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Editor's Choice Award

Full Circle

by Maggie

Before we start:

This story is gratefully dedicated to Steelmagnolia, a truly kind and gentle soul who patiently, generously and intelligently led my 'pen across the parchment', so to speak, throughout the development of this tale. Without her good sense and fine judgment, this story would never have come to be; it would still be hiding in the back of my mind. Thank you, DB. I honestly couldn't have done this without you. MMG 2/26/97

Chapter One

The two women strode side by side through the rambling countryside. One was tall, sleek and alert. A mass of raven-black hair fell about her neck and shoulders. The thick tresses fluttered lightly in the summer breeze as she walked. Her steel blue eyes seem to move in all directions, surveying the terrain they faced as well as the road just traveled. Now and then, the leather clothing under the battle armor that covered her torso sounded a subtle warble as her trim form turned and flexed. The warrior remained aware of all the precise aspects of the area, her senses always sharp, her reflexes toned and ready.

In her left hand she held the reins to her mount, a golden-coated mare who trudged comfortably at her left hip. The animal's silvery mane moved softly on the breeze, now and then touching the woman's face in a gentle caress. The tall woman reached up to the horse's neck to return the affection. After a few paces, the rhythm returned to their matching steps.

At the moment, Xena was faced with trying to concentrate on the path and on her companion's conversation at the same time. The slight, young woman who had become her soul mate and most valued friend was indulging in her own favorite pastime - talking. Xena had finally grown to accept Gabrielle's penchant for words and their discourse. It wasn't even necessary to contribute to the seemingly constant stream of phrases that emerged; apparently all Xena had to do was at least appear to listen.

Xena cast a side-long glance at the blond head beside her. The young woman matching her cadence, stride for stride, carried a long, fighting staff in one hand and a satchel-pouch bag over one shoulder. Her face was open and responsive. Her sparkling green eyes explored the world around her with a brave, courageous spirit. The girl always seemed capable of discovering the world anew, over and over again. It was only one of the extraordinary facets of the young woman's being that nurtured and soothed the warrior's soul.

Gabrielle's entrance into the warrior's life had occurred totally without plan, apparently by accident. Xena would not have easily admitted that the young female's presence could possibly change her world to the slightest degree, except perhaps as an irritation. In truth, when their trek together had begun, the warrior had looked upon the girl's insistent pursuit more as an intrusion, and an unwanted one.

Now, after nearly two years on the road together, the two women were permanently connected, each a part of the other's essence, separate yet necessary to the very soul of the other. Xena was always amazed at the depth of her feelings for Gabrielle, as well as by the unflinching loyalty she found returned by her friend. It had been a very long time since she'd able to trust someone so completely.

Gabrielle had long ago become aware that conversation was not her best friend's favorite activity. Extracting more than a few words at a time from Xena took long, concentrated work. When they'd first begun traveling together, Gabrielle had simply continued to ask questions until she'd received an answer, or until she'd seen that warning glint come into Xena's eyes. She wouldn't have believed the warrior's blue gaze could change to cold gray so quickly, until she'd seen it happen the first time.

Their relationship had matured in the past months; each had been to the ridge of Tartarus and back. Through it all, their friendship had sustained them. The spirit of their trust and faith in each other had been the saving element through the worst events of their lives.

The stories Gabrielle practiced on the warrior's somewhat 'captured' ears had begun to have a mending effect on Xena's heart as well. The demons she had carried there for so many years had found a worthy adversary in Gabrielle's decency and kindness. Each time Xena had expected the inevitable ending to their friendship to happen, Gabrielle had instead provided another example of the truest brand of kindred faith in her.

Today their journey was to take them to Xena's home village, Amphipolis. During their most recent stop for supplies, Gabrielle had been only mildly surprised when her friend announced where their next stop would be.

For months now, it had been a case of her following wherever Xena had decided they would go. Not that the arrangement always bothered her. She trusted Xena completely and found it a most natural instinct to defer to her judgment. It was just sometimes that Gabrielle resented Xena for assuming that it would always be the case.

However, Xena had engaged in a rare activity during their evening meal by volunteering a few pieces of information about their upcoming mission. The facts had been sparse and brief, even for Xena. But it had been one of the few times she had candidly supplied any particulars about her own past. Gabrielle was pleased whenever Xena decided to share what appeared to be very private - and very painful - parts of herself.

"An old friend of mine needs a favor", Xena had said to explain their rather abrupt change in direction. "I'd like to help her, if we can."

Gabrielle had heard 'we'. That was certainly a new concept to their relationship. Even though she knew Xena valued their friendship and enjoyed her company, Gabrielle had only recently come to believe that her own contribution to their adventures was anything more than a simple case of following Xena's orders.

The only other clues to emerge during the repast were the name of the friend they were going to help, Lanessa, and the fact that she had somehow managed to get a message to Xena requesting assistance. The next morning the trip had begun and was proceeding as usual; with Xena plotting the way and Gabrielle alongside, practicing her stories.

For a dozen strides, the two were silent. The only sound heard along the dusty road was the sound of the horse's bridle rattling about her attractive head. Argo's soft nicker accompanied the steady thumping of Gabrielle's staff on the firm ground. The women walked in the comfortable quiet for a while longer.

Xena slowed her pace to negotiate a slightly hilly area. Gabrielle let her lead Argo down the small embankment before following in their wake. When they had returned to level earth, their steps again fell in unison.

"So this Lanessa", Gabrielle began when the path again stretched flat before them. "How long have you known her?"

"An eternity.", Xena answered in her clipped style. "We were children together."

For a moment Gabrielle forgot her surprise at the personal nature of Xena's response. A small tickle of amusement swelled in her and she laughed softly, almost to herself. Xena turned toward her, a questioning look changing her face.

"Something you find funny?" she asked.

Gabrielle shook her head and turned a warm smile to her friend. "I'm sorry", she said, a gentle giggle betraying her amusement. "But I guess I never thought of you as having been a *child.*" Her smile grew larger now, causing a tiny grin to invade Xena's stoic face.

The warrior's eyebrow crept upward, but the grin stayed in hiding. She stopped walking and turned fully toward the smiling Gabrielle. "We were all children once, Gabrielle", Xena said, "even me." Gabrielle searched the blue eyes trained on her.

"I didn't spring full grown from under a tuber, you know." Xena's tone now displayed a trace of hurt and Gabrielle immediately regretted causing it.

"Oh, I know." the young bard answered, placing a loving hand on Xena's arm. She watched subtle emotions play across her friend's lovely face. "It's just ...", Gabrielle tried to explain. The gentleness of her nature made her search for a kind way to proceed. "Well, it's a new image for me to form." Wheat-colored brows darted under her blonde bangs.

For an instant, Xena seemed not to be amused. Then the warmth of Gabrielle's smile soothed the mistrust that for years had plagued her soul. Xena felt the tenseness relax and found herself smiling back. She turned back to the path and they resumed walking.

After another moment, Gabrielle's voice again broke Xena's reverie. "I'll bet Lanessa could tell me stories about that time." Xena heard the question within the statement. Gabrielle was subtly asking for permission to seek Lanessa's knowledge of the past.

"She just might", Xena conceded, "if she's of a mind to." Then the familiar wave of sadness caught in her throat.

"Actually", Xena said softly, "she was Lyceus' friend." Gabrielle's heart caught as it always did at the pain that showed in Xena's voice whenever she mentioned her younger brother.

"They were in the same level in school." A moment of quiet mourning hung in the morning air. Then Xena forced the ache to recede. "But I must admit", she continued, with a new grain of levity, "the three of us did get into trouble, from time to time."

Gabrielle welcomed the lightness she heard returning in Xena's voice. "You?" she chirped. "In trouble?" She watched Xena's eyebrow retreat behind her bangs again. "Nah!" Gabrielle gasped in exaggerated disbelief.

After a moment, Gabrielle's soft chuckle reignited the discussion. "I'll bet you were an onery little kid." she joked.

"You bet", Xena answered, entering into the fun. "That's why I'm an onery big kid", she finished, playfully bouncing her fist on the top of Gabrielle's blond head. Xena pursed her lips to keep from surrendering to her own laughter. She cast her best 'warning' look at Gabrielle, but the girl's amused eyes were trained on the road beneath them.

'How easily she can remedy my heart', Xena thought for the dozenth time. 'This person was surely sent to me by the gods', she mused. As always, the depth of contentment she felt in the girl's presence fascinated and confused the warrior. She still wasn't sure which made her more uneasy.

"So what's she like?" Gabrielle said after another short silence.

Xena gave in to her own sense of fun. "Who?", she asked innocently.

"Lanessa." Gabrielle said, enjoying her friend's rare attempt at humor.

"Oh", Xena answered, continuing the exchange. With a tiny smirk, she turned to Gabrielle. "You'll like her", she said, indulging the new joy she found in this game. "She's rather talkative." Now it was Gabrielle's turn to expend 'that look' on her companion.

After another moment Gabrielle said, "You'll be able to visit your mother, too, while we're there."

"No", Xena said matter-of-factly. "She's in Thessaly visiting a friend of her own." After another few strides, she said quietly, "Might be just as well."

Gabrielle turned to her, slightly confused. "Why do you say that?"

Xena decided to forego her own intuition for the moment. She smiled warmly at her young friend. "This way, Lanessa and I can 'catch up', as you call it."

"Oh", Gabrielle said, nodding, but she had her own misgivings. She had learned a great about how to 'read' Xena's moods and the true inference that sometimes subtly colored her friend's sparse remarks. The young bard had the distinct feeling that the warrior was either concealing something or that her comment had another meaning. But, she just couldn't decide which, at the moment.

Soon they had reached the ridge surrounding Amphipolis. The soft grassy mounds surrounding the road grew more lush and fragrant. When the path brought them directly above the town, the small party came to a halt. Gabrielle's gaze searched the landscape, trying to renew her memory of the area. It was a village much like many others in the area; people busy at various chores in the field, vendors bartering in the marketplace, children shrieking about playing cheerful games.

Gabrielle turned to watch Xena's reaction to her home. She saw a myriad of emotions travel across the warrior's face. The breeze dancing across the valley carried the gentle sounds from the town up to them. The combined noises were accompanied by various smells and colors. From their vantage point on the hill, they were witness to the very essence of the hamlet. It was as though the small conclave was performing just for them.

The bard could sense the uneasiness rise in Xena. Her chiseled features grew more and more immobile as she watched the activity within the village. Gabrielle knew her friend's visions included the destruction and violence that had occurred many years ago, the cruelty that had turned her soul to a life of war. A cold, determined glare turned Xena's blue eyes to granite. The hardness in them sent a chill through Gabrielle.

She placed a gentle hand on Xena's arm. The warrior turned a stony gaze toward the young blond. For an instant, Gabrielle wasn't sure Xena recognized her.

"Do you see her ... Lanessa?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes watching Xena.

Xena's gaze returned to the busy town. "Do you see her anywhere?" she heard Gabrielle ask again.

Shaking off her own tortured visions, Xena searched the area for her old friend. Finally she recognized a slight form reclining near a number of children playing. Drawing a slow, silent breath, Xena unclenched both fists and relaxed her tight jaw lock.

"There", she said pointing to the figure near the children. "There she is." As the pain seeped away from her, she turned an apologetic smile toward Gabrielle. "Come on, my friend", she said to the open face beside her. "You two will enjoy each other."

Xena turned to Argo and swung herself onto the animal's back. She reached a hand down to Gabrielle, took the staff Gabrielle handed her and hoisted the girl onto the blanket behind her. When Gabrielle's arm wrapped around her waist, Xena felt the rest of her anger fade away. Gabrielle reclaimed the staff and settled herself on the blanket under them.

"Now you can meet my other wonderful friend." Xena said. Then she urged Argo toward the town.

Chapter Two

The small, auburn-haired woman reclined comfortably at the edge of the grassy area. A group of children scampered happily within the encircled space, chasing a large, leather ball. The woman's contented smile matched the joy she always experienced whenever she witnessed this particular activity.

Lanessa heard the children's happy voices floating around her. The sounds of their laughter always filled her with a sense of contentment and peace. She knew them all by name, knew the structure of each small face. She identified every innocent squeal as it bounced about her. The mothers of the town knew she was with them and the women trusted Lanessa's vigilance. The children all loved the woman's gentle manner and considered her a trusted friend.

One youngster sporting bright copper curls broke from the game to race to her side.

"Lanetha", he lisped. "I caught the ball! Did you hear me?" he bragged, his breathless clamor music to her ears. "I caught it juth like you thaid, with both handth!"

The small woman raised a hand to the boy's soft cheek. "Yes, Efron", she told him, her voice smooth and quiet. "I heard you. You did it perfectly."

The boy let out a joyful yelp and ran to rejoin the cavorting group. Lanessa flashed a proud smile in his direction and resumed her attention to the game. For the time being her concentration was centered on the boisterous activity. She listened as each child completed an attempt at kicking or throwing the ball to another in the circle. The clattering of small feet around the circumference of the play area made identification a particular challenge.

The woman felt the warrior's approach at once. The moment the travelers entered her sphere, Lanessa's senses were alerted. A deep warmth filled her being as she recognized the presence of her oldest friend. She rose and clapped her hands to get the children's attention. The game came to an immediate halt as all the young faces turned toward Lanessa.

"Time for supper, cherubs." she called to them, only partially aware of their response. "The game will keep until tomorrow. I'll miss you until then."

The children cheerfully gathered their playthings and sang out 'good-byes' to her as they jostled away to rejoin their families. As the sweet voices faded away, Lanessa turned toward the ridge above the town. A singular vision had altered her focus. It was a face she knew well and welcomed without uncertainty.

"Xena", Lanessa said, her voice smooth and affectionate. "She's here."

Lanessa walked slowly in the direction of the horse's cadence. She recognized the smell of that mare; she knew who her rider was. A warm smile glowed on the woman's face as the animal strode closer. When the horse came to an abrupt stop a meter's length from her, Lanessa extended a tender hand in the direction of the animal's nose. Argo took one more short stride and began to nuzzle against the small palm.

Xena sat watching the loving ritual. Her throat tightened at the memory of the more innocent days, when Lanessa had first demonstrated her amazing affinity with animals. The warrior waited patiently while Argo said 'hello'. She knew Gabrielle was bursting with interest. But some instinct had quieted the girl's curiosity. She sat silent behind Xena, watching the exchange between the slight woman and the powerful horse neighing gently against her.

After a moment, Lanessa turned to Xena. Still stroking Argo's neck, she raised her free hand toward the tall warrior. Xena swung herself down off the blanket and gathered the petite lady in a warm embrace. Lanessa returned the hug, then pulled herself an arm's length away. She seemed to focus attention on Xena's mass of long hair.

"Dear friend.", the woman said in a voice as soft as pillow down. "It's good of you to come." The two friends smiled at each other for a long, private moment. Then Lanessa turned her attention to Gabrielle, still seated on Argo's back. She favored the girl with another luminous smile.

"And this is Gabrielle", she said to the astonished bard. "The one with all the stories." Gabrielle's jaw dropped a perceptible degree before she found her normally ready voice. She swung one leg across the blanket and jumped down to the ground.

"Yes.", she said, obviously unnerved by the woman's precise use of her name. "Nice to meet you." Gabrielle extended a hand in greeting, but the small woman instead placed her palms gently on the girl's smooth face. Although the movement confused her somewhat, the bard waited patiently while the soft palms made delicate moves around her countenance.

Lanessa's hands moved to Gabrielle's arm. "Welcome, Young Bard," she said to the now speechless girl. "Food, comfort and new stories await you." Lanessa turned to Xena and the warrior took the small hand extended to her. "Come." The three of them walked toward Lanessa's house. Argo fell in step behind Lanessa, the reins still lying unattended on her neck.

Chapter Three

Inside the comfortable home the fire winked warmly, throwing pleasant patterns on the walls of the room. The three women sat at the wooden table, evidence of their meal still strewn about the surface of the fixture. The aroma of cinnamon and azure tea clung lightly to the room and its inhabitants. Two of those present were currently engaged in hearty laughter. Conversation had been temporarily halted by helpless gasping and raucous slapping of palms upon the table.

Lanessa and Gabrielle were involved in the exchange of a tale, initiated by the former and thoroughly enjoyed by the latter. While the elder of the two wiped tears of amusement from her eyes, the younger participant clapped her hands in gleeful appreciation as the tale unfolded.

The third female present in the room displayed none of the symptoms of unbridled mirth shown by the other two. Her smile was definitely more subdued, her discomfort at the story's unfolding particularly obvious. Yet she was not about to spoil the fun being enjoyed by those in her company. Their joy was enough to bring lightness to her own spirit, even if she was the uncomfortable subject of their humorous story.

"All of a sudden", Lanessa choked, her voice thick with laughter, "Xena comes flying out of a *tree*." Another wave of merriment temporarily disabled her speech. She fought to regain enough control to continue. She took a deep wavering breath and plunged ahead. "She lands -*kerrsplattt*- right in the center of the biggest puddle in the street!" Again she and Gabrielle are dissolved in laughter.

When she had recovered again, she finished her thought. "Mud flies *everywhere!*" More peals of glee were heard in the small kitchen. "The entire Council looked as though they'd been struck with a case of brown measles!" By now Gabrielle was holding her arms tight across her stomach to stem the ache that the laughter had produced.

Xena covered her own amusement with the earthen mug in her hands. She had forgotten the event; it was part of her life that had all but vanished from her memory. Yet it was the wonderful, loving time she longed to regain the most. She knew the events of her life between those years and now would never allow her to return to that time. Still it was a pleasant exercise to remember the innocence.

The warrior's awareness returned to the scene at the table. Her gaze fell on Gabrielle's face, flushed with energy and entertainment. The young girl's attractive features were trained on Lanessa's animated face.

"Cyrene was *furious!!*", Xena's old friend imparted to the young bard. "I thought she was going to burst, she was so angry." Lanessa turned in Xena's direction. "Remember?"

Gabrielle's attention settled on her friend's usually quiet form. She was glad to find a rather relaxed Xena, a warm smile softening the features of her usually stoic expression. She watched as the warrior quietly searched her own memory. Happily the pain that had surfaced upon their arrival did not threaten this particular remembrance.

