Soul's Pledge

by Maggie


Disclaimer: As usual, the characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Cyrene and Argo are the property of Renaissance Pictures and no copyright infringement is intended here. The other characters, and the tale transcribed here, are the property of the author.

Once Again: I extend my heartfelt thanks and gratitude to my loyal, faithful Canadian Muse. As always, her continued support, patience and understanding are more than partially responsible for the completion of this narrative. Without this gentle presence, this tale would not have been born, either.

The Time of the Story: Some of the events, anecdotes and conversations contained here refer to characters and scenarios depicted in previous offerings by this author. They also occasionally allude to certain episodes and occurrences depicted in the television series. Again, no encroachment or infringement is intended to these copyrighted works, either. And lastly, I had already written Gabrielle’s ‘short hair’ into this story when the news about how it really happened became available. In that instance, I claim ‘author’s privilege’.


Prologue ~~~

"It's NEVER enough, is it, Xena?" the bard screamed, her voice brittle and shrill.

"What's never enough?" the warrior stammered. "Gabrielle .. what are you talking about??"

"I've given you all there is of me ..." the young blonde sobbed. "My loyalty ... my trust ... everything!" Gabrielle gulped hard, trying to keep her voice steady and coherent. She took an unsteady step toward the warrior, slim hands clenched at her sides. Tears streamed down her face as she trained a tortured glare at her dark-haired companion.

Xena's expression reflected the myriad of emotions flashing through her senses. The blue eyes were confused ... befuddled, yet the bronze face also showed a level of annoyance.

"Gabrielle ... I really don't know what you mean," the tall woman began, reaching for her soulmate. But when the bard's slim form sagged in defeat, the warrior was filled with a gnawing remorse. She moved slowly toward her friend. "What is it you're trying to ...?" She laid a tentative hand on the girl's slender arm.

Gabrielle recoiled warily and took a slow step away from the warrior. Tearful green eyes scanned the surrounding forest, a sheen of fearful anxiety clouding the shimmering pools. After a moment, her gaze swept up to meet Xena's blue-eyed concern.

"I left my family .. .. gave up my chance for any normal life I could have had." The warrior's jaw tensed. "I've followed you ... every time .. done whatever you asked ..." Gabrielle choked, her voice raspy and thin. "Still, nothing is ever enough for you.... it's never enough."

The warrior's control was quickly shattered. The long weeks of self-doubt and personal indictment suddenly overwhelmed what wavering discipline she had managed to maintain in recent weeks. The lean, sleek body grew rigid. The bronze jaw quivered.

"You made your own decisions, little girl," the warrior growled. "Nobody exactly tied you to a tree to keep you around, did they?" The azure pools turned hard and uncompromising. "And nobody's nailing your boots to the ground right now."

Gabrielle's expression momentarily unseated the warrior's anger. The young face was shocked ... and very hurt. The sea-green pools locked on the stony blue glare. "No, I was just stupid enough to believe you really wanted me with you ... that you appreciated having someone covering your back ... standing by you, no matter what." The girl blinked quickly, absently wiping away the tears covering her face.

"And it's not like you haven't tried getting rid of me about a hundred times. Always leaving me behind ...sluffing me off on anyone handy ... anytime you had a whim ... whenever it suited your purposes." The young blonde shook her head sadly then turned an anguished gaze up at the warrior. "Nothing we had ever really mattered to you, did it, Xena? You were ready to throw it all away the moment Lao Ma's message came ... without a single backwards glance ... just like that." New tears covered the soft, young face.

"Stupid 'little girl' ..." the bard murmured. "That's me ... you're right about that." Gabrielle turned a vacant stare toward the nearby foliage again. "How could I have been so blind?" she whimpered, one trembling hand on her forehead. "And so stupid."

As she watched the pain travel across Gabrielle's wounded grimace, Xena's brittle defenses once again trembled. She swallowed hard and purposefully relaxed her clenched fists. The smooth face softened affectionately.

"No one could ever call you 'stupid', my friend," the warrior said softly. "I would never use that term to describe you."

Gabrielle's gaze returned abruptly to the warrior's. "No?" the girl snapped. "Well I would! Only a stupid, naive, 'irritating blonde' would stick around where she's not really needed ..." The bard's expression suddenly grew resentful. "Or more to the point ... not really wanted."

She spun away from the warrior and marched forcefully to the other side of the campsite, stopping abruptly next to where her staff lay, propped up against the side of a small tree stump. In one swift move, she tapped her boot against the end of her staff, sending the wand sharply upward and away from the stump. Gabrielle caught the rod smoothly with one hand, then turned sharply back to the warrior.

"Isn't that really true, Xena?" Gabrielle snapped sarcastically. "You don't really want me here anymore, do you?"

"I never said that, either!" the warrior shouted in frustration. She pressed her palms tightly against the sides of her head, hoping to dispel the pounding fury behind her forehead. She squeezed her eyes closed tightly. The tall, slender form paced slowly toward the row of boulders ringing the camp. Xena lowered her tall frame onto the largest of the stones and drew in a slow, steady breath before returning her attention to the agitated form of her best friend. The bard's expression remained hostile and suspicious.

"Gabrielle," Xena began, keeping a strong hold on her diminishing control. She leaned forward, resting her sleek forearms on her knees, her dark head hanging low. "I don't know where all this ..." One slender hand waved distractedly. " ... came from. But I've never thought of you as 'stupid' or 'irritating'..." The blue pools were fastened on the bard's distrustful glare.

"And believe me ... it's not that I don't want you here ... with me. That's not it at all." Gabrielle's jaw rippled. The warrior's gaze dropped to her hands twisting nervously between her shaking knees. She swallowed hard. "It's that I .... I want to ..." She looked up into the soft green eyes of the person she treasured more than any other. Her voice caught in her throat. She lowered her gaze again.

"You want to go on alone, isn't that it?" the bard asked in a voice trembling with grief. "You don't need me anymore."

The warrior's eyes jumped back to the young face. "No, that's not what I want." The tall woman's shoulders sagged in defeat. "But I think ... maybe it's what's best for you."

A long, tense moment hung over the campsite, the crackling fire the only noise challenging the silence. Then the bard's voice sounded stiffly.

"Xena, I decide what's best for me," Gabrielle said softly. "If I've learned nothing else from you, I can say that without blinking." The warrior's blue eyes showed her anguish. "But I'm not about to stay with someone who obviously isn't ...." the girl continued, her voice cracking pathetically. "Who doesn't ..." The little blonde slowly closed her eyes. "Who doesn't want me with her anymore."

"Gabrielle ...." the warrior moaned, rising and taking a step toward the girl.


Both women looked toward the sound. The warrior's skin tingled in disgust. "What's she doing here?" she snarled at the bard.

"She's my daughter. She can go wherever she wants," Gabrielle told her coldly. She turned back to the young woman standing just beyond the campsite. "Yes, what is it, Sweetheart?"

"Can we leave now?" the youthful blonde asked, holding one slim hand out to the bard. Gabrielle's manner softened as she responded to the exact image of herself. She smiled at the slight female.

"Yes, I think it's exactly what we should do." She bent to retrieve the canvas bag leaning next to the tree stump. She stopped when the warrior grabbed her arm.

"Gabrielle," Xena said tensely. "You can't leave.. not with her." The bard looked down at the bronze hand on her arm, then raised her gaze to meet the warrior's.

"Why not?" Gabrielle asked, her gaze calmly defiant. "Why not, Xena? Why shouldn't I leave with my daughter?"

The warrior's slender form stiffened, the blue eyes sparkled with fury. Her hold on the bard's arm tightened. "She's evil ... she'll destroy everything you are." She turned an acrid glare at the duplicate of her partner. "I won't let you leave with her."

Gabrielle slowly removed Xena's hand from her arm. She turned a tear-filled gaze up to meet the warrior's. "Wrong answer," the bard said sadly. Xena stared at the young face. "I was hoping you'd say you didn't 'want' me to leave ... with anyone." The bard took a shaky breath, her focus still on the warrior's angry glare.

"Good-bye, Xena," Gabrielle said, swinging the bag's leather strap onto her shoulder. With that, she turned quickly toward her mirror-image. "Let's go, Baby," the bard said. She reached for her duplicate's outstretched hand.

Xena's body reacted without her being aware of having moved. She took a step toward the amazingly similar-looking women. Her stomach rolled when she caught sight of the smug, arrogant smirk on the face of her son's killer. She reached toward the bard with a fervent plea.

"Gabrielle! No!" the warrior wailed.

An instant later, Xena felt herself being flung across the open campsite and slammed up against a large, unyielding tree. She fought against the disabling dizziness resulting from the breath being thrust from her lungs. The bronze form crumpled forward as the woman struggled to regain her sensibilities. As the warrior watched horrified, an immense chasm opened behind the evil young blonde, with huge, menacing flames forming a wall of fire shooting up along the opening. Xena launched her body upward, trying desperately to reach her soulmate. She saw Gabrielle's terrified expression and the bard's fearful attempt to extract her hand from that of her daughter.

The depraved sneer on the gloating face grew into an ominous, satisfied grin. The sinister replica used both hands to pull Gabrielle closer, wrapping her arms around her as the blonde woman stumbled forward. A maniacal glint beamed from the demented green gaze focused purposefully on the warrior's agonized stare. With one, final insidious shriek, the look-alike hugged the bard tightly ... and calmly stepped backwards into the raging fire filling the abyss behind them. The warrior heard her partner scream.

"GABRIELLE!" Xena shouted, lurching frantically toward the vanishing images. "Oh, gods! NOOOO!"


Chapter One ~~~

Xena bolted upright, coming awake with a violent jolt. The clear blue eyes snapped open, the lean, bronze form trembled in terror and bone-jarring fright. She hardly noticed she was drenched in sweat, her long black hair lay matted and soaked against her forehead and neck. Long, tedious moments passed while the warrior panted frantically, her chest rising and falling in a frenzied cadence. Another short span of time transpired as slowly ... methodically ... the tall woman fought to restore her senses. She gulped hard .. once ... took a shaky breath ... gulped again.. Finally, Xena began to regain her wits. Dazed azure pools cautiously swept the campsite.

The warrior's gaze settled on the trim, lithe form lying peacefully an arm's length away, quiet, gentle breathing emanating from the figure beneath the blankets. Within seconds, the tall woman's breathing became steady and calm, her manner less panicky. Xena took a long, deep, cleansing breath and swallowed slowly. She crossed her long legs in front of her and drew a shaking hand over her eyes. She used the edge of the heavy woolen blanket covering her lower torso to wipe away the moisture glistening across the chiseled features. The warrior's sleek form slumped forward, her trembling hands cradling her pale, clammy face.

The dark head turned again to the slim figure near her right hip. She let her eyes travel over the sweet, young face and the soft blonde hair. A small smile softened the stoic countenance at the sight of the bard; Gabrielle was sleeping serenely, on her side facing the warrior, her head resting on one trim arm, the other hand spread casually on the blanket. Her expression reflected the tranquil comfort of her sleep.

Xena leaned toward the trim form and gently touched the silky, reddish-blonde hair covering the bard's forehead. The young woman breathed deeply, responding to the warrior's touch. The muscled form recoiled in remorse, the very sight of the short, roughly-cut locks ringing the girl's face bringing a sickening tightness to the tall woman's stomach. Her blue eyes quickly filled with tears.

"Oh, Gabrielle, I'm so sorry," the warrior whispered, her gaze traveling over the young blonde's peaceful face. "Your beautiful hair ...." The slender figure quaked in shame. "Because of me ... because of the hatred that poisons my life..."

Xena's jaw clenched as her gaze settled on the fading bruises faintly evident across the bard's cheekbone. A small, jagged cut, almost healed, yet still plainly visible at the corner of the girl's mouth, served as a blatant reminder of the torture she had suffered at the hands of Malicon, the degenerate mercenary who had captured the young Amazon Queen with the intention of using her as an 'incentive' toward achieving his real goal ... the capture and surrender of the Warrior Woman known as Xena to a vindictive warlord bent on exacting his own revenge on the tall combatant.

The cunning outlaw had managed to lure the warrior into the area by waging several damaging, but not lethal attacks on a small, peaceful village. His conniving mind had correctly deduced that, when the townspeople recognized the impending peril to their vulnerable little community, they would send word to the reformed warrior, soliciting her help against further advances by his troops.

Malicon's plot had been successful. The women's arrival at the town's perimeter had provided a convenient opportunity for the bandit's attempt to capture the warrior and collect his bounty.

Unfortunately for the bard and her tall companion, the rather simple skirmish had resulted in the warrior being only slightly wounded while the bard had became the prisoner ... and bargaining tool ... of the villainous desperado. Gabrielle had vowed to stay calm and keep her wits about her, confident her partner would surely devise a clever plan to free her before any further harm would come to her.

