perspiration shining across her bronze face. The young queen had occupied the same chair that night as the one in which she sat now, her eyes trained on the warrior’s immobile form, her mind filled with penitence, remorse and fear.

Xena had been restless that night, her sleep fitful and uneasy. The bard clearly recalled having to cross to the bed a number of times, taking extra care not to further alarm the agitated warrior as she attempted to disperse another disturbing nightmare that had awakened her friend. Each time, Xena’s fearful screams had permeated the quiet darkness in the hut. Each time the bard’s calm voice and gentle touch had eventually quelled the warrior’s breathless panic. Each time, the blue eyes had snapped to the young blonde’s face, shown recognition, then closed tightly in shattered horror. And each time, the bard had returned to her chair once the warrior had seemed comforted, or at least tranquil ... to wait for the next time.

That night had happened three nights ago. Since that evening, the character of the warrior’s sleep had become calmer, the nightmares seemed to have ended. Now when she woke, Xena’s gaze was empty and unresponsive. Although she didn’t recoil from the bard’s voice or her touch, the dark-haired warrior didn’t acknowledge the girl’s presence either. In fact, she didn’t acknowledge much of any of the ministrations that had been directed at her. When she wasn’t asleep, the warrior seemed mired in her own private contemplation, a self-inflicted silence that seemed irrevocable and unending.

The gentle knock on the door broke the bard’s reverie. She crossed the room, opened the panel and answered Ephiny’s solicitous expression with a small, ineffective smile. The Amazon Regent stepped inside the hut and crossed the room to glance momentarily at the sleeping warrior, then returned to stand next to the little queen. Gabrielle turned a questioning gaze toward Kieva who stood patiently just inside the doorway, then posed a silent inquiry in Ephiny’s direction. The Amazon noticed the fatigue in the soft face, but she stifled her inclination to comment on the bard’s rapidly declining condition to pose a gentle suggestion.


"Kieva can sit with Xena for a while. You need some food and rest yourself."

The Amazon waited while the girl’s attention drifted to her slumbering friend, then returned her gaze. The green eyes closed wearily as the bard rubbed her forehead with a shaky hand. She nodded wordlessly and let Ephiny lead her toward the open doorway. As the Regent passed the tall, young Amazon, she whispered a firm order.

"Keep an eye on her. If anything changes ... anything, come and get us at once. We’ll be in my hut."

Kieva nodded and glanced quickly at the form on the bed. Then she noiselessly closed the door behind the little queen and her Regent, crossed to the wooden chair and sat down, facing the still warrior.


Ephiny gently directed the little bard toward the hut she occupied whenever the young queen visited the village. Once inside, the tall blonde ushered the young woman toward the comfortable pallet, watched her lower her exhausted form onto the edge of the mattress, then offered the girl a mug of clear, cool liquid. The Amazon waited until the little blonde had

swallowed some of the contents of the vessel, then placed the mug on a nearby table. She sat down next to the young queen, a compassionate smile warming her lovely face.

"OK," the Regent began gently, "let’s have it. What’s going on with you two?" She kept her expression as open as possible, steeling against her own distress at the sight of her young friend’s anguish. "Xena has slept away nearly three days and you’ve barely slept at all." The bard’s green eyes met the Amazon’s for a moment, then fell to the earthen floor of the hut. Ephiny waited another moment, then pressed on, determined to find the cause of the young woman’s pain.

"C’mon, Gabrielle," the Regent probed cautiously. "Tell me what’s happening. Maybe I can help you ... and Xena." She took the bard’s trembling hand. "Let me help, please?"

Gabrielle took a deep breath and tightened her grasp on Ephiny’s sturdy palm. After a moment, the bard faced her Amazon friend, her expression a study in deep shame and remorse. She gulped hard and tried to force her voice around the aching tightness constricting her throat. Ephiny wrapped a comforting arm around the slim shoulders when she saw the wave of tears that covered the young face.

"Oh, Ephiny, I don’t know how Xena can ever forgive me for what I’ve done. I told her she can’t hate me any more than I already hate myself, but ...." The green eyes meeting the Regent’s held a desperation, a numbing sorrow.

"Stop that," Ephiny said softly. "Xena couldn’t hate you, no matter what you’ve done, or tried to do." The blonde warrior smiled warmly at the girl’s disheartened expression. "She knows ... and I know ... whatever you did, it was because your heart wouldn’t let you do otherwise." She hugged the slim shoulders tightly and offered the bard a soft cloth to dry her face. "Xena loves you, Gabrielle, and she knows that you love her." Ephiny waited while the bard seemed to accept her words.

"Now, start from the beginning and tell me what happened to you two. And I mean everything. I want to hear it all." The little blonde turned a fearful gaze at the Amazon’s open expression. "No," Ephiny said, anticipating the girl’s objection. "Don’t worry about shocking me or ... offending me, or anything like that." She offered the mug of liquid again. "Start from the beginning," she instructed as the bard swallowed another mouthful.

After a moment, the bard’s manner became calm and she focused on the lovely face of her Amazon friend. The girl gulped once, then again. She handed the mug back to the Regent.

"OK," Gabrielle said in a very fragile voice. "But you may hate me too, when you hear what I have to tell you."


Inside the Regal Hut, the warrior’s deep blue eyes drifted open. She blinked carefully as her mind strove to assimilate her surroundings and reinstate her awareness. When the familiar interior began to register to her scrambled senses, Xena pulled herself up on the bed and turned slowly toward the shadowy figure in the chair across the room. She tried to voice the question in her head, but the dryness in her throat made speaking more than moderately difficult. She moistened her parched lips, took a deep breath and tried again.

"Gabrielle?" the raspy voice whispered. "Can I have some water?"

The unexpected sound caused the young Amazon in the chair to bolt to her feet. She stood up and took a sharp step toward the fragile form on the bed then her better judgment made her slow her steps as she approached the confused warrior.

"Where’s Gabrielle?" Xena asked when the advancing figure got close enough for her to realize it was not that of her friend.

Kieva spoke quietly as she lifted the earthen pitcher and poured some of the water into a small mug. "Ephiny took her to get some food," the young Amazon answered smoothly. She stepped next to the pallet and offered the container to the warrior. "She said I should go get them, if you needed anything. Do you want me to?"

Xena accepted the mug and shifted her position in order to drink the water. As she handed the mug back to the young warrior, she let her eyes travel over the girl’s form. "Who are you?" she asked the youngster.

