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by Tamurlane


This story depicts scenes of violence and/or their aftermath. Readers disturbed by or sensitive to this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story. The violent scenes, if you would like to know ahead of time, are spoilered by dashed lines. The remainder is comparatively tame.

The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Joxer, Ares, etc. are copyrighted to MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. They appear in this story without intent to profit from or infringe upon said copyrighted material.

A lone figure scurried along the well-traveled mountain road, speaking to itself and waving its arms enthusiastically. The figure paused momentarily and studied the darkening sky. Ominous dark clouds scudded across the sky as the storm gathered strength. The sight of the approaching storm spurred the figure to adopt a more rapid pace. Lightning flashed through the clouds and thunder rolled down the canyons. As the figure hurried along, she briefly Ė and thoroughly -- cursed her ability to judge time and distance. She had been walking all day, working on new stories. Her running commentary had so involved her mind that she missed every single warning the approaching storm had provided. Gabrielle continued on, hoping to get to the next village before the storm broke. She had chosen to believe the village was just over the next hill. There she expected to find warmth, food, shelter, and Xena, in that order.

The storm overtook the remaining afternoon sky as Gabrielle reached the crest of the hill. She stared into the gathering darkness, searching anxiously for the warm, inviting village she had expected. There was none. Instead, she found herself confronted by another hill. She sighed heavily as the rain began to fall. Left with no other options, she continued walking. The rain steadily increased and soon Gabrielle was soaked to the skin. The swirling winds drilled into every opening in her cloak. Her thoughts turned from the story she was working on to questioning Xenaís choice of meeting places. "Xena probably set all this up Ė another exercise in character development..." Gabrielle thought dejectedly. She continued walking, leaning on her staff as she struggled for balance on the muddy road. Finally, off in the distance, Gabrielle spotted a light. Still expecting the village, she struggled toward the potential outpost of civilization. "It would be uphill," she muttered.

As she drew closer, Gabrielle realized the light came from a single cabin, not a village. "Maybe they have a barn I can stay in. Surely they wouldnít refuse a drenched person."

When she was about a spear's throw from the light, Gabrielle could make out a figure standing in the doorway. She paused briefly, not sure whether to proceed. A brilliant flash of lightning convinced her. She decided to take her chances with the cabinís occupant, resolving again to believe in the goodness of the human heart. The figure returned to the interior of the cabin but the door remained open. "Thatís a good sign," Gabrielle thought hopefully. Her confidence growing, she made her final approach to the door. She hesitated just beyond the light, not sure what to expect. "Enough of this!" she declared, and stepped up to the doorway.

At the same moment, the figure also returned to the doorway. Gabrielle found herself face-to-sword with a solidly built woman glaring menacingly at her. "And who might you be?" the woman asked. She held the sword point at Gabrielle's throat and waited for an answer.

Gabrielle froze. "Uh, hello. I saw the light in your doorway. I thought that maybe I could..." Seeing the unflinching look on the womanís face caused her to speed up the request. Gabrielle dropped her satchel and threw her staff on the ground. "Look, Iím unarmed, tired, cold, and drenched. I just thought Iíd drop in and beg for shelter. But if itís too much trouble, Iíll just..."

"Well, you donít seem to be much of a threat," the woman stated evenly, lowering her sword. "Come in here before you drown. I donít get many 'visitors' up here, least not friendly ones. Can't be too careful." The woman stepped back and motioned Gabrielle to enter. They stood just inside the doorway warily looking at each other. Gabrielle had been with Xena far too long to enter an unknown place without caution. The woman eyed the bard suspiciously. As puddles formed at Gabrielle's feet, the woman nodded toward the fireplace. "You can stand here as long as you like, but the only heat is by the fire." She spoke as though she did not think highly of Gabrielle's intelligence. "I suppose I should expect that. Intelligent people tend to avoid storms like this," Gabrielle thought. The woman leaned against the stone wall of the cabin and continued watching Gabrielle.

The drenched bard retrieved her staff and satchel and entered the cabin. She set her belongings down by the doorway, quickly scanned the room, and headed for the fireplace. She was quite thankful to be out of the storm and very happy to be near the fire. The woman remained by the door, leaving Gabrielle standing in front of the fire for several minutes. She eventually walked to a chair and shoved it across the stone floor in Gabrielle's general direction. The bard dragged the chair close to the fire and sat, patiently shivering in her gratitude. The woman casually tossed her sword onto a cot and disappeared into the next room.

Gabrielle evaluated her circumstances. Different aspects of this situation provided conflicting information. Certain things indicated this woman had been a warrior before. Her eyes had a hard cold edge that offered no quarter. She had the build and demeanor of a warrior. A long deep scar ran down her neck from ear to collarbone, ending somewhere beneath the loose collar of her dark tunic. Her arms and hands were heavily scarred. She wielded her sword with calm self-assurance, as if killing would not be a problem for her. On the other hand, she moved slowly, almost deliberately. She lacked the quick, instinctive movements Gabrielle had seen in other warriors. Gabrielle guessed that had she chosen to attack, this woman might have had trouble defending herself. Another fact troubled Gabrielle: normally, an armed person, especially a trained warrior, would maintain some level of suspicion before dropping her guard completely. This woman had admitted her to the cabin, almost without challenge, and then had casually tossed her weapon aside. Very little of this made sense to Gabrielle.

The woman returned from the next room. "Here," the she said, tossing Gabrielle a blanket. "It wonít do any good to heat up the water in your cloak." Gabrielle stood and removed her dripping cloak, then looked for a place to hang it. The woman nodded toward a row of pegs stuck in the wall by the fireplace. Gabrielle hung her cloak then returned to the chair and wrapped herself in the blanket, reveling in its warmth. The woman went to the hearth, ladled something into a cup, and handed it to Gabrielle. "Drink this. Itís warm, at least." Gabrielle took the cup in both hands and let the warmth bring feeling to her numbed fingers. Gabrielle looked cautiously into the dark liquid. She had no reason to suspect a problem, but she knew better than to simply accept a strangerís offer. She sniffed the mixture. It was some form of tea. She sipped the liquid quickly, anxiously waiting for negative effects. When nothing bad happened, Gabrielle drank more, letting the warm tea assist the blanket in warming her. "Oh well," Gabrielle decided, "she doesnít seem the poison type anyway..." Her intense desire for warmth overrode any remaining suspicions she held about the drinkís contents.

The woman crossed the room and closed the heavy wooden door. She lowered a heavy iron bar into place, securing the door completely. Under other circumstances, Gabrielle would have been alarmed that the only known means of escape had just closed. She reconsidered her situation and decided her life was probably not in any danger. Xena would not have approved of this evaluation, but Gabrielle had decided and ceased to worry about it. Gabrielle quietly watched as the woman retrieved the staff and satchel and set them to one side of the hearth, easily within Gabrielle's reach. She heard the woman mutter something about "stuff being dry" and was visibly relieved that her staff was now within her grasp. "These are definitely not the actions of a murderer," Gabrielle convinced herself. Once everything was arranged to her satisfaction, the woman returned to the fireplace and shoved her chair closer to the fire. She stiffly lowered herself onto the chair and set one leg up on a small stool. Once settled, she turned to Gabrielle and calmly asked, "OK. I give up. What in the name of the Elysian fields are you doing out in the marked middle of nowhere during a storm like this?"

Gabrielle was relieved that a conversation had started. "Iím supposed to meet my friend in the next village. I kept expecting the village to be closer and the storm came up so suddenly that I was kind of trapped out there." She drank the rest of the tea before continuing. "Thanks for letting me in. Is there any more of this tea?"

"Oh, sure, just help yourself. Itís over there," the woman said, motioning toward a large kettle on the hearth.

Gabrielle got up to get another drink. "Whatís your name?" she asked.

"The nameís Tikk," the woman answered flatly. Her tone did not encourage further discussion. Naturally, Gabrielle ignored this bit of information.

"Tikk? Thatís an unusual name." Gabrielle drank again and refilled her cup. "Is it short for anything?"

"No, just Tikk," the woman stated bluntly. "So, just out of curiosity, since Onteia --" The woman paused as Gabrielle smacked her forehead and muttered "That's it! I knew it started with an 'O.'" The woman continued "-- since Onteia is still about a half dayís walk from here, what kind of Ďfriendí is worth slogging uphill, through the mud, during a downpour? Either youíre really afraid or youíre truly devoted."

Gabrielle smiled and turned toward her chair. "Itís devoted. Xena doesnít like it when Iím late, but she will Ė Hey!" At the mention of Xenaís name, Tikk had jumped up and grabbed Gabrielleís arm, spinning her around and sending her to the floor.

"You...know Xena? How...Who are you?" Looking at Gabrielle and her belongings, Tikk said, "Oh wait... the hair, the staff... Of course! You must be Gabrielle!" She helped Gabrielle to her feet then quickly refilled the cup and handed it to the stunned bard.

"OK, my turn. Who are you and how do you know me?" asked Gabrielle, instantly suspicious.

Tikk had tossed a rag onto the spill and halfheartedly proceeded to clean up the mess. "Sorry about knocking you over like that," Tikk offered apologetically. "Like I said, not many people wander up this way. Most of them arenít very ... talkative. Thereís this one guy though, comes through here quite a bit. Canít think of his name...tall fellow, talks a lot, pretends to be a warrior... He sounds like a wagonload of frying pans when he walks." Tikk glared at the ceiling, trying to recall the name.