For nearly a week, Xena had systematically employed her previously unsurpassed skills to locate the brigand's lair, utilizing every tracking and outsmarting ability within her rather substantial collection of talents in such dynamics. Yet, with the insidious genius of an amoral predator, Malicon had managed to repeatedly elude the warrior while continuing his depraved needling and malicious terrorization of the young bard. It soon became apparent that part of the brute's nefarious plan had been to torment and demoralize his opponent by making her chase him, instead of the other way around.

Meanwhile, the hoodlum's vulgar threats and crude insinuations had proven largely unsuccessful at breaking the slim blonde's spirit or undermining her loyalty to her best friend. The bard had bravely resisted the wicked ruffian's demands that she use her influence to convince the warrior to surrender herself, consistently refusing to be intimidated by his scurrilous browbeating and increasing impatience.

Instead, the courageous young woman had devised a means of sending her own message to her partner, advising Xena to resist the temptation to agree to the man's diabolical scheme, assuring the warrior she was not, for the moment, in any real danger. Respecting her soulmate's judgment, the warrior had elected to maintain a 'wait and see' attitude, at the same time continuing her strategy of calm, apparently passive, surveillance of the thug's activities.

However, when his efforts had failed to move the warrior toward the desired result ... her complete and unchallenged surrender ... the vile criminal had replaced verbal insults with brutal, physical punishment. He began subjecting the bard to vicious, relentless and nearly fatal beatings, taking even more evil satisfaction in making sure graphic details of every assault on the young woman reached the frantic warrior. Yet even the abuse had proven fruitless in forcing Gabrielle to facilitate the warrior's acquiescence.

As a last resort, the thug had hacked off the bard's long, blonde hair and ordered it sent to the warrior, the pale tresses wrapped around the bloody form of a butchered animal. Malicon had included a directive .. an ultimatum intended to finally convince Xena that, unless she agreed to become his prisoner, her young friend would soon resemble the contents of the canvas bag which now contained her blonde locks.... but only after he'd "had some fun with the sweet, young thing."

Ironically, the vicious maneuver had served to totally unleash the warrior's tightly controlled rage, completely dispelling whatever caution she might still have exercised during previous negotiations with the abominable miscreant. She was now less concerned with the possibility of putting her soulmate in further danger and, least of all, of jeopardizing herself in any noticeable way. As a result, with the help of some well-meaning, although marginally effective members of the village's militia, Xena had swiftly located the reprobate's hideout and summarily reduced the camp to a collection of smoking ruins, destroyed equipment and quaking, groveling troops.

The warrior had saved her most ruthless retribution for their villainous leader who slouched in seething capitulation before the incensed warrior. The blue eyes displayed a frightening coldness as white teeth flashed beneath a snarling glare. With her free hand, she grasped the man's filthy, matted hair and wrenched his head to one side. She brought the hilt of her sword down across his bearded jaw, the sound of the man's teeth shattering together producing a savage gleam to the narrowed blue eyes. Still clutching the scoundrel's hair, she took a short step backwards and brutally slammed her knee into the man's groin. He crumpled forward, moaning and grasping his wounded crotch.

Xena released the hoodlum and delivered a crushing blow across his face, sending him sprawling backwards and spread-eagled onto the ground. Malicon's bleary gaze had searched the darkening sky overhead, eventually returning to the feral sneer on the face of the warrior standing over him, her sword clasped with both hands and raised high above her head, its gleaming tip aimed directly at his helpless body. A moment of sharp, blinding fear raced through the terrified man. He saw the sword start toward his belly .... then stop ... as the woman's contemptuous gaze slowly drifted toward the battered, damaged form of the young blonde being cradled in the arms of one of the militia.

"Xena, don't ... don't." Gabrielle's hoarse whisper had somehow unseated the warrior's fury. "Please," the bard’s raspy voice sounded remarkably calm. The girl held out a trembling hand. "I need you. Let the Fates have him." The fierce blue eyes had jerked back to the frightened thug at her feet. The warrior had slowly lowered her sword and bent to address the pathetic figure.

"Tell Japhet I'll see you both in Tartarus," the tall woman had growled in a stony tone. "If he wants me, he can try and take me." Xena grabbed the front of Malicon's leather uniform, a cold, determined glint to her blue gaze. "But he'd better hope I don't find him first," she had told him, her face close to his bloody mouth. "If I do, I'll slice him open and feed his guts to the buzzards. Got it?"

Malicon had only blinked and nodded. The warrior had let him go and turned to her soulmate, just as the bard collapsed against the chest of the man carrying her. Xena had resheathed her sword and crossed the open area to where the villager stood holding Gabrielle's abused, injured form. She had tenderly taken the girl into her arms, her bronze face a study in torment and guilt. The bard had snuggled close to the warrior's armored chest.

"I knew you'd come for me," Gabrielle had murmured, her lips swollen and bleeding as a result of her ordeal. Slim, bruised arms went around the tall woman's neck. "I knew you'd come ....." The warrior's blue eyes had filled with tears.

Xena gazed at the lovely, young face on the bedroll for a long, quiet moment before laying down again, closing her eyes and drawing a thready, exhausted breath. Finally, the blue eyes closed again as the warrior settled into a fitful sleep. Of course, she had no way of knowing that, a moment later, the soft green eyes drifted open, traveled slowly over the tense, slender form on the other bedroll, then closed again.


Chapter Two ~~~

"Gabrielle. So good to see you, again."

Lanessa's smooth, gentle voice floated across the threshold of the front door to her cottage. She gathered the young bard into a warm, welcoming hug. Gabrielle returned the embrace, burying her face in the petite woman's long, auburn hair. When they separated, Lanessa held the girl at arm's length, meeting the soft, emerald gaze for a moment before letting her eyes settle on the short-cropped blonde hair only slightly shrouded by the hood of the girl's heavy cape.

"New look?" Lanessa questioned gently.

"Long story," Gabrielle answered quietly.

"Ah," the small woman murmured, pulling the girl close again. Over the bard's shoulder, the woman addressed the tall warrior standing just behind the young blonde, a tormented sheen behind her blue eyes.

"I knew you'd bring her back," Lanessa said to her oldest friend. She released the bard and laid a slim arm across Gabrielle's shoulders. "Come in, come in," she said warmly. "You're staying the night, of course." Xena recognized the gentle mandate within the small woman's statement. She hesitated for only an instant.

"If it's OK with my partner, here," the warrior said, smiling openly at the bard. Lanessa turned her attention to the young woman in question.

"Just waiting for you to ask," Gabrielle chirped. "I've been daydreaming about your nutbread all the way here," the girl said impishly. The two small ladies laughed together. The warrior's tense grin relaxed.

"I'll get Argo settled in the barn," Xena said, gathering the horse's reins. "Go 'head," she told them. "I'll be right back." She pulled the saddlebags off the animal's back and handed them to the bard, looping the strap of the cloth satchel over the girl's outstretched arm. As Gabrielle and Lanessa entered the house, the warrior led the mare toward the small outbuilding settled close to the dwelling.

"I'll have some tea ready for you," Lanessa called to the retreating form. She caught a flash of the clear blue eyes as the tall warrior glanced back to return her gaze. The small auburn-haired hostess ushered the blonde woman inside the cozy cabin.

When Lanessa had closed the thick door, she strode to the open hearth along one end of the kitchen. She worked swiftly, transferring several of the logs stacked near the fireplace onto the glowing embers. As she tended the rising flames, she spoke over her shoulder to the bard.

"I'll have the kettle brewing in a moment," Lanessa told the girl. She sent a friendly smile toward the young blonde. "You know where to put those things," she told her, her eyes indicating the items the bard held. Then she returned her attention to the fire.

Gabrielle dropped the saddlebags and her satchel onto one of the benches located along side the solid, wooden table in the middle of the room. She pulled off her heavy cloak and stepped forward to hang the garment on one of the wooden pegs along the wall next to the front door, placing her staff in the corner next to the portal. The bard absently ran her fingers through the short, feathered blonde locks covering her head. Then she carried the bundles from the bench into the small room adjoining the kitchen.

The young woman let her eyes travel over the familiar chamber, pausing affectionately on each of the welcoming components; the large, quilt-covered bed against the closest wall, the tall, sturdy chest on the opposite wall, the oval-shaped rug covering the floor, the small, curtain-rimmed window through which the late afternoon daylight filtered. She crossed the bedroom to deposit the bags on the one new addition to the enclosure ... a handsomely crafted, brightly polished wooden bench, it's back and seat covered by matching lively-patterned fabric. When she turned to make her way back to the kitchen, Gabrielle's eye caught the clothing spread on the bed's covering.

Two soft, looped shawls lay next to each other across the middle of the mattress; one garment was obviously smaller ... and shorter ... than the other, its woven design slightly more demure than that of its companion. The bard laughed quietly, shaking her blonde head in amusement. She gathered up the more petite wrap, swung it onto her shoulders and strode into the toasty kitchen.

Gabrielle watched as Lanessa tended to the shiny kettle hanging from the long, metal arm hinged in the wall of the fireplace. When she had snapped the top into place and swung the arm holding the small caldron back over the now-leaping flames, she brushed the remnants of the ingredients from her hands. Lanessa's dark brown eyes raised to meet the bard's.

"I'm glad you like the shawl," the woman said. Her smile widened as the bard pulled the garment more tightly around herself. "I had to figure your size from memory." She strode smoothly toward the young blonde. "Although I think you're a bit thinner than the last time we saw each other."

"It's beautiful, Lanessa," the bard told her, pulling the shawl over her slender body. "Thanks. It'll come in handy this winter."

Lanessa sat down at the burnished table and beckoned for the bard to join her. Gabrielle sat down beside the small woman, one trim arm resting on the wooden surface behind her. The smooth young face glowed with affection for the older gentlewoman, yet a moment later, she felt herself grow slightly unsettled by Lanessa's intense gaze. She became even more fidgety when the small woman gently captured her chin with one hand. The bard blinked nervously and tried to keep her posture casual, even though she noticed the woman's efficient gaze carefully studying her newly-styled, somewhat disconcerting short hair.

"You've grown up since your last visit, my young friend," Lanessa said softly. The bard's smile faded a fraction. The slender hand released her jaw and covered the girl's slim hand. "Nothing like a little visit to the other side to 'serious up' a person, hmm?"

A genuine giggle floated from the bard's trim form. She squeezed Lanessa's soft fingers. For a moment, the two friends simply enjoyed each other's company. Then the girl spoke quietly.

"Thanks for delivering the scrolls," she said softly. Lanessa's other hand covered their clasped fingers. "It really meant a lot to me. I knew I could trust you." The green eyes were sincere on the older woman's face. "I mean it, Lanessa. And I know Xena really appreciates what you did for her, too. For us ... while I was ...." The bard took a short breath. "If it hadn't been for you ...."

Lanessa leaned toward the young blonde and gathered the trim form into a gentle hug. She sat back, her hands still in place on the bard's shoulders. "It was my pleasure, Gabrielle," she said to the glistening emerald pools. "You and Xena are both very special to me. I was glad I was able to help during ... that terrible time." Her finely-tuned senses clearly noticed the shudder that swept through the young bard.

"It seems to me you were both very brave ... and very loyal to each other." Lanessa released the girl. "As I said, I'm glad I could help. It was the least I could do, after what you two had done for me."

Just then, a shrill whistle sounded from the copper kettle hanging over the fire in the hearth. Lanessa rose, gathered up the front of her long, salmon-colored apron and swung the arm holding the canister away from the flames. She carried it to the three mugs lined up on a nearby wooden shelf and poured steaming mixture into two of the cups. She set the cauldron on the shelf and carried the mugs back to the table, offering one to Gabrielle and blowing steadily into the vaporous mixture in the other.

When she and the bard had enjoyed their first sip of the fragrant tea, Lanessa addressed the girl again. "So how's our stoic friend doing these days?" she asked candidly. Pausing only a moment to acknowledge the return of the bard's nervous smile, the petite woman continued.

"I thought as much," she announced quietly. "I could sense the ... apprehension between you the moment you arrived." She watched the slight blush slowly cover the bard's face. "Still having nightmares, is she?"

Gabrielle's surprise registered clearly, but only for an instant. She remembered how astute .. and how precise ... Lanessa's senses were. She met the woman's knowing gaze for a long moment, then turned her attention back to the tea.

"What do you suggest we do about this?" Lanessa asked, her soft brown eyes steady on the young woman's uneasy expression. "You do have an idea about it, right?"

Gabrielle studied the steamy contents of the earthen mug in her hands. A slow, aching tightness was gathering at the base of her throat. She took a deep breath and swallowed.

"As a matter of fact, I don't know what to do, Lanessa," the bard began quietly. She raised her eyes to the woman beside her. "It's as though she's .... terrified ... tormented, almost." Lanessa's head tilted slightly toward the girl. Gabrielle took another shaky breath.

"These nightmares .. she's had them nearly every night since we left Poteidaia. Since my ...." The bard's voice quaked. "Since Hope and her child ... died." The green eyes glanced quickly at her hostess. She swept one slim hand across her eyes before turning again to the woman's steady gaze.