Xena nodded her assent to Lanessa's question. She swallowed another mouthful of the warm ale from her mug and turned toward Gabrielle. "Mother had spent nearly a fortnight on my festival dress. She wanted to remind me that I was, in fact, a girl. Now the whole thing was covered in mud ... and various other substances one finds in the middle of the road in a town square." The warrior's eyebrows hid under her dark bangs for an instant then returned to their normal position. Xena raised the mug again.

Gabrielle covered her mouth with one hand, giggling again at the vision that had formed in her mind's eye. She could clearly see a youthful Xena, unabashed and totally unaware that her new garment had been ruined by the fun. Even her mother's wrath would not have interrupted the exercise, Gabrielle knew.

"Actually", Lanessa spoke again, "as I recall that escapade had been another of Lyceus' clever plans." Xena's eyes traveled to the face of her old friend and they seemed to share a special remembrance together. The warmth in Lanessa's tone told Gabrielle that hers was a loving memory that the woman held of Lyceus, but definitely a different love than that of a sister.

Lanessa turned then to Gabrielle again. "That was his genius, the *planning*." She shot Xena another conspiratorial look, then returned her attention to the bard. "All of his elaborate schemes always had two clear purposes. One", she pulled at one of her own fingers, "that if anything went wrong, *we*", she indicated herself and Xena, "would always endure the blame..."

"And the punishment." Xena interjected. Lanessa's gentle laugh sounded again. Then she continued.

"And two, "she said bending back another finger, "that, if everything went well, *he* would always get the *glory*."

A soft chuckle escaped from the warrior. Gabrielle turned to her friend in surprise. It was very rare for the sound of a true laugh to escape from Xena. But she had heard one, Gabrielle was sure of it. Suddenly the wild abandonment and silliness that had reigned within the room began to ebb away. Both Lanessa's and Xena's smile became subtly shaded by melancholy and downheartedness. For a long moment, neither spoke.

Finally Lanessa's soft voice sounded. "I still miss him", she said without looking at either woman in her company. Then she turned toward Xena again. "It's been almost twelve years now, and I still miss him." Gabrielle watched tears fill the small woman's eyes. She turned protectively to Xena, but found the warrior's azure gaze trained on their hostess. Xena reached to cover the small woman's hands with her own.

"I know," Xena said softly. "I do, too." The two shared a moment of grief, then Lanessa's posture straightened. Purposefully she wiped her eyes with the back of one hand and patted Xena's hands with the other. Gabrielle saw the pain again drain away from her friend's weary countenance. As usual, Xena was burying the emotions that Gabrielle found most worthy.

The young girl reached out to lay a comforting hand on her best friend's arm. Then she became aware that Lanessa was speaking to her. She also realized that she hadn't been listening. "I'm sorry", Gabrielle said, sheepishly. "What did you say?"

Lanessa's wide, warm smile had returned. She reached across the table again, this time to cover Gabrielle's hand with a tender touch. "You must be exhausted, Gabrielle." Lanessa said, an honest concern showing on her open face. Suddenly the girl realized that indeed she did feel more than ordinarily tired. She blinked at the fire in the hearth and gave in to a hearty, cleansing yawn.

"Oh, my", she apologized. "I guess I am sleepy." She covered her mouth and yawned again.

Lanessa motioned toward a small room next to the area where they sat. "Your boudoir awaits, m'lady.", she said, rising and coming around the table to pull Gabrielle gently up from the bench. "The cottage nymphs have supplied clean linens, fresh pillows and I took the liberty of putting a pot of herb leaves to steep on the bedside table." Gabrielle looked over at Xena, then glanced again at Lanessa. They obviously would have much to talk about, these two friends of years gone by. Gabrielle touched Xena's arm again and the warrior turned a quiet smile to her.

"Well, I'll say good night, then." Gabrielle said. She flashed her warmest smile at Lanessa who returned in kind. "See you in the morning. Thanks for the stories, Lanessa." Another small chuckle skipped from her throat.

With that, Gabrielle turned from the table and made her way into the smaller room. When the girl had departed, Lanessa again settled herself across from Xena and drew a slow, deep breath. Xena waited, knowing what was to come. Except for Gabrielle, who was developing much the same instincts, Lanessa was the only other person who truly knew what was in the warrior's soul.

Finally Lanessa laid clasped hands on the table between them. Xena focused on her old friend's face. "I sense a certain peace in you this time." Lanessa began. "Oh, the rage is still there .. and the demons.", she said in the vicinity of Xena's blue eyes. "But I can feel at least a part of your heart has been healed and has found comfort." The petite hostess' gaze settled again on Xena's dark tresses.

"And I think this young one shows you the path." Lanessa's head bobbed toward the smaller room and the young woman who now slept in it. Xena's eyes softened as she glanced in the same direction. "She's a true friend", she said, turning back to Lanessa's open stare. "She's a gift, like you ." Xena watched her oldest friend's face.

"She is loyal," Lanessa said, "and stronger, I think, than even you know." Again the two childhood friends shared a confidence without either of them speaking.

"No," Xena said, "I've seen her strength. And I know her heart is decent and kind. I've seen that, too. She has honor, she has courage. She's .. she's my friend. As you are." Xena finished what was, for her, a long speech. Lanessa nodded her understanding and, the warrior felt, her approval.

Xena noticed Lanessa shiver slightly. She pushed the earthen mug away and rose to move toward the fireplace. After she had thrown several logs on the glowing coals, she turned back to her hostess and waited. She watched as Lanessa spread her hands nervously on the table in front of her. The tall warrior felt the tell-tale warning signs mounting within her. She tried to keep her senses in check, vowing to wait until she had a reason to worry. Trying to remain calm, Xena returned to the table and sat down again, facing Lanessa.

"Lanessa", she said gently, "your message said you needed a favor." Xena waited a beat. "Are you ready to tell me what it is you need me to do, exactly?" She watched as the woman seemed to decide how to proceed. At last Lanessa took a slow, deep breath and began. She turned to face Xena squarely.

"What do you know of a man named ... Dryfius?" Lanessa asked.

Xena recognized the reference at once. "He's a petty criminal", she snapped. "A charlatan, a cheat. He tricked a number of people in the northern villages out of some of their crops and their livestock. He's a sly weasel, but at the base, he's pretty harmless." Xena fell silent when she noticed that the nervousness had not left Lanessa's manner.

The woman's small hands were still clenched together. She glanced quickly in the vicinity of Xena's intense gaze, then seemed to return her attention to her own fists. "Well, Dryfius plans to change his image. He's trying to climb down the ladder of crime." Lanessa cast another nervous glance at Xena's face. "He's let it be known that he intends to challenge the warlord Melacon. He's forming his army right now. He's acquired quite a collection."

"Then he's a fool", Xena said, coldness returning to her tone. "No rag-tag bunch of pickpockets and swindlers is going to survive against Melacon. He'll cut them into little pieces." Xena refilled her mug from the jug on the table and raised the vessel to her lips. "Well", Lanessa continued, "Dryfius is very confident about their chances...especially since he has a scheme to acquire a powerful new weapon." The woman showed a dread that sent a foreboding through the warrior's senses.

"What powerful new weapon?" Xena scoffed, trying to ignore the churning instincts that were threatening again. She watched as Lanessa's expression changed from nervousness to outright fear. "What powerful new weapon?" Xena asked again, a hardness creeping into her voice. She waited for Lanessa's answer.

Finally the small woman facing her closed her eyes tightly and drew a shaky breath. When she opened her eyes again, a look of intense pain showed clearly in the dark pools. Xena's internal warning sounded loudly. She gripped the mug angrily, then carefully put the ceramic vessel down.

"You." Xena said, coldly and clearly.

"Me." Lanessa answered quietly. "Dryfius wants *me*." Xena's jaw clamped together in an icy rage.

Chapter Four

For several moments, the only sound in the cottage's kitchen was the crackling of the fire on the hearth. Lanessa sat tensely, waiting for the reaction she knew would soon abound from her oldest friend. Her senses were finely tuned, but she and Xena had not been near each other for a long time. Lanessa waited, her breath shallow and nervous.

The small woman flinched slightly when Xena rose abruptly from the table. The warrior's fists were clenched taut, the muscles along her chiseled jaw rippled as she fought hard to control her own fury. She strode quickly across the room, then stopped. The 'demons', as Lanessa had called them, were threatening her discipline again. Xena's own will was being tested now; she would not let them win.

Xena could feel her heart pounding against the leather under her armor, but she was determined not to vent her anger at Lanessa. She purposefully opened her hands, flexing the fingers to curb the rage she felt building. She drew a slow, shaky breath and exhaled with great effort. After another deep, cleansing breath, she turned slightly toward where Lanessa sat, guarded and immobile, at the table.

Xena strained to keep her voice level. "Where's his camp?" the warrior asked in a tone of steel. "I think we need to talk." she said.

At last Lanessa turned toward Xena. Calmly and quietly she answered. "No, Xena. Not this time."

Xena's head snapped in the direction of the voice behind her. The cold fury in her eyes would have caused many others to cower in fear. But there was no such reaction in Lanessa, who had anticipated the reaction she now was about to challenge..

"What?" the warrior snapped. Xena strode angrily back to the table's edge. "What do you mean, no."

"No.", Lanessa said again, a marked resolve in her quiet tone. "Not again."

Lanessa's calmness had always been unnerving to Xena. Even when they'd been children, Xena remembered , the small woman could not be bullied, would not be taunted away from a decision she'd made. It had been highly frustrating, sometimes maddening. Not even Lyceus, with all his charm and cleverness, could ever manage to sway Lanessa, if she'd made up her mind on a subject.

Now she turned her face toward Xena's and calmly repeated, "We're going to do this another way."

For a brief angry moment, the warrior felt like shaking the woman seated before her. Then the absurdity of her impulse dissolved her rage. Her body began to relax. She leveled her most convincing glare at her hostess, then remembered how futile such a tactic had always been when employed with Lanessa. Xena turned back to the fireplace, frustration rampant within her.

"That's foolishness, Lanessa.", Xena spat out. "It's ... it's naive and dangerous." The words hung in the air like an unkind chastisement. As soon as she'd uttered the phrase, Xena wished she hadn't. She turned toward Lanessa's back, so slender, so apparently fragile. She knew her friend's heart was one of the strongest on the gods' earth. She was Gabrielle's equal in that realm. She also knew her old friend had a will of iron, a ready competitor for her own.

Xena also felt a sharp wave of shame at the memory of what Lanessa's words had referenced. Even though she knew Lanessa would never knowingly hurt her, she recognized her old friend's deep disappointment in the direction her, Xena's, life had taken. She knew of Lanessa's innate revulsion at the violence of that life. Embarrassed, the warrior mutely returned to her position at the table.

For a long moment, her own self-consciousness kept her from responding. Then, striving to keep her voice even, Xena took the woman's small hands in her own. "Look, old friend," Xena began, "I know how you feel about weapons. But ..."

Lanessa's expression had not changed, nor had her determination. "Xena." she said, silencing the warrior's arguments in mid-sentence. Returning the pressure of Xena's hands on hers, Lanessa continued. "I want your word on this. No weapons." Lanessa said very deliberately.

"But these men..", Xena said, losing patience again.

"...are not soldiers." Lanessa finished. "You said it yourself. They're petty pickpockets and charlatans." Xena listened, unconvinced. "Even Dryfius. He may be a greedy, slimy fool", Lanessa continued, "but he's no warrior."

"You don't have to be a warrior to kill with a sword", Xena said coldly. "It's a skill learned all too easily." She pulled her hands away from Lanessa's and sat back angrily. "These men only listen to one kind of voice ...", Xena began again, then saw the silent resolve still flashing in her old friend's dark eyes. "Lanessa...", she tried once more. But she knew the woman's decision would not be swayed. She knew she was indeed wasting energy on this argument.

Finally, Xena threw her hands up in ultimate defeat. When she brought her arms back down onto the table, the bracelet she wore on her left wrist clanked loudly against the wooden surface. At once Xena's eyes were drawn to the large, metal adornment. She'd worn it there, hovering at the end of her gauntlet, since the last time she's returned home, since the day her mother had retrieved it from the small wooden chest that held her most treasured possessions.

"He'd have wanted you to have it", Cyrene had said that day, handing the bracelet to her daughter. Xena had placed it on her wrist and had not removed it since. Looking at the bracelet now drained all the anger from her. She ran her finger across the designs laden into the metal.

She looked up at Lanessa's quiet face. "Do you know who you remind me of right now?" she asked the woman.

Lanessa's gentle smile matched that of her old friend. "Lyceus?" she said without hesitation.

Xena swallowed against the lump forming in her throat. "He could always talk me into things, too." she said. "And out of them." Xena felt a curious release as she stroked the bracelet again.

"All right, Lanessa", she said with a sigh. "I give you my word. We'll try it your way." Lanessa's smile widened and she took Xena's hand again. "But", the warrior added, her voice firm. "if that doesn't work, I am not going to stand by and let Dryfius or anyone else take you." Xena's tone held it's own resolve. "Understand?"

Lanessa reached across the table to take Xena's hands. "I can accept that." she said. She released her friend. "But, my plan will work."

Xena's eyebrows disappeared under her bangs. Her unspoken question was soon answered by the petite female facing her. "Oh, I already had the plan", Lanessa said with a knowing glint in her brown eyes. "I just needed the right partner for it."

The warrior shook her head and glanced at the ceiling of the cottage. "Besides", Lanessa continued, "now we also have Gabrielle. She can certainly handle the words." Xena's old friend gave her a winning smile, the same expression Xena remembered from their childhood. Even though it soothed her heart, Xena couldn't deny the uneasiness she still felt gnawing at her senses.

'By the gods' grace', she said in her mind, 'I hope you're right, old friend.'

Chapter Five

Gabrielle woke to the enticing smells of breakfast. She opened her eyes and took a moment to reacquaint herself with her surroundings. The bed was soft and soothing, the linens held the refreshing aroma of forest blossoms. 'I wonder how she does that!', Gabrielle thought absently, burying her face in the soft coverlet. Then she stretched luxuriously and yawned deeply. She realized she had not slept as comfortably nor as soundly in a good long time. She looked at the other half of the bed. She found it empty. Xena was obviously already up. Finally the girl pushed aside the quilt and got up.

Outside the cottage, the muted sounds of the village drifted in through the open window. Gabrielle pulled on the shawl Lanessa had obviously left for her use, shook her long blond hair and padded out into the kitchen. Again the luscious smells of the morning meal assailed her. As usual she was ravenous. She felt herself smiling in anticipation.

Lanessa stood at the hearth, a large platter in her hands. The moment she heard Gabrielle's bare feet on the floor, she turned slightly to the girl and cocked her head in a 'motherly' imitation. "Shoes, please." she chided in Gabrielle's direction and the young woman felt a warm blush cover her face. Lanessa's impish smile tempered the gentle reprimand with a winning fondness.

"You sound just like my mother." Gabrielle said, retreating again to the bedroom. She sat on the bed to pull on her boots, then decided she might as well get dressed while she was at it. She brushed her long hair and repaired the two side braids that were gathered together in the bone clasp Xena had made for her. With a final brushing of her clothes, she turned to survey the room.

Before she realized what was happening, Gabrielle found herself straightening the bed covers and smoothing the quilt over the down mattress. When the chore was finished, she stood back staring at the bed, hands perched on her hips. A slow look of surprise crept across the bright, young face. She felt herself smiling, ruefully.

"By the gods!", she said softly. "She even makes me tend my bed like my mother." Gabrielle turned her attention toward the sounds in the next room. With an amused shake of her head, she walked back to the kitchen. Lanessa stood near the table, pouring a mug of what looked like fresh, cool goat's milk. She turned toward Gabrielle, her face warm and inviting.

"Good morning!", Lanessa said, cheerfully. She put the mug and the larger jug down on the table and strode toward Gabrielle. "How did you sleep, Young Lady Bard?", she said to the girl. Gabrielle couldn't help smiling back at this small, friendly woman she barely knew.

"Like a cub in a lair", Gabrielle said. Lanessa's gaze was focused on Gabrielle's golden hair so intently that the girl reached up to stroke her own locks. "This all smells wonderful." she said, gesturing to the food on the table. Lanessa put a small hand on Gabrielle's cheek and another on her arm.

"Breakfast!" she announced, then moved back toward the hearth gathering her apron in her hands as she went. "Sit. We can talk while we eat." she said as she busied herself retrieving utensils from the various hooks and steps in the fireplace.

Gabrielle moved to the table and slid onto one of the wooden benches. She happily took the mug of milk and drank from it. The liquid was indeed cool and sweet. She swallowed a mouthful and brought the mug up for another. Lanessa was placing a rather large plate in front of her as she lowered the mug.

"Lanessa!" Gabrielle squealed when she noticed the amount of food set before her. "I'll never eat all this!"

"Since when?" came a droll voice from the cottage doorway. Gabrielle turned toward the door and nearly dropped the earthen mug in her hand.

Chapter Six

Xena stood just inside the room, wearing a long, flowing dress the color of a spring afternoon sky. Her mass of hair was pulled back from her face and a creamy, looped shawl captured her shoulders. The dress's hue heightened the color of Xena's striking blue eyes and the lacings on the bodice of the dress pulled the fabric snug against her lean, trim figure.

The warrior moved from the doorway in a smooth, effortless stride. She sat down on the bench next to Gabrielle, her back against the table, and crossed her long legs under the dress' skirt.

Gabrielle stared at her best friend as though she'd never seen her before. Startled green eyes traveled over the person next to her, wide-eyed and amazed. Xena waited a moment, then gave in to the smirk that played on her own face. She reached forward to place one long finger under Gabrielle's chin and playfully tapped upward. Gabrielle's mouth snapped shut, but her eyes remained in their totally shocked openness. Xena heard Lanessa's soft chuckle float across the table, but she kept her attention on Gabrielle's shocked expression.

Finally the girl found her usually ready voice. "Wha..What...?", she stammered, then again succumbed to confusion. She gulped, put the earthen mug down carefully on the table, and released a mirthful chuckle. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't been here to see it."

Lanessa laughed openly and placed another mug in front of Xena. The warrior's gaze acknowledged the mug, then returned to Gabrielle's still astonished face. She waited while her young friend continued to inspect her new attire. Finally she relaxed her position and placed both hands demurely in her lap.

"Lanessa's idea." Xena said in her normal concise style. "She has one for you, too." she told Gabrielle. "She figured we'd look 'less conspicuous' this way. Less likely to spook our ... guests." , she finished, glancing quickly at Lanessa's serene face.

