Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended.

A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle

Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.

Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.

Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: texbard@earthlink.net

Updates Only List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates

Updates/Chat List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbard

Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and click on the link for my stories.

Additional Background Info: My Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. The series begins after "The Ides of March" 4th season cliffhanger, and parts ways with the show at that point. No pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no dead Olympian gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Japan (ever). Their friends and family are still alive. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell. Xena's Norseland history is part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle with the ring.

Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.


(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)

By Linda Crist

Chapter 5


The door to the inn flew open, propelled by a knee-high boot. Xena shoved her captive inside, ushering Morrigan after him. They stood near the entrance in a swirl of snowflakes and frost-tinged wind. The disgruntled barkeeper quickly pushed his way behind them, securing the door lest his few patrons freeze to death. He turned to admonish them and stopped, studying the three dour figures before him. He thought better of it and silently slipped back behind the bar, muttering curses against warriors under his breath.

"Autolycus!" the warrior's voice carried across the low din of a dozen or so villagers who had gathered around a central fire pit to raise a pint against the chill. She grasped Kernunnos' bound wrists and dragged him along behind her, approaching the king of thieves, whose eyebrows had risen into his hairline. "Is this the guy you stole the mask for?"

"Y … yes … Xena, how'd you find him so quickly?" Autolycus gulped down his ale and stood, wiping his hands on the hem of his tunic.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Concerned blue eyes darted around the room, searching for her absent soulmate.

In light of his dinner conversation, and the bard's revelations regarding her relationship with the warrior, the king of thieves allowed a hint of an amused grin. "She went to your room. Said it has been a long day, and she was tired."

"You can say that again." Xena turned her attention back to Kernunnos. "As for him, he was lurking around in the woods behind a tree." She swiped at the small nick on her throat. "He thought he was going to take me out."

"Now there was your first mistake." Autolycus twitched his moustache, smirking at the ex-god. "Hey … I thought you were off to find your friend Loki and deliver the mask. Why are you still here, anyway?"

"I could ask you the same question," Kernunnos growled. "And I don't have the mask. Someone knocked me over the head and took it. I assumed you'd hired someone to steal it back so you could re-sell it."

"I couldn't get a boat back to Greece in the dead of winter, and … hey …did you just say you don't have the mask?" The king of thieves locked eyes with Xena, reading the worry on his friend's face.

"Let me see if I understand this story, from start to finish." The warrior roughly pushed the ex-god onto a bench and sat down across the table from him. Morrigan took a seat next to her former lover, and Autolycus sat in the remaining space across from her. Xena's eyes flicked to each face at the table, before they settled on Kernunnos. "Loki is in the underworld. I assume you were there too, after Morrigan killed you, correct?"

"Why should I answer your questions?" The former god crossed his arms defiantly and jumped, feeling a dagger pressed into his side.

"'Cause ifen' ya don't, I'll be inclined to send ya back to the underworld again." Morrigan leaned in close, her upper lip curling in distaste. "Only, judgin' by the way yer bleedin', I'd wager yer a mortal now aren't ya? You'd be goin' back to the underworld as a dead mortal, not as a dead god. Ya sent a lot o' mortals to their graves, Kernunnos. How'd ya feel if ya were ta meet up with some of 'em? They'd be on equal footing with ya. Maybe better. Wouldn't it be a fine thing to watch some of 'em fin'ly extract their revenge against ya?" She grinned evilly, traces of the old Morrigan rising to the surface as she watched him squirm. "So … you'd best be answerin' the lady's questions."

Xena quirked one brow at the term 'lady,' and watched in amusement as the defeated man began to speak. "Yes. I was in the underworld, and heard rumors about Loki. It was sort of a joke. All the dead gods found it humorous to go take a look at the only god who wasn't free to roam about the place. He is bound to a very large rock with heavy thick chains that I believe were forged by your god Hephestus. Anyway, I went alone one day to try to get to know Loki better, and we struck up a conversation." The ex-god turned toward the druid. "Do you mind putting that thing away while I talk? It's annoying."

Morrigan partially complied with his request, laying her dagger on the table, well out of his reach but where she could quickly grab it. "Go on."

"One thing led to another, and I told him about Morrigan and the mask. He pumped me for information." Kernunnos grew thoughtful. "In retrospect, I think he already knew about it. He told me if I could get the mask to him, he could use it to get free. I knew about Ragnarok, and called him on it. We cut a deal. He told me if I would allow him to touch me, to make me mortal, he would tell me where the portal back to the land of the living was. If I could get the mask back to him, he promised that once he was free and Ragnarok is accomplished, he would turn me back into a god, and we would re-create the universe together."

"Why did you trust him?" The warrior frowned skeptically at his story.

"I didn't. No more than he trusted me. He said he had to make me mortal, otherwise if he told me how to escape as a god, I might just take the mask and not come back." A wicked smile graced Kernunnos' lips. "He would have been right." The smile disappeared. "But I had nothing to lose. I was a low-rate dead god in the underworld. I was bored and vastly outranked. I thought being mortal, or even obliteration through Ragnarok was desirable compared to what I had. It was a gamble. One I was willing to take."

"So he made you a mortal and you tried to steal the mask, but weren't able to," Xena guessed.

Kernunnos hung his head in shame. "I discovered being mortal isn't much fun. I don't know how to fight effectively without my powers. I couldn't breach the traps in the cave to get to the mask, so I went in search of someone who could." He stared pointedly at Autolycus, who sat back smugly, self-satisfaction evident on his face.

"And you don't have any idea who stole the mask from you?" the warrior got in his face, daring him to lie to her.

"If it wasn't him …" he gestured toward the king of thieves. "… then I don't know who did it. I was camping out in the woods. I had one more day of travel before I would have been back to the underworld. Someone knocked me out while I slept. I woke up the next morning with a large lump on the back of my head. Whoever did it left the club they hit me with next to my bedroll. I was a little dazed, but searched my bags immediately. The mask was gone. It's all they took. Strange because I had another pouch of gold in the same bag next to the mask"

"Whoever it was obviously knew what they wanted. Probably means they know about the mask's powers. Great. Just great." Xena dropped her head, her elbows resting on the table as she massaged her temples. "Nothing's ever easy, is it?" she mumbled, more to herself than anyone else. "Listen … I really need to get upstairs." The continual roil in her guts told her that Gabrielle was in a bad state. "Autolycus, I need you to bunk in with Kernunnos here. We'll keep you tied up." She eyed the former god. "I don't trust you," she stated matter-of-factly. "Tomorrow we'll go to your campsite and see if we can pick up your thief's trail. Then we'll turn you over to the local reeve."

"No need." The king of thieves panned the room, his eyes coming to rest on a stout man near the fire pit. "That's the local reeve there. I'll go speak to him."

After a brief conversation between Xena, Autolycus, and the reeve, Kernunnos was on his way for an overnight stay in the village dungeon. Morrigan left to salvage the remains of her evening with Bridgid, and Autolycus retired back to the bar. The warrior was up the stairs to the second level before he ordered his next pint.

She made her way down the candle-lit hallway, careful to avoid making any sound on the rough wooden floor. The noise of revelry wafted up the staircase behind her, gradually fading as she reached the last room on the hall, as directed by Autolycus. She approached the door to their room and opened it carefully, wincing at a rather loud creak in the hinges. She peered inside as Gabrielle looked up from the desk, turning toward her, dried tear tracks evident on her face. "Hey." Her smile was genuine, but her voice was flat and listless.

"Hey sweetheart." Xena crossed the room in two steps, resting her hands on the bard's shoulders as she leaned in for a kiss. "You wanna talk about it?"

"Where've you been?" Gabrielle stood, half-falling into a warm hug that went a long way toward lifting her gloomy spirits. She hung onto the warrior, tucking her head under Xena's chin and soaking in the scent of leather and wood smoke from the fire pit. Both women were shaking slightly, almost as if they'd been apart for much longer than a few candle marks.

"I was on my way back, when Kernunnos caught up with me and tried to take me out." She felt the bard stiffen in her arms, and hugged her more tightly. "I'm okay. Long story short, he's mortal now and someone stole the mask from him. We don't know who, but we're going to try to find out tomorrow. The village reeve is taking care of him until morning."

"Gods." Gabrielle made brief eye contact before burrowing back into their embrace, her voice muffled against soft leather. "This just gets more and more complicated. Pretty typical for us, huh?"

"Yeah." The warrior finally smiled, brushing her lips across fine blonde hair. "Keeps things interesting, at any rate. Now …" She pulled back, tracing a tear-stained cheek. "… why the tears?" Her voice softened, and the smile twisted painfully. She sighed, debating her urge to give voice to a mental puzzle she worked on while escorting Kernunnos to the inn. "You know, it'll be a year at the end of next week."

Gabrielle closed her eyes in aggrieved acknowledgement. "I was writing in my journal when you walked in. I started reading back and figured that out. When I was catching up with Autolycus, I told him about us …" she smiled and then her eyes filled with tears. She blinked, scattering a few that the warrior caught with her fingertips. "… and I told him about the crucifixion. I guess it just brought all of that back to me, almost as fresh as when it happened. Must be the timing. I even had to look at my hands, you know …" Make sure there weren't any scars.