"You mean Joxer?" Gabrielle asked, her eyes wide with amazement.

"Yeah, Joxer. Thatís it! He talks a lot about you and Xena --" Tikk regarded Gabrielle, " Ė well mostly about you. Apparently he fancies himself quite an important part of your adventures." She tossed the rag on the floor beneath Gabrielle's cloak and returned to her chair.

"Well, he always was a bit delusional, in a harmless, happy sort of way. Deep down heís really good-hearted if you can get through all the other stuff. Even Xena tolerates him fairly well."

"Xena must be different! She never was much for idle babbling. Joxerís nice and all, but if he talks that much around Xena...Iím surprised she hasnít run him through by now."

"Xena has changed, but she still doesnít handle chatter very well," Gabrielle grinned sheepishly. "How do you know Xena?"

"Oh, that... it was a long time ago," Tikk said, casually ignoring the question. She abruptly rose and disappeared into the cabinís other room. When she returned, she tossed Gabrielle a heavy cotton shift. "Here, put this on," she said, "itíll help keep you warm. I gotta go check on my animals out back and it'll get cold in here when I open the door." Tikk turned and deliberately strode from the room.

"I just love it when the stories come looking for me," Gabrielle thought happily. She changed into the cotton shift and hung her soggy clothes under the cloak. Returning to her chair by the fire, she studied the room. It was simple: no windows, the fireplace, and some rough wooden furniture. The massive stone fireplace dominated the room. The light and heat from the fire gave the place a comfortable feeling. An open doorway on the side led to a second room. As she looked around, Gabrielle suddenly had the feeling that she was being watched. She scanned the room, but saw nothing. "This is ridiculous. Get a hold of yourself!" she directed. She poured herself more tea and maintained a heightened awareness of her surroundings.

Gabrielle was still scanning the room, eliminating potential hiding places when a creaking door signaled Tikkís return. Tikk entered the room accompanied by two large dogs, one black, one yellow. "I have got to figure out some way to light that other room. Too much stuff in there to be wandering through with dogs," she muttered to herself. Tikk hung her dripping cloak on one of the two remaining pegs, then dragged one of the cots closer to the fireplace. "You can sleep here, Gabrielle," she said. "Itíll be a lot warmer. Oh, and donít mind the dogs. They are big but they only cause problems when theyíre supposed to. They know how to treat guests, donít you guys?" Tikk patted them both fondly. "Theyíll probably be right under your bed tonight. They like the warmth. Hope you donít mind."

"How come they arenít all wet?" Gabrielle asked warily. She was not used to indoor animals.

"The dogs? They were in the barn. During storms, I let them stay inside. They are good backup, just in case."

"In case of what? An attack?" Gabrielle presumed the worst.

"Whatever," Tikk said, dismissing the question. The dogs took turns sniffing Gabrielle's cloak then investigated the space underneath her cot. The black dog crawled under the cot and immediately settled in. The yellow dog sat by the hearth for a short time before joining the black dog under the cot. "Oh yeah, thereís a cat in here somewhere," Tikk added. "He actually runs the place. I just provide the fire and open doors for him. Cat commanders really arenít that bad, once you get used to them." Tikk smiled at Gabrielleís apprehensive reaction. "Relax Gabrielle, itís a joke!"

"So where is this cat?" Gabrielle asked, still highly suspicious.

"Up there on the mantle. Well, it's kind of a hole in the wall. He is hard to see in the shadows. Being all black has its advantages." Tikk reached up into the shadows to stroke the cat.

"You know, I had the feeling I was being watched. I just didnít think it was something right in front of me."

"Thatís his job, to watch things. He trusts nothing, so he has to watch everything. Donít be surprised if he jumps onto your pillow in the middle of the night -- just to study you, of course."

"Does he bite?" Gabrielle asked apprehensively.

"No," Tikk answered then turned and spoke warningly to the cat. "Not unless he wants to experience the storm firsthand..." quickly adding, "and he doesnít. Donít worry." Gabrielle remained unconvinced by this reassurance.

Tikk yawned and stretched, "I donít know about you, but Iím worn out. Need anything before I turn in?"

"No, thanks. Iíll just sit here for awhile, if thatís all right."

"Suit yourself. See you in the morning." Tikk pulled her boots off with some difficulty and set them aside. Tikk turned her back to Gabrielle while she unbelted and removed her dark tunic. She let the clothing fall in a heap on the floor by the boots. Gabrielle found herself inadvertently watching the only moving object in the room, her host. Tikk's tattered sleeveless undergarment hung loosely about her, making her look smaller than she actually was. Gabrielle saw more scars lined across Tikk's shoulders. "If she was a warrior, she got entirely too close to the enemy," Gabrielle thought. She turned back to the fire as Tikk pulled back the blankets and climbed into bed. "Sleep well!" Gabrielle said. Tikk mumbled something unintelligible in response and drew the blankets over her head.

Gabrielle studied Tikk for a time. "Who is she?" Xena has never mentioned her." Gabrielle thought, "Ok, Tikk is obviously a warrior, but she doesnít have the -- that edge. Hmmm..." Turning back to the fire, Gabrielle made plans to ask Xena about all this. She was lost in thought when the cat jumped from the mantle onto her cot. The sudden motion startled her. Instinctively, she grabbed for her staff -- without success -- and fell out of her chair. Tikk looked up briefly to investigate the noise then replaced the blankets over her head. Gabrielle composed herself and stared at the cat. In the light from the fireplace, Gabrielle could see the cat more clearly. He was the largest black cat she had ever seen. His green eyes shone in the reflected firelight. He paused briefly, calmly observing her before jumping over to Tikkís cot. The cat found a warm place on the blanket and curled up facing Gabrielle, still watching her intently. She felt as though he was evaluating her. It was an eerie feeling.

After a time, all was quiet in the room. Surprisingly, Gabrielle felt at ease in this place. She let her mind wander, creating stories that would explain her host's origins. At last exhaustion demanded her attention and ended any further pondering. Crawling onto her cot, she bumped into one of the dogs sleeping underneath. The dog stifled a yelp in protest. "Sorry about that!" Gabrielle whispered. "Boy this is strange... Apologizing to dogs! Horses, maybe Ė but to dogs!" She shook her head. After arranging the blankets for maximum comfort, a warm, dry, and exhausted Gabrielle fell asleep.

Tikk, on the other hand, had not even tried falling asleep. She never slept well. She waited until Gabrielle's light snoring signaled she was sound asleep. Without displacing the cat, Tikk cautiously turned to study Gabrielleís sleeping form. Stroking the catís soft fur, she wondered quietly, "According to Joxer, this is Xenaís best friend. I wonder how that happened?! She sure doesnít look like an Amazon, let alone the Amazon Queen. Joxer made her sound -- well, taller, at least. Still, she does have that strength about her...and she carries that staff like she knows what to do with it." Tikk looked at the cat. "What was I thinking? This is Xena's best friend. Canít be around Xena for any length of time without developing confidence, can you, Shadow-cat?" The cat accepted both the attention and the questions graciously, offering no opinions on the subject. A loud crack of thunder turned Tikkís attention to the storm outside. The rain poured down and the wind swept around the cabin with fury. Addressing the cat once more, Tikk observed, "Good thing she got here when she did. I donít think she would have made it otherwise... Hope Gabrielle doesnít mind being stuck here for a few days." The cat yawned and stretched as the warrior watched the fire. Just briefly, Tikk allowed her mind to return to the old times. "Yeah, like thinking about the past is a smart thing to do this late at night," she mused. Eventually Tikk lapsed into a restless, fitful sleep.

Xena rode along the nameless road, carefully watching the developing storm. Simultaneously she searched the valley for possible shelter, knowing it was at least a dayís ride to Onteia. Small flashes of lightening illuminated the clouds across the valley. "I hope Gabrielle has sense enough to stay out of this storm," she said to Argo. The horse answered by shaking her head. "Aw, címon. She isnít all that bad," Xena said, patting the horseís neck. Argo snorted her disagreement. Xena smiled and turned her attentions to the storm.

The rain had just begun to fall when Xena located a deep rock overhang high enough for her and Argo to enter. The horse was suspicious of the rock walls but allowed Xena to lead her. The warrior gathered a few sticks of wood and used a flint to spark a small fire. Soon the overhang became suitably warm. It had grown dark quickly. Xena was not particularly wary; both sensible and dangerous people avoid being out during storms like this. She expected no trouble this night. Although the storm had looked ominous, Xena expected the rain would stop by morning. She settled in for an easy night.

Xena had only slept for a short time when Argo neighed. Instantly alert, she drew her sword and crouched against the rock wall. She didnít have to wait long. A huge, hulking figure ran into the overhang, his sword raised high. The would-be assassin misjudged Xenaís position and ran past her. Xena stared in amazement, then stood. The man spun wildly around when he realized his mistake and lunged at Xena, slashing pathetically with his sword. She deftly blocked his sword then stepped out of the way. As he lurched past, she planted her foot firmly on the small of his back and pushed him down onto the rocky floor. "You're new at this, aren't ya?" Xena addressed the swearing hulk as he steadied himself for another attack. He ran at her, growled, and pointed his sword at Xenaís throat. At the last possible moment, Xena dropped to the floor, rolled forward, and tripped him. He stumbled forward, smacking his head soundly against the rock wall. She stood over the crumpled man and asked, "Was it really worth all this?" Xena shook her head and laughed as she sheathed her sword.