"I’m Kieva. Remember, Xena?" The young Amazon’s smile was sweet. "Remember a few moons ago, when you and Queen Gabrielle were visiting? We met then."



The warrior’s senses gradually recovered their sharpness. She studied the young face intently for a moment before the renowned eyebrow crept upward. "Oh, yeah. You and ... another prankster threw cold water on my head." She saw the girl’s chagrin and the smooth face softened minutely. "Yeah, I remember you." The blue eyes slowly scanned the darkened room before a wave of exhaustion caused the slender form to collapse onto the mattress again.

"Where did you say Gabrielle was?" the weak voice asked from the pillows.

"She’s in the next hut with Ephiny," Kieva stated. "I was told to go and get them if you ...."

"That’s OK," the warrior murmured wearily. "She needs to get some rest, too." The tall woman took a deep, tired breath. "Just tell her ... I’m feeling better ... if you would. Thanks." The exhausted form became quiet once more but this time, the warrior’s sleep showed signs of actually becoming restful.


Chapter Three ~~~

Aurora gently brushed back her patient’s hair and sat back on the edge of the mattress. She turned to the queen’s Regent standing a few steps from the bed. With a nod of her head, the healer summoned the tall Amazon away from the pallet as she bent her head to quietly address the interested party.

"Physically, she’s just very tired and a bit undernourished. I can’t really prescribe anything but some rest and a few good meals. But, emotionally ...." The healer let the statement fade as she shook her head and cast another wary look at the form on the pallet. "Seems like something has wounded the dear thing, very badly, but it’s not a wound I can stitch up or pack off with herbs."

Ephiny’s gaze followed Aurora’s. The figure on the mattress stirred slightly, shifted position, then settled back into a tight bundle, knees pulled up, hands gathered between them. The Regent’s throat caught at the obvious display of pain. She turned back to the healer’s gaunt face.

"How’s Xena doing?"

"She’s turned the corner, so to speak. The nightmares have ended and most of her physical injuries have healed. There’s still that scrape around her neck, but it’s better, now. Still seems a bit tender, but nothing to be concerned about." Aurora looked at the small form across the room again. "She’s been asking for the little queen. Wants to know where she is ... how she is." She looked back at the Regent. "Seems like they both need the same thing ... each other."

Ephiny nodded wordlessly, her fingers knotted in anxious concern. She took a small step toward the little bard, her jaw rippling in consternation.

"And Gabrielle keeps asking about her. I think you’re right, Aurora," the tall blonde said. "What they both need most seems to be the one thing neither can face, right now." She let out an exasperated sigh. "I just wish I could do something ... help them somehow."

The healer took the Regent’s arm and pulled her toward the door to the hut. When they were both outside, she gazed directly into the slender blonde’s eyes. "Maybe we can give them what they need."

The Regent’s brows knitted in confusion.

"They’re never going to face this .. or each other .. with all of us ‘running interference’ for them. It’s too easy for them to avoid the direct problem ... how they feel about each other now." Ephiny’s brows climbed upward. "I find out things about my patients that they don’t easily share with some others," the healer confessed. "I’ve been treating them both, remember? It’s really a simple thing to see that they each has issues with the other that only they can resolve. Alone ... without being able to use someone else as a crutch."

The tall Regent smiled ruefully. She had to admit, the healer’s insight was, as usual, very precise. She knew the woman’s talents included more than her knowledge of which herb produced which effect; she knew Aurora’s gift also embraced a heavy dose of compassion and understanding into the inner condition of her patients. She touched the woman’s sparse arm.

"So, how do we do that, Aurora?" she asked. "Do we just lock them up in the same hut ... force them to talk about this ... thing between them?" She watched the healer’s raw-boned expression slowly light into a knowing grin. "What? What’s that sneaky look about?"

"I say that’s exactly what we do ... put them together in a place where they have to talk to each other." Ephiny’s face began to register understanding. Aurora waited a moment, then invited the Regent’s comment.

"The Retreat Hut," the two Amazons said, precisely at the same time.

"It’s remote enough to ward off eavesdropping ears," Aurora continued, "but close enough for us to keep an eye on them, in case one of them needs attending. It’s perfect. I say, we send them off ... together ... and let them work it out between them."

The tall blonde Regent gave the healer’s sparse shoulders a quick hug. "You are a very smart Amazon," she told the woman. Aurora shrugged off the compliment. "That’s a brilliant idea." Ephiny threw a quick look at the hut behind them. "How soon do you think they can travel?"

"I’d say, the sooner, the better. The longer we wait, the farther they’re going to grow apart. They need to address this right away. I’ll even say it’s a prescription. They wouldn’t dare refuse me," she stated confidently.


"OK," Ephiny said, squaring her shoulders. "You want to tell them or should I?"

The healer’s gray eyes lit with a mischievous twinkle. "I’ll handle the warrior. That way, she won’t blame you or anyone else. Give me a few minutes. I’ll let you talk to the little queen. I think she’ll respond with less ... anxiety, if you tell her. You up to it?"

"I’ll take care of it. What else can I do?" Ephiny asked.

"Nothing, just back me up. We have to get this started soon, though. Let’s plan for tomorrow morning. I’ll let you know what else I think they should have on hand."

"OK, Aurora," the Regent said. "If you need me, I’ll be with Gabrielle." The healer nodded.

Ephiny grinned as she watched the lean form stride toward her own residence. She shook her head and turned back toward the hut where the little queen slept. After taking a deep breath, the tall sinewy form straightened and moved purposefully toward the door to the structure.

"I sure hope this works," Ephiny murmured as she swept open the panel and stepped inside the hut.


"Alone? Just the two of us? Ephiny, I don’t think that’s ...."

"It was Aurora’s idea, but I agreed with her," the tall Amazon told her small friend. "You two have to address whatever it is that’s keeping you away from each other. And only the two of you can do it ... alone, without anyone else to ... to make it easier for you." She noticed the clear wave of alarm that flashed in the soft, verdant pools. She took the girl’s hand.

"Gabrielle, it’s for the best. You both need this. Trust me, all right? You know I care too much for you both to suggest anything that might make this ... situation any worse than it is." She waited until the trepidation in the soft face abated somewhat. "I think it’s the only way for you two to ‘fix this’."