Xena very gently lifted first one hand, and then the other, her own hands trembling as she carefully examined them, before kissing the inside palm of each one. She pulled Gabrielle back against her, holding on with a good portion of her considerable strength, as her own tears dampened the bard's head. "I'm so sorry. If there was any way I could have saved you from that …"

"Xena, don't." She placed two fingers flat against the warrior's lips. "Neither of us is to blame. We've talked about that. We both know we'll very likely carry these particular scars for the rest of our lives, if not on our hands and feet, then on our souls. It's not something we'll ever forget or take lightly. And I have a feeling that every year, when the Ides of March rolls around, we'll think about it."

"Maybe." She kissed the two fingers. "I wish we weren't here, in this place. I'd rather be at home where we can take it easy, give ourselves time to grieve if we need to."

"Yeah." The bard released her, moving to their bags and rummaging for a sleep shirt for her partner. Without even thinking, she helped her out of the leather pants and armored vest as she continued to talk. "We aren't going to make it back in time to have our joining ceremony on the day of the equinox, are we?"

Xena swallowed, as a lump tried to form in her throat. "No." Damn. We shoulda talked about that before we left. I got so caught up in my own stupid plans. "Gabrielle, I'm sorry."

"I'm not." The bard finished undressing her, and tapped a broad shoulder. Xena automatically ducked down so she could reach, feeling the warm well-worn shirt as it was drawn over her head, settling at mid-thigh length. "Xena, winter is still in full force. Our friends and family probably wouldn't be able to make it for the ceremony anyway. Traveling would be too difficult. I was thinking we should put it off a moon or two, wait for spring and nice warm weather. And I'd kind of like for our anniversary to fall on a date that isn't so close to Ides. Maybe even wait for summer solstice."

Xena stood back up, pulling her hair from the confines of the shirt collar. "You wouldn't be upset at putting it off again?"

"No." Gabrielle grabbed both strong hands, drawing the warrior to the bed. She turned back the covers and crawled in next to the wall, settling against thick goose down pillows as the warrior followed after her. She snuggled up to the long body and felt two reassuring arms wrap around her. "Xena, we've already spoken of our commitment to each other in private, a dozen times or more, in a dozen different ways. We already wear our joining rings." She held up her hand and Xena's joined it, as they admired the matching tri-color braided gold bands for a moment.

"So the ceremony is just a formality?" The warrior was secretly looking forward to the festivities, and felt slightly hurt at her partner's perceived nonchalance toward the whole affair.

"No. Oh, no." The bard interlaced their two hands. "I know we need to have it to make our commitment a legal one, but I really want to stand up in front of all our family and friends, and tell them just how much I love you." She smiled and watched a matching one form on Xena's lips. "It'll be an awesome party, and all the more reason to wait until the weather is good, and we have enough time to finish up our plans."

"Then wait we will." The warrior lay back more fully, and felt Gabrielle's head come to rest just below her shoulder. "We'll have the finest joining ceremony in the history of the Amazon nation." She smiled secretly. She'd spent candle marks in the council's scroll room, reading up on joining ceremony requirements for an Amazon queen and her consort. The scrolls contained actual accounts of several such past ceremonies, and had filled her head with some nice ideas. Yeah, and I'm gonna make you feel like the queen you are, my bard. Her hand slipped under Gabrielle's shirt, making soothing caresses against the soft smooth skin of her partner's back.

The bard's hands did some exploring of their own, pushing the warrior's shirt up, and wandering in circles against her flat muscular belly. She rolled over and found a pair of waiting lips, their kisses slow and undemanding. She finally broke off and her lips moved to the warrior's stomach, planting kisses in the wake of her fingertips, which wandered lower.

Xena felt the first faint fluttering in her gut and sank down lower into the mattress, letting her partner decided where things would lead. She felt a questing hand swirl repeatedly through coarse dark curls while the bard continued to kiss her stomach. She whimpered at the mixed emotions her partner's attentions caused. On one level, it was one of the most comforting sensations she had ever felt, and on another it was equally erotic.

A pair of green eyes looked up at her. Gods. Those eyes were full of love. And something else. I think she plans to devour me. The bard placed one last kiss on her belly and then followed her hand. Yep. The first touch of the warm lips wrenched a strangled cry from the back of Xena's throat, and she automatically drew up her knees, giving her lover better access.

Her own hands continually stroked up and down the bard's back and legs, occasionally wandering over a rock-hard butt. I think she's laying claim to me. And I think I like it. She felt teasing kisses at her inner thighs, and more intent ones as Gabrielle took her time, enjoying the exploration. She nuzzled the dark curls, inhaling the musky sweet scent of Xena's arousal, all the while listening to the warrior's constant murmurs of pleasure.

She kissed the curls and moved lower. A pair of strong hips came off the mattress, as the warrior felt a deeply intimate kiss, as if the bard were kissing her on the mouth. Oh my gods. She couldn't remember anything that had ever felt that good. In fact, she couldn't remember much of anything at all at the moment. What she did feel was cherished … worshipped even … and she allowed herself to give in to the pleasure, softly crying out Gabrielle's name.

The bard continued to kiss her, gradually lessening the intensity, her cheek finally coming to rest on the warrior's belly, facing her. Long fingers eagerly sought her face, tracing her cheeks and lips. The warrior shifted, drawing her back up against her. She could feel the bard's heart beating, almost as strongly as her own. Gabrielle's breathing was irregular, and the bard placed several almost anxious kisses on an exposed expanse of collarbone. Xena suppressed a chuckle at her lover's need. Now. I think I need to take care of you, love.

They still didn't speak, but somehow both shirts finally came off, and she rolled the bard onto her back, looking deeply into smoldering green eyes before she closed the distance, kissing her with clear purpose. "Mmmmm." It wasn't exactly a word, but summed up what they were both feeling. One hand slipped between them, and she slowly brought the bard up to the place she had so recently been, holding on tightly as Gabrielle trembled against her.

The sensations reached their height of intensity. "Xena … oh gods." The warrior continued to touch her, whispering in her ear and kissing her face and then her lips.

"I love you, Gabrielle." Finally, she reached up, pushing sweaty blonde bangs out of the bard's eyes, studying them at close range. "Thank you." She kissed her gently. "For loving me."

"Always." Gabrielle curled into her arms as the warrior drew the covers over both of them.

No more words were necessary. They shared several more kisses, sated bodies succumbing to the pleasant lethargy of Morpheus' realm.


Strong winds battered the shutters on the windows of the room, stirring the warrior from her twilight slumber. She stared up into the darkness. Just as well. She had slipped in and out of true sleep, her need to stay alert to danger warring with dark dreams. Been a while since I dreamed about that.

She regarded the warm body resting solidly against her, allowing the reality of the love they shared to chase away the remaining shadows. I deserved what I got, back in that compound. But you … she captured the bard's hand, carefully removing it from its curled clasp around her own upper arm, briefly kissing it before tucking it against her chest, holding on as it settled between her breasts. You, my love, should never have known the horror of that day.

How many did I send to their graves by crucifixion? A hundred? Five hundred? A sense of self-loathing wrapped itself around her heart. At least that many. No, what Caesar ordered for me was poetic justice.

She shuddered, remembering the anguished screams of the men she sent to the crosses, as her soldiers nailed their hands and ankles to the splintered wood, breaking their legs, not to add to their pain, although it certainly did that, but because breaking their legs sped along death. Kept them from being able to lift up and draw breath. I told myself I was being so much more merciful than a lot of the other warlords by breaking their legs.

We didn't get such a lucky, break, did we love? It had taken hours for them to die of the suffocation that eventually claimed those crucifixion victims who weren't fortunate enough to bleed to death or die of exposure first. She bit her trembling lower lip, trying to will the tears away. Caesar couldn't have chosen a worse punishment for me, than to make me watch you die in the same manner by which I condemned so many innocents. Just like you. No. She shook her head slightly. That pain made my own crucifixion pale in comparison.

She knew it was over when she felt her spine splinter. Why didn't you just run away, my bard? They were gonna kill me anyway. I'm the one they really wanted. You … you could have been spared so much pain. I couldn't believe my eyes when you picked up my sword. By the gods, Gabrielle, I didn't even know you knew how to hold it, much less wield it the way you did. You broke my heart, love. Did you know that?.

You. You gave up everything you believed in, in the blink of an eye. For me. I wasn't worth that, Gabrielle. My life wasn't worth the price of your soul. I'm glad things worked out the way they did. Glad beyond measure. But I'm gonna carry this particular piece of guilt with me for the rest of my life.

As if hearing her thoughts, the bard shifted in her sleep, snuggling up tighter and burying her face into Xena's chest, sighing in utter contentment. The warrior waited until she settled down, tucking the covers around a bare shoulder that had become exposed. "Too nippy in here for that, my bard," she quietly whispered.

Do you know how much I wish I would have woken up alone in that prison cell? She closed her eyes, remembering the pain the simple act of breathing had caused at that moment. Every muscle from the waist up ached from the internal and external bruising the beating had caused. She had tried to move her legs, then remembered that she couldn't. And then became aware of the arms wrapped around her, and the warm legs her head was pillowed against. It had taken everything … everything she had left … to keep from completely breaking down, and letting the blessed darkness that was calling to her just take her.

But she had known, the minute she saw Gabrielle's tear-filled eyes, and her brave smile, that she needed to hang around. Just a little while longer. You sacrificed your chance to live, for me, love. The least I could do was sacrifice my chance at an easy death. It was surely the lesser of the two sacrifices.

Her arms reflexively pulled Gabrielle more tightly against her. Gods, Gabrielle. She kissed the bard's head. Watching what they did to you … she swallowed, the tears flowing freely, trickling into her ears and pooling in the hollow of her throat. Her eyes squeezed shut.

