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Editor's Choice Award

The Silver Fox

by Maggie


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

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

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

Enjoy, Xenites! Love, MMG.


Prologue ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephiny waited a long moment before voicing her next question. An alarming dread was constricting her stomach as she watched a wave of terrible pain transform the young queen's manner. She tightened her arm around the girl's thin shoulders and put one hand on the small fists quivering in the young woman's lap. Slowly, painfully, the green eyes rose to meet hers. "Who betrayed her?" the Regent asked softly. She gulped against the crushing anguish she saw in the little queen's face.

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


Chapter One ~~~

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Two ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ephiny gently directed the little bard toward the hut she occupied whenever the young queen visited the village. Once inside, the tall blonde ushered the young woman toward the comfortable pallet, watched her lower her exhausted form onto the edge of the mattress, then offered the girl a mug of clear, cool liquid. The Amazon waited until the little blonde had swallowed some of the contents of the vessel, then placed the mug on a nearby table. She sat down next to the young queen, a compassionate smile warming her lovely face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Three ~~~

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

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

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

"How's Xena doing?"

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

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

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

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

The Regent's brows knitted in confusion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You asked Gabrielle? About this 'retreat hut' thing?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Four ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

"Ale?" the warrior asked carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Gabrielle ...." the warrior began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Good idea," the warrior said, watching the bard's face intently. Xena raised her chin and mutely invited the young woman to affix the bandage. Gabrielle carefully wrapped the cloth around the tall woman's neck. When she had secured the bandage, she stepped back from the bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Five ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

"Better?" the warrior asked.

"Yeah, thanks," the girl responded quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Afraid of what?" the girl asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Chapter Six ~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabrielle took a sip of the tea and lowered the mug to the table, her green eyes pensive and sad. She let out a short, quick breath. "Usually, if I write it down," the girl began, "I get a different ... perspective on things." The tense voice stopped as the girl's eyes darted to the cobalt blues before returning to the mug. "But with this, I can't even think about ... what happened ... there ... without my stomach turning over." The slender neck twisted in a hard swallow. "I can't even write about ... Hope without feeling sick."

This time it was the warrior's throat that jerked. She pushed down her own uneasiness and brought the mug to her mouth. "Understandable. I have a similar reaction myself," she said evenly, steeling herself against the shock in the green eyes. "After all, it was my fault you got mixed up in that whole mess."

Gabrielle stared at the warrior. "Your fault?" she said sharply. "How did you come to that conclusion? I was the one who let Krafstar ... talk me into all that nonsense about the 'one, true god'." The girl became more animated. "I was the foolish one, Xena. I let him trick me."

"That's right!" the warrior said sharply, her blue eyes flashing. "He tricked you. Gabrielle, he used you ... made you an innocent ploy in the putrid villainy of his devil-god, Dahok. Used your body ... your soul. He took advantage of your trust, of that core of goodness in you. He defiled them for his own evil purposes."

The warrior sat back in her chair, the emotional eruption having further drained her tenuous resources. She took a long breath and focused on her hands, trembling around the mug.

"Well then," the bard said quietly after a moment. "I'll ask you again. How was that your fault?"

Xena's blue eyes were penitent and ashamed. "I brought you there. In a way I 'delivered' you to that freak myself." The warrior's slender neck contracted in a deep swallow. "Don't you see, Gabrielle? I was so ... blinded by my need for vengeance against Caesar that I totally ignored what was happening to you ... until it was too late."

The two women exchanged a long, meaningful glance. For several minutes, the only sounds in the little hut were the echo of the rain on the roof and the crackling of the logs in the fireplace. Then the bard's slim form relaxed and she covered the warrior's hand with her own.

"Xena, you tried to warn me about Krafstar, but I wouldn't listen." The blue eyes dropped to the earthen mug then rose again to meet the bard's. "And you saved me from the horror Caesar had planned for me ... just as you've saved my life countless times in the past." The bard's gaze returned to her own mug. "I should have used better judgment... and I should have followed your advice."

The room grew quiet again. "And when I killed Meridian ...." The little blonde gulped and closed her eyes. "For the first time, I realized how it feels to ...."

"It wasn't the first time," the warrior said firmly. The green eyes rose to meet hers. "Meridian wasn't really your 'first kill'." The girl's expression changed to one of shock.

"What are you saying?" she gasped.

"I'm saying Meridian wasn't the first person you killed." Gabrielle stared at the warrior's stoic face. "Remember Velaska? And what happened in the Hall of Ambrosia?" The little blonde's breath caught in her throat. "You sliced through the rope she was hanging on and she plunged to her death on that bed of spikes ... or at least you thought she had. Remember?"

"B-but, I didn't .." the bard stammered. Her tortured expression tore at the warrior's soul. "That was you!" the bard screamed. "You had control of my ...." The girl's denial stopped abruptly as a numbing realization crept across the young face. She watched the warrior's golden countenance grow wise and knowing.

"Control of your 'bodily functions', to quote our friend Autolycus?" the warrior said, a tiny grin appearing in the corner of her mouth. The tall woman slowly covered the girl's hand and smiled warmly at the green eyes. "Absolutely right, my noble friend," the warrior said quietly. "Even if Velaska had died from that fall, you wouldn't have had a thing to do with it, because I took control of your body that day. I made you cut the rope." The young blonde blinked to clear her senses as she gazed at her tall friend's remorseful expression.

"The same thing happened in the temple," the warrior continued smoothly. "Dahok put that dagger in your hand ... he had 'control' of you ...." The blue eyes fell to the tabletop. "But I was the one who put you there ... me and my hatred for Caesar and what he had done to me." The warrior's gaze returned to the bard's. "It was my refusal to listen to my own 'better judgment' that led to your horrible experience ... just as my stupidity and blind anger have put you in danger so many times in the past three summers." Xena's clenched fists trembled on the table. "If you want to blame someone for Meridian's death, blame me. Like I said, it was my fault."

The quiet conversation at the table was momentarily interrupted by a low, resonant wave of thunder. The loud noise resulted in very little reaction from the two women at the table. When the sound began to drift away, the warrior rose from the table and walked toward the fireplace. She bent to retrieve the little kettle from its place near the flames and carried the pot back to the table. She carefully added a portion of steaming tea to each of the earthen mugs, then returned the kettle to the hearth. When she sat down in the chair again, the blue eyes cautiously rose to meet the bard's.

"Xena," the young queen began, "I know what you're trying to do." The girl reclaimed the warrior's hand. "Just like always, you're trying to protect me from having to face what ..."

Suddenly the warrior pulled her hand from the bard's The cobalt stare flashed angry and intolerant. "Trying to do?" the slender woman growled. "I'm trying to tell you how I feel. Isn't that what you're always saying you want me to do, Gabrielle? Share my 'feelings' with you?" The bard recoiled from the warrior's insensitive outburst. "Well, this is how I feel ... I feel guilty ... ashamed ... full of blame, all right?" The azure pools held a primitive gleam. "I 'feel' as though I laid you on that altar myself! Do you understand, now??"

The bard sat immobile, both frightened and appalled at the vehemence in the warrior's tone. For an instant, neither woman moved, neither breathed....until the warrior brought one hand to cover her face and cradled the side of her aching neck with the other. The tall woman took several deep, ragged breaths, swallowed hard and leaned heavily on the edge of the table, her slender fingers kneading her forehead. A long, tense moment passed before she felt brave enough to glance at the bard's stricken face. She closed her eyes against the pain she saw there.

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice tense. "I didn't mean to ..." The raspy voice faded away. "Oh, Hades," Xena mumbled. She rubbed her forehead again.

After a strained moment the warrior dropped her hands and focused on the young bard's pensive face. The girl's attention was trained on her, but the expression displayed none of the distress that had blazed there only moments before. The warrior's bronze face slowly transformed into confusion. "What?" she asked carefully. "What are you ...." A tiny, hesitant grin began to grow across the chiseled features.

The bard shook her head and ran her hand through the long bangs over her forehead. "I was just thinking about all the 'enemies' we've faced ... all the 'bad guys' ... and 'bad girls' we've managed to defeat."

The warrior waited, gazing intently at the girl's face.

"Draco ... Krykus ... Myzantius ... Callisto ... Velaska ... the Horde ... Poseiden ... Ares." The young face softened. "All those 'villains' ... when we fought them, it was always .. together, or at least on the same side."

The warrior's smile was tentative, hesitant. She felt her pulse begin to race as a subtle foreboding crept into her senses. "Yeah," Xena said, almost holding her breath.

"All those opponents. None of them managed to defeat us. In fact, many of those battles made us stronger, I think. If anything, they strengthened our ... friendship."