Although the storm still raged, and although this fellow was not even a worthy opponent, Xena had a feeling that this was not the last attack she would encounter on this trip. He was certainly not a trained warrior, but he didnít seem crazed. Clumsy, yes, but not insane. She turned to break camp. Argo was even less enthusiastic about leaving the overhang than she had been about entering. Unfortunately, Xena was not in the mood to coax. Argo went out into the storm with reluctant obedience Ė the horse knew a command when she received one. Xena led the horse down the muddy hillside and back onto the road. In the rain and darkness, they resumed the journey. The Warrior Princess maintained a constant survey of the surrounding terrain, what little of it she could see.

Tikk woke before sunrise. "That was a long night," she thought. "Donít know why I even bother trying to sleep some nights, for all the good it does." She sat up. The cat immediately jumped into the newly vacated warm space. "You realize, of course, that isnít fair?" The cat blinked happily and purred. "Yeah, I didnít think youíd care too much. Beast!" Tikk sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes. "Guess I better get this day started."

It had become very cold in the cabin. Tikk quickly donned her tunic and pulled on her boots. Shivering, she mentally berated herself, "Tikk, you moron! Shouldnít have let the fire get so low! Youíd think after all this practice, Iíd get it right. Oh well." She made her way to the woodpile near the fireplace and nearly tripped over the bard's cot. "Oh, yeah...Gabrielle. Almost forgot she was here. Must be nice to sleep that soundly." It was still dark but Tikk had made this trip daily. She quietly summoned the dogs, and the three of them left the warm room. After carefully negotiating the cluttered second room, Tikk stopped at the back door and braced herself for the cold blast of the storm. She removed the iron bar, opened the door, and stepped out into the stormy morning. The rain still fell in sheets. The area just beyond the door was completely saturated. Tikk slogged her way through the mud toward the barn.

The barn had originally been a larger cabin that Tikk had first lived in. Just after she had settled into the place, a youthful band of would-be warriors rode through and practiced their raiding skills. This building had been the main target. They had flung torches onto the wooden roof setting it on fire. Tikk had been unimpressed with their abilities at the time. These wandering amateurs always gave warriors a bad name. Rather than seeking revenge, Tikk had concentrated on returning the buildings to a livable status. The larger cabin had been so badly damaged that Tikk was unable to repair it completely. The roof had burned off completely and one wall had partially collapsed. However, the open wall was just large enough for the animals to get in, so Tikk converted the cabin into a barn. She fashioned a roof over the remaining walls using wooden poles. It was not completely waterproof, but it kept most of the weather out. The second cabin had escaped damage, so Tikk moved into it. The stones from the destroyed wall became the basis for the huge fireplace now in the other cabin. Occasionally Tikk resented that the animals lived in a bigger house than she did, but not usually. She pushed aside the heavy saddle blanket covering the doorway and entered the barn. The blanket's only purpose was to keep some of the weather off the firewood Tikk kept stacked inside the barn. During storms, Tikk was extremely grateful that it worked so well.

The animals huddled together in their stalls. Their collective body heat warmed the barn slightly. Through the open wall, Tikk could see the muted beginnings of a sunrise. The storm rendered daybreak largely uneventful. She made her way through the animals, making sure all of them had enough food to last the day. The two tired-looking horses barely glanced her direction when she tossed hay into their stall. "If you have any complaints, put them in writing. You can always go back and be dinner for that warlord..." one horse snorted at the idle threat. Tikk would no more think of giving up her animals than she would consider setting herself on fire. Of course, she would also rather die than let them know that. The small flock of sheep was somewhat more pleased to see food. "Then again, you are sheep, after all." Tikk busied herself mucking out the stalls and putting down fresh straw. The dogs wandered through the stalls, checking for new smells. "Any of you know where we could get a cow?" She asked. One of the horses shook her head. "Didnít think so," Tikk grinned. "Keep looking, you just never know."

Daylight edged into the barn. Tikk completed caring for the animals, then arranged a small stool against the barn wall. She gradually lowered her aching body into a stiff sitting position and rested. Her arm was sore and her leg was stiff. It felt like all her joints had rusted in place. Everything ached on days like this. Tikk forced her attentions away from her aching body. The first rule of being owned by animals is that they always come first. Tikk invariably observed this law before allowing herself to rest.

Tikk liked this kind of weather; a cold stormy morning matched her view of the world very nicely. As she listened to the storm, she leaned back against the wall and let herself relax. The dogs had lain down seeking warmth in the piles of hay and straw. Tikk closed her eyes and enjoyed the steady calm of the barn. She thought of nothing in particular. Although it was cold, it was remarkably peaceful in the barn. If she had had more experience with feeling secure, that is how she would have described these times. The animals were fed and content and a decent storm raged all around the mountain. In Tikk's estimation, it was nearly a perfect day.

After savoring the calm of the barn, Tikk turned her thoughts to her houseguest. Normally Tikk enjoyed hearing the stories of a creative bard. Of course, the setting is important. Listening to a bard perform in a tavern and enjoying the presentation from a back table was all right. Trapped in a cabin, as an audience of one was another matter entirely. Tikk was apprehensive about spending time with any human being. With the exception of Joxer, visitors were rare. "And Joxer is just not the kind of person one practices social skills with," Tikk thought sarcastically. Gabrielle's presence was not the problem. The problem was the fact that her guest was Amazon royalty and Xena's best friend. "Can life get any more complicated?" she wondered. Tikk recalled the look on the Gabrielle's face when she heard that Tikk had known Xena before. The bard had looked like someone who had found a sack of gold on a deserted road. Tikk sullenly anticipated Gabrielle's questions. "Why did you this and how could you that and what was she like...something along those lines, I'm sure," Tikk thought dejectedly. Then she considered, "maybe Xena's already told her all about the 'good ol' days' and Gabrielle just wants the details." She then reconsidered, "Xena couldn't possibly have become that talkative. Nothing is ever that easy," she reminded herself. Tikk sighed heavily and rubbed her eyes. "Yup. This proves it. The gods have nothing better to do during thunderstorms than to cause mortals stress." Then she added, "This is going to be one of the longest days of my life."

One of the dogs had walked over to Tikk and sat cheerfully at her side. Tikk patted the dog's head and ruffled her golden fur. "What do you think, dog? Maybe if we get her started talking, she'll just keep going. That way she won't have time to ask questions." The dog wagged her tail in encouragement. "Ok, then, you go deal with her." The dog playfully jumped up and bounded over to the sheep pen. Tikk smiled. "That's what I thought... Coward!" she called as the dog barked happily and ran out into the rain-soaked pasture. The black dog followed the other's lead and the two of them chased each other around the field. "Yeah, right," Tikk muttered. "Just leave me when I really need easy distractions. Ya big wusses!" Tikk leaned forward and watched the dogs playing in the field. "At least they're having a good time." She leaned back for a few more moments of calm. Then she straightened her stiff leg and braced one arm against the stone wall, raising her reluctant body into a standing position. She glanced around the barn again, checking on the animals and the wood supply and desperately hoping for a possible excuse to stay in the barn longer. Nothing presented itself, unfortunately. The animals were fed and there was an abundant supply of wood for the fire. Tikk limped to the doorway. As she had braced herself for the cold earlier, she steeled herself for a day with the bard and slogged back to the cabin.

Gabrielle was just beginning to wake up when she felt something touch her head. Instinctively she rolled away and reached for her staff. Only then did she see the huge cat calmly sitting on her pillow. "Do you always wake the guests?" Gabrielle demanded, outraged. The cat returned this outburst by slowly blinking at the infuriated bard. "Great! Now Iím talking to cats!" she sputtered, throwing up her hands in utter frustration.

Standing in the doorway, Tikk began laughing. "I told you he was in charge. No one ever believes me. Morning, Gabrielle, " she said, still chuckling.

"You didnít tell me that he wakes people out of a sound sleep!" Gabrielle remained indignant.

"You didnít ask," Tikk grinned, ignoring Gabrielleís complaint. "You hungry? It's not much, but Ė well, itís food..." She set a loaf of bread and some dried meat on the table.

"Thanks. I really appreciate this," Gabrielle answered, punctuating the statement with a disapproving glare at the oblivious cat. "Sounds like itís still raining pretty hard." She took the blanket from the cot and wrapped it around herself before dragging her chair to the table.

"Yeah, it probably wonít let up until tonight."

Gabrielle sat at the table and began eating. The cat left the warmth of Gabrielleís cot and assumed what Tikk had referred to as his command post on the mantle. Gabrielle glared at him again. The cat blinked slowly. She could not help feeling that she amused him. She sniffed and turned her attention to Tikk. Tikk set about rearranging things. She moved deliberately about the cabin, stopping only once when her foot caught on a rough spot on the floor. Tikk winced as her leg twisted slightly. Gabrielle noticed her limp. "Need any help?" she offered.

"Nah, I got it." With everything returned to its original place, Tikk sat in her chair by the fire and rested her leg on a stool. "I guess I just like it better with more space in the middle of the room."