"I think Xena's still afraid that I'm going to ... that something's going to happen to me." Gabrielle's voice was confused ... and frightened. "Nothing I say or do seems to convince her otherwise. Especially now," the girl said, her fingers self-consciously fingering the short blonde locks curling over her ears. She met Lanessa's soft brown eyes.

"About a moon ago, we had a little trouble with a fellow named Malicon." Gabrielle smiled nervously. "A warlord named Japhet paid him to find Xena and bring her back so he could..." The bard paused to draw a shaky breath. "When I wouldn't help him, he ... " Lanessa covered the girl's trembling hand with her own. She drew a slim finger gently across the faint bruises along the girl's jawline.

"I don't need the details," the small woman said. "It's obvious that he hurt you ... both of you ... deeply." Lanessa's voice was quiet and controlled, yet a slim thread of anger colored her tone. But the gaze that met the bard's was sympathetic and understanding. She moved her hand to rub the young blonde's back. After a moment, the slender hostess focused her attention on the flames leaping in the fireplace.


"Poor Xena," Lanessa whispered. "She's tried so hard to escape the hatred and the rage." She turned back to the young woman. "Seems like the Fates are determined to punish her forever, doesn't it?"

Gabrielle's green eyes glistened with empathy for her most cherished companion. "Lanessa, Xena's my best friend. She means more to me than anyone on this earth." The small woman smiled. "I have to make her understand ... make her believe me when I say that ... no matter what happens ... being without her would ..." The verdant pools met the woman's brown gaze.

"But she’s obsessed with this idea that I'd be better off if I'm not with her ...." The bard gulped hard. "She thinks leaving me somewhere 'safe' would be ...."

The bard's comments stopped in mid-sentence when the older woman's manner subtly changed. Lanessa's attention was now directed to the wooden door at the entrance to the cabin. She trained her eyes on the aperture for a few moments before sending a calming smile toward the girl's nervous expression and laying a gentle hand on the bard's face.

"We'll think of something, Sweetheart." Lanessa cast another quick glance toward the front door, then turned back to the slender blonde. "I promise .. we'll devise a worthy plan."

An instant later, the heavy door swung open framing a tall, snow-covered figure in the darkened doorway. Both women at the table turned toward the entrance and the lean warrior standing in the opening, her dark hair now sporting a thick layer of the powdery, white dust. The shoulders and deep folds of the heavy cape she wore were also decorated by the icy mixture. Xena stepped into the room, pivoted and pushed the wooden panel closed. She turned around to face the other occupants of the room.

"I believe someone promised me some tea?" she said drolly. Lanessa's gentle laugh answered the warrior's quip. The slender woman stood up and moved toward the copper kettle on the work shelf.

Xena stomped the snow from her heavy boots on the thick mat just inside the door, opened her long cape and walked toward the blazing flames bouncing on the hearth. She pulled off the woolen covering and shook the material briskly, sending glistening crystals and droplets of water in all directions. Gabrielle left the kitchen and passed into the adjoining room, returning with the other braided shawl. She took the wet cape that Xena had folded over her free arm and crossed the room to hang the dripping wrap on another of the wooden pegs.

Gabrielle returned to the table to find the warrior busying herself with unhooking the clasps holding her armor in place. When the last fastener was released, Xena lifted the apparatus away from her body and dropped it onto the rug in front of the fireplace. She accepted the mug from Lanessa then set the container on the table as her eyes examined the soft, woolen wrapping. Gabrielle's grin widened at the sight of the tall woman's affectionate grin, a smile matched exactly by the one on their hostess' sweet face.

Xena wrapped the shawl around herself, retrieved the mug and, swinging one long leg over the bench nearest her, settled her sleek form onto the wooden seat. Finally, she took a hearty sip from the earthen container.

The blue eyes closed contentedly as the warrior swallowed the warming brew, then opened again to return the bard's warm smile. Xena took another sip of the tea and shook her dark hair away from her face. Moisture clinging to the raven locks danced merrily as the long tresses shed their watery burden.

"We've got quite a blizzard working up out there," Xena said, addressing the bard, then turning to her petite old friend . "Thanks for the shelter, Lanessa." The auburn-haired woman smiled warmly. The warrior's blue gaze returned to that of her blonde companion. "Well, Miss Smarty," she chided the bard. "You're the one who likes to play in the snow. Guess you’re gonna get your wish."

The three friends laughed easily, each responding with affection to the other two present in the warm, cozy cottage. Outside the structure, the wind howled and the snow raged in sharp, uncompromising shards of icy frost. Inside the dainty cabin, the feminine trio was snug, comfortable and ... for the moment, at least ... at peace.



Chapter Three ~~~

Several candlemarks later, Gabrielle leaned back against the thick edge of the table, her arms stretched out to each side on the wooden surface. The bard yawned loudly and shook her blonde head. She blinked, moistened her lips and pulled her head sharply to one side, then the other. Finally, she turned to the warrior beside her whose amused expression warmed her golden face. Xena tousled the young woman's hair.

"Somebody's ready for the down mattress in the other room, I think," the warrior said warmly. She rubbed the girl's back. The bard laughed softly and laid her head on the warrior's sturdy shoulder. Xena pulled her closer.

"Sorry," Gabrielle said sleepily. "I guess I'm more tired than I thought." She turned to Lanessa. "As usual, supper was wonderful ... especially the nutbread." The small woman returned the girl's smile. "But I think Xena's right. I'd better go to bed before I fall asleep right here." She looked up to meet the warrior's blue gaze. "You guys mind?"

"No, of course not," the other two women said, almost together. "Go ahead, Sweetie," Lanessa continued. "There's a new quilt on the bed, just waiting for you," she told the young blonde.

"I'll be there shortly," Xena said. She released the girl. "G'night ."

Gabrielle tried unsuccessfully to stifle another yawn by covering her mouth with one hand. "OK," she murmured, as she rose from the wooden bench. "G'night, Lanessa," she told the woman, crossing to the wooden rocking chair which held the diminutive female. They shared an affectionate hug. "Thanks for the scrumptious food," Gabrielle said when they had separated. Lanessa lit a short candlestick from the large taper on the shelf next to her chair and handed it to the girl. The girl turned back to the warrior. "See ya later."

Xena nodded and the young blonde yawned again. The warrior's eyes followed the trim form as the girl shuffled through the doorway into the next room. When the door closed behind her, Lanessa's keen senses noticed how subtly ... yet distinctly ... the warrior's smile faded. Xena's gaze remained on the closed door for several moments until she dropped her focus to the mug standing near her hand on the table. Lanessa watched and waited for a moment before proceeding cautiously.

"Ah ... old friend?" Lanessa began, an innocent smile meeting the warrior's stare. "You didn't tell me ... does your mother know you've arrived?" Xena's half-hearted smirk softened her expression. "She'll have my head for keeping it a secret, you know?"

"No, she doesn't know, but tomorrow is soon enough for sharing that with her." The warrior's blue eyes actually twinkled. "This is a busy season for the Inn ... she's probably refilling mugs of ale as we speak."

Lanessa noticed the shaky smile on her old friend's face.

"I'll go over there in the morning. Can't have you losing your head over this." Xena's blue eyes contradicted the forced lightness in her voice. She kept her eyes on Lanessa's understanding smile for a long moment, before returning her focus to the mug again.

"More tea?" the petite gentlewoman asked adroitly, keeping her tone as casual as possible. She rose and retrieved the copper kettle from its position over the now-glowing coals. Lanessa met the warrior's tense gaze with an open expression. The blue eyes locked with hers, darted away, then rose again, this time guarded and wary.

"Yes, I'd love some," Xena said, holding the mug out to let Lanessa refill its contents. She put the full vessel on the table, clasping both hands around the warm, soothing texture. Lanessa refilled her own cup, replaced the kettle over the fire and returned to her seat in the rocking chair. She kept her eyes on the warrior's haunted expression.

Xena blew into the steaming mug, took a mouthful of the fragrant tea and raised her eyes to meet those of her oldest and most trustworthy friend. Lanessa's expression was tender, understanding and, as always, somewhat disturbing to the warrior in the depth of its awareness.

Painfully the warrior's mind replayed the recent staggering events which had so grimly brought the paths of their lives together again .... how Lanessa had offered her peace, solace and comfort after the excruciating agony of the bard's unselfish sacrifice and apparent death. Xena remembered how loyal and supportive her faithful friend had been during the harrowing process which had followed ... the warrior's obvious devastation and self-debasing remorse.

The gentlewoman's tender, but firm insistence that the warrior reclaim her spirit and return to her pursuit of the redeeming quest she had set for herself had been the most determining factor in the eventual restoration of the warrior's essence. Lanessa's help in the completion of Xena's bizarre plot with .. and ultimate conquest over .. Ares, the ever-conniving god of war had not only been welcome, it had proven to be essential .... and was provided with the utmost trust and compliance.

Lanessa's senses detected the return of the warrior's usual reticence. She decided to take the proverbial 'bull' by the 'horns', so to speak. She cleared her throat and spoke to the silent warrior.

"Gabrielle's looking well," Lanessa said diplomatically, a small grin lighting her open expression.

Xena’s glance fell again on the door to the adjacent bedroom. "She's perfect," the warrior said quietly, her blue eyes remaining on the closed portal. "Considering what she's been through .. what she's had to ... endure ... just because she's my ...."

"Perfect?" Lanessa interjected, her tone slightly laconic. The warrior's gaze was quickly drawn back to the woman's brown pools. "Xena, I hardly think even Gabrielle would

describe herself as 'perfect'." The gentle chastisement was tempered by Lanessa's loving smile. Still the warrior's expression was somewhat surprised.

"She's extremely devoted to you," Lanessa stated. She glanced idly at the adjoining doorway. "She has a great deal of respect for you and a fierce loyalty to her best friend." Lanessa turned her attention back to the warrior. "It's true ... Gabrielle is an extremely intelligent, very brave young woman with an undeniable sense of honor and integrity." Lanessa's brown gaze grew serious. She sent a gentle challenge at the tall woman's steady gaze. The warrior's expression softened slightly.

Xena's azure pools remained focused on the gentlewoman's sincere countenance. "Yes, she is," the warrior said. "No matter what has happened between us in the last .... since the last time we were here." Xena's gaze swept back toward the small bedroom. "Gabrielle is the most honorable person I've ever known."

"But, when all is said and done, she's still a human being .. with all the flaws and insufficiencies we all must endure." Lanessa's eyes held the warrior's. She waited until her old friend had recovered a modicum of poise.

"I know that, too," Xena said stiffly. "All I meant was ...."

"And all I mean is, it's very unfair of you to expect Gabrielle to be 'perfect'," the petite woman continued. "Very unfair, indeed."

Xena's jaw clenched tightly as she turned her body toward the small form sitting casually in the rocking chair. She could feel her temper rising. "I don't expect her to be anything other than what she is," the warrior said, her voice irritated.

"Surely Gabrielle doesn't expect you to be perfect," Lanessa continued smoothly, tilting her auburn head at the warrior's scowl. "I think she ... knows better," the woman said. "And loves you anyway."

The warrior's body relaxed when her old friend's true intentions became specifically clear; the smooth, stoic face softened as a subtle blush covered the bronze expression.

"Very clever, Lanessa," Xena said quietly. The slender hostess' grin grew slowly. "As usual, you're quite ... observant." The two friends silently exchanged appreciative looks. Finally, a quiet smile tempered the warrior's gaze. "OK ... I get it," she told her friend.

Lanessa rose from the rocking chair and crossed the short distance to the table. She set the mug she held down on the wooden surface, drawing her long shawl around her slender body as she moved. When she stood next to the warrior, she put one small hand on the tall woman's shoulder. Xena looked up into her old friend's kind expression.

"You've both been through an incredible ordeal," Lanessa said. "And from what Gabrielle tells me, you've just had another rather challenging 'adventure'." She saw the agony travel across the warrior's golden face. "Give yourself some time .. and Gabrielle, as well." The warrior covered the hand on her shoulder. "You're so close, mean so much to each other." The warrior gulped. "Even so, I think you both need time to examine your feelings .. and to let your ... spirits heal."

Lanessa studied the warrior's troubled expression. Her perceptive awareness told her both guests in her home were enduring a dreadful crisis of faith, one that seemed to threaten each woman's very essence as well as their unshakable faith and trust in each other. Her heart ached for the anguish she saw in their faces; yet she knew the only avenue for the end of discomfort for both was through the other.

Xena drew in a very deep breath and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, she sent a brave smile at the caring gaze of the woman before her. Without realizing it, she changed her focus to the door of the small bedroom, the room where she knew Gabrielle slept, the room where her best friend waited. The warrior tried to ignore her own anxious feelings.

"Well, it's late," Lanessa said, moving briskly to the mantle over the wide fireplace. She cupped her hand around the large candle flickering there and blew out the flame before carrying the matching taper to the counter beside the hearth. The warrior rose from the bench and accepted the shorter candlestick her hostess handed her. She watched as Lanessa lit the candle from the one she held. The small woman gave the warrior a gentle hug.