Xena's throat contracted heavily. Her extraordinary instincts brought a clamoring warning into her head. She waited, her eyes still fastened on the bard's open face.

"How could we know that our greatest enemy would be each other?" The bard whispered thickly, the green eyes filling with tears.

The simple statement slammed against the warrior's chest like a deadly blow. She gulped hard, trying valiantly to draw air into her tightened lungs as the blue eyes wavered, blinked quickly, then returned to lock onto the bard's verdant gaze. She laid her open hand in the middle of the table and the young woman placed her palm within the warrior's. Xena closed her fingers around the little hand.

"Xena?" the little blonde said softly. "What's going to happen to us?"

The warrior gazed down at the two hands together on the tabletop. She covered the joined fists with her other hand as the blue eyes swept up to meet the girl's tearful gaze.

"We're going to work this out, Gabrielle. I promise you ... we will work this out." The blue eyes were steady on the green pools. The girl's thin smile tightened the warrior's throat.


Chapter Seven ~~~

Gabrielle opened her eyes slowly, exerting every impulse she had against combating the raging pounding behind her eyes. She brought her hands up to cover her face, putting steady pressure against the throbbing under her blonde bangs. She listened unhappily to the steady patter of the rain on the roof of the hut. The girl let out a displeased groan.

After a moment, the young woman carefully sat up, pausing stiffly as the thumping across her forehead slowly subsided. When she could focus, the green eyes traveled across the hut to the warrior's empty bed. The bard searched the interior of the hut, returning to the abandoned pallet when she failed to locate her tall friend. She pushed off the blankets and slowly swung her feet to the floor.

Just as the little blonde was about to insert one foot into a leather boot, the door to the hut swung open to reveal the warrior's sleek form. The tall woman pushed back the hood covering her head to reveal her long, ebony hair and the bronze face smiling warmly at the little bard. Xena swept into the room, a large rattan basket cradled in her arms. She closed the door behind her, strode to the table, put down the basket and shook her tunic slightly, scattering droplets of rain from her clothes and her hair. She turned brightly to the little form on the bed.

"Good morning, sleepyhead," she said giving the girl an indulgent look. "Finally decide to meet the day?"

Gabrielle dropped her boot on the floor and tucked her uncovered foot back under the blankets. She pulled the wool covering tightly around her shoulders and returned the warrior's warm smile. The emerald gaze followed the warrior as the tall woman crossed the hut to add several logs to the smoking fire. When the flames were again dancing on the smooth stones, Xena replaced the small kettle on the metal arm over the blaze and turned back to the little blonde.

The bard started to move off the mattress. "I'll get breakfast started," she said, opening the blanket. Her movements stopped when she saw the warrior wave a slender hand.

"Stay put," the tall woman admonished, "at least until it warms up in here." The bard settled back on the bed again. "We'll have fresh tea in a few minutes," Xena announced, picking up the basket and depositing it on the bed next to the bard. "In the meantime, you can snack on these." The little bard leaned sideways to peer into the rattan hopper. Her expression brightened when she recognized the basket's contents.

"Berries!" the girl chirped, helping herself to a handful. "Where did you find these?"

Xena sat down on the edge of the bed and reached into the basket, retrieving a cluster of the deep, crimson fruit. "Right outside, along the path," the warrior said, dropping the berries into her mouth. "They looked so crisp and clean after the rain, I couldn't resist them." She helped herself to another clump. As she popped them between her lips, she smiled at the bard's happy expression.

"They're wonderful!" the little blonde cried, filling her palm again. "And they're full of juice," the girl giggled, tilting her head back for another mouthful. The warrior's gentle laugh brought the green eyes to her face.

Xena plucked the corner of the blanket from the bard's knee and stroked the material over the girl's soft chin. "Yeah," the warrior said warmly, "and most of it is all over your face." She dabbed at the sticky evidence at the corner of the little blonde's mouth. The warrior shook her head as she continued swabbing the area. She finished the 'clean up' and tossed the blanket back into position.

Gabrielle held her face still while Xena gently attended to the juice on her chin. When the warrior had sufficiently handled the task, the little bard sat back, chomping happily on the mouthful of berries. She swallowed, savoring the sweet juice in her mouth, then noisily sucked the remaining stickiness from her fingers. She gave the blue eyes an impish glance and peered into the basket again, in search of another serving.

Xena watched the girl enjoy the treat in the hopper for another moment, then stood and walked to the fireplace. She retrieved the small kettle, poured two mugs of the rich tea, replaced the iron pot and carried the mugs to the pallet. As she approached the bed, she saw the bard stretching her neck stiffly first to one side, then the other, obviously trying to unseat the stiffness in the area. The warrior stopped next to the bed and cast a sympathetic eye at the uncomfortable ritual.

"Still got your headache?" she asked the little bard.

"Yeah," Gabrielle said, smiling ruefully. "It's the weather. It's no big deal."

Xena handed the girl one of the mugs and put the other down on the wooden table. She sat down next to the little blonde and gently rotated the girls shoulders until she was facing the girl's back. She began a steady, deft massage along the back of the young woman's neck. After a moment, she heard a quiet moan emerge from the trim form.

"Is that better?" the warrior asked. She paused to let the girl take a sip from the steaming mug.

"Um-hum" Gabrielle said, slowly swallowing the mouthful of tea. "Much better," she said, her eyes closed, the stiffness in her neck being steadily dismantled by the warrior's strong fingers. Xena continued the manipulation as the rain drummed a regular pattern on the roof of the little structure. The warrior halted the kneading again to allow the bard to enjoy another mouthful from the mug. After a few minutes, she let her hands rest on the slim shoulders as she addressed the girl.

"How's that?" the warrior asked.

"That's really nice," Gabrielle said, turning her head slightly to answer. "My head's not pounding anymore, either." She laid one hand over the slender fingers resting on her shoulder. "Thanks."

Xena removed her hands and sat back on the bed. "Good. Now you can start breakfast," the warrior said, the blue eyes twinkling in response to the bard's amused glance. Gabrielle laughed softly and shifted position on the bed. She handed the warrior the mug of tea, shoved her feet into her waiting boots, retrieved the container and crossed the hut to the assortment of stores near the hearth.

The warrior moved from the bed to the wooden chair near the table, picked up the remaining mug and took a sip of the stimulating tea. She watched the bard select the food and assemble the various utensils to be used in the preparation of the upcoming meal. The warrior absently raised her hand to the bandage on her neck, slid her fingers between the cloth and her skin and carefully scratched the area beneath the bandage. She grinned lightly when the bard turned around to watch the activity.

"My mother used to say, 'when it starts itching, it means it's healing'," the warrior said, her tone friendly. "Well, this thing must really be fixing itself, because it really itches." The bard's gaze paused on the bandage then swept back to the warrior's blue eyes. Xena dropped her hand when she saw the penitent look on the bard's face. Gabrielle's thin smile unsettled the tall woman's humor.

"Well, you can take it off, if it's that uncomfortable," the little blonde said, quietly. She turned back to the food on the carving block. "You always did heal faster than anyone on the gods' earth," the young queen said, exerting slightly more force than necessary on the slicing of the food.

A long moment of silence followed, interrupted only by the pattering of the rain and the low resounding thunder. The warrior wordlessly removed the cloth bandage, folding the cloth into a small bundle and placing it at the far edge of the table. After enjoying another mouthful of tea, the warrior cleared her throat and addressed the little blonde.

"Listen," the tall woman began, somewhat hesitantly. "Since you've been having such trouble with the new scroll, maybe it would help ... clear the cobwebs if I told you a story that I know." She waited nervously, slightly embarrassed when she saw the little bard's surprised reaction to her suggestion.

Gabrielle stopped in mid-gesture, part of the brick of cheese and the knife she was using to slice it suspended halfway between the carving stone and the warrior at the table. She sent an astonished expression toward her tall friend, her mouth open in comic amazement. She turned to face the dark-haired woman, lowered the cheese and forced her eyebrows to return to their normal position.

"You're going to tell me a story?" the little bard asked the warrior.

"Yeah," Xena said, more than ordinarily unnerved by the question. The bronze face showed the warrior's chagrin. "I know it won't be as good as you telling it, but ...." The little bard's subtle grin widened. "So do you want to hear it, or not?" the warrior asked, somewhat irritably and profoundly self-conscious of the warm blush that slowly covered her face.

"I ... can't think of anything I'd rather do," the little blonde said, her eyes warm on the warrior's disconcerted face. She gazed at the warrior for a moment, then turned casually back to her preparation activities. "Go ahead," the girl said resuming the cheese slicing. "I'm listening. What's the story about?"