She remembered that last moment of eye contact. She found her wits long enough to express on last thought. Gabrielle you were the best thing in my life. It seemed so inadequate a sentiment for someone who meant everything. The bard had looked at her with so much love. There were no accusations … no regrets … in those misty green eyes. I love you, Xena. There, lying on twin crosses in the snow, knowing they were going to die. For a split second, it had driven away the cold, and the fear, and the pain.

Then those sensations slammed back into her with enough force to stop her heart for the longest moment, as they both watched the soldier place that wooden placket against Gabrielle's palm. The green eyes had jerked away quickly. You were so brave. You never uttered a sound. How did you do that? It had been more than Xena could bear. Each blow of the hammer, driving the spikes into her soulmate's hands and feet, had wrenched anguished cries of grief and anger from the warrior's own gut. You didn't want me to hear you suffer, did you love?

She barely felt them nail her own hands down, and her ankles were numb. She kept watching Gabrielle, who refused to allow her to share her pain. And so she hung on even longer. She had no lower body strength, and she used what was left of her powerful chest and shoulders, pulling herself up again and again to breathe, forcing air into her tight lungs, oblivious to the cold metal that ripped further at her flesh with every movement. No way, was she going to go first, and make Gabrielle be alone at the end.

Finally, the bard's strength gave out, her tortured body going limp as the blonde head drooped down. Her chest stilled. Xena had wept then, and quickly followed her. There was no more reason to cling to life. The peace they found in the Elysian Fields made their manner of death inconsequential. I sometimes wish … No. Don't go there, Xena. You can't go back. There's no point. Everything happens precisely as it should. Deal with it and move on.

She forced herself to focus on the task at hand. Oh gods. I never did discuss the Norselands with her, did I? And then there's that curse on the mask. Well … she mused … our breakfast conversation should certainly be interesting.

Wide-awake, she listened to the wind as it continued to howl, rattling the walls and sifting in around the window crevices. The fire in the corner fireplace had long since burned down, but the warmth of their bodies under several layers of bedclothes precluded the need for her to build it back up until morning. A wild note in the storm made her shiver, and Gabrielle's hold on her strengthened. Felt that, did you? She finally smiled. If that storm doesn't let up some soon, we may be stuck here for a while longer. Which, she reflected, wouldn't be such a bad thing.


Fragrant minty steam drifted up in a swirl, tickling the bard's nose as she inhaled, adding a dollop of honey to the thick mug and stirring it. The fire in the fireplace crackled pleasantly, small red sparks occasionally snapping and flying up the chimney. One shutter was cracked open, revealing a cloudless blue sky and a new foot of snow on the ground below. A strong steady wind threatened to wrench the bare branches from the trees, and the few villagers who were out at the early candle mark ducked their heads down, holding rough woolen wraps tightly against their bodies. Thick panes of glass held the worst of the cold at bay and the fire glowed, warming her feet as she looked around the room contentedly, halfway wishing they were snowed in.

She closed her eyes and sipped her tea, drawing the edges of a soft navy blue blanket around her body. Opening her eyes, she turned toward a quiet rustle from the bed. The warrior shifted and made a tiny mewling noise, rolling to her side and tucking her fist under her chin. Gods, she's adorable when she sleeps. Gabrielle smiled and stood, stealing to the bedside to simply observe her lover. Not like her to sleep in. Poor thing. I think all the stuff from the past that's been haunting us lately is wearing on her a lot more than she's willing to admit.

The bard herself had slept like a rock. Or on a rock, she chuckled inwardly, thinking of Xena's granite abdominal muscles, covered by a smooth soft layer of warm enticing skin. I think I surprised her last night. She shook her head, still smiling. She still doesn't understand how much I desire her. Great gods. Her eyes roamed leisurely along the warrior's exposed upper body. I never dreamed it would be like this.

Xena sensed her watcher, her eyes slowly opening and blinking. She frowned, trying to comprehend the block of bright daylight that painted the hard wood floor below the window. What in Tartarus? What time is it? She looked up and the frown instantly became a smile, as her eyes came to rest on a fair face and a pair of sparkling green eyes. "Hey," her voice rasped, a sexy timbre that sent pleasant tingles up Gabrielle's spine. "What're you thinking about?"

"Something that might make us get a late start." She set her mug on the night table and crawled onto the bed, reclining on her side and reaching out, idly making order of the dark mussed head. Their eyes met, lingering on mutual memories, and the bard leaned closer, savoring a delicious kiss.

"Mmmm." Xena reluctantly pulled back, trailing her fingertips against the bard's face. "You let me sleep in."

"You looked like you needed it." She accepted the warrior's invitation, snuggling into an outstretched arm and feeling Xena pull her close. "Besides, it's less than a candle mark past dawn. As many people as Morrigan has to deal with at her hut, I'd guess we've got a little time before she'll be here."

"Time enough to go downstairs and grab a hearty breakfast, at any rate." Xena started to rise and found a firm hand holding her in place.

"No need." Gabrielle got up and retrieved a basket from the hearth. She moved back to the bed, perching on the edge of the mattress as she pulled back a checkered cloth, revealing hearty brown rolls, a slab of mellow light cheese, and an assortment of dried fruit. "I already took care of it."

"One of the many reasons I love you." The warrior snagged a roll, tearing it in half and drizzling more of the honey onto it, then offered her partner a bite. "We might have time for breakfast and dessert." She raised a coy eyebrow, her meaning not lost on the bard.

"That's what I was thinking about …" Gabrielle munched on the nutty bread, the taste of honey rolling around her mouth. "Mmph." She swallowed. "That's what I was thinking about when you woke up."

"Really?" Xena smiled warmly, drawing out the word. She picked up the basket, leaning over and setting it on the floor. A bubbling laugh rose up in her throat, as she felt an insistent tug at her hip and she willingly went with it, using the momentum to roll Gabrielle onto her back. She hovered over her lover, watching the bard lick her lips as she looked back up at her in anticipation. "Gods, you're beautiful." Her own lips gave testament to her words, planting light kisses all over Gabrielle's face. "Wish I had all day with you."

"This is nice, Xena." The bard felt a solid thigh slip between her legs. "Really nice." Their lips met in a much more intense kiss.

"If I can't have all day …" the warrior's voice husked, as her hands began to wander. "… guess I'll just have to make up for quantity with quality." Gabrielle arched up, responding to her, and she put her whole heart into the task at hand.


A candle mark later, bathed, full, and satisfied, warrior and bard emerged from their room, tramping down the stairs with their gear stowed in efficient fur-covered backpacks. The warrior had procured the packs the day before at the market, pleased with the snow-resistant quality of the thick deer hide from which they were constructed.

Xena still hadn't discussed either the Norselands or the curse of the mask with her partner. She decided to put off the Norselands discussion for a while unless they were forced to go there. I know we have that 'no more secrets' rule, she chided herself. But … Her thoughts trailed off, grateful for the infinite patience Gabrielle was capable of exhibiting toward her. The 'no more secrets' rule didn't have any deadlines. It was more a rule that they would not hold back the important things, nor withhold information if directly asked. They were allowed to take their time in divulging information of a non-critical nature.

She knew her time in the Norselands was an important detail from her past that she had yet to share. She also knew it was one of the most shameful chapters in her history. Her psyche was already fragile, and she couldn't bring herself to dredge up and hash out yet more damning evidence against herself. The dark memories they shared between them were too close to the surface. Between the pending anniversary of the crucifixion and Britannia's close proximity to Eire, her emotions were as raw as they had been in a long time. Since … well, she realized, since she'd watched Gabrielle willingly throw herself into a lava pit, dragging Hope with her.

At least when we were crucified, we were going together. 'Course, if Gab hadn't sacrificed herself like that, I might never have rectified my wrongs against the Northern Amazons. Gods … I wish … She felt a profound sadness. I wish I had some good stories from the past to share with her. With every new revelation, she half-expected the bard to finally become disgusted with her. Instead, she received Gabrielle's own brand of unconditional love, seeing in those green eyes a reflection of herself she could never see when looking into the mirror.

"Hey." A concerned hand patted her on the arm. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Come on warrior, snap out of it. You've got a potentially dangerous mission ahead of you. This is no time to start feeling sorry for yourself. "Yeah. Just thinking about what we need to do first."

A brief discussion with Morrigan the day before had revealed that the snow was very deep in some parts where they might be traveling. Xena decided it would be cruel to hire horses and force the poor beasts to wade through impossibly high drifts. She knew how much Argo hated such a chore, although the faithful battle horse would have cantered through the gates of Tartarus if the warrior asked her to.

"Xena, I've been meaning to ask ..." The bard hesitated, although she had learned that she was one of the few who had free rein to question her partner's decisions. "… not to belabor the obvious, but if horses are going to have a hard time getting through the snow, how are we going to do it on foot? You and Autolycus are tall, but not that tall. Kallerine is a little shorter than you. As for me and Morrigan …"

"Auto isn't going with us." They made their way across the inn's main room where Morrigan and Kallerine were waiting. "As for travel, don't worry, I've got it figured out."

"I figured you probably did." Gabrielle shrugged off her pack, dropping it in the corner behind the table. "Just checking." She turned her attention to the table. "Morning. Everyone settled in at your place?"

"As well as can be expected under the circumstances," the druid's voice bore a note of sadness. "Bridgid couldna understand why I was leavin' 'er again so soon."