"You need some rest," Lanessa told the warrior. "I'll see you in the morning." She moved toward the other bedroom. Xena turned to face the smaller woman.

"Goodnight," Lanessa said.

"Goodnight, Lanessa," the warrior answered, sheltering the candle's flame with her free hand. "And thanks again." When she reached the door, Xena quietly lifted the latch, opened the panel and entered the bedroom.


Chapter Four ~~~

The warrior was only slightly surprised at the sight that greeted her inside the 'guest' bedroom; the first thing she saw was the bard ... standing quietly at the small window, her long sleeping shift partially covered by the new shawl Lanessa had fashioned for her. Moonlight streamed through the windowframe, surrounding the young blonde in a translucent, milky glow. Gabrielle turned from the window when she heard her partner's footfalls behind her.

"I thought you were going to sleep?" the warrior said, a gentle question in her tone. She set the candle down next to the one on the end of the wooden chest.

"I got all ready ... was even in bed for a while," the bard answered. "Then I decided I'd try working on a new story I've been wrestling with," the girl said, a thin smile lighting the young face. She looked down at the quill pen and section of parchment still clutched in her hands.

"Oh," Xena said, feeling her nervousness deepen. "How's it going?"

Gabrielle's eyes remained on the crumpled papyrus. After a moment, she turned to face the warrior's worried expression. Xena's throat clenched at the deep level of pain in the eyes of her soulmate.

"It isn’t," Gabrielle murmured softly. "I just can't seem to ... make it work, anymore." The bard studied the warrior's stricken look for a moment before turning back to the window. "I can't do it, Xena. Something's gone from inside me," Gabrielle said, her voice sad and pathetic. "It's all ... gone."

"Gabrielle," Xena said, crossing the room to lay a soothing hand on the young woman's shoulder. "Give yourself a chance." She watched the torment stiffen the bard's jaw. "After all, you spent time in ... a rather unusual place." The green eyes met the warrior's loving gaze. "And then that bastard, Malicon ...." Xena gently touched the girl's cheek. She forced herself to relax her jaw.

"As Lanessa just reminded me .... we've both been through some rather ... scary things." The warrior's shaky laugh pulled the bard's gaze to hers. "It's just going to take some time for you to ... find your rhythm again."

Gabrielle moved away from her position near the window and strode slowly toward the wooden bench standing against the wall behind them. She sat down wearily, letting out a loud, exasperated sigh. Xena turned to face her companion. Part of her wanted nothing more than to gather the little bard into her arms to offer comfort and support. Yet, her own confusion and self-doubt held her firmly in place a long step away from the bench.

Gabrielle fingered the blank parchment, smoothing the expanse of material across her lap. The blonde head traveled from side to side. "But how long will that take, Xena?" the girl asked in a plaintive voice. She raised a tear-filled gaze to meet the warrior's. "It's been nearly half a season since ..." The bard's voice caught in her throat. "... since we left Poteidaia and ... what happened there." Xena's stomach tightened under her ribcage. "How much longer will it be before ....?"

A quiet knock on the bedroom door pulled both women's attention to the panel. The warrior turned smoothly toward the opening, automatically placing herself between the door and the seated bard. After another moment, the door opened halfway to reveal Lanessa's rather apologetic expression, her delicate features illuminated by the light of the thick candle in her hand..

"Xena, I'm sorry to disturb you," the petite woman said, her eyes absently noticing the fact that the bard was not only still awake, but was now awaiting her explanation for the unscheduled interruption. She chose to ignore the motion of the girl's hand wiping her face.

"Lanessa?" Xena asked. "What's wrong?"

"We have a bit of an emergency brewing here," Lanessa answered calmly. "I have a mare about to foal at any moment and it seems ...." The woman paused and stepped completely into the room. "I'm afraid she's coming in breech. I could use your help, if you wouldn't mind."

The warrior cast a quick look at the bard. Gabrielle's expression was typically understanding.

"Go," she said succinctly, rising from the bench and depositing the scroll and quill on the bed. "Anything I can do?"

"We'll need lots of clean, hot water," Lanessa told her, sending the bard an appreciative grin. "And a new pot of tea." The girl returned her smile. Lanessa turned to the warrior again. "I'll be in the shed ... whenever you're ready." She turned and left the room.

Xena and Gabrielle followed after the bard had retrieved the larger candlestick from the top of the wooden chest, blowing out the short taper as they walked back into the kitchen. The warrior smoothly exchanged the shawl around her shoulders for the heavier woolen cloak on the peg near the door. As she tied the laces at the neck and pulled the hood up over her head, she addressed the bard who was already adding kindling to the waning fire.

"Gabrielle," the warrior began, "about your story ...."

Gabrielle sent a warm smile toward her partner's blue gaze. "We can talk about it later," she told the taller woman. "Go on, Lanessa's waiting." The girl's green eyes were obliging. "Go ... she needs you." The bard picked up another sturdy candle from the table and offered it to the warrior.

Xena's eyes lingered on the face of her soulmate for another moment before she accepted the candlestick, turned and slid open the heavy bolt on the front door, marching through the opening and pulling the panel closed behind her. By then, Gabrielle's attention had already shifted to adding several small logs to the growing fire.

Xena turned to face the icy wind swirling across the open yard. She slid the candlestick under her arm, then pulled her cape closed at the neck with one hand while the other shielded her eyes from the ricocheting particles pummeling her face. The bright moonlight illuminated the snow-covered yard and the warrior trudged purposefully toward the outbuilding, easily following the imprints of Lanessa's slender footprints in the glistening covering. Xena tried to concentrate on the task awaiting her inside the shed, but her mind remained focused on the young blonde woman in the cottage across the yard.


As soon as Xena entered the shed, the candlelight flickering from the lighted taper on the sturdy shelf at the side of the shed clearly displayed why Lanessa had requested her help. The petite healer was valiantly trying to calm a very agitated rust-colored mare, the horse's swollen belly showing obvious signs of her impending delivery. The warrior stood as still as possible, recognizing the fact that limiting her activity in such a way would offer less of a distraction to the animal and would also assist Lanessa's efforts to reduce the mare's visible anxiety.

In spite of Lanessa's gentle ministrations, the animal remained restless and frightened. She paced about the stall, moving first toward the feed bin positioned at the front of the cubicle then backing nervously away from the fodder. She repeatedly swung her head around to look at her own flanks and pranced in circles, her eyes darting apprehensively from Lanessa to the warrior and finally to the middle-aged man whose thick, pudgy form eventually appeared above the wooden rails of the narrow enclosure. The man mimicked Lanessa's soothing chant as he stroked the mare's quivering hide.

After a few moments, the horse seemed to calm down and appeared less jittery. Without changing her focus from the animal's face, Lanessa addressed the tall dark-haired warrior. "Xena, I think you know Silvanus," she said, indicating the round man holding the mare's halter. The man returned the warrior's nod.

"And this lady's name is Ma'ia," Lanessa informed her old friend. Xena's practiced gaze swept over the mare's trembling form. "She's about to throw her first foal and she’s going to need our help."

Xena slowly moved away from the door and carefully touched the wick of her candle to the flame dancing atop the one standing on the shelf. She placed the candlestick next to it's twin, then positioned herself next to the heavyset villager, gently replacing his grip on the halter with her own. She began to repeat the same low, soothing murmur being performed by the small, slender healer rubbing the horse's neck.

"Easy, girl," the warrior crooned. "You'll be fine ... it's OK. Take it easy."

After a few more moments, Ma'ia's trembling lessened and the furtive, anxious gaze began to recede from the large, soft brown eyes. She began to respond to Lanessa's gentle mantra. The three humans breathed a sigh of relief. Xena released her hold on the mare's halter and turned to the man she recognized as one of the town's merchants.

"Hello, Silvanus," she said, waiting somewhat nervously for the man's response.

"Evening, Xena," the man said, his voice smooth and quiet. The man's gaze was receptive, his manner cordial. He even favored the warrior with a small, tenuous smile. He held out a square, weathered palm and the warrior grasped it. "Good to see you again," he said to her slightly surprised expression. "Sorry to interrupt your visit but ... Ma'ia here is my best mare. And she's my daughter's pride and joy." Silvanus slowly stroked the mare's silvery mane while his round, bearded face slowly creased in a happy grin.

"Say, you know what?" the merchant said, shifting his gaze from the warrior to the horse and back again. "It's really a lucky thing you're here," he told her. "Now I know Ma'ia's gonna get the best help possible."

Lanessa's gentle laugh filled the small shed. The sound distracted the man's gaze long enough for the warrior to roll her eyes and recover her stoic demeanor. She took advantage of the interruption to accept the lead rope from Silvanus' hand and carefully slipped the halter off over the horse's ears. She hung the bridle from the large peg set in the corner of the stall and addressed the rotund merchant as she assessed the mare's condition.

"She's a fine looking animal, Silvanus," she told the man, running her hands over the mare's protruding stomach. "We'll do our best to see that she gets through this ... you have my word on that."

Silvanus watched the warrior's self-assured movements. His observations reinforced his confidence in the tall woman's capabilities and, more importantly, convinced him of her compassion for the animal. He turned a confident smile to the gentle healer now stroking the mare's face.

"Thanks, Lanessa .... Xena," he said, drawing his heavy cloak around his wide middle. "I'll check back with you in the morning. Anything else you need from me?"

"Just one thing," Xena said, meeting the man's gaze. He turned to her attentively. "On your way back to your place, would you let the young woman in the cottage know what's happening? Tell her everything's going all right, for now." The warrior's blue eyes were sincere.

Silvanus tied the belt of his cloak and nodded his head. "My pleasure," he told the warrior. He sent a grateful glance toward Lanessa, turned and left the shed, pausing only long enough to make sure the heavy door had closed securely.

Xena resumed her examination of the mare's burgeoning figure. When she was satisfied with her findings, she met Lanessa's questioning gaze as she leaned across the horse's back.

"You were right," she told the petite healer. "We've got a breech presentation here ... and she's really wound tight about it."

Lanessa continued her gentle stroking of the mare's neck. She smiled warmly at her oldest friend. The two women shared a silent decision; it would take all their combined experience and talents to perform the imminent delivery. And it would more than likely take the rest of the night to accomplish the deed. Blue eyes and brown displayed determination ... and a commitment. It was now time for preparations.


Gabrielle picked up the shawl the warrior had dropped onto one end of the wooden table. She pressed the woolen garment against her face, reveling in the mixture of scents already imbedded in the fabric ... a combination of leather, the pine soap the warrior always used to wash her hair and the slight metallic smell that clung to the tall woman's armor. The girl's face lit in a loving grin as she also recognized the sweet, subtle fragrances that were uniquely Xena. It was impossible to describe precisely, yet the girl knew it was undeniably the aroma of her closest, most important, most cherished friend. The response brought a tightness to the girl's throat ... and caused a desperate, shattering panic to rise up in her chest.

Gabrielle sat down in the rocking chair positioned next to the stony hearth in Lanessa's kitchen. She glanced absently at the flames dancing on the brick hearth, her attention only partially on the steam rising from the large, metal caldron she'd placed over the fire. The bard swallowed hard when visions of another wall of flames ravaged her memory.

The young blonde shuddered as the sickening recollections tumbled about in her brain ... Hope .. her beautiful child .. the aching disappointment ... her childish dreams ... the agony of realizing the child she'd borne was indeed a demon in the true image of the evil god who had sired her. The bard's eyes filled with tears at the tormenting responsibility she still felt for Hope's callous murder of Xena's son .. dear, sweet Solan .. her best friend's charming, precious, innocent son.

And then there was her betrayal ... the selfish breach of faith in the woman whose friendship she treasured above all others ... her loathsome submission to the manipulations of the deceitful god of war ... her blind conviction in her own noble motives ... and the agonizing recognition of the true reason for her actions.

Gabrielle knew she would freely give anything she possessed ... anything that was asked of her ... to have the events of the past swept away ... to make them not have happened. In her head, she knew that wasn't possible ...they had happened and there was no denying those facts. Now, all she could hope for was to have the pain in her heart recede enough to make that grief somehow ... bearable. The most important thing was to reduce the gnawing, paralyzing guilt she felt and the anguish she saw mirrored in the face of her treasured companion.

The young blonde wrapped her arms around the folded shawl and pulled the garment close to her chest, drawing a deep comfort from the material's recent proximity to her best friend. Images of the tall warrior swept through her memory. She reveled in the intensity of the deep affection she felt for the brave, heroic, tormented woman with whom she had chosen to spend her life .... and who now seemed determined to put an end to the most endearing, most important relationship of her young life.

"Xena," the bard addressed her absent soulmate. "I know you think separating us is what's best for me." Large, heavy tears traveled over the girl's smooth face. "But how can that be true when leaving you would surely break my heart into so many pieces, I'm sure it would end my life on this earth .. forever this time?" Gabrielle drew in a long breath.