"A silver fox," the warrior said evenly, drawing the bard's attention back to her face. "Actually, it's about a gray she-wolf and how she ... learned a very important lesson from the fox." The bard nodded slowly. "Shall I go on?"

"Absolutely," the little blonde said. She carried the platters of food to the table, sat down and looked at the warrior expectantly. "A silver fox?" Gabrielle said, breaking a slice of cheese in her hands. "Sounds ... intriguing."

Xena took a long breath and nervously fingered the mug in her hands. She swallowed slowly, met the bard's green gaze, moistened her lips and began.

"This gray she-wolf started off life in a pretty ordinary way. She and her other litter-mates ..." the warrior's eyes rose to the bard's. "Two males cubs ... played and hunted and roamed about the countryside, enjoying the forest and the company of the other ... cubs of the pack." Xena's blue gaze considered the plate of food.

The young queen's green eyes lingered on her friend's face, her mouth slowly chewing a bite of venison.

"The she-wolf had a particularly special relationship with the youngest male cub ... they were not just ... litter-mates, they were friends ... best friends, so to speak. He ... understood her and accepted her just the way she was, which didn't seem to be like any of the other young female wolves in the pack." The cobalt pools drifted up to the young bard's emerald gaze and the soft face returned the subtle grin on the bronze face. The warrior shrugged self-consciously and cleared her throat.

The bard swallowed the mouthful of food and slowly nodded her understanding.

"Well," the warrior said, taking a short breath, "one day a ... hyena attacked the wolf pack. He and his .. mongrel band ... killed many of the adult males and left most of the she-wolf's friends wounded and ... terribly afraid. She was so angry and full of revenge, she convinced the remaining males in the pack to ... go after the hyena and his band. In fact, she led the way, following them into the hills and over the countryside." The warrior's gaze was cloudy, lost in thought.

"The she-wolf and her ... followers caught up with the hyena and engaged him and his band in battle. It was .. brutal ... savage ... many of the she-wolf's pack were wounded and killed ... including her younger litter-mate. He stepped in front of her when one of the hyena's vicious partners tried to ... slash her belly with his claws. The mongrel slashed the young male cub instead. He died soon afterwards. And the hyena and his vicious band got away."

Gabrielle sat quietly, watching her friend move the food around on the plate, completely aware that the woman had yet to bring any of the sustenance to her mouth. She pulled her eyes back to the warrior's sorrowful face.

Xena swallowed hard and brought her eyes to meet those of her soulmate. "Something happened to the she-wolf when her litter-mate was killed. Her heart became filled with hate and revenge, so much so that she decided she couldn't return to the part of the forest where her home den was. She knew she could never live there again." The young bard felt a heavy ache constrict her throat and she watched the warrior blink hard against her own tears.

"After she had ... buried her litter-mate, the she-wolf continued to track the hyena. She told herself that she was protecting her home, that she was providing a ... buffer of safety for the members of the pack where she had spent her childhood. But, along the way, she found out something about herself, something that would come back to haunt her senses and plague her spirit like nothing else." The warrior's voice had become remorseful and ashamed. The little bard held her breath.

"The she-wolf found out that she began to enjoy the ... raiding and the killing. She began to revel in the power she held, to relish the look of fear that she saw in the faces of the other animals in the forest whenever she and her pack came along. It began to consume her ... control her ... like a vile fever, a deadly ... disease. She found herself killing simply for the thrill it brought her."

The tall woman's tone grew bitter, full of self-loathing. She let her eyes linger imploringly on the girl's verdant gaze before returning her attention to the uneaten food on her plate. She brusquely pushed the platter away. The little blonde became aware that her own hands were clenched tight, her fists aching and cramped. She labored to relax her fingers, drew in a long, shaky breath and gulped.

"What happened to her?" the bard asked quietly. The warrior's blue gaze met the bard's again. "Did she ever recover from her ... illness?" the little blonde asked, her eyes riveted on the tall woman's sad expression.

Xena met the bard's steady stare, her eyes penitent and contrite. "Not for a long time," the warrior said quietly. "In fact, her blind rage and unbridled 'quest for power' nearly destroyed her ... very likely would have ravished her completely, had it not been for a simple act of kindness from a very unlikely source." The stoic face softened slightly as a small, lop-sided grin graced the warrior's expression. The bard waited, intent on the woman's 'story'.

The dark-haired storyteller took another deep breath and left her chair at the table, carrying the earthen mug to the fireplace. She knelt to retrieve the small cauldron from the hot stones of the hearth, refilled the mug and raised the kettle in the bard's direction, a mute question in the blue eyes. The little bard glanced at the contents of her own mug, returned the warrior's gaze and gently shook her head. The tall woman replaced the kettle in the stony fireplace, returned to her chair and sat down again, stirring the steaming contents with the wooden tool.

"One day, the she-wolf encountered a jackal ... very vain ... very arrogant. But for some reason, the she-wolf became attracted to this ... creature ... even began a ... relationship with him. She didn't really understand why she felt so drawn to him ... all she knew was that he seemed to ... respond to her ... to share her ... inclination. And, even though her life was filled with violence and conquest ... she felt a kind of ... release in the satisfaction of their ... mutual needs." The stoic face displayed a brand of submissive regret, an almost embarrassed admission of weakness.

Gabrielle's quiet smile greeted the warrior's abashed grin. The two friends shared a brief moment before the golden face sobered, the blue eyes changed to the color of gray steel. The little blonde leaned forward, compassion and understanding radiating from the green pools.

"Then the jackal betrayed the she-wolf ... coldly manipulating her, using her feelings to get her to drop her guard ... and to trust him. He engineered her capture, tortured and killed the members of her band and left her brutally injured, on the verge of death." The warrior's jaw rippled in fury. "He did it without a shred of remorse ... without a single moment of regret. He left her ... wounded and in pain ... just walked away ... left her for dead."

A heavy silence hung in the little hut. The cadence of the rain rose in intensity and a loud roar of thunder rattled outside the building. The tall, slender form at the table sat rigid and stiff, her hands shaking, chalk-white patterns outlining her lips. After a long moment, the warrior became vaguely aware of the bard's gentle touch on her arm. She slowly raised her eyes to answer the girl's sympathetic gaze. Xena drew in a slow, calming breath.

"The she-wolf survived the jackal's cruelty. She recovered enough from her injuries to return to her life of pillaging and preying on those weaker than she was. Physically, she was nearly as strong as she had been ... she was still vicious and sly. And she was even more angry, more ruthless, even more without conscience than before. All she knew was hate, conquest, survival and fear ... her own and what she instilled in her victims.

"The only thing that seemed to matter to the she-wolf now was satisfying her own vengeance; it filled her senses, controlled her every action. She lived each day filled with hate and anger and ruthless revenge, consumed by her own intentions to make everyone she met pay for her pain and her feelings of being used and cheated." The warrior slowly stirred the dark liquid in the mug. The bard's attention remained on her friend's remarkable face.

"Soon afterward, the she-wolf met a silver fox ... a beautiful, rare, unique little creature. The fox was brave and wise and compassionate. Her heart was strong and courageous and she approached the world with a gentle awareness. The little fox saw the dignity in every other creature in the forest, even in the predators and the animals who hunted the others for food. There was a spiritual quality about her. She never judged those she met, she only required that they be as truthful and honest with her as she was with them."

Gabrielle sat transfixed by the look of pure affection on her friend's sculpted face. She knew the warrior was capable of deep emotion and that the woman's honor enveloped her very being. And she knew how difficult it was for the tall, dark-haired warrior to express her most private feelings. The little bard felt very fortunate to have the tall woman's trust.

"The silver fox took the she-wolf into her den, protected her from the many enemies she had acquired, cared for her, gave her friendship and ... love. She saw the agony in the she-wolf's heart and tried to help her put aside her hatred and her selfish desires. The fox even managed to heal the she-wolf's body .. to repair the damage left by the jackal's vicious attack. Soon the she-wolf was whole again, at least physically ... strong ... agile ... full of intensity and anxious to take advantage of her new vitality."

The cobalt gaze was steady and compelling as the warrior concentrated on the young queen's face. The little blonde swallowed heavily and waited for her friend to continue. Xena let out a quiet breath.

"The fox taught the she-wolf many skills ... not only how to use the forces within her to protect herself and to combat the will of others, but to open her senses to the needs and longings of those she met. She tried to teach the she-wolf about honor and the dignity of caring for those in need for no other reason than that it was ... the right thing to do." The blue eyes met the bard's gaze. "Simply because, it was ... noble and caring and right.