"With it raining like this, what do you do?" Gabrielle asked. She had finished the meager breakfast and had moved to her chair by the hearth.

"On days like this? Nothing much. Before you showed up, I was planning on a few daysí rest. Why, are you bored already?"

Tikk was getting nervous. "Only a few minutes and she's already asking questions."

"No, not at all. I was just curious."

Tikk really did not know how to pass the time with another human being. She truly preferred the quiet of animals to the rigors of social interaction. By Joxerís description of Gabrielleís storytelling abilities, Tikk hoped that Gabrielle would choose talking over listening. She also figured that if Gabrielle started telling stories then she would not feel compelled to ask about the old times Ė or about Xena. Hopefully she started, "Hey, Joxer tells me youíre a bard. Any truth to the rumor?"

"Well, yes. I love stories Ė telling them and," cautiously Gabrielle added, "hearing them."

"Uh oh," Tikk thought, gazing morosely into the fire. "Bad move. Here it comes."

"So, how do you know Xena?"

It was bound to happen. Considering that the storm held them captive, Tikk's fears were realized. She had foolishly cornered herself in a room with a bard who had too much time on her hands. After all the battles, to be cornered by words -- it was embarrassing. Unable to avoid the question strategically, Tikk opted for a casual, offhand response. "I was in her army. One of her soldiers." She dropped her eyes and studied a worn patch on one of her boots.

"You were?"

"You sound surprised, Gabrielle," Tikk observed, slightly wounded by the bardís reaction.

"I am," Gabrielle said. She added quickly, "You arenít like the other warriors Iíve met."

"Well, it was quite awhile ago. And not all of us can be Xena," Tikk said, growing more flustered by the second. She removed her boot and tried to concentrate on it. It fell to the floor. As Tikk tried to pick it up, it slipped out of her hands some three times before Tikk slammed it down on the floor and put it back on. She fell back in her chair, rolling her eyes in frustration, and continued trying to evade Gabrielle.

"No...I didnít mean...."

"I know. Whatever." Tikk shrugged off the unintended insult.

After a short, uncomfortable silence, Gabrielle tried again. "Why did you join Xenaís army?"

"Seemed like the thing to do at the time."

"Thatís it? No desire for wealth and power? No raging thirst for the thrill of combat? You just went out one day and joined the most powerful warlord of the known world?"

"No, not like that." Tikk paused before asking, "Gabrielle, just how many of Xena's former soldiers have you met?"

"None that I know of. Xena doesnít talk much about those times. When she does, I get the impression she thinks all of you are dead." Gabrielle answered, puzzled by the question.

"I guess most everyone is. The rest of us should be," Tikk said, returning her gaze to the fire.

"What? Oh, yeah. Warrior talk." Gabrielle tried hard to keep the conversation going. "The other warriors Iíve met have all been kind of rough. They donít ever seem to lose... that Ďwayí about them. That destroy-things-for-no-reason kind of way. Youíre different." Tikk rolled her eyes. Continuing, Gabrielle asked, "so why did you join? Was it some need for revenge or a Ė"

Tikk interrupted the stream of questions. "Bards!" she declared scornfully. "Always looking for the hidden meaning in things."

Defiantly, Gabrielle shot back, "Well if warriors were more informative, bards wouldnít have to work so hard!"

Tikk quickly assessed Gabrielle's resolve. It was formidable. She knew it would be nearly impossible to avoid the story. Tikk conceded the bard's victory and resigned herself to the discussion. "Never fight a better-equipped enemy," she reminded herself.

Sensing that she had won this round of words, Gabrielle repeated the question. "Now, why did you join Xenaís army?"

Look, Gabrielle, it wasnít any big deal." She could see the bard gearing up for another verbal battle. Tikk continued before Gabrielle could launch another attack, "Iíll tell you. Only because you asked, of course. It's not much of a story, but it may take awhile to tell." Tikk had intended this as a warning, but Gabrielle chimed in reassuringly, "That's all right. I really do want to know."

With some reservation, Tikk began. "I never quite got the hang of living around normal people. Iíve always been Ďdifferent.í Turned out the only things I was good at was staying on the move and using a sword. Actually, Iím better with a knife, but you have to get awfully close to fight with a knife. A sword gives you more reach. A lot of times I ended up using a knife in situations where a sword would have made much more sense. I remember once -- "

Impatiently, Gabrielle interrupted. "So this got you into Xena' s army because..." hoping Tikk would complete the sentence.

Tikk finally realized it would be easier to just get it over with. "All right." She sighed deeply, then began. "The last village I ever lived in was some stupid little place up in the hills. I was travelling with some friends and we decided to settle there for awhile. We camped just beyond the village, just near enough to get the things we needed. The villagers didnít like us." Gabrielle looked up and raised an eyebrow suspiciously. Noting the reaction, Tikk sputtered, "Hey, donít look at me like that! We bought what we needed, we never stole anything!" Tikk shook her head and went on. "Anyway, they didn't approve of a life spent following the sword. These people had some strange idea about making their village different -- a place of peace. They decided that no warrior was welcome there, didnít allow weapons in the village, stuff like that. They just tolerated our presence. We had been on the move for a long time, though. We werenít about to move on for some ignorant philosophical disagreement. It was really a boring place. Even the tavern was dull."

"One day, word came that a warlord was headed their way. They formed a village council from the noisiest peace-lovers among them. These 'leaders' decided to try negotiating with the warlord. They sent a group to take some message to the warlord." Tikk stopped, waiting to gauge Gabrielleís interest. Tikk had greatly underestimated the bard.

"Sounds like a noble goal, peaceful negotiating," Gabrielle said evenly. "What happened to the delegation?"

"Figures sheíd think like that," Tikk thought with contempt. "And here I thought she'd wouldn't be all that interested. Someday I will figure out how to read people ahead of time...Oh well..." Tikk shrugged and continued, "Only one returned. He was missing one eye and one hand." Gabrielle winced at the statement but said nothing. Tikk forged ahead with the tale. "The villagers had no idea what this meant. We knew this little attempt at negotiation would convince the warlord that an easy target lay ahead. We expected the villagers to get a clue and evacuate or set up some defenses, at least do something!"

"The village leaders stood by their peace-at-all-costs idiocy. They planned to give the warlord whatever he wanted. No fighting, no defense, nothing. Bunch of screaming peace freaks! Condemning their whole village to death -- by their failure to act! Yeah, they could look down on us for following the sword; they were too good for war. They were too good for self-defense. They were too pure for the sword. They were 'above' all that."

Tikk became so enraged that Gabrielle was afraid to move or react. She had never seen such a reaction to the mindset of peace. It was a bit out of proportion for a 'philosophical disagreement' between villagers and transients. She considered dropping the subject, but only briefly. Her curiosity got the better of her and she tried to keep the story going. "What happened then? Iím guessing the warlord didnít agree to negotiate."

With some difficulty, Tikk regained her composure. She continued. "During the next day, the villagers acted like nothing was wrong. The village leader forbade talk of the warlord. It was like they believed that ignoring it would make it go away. We even went to the leaders and offered to help them prepare for battle. They dismissed us. In fact, they ordered us to leave. Some of them actually thought our presence would cause the warlord to misjudge their intentions. So we left the village and returned to our camp."

"We didn't have much of a choice, really. We didnít owe these people anything, but you canít leave stupid people defenseless..." Tikk shuddered in annoyance. "Later that day, the warlord's advance party rode in. They looked things over, riding through the place, checking for defenses. The village leader actually welcomed them. He made some stupid glowing speech about how welcome they were in this place of peace. The soldiers just laughed and rode off. The villagers thought this was a good sign. We knew it meant the attack was coming."

"We stayed in camp for the rest of the day, watching. Very late that night, the village leader, and his men came and asked if we would help defend them. I guess common sense had swept the countryside that evening. Only those who have known constant safety can afford the philosophy of peace. There's a reason you don't see it very often. Imminent danger has a way of changing philosophy. Suddenly they understood what was happening. Now they needed us. And now was too late."

"This village had no walls, no weapons, nothing. Even worse, they had been like that for so long, no one knew how to fight. No one except us. The village leaders actually believed that the four of us could hold off an entire army. These people were crazed, I tell you."

"We told them to get everyone out. Not to hold a meeting, not to discuss things, and not to wait. They even questioned that! I couldnít take the insanity anymore, so Crollus and I went to scout around the village. We left Metah and Trevan to do the diplomacy. They were better at it."

"Turns out the warlord had set up camp very close to the village, just over the hill. We hurried back to get ready. We figured the attack was set for dawn and there was a lot to do. When we got back to camp, the leaders were just leaving, claiming that they would start getting their people out. I didnít believe them."

"They didnít do one thing Metah had told them. We decided to move into the village, to be ready. Just before dawn, they got everyone together and talked more about their stupid peace beliefs. They also said that anyone who chose to could leave. Very few did. The others stared at them as if they were betraying Ďthe cause.í"

"Their judgement didnít last long, though. Right then, the warlord attacked. The air was thick with arrows and spears. Most of the villagers went down in the first wave. Still not believing what was going on, some tried to run. The soldiers rode in, swords drawn, slashing everything they could. A few of the villagers used shovels to defend themselves. We fought. We did what we could, but it was hopeless from the beginning. The army slashed its way through the village, hacking everyone to pieces... even the dead."