Gabrielle blinked and met the concerned gaze of her Amazon friend. She tried hard to lessen the pounding in her ears, to focus against the maddening fear that contorted her senses. She swallowed hard and took a shaky breath.

"Well, you’d better find out if Xena really wants to be ... confined with me in some remote ... place." The Amazon’s gaze remained trained on the young face. "I mean it, Ephiny. For all you know, she may decide it’s not her ....."

"Gabrielle," Ephiny said in a slightly authoritative tone. "Now, knock that off. I think Xena would agree that you two need to be alone to work this out." She watched the anxiety in the girl’s face subside somewhat. "But, if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll ask her" Gabrielle nodded quickly. "And if she agrees, then you both go. That’s Aurora’s prescription. Tomorrow morning you both go to the Retreat Hut ... and stay as long as it takes. All right?"

The green eyes shifted from the Amazon Regent’s to a private, distant moment. The girl’s expression grew fearful, then relaxed. She turned back to the tall blonde’s patient expression.

"All right, if Xena says ,’yes’, of course I’ll go. And ... we’ll see what happens."


"Retreat Hut?" Xena repeated the phrase just uttered by the lean, Amazon healer. "I didn’t even know there was such a place. What’s it for?"

Aurora pulled her sparse form up straighter and leveled a no-nonsense glare at the tall warrior on the bed. She focused directly on the woman’s clear, blue eyes.

"Now why do you suppose we call it the ‘Retreat Hut’, my dear?" she said, somewhat indulgently. "Because, when you go there, you spend time in personal examination and contemplation. You ‘retreat’ from everyday things and submit to the spiritual side of yourself. Understand, now?"

The warrior shifted her attention to her own hands resting nervously on the soft coverlet. "Not really," she said stubbornly. "But if you think it will help Gabrielle ..." She let the statement fade and found the healer’s stern gaze again. "But both of us?" She dropped her eyes back to the cover. "She might prefer to go alone ... at least, without me."

Aurora saw the remorse in the crystal pools, even though the warrior was making an effort to avoid meeting her gaze. The healer felt a strong impulse to gather the tall form in her arms and comfort the warrior’s visible anguish. Instead, she patted the slender hands on the coverlet.

"Nonsense, my warrior friend," the healer said. "The place will do you both good. And besides, we can’t let our little queen go off into the woods alone, can we?" The gaunt face showed a gentle chastisement. "She should at least have her ‘first champion’ with her, don’t you think?"

The warrior’s slightly pale face showed subtle signs of offering an objection before the blue eyes swept away from the healer’s knowing gaze. Xena let out a defeated sigh. "Well, you’d better ask her first."

"I already did," Ephiny said from her position in the open doorway. The warrior’s azure gaze snapped abruptly to the tall Amazon’s.

Aurora gave the tall warrior’s leg another gentle pat and rose from the side of the bed. "I’ll see you later ... after you’ve had something to eat." The statement was a gentle order. She turned and left the hut. The tall Regent watched her go, then moved closer to the woman on the pallet, who met her gaze nervously.

"You asked Gabrielle? About this ‘retreat hut’ thing?"

Ephiny nodded, crossing her arms across her waist. "She suggested I ask you the same question ... whether you’d rather go alone. What should I tell her?"

Xena lowered her eyes to her own fidgeting fingers. "Tell her, if she wants me there, I’ll be there." She glanced up at the Regent’s steady gaze. "Is that really what she wants? Ephiny, I need to know she wants to do this ... with me." The warrior’s gaze followed her fingers, tracing shaky patterns in the smooth quilt.

The tall Amazon strode slowly closer to the bed, sat down and carefully took one of the warrior’s slender hands. She waited until the blue eyes rose to meet hers then spoke softly and quietly.

"Xena," Ephiny began, keeping her eyes on the sorrowful blue gaze. "Gabrielle told me about your journey to Chin." She noticed the visible shudder that swept over the slender form. "And about ... the baby? Gabrielle’s daughter?" The hand in hers tensed, grasping her fingers stiffly as the bronze face registered shock and a breach of faith. "She didn’t bring it up herself. I kept pushing ...." The Amazon’s look was apologetic and kind. "I just wanted to find out why you were both so troubled, that’s all. We’re all friends, aren’t we? That’s what friends are for, right?"

The look of terror on the chiseled face brought a heavy tremor to the Amazon’s heart. She slid forward and wrapped her arms around the sobbing form, waiting patiently until the wave of devastation passed. After a few moments, the warrior sat back heavily against the pillows and gulped hard to regain control. She focused on the wall at the foot of the bed, taking long, deep breaths to calm her panic.

Ephiny sat, watching the bronze face, wet with tears, dread and fear clearly visible across the beautiful countenance. The Amazon quietly rose and crossed the room, filled an earthen mug with water and returned to the edge of the pallet. She handed the container to the trembling warrior and watched as the tall woman haltingly drank the liquid. Finally Xena turned back to the Regent’s sympathetic expression.

"And I want you to know ... I’m not making any judgments, here. That’s not my right." The tall warrior’s blue eyes locked onto the Amazon’s honest expression. "I think of you both as my friends. This is between you and Gabrielle ... I’m not taking sides. I mean that, Xena. I just want to help."

The warrior’s eyes closed tightly as the dark head fell back against the headboard. For a moment, it was quiet in the Regal Hut. Finally, Ephiny’s quiet voice broke the silence.

"The two of you need this, Xena. You need to settle this ... pain you both have. Both of you need to heal and the only way to do it is to talk it out with each other. Nobody else around ... no one else can do it. You two have to deal with it." The blonde warrior’s eyebrows punctuated the uncomfortable sentiment. "Right?" Ephiny finished gently. She clasped the warrior’s slender hand warmly. "For both your sakes ... your friendship is too special to let it end this way."

Xena took another swallow from the cup and trained a tearful gaze at the Regent. She pulled the back of her hand across her wet face and swallowed hard.

"Ephiny," the warrior began in a shaky voice. "I ... she ...." The tall woman stopped, took a shaky breath then continued. "I let her down ... again. I went to Chin to murder someone ... in cold blood. And I would have, if she hadn’t stopped me." The Regent waited. "How can she ever trust me again? How can she believe that I won’t ... return to the person I was? How can I ...."

"Xena, Gabrielle is not just an ordinary friend, you know?" Ephiny said, her tone firm. "She’s not the sort to give up on someone just because they show a moment of ... weakness, because they falter or ... disappoint her. How can you give her so little credit? You, of all people, know how strong she is." The Amazon felt a momentary regret at her show of impatience, but she knew the woman on the bed would accept only the truth.