"I was thinking about that last night …" Xena stopped, as a bedraggled Autolycus entered the room.

"Morning ladies ... Xena." He smiled charmingly, despite his appearance.

The warrior ignored the dig. "You look like Hades, Auto."

"Why thank you." He mock-bowed. "I've heard Hades is a rather attractive fellow."

Two blue eyes rolled toward the ceiling, and Xena took a seat. A fair-sized breakfast crowd filled most of the tables in the room, and the constant low buzz of their chatter was quickly grating on her nerves. "Gabrielle and I have already eaten, and I assume you two ate at Morrigan's." The druid and the slayer nodded affirmatively. "Auto, order your meal. I've got a new plan for you, but we need to discuss it with Morrigan first."

"Okay. Be right back." He began weaving his away around the tables toward the bar, returning momentarily with a plateful of pancakes and a tall mug of apple cider. A server followed him with a round of cider for the table. The mugs were passed around and eagerly accepted. Autolycus slipped the server a gold coin, garnering two raised eyebrows from the warrior.

Heh. She put two and two together, not missing a meaningful glance and a brief lingering of fingers as the coin changed hands. Maybe that explains his appearance. And his good mood. She re-focused her thoughts. "We no longer know who … or what … we're up against here." Xena's serious gaze fell on each face at the table in turn. "Gods know I love Pony, but I'm no longer comfortable leaving Bridgid behind, and we can't take her with us."

"I'm feelin' the same way, Xena." Relief evident in Morrigan's features. "What do ya have in mind?"

"I want to create a diversion." The warrior's voice was low, careful not to carry beyond the immediate table. "Auto, I need your powers of stealth. I want you and Pony to take Bridgid, go find Ronan, and ask him to take you back home to Greece. I need you to sneak Bridgid out of the hut, however you can. Make it look like you and Pony are preparing to come meet up with us or something. And I want Johanna, Amarice, and Raella to stay behind, leaving the appearance that they're still taking care of Bridgid. Amarice still has a cough, but she's on the road to recovery. She and Raella should have enough strength back by now to defend themselves and Johanna if they need to. Plus the village militia is also nearby."

"But …" Morrigan started to protest until the warrior held up a hand.

"Hold on." She produced a rolled piece of parchment. "I wrote a note to Ronan, asking him to do this as a favor to me. Morrigan …" She reached across, patting the druid's hand. "Gabrielle and I are to be joined in a few more moons. I was planning to invite you to the ceremony anyway. Bridgid will be safe in our village with Pony until we return. You can travel back there with us, stay as long as you like, and take Bridgid home whenever you're ready."

"Oh, Xena, I don't know …" Doubt clouded Morrigan's eyes.

"Hercules and Iolaus will be there." She tossed out the bait. Come on Morrigan. I wanna put as much distance between Eire and Bridgid as possible.

"Well …" the druid considered for a long moment. She wanted Bridgid to be safe, and the thought of seeing Hercules again didn't hurt matters any. It was a terribly long voyage for the little girl to make without her mother, but she had come to trust Eponin, and knew the weapons master would protect her daughter. "Okay. I would feel a whole lot better if Bridgid were out of harm's way."

"I thought you needed me to help steal back the mask." The king of thieves appeared almost hurt.

"Bridgid's safety is much more important, Autolycus." The warrior blew out a breath. "And the mask … it's cursed. The fewer of us around it, the better. Anyone who handles it too much will be under its spell. They'll feel compelled to sacrifice the one they're in love with to the druids. Correct, Morrigan?"

"That would be correct." She and Xena shared a knowing smile, as a clue slapped Autolycus on the forehead. He reddened, remembering the information he'd shared with them the day before.

"Gotcha." Xena elbowed him in the ribs. "Autolycus, get Bridgid to Greece, and go find Cupcake and bring her to our joining. I'd love to meet her."

"I … err … that is …" He coughed into a napkin, flustered. "Okay, so maybe I do love her a little bit." He peered sheepishly at his companions. "And the server is just a fling, okay? It's not like Cupcake and I are committed or anything." This last part whispered to an amused warrior.

"Yet," she whispered back, enjoying the near panic in his eyes at her comment.

"Xena … you and I shouldn't handle that mask." Gabrielle frowned. "Should we?"

"Hopefully it won't come to that." She squeezed the bard's leather-clad thigh under the table. "Morrigan will be with us, and she can touch it without harm."

"Good." The bard relaxed. "I don't think Kallerine should handle it either. Wouldn't want her to go staking Amarice or anything."

The slayer immediately blushed a complimentary shade of red to that of the king of thieves. She hastily gulped at her cider, wishing she could blend into the woodwork.

I see Aphrodite's been busy. Xena mentally ran through all the couples in their little group. And with a little bit more of that … she eyed Morrigan and thought about a certain son of Zeus. Gotta make sure 'Dite knows she's invited to the joining. "Okay." She rose as Autolycus finished his breakfast. "Auto, you know what to do. The rest of us, we need to go have a chat with Kernunnos. Find out where he was camping when the mask was stolen. Then we need to gather some slender branches and make ourselves some snow shoes."

"Snow shoes?" An inquisitive blonde brow rose. "Xena, what are snow shoes?"

"A little something I came up while I was in northern Chin." She smiled mysteriously. "They'll make it easier for us to walk in the snow drifts. Let's get going."

They followed her through the inn's front door and out into the clear cold morning, securing wraps and packs as they walked.

A thoughtful bard sidled up to her. "Northern Chin? Xena, when were you in Northern Chin?"

"Later." Blue eyes pleaded for a reprieve and softened when the bard merely nodded. She clasped Gabrielle's hand, interlacing their fingers. It was the quickest way from Lao Ma's territory to Valhalla, love. And a route I wish I'd never traveled.


"Wow. These are great!" Gabrielle took a tall step, the wide flat bottom of her snowshoe landing in the light unpacked powder. She watched in fascination as tiny snow pellets squiggled away from under the leather-bound edges, running behind her almost like water. For the first few steps, she held her breath each time her foot landed, expecting to break the surface of the waist-deep drifts. Waist-deep for Xena, that is. "Why don't we fall through?"

"For one thing …" With a long stride, the warrior fell in next to her. "… your weight is distributed over a greater surface, so in effect, you're lighter. For another, it's more difficult for an object as wide as these shoes to sink for the short period of time they stay in one spot. Takes longer than it would if you were just wearing your regular boots. It works more like a toboggan."

"Toboggan?" The bard's breathe was labored, but no unpleasantly so. She was enjoying the crisp air as it entered her lungs, invigorating her after their somewhat languid start to the day. "What's that?"

"Oh." Blue eyes twinkled. "You've never gone tobogganing?"

"I don't think so." Gabrielle almost toppled to one side, grabbing hold of the warrior's forearm right before she completely lost her balance. "Whoa."

"Easy. These things take some getting used to." She held on until her partner steadied herself. "And you'd remember it if you'd ever been tobogganing. It's sort of a sled, but you don't need horses or oxen to pull it. And it doesn't have runners. It's just a big piece of wood that you slide downhill on. Or sometimes we'd make a wood frame and stretch oiled canvas over it to make one."

"Why would you want to do that?" The bard had very little use for snow. She shivered, remembering frosty winter mornings in Potadeia when it was her job to rise early and break the ice in the water trough, then draw buckets of freezing-cold water from the well to fill it for the sheep and goats her father raised.

"Because it's fun." Kallerine drew abreast of them. "My sister and I used to spend hours playing on a hill at the edge of our village."

"So let me make sure I understand …" Gabrielle was unconvinced. "You sit on a flat piece of wood or stretched canvas and slide down a snow-covered hill because it's fun? And then what?"

"You keep doing it until you're too tired to climb the hill anymore." The slayer smiled, her eyes looking far off into the distance in pleasant memory.

"I've never been either, Gabrielle." Morrigan trudged her way next to the others. "But it sounds like something Bridgid might enjoy." Her eyes met the bard's and then flicked down toward the snow.

"Don't worry." Gabrielle clapped her on the back. "Pony and Autolycus won't let anything happen to her. If I had a child …" She felt blue eyes watching her in her peripheral vision. "… I'd trust them to take care of it. Both of them have risked their lives for us. On more than one occasion."

"I know it's for the best." The druid's voice quivered. "I just miss 'er so much. Every time I leave 'er and come back again, she's grown a head taller."

"Another day and we'll reach Kernunnos' campsite." Puffy white clouds of air escaped her lips as the warrior spoke. "With any luck, we may be able to pick up our thief's trail. If not …" She left her sentence unfinished. If not, we travel another day to the portal of the underworld and I go in to find Loki.

Frightened green eyes peered intently at her, and she reached out, placing her hand in the small of Gabrielle's back, gently patting her through her thick wool cape. Okay. She's terrified. And angry. She made that pretty clear back in the village. They hadn't argued in front of their friends, but as the warrior carefully laid out their plans, Gabrielle had grown quieter and quieter, her jaw clenched firmly and her forehead etched in a permanent frown. I'd best be saying something to make this better.

"Have no fear, Morrigan." Or you either, my bard. She kept her hand on Gabrielle's back. "I plan to get that mask back as quickly as possible. I've got a joining ceremony I need to be at in another moon or so, and I need to get back home." And nothing, nothing, will keep me from that. No cursed masks, no dead or living gods, and no godsbedamned snow or ocean.