Tikk fell silent and Gabrielle waited. Eager to hear the end of the story, yet dreading its outcome, Gabrielle finally asked, "What happened to you? To your friends?"

Tikk was quiet for a very long time. She knew she had gotten entirely too far into this story to stop now. Tikk was surprised at how real it seemed -- as though it had happened a few days ago, not several winters ago. It was embarrassing, all these reactions, just because someone asked to hear the story. Tikk felt crushed by the past. The images of the battle raged through her mind. In Tikkís eyes, Gabrielle could see the reflections of the old horrors.

"We did what we could. We had to separate, to try protecting some of them. If we had been able to stay together..." Tikk paused and gathered her composure before going on. "It was completely hopeless Ė over before it started, really. I took out a few of the bastards, of course. I was cut up pretty bad, but I kept fighting until someone tried to take my head. Tikk noticed Gabrielle looking at her scars. Derisively she said, "if you're keeping track, it was this one," pointing at her neck, "this one," tracing a long jagged line down her right arm, "and one across here," motioning across her ribs. Gabrielle dropped her eyes, embarrassed. Tikk continued, but felt a twinge of guilt at being so harsh to Gabrielle. "When I finally came to, it was all over. The army was gone. The village lay in ruins. The villagers lay in pieces. I stumbled around for awhile trying to decide what to do. Had to wrap up the wounds, so I used some rags for bandages. The bleeding was mostly stopped, but I just hate the way it feels when air blows across an open wound." Gabrielle shuddered. Tikk continued, "Then I wandered around looking for my friends.

"You asked about my friends..." Tikkís voice trailed off. She began again, her voice heavy with emotion. "Crollus fought hard. Looked like heíd gotten about ten soldiers before someone ran him through. They cut him into six pieces. Metah was still alive. A spear had hit her. Hard. It went through her gut and cut off her right hand. She lived for a few hours. I did what I could, mostly trying to keep her comfortable, but she was too badly wounded. She asked about Crollus and Trevan. I had to tell her that -- about Crollus. I promised her I would find Trevan. Then she started worrying about the villagers. Can you believe it? She lay there, dying, covered in her own blood and she was worried about them." Tikk stopped for a moment, thinking back to her friend. "I think she would have chosen their way of life, if she could have. Metah was that way. She never really took to the warrior life...She had fought to defend their way of life and she died for it. Kinda pointless, wasnít it? She died for nothing." Tikk fell silent again, gathering her thoughts before continuing.

"Everything was a mess. Metah had always been the one who knew what to do. Not me. Crollus was dead and Trevan was missing. I couldn't leave without finding him. I couldn't leave Metah, not like that or Crollus either. I stayed with Metah until she died. Then I guess I passed out again."

"When I woke up, just before dawn, it was very cold. The early light made everything look like it was a still part of a nightmare. I looked around for Trevan. Still couldnít find him. As it got lighter...with all the bodies everywhere... I couldnít leave them like that. No one should be left like that, especially not in death. So I started burying them."

"You buried the whole village by yourself?" Gabrielle was incredulous. "But you were wounded! How did you get anything done?"

Surprised and annoyed by the naïve question, Tikk muttered, "No, not the whole village...There werenít that many of them...Well, I couldnít leave them just laying there!" She shook her head vigorously and continued, "I found Trevan about midday. He was alive." There was no emotion in Tikkís voice. She went on, "Heíd got his arm broke during the first attack. He had dragged some of the dead villagers' bodies over himself and hid until it was all quiet."

"Trevan never said much. He wanted to help bury the dead. I splinted his arm as well as I could. It wasn't easy; his arm was broken in so many places the bones crunched together whenever his arm moved. Obviously, he couldn't do much, but between us, we had two working arms, so we set about burying everyone. What was left of them, anyway. Took all day. Then we found wood to burn Metah and Crollus. The least we could do was give them a proper warrior funeral. It was dark by then. Seeing the sparks rise into the night Ė it helped some. Like you could see their release into forever."

"While they burned, Trevan knelt by their fire and wailed. Iíd never seen anything like it. He felt like heíd let them down by hiding during the fight. He was just a kid, no real experience. He wouldnít have lasted long, even if he had tried to fight. It was hard watching him mourn like that."

"Once Metah and Crollus had been released, we wanted to get as far from that stupid village as possible. I looked for stuff we would need and got a few things together. There wasnít much left of the village. Didn't seem to be much point in returning to our camp. We didn't have much and I thought Trevan would lose it completely if he saw anything of our 'former' life. Trevan wouldnít even touch his sword. He wasnít much help by this time. I figured itíd be better once we got away from that place."

"We were about to leave when the cowards -- uh, when the escapee-villagers returned. Their gutless leader was with them. He quickly convinced the others that all this was our fault, that if we had never come, none of this would have happened." Tikk's eyes flashed with rage. "I couldnít believe it. This coward, who had come to us begging for help, and who had run away, was now holding us responsible. He had failed to protect his village and the whole battle was our fault. Luckily, the rest of them were still in shock and werenít able to move very fast. I steered Trevan away before they could get anything started. We just walked out of the village and didn't stop until we were completely exhausted."

"Everything takes longer when youíre injured. We didnít get all that far from the village. There was enough moonlight to see by, but we had to stop. We stopped by a stream and started a small fire. Trevan wasnít doing well at all. His arm was so swollen that the skin almost split. His arm must have been hurting, but his guilt was eating him alive. He had started believing what the village leader said about this being our fault. He was really losing it. He ranted about never touching his sword again, no more fighting, and no more death. He just couldnít get a hold of himself. I tell you, it was easier during the battle and seeing all the dead than it was watching his torment. All of a sudden, he got real quiet. He just stared into the fire, not moving a muscle. You could see the guilt and the terror in his eyes. I tried to stay up and watch him -- but I was too exhausted. When I woke up the next morning, he was gone. His sword was gone too."

"I searched for him all day. Finally, found him, just before dark. He had fallen on his sword. Couldnít live with it all, I guess. He really deserved better; they all did. All I could do was give him a warriorís funeral and release his spirit to soar with the others. They were good people, the best friends anyone could hope for. They shouldn't have died in a hopeless cause."

Tikk was silent again. Gabrielle leaned forward, listening for what was not being said. In the firelight, she could see Tikk's eyes welling up. Gabrielle was afraid to move, not wanting to disturb the warrior's grief. She desperately wanted to offer some kind of consolation, but knew it would be futile.

Tikk abruptly dried her eyes on her sleeve and continued. "After that, I wandered the hills. I met up with some of Xenaís scouts. They were looking for the warlord that had destroyed the last village. I told them what I knew. They rode off. I couldn't keep up with them...I backtracked to the main army. Xena was always looking for good warriors. I had lost everything but my sword in that battle. I had nothing left...I volunteered to join up. Xena was suspicious...all this battle damage, you know...she let me of her...warriors." Tikkís speech had picked up speed during this part of the story until the words were almost too fast to understand. She stood up abruptly. "Any questions?" she asked. "Good," she said without waiting for Gabrielle to answer. "Iíll be out back." Turning to the cat, she said, "Watch her, Shadow-cat." Then she lurched out the door and was gone. The cat accepted the assignment stoically, yawning as Tikk left the room.

Gabrielle sat for a time absorbing the story. It had not been what she had expected. Actually, she had thousands of questions, but Gabrielle knew better than to follow Tikk outside and ask them. "Does anyone become a warrior without some sort of horrible, tragic circumstances?" she wondered.

After waiting as long as she could stand it, Gabrielle went looking. She grabbed her cloak, grateful that it had dried completely. She successfully navigated the dark second room and went out the back door to the barn. It was cold and rainy, but tolerable. She carefully made her way through the mud to the barn door. From there, she saw Tikk deftly splitting logs into very small kindling. "Ah, yes," Gabrielle thought, "the old warrior destruction trick. Destroy something instead of feeling anything." She was convinced that the ferocity with which the axe fell had more to do with the story she had just heard than with anything else. Xena always reacted the same way. She waited in the doorway watching how the relentless power of Tikk's life story exacted its toll on her.

Gabrielle had been standing in the doorway watching for several minutes before Tikk became aware of her presence.

"Donít you have something better to do?" Tikk demanded.

Gabrielle's voice held an even tone as she responded, "Well, no, not really. Your cat isnít much of a conversationalist."

"I guess I have been out here a long time," the warrior mumbled apologetically, setting the axe down. "Didnít mean to desert you like that." She began stacking wood.

"Itís all right," Gabrielle began. After a few minutes of watching Tikk toss wood around, she continued, "Tikk?"


"Iím sorry. About your friends, I mean."

"Why are you sorry? It was way too long ago. Oh well." Tikk shrugged it off.

"You do know that when you think of the dead, the dead can hear your thoughts..." Gabrielle tried again.

Sarcastically, Tikk muttered, "yeah, I know." Then she looked to the barn roof and addressed her former companions on the Elysian fields, "Hey guys, this is Gabrielle. Youíd like her." Then she turned to Gabrielle and demanded, "Say hi to them, Gabrielle."

Bewildered, Gabrielle followed Tikkís lead, looked toward the ceiling and waved. She thought, "I'd always understood this in terms of thinking of the dead, not actually speaking to them. Oh well, I guess I did start this." Characteristically optimistic, she chalked up Tikk's response to many long months of living alone. "Sheís just different; not insane," Gabrielle decided, quickly adding, "as far as I know..."