"But, the she-wolf still held on to her hate ... her desire to exact revenge ... her stubborn, blinding, destructive will. She couldn't let go of the rage or the vengeance in her heart. And she couldn't understand why she should."

The warrior's clear blue eyes were filled with intense shame. The little bard waited, anguish for her friend's pain tightening her throat.

"Finally, the silver fox sent the she-wolf away, disappointed and sad at her failure to open the wolf's heart to love and unselfishness. The wolf left ... seeing only her own anger and resentment ... still unaware of the true meaning of what the fox had tried to teach her. She didn't even care that she had broken the silver fox's heart. She returned to the forest and to her old ways ... fighting, conquest and blood."

The staccato cadence of the rain filled the room. Quietly, the bard wiped the tears from her face, her green eyes locked on the warrior's silent stare. She waited, her laced fingers pressed against her quivering lips. After swallowing several times, the little blonde asked a gentle question.

"What happened to the silver fox?"

"The she-wolf never saw her again. She carried the image of the fox deep inside her, unwilling to admit how much she knew she owed to the fox's kindness. But it was many summers before the she-wolf began to realize the value of what the fox had tried to teach her... and by then, it was almost too late."

A low rumble of thunder punctuated the warrior's statement. As the sound slowly faded, the little bard shivered and rubbed her arms, glancing quickly at the rumpled blankets lying on the pallet. She slid her chair back from the table, stood up and crossed the room to retrieve one of the woolen coverings. At the same time, the warrior left her chair, stepped to the fireplace, knelt next to the hearth and lifted several logs onto the low, glowing coals, carefully positioning the wood with an iron implement.

Gabrielle stood watching the tall woman's silent activity, unwilling to intrude on her friend's contemplation, determined to allow her friend whatever private decision might be necessary concerning continuing her story. After a moment, as the fire grew more active and the dampness in the room began to dissipate, the little blonde slowly walked back to her chair at the table, her green eyes sympathetic on the warrior's pensive face.

"What happened to the she-wolf after she left the fox?" the bard asked quietly. "Did she ever come to understand what the silver fox had tried to teach her?"

Xena's blue eyes swept up from the flames to meet the gaze of her friend. A gentle smile warmed the stoic expression. The warrior rose, picked up the two mugs and carried them back to the fireplace. She put one mug down, picked up the small kettle, refilled the mug, then exchanged it for the other vessel. After replacing the kettle on the arm over the fire, she stood up and carried the two full mugs back to the table.

"Well, she spent most of the next ten summers exacting revenge on anyone who was unfortunate enough to cross her path. She surrounded herself with the most vicious, bloodthirsty animals she could find and her band of ... creatures ... traveled the countryside, leaving pain and devastation in their path." The bard closed her eyes tightly and took a deep breath. When she focused on the warrior's face again, her heart caught at the look of total contrition she saw on the bronze face.

"The she-wolf had closed herself to any kind of feeling ... she refused to let herself experience anything except hate and rage and vengeance. It nearly consumed her ... destroyed her spirit. She continued her path of destruction and fear for a long, ugly period." Xena's long fingers traced imaginary patterns on the wooden tabletop, her gaze distant and reminiscent. Then the blue eyes slowly rose to gaze intently on the little bard's sad face, a tiny, subtle smile began at the corner of the woman's mouth.

"Yet, the odd thing was that the she-wolf had begun to find feelings within herself. She found that, not only did she not enjoy her violent life anymore, she actually began to feel ... disgusted by it and ashamed of ... herself. It seemed as though all the very ideals the little silver fox had tried to teach her were slowly beginning to make sense in her mind. She found the rage in her heart fading away ... controlling her less and less. And she decided to return to the part of the forest where she had been young, to try to ... begin a new life."

The little bard saw the thin wave of regret seep into the warrior's face. "Of course she knew she could never completely .. escape the consequences of all the pain and suffering she had been responsible for ... she knew that wasn't possible." The warrior paused to meet the little blonde's compassionate gaze. "But, the she-wolf decided she had to try, to at least attempt to do some good before her life was over. She had to try, at least."

Gabrielle blinked hard to stem the ache she felt tightening her throat.

"Then the she-wolf was befriended by a magnificent ... lion. He was decent and gallant and kind and very, very wise. He saw her rage and somehow managed to ... sweep it away. He unchained the anger in her heart and dispelled it with patience and understanding. They fell in love ... but they both knew there were too many differences between them to ever find happiness together. And the she-wolf knew she had too much to ... make up for before she could allow herself that sort of ...contentment. The lion and the wolf parted company ... still friends and still very ... fond of each other."

The little bard's warm grin met the warrior's. The girl recognized the obvious reference in the tall woman's words and she graciously ignored the slight blush that had invaded the golden features. She met the warrior's gaze easily, treasuring the genuine trust she saw in the clear, blue eyes. The girl casually lifted her mug, blew into the steaming mixture and slowly brought the container to her mouth.

"Sounds like this lion was very special ... sort of 'god-like', even?" the girl quipped quietly, her eyes warm and loving.

Xena returned the bard's grin affectionately. "Yeah," she said dryly. "You could say that .. at least the she-wolf thought so." The warrior's expression changed subtly. "He was the first ... true friend she had even known, since the loss of her younger litter-mate. The lion showed her how to trust again ... in others and in herself."

The bard nodded slowly, her green eyes intent on the deep, blue pools. The two women sat quietly. Then the warrior smiled, openly and without restriction.

"So, back the she-wolf went ... to her home valley ... intent on giving up her life of violence and revenge. She separated herself from her 'nasty cohorts', laid aside all her weapons and turned her path toward the part of the forest where she had grown up." The bard's brow curled curiously at the noticeable lightness now present in the warrior's tone.

"Before she could bury her past, though, the she-wolf came upon a small, furry ... bobcat. A young, curious and somewhat stubborn little bobcat." The bard felt the warm blush travel over her own face. She fought hard to forestall the embarrassed smile that threatened her serious expression but soon the warrior's warm grin dispelled any hopes the girl had of maintaining her composure. She gave in to her own amusement and returned the affectionate gaze.

"A bobcat?" the girl said, impishly. "Aren't they sort of ... unpredictable and kind of ... headstrong?"

The warrior's eyebrow leaped upward. "To say the least," she replied drolly. "Especially when they dig their little paws in if you try to change their mind about something." The bard gave the warrior a perfect imitation of her own 'look'. "Anyway," Xena continued, "after the she-wolf rescued the little bobcat from another predatory animal, she tried to continue on her way, back to her home, to try and ... start her new life."

"But ...." the little bard prompted coyly, her soft face still warmed by her gentle smile.

"But, the she-wolf found that the little bobcat had followed her ... and kept following her ... no matter how the she-wolf tried to discourage her from following her, the little bobcat just kept it up!" The warrior's face displayed mock frustration and the bard submerged a tiny giggle.

"Yeah, I've heard that bobcats can be as stubborn as she-wolves, sometimes," the little blonde said. The girl's green eyes were warm on the tall woman's blue gaze. The two friends shared the loving moment, their easy laughter filling the little hut. Then the warrior's expression slowly changed.

Xena sat quite still, breathing deeply, her blue eyes rooted to the bard's steady gaze. Gabrielle gazed lovingly at the warrior's profound expression, the devotion and loyalty she felt for the tall woman tightening her chest. A long quiet moment passed, the stillness in the hut accentuated by the steady drumming of the rain. A shallow wave of thunder broke the silence and both women relaxed slightly.

"Well," the warrior began, moistening her lips, "since she couldn't seem to leave the little bobcat behind," Xena said, her blue eyes twinkling, "the she-wolf decided they could travel together. Her plans for staying in her home valley didn't quite ... materialize, so she and the little bobcat set off to try to do some good and atone for the she-wolf's angry life. They traveled side by side, meeting danger and enemies alike ... shoulder to shoulder ... together."

The bard's eyes remained on the warrior's. The tall woman swallowed slowly.

"And that little bobcat became the she-wolf's best friend," Xena said quietly. "She gave her support and understanding, gave her a reason to trust again, to see the goodness present in those she met. That little bobcat showed the she-wolf what it was to be a true friend, even when the wolf seemed determined to return to her old life, when she let the hatred and anger still in her heart begin to take control again. The little bobcat showed the she-wolf only faith and loyalty ... and love."

The bard's green eyes glistened brightly.

"You see, Gabrielle," Xena said, her voice thick and solemn. "The silver fox saved the she-wolf's life and healed her body. The brave lion freed her heart and her spirit, let her regain her self-respect, at least ... let her see herself as more than she had been. But the little bobcat saved the she-wolf's soul." The warrior covered the bard's little hand with her own. "Even when the wolf had begun to believe she would never know that kind of faith and trust again, the little bobcat showed her a friendship and an allegiance like none she had ever known. She swept the pain away and replaced it with friendship and love."