"Well," the girl said softly. "I'm just going to have to convince you otherwise, that's all." The young blonde straightened her shoulders as her chin lifted purposefully. "You always said I was almost as stubborn as you are." A small smile lit the youthful features. "So, you don't get rid of me that easily ... my brave warrior friend. Not if I have anything to say on the subject."

Gabrielle stood up with a purpose and started toward the small bedroom. Her progress was interrupted by the knock sounding against the door of the cabin. The girl pulled her shawl around her shoulders, wiped away the tears lingering on her face with one hand and, after laying the folded shawl on the wooden table, strode toward the doorway. Her hand

automatically claimed her staff from the corner beside the door. She lifted the latch and opened the panel, revealing the bright, friendly eyes of the rotund, snow-covered figure now filling the door frame.

"Hello," Silvanus said, pulling at the muffler covering the bottom half of his face. "Xena asked me to deliver a message ... she's in the barn with Lanessa?"

Gabrielle motioned the man into the room. "Yes, yes ... come in," she beckoned, opening the door wider and stepping backwards to allow the merchant to enter. When he was inside, she closed the heavy door behind him and returned her staff to its resting place in the corner. "Is everything OK out there?" the girl asked, turning back to the merchant. She waited while Silvanus pulled the colorful muffler farther away from his cherubic expression.

"She's fine," he told the bard, his round, face bright and content. "She .. ah .. she just wanted me to tell you ... she's helping Lanessa look after my horse .. Ma'ia. She's just about to foal and ah ...." The plump fellow stopped talking and laughed heartily. "The mare, I meant ... not Xena." He laughed again, laying a wet glove on the bard's arm. Her laugh answered his, in spite of the silliness of his remark.

"I understand," Gabrielle giggled, nodding in agreement. "Well, thanks for telling me....?" She tilted her blonde head at the man's cheerful face.

"Silvanus," the man supplied, holding out his hand. The bard took the damp glove and smiled at its owner. "I'm the boot lack here in Amphipolis .. Ma'ia's my little girl's horse. That mare means the world to my Egeria .. just the world to her." Silvanus smiled again, reacting to the warmth in the bard's green gaze.

"At any rate," the merchant said, pulling his cloak closer around his stout form. "Xena wanted me to tell you ... they're tending to the mare and ... ah ... I guess she just wanted you to know things are going OK, for the moment."

Gabrielle waited. When she was sure the man had completed his mission, she gently guided him back toward the doorway. "Well, thank you, Silvanus," she told him, her hand on one glistening cloth-covered elbow. "I appreciate you delivering Xena's message. I'm sure your mare is in good hands." The merchant nodded with her as she patted his shoulder.

"Oh, I'm sure she is, too." Silvanus pulled the muffler back up around his face. "Well, good night to you then, ah ...." His bushy brows, barely visible above the woolen wrapping, rose in an inquiry.

"Gabrielle," the bard supplied. "And thanks, again."

Silvanus raised a gloved hand, touched the girl's arm, turned toward the doorway and pulled open the wooden panel. Gabrielle watched him go, then closed the door behind his fading figure. She leaned against the heavy door for a moment before repositioning the shawl over her shoulders and returning to her work at the fireplace.

"Saving unborn foals in trouble ... another of her many skills, no doubt," the bard said to the leaping flames. An unexpected idea set the green eyes twinkling. "I think they really need some more tea right now." The young woman smiled contentedly as she pulled off the top of the small kettle, filled the pot with water and carefully deposited a small mound of dried leaves in the caldron. She replaced the lid, swung the pot back over the dancing fire and brushed her hands together. After giving the tea kettle an approving glance, the girl turned and walked toward the small bedroom, pulling the shawl away from her shoulders as she went.


Chapter Five ~~~

Inside the small shed, the warrior and her slender friend were silently observing the behavior of the chestnut mare now entrusted to their care. The animal was exhibiting all the normal behavior of an equine in the early stages of labor ... she paced about the stall, only slightly hindered by the closeness of the sides of the enclosure, that movement interrupted occasionally by small, distracted bites from the bin of fodder which Lanessa had placed at the front of the cubicle. Next the horse spent several minutes using her front legs to paw at the straw bedding spread over the wooden floor, in many respects resembling a huge, rust-colored bird preparing a new nest.

Xena watched the young mare's activity calmly, her long arms looped casually over the side of the stall. Her blue eyes followed the animal's movements, a small, contented smile lighting the warrior's bronze face.

"Do those markings over her eyes look familiar?" Lanessa asked, referring to the little chestnut’s delicate face.

The warrior looked closely at the platinum patches forming a curved pattern under the young mare’s silvery forelock.

"She’s out of Clytie," the small healer said. "The sire was a palomino from the village just north of here.

The tall warrior gave her old friend a little smile, then addressed the golden mare in the stall next to the one in which the expectant mother pranced.

"Argo," Xena said to the great steed. "You're about to become a great-grandmother."

Argo turned her brown eyes toward the subject of her mistress' comment, emitting a gentle warbling whinny. Ma'ia responded subtly to the older mare's advice, momentarily interrupting her nervous dance to turn her attention toward the other horse. Xena and Lanessa exchanged a knowing glance.

"That's it, Argo," the slim healer instructed. "Talk to her ... tell her it'll be all right."

The palomino proceeded to do exactly that by smoothly lowering her head over the side of the stall and putting her soft muzzle close to the chestnut's twitching ears. A quiet, soothing neighing emerged from the golden neck, its timber and cadence echoing within the stable in temperate understanding. The trembling chestnut slowly quieted ...responding directly to the gentle sounds of her ancestor's influence.

The two women watched the exchange, as always deeply moved by the majestic dignity displayed by the two animals, each offering quiet homage to the scene she felt privileged to witness. When the ritual was finished, the warrior turned to her lifelong friend, acknowledging the open look of reverence in the slender woman's eyes. She returned the smaller woman's quiet grin.

Eventually, the subtle magic ended as the two animals finished their conversation. Argo returned her attention to the fodder bin at the head of her stall and the younger mare appeared to spend several moments in quiet contemplation. The two humans relaxed somewhat. Finally, the warrior stepped back from her vantage point and turned to the smaller woman at her side.

"Well," she told Lanessa. "She seems quiet for the time being."

Lanessa reached to stroke the palomino's silky golden neck. "Good work, Argo," she murmured. "You've helped us a great deal," she told the mare. "Now we can help her. Thanks, girl." She rubbed the animal's great, golden face with one small hand.

Xena watched the woman with the same admiration she always felt when in the small healer's presence. She knew she would never find another whose soul was quite as humane as her special friend's. The tall woman let her eyes linger on the lovely picture for a moment before changing her focus to the small cottage visible through the window in the side of the shed. Her mind formed an image of the one other person from whom she drew the same inspiration ... and whose essence she treasured in its own unique manner. The blue eyes showed her deep affection for her blonde best friend.

It took the sound of Lanessa's gentle voice to bring the warrior out of her private reverie. Abruptly, she realized the woman was awaiting her answer; she also had to admit she hadn't heard the question.

"I'm sorry," she said to the healer's brown gaze. "What did you ask me?"

Lanessa moved from her position next to the stall that held Argo to the side of the cubicle nearest the warrior, pulling her shawl around herself as she approached her tall friend.

"I said, do you think tergic powder would help keep her calm?" Lanessa's eyes were filled with compassion while her tone remained openly matter of fact. She waited patiently while the warrior attempted to regain her concentration. Xena felt the warm blush slowly creep over her face as the small woman's knowing glance traveled over her expression.

"Yeah," Xena answered quietly. "I think ... um .. that would be my choice." Her gaze held a silent thank you at the woman's unspoken understanding.

"And perhaps we should bring Gabrielle up to date on what's happening?" Lanessa said with a sly smile. "I'm sure she's wondering how we're doing."

A small grin softened Xena's stoic gaze as she accepted Lanessa's gentle teasing. One dark eyebrow disappeared under the raven bangs decorating the warrior's forehead. She returned her friend's impish smile.

"Yes, I'm sure her curiosity will soon give her a reason to join us," the warrior quipped. "If I know my young friend, she's trying to figure a way to come out here and share the ‘fun’."

At precisely that moment, the door to the shed swung open and a slim, snow-covered figure, its form shrouded in a short, hooded cape and woolen leggings, passed through the doorway, tugged the wooden panel closed and turned to face the two women staring at the opening. One small hand emerged from the folds of the garment and pushed back the hood to reveal the bard's cheerful, rosy-cheeked countenance.

"Hi," the girl chirped brightly. "I figured you could use some warm tea about now." The folds of her cape parted to display the small, copper tea kettle, its metal handle grasped firmly in the little blonde's mittened hand. Gabrielle's other hand disappeared under the cape again, reappearing a moment later holding a small, cloth bag which she held out triumphantly.

"I brought the mugs, too. Want some? It's fresh and hot!"

An instant of silence was broken almost immediately by the hearty laughter bubbling from the warrior and her slender friend. The two women chuckled in amusement which was soon compounded by the thoroughly bewildered look on Gabrielle's face. After enjoying a long moment of genuine pleasure, the warrior stepped closer to her partner and engulfed the trim form in a loving hug.

"Ah ... wha ...?" Gabrielle asked as Lanessa relieved her of the kettle and the warrior accepted the bag containing the mugs. The girl grinned uncertainly at the small gentlewoman before turning to her tall, blue-eyed friend. Xena pulled the bard close again, resting her chin against the girl's blonde head.

"Gee," Gabrielle laughed. "If I'd have known I'd get this sort of reception, I'd have been out here a lot sooner." She let her arm circle the warrior's slender waist and looked up at her best friend's relaxed expression. "Everything OK?" the girl asked tentatively, still pleasantly surprised at the tall woman's unsolicited show of affection.

Xena's cobalt gaze was tender on the young blonde's face. She rested her arm on the girl's slim shoulders and turned to respond to Lanessa's gentle giggle. "One thing about my young friend here," the warrior chortled. "She always knows when's the best time for some nice, hot tea."

With that, the two older women again dissolved into hearty laughter while the young blonde's face continued to show her confusion. Within moments Gabrielle decided, whatever the reason, the music of the warrior's laughter was a welcome sound, a sound she had missed hearing for a long, long time. The bard was so happy at its return, her giggles were soon blending with the joyful activity.

When the trio had regained their composure, Lanessa deposited the tea kettle on the short stool sitting next to the wall of the shed. She pulled her colorful shawl up over her head as she addressed the tall dark-haired warrior.

"I'll go mix the tergic while you introduce our young friend to the mother-to-be." The bard's bright gaze swung to the chestnut horse. "I think she can help keep her calm."

The warrior's gaze followed the bard's short trip across the barn. As she watched, Gabrielle slowly approached the nervous animal, extending one small hand toward the mare's head. The horse allowed the girl's tender touch, even welcoming the young woman's gentle ministrations.

"Hello, Ma'ia," the girl crooned. "Your baby's coming very soon." The rust-colored horse neighed softly. "Don't be frightened," Gabrielle said, stroking the lovely, white-blazed face. "My two friends here know just what to do. You'll be fine."

Xena's dark head moved slowly from side to side, a proud expression warming the bronze countenance. She smiled openly as she watched the mare instinctively respond to the young blonde. 'They know an honest heart when they meet one,' the warrior thought. 'They can always see the nobility.' A moment later, the tall woman felt Lanessa's gentle touch on her arm.

"I'll be back shortly," the small woman told her friend. "I think we'd better get settled ... this could take a while." The warrior nodded in silent agreement. Her blue eyes met Lanessa's soft brown gaze.

"D'you need me to ...?" Xena began.

"No, no," Lanessa assured her. "I'll only be a few minutes." She raised the edge of her shawl to cover her head. "I'll let you know if I need an extra set of arms. OK?" She pulled the woven wrapping around her slender waist, turned and left the shed. The warrior turned her attention back to the scene in the stall.


Chapter Six ~~~

Xena looped the strap of the canvas bag over the large wooden peg set into the round post at the end of the stall. She retrieved two of the earthen mugs clattering within the bag, and grasping the two handles in one hand, poured the fragrant tea from the kettle into the containers. When the mugs were full, she replaced the kettle on the short stool, took one cup in each hand and turned to watch the bard's gentle caressing of the chestnut mare's thick neck. The warrior sipped the tea from the cup in her right hand.

"Sweet girl," Gabrielle crooned to the horse, running her fingers through the animal's silvery mane. She met the tall woman's blue gaze for a moment before turning again to the petite, rust-colored face. "Everything's gonna be OK, you'll see," she told the horse. The mare nudged her soft muzzle against the girl's hand.

The warrior studied the young blonde's wistful expression. There was something very reminiscent in the girl's manner, in her swift affinity with the sorrel. Xena's senses prickled with awareness. She watched her soulmate with renewed affection.