Not content to leave well enough alone, Gabrielle asked, "Did Xena ever know any of this?"

"I donít think so. Well, she could see the wounds; she knew I'd fought before. Anyway, I never mentioned it. Youíre the only one who ever asked."

"Why didnít you tell her?"

"No reason to. I was her soldier, not her friend."

"I was just wondering. I thought that if she had Ė "

"Not now, Gabrielle. Just drop it, ok?" Tikk sounded very tired. "Here, carry this. Itíll be cold tonight and I donít want to have to come out here again." Tikk loaded Gabrielle with several logs, grabbed a huge armload of wood herself, and lurched past the now-quiet bard. Gabrielle followed.

Once back inside, Tikk renewed the fire, bringing it to a full blaze. "At least it's not as windy. Maybe it wonít get as cold as I was expecting."

Gabrielle set down her wood load and went to sit on her cot. "Tikk is trying too hard," she thought, drawing the blanket around her shoulders. She decided not to ask anything else for the time being. It wasn't as though she had a choice; Tikk was resolutely avoiding any contact with Gabrielle. The bard watched as Tikk stood before the fire, as though assessing its quality. Tikk then scurried off into the second room and began vigorously shifting its contents around. Gabrielle pondered the monumental effort Tikk was pouring into her avoidance of conversation as she slowly drifted off to sleep. Tikk returned to the fireplace to warm her hands and sighed gratefully when she realized that Gabrielle had fallen asleep.

Xena had ridden Argo throughout the stormy night. It was cold, but their collective body heat made the ordeal a bit warmer that way. At daybreak, an exhausted warrior decided to rest. She was looking for some place that would provide shelter. The sparsely populated area offered little in the way of accommodations. Xena searched the hilly terrain for anything that would keep the rain off. She dismounted and led Argo. After walking another two miles, she spotted an abandoned building. They made their way across the muddy hillside to the broken down structure. Xena cautiously entered the door and checked the interior. No one had been there for some time. There had been a fireplace at one time, but most of it had collapsed. Part of the roof had also collapsed, leaving about one-fourth of the room exposed to the elements. Most of the floor remained dry, however, so Xena led Argo in and removed the packs from the saddle. She tossed a few rocks into a ring just beyond the area covered by the remaining roof. She found a few pieces of wood that were dry and tore up a rag for kindling. From this, Xena built a working fire that began to warm the rest of the space immediately. She made sure the fire had enough wood to keep burning for awhile. Then the exhausted warrior unsaddled the exhausted horse. Xena tossed one blanket on the floor for herself and threw the other over the horse. Then she rolled up in the blanket on the floor and fell asleep.

Hours had passed, the fire had burned down to a few coals, and Argo had walked out into the light rain to graze, before Xena woke up. A sudden chill had gotten her attention. Now that the fire had burned itself out, there was no point in staying. There had been enough hours of sleep to keep her going. Unfortunately it was not enough to completely restore her energy. She packed up the blankets and other things and went out to retrieve Argo. The horse was well rested and endured the reloading procedure patiently.

The rain had let up considerably, yet the ground remained extremely slick. Xena let Argo find her own way down the short slope, catching the reins again when they had both reached the road. Xena climbed into the saddle and the journey resumed. She estimated there was about a half-dayís light left for travel. It was strange, traveling without a running narrative. Gabrielle would have filled these times with her ever-present stories. Without the near-constant commentary, the current silence was deafening. Occasionally, Xena would catch herself talking to Argo, who turned a look of equine disdain toward the warrior. Argo apparently preferred the natural silence of the road. Eventually they settled into the unending quiet that had been their traveling style during pre-Gabrielle times.

The ride went smoothly until they rounded a bend in the road and Argo came to an abrupt halt. Xena had not maintained as close a watch as usual; she had no idea what had spooked the horse. Now completely on-guard, Xena dismounted and drew her sword. It seemed a bit premature, since there was no evidence of threat, but years of experience had taught the Warrior Princess otherwise. Xena did not have to wait long.

They had stopped on a long curved stretch of road with a steep slope up on the right and an equally steep slope down on the left. Dense forest lined both sides of the road. Xena first checked the branches above for signs of attack. She searched the road and the downhill slope for trouble. Still seeing nothing, she turned her attention to the uphill side. At that moment, Argo bolted away. Xena spun and barely dodged an incoming spear that lodged in a tree a few feet from her. Xena grabbed the spear and removed it from the tree. It was a homemade weapon, barely straight enough to throw and just sharp enough to remain in the tree. She used the tree for cover and surveyed the uphill slope. Argo had stopped a few lengths beyond, so Xena knew all the attackers were on the uphill side. She hefted the spear and waited for the attackers to show themselves.

Xena grew impatient; waiting for an attack which did not form. She was about ready to toss the spear randomly into the forest when a sudden motion caught her eye. She immediately aimed and hurled the spear at the motion. A quick yelp of pain informed the warrior of her throwís accuracy. A short dark figure rose from the underbrush, clutching its shoulder and swearing mightily. A second figure then emerged from the underbrush. He was taller and heavier than the first, but he quickly joined his companion and the two of them started toward the Warrior Princess. Xena stood her ground.

The pair halted several paces above Xena and remained on the slope. They were too far away for Xena to engage in hand-to-hand fighting. They were also too far apart for her to use the chakram effectively. She waited. The wounded attacker now held a wicked looking axe in his good hand. He looked at the other fighter as though seeking permission. When he nodded, the wounded fighter roared and heaved the axe at Xena. She held her defensive stance and waited until the trajectory of the axe was established. She had expected the big fighter to rush in and attack, but he simply stood there, leaning on his sword. Evidently, he believed the axe would accomplish its intended task. The axe tumbled through the air, at first heading for Xena, then slowly curving away. Xena lowered her sword and watched in complete amazement as the axe crashed into a bush several paces away from her. She frowned and looked back at the pair as though demanding an explanation.

The big fighter swore in disgust and rushed down the hill with his sword raised. He tripped and tumbled the remaining distance onto the road. Surprised to have landed on his feet, quickly looked around before moving deliberately toward Xena. His dark companion stood on the hill watching. Xena returned to her defensive position, but did not move forward to meet the attack. She had decided to use the terrain as part of her defense. She noticed that the big fighter sported a patch over his right eye. "OK, One-eye. What exactly are you and Ace after?" she wondered as he composed himself for the attack.

The attacker Xena had named Ace now headed toward the road, moving much more cautiously than had One-eye. Ace had armed himself with a dagger, but did not seem to be in any hurry to engage in combat. Since he was already wounded, and was moving very slowly, Xena concentrated on the one-eyed man. He was obviously consumed with his desire for the fight, yet he remained hesitant. He seemed more interested in the fight than in the kill. When finally they clashed swords, the sparring was half-hearted and only lasted for a few strokes. One-eye was very intent on the fight, but never moved in close. Xena assessed One-eye as one who had trained with a sword, but who had never fought in actual combat. Since he did not pose a true challenge, Xena was not willing to use lethal force. Ace had made it onto the road by this time, content to sashay around the perimeter of the fight. He pathetically attempted to serve as a distraction. Xena kept both of them in view, expecting some form of group attack to develop.

When One-eye finally committed himself to an opening, he lunged, but Xena easily repelled his attack. He quickly retreated, glared at Ace, and growled loudly, urging him to "get involved" in this fight. Ace was at a complete loss, but readied himself for participation nonetheless. As he moved in, Xena planted her foot firmly in his face, and sent him stumbling away. This move placed her on One-eye's blind side. She hyperextended his knee with a solid low kick. He howled and swung his sword wildly toward her. Xena met his arcing blow with a swift strike to his wrist. His sword spun away and fell to the ground. He growled again and landed a backhand blow across Xena's face. This hardly phased her. Xena dodged back to his blind side and kicked him firmly in the gut. As he doubled over, she landed a blow squarely on his jaw, then gracefully pointed him downhill as she stomped his foot. He crashed down the slope, coming to rest against a fallen log, where he remained unconscious.

Ace, the wounded fighter, paled when he saw the disposition of his companion. He steadied himself for what he considered an attack. He held the dagger at waist height and lunged at the Warrior Princess. By now, Xena had grown bored of this "fight" and decided to end it. She brought her sword butt down hard across his wrist and broke it. With both arms now useless, he stumbled back, his eyes wide with terror. Xena prepared for her final attack, but decided against killing him -- just on principle. Instead, she leaped in the air with her mighty war yell, and landed a masterful roundhouse kick against the side of his head. His eyes were open, but Xena knew his mind was not registering reality. He sluggishly turned toward the slope as he collapsed. He tumbled limply down the hill, coming to rest near his companion.

Satisfied that neither fighter was mortally wounded and that both were incapacitated, she walked to Argo. Naturally, she remained wary, but she did not sense any danger. Argo seemed amused at the ineptitude of the two fighters. "At least they were more of a challenge than the other one," Xena thought. She climbed heavily into the saddle and the journey resumed. Although she remained watchful, Xena found herself wishing she had gotten more sleep the previous night.