Gabrielle's tears covered her face. She returned the warrior's loving grasp on her hand and gently caressed the bronze face with the other. After a moment, the girl rose from her chair and moved toward her friend, wrapping her arms around the tall woman's muscled form and holding on tightly. The warrior returned the fervent embrace. The two friends were still for a very long time. Finally the little bard pulled back, wiped her face and, with her hands trembling on the tall woman's shoulders, met the moist, blue eyes of her best friend.

"Tell me, Xena," the girl began haltingly. "Did the little bobcat ever betray the she-wolf?" The warrior's throat convulsed around her nervous gulp. "Did she ever blindly follow her own perceptions and threaten her best friend's safety ... put her life in danger?" The young form began to shake as the girl's sobs grew in intensity. The warrior gripped the little blonde's shoulders tightly.

"Gabrielle," Xena began, watching the young face nervously.

"No, of course she didn't!" Gabrielle said harshly. "Best friends don't do that to each other, do they? Best friends don't let their own narrow point of view endanger their best friend's life! That's not what best friends are known for!" Xena tried to gather the girl closer but Gabrielle backed away, her fists clenched, a manic gleam in the weeping, green eyes.

"Gabrielle!" the warrior barked, rising and reclaiming the slim shoulders. "Listen to me!" The girl's eyes swept up wildly, meeting the piercing blue pools. "You couldn't have known what would happen ... what a monster Ming Tien was." She softened her tone as the girl's eyes locked on hers. "You were only doing what you thought was necessary ... to stop me ... to rescue my soul." The blue eyes grew warm. "Just like you always have ... like you've been doing every day since we met."

Gabrielle searched the warrior's beautiful face. The girl's breathlessness subsided, her manner grew calmer. She opened her fists and tried to focus on the clear blue eyes of the woman before her.

Xena released her hold on Gabrielle's shoulders and took one small hand into hers. "Please stop torturing yourself. I understand what you were trying to do and I love you for caring enough to do it." The bard swallowed slowly. "And I forgive you, honestly, I do."

The sound of the rain on the roof filled the quiet chamber. The warrior watched the soft face closely for signs of sensibility, of understanding. Finally, the bard's green eyes traveled up to meet the warrior's.

"I know you understand ... that you believe what I did was for 'your own good'." The girl swallowed heavily. "I just wish I could believe it and forgive myself." The warrior's heart thumped.


Chapter Eight ~~~

Gabrielle sat quietly on the warm, flat stone beside the clear, dancing stream. She raised her eyes from the piece of parchment in her lap and tilted her head back, letting the sun warm her face and chase the stiffness from her neck and shoulders. She had hoped that the gentle sounds of the rippling water might soothe her uneasiness and that the bright sunshine would ease the heaviness in her chest. Unfortunately, neither had occurred; instead she still had the headache she'd brought with her. The bard trained her eyes on the forest around her, but her thoughts were turned inward, toward the not-so-distant past.

'How will she ever trust me again?' the girl asked herself. 'I let myself be blinded by my own inflexible views. She was nearly tortured to death ... because of me ... because I turned my back on our friendship. I was so determined that I was right ... how could I have given her so little credit, been so ... narrow-minded?' The little blonde pressed her palms to her temples. The raging confusion in her mind only intensified her pounding headache. She dropped her chin to her chest and rubbed against the stiffness tightening her neck.

'And what about Hope?' the girl's mind continued. 'I lied to Xena about what happened to .. my child. My child,' the young queen thought sadly. 'The child of a demon-god, a repulsive creature bent on destroying mankind. Another blunder, Gabrielle,' the girl admonished herself. 'Another example of your ignorance and your lack of judgment.' The bard blinked as tears began to cloud her vision. 'How many times has she risked death to save you? And how many more times will it have to be so?'

Gabrielle shook her head irritably, leaning forward on the rock to combat the dizziness and the self-reproach filling her senses. She gazed unseeing into the clear, tumbling water. When she heard the noise behind her, the little queen quickly retrieved her Amazon staff from its position next to the big rock. In an instant, the girl was on her feet, facing the approaching form. However, she was totally unprepared for the figure that emerged from the greenery.

"Sorry," the small woman said. "Didn't mean to alarm you." The slender female stepped forward, separating herself from the foliage and offered a lazy smile to the young blonde's taut expression.

Gabrielle relaxed her stance but kept her eyes on the lean form. She let her eyes travel over the woman's appearance, noting the simple traveler's garb, the petite stature and the unusual condition of the woman's attire ... she carried no weapons, carried nothing at all, except a small, cloth bag suspended from her shoulder by a narrow leather string. The other aspect that captured the little blonde's attention was the startling color of the woman's thick mass of hair. It reminded her of polished candlesticks ... or a brightly burnished set of expensive eating utensils. The green eyes softened as the woman's smile widened slowly.

"Is everything all right up here?" the woman asked. The clear hazel eyes scanned the area. "Where's Xena? Is she still up at the Retreat Hut?"

The bard's brows furrowed in skepticism. She tightened her hold on the staff. "Who are you?" she asked the woman. "How did you know we were here at the Retreat Hut? Did Ephiny send you?" The young face remained uneasy.

The slender female smiled warmly at the bard's tentative expression. She extended a thin hand. "Name's Isabella," she told the little blonde. Gabrielle took the hand and noted the softness of the woman's palm. "Let's just say I'm another friend who's concerned about you two. Have you ... worked things out? Settled your problem?"

The little queen stepped back from the gaunt figure, her eyes still fixed on the woman's open face. After a moment, she turned back to the clear, bright water bubbling noisily over the rocks in the stream.

"Guess not," the thin woman said, moving to sit on another large boulder. "Well, it's understandable ... considering what's happened between you lately."

The blonde head snapped toward the visitor. She studied the slim face, her eyes narrowed and guarded.

"I mean ..." the woman's head bounced in the direction of the Retreat Hut. "She can't be the easiest person in the known world to live with, right?" The gaunt face contorted in a 'confidential smirk'. "So ... talkative ... so easy to reach."

"Listen, Isabella, is it?" The woman nodded. "I don't know what Ephiny's told you, but Xena and I have some ... communicating to do. And, we ... I don't appreciate you making that sort of comment about her. She's still my best friend and ... well, she just is." The little bard straightened and sat down on the rock again.

A small moment of silence settled over the bank of the stream. Then the thin traveler spoke.

"Do 'best friends' usually try to kill the daughters of their 'best friends'?" the woman said evenly.

The little blonde stiffened, her expression angry and harsh. "Look!" Gabrielle said, pointing an accusing finger. She stared at the other woman's face, unnerved by the knowing glint in the hazel glance. Slowly, the little bard's anger was replaced by an unsettling wariness. She peered at the woman's enigmatic face and drew a slow, calming breath.

"Isabella," the bard began. "You seem to know an awful lot about us. But what you don't know is ... these past few moons have been ... very difficult. Things have happened that neither of us could have known about. It's just ...." The girl rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers. "It's complicated, that's all." The petite woman waited, her attention fixed on the troubled young face.

"Anyway," Gabrielle said, a new forcefulness in her tone. "In spite of all that, Xena is still my best friend. I trust her with my life. She's the truest, most loyal, most honorable person I know. And ... whatever has happened between us, I know in my heart that's still so."

The slender voyager nodded in resignation. The bard relaxed a bit and turned her attention back to the stream. Isabella studied the small form, noting completely the sorrow and defeat in the young woman's manner. She took a short breath.

"OK," she began, "I'll buy that." The woman crossed her arms over her chest. "You trust her with your life." Gabrielle turned to meet the woman's gaze. "Does she trust you with hers?"

The bard flinched, swallowing hard. The small woman saw the convulsive gulp, the doubt in the green gaze. She waited for the little bard to answer.

"What kind of a question is that?" the girl sputtered.

Isabella shrugged innocently. "Well, does she? More to the point, does she have good reason not to trust you?" The little bard blinked. "Have you given her any reason for that to be true?" The young blonde stared at the slim female, her breath uneven and ragged. "Well?" the woman said roughly. "Yes or no?"

Gabrielle leapt up from the boulder and took a frightened step away from the visitor. She glared at the woman, her fists clenched. "Who are you?" the bard asked in a ragged voice. "How do you ... who told you ...?" Isabella's smug grin widened. She stood and advanced toward the bard.

"Aren't you the same Gabrielle who went to Chin to set a trap for her 'best friend'? Aren't you the 'friend' who was responsible for her 'best friend' being captured, thrown into prison and nearly executed by a ruthless tyrant?" The bard took another retreating step as the woman continued to come toward her. "Well?? Aren't you?"