Gabrielle's awareness came alive. "Guests?" she repeated, looking from Xena to Lanessa and back again. When her gaze settled on Xena, the warrior was calmly sipping from the mug Lanessa had poured for her. She met Gabrielle's eyes and the girl recognized the smug look of a clever strategy behind the cool glance.

"This sounds like fun", the bard said, a delicious excitement growing in her. "Tell me."

"Food." Lanessa said, handing another platter to Xena. "We can plot while we feast." she said. Gabrielle watched Xena take some of the food from the platter and return the dish to Lanessa. The young girl was still transfixed by the change in the warrior's appearance. Images of her friend's life before the days of war began forming in the bard's mind. She seemed absorbed in the visions of a Xena long ago.

Finally Xena turned an embarrassed eye toward her young friend. "Eat, Gabrielle', she said, a light blush covering her own face. "Lanessa has worked all morning."

Gabrielle shook herself away from her fantasy. "Sorry", she giggled, turning back toward the table. "The ... outfit really threw me." She reached for the large platter and began filling her own plate. Another slight shake of her head accompanied the motion.

While the three women enjoyed the delicious meal, Xena and Lanessa informed Gabrielle of the situation with Dryfius and of the plan to outwit him. At Xena's insistence, Dryfius' precise plans in regard to Lanessa's fate were withheld, for the moment. Lanessa hadn't understood why the warrior had been so insistent about not sharing those details with the young woman, but she agreed to abide by Xena's wishes.

The following hour was filled with the various details and intentions of their scheme. Gabrielle's senses became sharpened by the seriousness of the circumstances, but she could feel the excitement of enacting the glorious tricks mounting within her.

Several times during the discussion, the girl offered suggestions as to how certain parts of the plan could be implemented. Both Xena and Lanessa were open to her clever ideas. Lanessa even said as much to the warrior.

"You are a worthy companion, Young Bard", she said honestly to Gabrielle's open face. "It gives me pleasure to know my friend travels with someone so brave." She turned in Xena's direction. "Her heart is true, just as you said."

Gabrielle's throat caught at Lanessa's words. She felt proud that Xena thought so highly of her, even if she'd never heard those words from the warrior herself. Tears cluttered her lashes and she swallowed hard.

There was a moment of unruly quiet around the table. Xena waited for one of the other two women to break the silence, but neither seemed so inclined. Finally Gabrielle wiped a restless hand against her eyes and picked up the earthen plate before her.

"Well", she chirped in a somewhat forced cheerfulness, "let's clear the table and get started." She gathered her mug in her other hand and rose from her seat on the bench. Xena watched the girl with a loving eye. Glancing at Lanessa's knowing face, she rose to carry her own utensils to the bench near the hearth.

Chapter Seven

Xena pulled the shawl higher on her shoulders and crossed her long arms over her slim waist. She gazed at the children playing in the courtyard. She found Lanessa's slight form near them on the grass, in much the same position in which they'd seen her that first day. Several of the children had formed a boisterous group in front of Lanessa, each obviously pleading a different cause in their own behalf. As the warrior observed, the small woman addressed first one child, then another until she had settled the dispute among them. The children happily returned to their game, readily accepting Lanessa ruling and advice.

The tall, beautiful woman felt a deep longing engulf her heart. Watching the innocence of the children's activity, and Lanessa's gentle patience and kindness with them, made her hungry for her own son, so many miles away. She had never had the chance to share such loving pastimes with Solan; his childhood would be gone, she knew, before she saw him again, if she ever *did* she him again.

The warrior didn't often waste energy dwelling on parts of her life that couldn't be changed. She had made the decision to go forward, with Gabrielle, to try to make up for her former life. There was no changing the past; it was futile to try. But, of those days, having had time with her son would have been the one thing she wished with all her heart could have been different.

Xena turned away from the courtyard to find Gabrielle's green eyes staring at her intently. The young woman sat on a bench in front of the cottage, lacing a section of matting with a narrow, wooden tool. The bard wore the long, rust-hued skirt and yellow blouse that Lanessa had provided for her. A short, trimly cut jacket covered the bodice of the outfit.

"How long have you been there?" Xena asked, a thin strain of resentment coloring her voice. Whenever she returned to Amphipolis, painful memories always made her irritable and edgy. There were still members of the village who didn't trust that she'd changed; some still didn't trust her at all.

Gabrielle lowered her eyes to the mat in her hands. Xena immediately felt sorry for the shortness in her tone. She knew the girl's intentions were always in her, Xena's, best interest. And she valued Gabrielle's friendship more than any other on the earth. The warrior gave the girl a rueful smile and sat down next to her on the bench.

"Lanessa had some breakfast for you, but you were already gone when she came back from the market. Where'd you go?" Xena tried not to sound too much like a parent.

"I took a walk around the village." Gabrielle said, her tone reflecting her own less than happy temper. "I needed some air."

"We missed you. Lanessa said she remembered another story." The warrior made a concerted effort to keep her tone light. But she felt a hollowness near her heart when the bard didn't respond to her peace offering.

The warrior watched the young woman working busily on the matting. She could tell that Gabrielle was using the diligence on the project as a ruse. She waited a moment longer, then reached a gentle hand out to cover those of the bard. Gabrielle stopped the activity. But her eyes remained trained on her lap.

"Gabrielle?" Xena said to the silent girl. "What's bothering you?" She watched embarrassment and confusion travel across the girl's face. Finally the young woman turned troubled eyes toward the blue gaze of her friend.

"What's wrong?" Xena asked again. "You've been very quiet since last night." The warrior kept her voice light. "We both know that's not like you." She watched hopefully to see if Gabrielle responded to her feeble joke. The girl's lovely face finally broke into a small grin.

The young woman looked into her friend's eyes. She regretted her feelings at the moment, but Gabrielle had too much respect and admiration for the woman next to her to consider anything but expressing herself honestly.

"I'm sorry." the girl said sadly. "I know Lanessa's an old friend of yours." The bard paused and the warrior waited, uneasy about the concern she read in the young face. Gabrielle let a sharp sigh escape and continued. "And I know she's very special to you, but I can't ..." the girl paused and pulled her eyes away from the warrior's. Xena felt a menacing discord rising within her. "But I have ..." Gabrielle stammered, unsure of how to form her thoughts.

In an instant, Xena's intuition flashed in her mind. Suddenly she knew what Gabrielle was trying to tell her. "But you don't trust her." the warrior said calmly to apology she read in the girl's green eyes.

Gabrielle returned her gaze to her hands, still covered by the warrior's. "No." the girl replied regretfully. "I'm sorry, but I don't."

Xena watched the girl's face. Gabrielle's innate decency would never permit her to lie when the truth was important to a situation. She could see how this conflict was tearing at the girl's loyalty, but she knew Gabrielle's honor was strong. She trusted the bard's judgment, even when she didn't always understand it.

The warrior touched the young woman's shoulder. Gabrielle looked up to meet her eyes. "Can you tell me why?" Xena asked openly. She searched the girl's face, trying her best to understand the uneasiness the bard felt.

The young woman could tell that her friend wasn't actually angry, but she did find a trace of hurt in the blue eyes trained on hers. "I just...", Gabrielle began, then took another breath and stroked the matting again.

"I just can't bring myself to trust someone who won't look you square in the eye." With the statement said, the girl brought her eyes up to meet her friend's again. She was taken aback by Xena's rather astounded expression; the warrior's eyes were wide with surprise and her lips were parted slightly. Gabrielle assumed the warrior's expression portrayed her disappointment in the girl's behavior.

"I'm still ready to help in whatever way I can." Gabrielle began, her voice rushed, her tone repentant. "I'll do whatever you need me to do to ..." the girl's said, still looking at the warrior's shocked face. Eventually, her voice ran down.

Xena closed her eyes slowly and brought her hand to her own forehead, a heady feeling of relief washing over her. "Of course!", she said quietly to herself. Then she turned to the anxious girl and put a gentle hand on the bard's slim arm. "Gabrielle," Xena said, "I'm sorry. This is my fault. I should have told you." the warrior finished.

The green eyes blinked. The girl cocked her head, now even more confused by Xena's comments. "Told me what?" she asked.

The warrior looked away a moment to combat her own chagrin. "I've handled this very badly." the warrior said, more to herself than to the young bard.

"What are you talking about?" the girl said, a wave of impatience coloring her tone. It was very unlike Xena to be this vague when expressing her ideas. It made the Gabrielle uncomfortable. Finally the warrior turned on the bench to meet the young woman's eyes more directly.

"There's something you should know about Lanessa." the warrior said, her lovely face displaying her own sheepishness. Gabrielle's face was expectant, receptive. She did however notice that Xena seemed a little ashamed of herself about something.

"Lanessa doesn't look anyone square in the eye," the warrior said carefully, "at least not the way you mean." Gabrielle still listened carefully. "She can't." Xena said.

"What do you mean, she can't?" Gabrielle asked, a trifle irritated.

Xena gazed again at the slight woman reclining on the grass surrounded by the group of children. Then the blue eyes returned to the girl beside her. "Gabrielle, Lanessa is blind." the warrior said simply.

The bard turned a startled look in the direction of the warrior's old friend. Then she trained the same surprised orbs back at her friend. "What?" the girl asked in a shocked tone.

"She's been blind since we were children." the warrior said, her eyes on the girl's face. "I'm sorry. I should have told you."

Chapter Eight

Gabrielle turned to stare at the woman and the children. Xena watched the young bard's face exhibit an array of emotions. She let the young woman work through her confusion and surprise. It always happened this way, whenever people learned about Lanessa's blindness for the first time. She knew Gabrielle was dealing with her own disbelief.

She studied the girl's face for a moment longer, to decide if Gabrielle was now calm enough to listen. She looked across the courtyard again then turned to the expectant green eyes still trained on her face.

Quietly, the warrior began to speak. "When we were all young, Lanessa became very sick. She was ill for a long time. In fact, no one in the village even thought she would survive. For three full summers, she was too sick to leave her bed, too sick to even speak, much of the time. None of the healers could find out what had caused the illness; all they would say was that it was some horrible kind of fever and that she wouldn't, that she couldn't, live much longer." Xena looked back at the small woman on the grass. "But she did."

Gabrielle's gaze followed that of the warrior. The petite form near the circle of children seemed so small, so delicate. Yet, the bard reminded herself, she had already seen Lanessa's spirit. She had already found a place forming in her heart for this brave, proud woman who met the challenges of her disability not with complaint, or self-pity, but with strength and a contagious joy instead.

Xena turned to Gabrielle again. "Then one morning, the fever left her." Xena said matter-of-factly. "As suddenly as it had come, it was gone." The bard's eyes widened again. "And just as suddenly, Lanessa started to get well. Her health began to return; she became strong and fit. Very soon, she was her old self again," Xena told Gabrielle, "in every way but one." The blue eyes glanced to the small woman again.

"Since that day," Xena said, "she's been blind."

Gabrielle's gaze returned to Xena's friend. The bard could feel tears stinging her own eyes. She turned to Xena again. The warrior's gaze was pensive and sad as she watched the children and their companion.

"But ... wait...", Gabrielle began haltingly, "she knew I was there, with you, before you ever said my name. In fact you never did tell her my name." The girl's words came out nervously, almost frightened, as though the series of facts now seemed to betray her own sensibilities. "And she knew about my stories ... my staff...." the girl's voice ran down again.

"That's why she touched my face, with her hands, wasn't it ?" Gabrielle said slowly. "That first day." The bard's voice was low and steady. "She was ..." the girl stopped.

"She was 'seeing' your face." Xena finished for her. "Her way." The warrior's blue eyes were gentle on the bard's tearful face. Gabrielle blinked and wiped the tears away with the back of one hand.

The girl turned to Xena again. "And Argo?" Gabrielle said. "Lanessa didn't even back up that day in the field. And Argo was coming at her at a full gall..." Suddenly the bard's words stopped in mid-sentence. Xena's blue eyes were watchful, knowing. She waited for Gabrielle to come to her own conclusion.

"Argo knew she couldn't see her coming." the girl said, an awe creeping into her words. "That's why ..."

"Lanessa and Argo have had their own relationship for the whole of Argo's life." Xena said, her voice showing her own bewilderment. "Argo was bred from the mare Lanessa gave me when I left Amphipolis ... the first time." the warrior said hesitantly.

"The first time I mounted Argo, she responded as though she'd already had months of training. I didn't have to spend one day teaching her anything. It was as though Lanessa and her mare had bred Argo specifically for my ... thoughts, my needs." Xena turned to the young woman again.

"That's just another part of the mystery." Xena said, a heartfelt meaning in her tone. "She .. speaks.. to all animals like that. They seem to know her and she them." The warrior's tone was tinged with an unusual reverence.

Xena's expression became animated. "One day, during the first spring solstice after Lanessa became well, she began to warn everyone that a bad storm was coming and that we should be prepared. She kept saying that the crops needed protection."

The bard listened closely to the story.

"Of course, no one really believed her, especially when she kept saying that ..." the warrior paused, remembering the skepticism of the townspeople. "She kept saying that the birds had told her about it." Xena turned a cautious glance at her friend. She found the bard still enthralled by the tale.

"The next afternoon, the sky suddenly became as gray as ashen mud, and the wind came up with no warning." Even the warrior seemed shaken by her own fearful memory. "Within minutes, a terrible storm hit, with ugly, heavy winds and icy rain. It was just as Lanessa had said." Xena's eyes held a childlike astonishment. "And she was right ... about the crops in the fields. They were ruined. Nearly a whole planting ... washed away in an afternoon."

Both women were silent for a moment. Gabrielle's clear eyes were riveted upon her friend's face. She had never seen the warrior so affected by her own words. In fact, the story of the Lanessa's illness and the storm were the most words in a grouping that she'd heard from Xena in their entire time together.

"After that, most people in the village began to look at Lanessa differently." Xena's tone became sad, almost contrite for her kinsmen's cruelty. "Either they treated her like some sort of daft seer, or they simply avoided her altogether." The warrior's long fingers played with the edges of the shawl in her lap.

"Except for you.", Gabrielle said simply, her hand on her friend's arm. "You still treated her like your friend." The warrior turned a quiet blue gaze toward her dear young friend. "You wouldn't have hurt her then, or now." The bard was simply stating what she knew was in the warrior's heart; the girl knew her friend's loyalty was strong and true.

"She was, and is, my friend." Xena said quietly. "Like you, she's part of me."

Gabrielle's senses suddenly cleared. "Is that what you meant when you said, 'another part of the mystery'?" The green eyes were constant and intense.

"Gabrielle," Xena began carefully, "Lanessa may have lost her sight to the fever, but the illness left with a very powerful .. vision." the warrior said, her blue eyes very intense. "When she touched your face, she read your soul."

Gabrielle's mouth dropped open, her eyes grew wide again. "She can do that." Xena said fervently. "Lanessa can put her hands on someone's face and 'know' that person, know what's in their heart, know their - being. She can tell if they're telling the truth or if they're .. feeding their own purposes."

Gabrielle watched her friend's face closely. She knew that Xena was not one given easily to tales of 'vision' and 'soul'. The bard had no doubt that what she was hearing from the warrior was the complete truth as Xena believed it. She watched as the blue eyes searched about as if to convince herself of the reality of her feelings.

Finally the warrior turned back to her friend. "Remember the night I said we were coming here?" Xena asked. Gabrielle nodded. "Well didn't you wonder how I knew that Lanessa wanted me? Didn't you wonder ...?"

"... how the message had arrived?", Gabrielle finished her friend's thought. "Yeah, I did wonder about that.", the bard admitted. "I couldn't figure out how you could have received a message when I hadn't seen any messenger."

Xena's blue eyes were serious. "I just knew." she said. "Gabrielle, that day, when we made camp, I heard Lanessa's voice," the warrior touched her own forehead, "here. I heard her as clearly as you can hear me now. She was telling me that she needed me."

Gabrielle watched the wonder reflect on her friend's lovely face. The warrior princess was not easily surprised by events in life, nor was she often taken aback by an unexplained event or situation. Gabrielle could see a remarkable new wave of astonishment present in the woman's mind. The young woman reached to comfort her friend.

"Lanessa is really special, isn't she?" the girl said softly. Xena's blue eyes turned to her. "Not just because she's your friend. She's been given so many gifts, Xena. She's truly been blessed by the gods." Gabrielle turned toward the courtyard again. "And so have we to have known her." the girl said quietly.

The young woman turned to the warrior again. But the softness had faded from the blue eyes by then. Gabrielle instantly felt an uneasiness as she watched the familiar hardness return to her friend's gaze.

"That's why Dryfius is so determined to take her with him.", the warrior said, a cold determination making her words bitter. "He's intends to use her 'gifts' to help him succeed as a warlord." Xena angry tone made Gabrielle shiver, as usual. "That's why we're going to stop him."

Gabrielle watched as the warrior fought to contain her own anger. The girl knew how the rage in Xena's own soul could unleash a frightening fury, an unbridled wrath that had often driven her friend to do desperate things. Her 'demons', as the warrior called them, were a constant source of the insidious struggles within her.

At that moment, Lanessa appeared before them. Gabrielle jumped slightly when she realized she hadn't heard the woman's approach. There was a tranquillity surrounding the slight figure, an almost visible, soothing calm that arrived with her. As the young woman watched, she could see the strident chords in Xena being released.

Without a word, Lanessa reached forward and cupped Gabrielle's soft chin in her hand. Her focus seemed centered not the girl's face, but rather in the direction of the her long, blond hair. After a moment, a gentle smile spread across the woman's countenance as she turned slightly toward Xena's blue gaze.

"You've decided to tell her." Lanessa's soft voice disbursed the silence. She faced Gabrielle again and stroked the girl's cheek lightly with the back of her fingers. Gabrielle reached up to take the small hand in her own.

"It was time." Xena said quietly. She reached for Gabrielle's shoulder.

"Yes." Lanessa said, and took the hand Xena extended to her. "And it is time for our plan to be enacted. Dryfius will be here in the morning" There was no need to ask how she had arrived at that fact. By now it was clear; she just knew.

Lanessa smiled warmly at the two women before her. "But first, we will enjoy our time together. Come." the slender woman said. As she turned toward the cottage, Xena and Gabrielle rose to follow her. The afternoon sun was sliding down on the horizon; soon it would be evening.