"After all," the Amazon said, softening her tone. "Who else besides Gabrielle could keep you from going after Coreigas without coming away with a broken jaw for her trouble?" The tall blonde warrior’s lovely face warmed in a subtle grin.

The warrior’s blue eyes cleared slightly as the stoic face lost some of its terrible pain.

"At any rate, neither of you can go on like this," the Regent continued. "She’s hurting, too, Xena, and I don’t think it’s for the reason you think. She seems to think she’s disappointed you in some way. Like this ... breach between you is all her fault, somehow." The warrior’s blue eyes were startled; Ephiny could see the guilt in the tormented crystal gaze. But she decided to continue, nonetheless.

"You’re destroying each other by not even trying to work this out. Is that fair ... to Gabrielle? To what you’ve meant to each other? Are you that much of a coward, after all?" Ephiny welcomed the warrior’s reaction to her gruff words. Soon she saw the woman’s brave will reestablish its existence.

"No, I didn’t think so," the tall Amazon said, a crooked grin lighting her lovely face. "I’ve never known either of you to turn her back on a challenge." Ephiny decided to ignore the knowing glint that slowly began to invade the warrior’s gaze. She stood and stepped back from the bed. "So, tomorrow you both go ‘on retreat’, right? To ... work this out?"

The warrior nodded wordlessly, drained the mug and handed it to the Amazon. "I guess so," the tall woman said quietly. She swallowed hard against the fear still tightening her throat. "We’ll have to settle it, sooner or later. May as well be now."

The Amazon nodded ... and made a silent wish for both friends.




Chapter Four ~~~

When they arrived at the so-called ‘Retreat Hut’ the next morning, Xena’s first thought concerning the structure was how well it was hidden within the small cove in which it sat. In fact, without Ephiny and the rest of the small escort to show them the way, she thought, they might have easily passed it without knowing they had.

The hut sat in the midst of a quiet, private glen, nestled comfortably in the surrounding trees and other foliage, shielded from the path and secluded by the adjoining forest. The low-hanging boughs provided a perfect camouflage for the little building, scattering the sunlight that threw dappled patterns on the roof and sides of the dwelling.

Ephiny directed the small party of young Amazons that had accompanied them. The other women entered the hut carrying bundles of provisions, blankets and cooking utensils. While the stores were being deposited inside, the Regent turned to the young queen.

"Usually, when someone comes here for retreat, part of the ritual is for them to provide their own equipment and reserves. But, since you two aren’t exactly in that category ...." The tall Amazon let the statement fade. "Aurora sent some herbs and a pouch of medicinal supplies, in case you need them," Ephiny said. "I’m sure you both know what to do with this," handing the bag to the little queen. Gabrielle nodded, accepting the leather sack. She glanced quickly at the tall warrior who stood a half dozen paces away inspecting the secluded cove.

"Thanks, Ephiny," the little bard said. "For everything." She gave the Amazon a warm smile.

Ephiny touched the girl’s arm and turned to the warrior. "I’m also taking Argo back with me," she said to the tall woman. "Part of the ‘prescription’," she said to Xena’s questioning look. "Aurora wants to be sure you stay ..." she turned back to the bard, "until you settle this." The Amazon turned back to the warrior. "Both of you." The piercing blue eyes found the bard’s and the two women shared a long, fervent stare. Then the warrior’s gaze met the tall Amazon’s again.

"I will leave your sword and chakram, however," the tall Amazon said, handing the scabbard, the round, metal disk and a small pouch to the warrior. "And this." She held out the warrior’s small, very sharp dagger. "I know how you like to keep things nice and sharp. And, I figured you’d feel naked without them." The tall woman’s dark eyebrow slid upward in a warning scowl. "I doubt anyone will bother you here, though," the Amazon continued, her gray eyes serious. "The scouts will be checking this area regularly ... in case you need anything."

The Regent approached the young queen to give her a gentle hug. "It’s going to be all right," she said quietly into the girl’s ear, giving the little blonde a private ‘thumb’s up’ sign. She faced the warrior and extended her arm.

"Good luck, you two," she said to Xena’s steady crystal stare as the tall woman grasped her forearm. "This is a great place to heal." The two warriors turned to watch the little bard enter the hut. Then Ephiny met the blue eyes again.

"We can both use that," the warrior said quietly. She glanced at the door of the hut.

"I didn’t mean just physically, Xena," the Amazon said. The azure pools snapped back to her gaze.

"Neither did I," the warrior said, releasing the Amazon’s arm. "Thanks, Ephiny."

The tall blonde warrior felt a sudden wave of sorrow cross her own heart for the pain she had witnessed in both women. She gave the warrior a confident smile. The grin the woman displayed was pathetically shallow, but she nodded, giving the Amazon a brief glance and a wave.

"Just get yourselves straightened around, OK?" Ephiny said, her gaze affectionate on the warrior’s downhearted expression. "We have a terrific Solstice Celebration planned and you two are expected to attend." The tall woman’s unhappy look returned none of the tall blonde’s fabricated joviality.

The Regent gathered the mare’s reins and mounted her own horse. Motioning to the rest of the escort, she threw the blue eyes one last salute, turned the animal toward the path and rode away. The warrior took a long breath and swallowed. Then she turned toward the door of the hut.


A candlemark later, Gabrielle handed the warrior an earthen plate containing a fresh portion of venison and a large slice of bread. With her other hand, she placed a full mug of liquid in front of the woman. When she sampled the contents of the vessel, Xena’s eyebrows quickly disappeared under her dark bangs. She swallowed slowly and trained a bemused look toward the bard’s innocent expression.

"Ale?" the warrior asked carefully.

"The note said, ‘To combat the chill. Love E’." The warrior’s subtle grin answered the bard’s warm smile.

"Thank you, Ephiny," the tall woman chanted. She sat back in the wooden chair and gazed at the young woman seated across the table. When the bard had filled her own cup, the warrior raised the container in her hand.

"To us," she toasted, extending the mug toward the little blonde. After a moment, Gabrielle brought her cup to rest against the warrior’s and the two friends shared a quiet moment. Then the bard lowered her mug and took a swallow from the contents. The warrior did the same. A heavy silence hung in the little hut for the next several moments.