Had the afternoon sun been visible through the storm, it would have been low in the sky by the time Gabrielle stirred again. Tikk had finished rearranging the clutter of the second room and had finally calmed down enough from the previous conversation to sit still by the fire. She dropped her cloak on the floor by her chair, it was not cold that close to the fire. She had found an old knife in the second room and had sharpened it. As she sat by the fire, she mechanically whittled on a stick of firewood. Engraving simple designs into wood was a habit she had picked up to pass the long hours between battles. Tikk had arranged her chair so that it was at an angle to the sleeping bard. Although there was no threat, she was much more at ease being able to keep an eye on Gabrielle. The methodical carving was interrupted when Gabrielle abruptly stirred from her sleep. She looked so confused that Tikk could not help but be amused. "Sleep well?" She laughed.

Gabrielle slowly sat up and looked groggily around the room. "What? long was I asleep?" She stretched and rubbed her eyes, trying to wake up completely.

"Quite awhile. I got a lot done. 'Course, that was the only choice, stuck inside with a snoring bard on a rainy afternoon." Gabrielle glared at the warrior, a reaction Tikk ignored. "Anyway, the rainís let up some; you should be able to make it to Onteia tomorrow. Think Xena will still be there?"

"Of course she will. She would never pass up an opportunity to harass me for being late." Gabrielleís eyes still were not quite in focus.

Tikk decided to take advantage of Gabrielleís challenged mental state. "You know, itís a little strange thinking of my former commander, a woman who single-handedly won hundreds of battles, travelling around the countryside with...well Ė you. Nothing personal," she added, suddenly embarrassed.

"I know. I get that reaction from a lot of people," Gabrielle was now operating at full capacity. "Maybe the gods have a better sense of humor than we give them credit for." Abruptly changing the subject, she asked, "Is there anything to eat?"

"You know, a lesser person might get the impression that Xena starves you while you're out travelling." Tikk said, offhandedly. The bard glared, but the warrior did not look up from her carving. "I'm kidding Gabrielle. There's some soup in that pot. Help yourself."

After Gabrielle finished her second bowl of soup, she sat back in the chair contentedly. The fire burned brightly and everything in the cabin was warm. The cat had even left the mantle, and had curled up on the cloak Tikk had dropped on the floor by her chair. Tikk moved back from the fireplace. She continued carving on the large stick.

"Arenít you going to eat anything?"

"Nope. I already got something. You do sleep soundly, donít you?"

"Whenever I get the chance," Gabrielle replied blissfully. "What are you working on?"

"Oh, this...itís just a stick Iím reducing to shavings. Helps pass the time. Also reminds me to keep my knives sharp," she smiled. "As if thatís something Iíd ever forget." Tikk continued carving for awhile in silence.

Abruptly Tikk stood up. "Weíve used more wood than I expected. With the clouds moving off, itíll get very cold. Opening the door then will make this place very unpleasant, even with the fire. Want to come?"

"No thanks. Iíll just stay here and practice being warm."

"Ok. Be back in awhile...donít fall asleep again," Tikk grinned. She grabbed her cloak, unceremoniously displacing the cat, who vocally registered his disapproval. Tikk dismissed the feline scolding. "Oh stop. Youíll get over it." The cat leaped back up onto the mantle and casually licked at a paw, pretending it had been his plan all along. As Tikk opened the back door, Gabrielle felt the sudden chill of the outside. She moved her chair toward the fireplace and watched the flames.

The bardís mind was working hard. "This is something of a challenge. I canít pass up this opportunity to find out what Xena was like before I met her. Tikk did tell me about joining Xenaís army. On the other hand, I did ask. Yes, there is a lot of information here." Gabrielle turned toward the cat, "On the other hand, she is about as talkative as Xena...this could be a problem. On the other hand, it never hurts to ask. Well, it wonít hurt me. On the other hand Ė " Gabrielle had just about run out of hands when Tikk returned.

"Talking to the cat again, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle hadnít realized she was speaking aloud or that Tikk had returned. "No, uh, I guess I was just thinking out loud," she grinned sheepishly. "Like I said, cats arenít real good at conversation." Gabrielle made a mental note, "Tikk walks slow, but she's every bit as quiet as Xena is. Warriors are just sneaky."

"No, theyíre much better at listening." Tikk reconsidered, "actually, theyíre best at ignoring." The cat registered his disagreement with the statement, but accepted the stroking that followed. "You cats must drive bards crazy," Tikk said. The cat blinked slowly and settled into his regal position.

Tikk threw her cloak on the cot and settled into her chair by the fire. Picking up the stick she had been carving earlier, she observed, "not much to do now. Too early to sleep." She eyed the bard apprehensively.

Gabrielle sensed an opportunity developing. "Oh, I donít know...thereís always something to do. Like talking, for instance."

"Well you are a bard, after all. I should have expected nothing less. Got a story rumbling around in there somewhere, do ya?"

"Always," Gabrielle responded confidently. "Which one do you want to hear?" Tikk shrugged and shook her head. "I don't know, pick one." Gabrielle yawned and stretched. "It's been a few days and I'm kind of rusty. Bear with me." Tikk shrugged again, this time in amusement. Gabrielle acted as if she was gearing up for battle, not stories. After taking several deep breaths, the bard began. She led off with the story of how she and Xena had first met. Then she chose the story of how they had clashed successfully with the Titans. She continued with the story of fighting with the Israelites against Dagon and the Philistines. Tikk looked up suddenly when the Israelites were mentioned then returned to carving. Gabrielle noticed the reaction but was too involved with her story to give it much thought. She told several short tales of encounters she and Xena had experienced on their travels. Gabrielle ended the set with the story of how Xena defeated a warlord, defended a village, and removed Gareth the giant from earth, all in one day. Tikk thoroughly enjoyed the stories. Several times, she looked at Gabrielle as if wondering whether any of this was "enhanced" in the telling. The time passed quickly.

"Hey, youíre really good at this bard thing," Tikk said. "Even the cat enjoyed your storytelling."

"How can you tell?" Gabrielle asked, eyeing the cat with great disdain. "Trust me," was the answer. Gabrielle sighed and shook her head. She took a break from the stories and poured herself a cup of tea.

"OK. Now itís your turn." Gabrielle stated. Tikk was immediately nervous. "My turn for what?"

"Tell me what it was like to be in Xenaís army."

"Gabrielle, Iím not much of a storyteller..." Tikk began.

"So, just start somewhere," Gabrielle coached, "anyplace will be fine."

"What do you want to know?" Tikk began looking for an excuse to leave the room. Nothing presented itself, unfortunately. Tikk regretted having already laid in a good supply of wood.

"Everything! I want to know everything!" Gabrielle was swept away by her enthusiasm. "The battles, the competition, the victories...everything."

"It wasnít all that exciting, Gabrielle," Tikk said, becoming very uncomfortable. "It was kind of routine, usually. We just followed orders and took out villages Ė or warlords, as the case may be."

"OK. What about you?" Gabrielle was not about to concede to Tikkís desire to escape this conversation.

"What about me?"

"What did you do in Xenaís army?"

"I was just one of the ground fighters."

Exasperated, Gabrielle spoke precisely. "What Ė does Ė that -- mean, -- exactly. Remember me, the bard, with no real combat experience. You have some good stories, I can just tell."

"But, I donít know Ė " Tikk began. Gabrielle finished the statement, "What Iím expecting?"

"Well, yes." Tikk grew more embarrassed by the moment.

Gabrielle tried to give Tikk somewhere to start. "So were you one of Xenaís elite? Ready to press any advantage, always turning every weakness your way?" Gabrielle was still operating in her storytelling mode; every aspect of any possible story held tremendous fascination for her.

"No, no, nothing like that. I was usually one of the first-in squads. Those are the ones who either really love the fight or who are, uh, well, expendable." Tikk asked, "Gabrielle, how much has Xena told you about Ďthe good old days?í"

"Well, not much, come to think of it. I ask a lot, but she usually changes the subject."

Tikk carved on the stick with great concentration. Sensing that the avenue of communication was about to close, Gabrielle sought a different tack. "It must have been something, being part of the most feared army in the known world!"

"There you go again. Tell me, Bard, is there anything you donít get all enthusiastic about?"

Gabrielle smiled. "Not much I guess. Definitely not where stories are tell me, what did you do as one of the Ďfirst-iní people? You donít seem the type that would be Ďexpendable.í"

"Looks can be deceiving, Gabrielle," Tikk said, a hint of warning in her voice. Then, again resigning herself to conversation, Tikk sighed and began. "Everyone is expendable at first. Thatís one way to tell if your warriors have what it takes. If they survive, they can handle other things. If they donít Ė well, letís just say the better warriors weren't wasted on something stupid. Xena was always cautious about letting new people into her army. You really had to prove yourself before sheíd send you out for more important assignments."

"Xena was always good at letting her soldiers do what they were best at. If we did our jobs right, the rest of the battle would flow smoothly. If things didnít go according to plan...well, it was always much easier to complete a mission to Xenaís standards than to return and have to explain your worthlessness. I would rather fight any enemy than to face her with failure. Xena always demanded the best. Well, actually she expected perfection. Xena was a great commander." Tikk stopped, rather abruptly, not wanting to get into all the Xena history.