Chapter Nine

Gabrielle watched Lanessa's activities at the hearth carefully. She marveled at the woman's ability to perform even the most intricate duties without seeming to need her vision at all. By simply placing certain objects in a precise, unaltered pattern, her hostess managed to attend to the numerous cooking vessels, mix the batter for the sweet bread she would soon bake, and lay out the plates and eating utensils for the upcoming meal.

The young woman remembered how she herself had wrestled with various cooking equipment at the campfires she and Xena shared. Hardly been a week had passed when she hadn't scorched a fingertip or put a small cut in one hand or the other while preparing their meals. Lanessa had many more things with which to contend, and she hadn't hurt herself once.

'It seems to be a matter of keeping to the pattern', the girl thought, 'and not changing your movements even a little.' When Lanessa lifted the kettle to pour water from it, she returned it to exactly the same position again. The petite cook swung one of the heavy pots out away from the fire, stirred it's contents a few times, then pushed the vessel back over the bright coals to literally the same spot. While the bard sat transfixed, Lanessa moved to the table next to the hearth and returned her attention once again to the batter.

When the woman slowly reached for one of the small spice bottles, Gabrielle felt that, if her hand continued on it's current path, it would miss the small bottle by several inches. On impulse, the girl reached to retrieve the errant bottle and hand it to Lanessa. But before the bard's hand made the journey, the small woman had altered the direction of her hand, captured the container and opened it to shake some of it's contents into the bowl in front of her.

"You're doing it again." Lanessa said, her voice gentle and kind.

"What?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a warm blush spread over her face.

"Staring." the small woman said simply. "And you don't have to hover. This is my kitchen." her hostess reminded her. "I know every skillet, bottle and pot by name. So you can stop worrying about me hurting myself." Lanessa's warm smile told the bard that the chastisement was meant with affection.

"I'm sorry," the girl said. "I'm just so impressed with how well you ..." she searched for the best word.

"Cope?" Lanessa finished her thought. Gabrielle's face felt warm again. She looked down at her hands on the table, embarrassed by her own prejudice.

The slight woman at the cooking table stopped mixing and turned herself directly toward Gabrielle. "Sweetheart," the woman began gently, "I've been sightless most of my life. To me, this is normal." The bard looked at the woman's sweet face. No bitterness showed there, no manner of self-indulgence. Instead, a glow of peace and contentment softened the features. "So stop worrying." Lanessa finished, a mock firmness in her tone.

The girl smiled at her hostess. A deep affection for this gentle, loving woman had grown steadily within her during their days together. Gabrielle knew why Xena treasured this friend so much. There was a warmth in her, a nurturing glow that radiated from her being. Lanessa had made a place of her own in the bard's heart, as well.

For a moment, the young blond sat quietly, then she bounced up from her seat. "Well, at least let me set the table, then." she giggled. "I feel guilty just watching you work."

Lanessa's gentle laugh floated over the gurgling sounds from the hearth. "All right" the woman said. "That you can do. I set the things out over there." she said, pointing at the earthen plates and mugs stacked neatly on a shelf near the hearth. Then she turned to place the pan of batter on the rack closest to the fire.

Gabrielle busied herself with setting the utensils on the table. When the places were laid in the usual array, the young girl strode through the cottage door. She bent to gather a handful of the lovely, lavender flowers that rimmed the walls of the house. Then she returned to the kitchen. Absently, she scanned the cupboard for a container she could use to display the flowers.

"Upper shelf, to the right." came the teasing voice behind her. Gabrielle turned toward the woman at the hearth, a question forming on her tongue. An instant later, the girl giggled again, swallowed the question and reached for the vase on the top shelf, exactly where her hostess had said it would be. She placed the flowers in the ceramic vessel, splashed some water from the pitcher onto them and carried the display to the table.

For the next few minutes, the two women busied themselves with the final preparations for the meal. As the final chore, Lanessa bent to retrieve the iron pan of bread from the rack on the hearth. The smell of the sweet concoction filled the room and made Garbielle's mouth water. The small woman carried the covered pan to the table and put it down near the rest of the food.

When it seemed everything had been done, Lanessa wiped her hands on her apron and untied it. She swept gracefully over to the table and sat down in her usual place. Gabrielle settled herself again on one of the benches, now more than a little anxious for Xena to join them so they could start the meal.

Her hostess anticipated the girl's question - again. "She'll be along.", the woman said, referring to the absent warrior. "She's gone to check on the placement of the matting." Gabrielle nodded, still surprised at Lanessa's uncanny intuition. "Besides," Lanessa said with an amused twinkle in her eyes, "this bread is her favorite. It'll bring her soon enough."

Gabrielle felt a giggle rise in her throat. During their stay, Lanessa had entertained her with numerous stories about the childhood the woman had shared with Xena. Most of the stories had been humorous, all about their girlish escapades and how their days had been spent with the fun and carefree antics of youth. Gabrielle had seen a high blush rise on her warrior friend's face more than once during the telling of those tales. Still, Xena had allowed her old friend to impart whatever memories she wished to the young bard.

Some of the tales had been told quietly, with a strain of sadness by the slight woman who had been her best friend's childhood friend. There had been stories of Lyceus and Torres, Xena's brothers, during their youthful days, and how the three siblings, along with their mother, Cyrene, had seemed to form their own security among themselves. Gabrielle had heard how the family's fierce love and respect for each other had bound them tightly together and provided a strength and a refuge for them.

Perhaps it was because, Gabrielle thought, Xena would never feel comfortable sharing those intimate events of her early life herself, even though the warrior knew the girl yearned to know them more than she would admit. So, in order to please her young friend, Xena had not objected to Lanessa's stories, however embarrassing, or painful, they might be.

As the two new friends waited for their other valued member, Gabrielle decided to ask her hostess the one question she been withholding since learning of the woman's blindness. It was never the girl's intention to be unkind. Instead she simply wanted to know this unique person as completely as possible.

The girl took a quick breath and plunged ahead. "Lanessa, can I ask you a question?" the bard began. She watched the face across the table grow responsive and open. "It's kind of personal, if you don't mind."

"Of course, Gabrielle." the small woman said, her voice warm. "You can ask me anything." The woman's glowing smile made the young girl's throat tighten, but she had summoned her courage and proceeded as gently as she could.

"Xena said you lost your sight when you two were children?" The woman nodded.

"I had just passed twelve summers." Lanessa said. She waited for the girl to continue. Gabrielle felt nervous, now that she had been afforded the opportunity to satisfy her curiosity, but her hostess' gentle face awaited the inquiry.

"Do you remember ...?" the girl began, then started again. "What was the last thing you saw, your last clear sighted thing? Do you remember it?" the young woman finished haltingly, desperately hoping she hadn't pushed Lanessa's good nature too far.

As Gabrielle watched, a deep, contented smile covered the petite woman's face. She trained her sightless gaze on a distant point somewhere in her own memory, then turned a glowing expression toward the bard's open face.

"Yes", Lanessa said, "I remember precisely what it was." She paused to reflect on her own cherished recollection. "The last thing I remember seeing clearly was Xena's face." The soft sound of her voice filled the small kitchen.

Gabrielle's green eyes were round in surprise. She waited for the woman to continue, but Lanessa seemed wrapped in a lovely retrospection. Her gentle brown eyes reflected the joy she felt at this inward journey, and the deep affection she held for the woman they both held so dear. Finally she raised her eyes again, unseeing, in Gabrielle's direction.

"That night, I was even weaker than usual. It was a warm, stuffy, summer night and the breeze had all but deserted us. Just as I was about to try sleep again, my mother came to my room to tell me that Xena had come to visit me, and asked me if I would at least let Xena come say 'hello'. I said, 'Of course', and she brought Xena to my room."

"During my illness, most of the village ... avoided our house." Lanessa explained. Her tone reflected no blame, no animosity colored her words. "No one could decide exactly what was wrong with me." she continued. "Even the healers were baffled by the sickness."

"All the people knew was," Lanessa continued, "that they didn't want to catch it and they surely didn't want their own children to become sick, too."

Gabrielle felt a great sadness for the unkindness endured by her new friend. The insensitivity of the town made the bard's heart ache, even in hindsight. Sympathy for the sick child Lanessa rose within her. It was soon followed by a deep level of admiration for the courage and forgiveness now being demonstrated by the special woman she had become.

"The only family who didn't shun us was Xena, her brothers and her wonderful mother." Lanessa's unfocused brown eyes grew soft and loving at the mention of the warrior's generosity. "One or the other of them was always dropping by, sharing news or just spending time with my mother and me."

Gabrielle's own smile joined the gentle expression of her hostess. "Cyrene would sit with me while my mother went to the marketplace, or she would just read me stories while mother rested." Again the woman paused, letting the sweetness of her reminiscence capture her.

"That night, Xena came in and sat down on my bed and we talked. She told me all about how she and Lyceus had gone to the stream that day, to cool themselves in the water. Then she told me how he had won a race with another boy, swimming from one bank of the stream to the other side."

Lanessa turned a knowing face toward the bard again. The woman's soft, brown eyes were glistening with tears. "She knew I was feeling worse than usual, so she tried very hard to cheer me up, you see? Xena was always trying to cheer me up when I was ill."

Gabrielle felt her own tears welling up as well, but she swallowed hard to keep her composure. Lanessa continued. "Well, we talked a bit longer. She made me laugh. Then we said, 'good night' and I fell asleep." The woman drew a deep breath and exhaled.

"The next morning, when I awoke", she said, "my fever had broken and I remember, too, that I felt hungry." Lanessa said, a soft laugh in her voice. "For the first morning in ages, I actually felt hungry." The lightness had returned to her voice again as well as the joyful approach to life she'd shown since their arrival.

Gabrielle felt tears sweep down over her own face. She told herself that she had no reason to weep, since Lanessa certainly didn't waste time with such an activity. But, deep within the young woman's heart, she knew she was really crying for her best friend, for the kind and generous young girl that Xena had been and for the lost innocence she could never enjoy again. And the bard's tears were full of pride for her friend's noble soul.

"Speaking of hungry," Lanessa said happily, "our friend had better get here soon or we'll have to start without her." The woman's voice sounded a mock sterness, one Gabrielle knew she had invoked to lift the bard's spirits again.

Just as Gabrielle reached to wipe her tears away, another familiar voice sounded in the room. "I'm .. sorry I took so long." the warrior said, entering the cottage. The bard's ear detected a slight waver in the velvet tones and a hesitancy in the tall woman's normally brisk stride.

Xena moved to the pitcher of water and splashed some of the liquid into the basin next to it. She rinsed her hands in the water, then quickly dried them. The activity allowed the warrior to keep her face averted from the green eyes she knew were watching her. Then she turned back to the room.

"Some of the matting over the arbor had slipped. I retied it." Same crisp cadence to the words; same Xena-like economy of statement. Yet, Gabrielle's instincts were sending out warnings; something had upset the warrior princess and, as usual, she was trying very hard not to show it.

Lanessa rose from her seat to bring the pitcher of water to the table. Xena sat down and soon they were all enjoying another delicious array, and the conversation hummed along in the normal vein. But as Gabrielle glanced again at her warrior friend's face, she detected a strain of something unsettling behind the deep blue eyes. But experience had taught her not to press. She would wait, the bard decided, but only for now.

Chapter Ten

The soft, gentle sounds of night surrounded the warrior as she stood alone at the open window. The deep, blue eyes were trained on the quiet darkness, but the scene replayed was taking place in the woman's memory. In Xena's mind, she recalled the days of Lanessa's illness and how helpless and frustrated she had felt at not being able to remedy her dear friend's condition. That fearful time, when her young self had been so frightened at the prospect of Lanessa's death still brought a tightness to her chest, a paralyzing desperation as she remembered how heartily she had yearned to offer some comfort, some solution.

What was even more painful to Xena now was that she had no specific memory of the event to which Lanessa had referred in her talk with Gabrielle. The warrior felt a deep shame at her failure to keep such an important event in her friend's life as sacred as Lanessa obviously had. She didn't even remember the visit, nor had she been even slightly aware of how momentous the incident had come to be.

'How can I not remember that?', she asked herself, as usual with less compassion for herself than for any other. 'How could I forget the fact that that was to be the last time she could see?'

The warrior's beautiful eyes filled with tears. She felt the numbing pain that always enclosed her when she reviewed the effects that her heartless, and sometimes cruel, actions had rendered upon others in the years when violence had been her life's passion. 'How many other people have I hurt this badly?', her heart screamed. 'How many more will suffer before this ends?' A wrenching ache ravaged through her. She took several deep breaths to loosen the grip on her chest.

'And Gabrielle,' Xena thought, another wave of remorse washing over her. She looked over at the sleeping girl, snuggled comfortably under the covers on the bed. 'How many more times will I return her kindness, her goodness, with unfeeling selfishness before I destroy our friendship, too?' The warrior pulled her arms tight around herself. These painful memories never seemed to end. They tormented her, they punished her, ever threatening, always ready to crush her will and shatter her resources.

As if she had sensed Xena's thoughts of her, Gabrielle stirred in the bed. The young girl raised up slightly and cast a sleepy gaze at the empty space beside her. She turned to scan the darkened room. When her eyes became accustomed to the darkness, she saw the tall, lean form standing at the window. She watched as the warrior's body shuddered, then returned to the normal straight, iron-backed stance. The bard saw one slender hand travel over the stunning, high cheekbones, then again become tucked tightly around the form at the waist.

"Xena?", Gabrielle said softly, still watching her friend. "Something wrong?" The girl swept off the coverlet and padded across the room. She placed a gentle hand on the warrior's slender arm. The girl noticed the tears streaming down her beautiful friend's face, clearly visible in the moonlight that shone through the open window.

Xena covered her young friend's hand with her own, but her eyes were still focused on the dark night outside. "I didn't mean to wake you up." the warrior said, her voice wavering with newly-shed tears. "Go back to bed. It's ... I'm fine." She released the girl's hand and resumed her tight grip on her own middle.

Gabrielle stood quietly next to the friend she valued most on earth. She could see the pain that had returned to the clear blue eyes, even in the dim illumination at the window. The young woman experienced the same conflicting feelings that always swept over her whenever she found Xena in the throes of some personal suffering. Should she intrude and press the warrior for details in order to soothe her pain, or should she simply withdraw from the situation, leaving her friend to deal with the agony on her own?

After a moment, Gabrielle withdrew her hand. Xena did seem somewhat calmer now, more her usual stoic, unflappable self. The girl turned toward the bed when the warrior's liquid voice recaptured her attention. "I don't even remember it." the woman said softly. The bard turned back toward the voice, her head slightly forward to capture the words. Xena turned to face the girl then, her face stricken and frightened. "I don't remember the night Lanessa told you about."

Gabrielle's mind replayed her conversation with their hostess. Then she finally realized which night Xena meant and why the warrior had been so upset when she'd returned to the cottage earlier that evening. But the girl still wasn't certain why the reference had caused such pain in her friend. "It was a long time ago." Gabrielle said gently. "And you were only children then."

Xena's eyes were cold and angry, the tears still brimming there. "But it was her last night of sight!" the warrior said firmly. "It's something she still carries with her." She turned back to the window angrily. "And I don't even remember being with her." Gabrielle saw the warrior's self-recrimination, the punishing inward assault that she constantly inflicted upon herself. The girl's heart ached for her suffering friend. She wanted nothing more at that moment than to wrap her arms around the strong woman in front of her and cradle her gently against the fury of her own wrath. Instead she simply took a firm grip on Xena's arm.

"Xena, stop it!" the young woman said, her voice determined. "You've got to stop blaming yourself for things you can't control." Xena turned a surprised gaze to the young face beside her. The girl's jaw was set firmly and there was an undeniable fire behind the green gaze. She saw the strength, the loyalty, and the sincerity in the girl's heart.

Then the bard's eyes grew tender and the warrior's heart swelled at the sight of the girl's clear devotion. Gabrielle shook her friend kindly. She reached up to brush the long, dark hair away from the unhappy face. "You're not responsible for *everything* that happens to *everyone*." A small grin traveled across the young, loving face. "Not even *you're that* good." She released Xena's arm and stood facing her, hands perched on her slender hips. The bard watched as the blue eyes that locked onto hers reflected a wide range of emotions. For a moment, the room was utterly silent.

Xena's gaze softened and her chin rose a perceptible degree. The warrior's body relaxed and she drew a clean, deep breath. She let her eyes travel over Gabrielle's childlike appearance. With her blond hair tousled from recent sleep, her slight form clothed in the sleeping gown that Lanessa had provided, the bard resembled nothing more than a recalcitrant child refusing to observe her bedtime.

Finally, a soft chuckle escaped from the warrior. She returned her gaze to the shining green eyes and the girl's soft, smiling face. Xena used both hands to wipe the tears away from her own face and shook her long, dark mane back off her shoulders. Then without hesitation, she reached to gather the young woman in a firm, tight hug. Gabrielle's surprised face was quickly tucked against the crook of the warrior's shoulder.

Xena released the girl and looked down into the bright green eyes again. "I'm not, huh?" the warrior said, her beautiful face smiling.

"Nope.", Gabrielle said impishly. "I hate to break it to you, but you're not ... Herculisa, OK?" she finished. The warrior's eyebrows shot up out of sight under the dark bangs across her forehead. Both women smiled widely and then stepped apart.

Gabrielle could sense the uneasiness return to Xena. Affectionate physical contact, especially when it came spontaneously, always made the warrior uncomfortable. But the girl knew the hug had been truthful, the sentiments genuine. She cocked her head to one side and kept her tone light.

"Shall we get some sleep?" she asked, hoping her friend would at least try to rest.

Xena pulled the shawl off as they moved toward the down coverlets. "Good idea." she said. She climbed onto the bed and pulled the soft wrappers over her lean, trim body.

Gabrielle hopped onto her side of the bed and wrapped her arms around the sweet-smelling pillow. Then a sudden thought popped into her head. She turned back to the warrior.

"Just before we came to bed..?" the girl began. Xena turned her head toward the young face. She saw the confusion visible there even in the dim light of the room. "Did I hear Lanessa right, when she left the cottage?"

The warrior thought for a moment, trying to decide just exactly what the young girl was asking. "What did you hear?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle scoffed lightly, a twinkle lighting the green eyes. "I thought I heard her say she was going to talk to Argo.", the girl laughed softly. "About tomorrow." The bard waited for Xena's answer.