Both women managed to avoid meeting the gaze of the other during the remainder of the meal. They each tried to partake of the nourishing food, and the refreshing drink but, in fact, neither seemed to enjoy much of an appetite. Both seemed more inclined to move the food around on the plates in front of them before eventually pushing the platters away.

"I guess I’m not as hungry as I thought," the bard announced. The smile she showed was flimsy, at best, but it was the sadness in the green pools that tore at the warrior’s heart. The bronze face smiled weakly.

"That’s a first," Xena said, trying heartily to induce a lightness into her tone. "Makes two of us."

A thin laugh escaped from the young bard, then faded quickly into the thick silence. Green eyes met blue for a painful moment, then moved to consider other things. Finally the little blonde pushed back her chair, picked up both still-full plates and carried them toward the smaller table that sat near the fireplace. She stood with her back to the warrior, a massive ache pushing on her chest.

Xena rose from the table, crossed the hut and sat down on one of the beds against the wall. She watched the bard’s activity at the fireplace, trying very hard to think of something to say to her dearest friend. After a few futile attempts, the tall woman closed her eyes and lowered her head. The abrupt motion caused a stabbing pain to slice between her shoulder blades.

Gabrielle scraped the remnants of the meal into a waiting bucket, stacked the plates and wiped her fingers on one of the cloths that had been left by the departing Amazons. After a moment, she turned back toward the table to find the warrior carefully massaging the painful bruise still evident on her neck. The girl dropped the cloth and moved to the leather bags at the end of the other bed.

"Aurora sent something for that," she told the grimacing warrior. "I’ll get it."

The bard opened one of the bags and withdrew a smaller pouch. She unwrapped a bundle containing the healing ointment and held it out to the tall woman. "Here."

Xena’s eyes rested on the salve for a moment, then returned to the bard’s concerned gaze. She held out her hand to accept the small hide and the bard placed the bundle in her palm. Gabrielle dropped her hand and took a step back from the intent blue gaze. She watched the warrior lay the open swatch on the bed and gather her long hair into her other hand. When she sensed the girl’s eyes were still on her face, the slender woman returned the green gaze. The two friends exchanged a knowing look.

"Let me help you," the bard said softly.

"Thanks," Xena answered quietly. She swept her hair back from her face and shoulders, raised her chin and watched the bard sink her fingers into the mound of balm. Gabrielle began carefully spreading the medicine over the raw, bruised mark on Xena’s neck. She kept her attention on the abused flesh until she noticed the warrior’s slight wince when her fingers encountered a particularly battered spot. The blue eyes closed for an instant, then opened again to find the bard’s apprehensive gaze. For a moment, neither woman moved.

"I’m sorry," the bard whispered as the warrior’s throat contracted in a quick gulp.

"It’s OK," Xena said, her eyes still trained on the bard’s. "Don’t worry about it." The green eyes blinked nervously. "Go ahead," the warrior instructed, moistening her lips. "Do the rest." The little blonde swallowed hard and resumed the application of the salve. She gently spread the soothing balm over the abrasion under the warrior’s chin and the front of her neck. She paused for a moment.

"I’ve covered the front," she told the warrior. Xena gathered the long raven mass together into a loose bundle and pulled the cluster to the top of her head. She swiveled her position on the side of the bed and the bard moved to sit behind her. While the tall woman secured her hair out of the way, Gabrielle began applying the salve to the bruised line across the back of the warrior’s neck.

As soon as the bard’s fingers touched the purplish stripe, Xena stiffened and let out a short gasp. Gabrielle pulled her hand away quickly as she felt the hot tears gathering in her eyes.

"Oh, Xena, I’m so sorry," the little bard cried. "I’ll try to be careful, all right?" She brought her fingers to the warrior’s neck again.

Xena clamped her jaws tightly, making a determined effort not to show the bard how truly painful the application had become. The warrior was not unfamiliar with the practice of suppressing pain; she had endured battle injuries more excruciating than this one. But she was determined not to let her reactions engender any brand of guilt or remorse in the young woman taking such care with her injury at the moment. Then she heard the quiet sobbing behind her. The warrior froze.

"Gabrielle," Xena whispered, turning slightly. "Please, don’t."

The bard quickly pulled her hand away from the warrior’s neck. "Gods, I’m sorry!" the girl cried.

"No!" Xena said, a bit too abruptly. "I didn’t mean the ointment." Gabrielle sat very still. "I meant, ‘please don’t cry’," the warrior finished quietly. She turned her head to look at the bard’s anguished expression, her blue eyes pleading. The warrior dropped her gaze and turned forward again. "Please ... don’t," she murmured in a barely audible voice.

Gabrielle bit down hard on her lower lip and wiped away her tears with her free hand. "I’m sorry," the bard said, her voice wavering. "I know how this upsets you."

Xena swiveled quickly on the bed. "Upsets me!?" she said sharply. "That’s not what I meant at all." The blue eyes blazed hot for an instant, then softened on the bard’s face. The warrior laid her hand on the bard’s slim arm. "I meant ...." Xena let out a short breath. She considered the little blonde’s suffering face. "Gabrielle, I hate to see you so unhappy." The liquid voice held a mournful tone. "That’s what I meant."

Gabrielle studied her best friend’s face, new tears washing down over her soft cheeks. The warrior braced herself for the outburst she sensed was about to happen as she reached for the bard’s hand. Even so, the tall woman flinched when the young woman roughly flounced away from the bed, strode impatiently across the room before whirling to face the warrior’s startled expression.

"Unhappy!!?" the little blonde growled. "Why should I be unhappy, in the name of the gods!??" She slammed the hide piece onto the nearby table. "Xena, That ugly thing on your neck is my fault!"

"That’s not true!" the warrior answered calmly.

"Isn’t it?" the bard snapped. "I may as well have put that wretched collar on you myself!" the girl screamed.

"Gabrielle ...." the warrior began.

"I literally handed you over to that ... creature! I betrayed my best friend! I as much as locked you into that ... terrible contraption with my own two hands!" The bard’s tone was approaching hysteria.

Xena was beside her friend in one stride, her hands firm on the girl’s arms. "Stop it!" she yelled, shaking the little blonde hard. "I made my own choices in Chin ... both this time and the last!" Gabrielle’s eyes were wide and frightened. "You’ve got to stop punishing yourself!" She gave the girl another firm shake. "Now, stop it! I mean it!" Xena’s voice became calmer as her grip on the bard’s arms lessened. "Please, don’t do this to yourself," she pleaded, releasing the girl. "Please."