The bard grabbed her arm, removing it from her lower back. For the briefest second the warrior thought she was being pushed away, then just as quickly felt a smaller hand seeking hers, as Gabrielle twined their fingers together. "If anyone can find our thief, it's Xena." The bard squeezed her partner's hand, and felt a squeeze back. All's forgiven, honey. I don't much like the thought of you traveling to the underworld. I just get so scared that something will happen to you. And maybe I won't get to go with you right away this time. "She's the best tracker in the Amazon village."

The warrior felt a gentle flush across her cheeks and pulled up her hood, garnering a raised blonde brow in her peripheral vision. "True." Kallerine chimed in. "I was in one of her tracking classes. You should've seen us. She about ran us into the ground."

"I … um … think I'll scout ahead a little." Xena trudged forward, away from them, taking long easy loping strides on the snow's surface, her body well used to maneuvering on snowshoes. The cold air quickly cooled her skin and she breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be out of the limelight. The light wind whispered in the branches over her head, and a few winter birds twittered back and forth, discussing whatever it was that birds discussed. A bright flash caught her eye, as a red fox quickly slunk away through dense scruffy underbrush.

She let her hood fall back against her shoulder blades, enjoying the cool fingers of air that lifted her hair and blew it about her face. Spotting a wintergreen bush, she smiled, roving off-trail through the trees, and kneeling down to collect several hand-fulls of the scarlet berries, stuffing them in a pouch inside her cloak. Those'll be a nice after dinner treat. She moved away from the trail toward a walnut tree, which still bore a good amount of nuts. She wrapped both hands around the rough bark and gave the tree a few sound shakes, sending a scattering of the meaty nuts raining down around her into the snow. She collected those and added them to the berries.

I've missed this, she mused. While it was true that some of the Amazon stores were supplemented with foraging, most of their fruits and vegetables were grown in large gardens and communal fields that everyone in the village took turns at tending. She had led the fall hunt for the year, and they returned with the largest supply of venison and rabbit in village history. There was enough smoked and dried meat in the storehouse to feed them well into spring, even if it was late in arriving.

Still, it wasn't the same as the day-to-day existence she and Gabrielle had shared in the past. Living completely off the land kept her hunting and foraging skills well honed, and she made a firm decision not to let those skills become lax in her new-found settled state. She had been self-sufficient since her fourteenth summer, and she wasn't about to start becoming dependant on others for her survival. Or Gabrielle's. She had learned to expect the unexpected.

Not that having a ready supply of food was a bad thing. Both she and Gabrielle lived with few reserves when they were on the open road. Neither had an ounce of body fat to spare. Living with the Amazons had changed that. While neither woman was by any means overweight, both had lost some of the gauntness to their trail-hardened bodies. It felt good to know that neither of them had to go hungry. Gabrielle looked healthier and happier to her healer's eyes, and the warrior rarely heard her partner's stomach rumble with true hunger pangs anymore.

The relatively quiet winter in the village had been good for both of them. Xena's leg was fully healed from her battle injury in Egypt, and sleeping in a real bed was much more refreshing than the unforgiving ground. She woke each morning with a lot fewer aches and was able to sleep more soundly in their hut than she could out in the open. The Amazons kept a constant watch at their gates as well as in the territory surrounding the village, and it didn't fall completely on Xena's shoulders to stay alert for danger.

She ruefully acknowledged that those skills needed to stay sharp as well. And camping in caves in the winter don't cut it, she growled internally. Winter travel's greatest hazard typically meant checking for bears in the caves they considered using for shelter. Raiders and other riff-raff tended to hole up in the winter. It was too cold to be out, and too difficult to make a quick escape after an attack. She made a second firm decision to take to the road for a while sometime in the late spring or early summer, just to make sure her survival skills got a proper workout.

She unconsciously fished in her pouch, digging out a walnut and cracking it in her fist. She plucked out the moist nutmeat, popping it into her mouth and chewing thoughtfully. Quiet footsteps alerted her and she cocked her head, smiling at the familiar swish of wool against leather as her suitor approached her from behind. "Hey there." She turned to face her partner.

"You okay?" Gabrielle drew closer. "Hey." She placed one hand on her hip, pointing with the other at the telltale shell bits littering the snow. "Were you planning to share?"

A lazy smile graced the warrior's face. "Yes." She retrieved another nut, cracking it and offering it to the bard. "And yes."

"Why'd you go running away?" The bard asked around a mouthful of walnut.

"I … it was nothing. Just needed to breathe for a minute." She kicked at a downed log, pushing it over in the snow.

"We embarrassed you, huh?" Gabrielle grinned up at her stalwart companion. "Sorry about that."

"S'okay." Dusky lashes blinked almost shyly. "So does this mean we're okay?"

"Xena." The bard sighed and sat down on the log, patting the space next to her, squeezing a firm thigh as the warrior took a seat. "We were always okay. It's just … the thought of you going to the underworld … I know you've been there before. A couple of times. I don't know that I'll ever be okay with that concept. Guess I'm always afraid they're going to decide to keep you once you get down there."

"Listen." Xena 's fingers chaffed a wind-burned cheek. "It would take a lot more than the measly powers of the underworld to separate me from you. I made you a promise that time … after Autolycus helped me come back. Remember?"

Gabrielle's heart skipped a beat, remembering a light-hearted conversation in a forest not far from the Amazon village. Too light-hearted, covering up emotions that were too raw for them to openly discuss at the time. Xena. Promise me that you'll never die on me again. And Xena's deadpan answer, complete with rolled eyes -- Oh, I promise. "But." Incredulous green eyes studied serious blue ones. "We were speaking in jest." Weren't we?

"I never make a promise I don't intend to keep. Even one made in jest." The warrior carefully studied her hands, which were folded in her lap. And damned if I'll ever break that one. Not if I can help it.

"But how can you …" How can she possibly keep a promise like that? She watched the strong profile, the warrior's throat working as she swallowed a few times. Trust you to find a way, love, one way or another. She placed one hand over the warrior's clasped ones, waiting until Xena looked at her. "I know you don't. And I’m going to do my best to keep the same promise to you, deal?"

"Deal." Warm eyes smiled back at her, as Xena stood and hauled her to her feet. "We'd best go catch up with the others. Morrigan's the only one familiar with these parts, and we need to start thinking about finding shelter for the night. I don't like the looks of those clouds."

Gabrielle looked up, beyond the skeletal treetops above them, noting the gathering gray cover that was rapidly obscuring a beautiful blue sky. "Rats. This is gonna slow us down, isn't it?"

"Maybe not." The warrior took her hand and they began snowshoeing their way back toward the trail. "Seems like lately it snows at night and clears off by morning. But just in case, I want to find a nice substantial cave or even a building if we can. The open woods are too risky."

"Not to mention too cold." The bard shivered in reflex.

"No cold bards," Xena stated resolutely.

Gabrielle smiled. "You know, Xena, I haven't slept cold in a very long time."

"Well, I'm gonna make sure you never do again." The bard missed the mischievous glint in her partner's eye, as the warrior quickly scooped up a handful of snow and dropped it expertly down Gabrielle's cloak. "'Course all bets are off in broad daylight." She took off, running with surprising grace given the deep snow and the uncommon shoes on her feet.

"Hey!" Gabrielle yelled in outrage. Shaking hard, working the frozen lump down her back and onto the ground. "You are going to pay for that, oh warrior princess of mine!" She paused, studying the warrior's gait, and did her best to imitate it. To her great pleasure, she only stumbled a few times, getting the hang of their little game of chase in no time.

Xena tempered her pace, giving her partner time to catch up, only staying far ahead enough to keep the bard from actually catching her. She reached the trail and stopped, bending over with her hands on her knees, even her conditioned body unused to that particular form of exertion. Just as she was catching her breath, a solid force tackled her, taking her down to the snow.

She laughed, rolling both of them over and over, losing snowshoes and cloaks in the process. They finally bumped into the base of a tree, Gabrielle sprawled on top of her, pinning her in triumph. "I got you! You're mine now!"

The warrior briefly considered simply bucking the bard off, and then reconsidered, raising her arms back and over her head, resting them in the snow. "Oh, I surrender to Gabrielle, queen of the Amazons." She sighed dramatically. "Have your way with me, your majesty. Just … be gentle." She suppressed a chuckle, her body shaking with the effort.

"You mocking me?" The bard got nose to nose with her, searching the blue eyes and getting lost in them. Xena's tongue poked out, swiping her on the lips. Gabrielle's eyes grew wide, then closed, as she tilted her head to the side, giving an experimental lick back before making more solid contact. She kept it up until both women were breathing rather hard. "Better get you out of the snow before you freeze to death."

"Snow?" The warrior cupped her face with both hands. "Keep that up, sweetheart, and the winter thaw is gonna come early."

"Oh." Gabrielle blushed. Xena drew her back down, enjoying another kiss, the warrior's hands wandering up and down the bard's back, slipping under the deerskin top to the soft wool undershirt, giving gentle strokes of encouragement.

A throat cleared and both women looked to the side. Kallerine and Morrigan stood on the trail across from them for a moment, both shaking their heads in feigned admonishment. "Never mind us. We'll just forge on ahead. Come on, Morrigan." Kallerine tugged at the druid's sleeve. "Didn't you say there's a cave another couple of candle marks ahead?"

"I did." Morrigan followed after her. "Go on about your business, ladies. We'll leave a marker at the trailhead that leads up to the cave, so ya can find us when yer of a mind to."

"Gods." Gabrielle buried her face into the warrior's chest, resting there until they were out of earshot. "Thought they were further ahead of us."