Gabrielle stopped and thrust her hands over her ears. "Stop it!" she screamed, closing her eyes tightly. The trim form crumpled away from her accuser. "I tried to save her ... to save her soul," the girl whimpered, turning mournfully to the slender woman. "I just wanted to keep her from murdering someone in cold blood." She glared defiantly at the girl.

"That's why I went to Chin ... to stop her." Gabrielle's tears covered her face. "I tried to make her see that she's ... too good for that now. She's come so far ... back from that ... monster she was." The girl brought her hands to her head. "She's so much more," the bard said plaintively. "So much more ...."

Isabella took a firm hold of the girl's slender arms, roughly turning her to face her. The bard felt her eyes being drawn to the woman's face. She gulped and blinked to clear her tears.

"Don't you think she knows that?" the traveler said firmly. "Don't you see? Xena understands why you did what you did." Isabella let her words register a moment. "She's forgiven you, Gabrielle. She told you that, remember?" The bard gulped, confusion and surprise traveling over the soft features. "Now, why can't you believe that ... and forgive yourself?"

The small woman released the girl's shoulders and placed a gentle hand on her back. Gabrielle's manner became calmer as she gazed at the gentle gray gaze. She swallowed smoothly as the pounding in her chest began to lessen. Isabella pulled the soft blonde hair back from the wet face and smiled warmly.

"You two are a very special pair of friends, little bard. After defeating all those villains together, it would be a shame if you ended up defeating each other." The slender woman raised a slim hand and wiped the girl's tears away. "That would be a great tragedy." She gave the bard's shoulder a gentle squeeze and stepped away.

Gabrielle's gaze followed the woman. The traveler turned back to the little queen. "You must free your heart of this guilt, Gabrielle. For your sake and for Xena's. She counts on you, you know? She often says you are the guardian of her soul." The little blonde stared at the gaunt form. "You, too, are capable of great loyalty. And Xena knows that. She relies on your pure heart and the goodness within you. Can you abide with letting her down?"

The slender woman tossed her unusually-colored hair and faced the bard, hands on her hips, smiling widely. "So, what's it to be?" she asked the young woman. "Are you prepared to finish your life without Xena in it? Or are you strong enough to go forward, now? To let these ... incidents ... fade into the past?" The bard's gaze rested on her trembling fingers until the woman's smooth voice captured her attention again.

"Well, I guess the only question you really have to ask yourself is, Which would be more painful? Letting the events in Chin ... and those concerning Hope ... destroy the most beautiful friendship of our time?" Gabrielle felt a heaviness thump across her chest. "Or," Isabella said, gently touching the bard's soft face. "Can you settle what's happened into the deepest, most forgiving place of your heart, offer absolution to yourself ... and to your best friend ... and get on with your life ... together, as you should be?" The woman turned, repositioned the strap of the small pouch on her shoulder and stood facing the little blonde. "When all is said and done, it's really your decision, isn't it? Look into your heart."

Gabrielle took a long, slow, steady breath. She let her arms drop to her sides and trained her eyes on the thin female's face. She found herself returning the woman's gentle smile. Isabella turned and took a few steps toward the surrounding greenery, then turned back to the bard. She raised one thin hand in farewell.

"Be well and happy, my little friend," the woman said. "Just remember ... you may believe you can survive without Xena. But, can she survive without you? Think about it." And with that, she was gone.

Gabrielle sat back down on the large boulder wearily. She let her eyes settle on the gentle stream, the clear water bouncing crisply over the smooth stones beneath the surface. The bard heard the woman's parting statement resounding in her head. 'Can she survive without you?', the woman had asked. ' ... without you?', the girl heard, over and over. '....without you?' She sighed heavily and wiped away the new tears on her face.

"Problem is, Xena," the bard whispered to the tumbling water. "Will you survive with me there, as frightened as I am that I might betray you again, someday, somehow." The young blonde shivered and wrapped her trim arms tightly around herself. "How could I go on living, if that should happen? Knowing I had been responsible?" The little queen sat very still for a moment. Then the trim form straightened as the bard retrieved her staff and the piece of parchment and stood up.

"No," Gabrielle murmured quietly. "I will not put you in danger another time." The green eyes swept in the direction of the Retreat Hut. "You're safer without me ... I love you too much to do that to you again. Not again ... never again."


Chapter Nine ~~~

The little blonde slowly approached the Retreat Hut. She glanced quickly around the area, searching for the tall form of her best friend. A small wave of relief wafted across the girl's heart when it appeared that Xena had not returned from her hunting expedition. The warrior had set off half a candlemark before, tossing promises of fresh fish and more berries over her shoulder as she left. The bard had taken the opportunity to make her trip to the stream at the same time.

Gabrielle entered the hut, her green eyes sweeping the interior of the small building. She sighed quietly when she realized that her friend was not inside. The bard looked down blankly at the piece of parchment in her hand, swallowed and let her eyes travel over the furniture in the hut. She walked to the wooden table in the center of the room, folding the parchment into a neat square. She carefully propped the papyrus up against one of the earthen mugs in the middle of the wooden expanse, took another slow look around the hut, turned and walked through the door, closing the panel behind her. Half a candlemark later, the warrior returned to the hut.


Xena wore a satisfied grin as her slender form emerged from the forest behind the Retreat Hut. She carried several large trout on a thin rope slung over her shoulder and a full basket of crimson berries under her other arm. Her face lit as she approached the little building, anticipating the delight in her soulmate's smile when she presented the day's bounty. The warrior shifted the basket to the hand that held the line of fish, pushed open the wooden panel and stepped inside.

"Well, you wanted trout!" the warrior announced proudly, her blue eyes sweeping the room for her friend's small form. "Gabrielle?" the tall woman called, searching the area more distinctly. Then her eyes found the parchment square.

Xena put down the basket and the fish and unfolded the note, quickly recognizing the bard's clear handwriting. As she read the transcribed message, the warrior's throat contracted when the words on the page clamored in her brain.

My dearest Xena,

I know you may not understand why I must leave you, but I could not live with the idea of hurting you again. My blind ignorance and foolish choices have endangered your life and our friendship. You will be safer continuing on without me.

Please know that you will always occupy a special place in my heart and I will always think of you as the finest friend I have ever known. Try not to think too harshly of me. Be happy and safe. And know that I will love you, always.

Your friend. Gabrielle.

The warrior's chest tightened as she fought to draw breath into her lungs. She crushed the small parchment in her palm and stared blankly at the small window across the room. For a shattering moment, the interior of the little hut pivoted and wavered wildly as the tall woman clenched her teeth together, striving to regain her equilibrium. She grabbed the edge of the table with a shaky hand.

"No!" Xena gasped. "You can't do this to us!" The warrior gulped savagely as the swirling fixtures drifted back to their regular positions. The tall, trembling form slowly quieted, the piercing blue eyes regained their usual clearness. Xena breathed slowly, let go of the table and stood up straight.

Another short moment passed before the crumpled piece of parchment was launched toward the fireplace as the tall warrior's slender hands pulled at the cloth belt around her waist.

"Sorry, Gabrielle," the warrior murmured to the empty room. "You mean too much to me to let you go like this. Not like this."

In the next instant, Xena crossed the room and located the large bag containing her normal, daily attire. She found her leather tunic, pulled the woolen garment off over her head and replaced it with her leathers. In a very short time, the warrior was again clad in the costume that had become her trademark apparel; leather tunic, gauntlets and arm coverings, brass armor, tall boots and leg coverings, crafted scabbard containing the renowned sword, round metal chakram hooked on the loop on her belt.

The tall warrior tugged one last time on the lacings of her left boot, dropped her foot to the floor and strode purposefully toward the door of the hut. She swung open the panel and stepped outside, her blue eyes scanning the forest. Suddenly, her sharp hearing detected the sound of an approaching rider. She turned toward the sound. The blue gaze recognized the golden mare immediately, as well as her blonde rider.

Seconds later, Ephiny rode into the little clearing around the hut. The Amazon reined in her mount and jumped to the ground in front of the warrior. Her nervous expression registered in the warrior's awareness, however, at that moment, Xena's concentration was on the finding the absent bard. Before the warrior could voice the question on her lips, the tall, blonde Amazon handed over the horse's reins.

Xena cast a quick glance at the leather strips before meeting the tall warrior's gaze.

"She's headed west. If you take the shortcut through the prime length ...."