The warrior smiled quietly and dropped the soft coverlet over herself. "Then you heard her right." she said, pulling one lean arm up under her head. She watched the girl's face register the total confusion still present in her mind.

"Oh.", Gabrielle said, still not very convinced. "Good." Xena watched as the blond head shook gently, then settled tipped to one side. Finally she turned to the form next to her.

"Well, good night." she said to the warrior. Then she took a deep breath, laid her cheek down on the pillow and snuggled down under the covers.

"Good night." Xena answered with an amused smile.

A few minutes later, the warrior gently pulled the down-filled coverlet higher over the quiet form. She gazed down at the sleeping face on the pillows beside her. Xena could hear Gabrielle's steady, regular breathing in the stillness of the room. The girl was already asleep again. In the darkness, the warrior's throat caught at the deep affection she felt toward the young woman lying next to her. 'May the gods help me', she thought earnestly. 'May I never hurt this goodness again.' With the prayer still in her mind, the warrior finally fell asleep.

Chapter Eleven

When Xena awoke a few hours later, her senses were pulsing with wary anticipation. She glanced at the window; sunlight, low in the sky. That meant dawn. The warrior rose silently, wrapped the shawl around her slender body and started toward the door of the room. With a quick backward glance at the still-sleeping girl in the bed, Xena stepped through the door and closed it silently behind her.

She turned into the kitchen to find Lanessa standing at the entrance to the cottage. The woman's face was tranquil, her manner calm. She was wearing her normal attire, a loose-fitting tunic covering the soft, flowing skirt the color of the subtle leaves of autumn. Lanessa's arms were folded in front of her, catching the corners of her looped shawl and pulling the garment close around her petite form.

Xena approached the slight woman, her own anxious feelings forming a knot in her stomach. After a moment, she laid a gentle hand on the small woman's shoulder. Lanessa covered the strong fingers with a soft palm. A quiet smile floated across her peaceful expression and she turned her head slightly toward Xena.

"Do you remember the game we used to play with the spoons?" Lanessa said, her voice warm.

The warrior smiled at the memory the woman mentioned. "The one during Solstice?" she asked. "You used to win every game."

Lanessa's fingers squeezed Xena's hand. "You and Lyceus always made sure I did." she said, turning her face more toward the warrior's blue gaze. "You were always protecting me, the two of you."

Xena's throat tightened at the woman's reminiscence. The statement was true; she and her brother had always tried to make Lanessa feel she had as much worth as all the other children, even with her disability. She gave her old friend's slender shoulders a gentle hug. "We only did that at first." the warrior said. "After a while, you started beating us on your own."

"But you were always there, to clear the path for me. You and Lyceus. You were my champions, my sentinels. Guarding me from harm, keeping me safe." Lanessa's gentle voice filled the small kitchen. She turned to capture the warrior's face with her palms. Xena, as usual, was unnerved by the intimate touch. But she swallowed her self-consciousness and submitted to the woman's examination. After a moment, Lanessa released her friend's countenance and moved her grasp to the warrior's lean arms.

"We ...", Xena stammered, "we just didn't want to see you hurt." The warrior lowered her eyes from the brown orbs facing her. Even though she knew Lanessa couldn't really see her face, the warrior felt the same unease she always experienced when Lanessa's eyes seem to actually focus on her directly.

"My dearest friend." Lanessa said to the warrior's disconcerted face. "You will always be my dearest friend, Xena. Always."

The warrior's throat tightened painfully. She blinked hard to stem the tears gathering in her clear, blue eyes. She had always felt an unfaltering affection for the woman now facing her. Her feelings for Gabrielle were as deep and enveloping as any she had ever known. Yet the steadfast, resolute, and mutual devotion she and Lanessa held for each other would forever be a part of her as well . Xena studied the gentle face of her oldest friend, a disquieting foreboding settling around her heart.

"You can stop protecting me now, Xena." Lanessa said, her face clear and open. She raised a slender hand to stem the remark she sensed forming on the warrior's lips.

"I must do this alone." the woman said in a quiet, but firm voice. "It's important to me. Do you understand?"

Xena's objections melted against the woman's gentle determination. The warrior took a deep, calming breath. "All right." she said at last. "I think I do understand, Lanessa." Xena released her friend's petite frame and stepped back from their embrace. She drew the shawl on her shoulders tighter and fought to calm her own apprehension. "We'll take our cues from you."

"Thank you, Xena." Lanessa said, her sightless gaze warm. Then a subtle change took over the woman's manner. The warm smile disappeared and her face became alert. Lanessa stood very still, her head tilted slightly to one side. She seemed to be listening to some private cadence, a sound only she could hear. Her calm expression was replaced by a meaningful deliberation. Her gaze fell from Xena's and the brown orbs slowly swept from side to side.

Xena's senses became alert. She recognized the signs in Lanessa's sudden introspection.. The warrior anticipated the woman's next comment.

"You'd better wake Gabrielle.", Lanessa said calmly. "The time is very near for us to test our plan."

The warrior turned and immediately crossed the kitchen. Before she'd reached the door to the adjacent room, she'd removed the shawl and was unlacing the sleeping gown. As she entered the smaller chamber, she looked up to see Gabrielle's sleepy eyes watching her. The girl's expression changed the moment she recognized the brisk pace to the warrior's movements.

Gabrielle watched as Xena pulled off the sleeping gown and reached for the long, blue dress Lanessa had given her. When the warrior's head reappeared from under the costume, her eyes sought those of the bard.

"Party time?", Gabrielle asked, a twinkle shinning in her green eyes.

"Party time." the warrior answered.

Chapter Twelve

Dryfius urged his mount toward the small cottage at the edge of the square. His eyes were trained on the slight woman standing quietly near the structure. He recognized the long, auburn hair, the slight, proud form. The arrogance in his manner rose as the armor of the men mounted behind him creaked in the early light of the day.

Absently his gaze passed over the other figures present near the small house. He recognized both as female, but relaxed at once when he determined they posed no threat to him. One, small and blond, was seated on the bench in front of the cottage. She appeared to be mending a wide expanse of thatch. The other woman was tall and beautiful with a long, flowing expanse of raven-colored hair. She stood in the doorway of the house, her arms folded across the slender waist of her blue dress.

Dryfius reined in his horse in front of the stone cottage. He fixed his most winning smile on his gloating face, and addressed the petite woman in the middle of the yard.

"Well, Lanessa", he began, his voice coying and sweet. "Are you ready for our journey?"

The tall woman in the doorway took a slow stride away from the opening. Her piercing blue eyes seemed to bore into his leather battle jacket. He tossed the woman his most intimidating glance. Then he looked back at the small woman standing in front of him.

"I don't think so, Dryfius." Lanessa said, her voice as smooth and gentle as always. "As you can see, I have guests." She motioned to the two women behind her. "I'm afraid you'll have to go on without me.", the small woman told him with a wide smile. Her vacant gaze seem trained on Dryfius' horse, a habit of hers that always unnerved him. She never seemed inclined to actually look at him directly.

The soldier's fraudulent grin quickly faded from his unattractive face. His impatience with the woman's condescending response was rapidly replaced by open hostility. From her perspective, Xena sensed the rising fury in the man; it was an emotion with which she'd had personal experience. She strained to keep her own ire under control.

Lanessa started to turn back toward the house when the angry snarl of the soldier cut across the open yard. "Tell your guests good-bye, Lanessa. You've got an appointment. With me." Dryfius leaned forward in his saddle and perched one gloved fist on his meaty leg. He glared at the woman's slender back as she turned back to face him.

The stillness of the morning wrapped around the event in the small yard. For a moment, the only sounds heard were made by the leather clothing worn by the Dryfius' riders, and the shuffling and prancing of the mounts on which they sat. Gabrielle held her breath as the obvious battle of wills began.

Lanessa drew in a slow, quiet breath. The bard shot a quick glance at the silent warrior. Xena stood absolutely still, her clear blue eyes trained on the scraggy face of the bully nearest them. The bard watched as the soldier glared at Lanessa, attempting to intimidate the small woman into complying with his wishes. It seemed like an eternity before anyone moved.

Finally Lanessa's voice cut into the steely silence. The gentleness disappeared from her normally docile tones. Gabrielle saw the woman's chin rise a noticeable degree.

"No, Dryfius. I will not be traveling with you." she told the glowering soldier. "And I think perhaps your mounts have changed their minds as well." Lanessa said. An odd sentiment in her voice seemed to spark a genuine nervousness in the rowdy thug in front of her.

Dryfius snorted at the woman's tone in an attempt to mask his obvious confusion at her remark. He cast an amused smirk toward the group of men behind him. They all seemed amused at the woman's empty threat.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Dryfius growled, his arrogance returning. His insolent laugh turned his leering face even more grotesque. Soon all the men were chortling in a confident, superior wave.

Without changing one particle of her position, Lanessa raised her fingers to her mouth and executed the shrill whistle Gabrielle recognized as the same signal Xena always used to summon Argo. Instantly, the animal appeared in the doorway of the small shed that stood next to Lanessa's cottage. The mare whinnied in acknowledgment to the woman's call as if to say, 'Did you call me?'

The bully on the horse seemed more than slightly disconcerted. He looked nervously from the woman to the horse in the door and back to the small woman again.

"Talk to these boys, Argo." Lanessa called to the mare. "Tell them what I mean."

The golden horse trotted out a few paces from the shed and pawed at the ground with her front hooves. She whinnied again, loudly and long, a strident voice in the quiet morning air. Then Argo snorted, shook her powerful head in an angry manner and reared up to pound the ground with her hooves once more.

In another second, the horses circled outside the cottage all began a frenzied dance. Some reared up to full height, flinging surprised riders to the ground. Others arched their haunches and began the bucking and stomping usually seen in horses not yet broken or tamed. Even Dryfius' own mount suddenly arched his body into a tight curl, whirling himself into a circle that had the bully fighting to maintain his seat in the saddle.

After a few minutes of pandemonium, Lanessa whistled again and the horses began to calm down. Most were still prancing and snorting, but they eventually returned to a nearly normal state. Dryfius' men were hard pressed to regain control over their mounts. After some arduous attention, the animals were soon at least quiet enough for the men to remount them.

Gabrielle's eyes searched for the position of the warrior. She was surprised to notice that her friend was making an effort to mask her own amusement. She watched Xena subtly raise a slender hand to cover her own smile. The bard turned to study Lanessa's open expression. The woman's face showed the same gentle smile that the girl had come to recognize. The seriousness that had hardened her features a moment ago had all but disappeared.

After a few more minutes, Dryfius had regained his position on his horse, but the insolence in his manner had been replaced by red-faced embarrassment and furious mortification. He turned to his disheveled companions and barked an order for them to reassemble themselves into ranks. Then he turned a menacing glance toward Lanessa.

"No more tricks, woman." he snarled toward the slender figure. "I'll be back tomorrow and you will come with me." He glared at the passive face. "Or I'll turn this town into a scorched kindling." Gabrielle saw Xena's jaw tighten at the bully's threat.

"Tomorrow." Dryfius barked at Lanessa again, jabbing a dirty gloved finger in her direction. Then he turned his horse back toward the road out of town. "Let's go." he growled to his men. The surly group turned and departed.

Lanessa waited until the men had cleared the town square, then she turned toward the golden mare who still stood watchful in the yard behind Xena. The woman clapped her hands together and the horse trotted happily over to her. When the animal was within her arms' reach, Lanessa gathered the magnificent head in a loving caress. Argo neighed softly and rubbed her soft muzzle against the woman's face.

"Thanks, girl.", Lanessa crooned to the mare, as Xena approached the pair. "You were perfect." Gabrielle left the bench and walked toward the little group in the yard. She glanced at the warrior who was now shaking her head in quiet admiration.

As the two women watched, Lanessa spent a few more loving moments with Argo, chanting soothing phrases into the animal's powerful neck. Then she released the mare with a final pat on her chest. Argo calmly turned back toward the shed and trotted obediently toward the building, eventually disappearing through the open doors of the structure.

Lanessa put one hand on the arm of each of the other women. She turned her gentle smile first to one, than to the other. "Now, how about breakfast?" the small woman chirped happily. The warrior's surprise was clearly evident in her blue gaze. She stared at the slender form in obvious amazement.

Gabrielle burst out laughing at the shock on her friend's face. She tucked her arm around Lanessa small waist. "Let's eat." the bard chimed in. "I'm starving."

Lanessa's slim arm encircled the girl's shoulders and the two women started toward the cottage. Xena watched them go, then turned a wary eye toward the retreating group of men. The warrior's instincts were still tuned tight. She knew that this had only been one small victory. And she had a deep foreboding about what was to come.

Chapter Thirteen

Gabrielle turned to Xena, still standing alert in the doorway of the small cottage. From behind her, she could hear the sounds of Lanessa's activity at the hearth. The young woman placed the last earthen plate and mug on the table and quietly moved to where Xena stood.

The girl saw the tall woman's alertness taut in her face. The blue eyes searched the horizon where the group of riders had already disappeared. Gabrielle could tell; the warrior had not relaxed one muscle in her body. She knew Xena was still anxious about the bullying Dryfius and his boastful threats. Green eyes scanned the path in the distance.

"They're not coming back, are they?" the girl asked, not really concerned.

Without changing her line of vision, Xena replied, "No." She turned to glance quickly at the young face beside her. For an instant, Gabrielle saw the same fury that had glowed during Dryfius' visit. Then it faded as quickly as it had come. Xena turned back to the road.

"I think she's really confused him. But he's not going to back off that easily." the warrior said, her voice hard and threatening. Finally the piercing blue eyes met those of the bard. The glint in them made the bard jumpy. Whenever Xena's eyes turned that color, it meant she'd made up her mind about what she intended to do next. She turned abruptly away from the door and strode purposely toward the table. Lanessa was laying out the food for their meal when Xena caught one of the woman's small hands in her own.

"Lanessa", the warrior said gently. The small woman paused in her duties and turned toward the source of the voice. "Don't goad him. Don't humiliate him the next time. A man like Dryfius can't afford to loose the respect of his men." Xena waited as the petite woman considered her advice.

Gabrielle saw their hostess' gentle face became firm and decisive. Her chin rose a degree and she withdrew her hand from Xena's. "You're right, of course.", Lanessa said after a moment. The bard noticed a tone in the voice she hadn't heard before. She watched the slight form straighten a bit as Lanessa drew her shawl around herself.

"I promise to be more careful", the petite woman said evenly in Xena's direction, "if you'll put the chakrum away."

Gabrielle's eyes shot to the warrior. There was a look of total surprise in the bright blue gaze. The bard also couldn't help thinking that her friend's expression reminded her of a child who'd been caught sampling desert before supper. After a long moment, Xena reached under the shawl at the back of her waist and withdrew the round, metal weapon.

The bard covered her mouth with one hand. She clamped her teeth together to stem the hearty laughter she felt building inside. It seemed her dearest friend had finally encountered a will as strong as her own. And in this instance, she'd lost the battle.

Quietly, the warrior lowered the circle, but her eyes were still trained on Lanessa's open stare. Both women stood tensely facing each other across the table.

"You gave me your word." Lanessa's quiet voice seemed to fill the kitchen. Xena's jaw rippled under her chiseled cheekbones; Gabrielle could see the warrior battling to control her emotions.

"And I also said I wouldn't let him take you." The voice was one Gabrielle recognized as the most determined on earth. For another long moment, the kitchen air was static with the unwavering resolve of both women. Finally Xena's lean body relaxed as she took a stride away from the table. She turned abruptly and walked into the small chamber where she and Gabrielle had slept. She returned to the kitchen a moment later ... without the chakrum.

Xena stopped a few paces behind Lanessa's silent form. Gabrielle saw the look of apology in the warrior's blue eyes as she gazed at her old friend's angry frame. But neither woman seemed inclined to diffuse the confrontation. 'Both as stubborn as a smithy's hammer', the girl chuckled to herself. She looked from one willful face to the other. Still no signs of capitulation.

The bard slowly moved herself to a position between the two stiff forms. Then she forced a cheery tone into her own voice and smiled widely.

"Well", she said brightly, "now that that's settled, let's eat!" The young woman touched the warrior's arm with a gentle hand. She felt the muscles loosen under her fingers. Gabrielle watched as the blue eyes softened and then lowered contritely.

The girl moved to stand beside Lanessa. She could sense the woman's quiet anger. The girl nudged the slender shoulder playfully with her own. "Do I smell biscuits?" Gabrielle said, her impish tone bringing the return of her hostess' smile. Lanessa turned to the young woman and embraced her warmly. When she pulled back, the bard noticed the glistening tears in the woman's blank stare.

"With nutmeats", Lanessa said, her voice wavering slightly. "Pour the milk." She reached to capture Gabrielle's face in her hands for a moment, then turned toward the hearth. Her path took her directly in front of Xena, who still stood immobile where her own steps had ended.

As she approached the silent warrior, the petite woman stopped. Wordlessly, she took her friend's hand and held it a moment. Then she continued her path toward the fireplace. The deep emotion between the two women showed clearly in Xena's blue eyes. She drew a quiet, short breath and moved toward the table. Gabrielle was pouring the milk.

The warrior's gaze locked with the bard's. The look said, 'Thank you'.

Chapter Fourteen

By late afternoon, Xena's nerves were stretched tight. The angry episode with Lanessa still bothered her. She cared deeply for the woman and would have gladly treated Dryfius to her best fighting skills on her friend's behalf. But Lanessa's rigid determination required that she keep her word, even though doing so brought a knot of frustration to the warrior's stomach.

Xena's sense of honor had always controlled her conduct. Even during the years of fighting and conquest, she had admitted she felt a certain amount of respect toward an enemy who had shown a even degree of principle, however inverted it may have been. Since she didn't expend her own trust lightly, it's investment always included an undeniable reliance. She despised betrayal above every other misdeed. So she had always felt bound by the same integrity whenever she had given her word to another.

Those years of battle had also instilled a hearty skepticism in the warrior's concept of others. Until Hercules had opened her heart to friendship and then to love, she had not allowed any other access to her true, inner self. Then Gabrielle's gentle goodness and loyalty had, as Lanessa had said, 'healed' her heart and afforded her a growing peace she had never known with anyone else. Even so, she still didn't trust many others quite as easily.