"So did I." Xena raked her fingers through fine blonde hair. "Guess we should get our cloaks and shoes back on, and get going."

"Yeah." The bard pecked her on the lips one more time and rolled away, reaching for her scattered belongings.

They quickly donned shoes and cloaks, exchanging more than one smile in the process. Xena stood to her full height, waiting until the bard finished tying the last binding on her shoe. As Gabrielle stood, she found herself drawn into a warm hug, which led to another very nice long kiss. "One more for the road." The warrior re-shouldered her pack, helping the bard buckle hers into place.

They followed the snowshoe tracks in front of them on the trail, neither woman in any hurry to reach the cave.


The dull thwack of a small hatchet striking wood rang out across the ice-covered pond, echoing off the tall trees on the far side. A great snowy owl hooted his displeasure at the disturbance, his large yellow eyes blinking into the darkness. A half moon shone through a break in the gathering clouds, dusting the pond's surface in an almost iridescent glow.

The warrior paused, using a firm shove of her boot to finish felling the slender sapling she planned on cutting into firewood. It cracked and splintered, then dropped to the ground, sending up a swirling mass of loose powder as it landed. She shoved it with her foot again, rolling it over toward another tree she had already cut down.

She looked up at the sky and frowned. So far, the snow was holding off, and the night air was completely still, with not a single hint of a breeze. It was bone-chilling cold and the temperature had been dropping steadily since sunset. For no apparent reason, her nape hairs prickled and the frown deepened. What was that all about?

She shrugged and swung the axe up over her head again, preparing to chop the long trunks of the trees into fire-sized logs. A cheerful fire was blazing inside the nearby cave, the strong scent of pine reaching her nose, which twitched in appreciation. Whoever had used the cave last had left just enough wood to start a fire. Xena volunteered to chop more wood while Gabrielle began setting out the fixings for their dinner. Morrigan had started the fire and gathered a few buckets of snow to melt for water, and Kallerine took off with her bow and quiver of arrows, determined to hunt down some fresh meat to add to their dried venison and fruit.

Soft boot steps slushing through knee-deep snow approached from behind and she stopped, shouldering her axe and turning to face her partner. "Hey there."

"Hey yourself." Gabrielle closed the distance, holding out a buckskin flask. "Here, thought you could use a warm drink."

"Thanks." The warrior unstopped the flask and tilted it up to her lips. She grinned as the liquid hit her mouth, taking a few swallows. "Good stuff." The bard had added honey and spices to rich red wine, and warmed it near the fire. It was extra weight to pack, but well worth it on long cold winter evenings in the great outdoors.

Gabrielle took a couple of sips, then offered it back to her partner. "More?"

"No thanks. That stuff's dangerous." She gestured toward the half-chopped trunk of the first tree. "Goes down too smooth. I'll hold off until I get back inside. I'd hate to get buzzed and lop off my foot."

"Good point." The bard re-corked the flask, slinging the leather carry-strap over her shoulder. She re-settled her cloak and crossed her arms underneath, rocking back on her heels and gazing across the pond to the dark timber beyond it. She shivered. "Nice night." So why do I have a sudden case of the creeps? "Although I can feel my nose hairs freezing."

"Cold?" Xena saw the tremor as it ran through her partner's body. She buried the axe into the log and opened her own cloak, inviting the bard inside. She felt the solid body press against her and wrapped the long wool ends around both of them. "Better?" Her voice purred directly next to Gabrielle's ear.

"Yeah." A little. She couldn't shake the vague sense of uneasiness that settled over her. Light nibbles at the side of her neck distracted her from her heebie-jeebies, and she turned her head, sharing several long slow kisses with the warrior. "You know …" She felt curious hands roaming up and down her sides through her leather top. "… we keep this up and we're gonna make ourselves crazy. Not like we're gonna have any privacy for the next few days."

Xena chuckled and relented, closing her arms around the bard in a gentle hug, rocking her slightly from side to side. "True." She stole another kiss. "I could kiss you for candle marks, Gabrielle, and be perfectly happy to go no further."

"Really?" The bard looked up at her, the faint moonlight rendering the warrior's eyes almost colorless, and casting interesting bluish highlights in her dark hair. She closed her eyes as Xena reclaimed her lips.

"Really." She tucked Gabrielle's head against her chest, resting her chin on the pale head. "Kissing, when it's done right, can be better than sex, in my opinion. And in some ways much more intimate and passionate."

"Well …" the bard tilted her head up and drew Xena's face down with one cupped hand. She moaned as the warrior proved her point, finally coming up for air in a pleasant sensual haze. "Anytime you want to test that theory, just let me know."

Xena pecked her lips one more time and resumed their warm embrace, quite forgetting the firewood and dinner for several long moments. Funny, she mused. Who would ever have thought that standing knee-deep in the snow, in the woods of Eire, in the bitter cold, could be so pleasant?

A quiet rustle at the tree line caught their attention, and both women reluctantly opened their eyes and turned toward the noise. "Oh," Gabrielle whispered in wonder. A doe and two tiny fawns moved out of the trees into the open, stepping daintily to the edge of the pond. The doe pawed at the thin ice at the edge, breaking the surface and bending her long elegant neck to take a drink. The two timid babies did likewise, the sounds of their gentle lapping reaching the warrior's sensitive ears.

"Early spring fawns," Xena whispered in her ear, remaining perfectly still. Another sound, a shifting of snow and a brushing of hide against pine needles, almost undetectable, drew the warrior's attention and she squinted, her eyes coming to rest on a large shadow. She stiffened, then relaxed as a truly magnificent animal stepped out of the trees.

"Xe …" A hand clapped gently over the bard's lips. Xena felt the smaller body stop breathing for a minute, then resume at a slightly faster rate.

A large white buck with massive antlers strode toward the doe and fawns, snuffing the air for any sign of danger, liquid black eyes gleaming in the moonlight. The animal snorted, his breath clouding the air, the sound unnaturally loud in the silence of the woods around them. He peered around warily and locked eyes with Xena, two kindred spirits, feral survivors that would stand between danger and those in their charge. Suddenly, the buck let out a warning bleat, and the doe nudged the fawns, all four animals darting out of sight into the trees.

"Gabrielle, grab an armload of wood and get back into the cave." The warrior tugged the axe out of the log and began quickly chopping the rest of the firewood.

"But …" The bard was still looking into the woods where the deer had disappeared.

"That buck didn't get to be as old as he is without being smart." Xena finished the first tree and moved to the second. "Something spooked him. Get Morrigan and come back out and help me move the rest of the wood inside."

"Okay." Gabrielle knelt down, gathering several small logs. She stood and looked uneasily around them. "Xena, hurry."

"I am." She managed a smile. "Probably nothing to worry about. If it's another animal, my chopping would scare it away. Just wanna be cautious. It could be Kallerine on her way back. Maybe he heard her." Hope she gets back soon.

"I'll be back in a second." The bard trudged through the snow, following the path she'd broken between the cave and the clearing.

The warrior made quick work of the second tree, collecting her own armload of wood. As she stood back up, a strange lilting noise, like low laughter, drifted around her, then faded away. What in Tartarus was that? She shook her head. Must be the wind. She moved toward the cave, peering back over her shoulder. If there were any wind.


Three solemn figures huddled around the fire. Despite the warmth, it was no longer a cheerful place to be. Xena sat nearest the cave entrance, her back to the fire and her eyes warily watching the play of light and shadows as the moon fought with the clouds for dominance in the night sky. "I know you probably think I'm crazy, but there's someone … or something … out there."

"No, Xena, I agree with ya." Morrigan held her hands at the edge of the circle of stones that comprised the fire pit, rubbing them together to keep warm. "It's unnaturally quiet out there. No wind, no night creatures. No sound at all. Even as cold as it is, I'd be expectin' a few animals or birds to be out."

Gabrielle's forehead was lined with worry, as she sifted a handful of herbs into a pot of dried venison stew. They'd decided to start their meal without Kallerine, who was missing in action. The bard knew that Xena would go out looking for her if the slayer didn't turn up soon. Her chest felt tight each time she thought of her partner venturing into the bitter night, with some strange person or power lurking in the trees. She'd learned the hard way to never dismiss Xena's instincts. The pragmatic warrior wasn't prone to let her imagination get away from her.

Xena drew her sword, as a low grumbling noise, accompanied by heavy boot-stomps met their ears. She stood, every muscle tensed for action, then suddenly relaxed as a snow-covered slayer entered the cave, tossing her snowshoes against the far wall as she doffed her cloak. "By the gods it's cold out there." She blinked and shook her head, snow flying around her in the process, some of it landing on Xena who jumped back in reflex.

Gabrielle rose and took her cloak, spreading it out on a rock near the fire to dry. "Where've you been? We were worried."

"I was bound and determined to find us some rabbit, or something, and kept going. I finally gave up when I looked up and realized how late it was." Kallerine held out her empty hands. "I found nothing except a doe and two fawns, which I couldn't kill."

"Did you see the white buck?" The warrior sat down, her back against the cold rough wall, stretching out sideways so she could participate in the conversation and continue her vigil guarding the entrance.

"White buck?" The slayer cocked her head to one side. "No. The three deer were it. Not a single bird or fox, or anything. It's spooky out there, and way too quiet."

Xena and Gabrielle exchanged a glance. "Did you hear anything strange while you were out there? Anything out of the ordinary?" the warrior asked hopefully.