Ephiny's suggestion was lost on the tall woman who moved quickly around her and leapt onto the great mare's back. She watched the warrior quickly gather the reins, find the stirrups with her boots before pulling the mare's head toward the path. Moments later, the horse and her rider disappeared into the forest, the animal's hooves thundering loudly on the hard earth as the woman on her back urged her on.

"Good luck," the Amazon said to the departing warrior.


Xena's blue eyes found the trim form on the road with ease. She pulled Argo to a halt, jumped down to the ground and stood, trembling and hesitant, next to the great steed.

Absently, the warrior looped the reins over the large saddlehorn, her gaze still locked on the small, retreating figure. She gulped and tried to calm her rapid breathing.

A moment later, the warrior felt herself being firmly nudged from behind. She stumbled forward a step then turned a slightly irked gaze at the animal who had initiated the powerful 'hint'. She turned toward Gabrielle's back ... and was nudged forward again, this time somewhat more forcefully. She swiveled back toward the mare's golden head.

"All right!" Xena growled at the animal's stubborn glare. "I'm going, I'm going." She took a tentative step down the path then stopped, her heart hammering in her chest. "Oh, gods, Argo. What if she doesn't want to ...." She put a shaky hand on the horse's neck. "What if she won't talk to me?" Argo shook her head and puffed against the warrior's hair. The great head swung toward the small figure on the path ahead, then back to the warrior. The animal leaned against her mistress to offer moral support.

"Yeah, I'll never know until I try, right?" Argo whinnied softly. "OK, then. Wish me luck." Xena patted the smooth hide and swallowed nervously. She took a long stride and then another, all the while trying to ignore the panic in her stomach.

"Gabrielle!" the warrior shouted, and the small form stopped moving.

The bard stood stone still as the sound of the familiar voice brought her breath to an abrupt halt. She gulped, closed her eyes and clenched her fists to stop her hands from shaking, willing herself to remain calm and controlled. After a moment, the green eyes drifted open and their owner turned slowly toward the approaching form of the tall warrior. As the blue eyes drew closer, the little blonde found she couldn't seem to focus on anything else in the immediate vicinity. She gulped again, quietly.

Xena loped easily toward the bard's stationary form, slowing her stride to a walk when the girl turned around to face her. Her eyes locked on the soft green pools and it seemed meeting the gentle gaze was the most important thing in space and time, at that moment. The warrior's long legs quickly brought her within arm's reach of the little blonde and the bronze face mirrored the deep yearning in the tall woman's heart.

"Where are you going?" she asked the little blonde.

"I'm not sure," the bard answered haltingly. "Maybe ho ... I mean to Poteidaia ... for a while. Maybe the Academy ... I don't know." The green eyes swept the surrounding area before rising to search the chiseled face. It felt as though her heart would soon burst from her green Amazon top. "I just thought ... I figured you'd rather I wasn't ...." The girl's words dwindled as she blinked hard.

The warrior took a deep breath and settled back into a balanced stance. "Is there a reason you have to go alone?" she asked, clenching her fists to combat the pounding in her chest. "I mean, do you want that? To go alone?" Xena watched the soft face intently. It seemed like an eternity before the little bard seemed inclined to answer. The warrior's heart continued to pound under her leather tunic.

"No ... I don't really ... want to go alone," the bard whispered. "I just figured ... you'd want it that way. I mean, after the way I ...."

"The way you what?" the warrior interjected. "Don't you mean, after the way we both have been ... behaving lately? I mean, you aren't the only one at fault here ... if 'fault' is even the word to use." The bronze face softened, the blue eyes grew warm and loving. "You have as much right as anyone to want to ... separate yourself from me ... to be angry with me." The tall woman swallowed quickly. "Don't you think?"

Slowly, a particle at a time, the bard's expression began to clear. In the next few seconds, the soft face displayed confusion, then surprise and finally clear, abiding relief. A tiny, barely perceivable smile began to grow at the corners of her mouth. "Angry with you?" she said quietly. "You think I'm angry with you? Are you serious?" the bard finished softly.

The warrior's blue eyes glistened and she blinked hard to clear her vision. "Well, aren't you?" Xena asked. "Not that you don't have good reason. But ... isn't that why you're 'going alone'?" The tall woman shifted her stance. "Because of what happened ... in Chin and with ... Hope?"

Gabrielle took a quick step closer to the warrior. "No ... that's not why I ..." She stopped talking and simply stared into her best friend's anguished expression. "No," the little bard whispered. "I'm not angry. I just felt, since I've disappointed you so badly, that you'd never want to ...."

In one quick step, the warrior moved to gather the small form tightly in her arms. She sighed gratefully when she felt the bard's slender arms return the embrace. The two stood very still for a very long moment. Finally the tall woman's smooth voice sounded against the girl's blonde head.

"No, I'm not angry with you ... anymore. And you could never disappoint me enough to make me want to be without you. Gabrielle, I'd rather go to Tartarus than face that," the warrior said quietly. She pulled back to meet the bard's green gaze. "I'd rather have let Ming Tien send me there than ...." The statement was interrupted by the bard's enthusiastic hug.

"Don't ever say that!" she cried into the warrior's chest. "I wouldn't want to live, either, if that had happened." The warrior's long arms drew the little form close until the girl pulled back to meet her eyes. "I'll never forgive myself for nearly causing that, Xena. Never!"

Xena swept the blonde hair away from the tear-covered features. She leaned closer to take the sweet face between her hands. "You did what you thought was right, I know that. Even when we were ... there, I knew that. You always respond from your heart." The girl took in a staggered breath. "And like I've said before, your heart is always in the right place." The warrior's gentle smile was eventually met by the bard's. Gabrielle took another shaky breath and searched the sculpted face. "I understand ... I understood then," the warrior said quietly.

The two women separated slightly as the bard wiped her face with one small hand and took the tall woman's slender hand with the other. Focusing on the warrior's metal armor, the little blonde swallowed hard and tried to speak.

"I understood what you ... tried to do with ... Hope, too," the girl whispered. "I didn't at first, but I do now. You were doing what you thought was right. Even when ...." she took another deep breath. "Even when you knew I would surely hate you for it." She slowly raised her eyes to meet the warrior's. The deep sorrow in the clear blue pools clutched at the girl's heart. She stepped closer and hugged the warrior's waist. "I'm so sorry, Xena. How it must have hurt you, knowing that."

Xena wrapped her arms around the slim form of her best friend. "Gabrielle ... I should be saying that to you. She was your child ... I should have tried to understand how you felt." The bard tightened her hug when she felt the shudder shake the warrior's form. "I know what it's like to lose a child ... I should have remembered that."

The two friends stood quietly for a long moment. Then the warrior sighed briskly and stepped back from the little bard. She took the slim shoulders and gazed deeply into the girl's green eyes. With her thumb, she wiped the tears away from the soft face and smiled warmly at the young countenance.

"Like I said, we both have things to answer for lately." The bard's thin smile sent a quiver through the warrior's being. She stiffened when the girl took a step back away from her.

"Question is," the warrior began cautiously, "can we go forward now?" She gazed imploringly at the green stare. "Are we going to be able to ... put these events behind us? Or are we going to let them ... destroy what we have? Destroy what we both know is the most special part of the both of us?"

Gabrielle gazed, open-mouthed, at the tall warrior. Even though, in the last two days, she had heard the warrior say more, and display more emotion, than she had ever heard or witnessed in their entire history together, the impassioned speech completely surprised her. She stared at the blue gaze, unnerved and totally in awe. She finally found her voice.

"I don't know," the bard stated clearly. Then more softly ventured, "What do you think?"

The warrior's tense form relaxed as she drew in a slow, steady, confident breath.

"I think we're two of the strongest people I know ...." The stoic face warmed in a subtle grin. "And two of the most stubborn." The bard's grin grew easily. "I think we'll make it ... oh, yeah. I think so." One dark eyebrow crept upward. "How 'bout you?"

The little bard's gentle giggle sent a head-spinning wave of joy through the warrior's soul.

"I say, just try and stop us. Anybody ... just try and stop us."

The two friends smiled at each other, turned together and walked back toward the golden mare, waiting patiently at the end of the path.


Epilogue ~~~

The Solstice Celebration had been a complete success, food, drink and the exchange of gifts having progressed in a perfect plan. Numerous members of the little queen's tribe had taken time during the ensuing festivities to express their congratulations to the small monarch and her 'first champion' concerning their obvious reconciliation. Even the usually reticent Solari had responded with surprisingly warm, verbal felicitations.

Aurora had done a discriminating inspection of the rapidly fading bruise around the warrior's neck and pronounced the injury 'well tended', complimenting the bard on her proficient application of the healing balm. When the thin healer had moved away, the two friends shared a private chuckle.