Xena strode along the front wall of the cottage. She felt nervous and jumpy, too tense to relax and too distracted to concentrate. She had a very bad feeling about Dryfius' next move and was consumed by a deep frustration at not being able to assume her normal plan of action. Being in the dress was beginning to make her uncomfortable. And being without her weapons made her feel, well, vulnerable.

She had already checked and re-checked every particle of the next day's planned encounter with the bully. There was nothing left to do except ... wait. It was her least favorite activity. Eventually the warrior found herself seated on the bench under the tree in Lanessa's front yard. She tried to calm her nervousness and settle the rampant apprehension that rattled her perceptions.

After a moment, the warrior became aware of another presence. Her eyes searched the immediate area for any sign of an intruder. They scanned the yard and the fenced quarter surrounding the shed where Argo was housed. Then, slowly and carefully, her gaze turned toward the tree above her. She half expected to find one of Dryfius' thugs, lurking in the foliage. What she didn't expect to see was the round, cherubic face that gazed back at her.

"Hello there", Xena said to the boy who straddled the large limb in the center of the tree. "Efron, isn't it?" The boy's face remained unresponsive, his large brown eyes trained on hers. The mass of copper ringlets around his face fluttered lightly in the soft breeze.

"What are you doing up there?" Xena asked, a gentle smile softening her lovely face.

The child's eyes turned defensive, his manner custodial.

"Lanetha told me I could climb thith tree whenever I wanted." the boy said. The note of defiance in his tone made the warrior's smile widen.

"You haven't answered my question." Xena said. "What are you doing in the tree, Efron?" She watched as he literally scampered from one limb to another, his footing sure and confident.

When he had transferred himself to his newest landing, he turned toward the warrior again. After another moment of proprietary attitude, the brown eyes again locked on the blue orbs trained on him.

"Watching", he said, almost daring her challenge.

"Watching for what?", she asked, enjoying the boy's lack of intimidation.

"That bad man who wath here thith morning." he said. Xena's throat caught at the youngster's courage and determination. "He wanth to hurt Lanetha."

The warrior's jaw stiffened with her own anger. She forced herself to lighten her tone. "Well, we won't let him do that, will we?" She stood up and extended her arms toward the boy.

"So you can come down now, Efron." Her invitation was met with a stubborn glare. Xena made an effort to conceal her amusement at the child's independent manner. She lowered her arms and folded them across her waist. "C'mon.", she told him, a gentle authority stressed in her tone. "It's almost time for supper. Your mother will be worried."

After another moment, the boy shifted his weight and began to maneuver himself along the limb toward the tree's sturdy trunk. He took a path which deliberately led him away from her. Xena watched the boy's nimble progress, impressed by his balance and grace. Finally Efron jumped down from the tree onto the bench she had vacated. His chin was raised willfully, his little fists perched on his slender hips.

"You do that very well", Xena said. "Lanessa would be proud of you."

Instantly the child's face beamed. An adorable dimple flashed in the middle of each soft cheek, and a proud twinkle glittered clearly in the round, brown eyes. Xena waited as the boy's glance traveled over her form.

"Lanetha'th my betht friend.", he announced. "I'm gonna protect her from that bad man." The brave tone in the boy's voice tugged at the warrior's heart. "Ith that why you and your friend are here, too?" he asked her, his tone solemn and firm.

Xena tried to keep her voice as serious as the boy's. "Yes", she said, meeting his earnest gaze directly. "That's why my friend and I are here, too." She watched as the boy seemed to consider this new information. Finally his gaze traveled again to her face. His brown eyes held her gaze and a tiny scowl narrowed the sun-bleached brows.

"Well, OK then." he said, pulling himself up as tall as he could. "If the bad man cometh back, we'll jutht .. make him go 'way." the child stated emphatically. He frowned menacingly, a determined jut to his lower lip. The warrior felt a giddy pleasure at his acceptance of her as his ally.

"That's right, Efron", Xena said, her tone purposely grave. "We'll make sure of it." She extended her open hand toward the youngster. The boy placed his small hand in hers and shook it firmly. Then his gaze turned in the direction of home. After flashing another dimpled smile at the warrior, he jumped down off the bench.

"If you need me, jutht holler." he said to Xena. Then the boy turned away and trotted toward home.

"I'll do that." the warrior said, making an effort to keep her expression serious. Xena watched the small form travel across the town square. She felt a genuine respect as she considered the child's brave heart. A smile softened the warrior's face. When she turned back toward the cottage, she found Gabrielle's warm gaze focused on her. The girl stepped from the doorway and strode slowly toward the warrior.

"Who's your friend?", the young woman asked, her green eyes twinkling.

"His name's Efron." the warrior said, her tone light. "He's Lanessa's 'best friend'". She turned to watch the youngster enter a house at the edge of the square. "And one of her many admirers, I would guess."

Xena sat down again on the bench, her emotions still uncentered. She let out a frustrated sigh. "I hate all this waiting around, doing nothing." she said. The bard sat down beside her. "It's one of my ..."

"Least favorite things", the girl finished with her. The warrior's blue gaze met those of her best friend. "You're terrible at it, as a matter of fact." Gabrielle said, a warm twinkle in her eyes. The two women exchanged a loving glance. The girl looked quickly toward the cottage, then back to the warrior.

"If I ask you something, will you tell me the truth?" the young woman ventured. Xena turned a slightly resentful expression toward the girl.

"Of course, Gabrielle. When have I not?"

The bard's eyes stayed fixed on the deep blue gaze of her friend, her head tilted barely to one side. One eyebrow slipped under the blond bangs.

"Well, when have I not when it was important?" the warrior finished lamely. "What is it you want to know?"

"What did you give your word to Lanessa about?" the young woman asked, lowering her voice slightly. Xena's eyes focused on the tails of the shawl in her hands. Gabrielle waited, her eyes still trained on her friend's face. "Xena," she said again, intrigued by the warrior's chastised expression..

Xena reluctantly raised her gaze to meet the girl's. Then she looked away. She swallowed carefully. "When Lanessa first told me about the problem with Dryfius", she began, a bitterness in her tone at the mention of the bully's name, "she made me give her my word." The warrior's jaw rippled in muted frustration. She took another deep breath and continued. "She made me promise I wouldn't use my weapons to solve it."

This time *both* of Gabrielle's eyebrows disappeared under her wheat-colored bangs. She watched Xena's face. She could see the struggle within the woman's conscience. The warrior side of her longed to settle the matter in the usual way; yet the girl knew her friend's honor would not allow her break her word, at least not completely.

"That's why she was so upset ... about the chakrum?" the bard asked. She met the blue eyes now leveled at her own.

Xena nodded silently. Gabrielle saw the regret in the crystal, blue eyes. The sting of Lanessa's anger had left it's mark on the warrior's spirit. The goodness of the intention to protect her old friend had become overshadowed by what seemed to be a betrayal of her promise to the other woman. The girl knew it was that aspect of the quarrel that troubled her gallant friend most

Gabrielle was certain that Xena's heart was ultimately true, and that she would never purposely recant on her pledge. It had been the warrior's loyalty to her old friend that had moved Xena to retain the chakrum, even though she knew Lanessa would ultimately be angry with her for doing so.

The girl placed a hand on the warrior's shoulder. "You know, she's almost as stubborn as you are." the bard said. Xena turned an annoyed look to the bard's open face. Then her gaze softened at the sight of her lovely friend. A quiet smile lit the woman's attractive features.

"Almost." Xena said, her blue gaze warm. The bard's eyes twinkled in return. Then the warrior's face became serious again. "In a way, I'd rather have Dryfius just make his move and then we can end this. Playing these games is making me ... jumpy." Xena's posture changed on the bench. Gabrielle could read the tension in the woman's body.

The warrior turned her attention toward the petite woman moving about in the small herb garden adjacent to the cottage. The bard studied the face she had come to respect above all others. There was a look of deep regret across the blue eyes. The young woman shifted her own gaze to the diminutive figure among the plants. Then the green eyes returned to the woman beside her.

"After the siege against Cortese", Xena began quietly, "many of the people in the village turned their hate for him toward me." Gabrielle felt her heart tighten for her friend's still-present pain. The warrior turned a sad gaze toward the girl. "Most of them lost people they loved, you see." she said in a voice weary with the memory.

"Husbands, sons, brothers. Gone or changed forever." The blue eyes glimmered with new tears. "Even mother...." Xena said. "When Lyceus died, something in her died too." The bard's vision was clouded by her own tears. She kept her focus on her friend's beautiful face, a face which even now showed the pain she felt at her parent's cold judgment..

"The only one who didn't blame me for what happened was Lanessa." Xena said. The warrior turned to study their slender hostess' form. "She understood what I had tried to do and why." The blue eyes returned the girl's gaze. Newly shed tears covered the chiseled features. The warrior wiped them away. "And she had more reason to hate me than anyone else, perhaps."

The bard gasped. "Why would you say that?" she asked the warrior. Gabrielle laid a protective hand on her friend's lean arm. "Lanessa? Hate you?" the bard said. "I can't believe that would ever happen."

Xena closed her eyes to dismiss the painful memories which punished her each waking day. She pulled her arms around her own slender waist. Finally, taking a deep breath, she turned again to the young woman who had won a treasured place in her heart for all time.

"If Lyceus had lived, if he hadn't fallen in battle", the warrior began in a halting voice, "he and Lanessa would have been married that summer." She watched the girl's eyes widen, then soften in sympathy. "I lost a brother, but she lost the love of her life." Xena put her fingers to her own temples. There were times when the crashing wave of guilt in her mind threatened to split her skull.

She sensed, rather than felt, Gabrielle reaching to comfort her. Abruptly, the warrior rose from the bench and stepped away. It was a primal reaction, one she had tried hard to control since Gabrielle had become part of her life. She knew the girl always meant to convey her affection and her support, but it was for precisely that reason that the warrior resisted the girl's touch at that moment.

This was a private fury, one she didn't want to unleash on anyone she cared about, least of all Gabrielle. Xena pulled in gulps of air to loosen the grip on her chest . She felt the paralyzing blame that invaded her senses during sleep and daily threatened to break her will and dissimate her reserves at every turn.

Gabrielle sat immobile on the bench, watching her friend's agony. She had seen the warrior endure this self-recrimination repeatedly during their time together. It always tore at the bard's gentle heart and filled her with numbing sympathy for the warrior's grief. Even though the young woman longed to comfort her most cherished companion and offer whatever peace she could, the girl also knew that, right now, her best friend vehemently required she be left alone.

Several minutes passed. Eventually Xena's manner grew more calm, her breathing returned to normal. The lean, muscular form relaxed and the warrior released her clenched fists. She took in a deep, ragged breath. As the tightness around her sternum began to subside, the woman regained her proud, confident stance. Finally she turned back to the girl on the bench.

Xena saw the tears in the girl's eyes, read the compassion in the young woman's expression. She swallowed hard and drew on the mantle of control that she'd honed sharp in the years of battle. Slowly the warrior returned to the bench and sat down beside the girl. After a moment, she took one small hand in her own. The two friends sat quietly a moment longer. Then the young woman spoke in a gentle tone.

"You've got to stop torturing yourself, Xena." the bard said. "You've got to absolve yourself for your past. It's your *past*. Let it go." The young woman covered the warrior's strong hand with both of her small ones. "If Lanessa could forgive you, why can't you forgive yourself?"

The warrior's blue eyes were focused on the town square. She returned the warm touch to the young bard's fingers and swept her own tears away with her other hand.

"Perhaps I will some day." she said to the sweet face of the girl. "Maybe one day I'll be able to silence the screams I hear in my head." The young woman covered her lips with her hand. Xena reached up to brush the girl's tears away. "Just don't give up on me, all right?"

A loving smile lit the bard's young face. "Not on your life." she told the warrior, regaining her composure. "Not for a wagon full of dinars." The twinkle returned to the green eyes. "Not for a silo full of ..."

A genuine chuckle emerged from the warrior's throat. She held up her free hand. "All right." she said her blue eyes laughing. "All right. You've made your point." She reached to tousle the blond hair. Then she gathered the slender bard into a tight embrace. Facing the sweet countenance again, she shook her head slowly. "And you say *I'm* the stubborn one."

The girl's eyes were kind, but her smile flashed impishly. "Hey, I always said, I learned from the best." She buried her head against the warrior's shoulder and encircled the slim waist with both arms. The two women held the embrace for an instant, then the warrior pulled back. Gabrielle released her knowing that the contact, although heartfelt, was still disquieting to the woman.

"C'mon", the bard said at last. "Lanessa's bound to have supper started by now." Xena scoffed and slapped one open palm against her forehead. She turned a playful scowl toward the young woman's smiling face.

"How can you *always* be hungry?!" she said, both hands outspread in astonishment. The bard raised her shoulders and attached a sidewise grin to her countenance.

"I dunno. But we all have our gifts, right?" Gabrielle rose from the bench and reached to take the warrior's arm. As she turned to face the cottage, Xena saw Lanessa's slender form in the doorway. The woman's gentle smile warmed the warrior's tired heart. She extended her hands to the two walking toward her.

"Ladies.", Lanessa said, her voice quiet and smooth. "Tonight we feast with the gods." The trio entered the cozy house.

Chapter Fifteen

The next day spawned a typical autumn morning. The air was clear and crisp, the sun shone brightly, the colors of the countryside blazed in muted, consolidated glory. Before the salmon light had spread in the eastern sky, the warrior princess was already awake. Not that she'd slept very much since the previous evening. She'd spent most of the time lying under the down coverlet in the small bedroom plotting this day's defense in her mind.

By the time Gabrielle's sleepy face became visible around her side of the covers, Xena had risen, dressed, and checked the various devices comprising the planned tricks for today's encounter with the boorish soldier. She'd been much too keyed up to eat, but she had enjoyed a mug of the refreshing ale left from last night's supper.

The warrior had also spent careful minutes skillfully concealing each of her weapons in the yard outside the cottage. Her promise to Lanessa not withstanding, she wanted her trusted gear handy and available, if necessary. 'I'll take her wrath, if I have to', the warrior told herself, 'if it means saving her life.'

Xena had just finished another inspection of the grounds about the cottage when she heard a rustling sound coming from the leafy tree in the yard. She peered carefully into the branches and noticed a familiar figure traversing the larger branches of the tree. The warrior's jaw rippled irritably when she recognized a small, red-haired acrobat among the green foliage.

"Oh, no", she said to herself. "Not today, Efron." She crossed the yard, her pace smooth and quiet.

"Efron", she called to the boy. "Come down, please. Now."

The child stopped climbing long enough to spend a friendly grin in her direction. "It'th OK", he told her. "I'll be able to thee better from up here."

"Efron", Xena said, her tone serious. "I don't think you should be in the tree today." Xena moved closer to the tall woody plant and the child climbing in it. "Maybe you should..." the warrior began.

"Don't worry", the boy assured her. "I brought Papa with me."

"Your father's here?" Xena said, surprised. "Where, Efron?", she asked the boy. "Where is your father?"

"Behind you", said a voice at the warrior's back. She turned around to address the sound and was caught completely offguard by the face which accompanied it.

"Mathius?" Xena said as she gazed directly into the countenance of her former childhood love. The warrior was speechless at the discovery. Her mouth drifted open and she could feel a warm, crimson blush cover her face.

The handsome face before her softened with a warm, open smile. His eyes traveled over her form. She had chosen another of Lanessa's offered outfits for today; a soft, lavender blouse with a scooped neckline adorned with ribbons of deep purple. The sleeves of the blouse fell loosely over her lean arms, then gathered trimly into delicately fringed cuffs at her wrists. The long, flowing skirt she wore was the color of polished silver. Over her shoulders, she wore a pale rose-hued shawl with subtle piping that matched the color of the ribbons on the blouse.

Mathius' gaze returned to the warrior's blushing face. "You're looking well." he told her, not unaware of her chagrin at his appreciation of her costume.

"Efron is your son?" Xena said when she found her voice again.

"Efron is our youngest." the man told her. "Althena and I were also blessed with two daughters." Mathius smile remained warm. "Perhaps when this is all over, you can come and meet the family." he told the startled warrior princess. "I know my daughters would enjoy that."

Xena was thoroughly unnerved by the encounter with the man. Her thoughts of Mathius had always been gentle and kind. Yet he had forever remained part of her childhood memories. He had not been a part of her assembled army, nor had he taken part in any of the defensive actions employed to repel Cortese and his villainy. Mathius had declined, without rancor or recrimination, when Lyceus had asked him to join them. The young man had elected to remain in the village to provide a mainstay to the defenses there.

The warrior swallowed her surprise and met the friendly smile with her own. "I should have recognized the copper curls." she said, referring to Efron's feathery locks. The man chuckled with her. "Althena?" Xena said then, feeling foolishly breathless.

"Yes. Hermia's sister?" Mathius said, supplying another name Xena remembered from days long past. She nodded in recognition of the woman's history.

After a moment, the warrior's senses became alert to the present situation again. She turned a questioning glance toward the town square which opened across the road in front of the cottage.

"Mathius?" Xena began, her eyes taking in the crowded scene. "What are all these people doing in the square at this hour?" She referred to the large number of citizens who had suddenly appeared outside the houses and shops of the town.

Her companion cast a pointedly innocent expression in her direction. "Why, taking care of business, I would imagine." Mathius answered, a curious gleam in her eyes.

"At dawn?" the warrior asked with definite disbelief in her tone.

"You remember Amphipolis, Xena." the man next to her answered, continuing his unassuming manner. "Things get started early around here." He ventured a conspiratorial gaze at her clear, blue eyes.

The meaning in his words snapped to attention in the warrior's brain. She realized what his inference meant. The obvious intentions of the villagers set off warnings within her. She felt a fearful anxiety begin to disturb her.

"Mathius, maybe you'd better tell them to ..." Xena began. But her old friend was already ahead of her.

"Xena", he said quietly, taking her hand. "Last few times we had a bully to confront, you had to do it pretty much on your own." He watched the warrior's blue eyes grow remorseful. "This time, the Council thought you might like some help."

Xena was taken aback by the man's comment. She had assumed that, even if her presence in the village had become known, most of the citizens would much prefer to avoid, even ignore her, rather than offer their help. She stood quite still for a moment, letting Mathius' statement register in her head.