"She's beautiful, Xena," Gabrielle said, her eyes still on the horse's face. "Are you and Lanessa going to be able to save the baby?"

"Technically it’s a ‘foal’," Xena replied, a tender smile on the golden face. "We'll do everything we can ... Lanessa's had a lot of experience in this sort of thing." The warrior took another sip of tea. The azure gaze swept over the blonde woman's attire. "You changed into your leggings," she said. Gabrielle glanced down at her own legs, then back to the warrior's face, a small grin curling one corner of her smile.

"I thought ... with the snow ...." the girl explained.

Xena nodded in understanding. "Good thinking," she commented. "I may be in mine too, by the time we get done." She handed the bard the other steaming mug. "Here, this'll help with the chill, too."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said, holding the earthen vessel between her hands. "I hope I got the mixture right." The bard sipped from the cup.

"Tastes fine to me," the warrior told her. "Of course, it's a little smoother than we're used to," the woman quipped, her blue eyes meeting the bard's over the rim of her cup. The two women shared an affectionate smile. Then the bard turned back to the mare in the stall behind her. Xena saw the nostalgia return to the girl's expression. A subtle thought glided into the warrior's mind.

"What is it?" the tall woman asked gently. She watched as the green pools closed slowly. A moment later, they swept up to meet hers. "You thinking about Tympany?"

A warm smile lit the bard's face as she gazed fondly at her partner. "You're really something, you know that? How did you know?"

"Because I know you," the warrior answered, a little grin matching her companion's. "And, there's only one other horse I know you've been ... associated with ... besides that one." The blue eyes glanced at the golden mare in the other narrow stall. Her eyes traveled back to the

blonde's. "Besides," she paused. "She bonded with you right away." Gabrielle sent a gentle smile toward the chestnut.

"Yes, she looks very much like Tympany," the girl admitted softly. "The same silvery mane ...." She turned back to the warrior. "And she was that color, too ...." Gabrielle gazed at the smaller mare. "Like a copper tea kettle ... soft and shiny." Gabrielle patted the warm hide.

Xena saw the hurt behind the green pools. "You never told me ... whatever happened to her?"

The blonde head bent, apparently studying the contents of the steaming mug. Finally, the girl spoke. "She died while giving birth," Gabrielle murmured, finally raising her eyes to meet the warrior's. "Father ... and the local blacksmith ... tried to help her. At first it seemed like everything was going along fine, but ...." The girl swallowed slowly, blinking against the tears welling in her eyes. She lowered her gaze to the cup again. "They just didn’t know enough about what to do, I guess. " The warrior recognized the girl's sadness.

"We lost the foal, too." Gabrielle blinked away the tears that still appeared whenever she thought of that very sad night. "But then, they didn't have your 'many skills'," Gabrielle quipped softly, a warm smile displacing the sadness. "You, on the other hand, are ... very talented in that activity." The green eyes twinkled at the warrior's subtle embarrassment. "Right?"

Xena took a slow breath, basking in the warmth of the smaller woman's affection. "We'll do our best for her, I promise you that." The bard's grin widened. "But ... this is always ... tricky ... in the best situation, it's a matter of ..." The warrior's words trailed away when she saw the look of infinite faith in the girl's verdant gaze. Gabrielle's smile was trusting, supportive.

"I know you will ... and you'll bring that ba ..." The girl giggled softly. "Sorry ... the 'foal'," she amended. "... into the world safe and sound." The blonde head nodded firmly. "I'm sure of it."

The warrior let out a long breath, her dark head traveling from side to side. "Gabrielle ...." the tall woman began.

Her attention was abruptly diverted by the chestnut's unexpected change in attitude. All at once, the mare began prancing again, a hoarse, nervous whinny escaping from her throat. Ma'ia's head swung around to inspect her burgeoning flanks. The brown eyes were wide and frightened, the rust-colored ears twitched nervously. The two women turned toward the anxious animal.

Xena thrust her mug into the bard's hands and the girl quickly stepped out of the way as the warrior moved to stand near the mare's head. She wrapped one long arm under the horse's chin and stroked the chestnut's neck. "Easy, girl," the warrior chanted quietly. "Calm down, lady. Calm down."

Gabrielle crossed the barn to deposit the mugs of tea on the stool next to the kettle. When she turned back to the stall, she saw the urgency in the warrior's expression. Almost before she heard the terse instructions, the bard had started toward the door of the barn.

"Gabrielle, get Lanessa back out here," the warrior ordered. She was only slightly aware of the girl's rapid exit from the shed because her attention remained on the sorrel mare's frantic activity.

"C'mon, Sweetie," the warrior pleaded, using her strength to keep the animal from inflicting damage to herself. "You have to settle down. I promised Gabrielle we'd get you through this." She sidestepped the horse's dancing hooves and tightened her grip around the animal's neck.

"Oww ... dammit!" the warrior grunted as her shoulder was slammed against the side of the stall. She pushed back with a determined shove.

"Argo!" Xena shouted. "You can help me out here anytime!" The tall woman shoved with all her strength, forcing the smaller mare sideways and backwardss away from the corner of the stall. "ARGO!"

A loud, shrill whinny rattled against the walls of the wooden building as the palomino responded to her mistress' command. The golden horse thrust her head over the wooden rails of the nearby stall, firmly addressing her frantic descendant. The chestnut's eyes were wide and panicky ... she focused on the other mare's features. A raucous snort was expelled by the sorrel, clearly in defiance of the older animal's urgings.

A noisy, boisterous argument ensued as Argo and Ma'ia exchanged several pointed statements of opinion. Finally the elder equine's maturity seemed to prevail as the young mother-to-be began to respond to the palomino's soothing influence. After what seemed like a long conversation to the warrior, the two animals quieted, the golden mare continuing her comforting nicker until the rust-colored animal's desperate frenzy had subsided.

Xena waited until the sorrel's manner had returned to a semblance of tranquillity before she released the coppery neck and stepped away from the horse. She pushed back the strands of dark hair which had been shaken onto her forehead during her scuffle with the pregnant mare. Xena patted the thick neck one more time and turned her gaze to the golden steed in the next stall.

"Thanks, Argo," she panted. "But the next time, don’t wait so long, huh?" Argo guffawed impatiently then went back to the fodder in the bin beneath her nose. The warrior took a deep breath and left the chestnut's stall, rubbing the sore spot in her shoulder as she crossed to the small window in the side of the barn. The warrior spent a long, pensive moment staring out at the moonlight streaming through the dust-covered pane. The tall woman spoke quietly to the glistening landscape.

"Here we go," Xena whispered. "She's counting on me to make this happen." She continued to massage her shoulder. "She’s put her trust in me again." The warrior pivoted to study the chestnut's bulging form. "So ... we're going to do that, aren't we Ma'ia?" the tall woman said, a quiet determination in her voice. "We're not going to let Gabrielle down ...." She slowly walked back to the copper-hued horse. "Right?"

Ma'ia's brown eyes were nervous, yet trusting. The warrior smiled warmly. "Yup .. we're gonna get this done."

Argo whinnied confidently.


Chapter Seven ~~~

Before Gabrielle had traveled halfway across the snow-covered yard, she looked up to find Lanessa heading toward her. One of the small woman's hands pulled the edges of her shawl tight under her chin as she struggled with a large kettle which hung from her other outstretched arm. Gabrielle hurried to meet her and relieved her of the iron cauldron.

"Xena said to come and ..." the girl panted.

Without waiting to hear the rest of the bard's message, Lanessa moved past her, quickening her pace as she went. Gabrielle turned to follow, using both hands to try and transport the kettle without spilling the sloshing contents onto the snow in the process. They soon arrived back at the shed. Lanessa pulled open the door, waiting only the moment it took for Gabrielle to enter behind her. Together, they anxiously scanned the interior for signs of the warrior and her charge.

Xena turned to face the two women, raising one slender hand in a quiet warning. Lanessa let her shawl fall away from her head, her brown eyes surveying the young mare with a knowing glint. The slender healer slowly advanced toward the still nervous animal, extending one small hand toward the horse's wavering head.

"Ma'ia," the small female said, her voice soft and relaxed. "You must remain calm, my dear," Lanessa murmured. "Slow and steady ... that's the way." She carefully stroked the rust-colored head. "Easy ... easy does it." The small mare's manner quieted even more as Lanessa continued the gentle massage. Finally she raised her eyes to meet the warrior's.

Xena stepped closer to the stall, one hand still in place on her throbbing shoulder. "Things have sped up a bit in the last half candlemark," she told her friend. "She's not going to be patient much longer."

"I agree," Lanessa said calmly. "The tergic is ready."

Xena turned to follow the nod Lanessa had directed at the bard who still held the large iron kettle. She took the pot from Gabrielle, wincing slightly as the weight of the liquid in the container pulled at the soreness in her shoulder. She smoothly ignored the concern in the bard's gaze as the green eyes clearly recognized the subtle signs of the tall woman's discomfort. But when Xena tried to lift the pot to pour the contents into the metal trough at the front of the stall, she found she had to lower the container and take a quick breath before attempting to lift the canister again.

Without a word, Gabrielle moved beside her tall friend, placing her hands under the thick, iron vessel. The warrior's eyes met hers for a moment as the young blonde sent a small chastising frown at the chagrin in the woman's blue pools. Together they raised the cauldron high enough to pour the mixture into the trough in front of the young mare's nose. When the kettle was empty, Gabrielle purposefully took it from the warrior's hands, her blonde head moving slowly in a silent, but pointed, reproach. Xena lowered her eyes for a moment before looking back to consult with the petite healer.

"OK," the warrior said. "The tergic's in the trough. Do you think she'll take it?"

Lanessa was still stroking the small, copper-colored head. "When she's ready," she said to the warrior's question. "I'd rather we don't have that fight on our hands tonight, as well." She sent a smile toward the tall woman's concerned expression. "But, it's there now, so .. we'll see how it goes."

The warrior let out a relieved sigh. As she watched the gentle ministrations Lanessa performed on the young mare, she felt her own nervousness subside. At the same time, a wave of admiration swept through the muscled warrior. As always, she stood in abject awe of the slim healer and the unprecedented affinity she had always shown for any animal that had entered her vicinity. It was another of the woman's gifts that endeared her to her oldest friend. After a few moments, Xena turned to the bard ... and found herself facing a pair of clearly irritated green orbs. The warrior's brow furrowed slightly.

"What?" she asked, only half as bravely as she felt.

"What happened to your shoulder?" the young blonde queried, one fist perched on her slender hip, a moderately demanding tone in her voice.

The warrior absently rubbed the aforementioned body part. "Well ah ..." The blue eyes glanced at the young horse then returned to the blonde's steady gaze. "Ma'ia and I had a little ... wrestling match. She tried to make me part of the stall." The tall woman smiled, a forced lightness in her tone. Gabrielle's reddish-blonde eyebrow traveled upward. The warrior scoffed away the girl's concern.

"I'm fine ... it's nothing," she announced. She purposely pulled her hand away from the throbbing area, a slim thread of resentment in her tone.

"Uh-huh," the bard muttered. She set the kettle down on the straw-covered floor. "Let's just have a look," she said, reaching for the edge of the warrior's cape.

"Gabrielle," Xena grumbled, intercepting the bard's hand. "I'm telling you ...."

"Oh, stop being such a baby," the bard grumbled back. "If it's nothing, why can't I ...?"

The strong-willed argument was smoothly halted by the lively giggle floating across the shed, emanating from the slender gentlewoman massaging the young horse's face. The two participants in the 'discussion' turned toward the sound. The stubborn scowl on the warrior's face grew more distinct.

"You may as well give in, Xena," Lanessa chided her. "That's one determined young lady." The small woman winked openly at the bard's impish smirk. "Sooner or later, she's going to make you show it to her. May as well get it over with."

Xena sent a grim look toward her old friend. Then the blue eyes swept slowly back to the bard's triumphant twinkle. Finally the muscled shoulders sagged in inglorious defeat. She dropped her hands away from the front of her cloak, rolling her eyes in exaggerated compliance. The warrior's expression darkened considerably when she heard the bard's superior snort.

Gabrielle gently pulled back the side of the warrior's cloak to examine the area of contention. When she had removed the woolen covering, she saw the raw, skinned abrasion covering the top of the woman’s shoulder. The bard sucked her lower lip between her teeth, grimacing slightly in sympathy for the warrior's injury, a not-serious, but nonetheless obviously uncomfortable scrape. After a few moments of careful examination, she gently repositioned the leather strap of the tall woman's tunic and pulled her heavy cloak closed again.

"Well?" the warrior griped, pouting slightly. "Nothing, right?" she challenged the bard.

"No, not nothing," Gabrielle countered. "You were right, it's not serious," she said. "But we still need to put some salve on it," the girl stated. "Just in case," the bard continued, overriding the warrior's attempted rebuttal. "I know your cape's rubbing on it, Xena. And that can't be pleasant." The bard found herself trying not to smile at the sight of the warrior's adolescent sulk. "Just humor me, OK? Like always?" The young blonde stood back from her tall companion, her hands on her hips, her blonde head tilted in cheerful confrontation.