The bard stood panting in front of the warrior. For several moments, all she could do was stare into the woman’s blue eyes, her body trembling, her heart pounding beneath her tunic. Finally the warrior’s calm voice captured her awareness.

"You haven’t finished dressing my neck." Xena took the bard’s hand, directing the girl’s attention to the salve still present on her fingers. Gently pulling the girl with her, the warrior stepped backward until she was once more seated on the side of the bed. She gathered her long hair up again. "Can you do the back?" she asked calmly. She turned her body around. "That’s where it’s needed most."

Gabrielle looked blankly at the ointment on her hand then focused on the warrior’s injured neck. She closed her eyes for an instant before slowly moving to kneel behind her friend. She heard the woman’s quiet instruction. "Go ahead," Xena said softly. The bard raised her hand and finished the application as the warrior closed her eyes tightly, clenched her teeth together and held very still.

A few minutes later, Gabrielle stood up, crossed the hut again and wiped her fingers on a clean cloth. She concentrated on removing the rest of the ointment before trusting her voice.

"I’d better bandage that," she said stiffly. "It will protect the ... area and give it a better chance to heal." She began tearing a long strip from another of the soft cloths. She brought the bandage to the bed.

"Good idea," the warrior said, watching the bard’s face intently. Xena raised her chin and

mutely invited the young woman to affix the bandage. Gabrielle carefully wrapped the cloth around the tall woman’s neck. When she had secured the bandage, she stepped back from the bed.

"I’ll check it again tomorrow ... if you like." The warrior’s jaw tightened at the bard’s wooden tone.

"OK," Xena said quietly. "Thanks." As she watched the bard turn away silently, she knew the ache in her throat had very little to do with the bruise on her neck.

"I think you should get some rest," the bard said as she folded the remaining piece of cloth. She turned an impersonal smile to the warrior. "You probably could use a little nap."

Xena’s subtle grin answered the gentle direction. "Yeah, not a bad plan," she said, swinging her long legs up onto the mattress. As she settled the blanket over herself, she glanced again at the bard. "You don’t look so chipper yourself, my friend." She decided to ignore the bard’s stricken reaction to her simple endearment. "Why don’t we both stretch out for a while?"

Gabrielle nodded and turned toward the other pallet. She sat down heavily on the mattress, lowered herself into a prone position and rested her head on the arm folded beneath her head. She smiled wanely at the warrior across the room, closed her eyes, let out a deep breath and relaxed. The warrior laid down under the blanket, her eyes returning slowly to the quiet little form on the other bed.

Xena listened carefully until she heard the girl’s breathing become steady and deep. She quietly rose from the bed, crossed the room, unfolded the blanket at the end of the mattress and draped it gently over the bard’s sleeping form. Then she returned to her pallet, closed her eyes and fell asleep. A few minutes later, the soft green eyes drifted open, to stare at the warrior’s slender form.



Chapter Five ~~~

Xena woke to the steady rhythm of the rain pattering on the roof of the hut. It took only a few moments for her to reacquaint herself with her surroundings. She sat up, resting her weight on her elbows, and turned to do the second thing she always did upon awakening ... she looked for Gabrielle.

She found her soulmate, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the other bed, a blanket draped loosely around her slim shoulders, her green eyes staring openly into space. The warrior pushed off the blanket covering her torso and smoothly crossed the room. She pulled the wooden chair on the side of the table closest to the bed toward her, sat down facing the silent bard and waited, somewhat nervously, for the young woman to acknowledge her presence. After a moment, the green eyes drifted up to meet hers.

"You all right?" Xena asked the soft face.

Gabrielle drew a slow, easy breath. "Yeah, I’m OK. Just feels kind of chilly in here." The little blonde pulled the blanket closer. "Must be the rain."

Xena stood and crossed back to the other bed. She gathered the blanket in her arms, returned to the bard’s pallet and wrapped the woolen expanse around the small form. She spent several busy moments draping the material over the girl’s trim body. Finally the blue eyes found the bard’s again.

"Better?" the warrior asked.

"Yeah, thanks," the girl responded quietly.

"Good," Xena said, her hand resting on the bard’s slim shoulder.

The two friends only seemed able to stare at each other, both wanting desperately to speak, but neither apparently capable of doing so. Finally, the warrior removed her hand. She shifted uneasily, then started to move back to her own bed. Her progress was halted by the small hand which had slipped into hers.

Xena’s heart plummeted to her toes, raced upward to pound in her ears, eventually settling in the vicinity of the soft, cloth belt at the waist of her long tunic. She looked down at the two clasped hands then let her eyes travel up to meet the soft green pools trained on her face. The warrior decided to combat the weakness suddenly present in her knees by sitting down on the edge of the small bed. As she lowered her long, slender form, the tall woman swallowed smoothly, took a shaky breath and waited, her pulse now pounding in her throat.

Gabrielle looked down at the slender hand surrounding hers, closed her eyes then opened them slowly to stare at the floor. After a moment, the warrior’s smooth voice nudged her awareness.


"What are you thinking?" the tall woman asked drawing the bard’s gaze to hers. "You seem very far away."

The green eyes swept over the bronze face of her best friend. With one hand still encircled by the warrior’s, the bard pulled the blanket closer around herself with the other. She moistened her lips and smiled warmly at the clear, blue eyes.

"Remember when I lost my memory ... last summer, wasn’t it?"

"Um-hum", Xena answered. "Scary time, that." The warrior tightened her long fingers around the little hand she held.

"After I got it back," the bard began, lowering her eyes to the two hands. "You told me that, for a while, you almost wished I hadn’t." The girl raised her eyes to the warrior’s face to find Xena’s blue gaze focused on her lap. "Why?" the bard asked, acutely aware of the way the wide bandage around the woman’s neck rippled as the warrior gulped hard. "Xena?" the bard pressed gently.

The bard saw the crystal gaze slowly rise to meet hers. She felt her stomach tighten when the two heavy tears hovering against the blue eyes slid past the long, dark lashes and traveled down the smooth, golden face. She squeezed the slender hand in hers.

"Because I was afraid you might ...." the warrior murmured thickly. She stroked the folds of the material gathered in her lap. "I’m always afraid. That terror feeds my worst nightmares." The smooth voice was barely audible. The bard leaned closer.