Then a nervous concern set off the warrior's senses. "No ... no ... no", Xena chanted. "I won't be responsible for getting someone else hurt. Not again." The hard tone of the warrior crept back into the woman voice. "You've must make them underst...", she began, speaking directly to her companion's gaze.

"Xena", the man said, a firmness now evident in his tone. "This is not a debate. It's settled." Mathius said, his gaze steady on hers. "We're staying right where we are." He watched as the blue eyes he remembered so well flash with defiance and determination. Deep within them, he man could see the headstrong, willful young woman with whom he'd fallen so deeply in love as a youth. He waited while the warrior dealt with her own confusion.

Mathius' statement prickled the warrior's pride and stirred angry resentment in her. She searched the face of the man at her side. As a young girl, she had treasured the youthful version of this face as the man who would become her life-long partner. Eventually, he had become a trusted friend, a gentle confidant. Today, he was not really either, yet his was still a sympathetic heart.

The man's eyes held the warrior's in a conforting gaze. Xena felt her anxiety recede. She tried to keep her voice even. "At least get the children somewhere safe." she told him. "Dryfius is very unpredictable. We don't know what he'll try to do."

"The children will be fine." Mathius said. "We'll look after them. You and your friend look after Lanessa." The man's face softened again. "That should keep you busy enough." Mathius smiled at her warmly. "What's she got planned for him today?"

Xena found herself smiling in spite of the tenseness she felt. "Watch the arbor",she said, the cryptic message in her voice making Mathius smile. Then she pulled the shawl around herself.

"You know she'll be furious if she finds out what you're planning.", the warrior told the man, refering to their mutual childhood friend.

Mathius chuckled softly. "Furious is putting it lightly." he agreed. "We'll have the Hades' own harpies to deal with later." For a moment, his eyes met the warrior's blue gaze in an unspoken statement of affection.

Xena felt the stiffness in her shoulders recede. Mathius' gentle strength had been one of the reasons she'd fallen in love with him so many years ago. For an instant, she pictured him with his own children. The image of a loving, nurturing parent warmed her and endeared the man to her again.

The warrior's reverie was broken by Efron's clear voice above them. "He'th coming, Papa", the boy chirped. "The bad man'th coming." the child said again.

Mathius' manner changed instantly. "Come down, Efron", he said firmly to the boy. The child responded immediately and began to climb down out of the tree. When he was close enough to his father, Efron jumped down into the man's arms.

"Go find your mother and sisters", he said to the child as he set him on his feet. "He'th crothing the valley", the boy announced. Then he raced off toward the villagers in the square. Mathius turned to address Xena, but found her already moving quickly toward the cottage. The man turned and followed his son.

Chapter Sixteen

Gabrielle rose quickly when she noticed the position of the sun. More importantly, she noticed that Xena was already up. Her stomach growled, as it did every morning. But the girl ignored her hunger and tried to deal instead with the nervousness that was creeping into her senses. The bard knew she had to remain alert today. Today's confrontation could become very serious very quickly.

When she finished dressing, the girl strode out into the kitchen of the small house. She found Lanessa seated in her usual place at the table. The woman's face was calm, a look of total peace across her gentle features. Without turning her head, she addressed the young woman.

"Good morning, Gabrielle", Lanessa said. Only then did she incline her face slightly toward the bard. "There's ale, if you're thirsty." She indicated her own mug and the large jug on the table.

Gabrielle moved to the table and sat down facing Lanessa, occupying the same space she'd taken each time they'd enjoyed a meal. The girl poured herself a mug of the sweet ale and swallowed a mouthful. Her eyes searched the room for Xena, then settled on the quiet woman across from her.

Lanessa smiled and the girl found herself smiling back. Then the slender woman leaned toward the girl and cupped her hand at her mouth. "She's talking to Mathius." the woman whispered.

Gabrielle nodded her understanding then, as usual, felt a trifle foolish since it was a 'sighted' reaction and therefore not witnessed by Lanessa. "Oh", the girl answered. After a moment, the girl leaned forward and whispered, "Who's Mathius?"

"Mathius is Efron's father.", Lanessa whispered back. Then the woman's smile flashed again. "He was Xena's suitor when we were young." Lanessa told the girl, giggling girlishly. The bard's green eyes grew wide and amused.

"Where are they?" she asked.

Wordlessly, Lanessa pointed toward the front of the cottage. Then she put one finger to her lips in a silent warning. Gabrielle rose quietly from the bench. She walked carefully to the open door and glanced outside. From her vantage point, she could see Xena and a rather attractive man standing beneath the tree in the front yard. They appeared to be having a very pleasant conversation, but the bard could tell that the man's mere proximity seemed to make the warrior very uncomfortable.

'Now this is a story she'll *have* to tell me', the bard vowed, a grin lighting her lovely face. She decided to vacate her position at the doorway, to afford her friend a measure of privacy. Just as Gabrielle started to turn away, she saw Xena turn abruptly from the man and start toward the cottage. The girl recognized the urgency in the warrior's pace. She turned to address the small woman at the table.

"Lanessa." the bard began, and the woman reacted to the girl's tone. An instant later, Xena appeared in the doorway.

"He's coming." the warrior announced. "We have a few minutes, but he's on the way." She trained a meaningful glance at the girl. "Go. Get to your place on the bench." Gabrielle turned swiftly and passed through the doorway. Xena turned and picked up the bundle of material from the corner of the table. She turned to Lanessa. The woman was rising from the bench, her hands busy gathering the shawl around her shoulders.

The warrior moved to her friend and took the slender shoulders in her hands. "Lanessa," Xena began to the woman's gentle face. "Please be careful." Lanessa's smile lighted her face. She pulled the warrior's hands down and held them with her own.

"Now you have *my* word", she said, her focus seemingly pointed at Xena's chin. "I'll rely on you and Gabrielle." the woman promised. "If you feel it's best, you have my permission to clobber him in your best style." A charming twinkle flashed in the woman's sightless stare. She gave the warrior a quick hug and was treated to a quiet chuckle as a result. "Let's go." Lanessa said at last. The two moved toward the doorway.

When they emerged from the cottage, Lanessa's head turned slightly toward the warrior. Xena sensed the unspoken question on her old friend's lips. The woman's finely tuned senses instantly became aware of the large group of people assembled nearby. For a moment, Lanessa seemed about to put a question to the warrior concerning the gathering. Then a subtle change traveled across the woman's face. She turned to Xena and smiled knowingly.

"Everyone?", Lanessa said, a cryptic message in her question to the warrior.

"I think so." Xena answered, then she squeezed the woman's small hand. "I'll be nearby.", the warrior told her. Then she moved to her prescribed position on the bench under the tree.

Chapter Seventeen

Xena sat down on the bench and trained her eyes on the surging group of people filling the town square. At first glance, they seemed to be involved in rather ordinary activities. Several of the shopkeepers had apparently opened their stores and were servicing customers. Merchandise was being examined, bartering was exchanged, all the outwardly 'normal' processes involved in everyday business.

Only to the trained eyes of the warrior were the other signs obvious. At regular intervals, watchful eyes were trained on the small yard and the occupants waiting there. Other sentries kept attention toward the path on which Dryfius would appear. Silent messages were being exchanged and signals were being passed. It was a well-organized assembly. Xena couldn't help feeling a sense of pride in her kinsmen. She couldn't have prepared them better herself, she thought.

Xena's apprehension hadn't disappeared completely, in any case. She still maintained a guarded attitude toward the approaching villain. Her instincts told her to stay wary of the oaf. He was the worst kind of enemy; unpredictable and sly. Xena knew Dryfius also had a dangerous sense of pride. Too many assaults against his ego would provoke something vile in him. It was that contingency that worried her most.

The warrior's eyes sought those of the bard. Gabrielle sat alert and ready on the bench in front of the cottage, a small woven mat in her hands. The girl's green eyes caught the blue orbs of her friend. She nodded imperceptibly. Xena felt a grateful pleasure at the young woman's loyalty. She smile warmly at the girl.

Gabrielle flexed her right hand. She readjusted the length of twine that was wound around her fingers. Cautiously she craned her head over her right shoulder. The matting on the arbor above her head rustled gently with the tension from the twine. The girl's glance examined the apparatus to make sure the fixtures were secure. Then she returned her gaze to the yard.

The fluttering noises behind the matting drew the bard's attention back to it. She turned a concerned gaze toward Lanessa, who knelt near the cottage wall to the bard's left. Just as the girl was about to request her assistance, the small woman spoke.

"Quiet, my lovelies", she said in barely audible tone. "We don't want to give away your presence too soon." Instantly the noise quieted. Lanessa smiled at the young woman on the bench. Then she returned her attention to the row of flowers.

Xena's gaze searched the yard for Lanessa's petite form. The small woman was kneeling at one of the patches of blossoms that rimmed the cottage and the path leading to it. As if sensing her attention, Lanessa smiled in Xena's direction. The plan was set. Xena picked up the bundle of material in her lap and withdrew the needle from one corner of the swatch on the top. Oh, how the warrior hated waiting.

A voice at the warrior's elbow made her jump. It was Efron, his boyish whisper coming from the bushes at the base of the tree behind her. "Papa thath, he'th at the well. It'll be any minute now."

"Thanks, Efron," Xena whispered without changing her position. "Now find a safe place and go there. Please!" The warrior's tone held no amusement.

"OK", the boy whispered. "Good luck." She heard the rustle of his departure. Then the yard grew quiet again. Suddenly Xena's senses crackled. She sent a silent signal to Gabrielle. She glanced toward the road, then back toward the girl. The bard understood. She turned her attention to the same location for a moment, then faced the warrior again. As Xena watched, the girl whispered a quiet warning to Lanessa. The woman nodded in agreement. The three women each took a very, deep breath.

Chapter Eighteen

Dryfius didn't like it. There were too many people around. He had chosen dawn because he'd figured the rest of the town would be asleep or, at best, cowering in their houses. But the town square was full of people. There were people everywhere. He reined in his horse and glanced at the sun. No, he was right. It was barely past dawn. He really didn't like this. He urged his horse forward again.

The group of ruffians rode steadily toward the small cottage. The chatter of the marketplace quieted around them. Dryfius grew more uneasy the closer they came to the house. This was not going as he had planned. He drew himself up as straight as he could. The bully laid his hand on the hilt of his sword. He vowed he would have his way this time.

Xena recognized the alertness that always overcame her just before a battle began. She cast one more look toward the crowd of villagers in the square. Without Dryfius becoming aware of the fact, the citizens had quietly closed in behind him and his men and were now mutely following them to Lanessa's yard. Some of the bully's cohorts were glancing nervously toward the crowd surrounding them. Their leader had yet to realize the situation.

Dryfius pulled up his horse in the middle of the yard. He glanced over his shoulder at one of the other women present outside the house. The tall, lanky one was sitting under the tree, a pile of sewing in her hands. She leveled an icy glare in his direction. He dismissed her without further attention. The bully noted the younger one sat in the same place as before, the bench in front of the cottage.

Lanessa stood and turned toward the boorish soldier, her normal smile in place. She pulled her shawl around herself and strode a step in his direction.

"Well, Lanessa", Dryfius said, his voice smooth and transparent. "Here we are again."

"Yes, here we are.", Lanessa said. The indulgent tone to her voice raised the warrior's nervousness. 'Don't push him', the voice inside her head warned.

Dryfius shifted his position in the saddle. He cast an insolent glance as the people from the town drifted into position around the yard. "Your friends here to tell you good-bye?" he sniggered, then laughed as if amused. He turned to the crowd again, but the brazen grin began to fade when he noticed how the number seemed to have grown.

"Why would they do that?" Lanessa's gentle voice floated on the morning air. "I'm not leaving." The defiant statement dissipated the bully's arrogant grin and replaced it with a snarl of rage. His body tensed on his mount.

Xena muscles tightened at the bully's reaction. The blue eyes locked on the man's gloved hand poised on the hilt of his sword. She dropped the needle in her fingers on the ground and reached under her shawl to the waiting chakrum in the belt of the skirt. Her fingers tightened around the metal weapon, but her arm remained still.

Dryfius' brutish faced showed a menacing scowl. His lips curled back as the fury in him spread. An angry growl came from his mouth. "I tried the nice way, woman", he growled. "Now we'll try the other way." He handed his horse's reins to the scruffy soldier mounted slightly behind him. Then he dismounted and started toward Lanessa.

Before the man had taken two steps, the small woman raised her hand. The soldier stopped, slightly surprised at her action. Lanessa's quiet voice sounded once again in the morning stillness.

"I don't think you've met all my friends, Dryfius", the woman said and then lowered her hand again. At the prescribed signal, Gabrielle released the twine coiled around her palm. The matting around the arbor flew open and the birds within the chamber rushed out into the sunshine.

Dozens of the winged creatures swarmed around the men on horseback. Within seconds all of the ruffians, including their leader, were being heartily assaulted by every variety of bird known to the area. The wild fowl pecked at the men's exposed necks and ears. They flapped angry tail feathers in the soldiers' faces and streaked madly around their heads. The riders were soon screaming in pain as sharp beaks and claws raked their scalps and stabbed at their bodies.

The townspeople laughed and shouted support for the flying army. For several minutes, the soldiers were kept busy trying to batt away their attackers and protect the many targets of the creatures. Even Dryfius was occupied with trying to escape the onslaught of the lofty fighters.

In order to relieve his extreme discomfort, the distraught leader drew his sword and began his own defensive strategy. He flailed the weapon wildly in the midst of his attackers. The other soldiers began to follow his actions. Yet, in spite of the men's strenuous attempts, the birds repeatedly swooped under and around the blades, always managing to change direction at the last moment, thus avoiding the heavy weapons. The aerial assault continued for several more minutes.

Eventually Lanessa's shrill whistle sounded in the air. The feathered warriors immediately disbursed and flew safely into the trees above the house. It took several seconds, for the men to realize their attackers had relented. The men still stood near their horses, swords drawn, their faces anxious and frightened.

Waves of laughter from the villagers filled the morning air. The townspeople cheered and raised their fists in appreciation of the birds' efforts. The soldiers turned toward the citizens nervously. Dryfius wheeled around to face the crowd in angry frustration.

"Enough!", he shouted over the clamor. Xena stood up and took a step toward the bully and his group. She sensed the man was about to change tactics. Her fingers remained tightly around the chakrum.

Dryfius glared at the warrior as he noticed her change in position. His eyes narrowed as he studied her face. Xena was certain he was about to recognize her and she was concerned that the knowledge might move the ruffian to a more aggressive attack. The boor turned to face the tall woman more directly. The blue eyes held his insolent gaze.

Abruptly Dryfius turned away from Xena and began to advance toward Lanessa, a. deliberate intention in his swagger. Before he had reached the small woman, a noise from the crowd drew his attention. "You leave her alone." a young voice yelled. An moment later a small body streaked across the open yard. The warrior instantly recognized the tiny attacker.

"Efron! No!" Xena yelled. But the boy had already reached the brute. He stopped in front of the man and thrust one small boot sharply against the bully's shin. Dryfius yelled in surprise then reached angrily for the child. He caught one corner of the boy's tunic and began to drag him closer.

Xena pulled the chakrum out from under her shawl and raised the weapon above her head. An instant later, she launched the circle forward and it streaked across the yard, catching the bully's sword at the hilt. The blade flew out of the brute's hand and shot upward over his head. The chakrum returned immediately to Xena's raised hand. She held it in front of her, ready to repeat the action. The bully's eyes were wild and incensed. Efron scurried away from the bandit and raced toward the crowd.

Dryfius looked upward to see his own weapon streaking downward toward him. He raised one hand to defend himself, but then caught the weapon deftly with the other. Xena uttered a quiet oath. 'By the gods, this imbecile is lucky', she sneered to herself. The beast expelled an evil squeal and waved the captured sword in the warrior's direction. She gritted her teeth in exasperation.

The brute pivoted again, his sluggish body again moving toward Lanessa. But Gabrielle had already retrieved her staff from behind the bench and now placed herself between him and the small woman. The girl brandished her weapon openly in front of her body, taking up a defensive stance. The bully stopped his forward progress and laughed arrogantly.

The soldier planted his free hand on his hip and chuckled at the young woman's brave attitude. He started toward her, a brave insolence in his walk.

"Out of my way, girlie.", Dryfius sneered at the bard. "I'll make you eat that stick." Gabrielle swung the staff in front of her, assuming the normal first assault position.

"You can try.", the girl said bravely, as she swung the weapon at the man's midsection.

Dryfius blocked the intended blow easily with his sword, then quickly yanked the staff forward. The move pulled Gabrielle off balance, but she held on to her staff all the same. The bully abruptly let go of the wand and planted his heavy palm on the girl's chest, knocking her roughly to the ground. Before she could move to safety, Dryfius brought the point of his sword to rest against her throat.

"You're not real smart." he sniggered at the girl on her back before him. "Maybe I outta use you as an example.", the bully said as he leaned closer to the young woman's face.

The crowd around the yard began to move forward. The warrior's attention was pulled toward the villagers. What she saw brought it a look of surprise to the blue eyes. It seemed that every person in the crowd now held some kind of weapon.

Every manner of implement had been pressed into service; some carried heavy clubs, others had produced wooden staffs and ax handles. Many of the women brandished weighty kitchen tools, flat irons and frying pans. Even some of the older boys displayed thick sticks and bats. And every face in the group indicated their very serious intentions.

Dryfius became aware of the change in the villagers' attitude. His dark eyes traveled along the ring of citizens, noticing their formidable tools. Xena saw the fury rising in the man's eyes. She lowered the chakrum, and strode toward the bully. He turned to face the woman coming towards him in a long, gray skirt. As she moved closer, he recognized the warrior princess and his eyes grew hard. Dryfius' craggy jaw clenched in rage.

"Stay back, Xena.", he snarled in the warrior's direction. "Or your little friend is history." He pushed the sword's tip closer to Gabrielle's skin. The girl stayed very still, her eyes wide and frightened.

"Dryfius, stop it!", Lanessa's gentle voice cut through the tension in the yard. She moved to the bully's side and pulled sharply at his leather jacket. "Leave the girl alone and I'll go with you." The woman's statement brought a strained stillness to the enclosure. For several moments, even the birds seemed to have fallen silent.

The bully moved one hand from the sword's handle and grabbed Lanessa's slender arm. When he was sure she was secured, he raised he weapon from Gabreille's throat and swung the blade in Xena's direction. Then he began to drag Lanessa toward his mount.