"We just won't tell her that you hold the record in the known world for healing yourself," the bard giggled, collapsing dizzily against the warrior's muscled shoulder.

Xena gently stroked the blonde head. "Only on the outside, little bard," the tall woman said into the young queen's ear. "You healed the inside ... as you do every day." The deep, blue pools were soft on the girl's face. The little bard smiled into the eyes of her friend. Xena ruffled the soft golden hair. "You little bobcat, you."

The bard playfully poked the warrior's ribs. "Fair's fair. One good healing deserves another."

The two friends smiled together. Not long afterward, the warrior's discerning gaze recognized the combined effects the stimulating 'celebration brew' and the late hour were having on the young blonde queen's composure. She adroitly suggested they retire to the Regal Hut to get some needed rest before their early departure in the morning. The little bard only offered a thinly veiled objection before depositing her empty tankard on the table, graciously bidding a sleepy 'good night' to those in attendance and submitting to the warrior's gentle, but firm hand on her arm.


When she had completed the usual preparations for sleep, the tall warrior sat relaxed on the edge of the large bed, casually watching the bard tie the lacings at the neck of her sleeping shift then sit down to draw off her leather boots. As she dropped one boot to the floor, the girl's green eyes drifted up to meet the warrior's and she smiled warmly.

"Thanks for the bracelet ... and the poem. Best Solstice presents I've ever had." Xena saw the clear confusion in the soft face. It brought a similar reaction to the warrior's expression. "What?" she asked gently.

The bard blinked a few times and dropped the other empty boot to the floor. The green eyes scanned the hut for a moment before returning to the warrior's quizzical stare. "Bracelet?" the little blonde asked softly. "But I didn't ...."

The warrior opened her palm and displayed the bracelet, a uniquely crafted piece fashioned of multi-colored lengths of leather, the different pieces woven together into a beautiful, slender circle. The green eyes opened wide as the girl slowly crossed the room. Xena held out her hand and Gabrielle gently picked up the bracelet lying against the warrior's fingers. The little bard raised her gaze to meet the warrior's.

"But I didn't get a chance to finish it," the girl said softly, her green eyes surprised. "I started it but, then things got a little ... complicated," she said, leveling a tentative grin at the warrior's warm smile. "How did you ...?"

"It was here on the pillow, when we came in tonight." Xena said quietly. She turned slightly to retrieve the small scroll behind her. "I found it wrapped around this." She exchanged the leather bracelet for the scroll to the bard, waiting patiently while Gabrielle unrolled the dainty parchment, her green eyes questioning on the warrior's blue gaze. The little bard let out a small gasp when she recognized her own handwriting:

Someone who ... A friend is someone who
hears what you're saying and knows
what your heart really means.

She listens to anger and pain
and confusion
And sees what is there in between.

A friend is someone who
gives you an answer to questions
she'd rather ignore.

By willingly sharing those thoughts
oh, so private,
She garners your trust even more.

A friend is someone who
knows your worst fears.
And when they descend from above,

She shelters your trembling soul,
Strengthens your spirit,
With amity, honor and love.

A friend is someone who
opens her arms when terror
and demons surround you.

She offers you comfort and safety
and warmth
By wrapping sweet kinship around you.

A friend is someone who
makes good times better,
brightening your day with a smile.

With her, you become more,
the best you can be,
and still just yourself
The whole while.

My best friend is someone
I trust with my being,
with no doubt at all in my heart.

I thank the gods daily it's me
you have chosen and pray that
We never will part.

Thank you for being My Best Friend.
Happy Solstice. Gabrielle.

"I'm sorry I didn't get yours finished, though," the dark-haired woman said sheepishly when the little blonde's gaze returned to hers. "I had it almost done, but I left it in the pocket of the tunic I was wearing at the Retreat Hut. I forgot all about it when you ... when I left to meet you on the road," the warrior said, her voice low and smooth. She watched as the girl crossed the room and tugged at the strings at the neck of her cloth satchel.

"I can make another one," Xena said. "As soon as I find another piece of ...." The warrior's apology was stopped in mid-sentence when her eyes settled on the small wooden carving the bard now cradled in her hand. The blue eyes were clearly astonished, and for once, thoroughly surprised.

"It looks finished to me," the bard said softly, striding back to present the little wooden statue to the warrior. Xena accepted the sculpture gingerly, turning the small figure over in her hand and examining it closely. It was a perfect miniature of the wooden lamb the bard had carried lovingly since it had been the warrior's Solstice gift the previous year. The blue eyes drifted up to meet the green pools.

"I was going to thank you for it ... but you kind of threw me a little with the bracelet." The green eyes were soft on the warrior's deep azure gaze. "I guess we both were a bit ... distracted, huh?"

The two friends exchanged a warm, loving look. Whatever questions each had concerning the mysterious appearance of her gift suddenly seemed totally and completely irrelevant to the situation. The women retrieved their respective presents and smiled warmly at each other.

"Happy Solstice, Gabrielle," the warrior said.

"Happy Solstice, Xena," the bard answered.

Together they recited, "May we both have many more."


The next morning, Gabrielle gave Ephiny one last, tight hug and the Amazon returned the embrace.

"Thanks again," the little bard said. "For everything." Ephiny squeezed the girl's slender arm. "I mean it. You've been wonderful during this whole ... painful mess." The green eyes were sincere. "I don't know how we would have made it through this without ...."

The tall Amazon waved a slender hand. "No, no," she objected. "All I did was give you a place to work it out. And that was actually Aurora's idea, not mine. You two did all the real work."

The bard shook her blonde head. "Well, thanks anyway." She turned to the warrior.

Xena extended a forearm to the Amazon Regent and the blonde warrior grasped it. "Yeah, thanks, Ephiny. Gabrielle's right. We'll always be grateful for your ... patience." The stoic faced creased in a subtle smile. "I owe you one, Amazon." The Regent returned her grin.

"And I'll remember that you do," the blonde woman said. She released the warrior's arm.

Xena went back to making the last adjustments to Argo's saddle. The bard took Ephiny's arm and slowly pulled her to the side. The Amazon bent to hear the little blonde's quiet words.

"By the way, please tell Isabella 'thank you', too. Tell her I really thought about what she said. It helped me ... clear my head. Will you tell her 'thanks' for me?"

Ephiny's lovely face clearly showed the level of her confusion. She searched the girl's soft face for a moment, brows furrowed and mouth slightly open.

"Who?" the Regent asked finally, her eyes on the bard's. "Tell who 'thank you'?" She glanced at the warrior standing behind the bard, whose sculpted face showed an equal level of puzzlement. Xena turned to face the two blonde women.

Gabrielle looked closely at the Amazon's befuddled expression before noticing the warrior's small frown. "Isabella," the bard stated again. "The ... woman you sent to see if we were all right. I talked to her right before I left." She cast a playful grin at the warrior. "Before I tried to leave." She looked back to Ephiny. "The small, thin woman? She said you sent ..." The bard hesitated. "No, actually she didn't say that. I just assumed...."

"Gabrielle," Ephiny said, "I don't know who you mean. Honest. I didn't send anyone up there to ...."

The little bard giggled softly and tugged on the Regent's arm. "It's OK, Eph'. I was a little angry with you at first, but now I know you were only concerned about us." The girl glanced at the warrior. "It's OK, really. Just tell Isabella our little talk really helped." The girl's eyes scanned the camp. "In fact, if you can find her, I'd like to tell her myself. Where is she, anyway?"

"Gabrielle, on my word," Ephiny said, sincerely. "I didn't send anyone to the Retreat Hut." The girl's eyes darted over the Regent's honest expression. "I didn't, I swear."

The Regent and the warrior exchanged questioning glances. Finally, Xena touched the bard's arm.

"Gabrielle, what did this woman look like? Do you see her now?" the warrior said, motioning to the numerous females milling around them. She turned back to the bard's blank expression.

"Like I said," Gabrielle began, a little impatient. "She was a little taller than me ... rather thin ...and she had the most amazing hair." She turned an excited smile to the Amazon Regent. "It was kind of long, very shiny ..." The bard focused on the warrior again.

"It was ... almost ... silver." The warrior's mouth dropped open slightly. "Yes," the bard continued, "I guess you could say, she had silver hair." The girl murmured, almost to herself, "You know, she didn't appear that old, come to think of it. But, her hair was definitely ...." Gabrielle stopped talking as her green eyes met the warrior's gaze. Her expression slowly cleared as she gazed into the deep, blue eyes of her best friend.

"A small, slender woman ... with long silver hair," the warrior's liquid voice said quietly, the bronze face slowly softening in a warm grin.

The two friends smiled knowingly at each other while the Amazon remained thoroughly and totally confused.