Lanessa giggled again when the warrior sighed in capitulation. Xena turned a sheepish grin in her direction.. The healer's brown eyes twinkled in amusement.

Gabrielle pulled the hood of her cape over her head, gathering the edges of the garment under her chin with one hand. She waited until the warrior had pulled up the hood of her cape before capturing the tall woman's wrist with her free hand. The young woman sent a conspiratorial grin toward Lanessa's brown gaze.

"We'll be right back, Lanessa," the bard told her. "C'mon," the girl said to her tall companion, pulling on the warrior's hand with authority. "I promise not to keep you too long." Gabrielle winked at Lanessa who laughed outloud at the look on Xena's face as she allowed the bard to

direct her through the door. The warrior's jaw was clenched during the entire trip across the yard to the cottage.


Chapter Eight ~~~

"There," Gabrielle said confidently, wiping her fingers on the cloth in her hands. "That wasn't so bad, now was it?" The bard addressed the quiet warrior seated on the wooden bench next to the table. "Although knowing you, it'll be healed completely by daybreak," she chuckled quietly, turning away slightly to concentrate on cleaning the extra salve from her digits. After a moment, she turned back to her silent companion.

"Hey," the girl said quietly. "You all right? Does something else hurt?" She ducked her head, trying to focus on the pale blue eyes she knew so well.

"You're always taking care of me," the warrior murmured. She looked up at the bard's gentle smile. "Always stitching me up, tending to whatever hacking or mangling I manage to get myself into." The young woman's throat tightened at the glint of sadness she saw in the azure pools. She put her hand on the warrior's sleek arm.

"Someone has to," she joked gently. "You're not so careful when it comes to that." The young face curled in a loving smile.

Gabrielle's composure was more than slightly rattled when the warrior turned toward her abruptly, wrapping her long arms around the bard's slim waist and hugging her tightly. Xena's dark head was nestled so close against the blonde woman's breast she could feel the pounding of the warrior's heart through the heavy material of her woolen tunic.

The bard gazed down at the sinewy form pressed firmly against her. For a moment, she was so surprised by the unexpected embrace, she didn't quite know how to respond. Then she found herself even more concerned as to the reason for her tall friend's vulnerable demonstration. Without hesitating further, the girl returned the affectionate display, stroking the shiny, raven tresses with one hand.

"Xena, what is it?" the bard asked nervously. The result was an even tighter hug from the tall woman's strong arms as Xena's face burrowed closer against the girl's chest. Gabrielle's heart fluttered when she felt the muscled form tremble as a muffled sob escaped the warrior's throat.

"Hey," Gabrielle whispered, her voice shaking. She laid her cheek against the dark hair. "Xena, please tell me what's wrong." The bard swallowed hard. "C'mon ... you're scaring me."

For a long, strained moment, the only sounds in the small cottage were the hissing of the glowing coals in the fireplace and the warrior's shrouded weeping. The blonde woman held her friend close, one small hand sweeping gently over the long, dark tresses. Finally Xena released the trim form and pulled in a deep, shaky breath. Gabrielle opened her arms, her green eyes fixed on the warrior's tear-stained face.

"What is it?" the bard repeated. Her gaze fastened on the shimmering blue pools. As she watched, the warrior's reserve slowly reclaimed her. Xena swallowed hard and drew one hand across her wet cheeks. She reached up and captured the small hand resting on her shoulder, her long fingers closing over the smooth palm.

"You're such a good person, Gabrielle," the warrior said in a low voice, her words halting and pathetic. "And you've always been a good friend." The blue eyes raised to meet the bard's "My best friend." The bronze face softened, an open tenderness warming the chiseled features. She brought the girl's soft hand against her chin. "You're the best thing that's ever happened in my life ... the best thing."

Gabrielle's loving smile returned the warrior's. "Likewise," she told her friend. "No matter what else has happened, that's still true for me, too." The bard's fingers swept away the wetness lingering on the golden face. The warrior's eyes closed, then slowly opened to meet the verdant gaze searching her smooth countenance.

"Now, you wanna tell me what this is all about?" the bard asked softly, covering the hand clasping hers. "You haven't really been yourself since we left ... Najara." The warrior's throat moved in a convulsive gulp. "Please tell me what's going on in that 'many skilled' head of yours."

Xena blinked, suddenly embarrassed at having surrendered to her own desperate fears. Her cobalt gaze traveled over the young woman's anxious expression and she recoiled first at the sight of the girl's obvious concern, and felt even more remorse as she accepted the responsibility for its cause. The warrior mentally chastised herself for once again subjecting her most cherished companion to the anguish of her own unrelenting demons. She swallowed hard and sent a brave smile toward the emerald pools.

"Oh, just the usual collection of garbage," the warrior said, rising from the bench and crossing away from the bard. She wiped her face impatiently, giving her dark head a brisk shake. "I guess I'm a bit unpegged by ..." she gestured absently toward the small shed where Lanessa waited. ".. by the situation with that little mare."

Gabrielle's smile faded as her expression changed. A look of disappointment invaded the young face. "Oh ... I see," she said slowly drawing out the words. "The 'mare' is upsetting you," she said, an obvious tone of resentment coloring her words.

Xena smiled at the bard, a forced lightness in her posture. "Yeah .. it's been a while since I delivered a breech birth .. at least a 'foal' breech."

The young blonde walked slowly toward the tall warrior, resuming the cleaning activity with the soft cloth she still held in her hands. She kept her attention focused on her own fingers until she was an arm's length from the dark-haired figure. When she was close enough, she reached out and touched the woman's arm, her green eyes locked on the warrior's shadowed gaze.

"You know," the bard began softly, "one of these days, we're going to have to talk about what happened ..." She paused. " ... what almost happened ... with Najara." She waited until the warrior's stunned reaction had receded. "And why, exactly, you felt it necessary to leave me with her," the bard finished, her rancor slightly more evident. "Or was it just to 'leave me'?" the girl continued evenly. "We've never really talked about that."

Xena's stomach catapulted sharply upward. She swallowed hard to stem the wave of nausea gathering at the back of her throat. She tried with every morsel within her to drag her eyes away from the soft green pools locked on her face. But somehow, she couldn't find the courage to do it. She felt her hands clenching and unclenching, alternating with the rasping sound of her teeth grinding together. Finally, the tall woman took a deep, wavering breath.

"No, we haven't exactly discussed it, have we?" she answered in a nervous voice. "Well," Xena began. She paused and cleared her throat, trying hard to assume a calm, matter-of-fact demeanor. She was successful until the tilt of the bard's chin intercepted her intentions. She found her resolve completely dissembled by the look in the eyes of her soulmate. She raised one hand and let the back of her fingers touch the girl's soft face. A slow, rueful smile tugged at the tall woman's mouth.

"Let's just say I came to my senses," the warrior finished softly. "I realized how pointless it was to even consider my life going on without you." The little smile widened into a genuine grin, a heartfelt petition invading the clear blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said as her hand came to rest on the bard's shoulder. "I guess I don't always take the time to really think things through." The warrior's expression was apologetic. "Something else you already know." Xena’s blue eyes remained focused on the girl’s face.

"I was just ... I only wanted...." Her words trailed away when she saw the affection beaming from the bard's glistening gaze.

Gabrielle's blonde head traveled slowly from side to side. "You thought you were protecting me ... taking me out of 'harm's way' ... right?" The golden eyebrows disappeared beneath the short, blonde bangs. The bard let out a little sigh. "Well, I guess I can't fault you for that. You've been doing that since the day we met." The girl's eyes twinkled affectionately. She stepped closer and gave the warrior a quick, tight hug. When their eyes met again, the emerald pools held a mixture of understanding and forewarning.

"But, so help me, if you ever do that again ... make a decision like that without talking about it, first ...." The girl poked her friend's firm stomach. "I'll clobber you, I promise." The warrior flashed an effectively 'frightened' grimace.

"OK, it's a deal," the tall woman chortled, returning the girl's embrace. The two women held each other before the warrior pulled back. Her eyes lingered for a few moments on the bard's short-cropped hair. A brief look of remorse shone in the clear blue gaze before dissipating as quickly as it had formed. The warrior's gentle smile displaced the bard's uneasiness.

"Listen, speaking of the little mare ...." Xena began.

"Yeah," the girl agreed. "We'd better get back out there before Lanessa sends a hawk for us, or something." The blonde's giggle lightened the warrior's heart. Gabrielle squeezed the muscled arm near her shoulder. "And you were going to change into something warmer, as I recall?" She playfully shoved the warrior toward the small bedroom.

"Yes, I think you're right," Xena said, moving toward the adjacent chamber. She spoke over her shoulder as her hands moved to unlace her leathers. "And get that tin box down, too, will you?" the warrior said, gesturing with her chin. "I have a feeling we'll need what's in it soon." The slender blonde watched the tall form disappear into the smaller room. "I won't be long."

Gabrielle crossed the kitchen to the fireplace, pulling down the metal container the warrior had mentioned. Before she secured the lid on the receptacle, the girl peaked inside at the contents. She wrinkled her nose at the ponderous odor emanating from the milky substance, her young face a study in repugnance and curiosity.

"Oh well," she murmured with a slight shrug. "I guess they know what they're doing." She snapped the lid into place.


Xena followed the bard’s example and traded her leathers for a thick, long-sleeved, woolen tunic and a pair of heavy, quilted leggings which she tucked into her high, leather boots. Once the warrior had changed into the warmer outfit, the two friends left the cabin and trudged across the snow-covered yard toward the small shed. The crunching sounds made by their boots echoed loudly in the quiet darkness. Xena carried the square, metal container from above the fireplace tucked under one arm as they trudged across the glistening area.

"By the gods," Gabrielle joked after only a few steps, her breath forming white puffs as she talked. "It's really gotten thick out here." The girl stretched her gait, trying to keep pace with the warrior's long strides.

"Yeah," Xena answered, her breath billowing above her head. "Careful, it's getting really slick, too."

"I noticed," Gabrielle replied, thrusting one hand out sharply as she nearly lost her footing. "Whoa!" she squealed, grabbing a handful of the warrior's long cape. Xena stopped walking and quickly grasped the girl's arm, holding on firmly until the bard had regained her balance.

"Easy there," the warrior chuckled. "Try keeping your weight forward, on the front of your feet." She released the bard's arm but stayed close by, watching the girl's careful steps. "Wanna try again?"

"Yeah, OK," Gabrielle panted, spreading her arms in an attempt to combat the height of the drifted powder. "Now if I could just keep the snow out of my boots," the girl joked. "I'd be a truly happy bard." She turned to the tall warrior whose wide grin signaled her amusement at the small blonde's wobbly progress. The green eyes narrowed.

"Go 'head, laugh," the girl grunted, returning her concentration to the slippery substance under her. "Just remember, warrior ... paybacks are a bi.... YIKES!" The bard squawked as she lost her footing again and landed with a muffled thump, coming to rest squarely on her behind. Gabrielle squinted comically as the snow propelled upward by her boots gently returned to earth in the form of a soft, white cloud that quietly covered her shivering form. When her vision cleared, she glowered up at the laughing warrior who towered over her, her blue eyes dancing in amusement.

"You were saying?" Xena asked in a droll tone. She held out a gloved hand to the girl on the ground. "Here, take hold."

The bard did as requested and was quickly hoisted upright by the warrior's strong grip. The two women spent a few moments brushing the snow from the young woman's cape after which Gabrielle clapped her mittens together in an attempt to clear the icy crystals from the woolen material. Afterwards, the two friends shared a comfortable laugh.

"Here, take this," Xena said, handing the metal box to the bard. She turned her back to the smaller woman then dropped down on one knee, her hands out to her sides. "Climb on," she instructed, smiling over her shoulder at the little blonde. "We'll never get there with you fighting these drifts."

"Xena!" the girl giggled. "No .. I'm too ...."

"No, you're not," the warrior countered, anticipating the bard's objection. "Besides, it's not much farther." She pivoted slightly, halfway facing her small friend. "C'mon, Gabrielle," she said, turning around again. "We're gonna freeze out here in the meantime."

Gabrielle sighed heavily before positioning herself directly behind the warrior. She shuffled closer, wrapping one arm around the tall woman's neck. Xena leaned forward and stood up slowly, taking the bard's slight form up with her. When she was nearly upright, she reached back and captured the girl's legs with her hands. Finally, she stood up completely, settling the blonde woman's weight squarely on her back. She spoke to the girl over one shoulder.


"I guess so," the bard laughed, pulling her legs tight against the warrior's waist. "But I still think I'm too much for you to carry." The warrior's soft laugh floated back over her shoulder.

"Get real," the tall woman joked. "Carrying you is just good exercise." She bent her knees then bounced upright again, jostling the slender figure higher on her back.