Gabrielle scrambled up from her prone position and reclaimed her staff. She cast a questioning glance at the warrior, who shook her head imperceptibly. The bard took a step backward, her staff again at the ready.

Xena replaced the chakrum in her belt and advanced toward the departing bully, stopping just out of range of his weapon. She stared back at the man's menacing glare. Dryfius glowered at the warrior, but chose not to advance toward her. Finally the warrior spoke, her voice clear and deadly.

"She's not going anywhere with you, Dryfius." she told the bully. "Not today. Not ever." Xena's words rang out over the stillness in the yard. The townspeople nodded agreement to her comments, the various devices clearly displayed.

"Who's going to stop me?" the bully asked confidently, waving his weapon in Xena's face. He pulled Lanessa's slender body closer to his.

"Me.", the warrior said in a calm ,deadly tone. "And them." Xena waved a hand to indicate the townspeople. "They're not going to let you take her either." she said. She turned proudly toward the citizens of the village. Then she turned back to the bully. The icy glare in the blue eyes made the brute swallow hard.

The warrior took a step closer to the thug and pushed her face toward his. "Now let her go and leave, while you still can." Xena leveled a deadly glance at the bully's pitted face. Then she turned on her heel and started to move away. It was a tactic Gabrielle had seen her use in other situations. Turning her back on a potential enemy carried with it a message of contempt and a lack of respect. She was telling Dryfius that he wasn't worth her concern.

It was a gesture that had been successful in many previous confrontations. But the move always made Gabrielle nervous. On this day, her anxiety proved well founded. Dryfius' shattered ego moved the man to an action of revenge toward the warrior. In the split second before she would have been out of his range, the bully raised his sword and swung it in the direction of Xena's skull. The warrior's lightning reflexes served her as usual. She quickly dropped to one knee just as the heavy sword sliced loudly through the air above her head.

The aborted move left Dryfius off balance and on the defensive. Before he could regain his momentum, Xena swiveled her body and delivered a sharp, painful punch to the middle of the bully's chest. He coughed as the breath in his lungs escaped without warning. Next the warrior sounded the shrill battle cry that identified her, and delivered a sweeping, sidelong kick across the man's dumbstruck face. He staggered backward, away from Xena, gasping for air and reaching for balance with his sword hand.

Instantly Gabrielle reached to pull Lanessa away from the brute. Taking hold the woman's other arm, she tried to draw the small form back toward the cottage wall. But Dryfius refused to release her. He jerked the woman back toward him, but Lanessa stiffened her arms against his chest. Finally, in frustration, the bully reached out and slapped the diminutive female full and hard across the face.

Lanessa's body whirled backward in reaction to the blow. Gabrielle caught the other woman as she fell to the ground. The bard craddled the slender form, putting her own body between Lanessa's and the hard ground. When they were both lying flat, the girl reached to soothe the injured woman. She saw that Lanessa was unconscious.

Another woman from the town rushed to help the girl. Together they lifted the petite woman and carried her body back closer to the house. Gabrielle turned to focus on the warrior and the vicious brute confronting her.

Xena's next move was quick and deadly. She thrust her fist hard into the side of the bully's face, then followed the blow with a back-handed swipe with her other hand. The blows sounded loudly in the small, open yard.

Dryfius' head twisted away from the effect of the blows. He stumbled back heavily, nearly dropping his sword. But the brute still managed to maintain his footing. Xena turned her body to face the dazed bully. She watched as the man shook his head to reclaim his awareness.

The soldier took several heavy paces backward, steadying himself. He shrugged, lifting the armor across his chest to repostion it. Then he placed both hands on the hilt of his sword and faced the warrior, his feet spread apart.

The blue eyes were glacial, the jaw tight and menacing. The bully advanced toward Xena, his sword poised high. Just as he seemed about to slash her torso, the warrior swerved quickly to one side and crashed her crooked elbow hard into his face. She felt the crunch of bone and muscle as the blow slammed into the bridge of the bully's nose. The brute dropped the sword and screamed, reaching up to stem the heavy flow of blood streaming over his face.

With lightning swiftness Xena turned her back to the soldier, grabbed hold of the front of his dirty leather jacket, leaned forward and flipped his body over her shoulder. The boor landed with a hard thud on his back in front of her. She dropped to one knee and delivered a quick, sharp punch straight to the man's jaw. He slumped limply, unconscious at her feet.

Xena stood over the fallen bully. She could feel herself shaking in fury. She drew a long, shaky breath and swallowed a gulp of air. Then she turned a steel hard gaze toward the remaining soldiers standing in the yard. After a moment, she strode slowly toward the group.

"You have two simple choices." she said, sweeping her voice over to the scruffy bunch. "You can get back on your horses and leave, right now.", the warrior's voice was cold and threatening. "Or you can deal with them." Xena said, motioning toward the villagers who stood poised around the yard, their make-shift weapons at the ready. Within seconds, the rest of Dryfius' 'army' formed a simple, clear consensus. The scruffy bunch acquiesed easily; they dropped their arms without argument, having quickly chosen to surrender rather than suffer the fate of their so-called leader. Quietly they began to mount their horses.

"And take him with you." the warrior said, jabbing a disgusted hand toward the bully on the ground in front of her. Two of the soldiers moved silently to Dryfius' spread-eagled form and dragged the unconsious brute toward his mount. When they had slung the slack body over his horse's saddle, they turned out of the yard and , in a single column, rode toward the road leading away from the village.

Instantly, the townspeople began to cheer, celebrating their victory by applauding themselves and the superiority of the warrior standing over the vanquished bully on the ground.

Chapter Nineteen

Xena's gaze searched the area for Gabrielle and Lanessa. She hardly heard the congratulations offered her by the villagers. Then the woman who had helped Gabrielle carry Lanessa away from Dryfius appeared at the warrior's shoulder. "You'd better come", she said, her tone urgent. Xena followed her to where the bard sat on the ground, hovering over the small woman's inert form.

The warrior knelt down next to her old friend. She examined the small form for signs of a wound or injury. She found neither. Xena looked up from the woman into the eyes of the bard. The green eyes brimmed with tears.

"She hasn't moved since he hit her.", the girl said, her voice heavy. The young woman was holding the Lanessa's small hand in her own. Xena touched the girl's shoulder. Then she turned her attention to the petite female on the ground between them.

Some of the villagers formed a ring around the small group. Mathius crouched down next to Xena. He put a gentle finger to Lanessa's soft neck. The warrior's jaw tightened as Mathius looked at her.

"Is she all right?", the man asked. The warrior didn't answer. She simply kept staring at the limp body of her old friend. There was already a deep, purple bruise appearing along the side of the woman face. Finally she put her hand on Lanessa's slender arm and spoke quietly.

"Lanessa?" Xena said, squeezing the arm slightly. "Lanessa?" she said again. After what seemed an eternity, the small woman began to stir. She moved her head slowly to one side and her eyes fluttered open. She grimaced at the ache that result from the movement, and raised a hand to rub her forehead. Gabrielle's grateful sob ignited the crowd. The people sounded a joyous cheer.

Lanessa blinked her eyes, trying to re-orient herself. "Lanessa?" Xena said, touching the woman's smudged cheek. "Can you hear me?"

The woman's eyes followed the voice, finally resting on Xena's face.

"Xena?", Lanessa said, weakly.

"Right here." the warrior answered, touching the woman's shoulder.

Gabrielle and Xena helped Lanessa to sit up. For a moment, the small form seemed too fragile to move. Then the woman took Xena's hand in her own.

"Is it over?" she asked the warrior. "Is he gone?"

Xena's blue eyes were gentle. "It's over, my friend. It's over." She gathered the small woman into her arms and reached out to take Gabrielle's hand at the same time. The bard's smile flashed in spite of her tears. The villagers erupted into applause and praise again. Mathius touched the warrior's shoulder and stood up, moving toward his family.

Gabrielle used the back of her hand to dry her tears. Then she and Xena stood to help Lanessa up from the ground. They carefully moved her toward the bench in front of the cottage. The woman brushed her clothes briskly, then allowed the others to deposit her on the seat.

The bard sat down beside the petite woman and gathered the slender shoulders in a gentle hug. Lanessa put her hand to the girl's face and smiled. After a moment, Efron rushed from the crowd and flung himself into Lanessa's lap. The small body trembled as he wrapped his arms around the woman's slim waist.

"Lanetha!" the boy cried, burying his face tight against her small frame. "You're thafe now." the child shrieked. "Me and Thena fixthed it!"

The villagers laughed heartily and even the warrior smiled. The boy looked up at the tall, dark-haired woman standing next to the bench. Efron released his hold on Lanessa's knees and took a quick step over toward Xena.

She cast gentle blue eyes down at the boy, who returned a grateful gaze to hers. The boy reached to wrap his arms around the warrior's slender waist. She returned the child's embrace, gently stroking the rust-hued curls with her long fingers. As the bard watched, the warrior reached to pull the boy up into her arms. The child hugged her neck tightly and wrapped his short legs around her frame.

When the embrace ended, the bard could see the tears glistening in the warrior's blue eyes. The boy's small body clung to her a moment longer, then Xena put his small feet down on the bench. After another quick hug for Lanessa, and a firm handshake for the warrior, Efron scrambled down off the bench and ran back to his father.

Xena turned back to the small woman sitting on the bench. Lanessa's eyes were trained on the warrior's form, an irritated scowl knitting her brow. The small woman raised her gaze toward Xena's face, then returned her attention to the tall woman's clothing.

"What's wrong?" Xena asked, confused by the concern she saw in the woman's face. The warrior sat down on the bench next to her slender friend.

"Look at you! You've ruined my blouse!" Lanessa gingerly touched the garment the warrior wore. The lavender material was stained with the blood from the bully's nosebleed and one delicate cuff was torn. And there were other obvious marks from the grass on the silver skirt.

Xena stared at the petite woman in open-mouthed astonishment. It was the last thing she had expected to hear the woman say.

"And you had your chakrum with you, didn't you, even after you promised?" the slender woman demanded. "Look here.", the small woman said, in an irritated. "You've even torn the shawl!" Lanessa chided, fingering the rose-colored material. "Honestly, Xena!" The woman's tone was almost maternal. Even Gabrielle sat speechless. All the villagers nearby stared at the small woman surprised. Then a quiet whisper began to grow among them.

Xena's mouth snapped closed as the brillance of the reality flashed in her mind. She exchanged a delighted look with Gabrielle. The young woman's eyes twinkled brightly and her smile was wide and open. They both turned attention to the slight female who rose and stood facing them. "It took me nearly a fortnight to lengthen that skirt. Now I'll have to ..." Lanessa shook a thin finger at the warrior, still sitting shocked on the bench.

The warrior reached to take the slender woman by the arms. "Lanessa" she called, but the woman was still brittle with her irritation. "Lanessa!" Xena said sharply, still holding the woman firmly. Eventually the small woman's stream of chatter stopped and she turned an even more impatient eye toward the warrior.

"What?" she snapped, leveling an angry glare at the warrior's face.

"How did you know there was blood on my blouse?", the warrior asked cautiously. She watched the small woman's face closely. There were still no signs of realization there, only the woman's annoyance with the warrior's behavior. Lanessa raised an angry brow and pulled away from Xena's hands.

"How did I know?", she said mocking the warrior's tone. "Well, look at it!" the woman said angrily, using her open hand to indicate the clothing that Xena wore. A gasp came from the villagers still surrounding the scene. Suddenly, slowly and deliberately, Lanessa's face began to register what her statement meant. She turned a bewildered stare to her own hand, extended an arm's length in front of her. Then the gaze traveled to the warrior's beaming face.

"Oh, my word!" Lanessa said softly, the full wonderous miracle finally becoming clear to her.

Gabrielle put her hands to her mouth. A delighted squeal escaped her as she watched the small woman begin to comprehend the new status of her life. Lanessa's mouth was open, her newly-sighted eyes wide and amazed. She held both hands out in front of her, turning and examining them as though it was her first view of them. Then she turned slowly to the blue eyes of the warrior. They watched her from the bench, filled with tears and showing exceptional delight.

Finally the group of villagers began to cheer again, clapping happily and expressing congratulations to Lanessa on her good fortune. The small woman stepped to the warrior and her tightly. The two women clung to each other, both overcome by the brillance of the event and by their affection for each other.

Lanessa reached one small hand toward the bard where she sat next to Xena. Gabrielle took the hand and held it tightly. Finally, the small woman released the warrior and stood back to gaze at her friend's tearful countenance. She touched the beautiful face with her free hand and studied the chisled features. The women's smiles shone brightly, each answering the delight in the other.

The dainty woman turned then to Gabrielle. The girl's green eyes were also filled with tears of happiness for this new friend. The woman leaned forward and brought her forehead down to meet that of the bard. The bard's smile flashed brillant and clear. Lanessa held the girl's hand tightly.

"Seems fitting, don't you think?" the small woman whispered to the girl. For a moment Gabrielle's eyes were confused, then the private message rang in her mind. She smiled widely again and nodded her assent. She glanced quickly at the warrior's blue eyes, still beaming happily for her old friend. There was a slight look of confusion Xena's crystal orbs, but it only lasted a second.

People from the town stepped to Lanessa to congratulate her. Gabrielle shared a private glance with the warrior. The look said, 'Tell you later.' Then they turned their attention back to the petite woman who could now actually *see* their happy smiles for her.

Chapter Twenty

Xena stepped from the cottage into the cool, night air. Her senses had finally recovered from the manic pace of the day. The last of the townspeople had returned to their own homes, having spent most of the afternoon congratulating Lanessa and celebrating her good fortune.

The warrior had remained extremely uncomfortable with the villagers' repeated praise of her efforts. At first, she had been more than slightly surprised at their show of support. Then she had become embarassed and unnerved be their obvious admiration. Eventually she had sought the silent company of Argo in the small backyard shed.

Gabrielle had clearly noted Xena's retreat to the haven of the shed. The girl knew why the warrior had gone there, so she didn't share the knowledge with the wellwishers. Their hostess' intuition had given her the same message. Together they elected to leave their friend alone.

After a moment, Xena turned to notice Lanessa sitting quietly on the small bench in front of the house. She waited, not wanting to intrude on the woman's solitude. Then Lanessa turned in the warrior's direction and extended a hand to her. Xena moved to the bench and sat down. For a moment, the two friends were silent. Finally the warrior spoke.

"What are you thinking?" she asked Lanessa quietly.

Lanessa took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. The moonlight illuminated the woman gentle face, showing the wonder and awe in the new aspect of her being. "I was just thinking how generous the gods have been with me all my life."

"Generous?" Xena repeated, surprise showing in her tone. "Only you would think of it that way.", she said.

Lanessa's gentle laughter warmed the warrior's heart. She touched Xena's arm lovingly. "But they've given me so many gifts, Xena. Think of it." The small woman turned her gaze toward the town square. "I have so much", she said, indicating the grassy area in front of them.

"The animals, the children, my home." the woman went on. "And all my friends, especially you." Lanessa noted, taking the warrior's hand again. Xena saw the happiness in the woman's face. She met the gentle smile with her own.

"And now, they've given me back my sight. I have truly been blessed." There was a tone of quiet amazement in the woman's voice. The warrior's throat tightened at the sound of the woman's humility. She wondered if she would ever feel so noble.

"And yet," Lanessa spoke again, "my life will certainly change now." The statement carried a note of uncertainty, a tone of doubt. The warrior waited for her friend to finish her thought. "All those years, when I was ...", the small woman began. "When I saw things 'here'." she amended, touching her own forehead. "I had the pleasure of my own perceptions."

For a moment, Lanessa seemed lost in her own reflections. "Do you understand?" she said, turning to the warrior. Xena kept her eyes on the woman's face. "In a sense, I could almost make the world what I wanted it to be." Lanessa finished, her voice amused.

"In my mind, you all stayed exactly the way I remembered you." she said, turning again to the blue eyes of her friend. "Youthful, vibrant," she said, "never growing old, never feeling lost or tired or frightened." Xena's eyes were gentle on the woman's expression. As usual, Lanessa's impressions inspired and intrigued the warrior. They were, as always, unique.

Lanessa's gaze traveled over Xena's face. "Even you." she said, touching the warrior's cheek carefully. "I always saw you as you were that night in my room. My dear, gentle, generous friend, lending comfort, giving me courage." The woman watched as the warrior's gaze grew remorseful, almost ashamed.

Xena swallowed hard, tears filling the clear, blue eyes. "Maybe you'll be disappointed in some of those faces now.", the warrior said, her voice wavering. "Maybe you'll see something there you don't like."

Lanessa took Xena's hand in her own, her gentle smile shining. "I carried that image in my heart all those years." she said to the warrior's eyes. "Today I saw the face of that friend again." The small woman paused, studying the glistening blue eyes meeting hers. "Yes, I saw the pain; yes, I see the regret." Xena kept her eyes on her friend's brown gaze.

"And now I see the integrity and the honor and the deep, abiding goodness of the woman she is today." For a long moment, there was silence from the women on the bench. Then Lanessa took the warrior's face in her hands. "Maybe someday, my friend will see that in herself."

"We've come full circle, you and I.", Lanessa said, her voice gentle and kind. "Back to where we were so many years ago." Xena took one small hand into both of hers. "Now perhaps your soul can reclaim some of that peace, too."

Xena met the warmth in the dainty woman's smile. "Thank you, Lanessa" she said quietly, "for always believing in me. And I pray every day that you're right."

The two women shared a loving embrace. Then Xena rose and stepped toward the doorway to the cottage. She turned back to the small woman's peaceful gaze and smiled.

"Good night, my friend.", she said. "I'll see you in the morning." Lanessa nodded, a knowing smile lighting her gentle face.

As Xena turned to enter the cottage, she saw Gabrielle standing in the doorway. The girl's eyes were glistening with tears. The warrior touched the young woman's arm and walked into the house. The girl watched the tall woman walk to the small chamber next to the kitchen. Then she turned to the petite form on the bench.

"Good night, Lanessa." Gabrielle said. "I'm so happy for you."

"Thank you, Sweetheart." Lanessa replied. "Happy dreams."

Lanessa heard the girl's footsteps cross the kitchen. She trained her gaze on the myriad of stars above her. And her smile shone happily. "Beautiful." the woman said softly. "Almighty beautiful."

The End

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