"No." Kallerine crouched down, her array of stakes and daggers clicking together as she warmed her hands and feet. "Quite the opposite. Almost no sound at all. Made me jumpy. I kept drawing my sword on my own shadow. I'll be glad to see daylight. I've got a feeling I'm not going to sleep well."

That'll make two of us, Xena silently agreed. Make that three. Her eyes took in her partner's grim expression.

"Soup's done." The bard tried to sound upbeat, filling four tin mugs with the steaming thick broth and passing them around to her companions.

"Mmmm." Morrigan took a whiff. "Smells good, Gabrielle. Thank you."

"You're welcome." She made her way to Xena, careful not to spill any of the warrior's dinner. "It's not exactly a big meal, but it's nice and hot."

"Thank you, sweetheart." The warrior wrapped her hands around her mug, as grateful for the source of heat as for the food.

Gabrielle briefly smiled. She must be distracted. Xena didn't typically use terms of endearment unless they were alone.

"I almost forgot." The warrior set her mug aside and picked up her discarded belt pouch, smugly dumping the contents out on a flat rock near the fire. Three sets of eyes lit up as the walnuts and fragrant wintergreen berries landed in a pile. "After dinner treat I found in the woods."

"Oh, those are nice." Kallerine picked up a sprig of berries. "Our family used to spend a whole day at the beginning of each winter, gathering these. My sister and I would have a contest to see who could find the most. My mother loved wintergreen berries."

The bard studied sad hazel eyes. "It's hard, isn't it, to lose your family?"

"Yes, sometimes." The slayer sipped at her soup, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of venison. "It helps that I found my sister. And Amarice, she's been really great. The Amazons are our family now. I loved my parents, but in a strange way, I think I'm a better person from living with the Amazons. I feel strong, and good about myself. I can take care of myself. In my home village, I was just a girl, no one special."

Gabrielle smiled. "That's how I was, too, before I left Potadeia. Sometimes, people come into your life at precisely the right time, and you're forever changed because of it." Her eyes met the warrior's, warming at the open expression that flashed across her face before the stoic mask went back up. The bard casually rested her hand on her knee, her fingers forming the 'I love you' symbol while she spoke. She saw a flicker of a smile out of the corner of her eye. "A very good friend once told me that we have families we were born into. But sometimes families change, and we have to build our own, and that sometimes, friendship can bind you closer to someone than blood ever could."

Morrigan listened quietly to the conversation, her heart aching at memories of a Greek demi-god. She knew her duty was to Eire. Why else would she have traveled halfway across the world in the dead of winter to get help? But, she grudgingly admitted, a part of her heart would always belong to Hercules. She wondered what he had been up to since they parted last, and what it would be like to see him again.

Well, her lips pressed together grimly, guess I'll find out soon enough, now won't I? We finally put a definition on that fine feeling between us, didn't we, Hercules? Maybe we shouldn't have. She closed her eyes, remembering a proposal. They spent one night of passion on the isle of Cypress, carried away by the moonlight, and the belief that they were going to be together forever. We came so close. But the cold gray dawn shed light on truths that would not be ignored. I couldna take ya away from Greece, Hercules. Yer duty is just as great as mine is. Ya would've ended up resentin' me, don't ya see? The oracle told me it was so.

She swallowed and forced down the memories. "I envy yer Amazons, Gabrielle. Ya have somethin' that's hard ta come by. Oh, I've found ma place in Eire, and ma village, 'tis a friendly lot, but bein' who I used ta be, most of 'em keep a polite distance. I have many acquaintances, but no one nearby that I feel close to. I tell maself 'tis part of the price I pay fer ma past."

Sympathetic blue eyes peered at her from across the fire. "And that's how I was." It was Xena's turn to make the 'I love you' sign, as she casually raked her hand back through her hair. She could feel a radiating warmth, which wasn't from the fire. "Loneliness doesn't make a good long-term companion. But what I discovered is that happiness comes from the most unlikely sources, and if life gives you a chance at that, you better grab onto it with all that you have."

Her words hung heavy in the air, leaving a love struck slayer and a lovelorn druid with much to think about. They passed around the nuts and berries, sharing idle conversation, taking turns at keeping the fire built up. They briefly speculated on what might be out there, watching them. They could all feel it in varying degrees, Xena most strongly, her reflexes in fine-twitch mode, her eyes constantly darting outside, scanning the tree line for any sign of approaching danger.

Conversation began to dwindle, each woman lost in thought, and gradually, three pairs of eyes grew heavy. The warrior stuck a few more logs in the fire, arranging them to her satisfaction, then dragged her bedroll to the cave's entrance. "I'll keep watch." She spread out the furs and sat down, drawing her knees up to her chest. She saw the protests coming, and held up one hand. "Don't worry. I’m not the least bit sleepy. If I do need a break, I'll wake one of you."

"Wake me, Xena." Morrigan stretched out on her own bedroll near the fire. "I've a feelin' I'll be sleepin' lightly anyway."

"Will do." The warrior turned more fully toward the entrance, the sounds of bedrolls being plumped and patted down in the background, the absolute silence outside deafening in comparison. A dragging noise made her smile, as the bard pulled her furs up next to the warrior and sat down. "Guess telling you to go to sleep is gonna be a waste of time, huh?"

"That would be a correct guess." Gabrielle smoothed out her cape, assuming a similar posture to the warrior, her arms wrapped around her legs. "Xena …" she leaned against the taller woman, feeling a protective arm settle around her. "… any idea what it was you heard out there earlier?"

"It …" she paused, playing the odd laughing noise over in her mind. "… it didn't sound like any animal I've ever heard. It was … kinda human … but bigger. Like it was all around me."

"Have you ever heard anything like that before?" The bard snuggled closer, unsuccessfully trying to stifle a yawn.

"Not sure." A half-smile played at her lips. "Come here." She stretched out her legs, patting them invitingly. Gabrielle rolled her eyes and gave in, laying down, using the warrior's lap as her own personal human pillow. Xena pulled the bard's furs up around her shoulders, and began a gentle massage of her scalp, sifting the fine blonde hairs through her fingers.

"Not sure?" Gabrielle didn't even bother trying to hide the second yawn, though her body desperately fought the pleasant lethargy her partner's attentions created.

"Like I told you earlier, it sounded kind of like laughter." She kept up the massage, her other arm draping down the bard's side and resting across the curve of her hip. "I keep trying to figure out if it's a laugh I've heard before."

Laughter? The bard turned that over in her head and shivered. "Xena … the banshees … they laughed like that … in the woods … in Britannia."

"No." The warrior's voice was so forceful, it made Gabrielle jump. "No." She spoke carefully, lower, in an effort to calm her partner and avoid waking the others. "Sorry. Didn't mean to scare you. No, sweetheart. It was not the laughter of the banshees. This was lower than that."

"You're sure?" The bard rolled over to her back, looking up at the strong profile.

"I'm certain." She nudged her partner, until Gabrielle curled back up on her side and the warrior resumed playing with her hair. "No banshees are coming anywhere near us. I won't let them."

"My hero." The bard playfully poked her stomach. She finally gave in to her exhaustion, tucking one fist under her chin as her eyes drooped closed. The other hand reflexively curled around the warrior's thigh, and she let out a little sigh of contentment as sleep claimed her.

Xena looked down, watching the slow even breathing and the occasional flutter of Gabrielle's eyelids. She continued with the light scalp massage, as much to calm her own nerves as those of her partner. Narrow blue eyes studied the mostly cloud-covered sky and the black silhouettes of the trees. Who are you, anyway? She held her breath, as the buck appeared again, just outside the trees. He stood there for a long while, staring at her. And who are you? You trying to tell me something? The buck pawed the ground a few times, then took off, leaping away through the trees out of sight.

Her high visual acuity followed him until he was nothing but a whisper of a shadow, her even keener hearing picking up his movement for several minutes after he was no longer visible. You're not afraid, are you? She spoke to the absent buck. Well neither am I. What did I used to tell my army? The best defense is a good offense? A firm jaw set, and she leaned back further against the cave wall, determined to wait out the night. You want a piece of me? A feral grin appeared for the briefest second. Come and get some.


It was the darkest part of the night, when the body is at its weakest and dreams are most vivid. Morrigan sat at watch at the cave's entrance, her keen vision constantly surveying the strange silent landscape outside. True to her prediction she had slept lightly and awoke several times before finally giving up on true sleep. She quietly crept over to where Xena sat, the bard still peacefully asleep at her side. The druid convinced her to go ahead and try to get some rest, if not for herself, then for Gabrielle's sake. She knew she had touched the correct nerve as the warrior grudgingly commented that Gabrielle would probably sleep better if they were further away from the cold outside air.

Xena managed to drag their sleeping furs to a far back alcove which was close enough to the banked fire to provide warmth, but secluded enough to give them some privacy in dark shadows that hid them from direct view. She slept fitfully, vague uneasy images flitting against the backs of her eyelids, and she reflexively held onto Gabrielle, who had slept through the entire relocation of their bedroll and was now peacefully sprawled almost on top of the warrior, the thick furs obscuring all but the top of her head.

Gradually, Xena's dreams took shape, and she found herself wandering through an unfamiliar forest, riding on a dark horse. It was misting heavily in the dream, and she was miserably wet and cold, trying unsuccessfully to block the assault with a soaked-through brown coat. She murmured in her sleep, one hand slipping out of the furs and pushing back her bangs, which were plastered to her forehead in her dream. Suddenly, she was consumed with fear and was knocked off her dream horse. Her body went flying through the air and then she was falling through endless space toward a bottomless black chasm.