"Hey!" the bard squealed. "OK, OK ... I'll shut up. Let's just get there before Lanessa sends out a rescue party." The warrior turned forward and took a long stride, her boots sinking quickly into the deep snow in front of them.

After a few steps, the bard's fertile mind remembered a question she'd meant to pose earlier. She decided their frosty trip could use a worthwhile distraction. She snuggled closer to the warrior's ear.

"By the way," the girl began, "I've been meaning to ask you something."

Xena's tall form came to an abrupt halt as she slowly turned her head around to address her talkative passenger. "Oh really?" the warrior asked drolly. "And you thought now would be a good time for this question?" One dark eyebrow crept upward toward the dark bangs.

"Well ... yeah," the bard answered shyly. "It's something that's been bugging me all night."

Gabrielle ducked her head to meet the warrior's slightly astonished gaze. "Wanna hear it?"

Xena rolled her eyes and let out a little sigh. "Yeah ... if it's been 'bugging' you," she jibed. She leaned forward slightly, repositioning the bard again. "Go 'head. I'm a captive audience," she quipped as she took another long stride into the snow.

"Well," Gabrielle began hesitantly. "You know that stuff we poured into the trough for Ma'ia?" The warrior grunted as her boots fought against the thick drifts.


The bard giggled softly. "Well ... I could've sworn that stuff smelled just like the junk you gave me to drink last summer ... when I had the coughing sickness?" The warrior's concentration was sidetracked as the bard's comment registered in her mind. A small, subtle grin began to invade the stoic expression. Xena let out a tiny, discreet little snort.

"Am I goofy?" the little blonde asked sincerely. "I mean, it couldn't have been the same stuff, could it? The stuff tonight was ... ‘horse medicine’." Gabrielle let out a little giggle. "Right?" she said into the warrior's ear. The girl's grin faded when she realized the warrior hadn't answered her.

"I said, it wasn't the same stuff, was it?" Gabrielle asked, her tone decidedly more demanding. "Xena, answer me," the small woman grumbled, a deadly challenge in her tone. The warrior cleared her throat and shifted the girl’s weight again in an attempt to buy herself some time. Very soon she deduced her delaying tactics had been in vain.

"You DIDN’T!" the bard exclaimed, pulling hard at the neck of the warrior’s dark cape.

Xena gagged when the move tightened the fabric against her throat. She halted her steps, keeping her eyes ... and her 'give-it-away' smile .. facing forward. Finally, she quietly responded to the bard's question.

"Well, it works for people, too," the warrior answered quietly. After a nervous moment, she turned slowly toward the blonde clinging to her back. Xena saw the blatant shock on the young bard's face. She braced herself for the explosion she was certain would happen any minute. She didn't have to wait long.

"YOU DID!" the bard shrieked. "You gave me HORSE MEDICINE!" The trim form shifted unexpectedly, throwing her weight sideways in an attempt to confront the warrior face to face. The untimely move caught the tall woman totally by surprise, completely destroying her normally perfect balance and sent both women headlong into the deep white powder. Luckily, the piles were soft and high, with more than enough substance to counteract any serious damage the flying bodies might have encountered upon impact with the icy drifts.

"ARRGH!" the warrior groaned as she landed, nearly face-down in the snow. She quickly rolled over to one side, turning to locate the slender form which had only moments before been perched on her back. Her search was immediately interrupted by the handful of snow that splattered against her chest, the bombardment having been hand-delivered there, so to speak, by a rather angry little bard. Xena ducked the second round missile and easily redirected a third before collapsing backwards onto the glistening snowbank, raising both hands to protect herself from the bard's icy onslaught.

After a few moments of furious attack, Gabrielle sat back on her heels, her irritation quickly defused by the sight of the tall warrior's hearty amusement. The bard blinked at the sight in surprise; her tall, sleek, dark-haired best friend was lying flat on her back in the snow, her lanky, muscled body visibly quaking in pure, uncontrolled laughter. The young woman found herself giggling in response.

Xena lifted her head to meet the twinkling green pools shining happily from the bard's flushed face. The warrior pulled herself up onto one elbow, scooped up a handful of white powder and playfully tossed it at the girl's chin. Gabrielle deflected most of the shower with a snow-covered mitten but not before a small portion of it had adorned the hood and front panels of her dark cape. The two friends laughed comfortably. Finally Xena sat up all the way, breathing at a more normal rate.

"Admit it," Gabrielle said breathlessly. "You made me drink HORSE medicine." She shook an ice-encrusted mitten at the warrior's smirk. "Didn't you?" the bard said, her grin contradicting her insulted tone.

Xena's blue eyes twinkled as her shoulders moved in an innocent shrug. "Well, it worked, didn’t it?" the warrior stated simply. "Besides, the herb doesn't know the difference." The tall form shook with renewed laughter. She brushed a handful of snow at the bard's 'irritated' scowl.

The bard launched her snow-covered self at the warrior, landing squarely on the woman's chest. The taller woman easily accepted the attack, catching the trim form in her arms and rolling to one side, taking the shrieking bard with her. When the intertwined figures had completed two revolutions over the crystal-white surface, any further cavorting they might have attempted was abruptly halted by their encounter with a pair of firmly-planted, totally uncompromising boots. The frolicsome activity ended with the two participants turning to investigate the identity of this hindrance to their enjoyment. The warrior's blue eyes traveled upward, scanning the shrouded figure standing over them.

"Hello, Mother," Xena said brightly. "Fancy meeting you here."

The mature female seemed only mildly amused at the sight before her.


The two women on the ground disentangled themselves and scrambled to their feet, which considering the depth of the snow around them, took considerably longer than it might have on any similar day. The warrior spent several busy moments, dusting off the white powder clinging to nearly every inch of her dark outer garment. The bard was involved in the same chore.

"Having fun playing in the snow, dear?" Cyrene asked drolly. "Good to see you enjoying yourself, for a change." The matron shook her head slowly.

In spite of the chilly temperature, Xena felt a warm blush travel up her neck on it’s way to cover her face. Her abashment heightened when she recognized the uncomfortably familiar ‘stern look’ in her mother’s stance.

The innkeeper side-stepped her daughter and approached the bard, pulling the young blonde into a loving embrace. "Hello, Sweetheart," Cyrene said. She hugged the girl for a moment, then took the soft chin in her hand, her dark blue gaze only incidentally noticing Gabrielle’s short blonde hairdo.

"Such a nice surprise," the matron said to the bard. "You two decide to pay us a visit ..." She turned back to the warrior. " And I find out about it from one of my customers," the woman said facetiously. Her dark eyebrows skipped under the cap of thick auburn tresses framing her face. A moment later, Cyrene’s deep chuckle dispelled the look of chastisement on her child's face. She stepped to the warrior and captured the tall form in a motherly embrace. Xena returned the hug and her mother's happy expression. She put her hand on the older woman's shoulder.

"Sorry, Mother," the warrior said sheepishly. "We sort of got caught by the storm, then Lanessa had a problem with ...."

"Yes, yes, I know all about it," the matron announced, still smiling. "Silvanus told me about the mare and the situation you’re facing. But I thought you might all be hungry, by now." The matron draped one arm over the young blonde’s shoulders.

"What a great idea!" the girl chirped. She circled the older woman’s waist with her arm.

"Now," Cyrene said with authority. "Let's get in out of this freezing weather. We can talk while you girls have some supper." She began to direct the two younger women toward the small cottage.

"Lanessa's still in the barn, Mother," Xena informed her. "I think she could use some food, too."

The trio changed direction, stepping carefully across the mounds of snow on their way to the outbuilding. On the way, Xena bent to retrieve the metal container dropped by the bard during their playful wrestling match. She wiped the snow off the box as she followed the two smaller women's footsteps.


Chapter Nine ~~~~

Lanessa turned as the three women entered the shed. Cyrene crossed the floor to gaze pensively at the small, rust-colored mare, the animal’s sides bulging obtrusively in the final stages of pregnancy. She placed a weathered hand on the petite healer’s shoulder and the two women exchanged pleasantries. The innkeeper turned her gaze back to the little mare.

"So, this is Ma’ia," Cyrene said calmly. She laid a careful palm on the horse’s warm torso. "Getting very close, I understand." Lanessa nodded. "And a breech ... no?"

Xena’s dark head swiveled slowly toward her mother, her face showing a subtle question. The older woman turned to address her daughter. "Silvanus told me she’s quite special to his little girl." Cyrene’s stocky form straightened. "Well, I’m sure you have matters well in hand. Now, let’s get you all fed so you can take care of this pretty thing."

The woman scanned the inside of the shed with an inquiring gaze. Her eyes settled on the wooden shelf hanging on the side wall of the shed. She crossed the floor to stand beside the fixture, parting her long cloak to reveal a large, wicker basket which she handed to the warrior. Then Cyrene crooked a finger at the young bard and the girl moved to stand beside her. The matron turned back to the shelf and began to empty the ledge with a purpose, depositing the items into the outstretched arms of the young blonde. After the first few items had been transferred, Xena intervened, trading the wicker basket for the group of tools and equipment her mother had been relocating with steady determination.

Once the shelf had been cleared, Cyrene retrieved the basket, placing the hopper in the now-open space. She lifted one end of the lid, reached inside and produced two deep, cloth-covered plates, handing one to the bard and the other to Lanessa. Her next venture into the basket resulted in two large spoons, two sparkling, white napkins and another wide bowl containing several slices of thick, sweet-smelling bread. She dispensed the utensils to the two women and held out the dish containing the bread to the young blonde.

Gabrielle wiped her hand on the side of her cape and selected one of the thick slices, holding the bread between her teeth while she lifted the cloth covering her plate. Cyrene smiled at the young bard’s delighted squeal. She cupped the girl’s soft cheek with her palm. Then she offered the bread to Lanessa.

The two small women crossed to the wooden bench, sat down and began to partake of the thick, hearty concoction. Gabrielle plunged the wide spoon into her plate, switching the bread between her lips for a heaping mouthful of the fragrant mixture. She chewed contentedly, closing her eyes in supreme ecstasy. The green pools blinked open, sending a happy twinkle at the matron’s obliging grin.

Finally, the innkeeper reached into the hopper one more time, producing a third covered plate, another spoon and an additional large, white napkin. She turned in bemusement to the warrior, still standing nearby, the items from the shelf crowded into her arms. Cyrene let her eyes travel over her daughter’s tall form, resting at last on the woman’s expectant gaze.

"You’ll have to put those things down, Dear, if you want to enjoy my stew."

Xena’s mouth dropped open as if to formulate a response, then snapped closed as the bronze jaw rippled in controlled vexation. Closing her mouth with difficulty, the warrior turned away and neatly stacked the items she’d been holding on the floor of the empty stall. With her arms empty, she turned back to her parent, holding out her hands to accept the food. The older woman’s dark blue eyes swept over the warrior’s slender palms, her face displaying a maternal dismay. The tall form emitted a deep sigh, rolling her eyes in exasperation.

Using one panel of her cape, Xena made a pointed display of wiping the dust and particles of debris from her hands before dutifully presenting them for her mother’s inspection. After examining the result, Cyrene cheerfully handed over the platter and spoon together with the last slice of bread. The warrior accepted the food, giving her mother a stiff smile as she crossed to the sturdy wooden stool. Her first bite of stew was postponed long enough to send a warning scowl toward the bard’s quiet snicker.

The mature proprietor proudly watched the three women’s satisfied consumption of the meal, her worn, wrinkled hands clasped in the middle of the long apron covering her dress. She relished the looks of appreciation shining on the faces of the two smaller women, and gave her daughter’s subtle pout an indulgent grin. After a few moments, Cyrene gathered her long cloak, raising the hood over her gray-streaked, auburn hair.

"Well," the matron said briskly, pulling her wrap around her ample form. "I’ll be back for the dishes in the morning." She threw an impish wink at the bard. "There’s some cake inside .. for dessert." Gabrielle’s bright smile flashed. "I’ll leave you to your work."

Before her daughter could react, Cyrene stepped closer to the warrior and bestowed a quick, simple kiss on the bronze forehead. She gently brushed back a lock of the tall woman’s dark hair. "Good luck," she told Xena, smiling into the clear blue eyes. "I hope you bring in the foal without too much trouble." She moved to the door of the shed.

"Oh and, Gabrielle?" Cyrene addressed the bard, her hand on the heavy latch.

The young blonde looked up.

"Welcome home."

Gabrielle’s green eyes softened as she returned the stocky woman’s tender smile.

"Good to be here," the girl said quietly. "And thanks for supper."

"G’night, youngsters," the innkeeper chirped merrily, pulling open the door and stepping through the aperture. A moment later, she was gone.

The three women ate in silence for a few minutes. Finally, the warrior’s low voice sounded in the musty interior.

"Trust Mother to think of our stomachs," the tall woman quipped. She turned a wry expression toward her partner. "You sure you two aren’t related?"

The two small women laughed openly, coaxing a small, crooked grin from the stoic warrior.


Continued...Part 2 (conclusion)