"Afraid of what?" the girl asked quietly.

The warrior’s eyes swept up to the ceiling of the hut. She closed her eyes for a moment, then resumed tracing the woolen garment covering her legs. "I’m always afraid that ... one day, you’ll see something .. or we’ll meet someone from my past that I’ve hurt ... or ‘damaged’ somehow and it will be the reason you ... decide ...." The warrior swallowed convulsively. The blue eyes blinked. "It will be the last and final reason you decide to ... leave ... me."

Gabrielle sat open-mouthed and wide-eyed in shock. She felt her breathing grow rapid and uneven. She blinked quickly to restore her senses, her green eyes traveling over the warrior’s anguished face. "Oh, Xena," the little blonde whispered softly, wrapping her arms around the tall woman’s shoulders. She held on tightly as the warrior’s body shuddered against her. The bard sat back to look into the tortured face and the tears streaming down over the chiseled features.

"Don’t you know, I could never just ...leave you? No matter what you’ve done, no matter who I meet ... or ‘find out’ about?" She took the warrior’s face in her hands. "You’re so much more to me than what you’ve done in your past, don’t you know that?" The green eyes were intense on the warrior’s. "You’re my best friend. You ... in here," the bard said, poking a none-too-gentle forefinger into the warrior’s chest. "That’s the Xena I know and love," the girl said firmly. "The Xena from long ago is just that ... long ago." The soft face lit in a warm smile. "Get it?"

Xena stared transfixed at the little bard’s face. She blinked to clear the tears from her eyes and took a long, calming breath. "Yeah," the warrior said finally, her smile slowly growing. "I think I finally ‘got it’." She wiped her face with her fingers and laughed softly. "I’m only a little dense and just now and then."

The bard’s bright laughter filled the room. She hugged the warrior tightly and Xena returned the embrace. When the two women separated, the bard leveled a playful punch at the warrior’s muscled shoulder. "I was beginning to wonder if your ‘many skills’ included ‘seeing what’s right in front of you’." The girl’s eyes were warm on the tall woman’s face as the two friends enjoyed several moments of heartfelt laughter. Then slowly, noticeably, the warrior’s smile faded. The little blonde reacted immediately to the change in her friend’s manner.

"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, taking the warrior’s hand again. "Xena, what’s wrong?"

The tall woman took a short breath. She met the girl’s concerned gaze, the blue eyes imploring and apologetic. "That’s the biggest reason I was almost glad you said you wouldn’t go with me to Chin," the warrior said quietly. "I really didn’t want you there, to be involved in all of that." The bard swallowed hard. "I didn’t want you to see me ... like I was."

A long moment of silence hung in the little hut. The warrior felt her heart begin to race as she saw the look of deep sorrow wash across the bard’s face. "I don’t think you’ll ever know how much your opinion matters to me." The green eyes snapped to the warrior’s. "Gabrielle, your faith in me lights my life ... keeps me ... strong and ... focused on what I have to do, to make up for who I was ... what I was.." The blue eyes fell to the small hand in hers. "If I ever thought you had lost that faith in me, I couldn’t ...." The tall woman gulped. "I wouldn’t be able to ...."

"Xena," the little blonde said, clutching the warrior’s arm. "That will never happen." The blue eyes swept up to meet the verdant pools. "I know where your heart is, how decent and true you are. I know that, as surely as I know ... breath." The crystal gaze was steady on the girl’s face. "And it’s mutual, by the way," the bard continued, a tiny smile warming her expression. "I would surely cease to be if I thought I had done something to make you ... lose your faith in me. It would destroy me."

"That’s a ‘mutual thing’, too," the warrior said clearly, the blue pools locked on the green gaze. "My faith in you is the one thing in my world I know I can trust ... without a doubt. I know that for a fact, Gabrielle." She touched the soft blonde hair. "I know it," the warrior said, putting her hand to the center of her chest. "In here."

The green gaze followed the slender hand then settled on the warrior’s bandaged neck. "Not trusting you is not an option in my book of plans." She raised the soft chin to bring the bard’s gaze back to hers. "And as for you ‘disappointing me’, somehow," the warrior said evenly. "That is also an impossible event."

"That’s what you said before you left for the ‘kingdom of Chin’," the bard whispered sadly, her chest tightening as she recognized the fading bruises scattered over the warrior’s smooth face. "And look how that turned out." The warrior’s throat caught at the tears glistening in the soft green pools.

"Gabrielle ..." Xena began, but the girl shook her head briskly.

"Look, Xena," Gabrielle said, pulling the blanket close again. "I don’t want to talk about that, at least, not right now. All right?" The girl shivered and gathered the woolen cover nearer to her chin. The warrior sighed heavily.

"OK," Xena said softly, stroking the blonde head lovingly. "But, whenever you’re ready, you let me know." The little blonde swallowed hard. "Understand?"

Gabrielle nodded mutely and lowered the emerald gaze to the floor. After a moment, the warrior’s eyes searched the hut slowly. Her focus finally settled on the dark, inactive fireplace. She tucked the ends of the blanket around the small bard.

"No wonder it’s cold in here," the tall woman said brightly as she stood and crossed to the hearth. "We’ve been so busy chatting, we’ve let the fire go out." The attempt at humor did nothing to lighten the little blonde’s expression. Xena leaned down and picked up the leather sling designed to transport wood from the stack outside into the hut. "I’ll get some wood and build it back up." She waited until the bard’s eyes rose to meet hers. The girl nodded.

"OK," the warrior said. "Be right back."

Gabrielle watched the warrior pull the hood of her tunic over her head and smoothly move toward the door. When the panel thumped closed behind her friend, the little blonde stared at the portal where she’d last seen the tall form. It seemed totally appropriate to the young queen that an angry, brooding rumble of thunder sounded overhead at the precise moment that her spirits crumpled sadly within her.

"Oh, Xena," the little bard whispered. "How will you ever trust me again? After what I did to you?" The little form trembled as warm tears washed over the soft face. "How can I expect you to forgive me when I can’t forgive myself?" The green eyes closed tightly.


Chapter Six ~~~

Evening swept down over the little hut, her arrival shrouded in the hazy fog of the lingering rain and the lounging shadows of the forest’s dark drapery. Inside the small cottage, soft light from the crafted oil lamps danced on the walls and floor, answering the prancing patterns of the flames leaping in the stone hearth. The dynamic blaze filled the structure with an obliging warmth and its crackling symphony provided a peaceful accompaniment to the rude clatter of the noisy precipitation outside.