She was certain she was going to crash to her death, when a strong hand caught her by the throat, holding her there, dangling helplessly in space, surrounded by dark swirling colors and haunting images of her past as she fought for air. She fruitlessly cried out, flailing against her faceless, bodiless assailant, who only tightened their death grip around her neck. She heard the strange haunting laughter from earlier in the evening, its eerie sound magnified in her dream to deafening proportions. She reached out, blindly fighting to cover her ears.

Hot breath tickled her face and two fiendish eyes materialized, glowing back at her in the darkness. "I feel your fear, Xena. I want to feel your pain," a female voice taunted her. "Fear this." The warrior was spun around in her dream, the fingers still closed around her throat. She was transported to a dark hot place, a cave of sorts, and she could hear wailing in the background, akin to the cries of the damned. "This is where I live, Xena. Soon, you'll be joining me."

The warrior gasped as a vision of an altar materialized before her, Gabrielle bound tightly to it. Her gasp became a moan of agony, as she saw herself approach the altar, her sword raised high over her head. In slow motion her arms descended, the point of her sword aimed at the bard's chest. "No!" She screamed and closed her eyes.

All her breath was gone and she was flying again, spinning through space, her heart beating so hard that she could feel it pulsing throughout her body. She felt herself falling again and tucked into a flip, finally gaining some control of her body, landing on her feet and barely avoiding slamming to the ground. She was back in the strange forest again, beside the pond where she had chopped firewood. The laugh sounded around her once more, then faded away, leaving her shaking with fear. The white buck stepped out of the trees and walked up to her, his somber eyes never leaving her face. He stopped a few feet short of her and simply gazed at her for several minutes. With a proud snort, he turned tail, and disappeared back into the woods. She watched him leave and was enveloped by a feeling of profound loneliness.

"Xena." A warm familiar voice broke through her senses, warring with her desire to simply curl into the darkness and never wake up again. "Xena." Someone was shaking her insistently, a firm hand on her shoulder that wouldn't give up. Another hand touched her face, gently stroking her cheek. "Come on, Xena, wake up. You're scaring me."

She gave in to the anxious whispers and forced her eyes open. "What …?" She remembered her dream and slowly sat up, pulling Gabrielle to her. "Sorry." She buried her face into the blonde hair, comforted beyond belief to feel her soulmate's solid body fiercely hugging her back. "Bad dream."

"You okay?" The bard peered anxiously into her eyes, searching haunted depths that frightened her more than she was willing to show. "Must have been pretty bad, whatever it was. You wanna talk about it?"

The warrior thought about the altar scene and shuddered. "No. It was bad … just … no. I can't. Gabrielle, I'm sorry …"

"It's okay." The bard's fingers brushed across her face again. "You haven't had one like that in a long time. You were crying in your sleep, honey, and you were trying to fight me."

"I was having a fight in the dream." Dark lashes lowered contritely. "Sorry. Didn't mean to act out on you."

"Who were you fighting?" Gabrielle wrapped both arms back around her partner, pulling the furs snuggly around them and shuffling until they were reclining back against the cave wall.

"I'm …" I think I know. "… not sure." She paused, drawing a shaky breath. "But at the end, the white buck, he came to me in my dream. I think he was telling me not to be afraid of whatever it is we're up against. He … um … I saw him earlier tonight again, for real, after you fell asleep, while I was keeping watch."

"Weird," the bard commented, feeling the hammering heart next to her ear start to slow. "What do you think it means?"

"I have a couple of ideas." She closed her eyes, reliving the altar scene, wondering how it ended. She thought about the crucifixion visions she had for the entire year before they came true. No. There's no way I'd tie Gabrielle to an altar and stab her. But does it really matter that I feel that way? I thought I could stop the crucifixion from happening, and it happened anyway. Damn. She rolled her head back against the cold unforgiving stone. It's not safe for anyone to be around me. She opened her eyes. "Gabrielle, a long time ago, when I was little, we had a storyteller come through Amphipolis. He told the story of a warrior who was turned into a white buck. Do you know that story?"

"Yes …" the bard answered very slowly.

"Can you tell it to me?" Blue eyes filled with unshed tears shone in the firelight.

"Xena …" Gabrielle sighed in frustration. "I don't think … you're not in a good place here … you seem … I don't know … I don't think that's a good idea."

"Please?" Her voice caught in her throat.

"Okay …" The bard chewed her lower lip thoughtfully. "But I reserve the right to take artistic license with it."

"However you tell it, I'm sure you'll do a good job." A trembling smile claimed her lips, and she rested her cheek against Gabrielle's head.

The bard cleared her throat, speaking quietly so as not to disturb Kallerine, the only one who was asleep. Morrigan was out of earshot, the druid occasionally giving them a brief glance before returning to her vigil.

"Once there was a very proud and arrogant warrior. He was the best warrior that ever lived, and he knew it. He won every battle. No one could come close to matching his skills. As time went by, he became more and more proud of his skills, convinced that he had achieved his place in life all of his own strength. This greatly displeased the gods, all of whom had given him various gifts that had helped him become the great warrior that he was.

'One day, the gods had enough, and they changed him into a pure white buck. He was the stateliest buck in the forest. Rather than being upset, the warrior was greatly pleased at his new form. But he quickly learned that his beauty was his greatest weakness. Because he was pure white, he had no camouflage in the forest. He was an easy target. And because he was so handsome, he was constantly hunted as a rare prize. It wasn't safe for the other animals to be near him …"

"And so he was forced to walk the earth without benefit of companionship, the most lonely and shunned creature in the forest," the warrior finished for her sadly. "I sometimes feel like that. Like it's not safe for anyone to be around me. As if I'm paying the price for my past." She felt a warm hand cover her mouth.

"Shhh." Gabrielle traced her lips. "There's more."

"No there's not …" The hand clamped over her mouth again.

"Artistic license, remember?" The bard waited until Xena nodded in agreement. "Now … here's the rest. One day, a shy doe approached the buck. She thought he was the most brave, most handsome creature she had ever seen. He admonished her not to follow after him, because it wasn't safe. Where he went, there would always be danger. But the doe followed after him anyway.

'After a time, he came to enjoy her companionship, and quit turning her away. They traveled together, constantly fighting danger. But the doe didn't care. She loved the buck so much, you see. She didn't care about his past, and she didn't care that life with him would be hard at times. She saw in him all the beautiful things that he was unable to see himself. Before meeting him, she was just an ordinary doe. Being with the buck made her feel complete." Gabrielle paused, feeling a tear hit her on the arm. "You saw it, Xena, beside the pond. That buck wasn't traveling alone. He had a doe with him, and fawns."

"Gabrielle," the warrior tilted her chin up, gazing into green eyes gone amber in the firelight. "You got one part of the story all wrong."

"What was that?" the bard whispered, their faces mere inches apart.

"That was no ordinary doe." Xena's hands reached out, cradling the bard's face for an endless moment, then slowly closed the short distance, brushing her lips first across wispy blonde bangs, then moving lower, reverently tasting Gabrielle's lips.

From across the cave, Morrigan couldn't help but watch. She'd heard the warrior thrashing about in her sleep, and had surreptitiously watched as Gabrielle first woke her, then quietly comforted her. She couldn't hear anything they said, she could only observe sad blue eyes, and equally sad but determined green ones. She watched the warrior's face, as Gabrielle spoke softly to her, and slowly Xena's expression changed from one of fear and loss to one of quiet wondering joy.

Now she saw them, comforting each other in a different manner. They were kissing, nothing more, but the obvious love that radiated from them was enough to make the druid feel as if she were drowning in its brilliance. Xena's face bore an adoration for Gabrielle that made Morrigan's heart hurt with its intensity. There was a hunger and a longing there that spoke to something very basic within her. At the same time, the warrior's actions were profoundly gentle, her eyes softening each time she looked at Gabrielle. What must it be like to have someone look at ya like that? She wondered.

The warrior gradually lessened the intensity of their kisses, engulfing the bard in a warm hug and lowering them both back down to the bedroll. "We need to get some sleep while we can."

The bard cuddled up to her, nuzzling her face into the crook of Xena's neck. "So, what do you think about your buck now?"

"He's the luckiest buck in the forest." She smiled. "Seriously, though, right before he appeared in my dream, I was starting to gain control of a really scary situation. I think he might be here simply to reinforce to me that I can usually get the upper hand if I put my mind to it."

"That's good to hear." Gabrielle spoke dreamily, as her body relaxed fully, wrapped in the safest place in the world. "And true."

Should I tell her now about that laugh? She heard long even breathing, signaling the bard was already asleep, and sighed. No, plenty of time for that tomorrow morning. I don't know what kind of games you're playing … she mentally addressed her dream attacker … I don't even know if you're real. If you are, you can get inside my head all you want to, but this is what you'll find when you get there … she kissed the bard's head one more time. Do you see this? Do you see what we have? You've asked about her. You damned near killed her that last time. But you've never seen us together like this before, have you? Pull every trick you want to … but I've already been redeemed. She's my redemption. You can't drag me into that dark place, because she's a part of me, and the darkness can't survive in her presence So you can attack me and play mind games with me and hit me with your best shot … but you'll never win … because you can't touch what we have … Alti.


To be continued in Chapter 6

Here's a link to hear the laughter Xena heard beside the pond. I opened it in Windows Media Player: http://www.clairestansfield.net/sounds/laugh.wav

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