The occupants of the diminutive dwelling were involved in private activities. Xena sat on a low wooden bench facing the fireplace, her long cloth garment following the sleek contours of her sculpted body. Her dark head was bent to her task as the long, slender fingers of one hand secured the soft, smooth block of wood while she deftly maneuvered the sharp blade against it with the other.

After several minutes, the warrior lowered the knife and carefully inspected the subtle form emerging in the wood. She turned the carving over, blew away the loose wood shavings and made a few small adjustments with the knife.

Xena interrupted her concentration on the little sculpture, leaned forward and studied the contents of the small, iron kettle hanging above the fire. After a moment, the woman made a decision. She returned the knife to the narrow leather sheath, slipped the wooden block into the pocket of her tunic, wrapped a cloth around the metal arm supporting the kettle, swung the apparatus toward her and lifted the little pot away from the fire.

Xena carefully poured some of the dark tea simmering in the small cauldron into one of the earthen mugs at the end of the table. The warrior filled the other mug with an equal amount and set the kettle down at the edge of the flames. She picked up the mugs and stepped to the side of the table, again noticing the frustrated scowl contorting the little bard’s expression. She quietly sat down at the table facing the bard and placed the two steaming mugs in front of her.

Gabrielle sat on the other side of the wide wooden fixture, a clean scroll laid out in front of her, her quill pen in her hand, and a warm blanket draped over her back and shoulders. Discarded clumps of vellum lay in a random array around the little bard’s space, on the floor, the bed behind her, in arm’s-length distances along the tabletop. As the warrior watched, the young woman transcribed a few, short lines on the parchment only to stop abruptly, draw angry streaks through the written lines and slam the instrument down on the table. The little bard angrily crumpled the short piece of parchment and flung the bundle toward the other rejected clumps.

Xena’s blue eyes followed the crushed parchment’s path as it skittered near the edge of the table. She ventured a quick glance at the little blonde’s dejected expression, then turned her attention to the steaming mugs. "Have some tea," the warrior suggested, carefully sliding one container toward the bard. For an instant, Gabrielle’s emerald gaze flashed irritation and impatience before the green pools considered the offered refreshment. After another moment, the girl pulled the mug closer.

The two friends sat quietly while the warrior watched the bard closely. The girl blew into the small container to cool the liquid. After taking a tentative sip of the steamy brew, Gabrielle replaced her mug on the table. She retrieved a nearby piece of crumpled parchment, opened the misshapen bundle and smoothed the odd creases with her hands. She picked up the quill pen and drew random patterns on the corner of the paper, her green eyes dazed and introspective.

The warrior lowered her gaze to her mug and brought the vessel to her lips. Just as she was about to sample the tea, the bard’s quiet voice drew her eyes back to the soft, pensive face.

"Xena?" the girl began softly. The emerald pools rose to meet the cobalt blue stare. "Do you ever think about ... Solon?" The bard’s expression was regretful.

The warrior swallowed quietly and lowered her eyes to consider the steamy mug. When she focused again on the girl’s face, the tall woman’s gaze was gentle.

"Every day," Xena said softly and the bard felt a sharp ache twist in her chest. "Not a day passes that I don’t find myself wondering ..." the blue eyes floated to the fireplace. "What he’s doing, what new skill he’s learned," the warrior said with a little smile. "I think about ... how fine and brave he is ... how full of honor." The woman’s stoic face grew sad, regretful. The bard swept aside her own tears.

"If I hadn’t met him, it might have been different," Xena said, her blue eyes glistening. "Until that day, when he jumped down out of the tree and I saw his face ...." the tall woman blinked against her own tears. "Before then he was still that tiny infant in my arms, that small, warm bundle that I handed over to Kaleipus that night in the glen. He was ... part of my past ... the one, beautiful thing produced from that time." The bard gulped and covered her mouth with her hand. "A perfect little masterpiece ... no matter what the source," the woman added, a thin vein of bitterness in her tone.

Xena’s blue eyes focused on a vague, painful memory. "But until I saw ... my child ... face to face ... he was ... just an image ... a piece of my history. Almost as if he weren’t real ... not an actual person." The warrior’s tone had grown melancholy. The tall woman let out a long, labored breath. "That all changed when Dagnon went after The Stone." She sent a thin smile at the little bard. "He’s still safe, now. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?" Gabrielle pulled the back of her hand across her eyes.

The deep blue gaze lingered on the bard’s face. Xena swallowed heavily and swept her fingers across her lips. She took a deep breath and reached for the bard’s small fist.

"There’s something else we need to talk about," the warrior began, a wrenching ache tightening her throat. She searched the green pools, swallowed heavily and whispered the name. "Hope."

The bard’s trim form stiffened and she clamped one hand over her mouth to stem the wave of nausea that threatened her control. The warrior cringed as the girl’s grief displaced her own sensibilities. She covered the small hand on the table, but the bard jerked it away.

"Don’t," the little blonde gasped. "Just ... don’t." The small form began to tremble.

"Please, Gabrielle, I want to explain ...." the warrior pleaded, a desperate need blatant and clear in the sculpted face.

"No!" the bard said in a raspy voice. "Not now, Xena!" Gabrielle drew in a shaky breath. The green pools met the warrior’s cobalt stare and the slender form recoiled from the anguish clearly present.

"I just can’t ...." Gabrielle whispered. "Not right now ... please." The girl’s slender neck quivered as the bard tried to maintain her composure. The blue eyes released the green pools as the warrior collapsed against the back of her chair.

The little bard let her eyes travel over her companion’s repentant expression. Abruptly, the girl turned her attention back to the wrinkled parchment in front of her. After a moment, she absently picked up the quill pen, twirled it between her fingers impatiently before abandoning the instrument to retrieve the ceramic mug, blowing purposefully into the steaming liquid.

The warrior waited another moment, deciding to follow the girl’s lead, keeping her voice even and matter-of-fact. "New story?" she asked openly, leaning forward to stir the contents of her own mug with a small wooden utensil.

Gabrielle interrupted her attempts to cool the hot liquid to meet the warrior’s blue gaze, then returned her attention to the mug.

"It was going to be," the bard said, tentatively sampling the tea.

"Problem?" Xena asked, her slender fingers caressing the container in her hands.

Continued - Part 2

The Bard's Corner