"My usual job, after surviving the first few battles, of course, was Ďsentry reduction.í Noting the puzzled look on Gabrielleís face, Tikk explained, "that means it was my job to take out any guards or sentries that were around the target. A few of us got Ė well Ė quite proficient at it. Itís fairly straightforward. You come up behind the guard, hold your hand over his mouth to keep him quiet, shove your knife up between his ribs. Then you step around front as he falls and open his throat. If it was done right, he was dead in less than a minute." Tikk hazarded a look at Gabrielle and instantly regretted it.

Gabrielleís shuddered at the warriorís explanation and glared at Tikk in disgust. "You sound like this is something to be proud of," she snapped.

"In a way it is, Gabrielle," Tikk said evenly. "When I did my job right, it meant that fewer of us would get killed. That was my job. I know youíve never fought in combat, so I donít expect youíll understand any of this. But you did ask..." she reminded, carefully sidestepping Gabrielleís mounting objections. The warrior continued, "There is nothing like confronting an enemy in hand-to-hand combat. There is nothing as exhilarating and nothing as terrifying as killing an opponent in battle. At that moment, you each have a hold on the otherís life. Then you decide, you react, and he dies. After that, everything within you that was human quits working. You go after the next one, the next, and the next. Killing and destroying. That is what an army is for." Tikk looked away and continued evenly, "Then itís over: no compassion, no remorse, and no survivors." The warrior stopped at this point and waited for the onslaught of words.

Gabrielle stared at Tikk in open contempt. "I canít believe how youíre describing this Ė this way you lived. You talk as if youíre just reminiscing about the Ďgood old days!í Does it bother you that people were slaughtered during these battles? It makes me sick! Does it matter that human beings -- "

"It was WAR, Gabrielle!" Tikk exclaimed, slamming the knife into one of the logs. Gabrielle jumped at the sudden motion. Tikk stood, threw the stick into the fire, and walked deliberately toward Gabrielle. "In war, you kill people and you break things. Thatís how you tell who won. There isnít time to think -- only to act. Then it's over and you move on." Tikk stopped beside Gabrielle and stared down at her menacingly. The bard defiantly returned the warriorís glare -- at first -- then slowly lowered her eyes and looked away. She felt Tikkís glare drilling straight through her. In her eyes, Gabrielle saw the ferocity and horror of every battle the warrior had ever fought. She felt Tikk was silently demanding something from her -- an answer, a reaction, something. Gabrielle was not certain what to do; Tikk was so agitated that Gabrielle was afraid to move. Cautiously, Gabrielle looked up at the warrior. Tikk loomed over her, shaking, and obviously struggling to regain control. Though the warrior looked straight at her, Gabrielle could tell Tikk was not seeing her. She watched the warrior cautiously and waited.

After several silent torturous minutes, Tikk blinked, looked at Gabrielle as if seeing her for the first time, and backed away. She retrieved her knife from the log where it had lodged. She returned to her chair, moved it back from the fire, and sat very slowly. Without looking up she asked, "Youíve never taken a life have you?"

Gabrielle answered carefully. "No. I have taken a vow not to do that. Why? How could you tell?"

Tikk hesitated before answering. "Because something dies in the eyes of those who have killed. Nothing is ever the same after that." The warrior fell silent again, investing her entire concentration on the edge of the blade.

Gabrielle was awash in her own reactions to all of this. She found herself alternating between contempt and compassion. "How can someone be proud of what she did in combat? If it was something to be proud of, why is it still tormenting her this way?" She was still wrestling with these questions when Tikk interrupted her thoughts.

The warrior spoke deliberately, her voice low and intense, her gaze again drilling into the center of Gabrielle's being. "Gabrielle, if you think that I ever sleep without seeing the faces and hearing the screams of the dying, you are wrong! That will be with me forever. During battle, there is no time to question, or to reconsider. It is act or die. I acted; they died. The terror comes now, long after the action. I know what I did. I killed people; not all of them were soldiers. It was all part of what I had to do then. I chose that way of life. Nothing can change what happened; those who died at my hand remain dead. The only choice I have now is to go on."

"Everyone youíve ever killed and everyone youíve ever loved, they all stay with you. Nothing changes that. As long as you still hear them or see them in your mind, you will make it. If you lose that -- if it ever stops, you are finished. Nothing will have meaning Ė not life and not death. All that remains is the suffering and torment. You lose the only living part of yourself. You become a mobile corpse, just going through the motions and waiting -- hoping -- for that one-way trip to Tartarus." Tikk turned away from Gabrielle. It was the bardís turn for silence.

Gabrielleís took all this in carefully. It was much, much more than she had expected. It was also different than she had expected. Her thoughts turned to Xena. She remembered how Xena never slept very well, how she looked and acted after relating some story from her earlier life. Gabrielle had always sensed the torment Xena felt, but had never understood it. The things Tikk had just said presented Gabrielle with a new way of seeing Xena, of understanding the tortures her mind must be putting her through. Gabrielle shook her head slowly and sighed. "This just doesnít end, does it?" she thought hopelessly.

"I think I forgot to check on something in the barn. Iíll be right back." Tikk was up and out the back door before Gabrielle could react. She let the warrior go unchallenged, surprised at how fast Tikk had been able to move this time. After several minutes, Tikk returned with the now-customary armload of wood, a jug, and the dogs. Cold had flooded the cabin, rousing Gabrielle and the cat from their quiet ruminations. Tikk poured a cup from the jug and offered it to Gabrielle. "Itís just cider, maybe a bit older than it 'ought' to be...still good though." Gabrielle nodded her acceptance, still overcome by the previous conversation.

Tikk began, "I...uh...that wasnít...I didnít mean..." She stopped and sighed. "I didnít have any right to talk to you like that, Gabrielle. Iím sorry."

An extended silence made the room very uncomfortable. "Well, I wasnít truly ready for all of it, but thatís all right," Gabrielle said simply. "Iíll recover." Then she added melodramatically, "at least one can hope." Tikk smiled at the return of the bard. They passed the next hour in comparative silence. Tikk selected another bit of kindling for engraving while Gabrielle drank her cider and watched the fire. When she finally became bored with carving, Tikk went to the front door, removed the iron bar, and looked out into the night.

"Rainís stopped," Tikk observed. "I donít know what the road will be like. Itís probably washed out in places. Still, you shouldnít have any problem making it to Onteia in the morning. Xena probably knows when to get worried about you." Tikk closed and bolted the door. "Guess it was colder than I thought." The fire had died back during the previous conversation and the room was noticeably colder. Tikk tossed in more wood, quickly returning the fire to its original blaze. Tikk added the engraved kindling to the fire, selected another chunk of wood, and set to stripping off its bark.

Tikk was perfectly content with the quietness of the room. The fire removed the edge of the cold and the cider removed the hard edge of the earlier conversation. The dogs had settled into a warm heap on Tikk's cot and were contentedly sleeping. The bard, however, was not as content. Gabrielle let the silence go for as long as she could stand it. The cider had warmed her to the point of boldness, permitting her to ask the question she had been anticipating all day). When the quiet became intolerable, Gabrielle blurted out, "So, what was she like?"

"Who?" Tikk did not look up from her carving.

"Xena! You warriors have such attention spans! Sheesh!" Gabrielle had reached the limits of her patience.

Tikk smiled before answering. "Two can play with this power of words game," she thought triumphantly. She basked in this minor victory. She had remained quiet deliberately, testing Gabrielle's resolve. She found the bard's frustration entertaining. It was also a great diversion. The warrior made one last attempt to sidetrack the bard. She studied Gabrielle for a time before chiding, "Ya know, for a bard, you sure do a lot of listening," the warrior chided.

Gabrielle threw her hands up in frustration. She wanted to know everything about Xena and here was a perfect opportunity to learn more about that part of Xenaís life. "It just had to be a warrior, didnít it? No one else could have had this information, could they?" she railed against the non-existent gods of conversation. Gabrielle was so annoyed that Tikk felt bad Ė though not obligated to change Ė about not saying anything. "Besides, " Tikk thought, "itís not like Iíll ever see her again..."

With a serious tone, Tikk began, "you donít know the Xena I knew. I doubt youíve ever even met her."

"Iíve seen her fight. I have seen her in command. Iíve even seen her kill," Gabrielle responded, defensively.

"Yeah, right. Let me guess. She only kills in self-defense, or when sheís defending some inept village from some stupid warlord. Stuff like that?" Tikk's tone was laced with sarcasm.

"Well, yeah. It has been like that ever since I met her. Only when there is no other option...I think thatís how it should be." Gabrielle was surprised at her defensive reaction to Tikkís statement.

Tikk studied Gabrielle again. "So, tell me. Would Xena still be your supreme best friend if she hadnít really changed? If she was still a warlord?"

"Of course," Gabrielle stated resolutely. "I know the good that is in her."

Looking into the fire, Tikk avoided Gabrielleís intense gaze. For a long time, it seemed as though the whole conversation was over. At last she began, "The Xena I know was the proudest, fiercest warrior who ever lived. Nothing could stand against her. Xena meant strength. Xena meant victory. Some she commanded by fear, most by respect. Right up to the end --" the warrior stopped abruptly and changed course. "Xena was an exacting commander. Her orders were precise; there was no room for freelancing. The warriors who tried this were dealt with severely. It didnít happen often. Xena was entirely consumed with warfare and victory. All resources focused on this goal. She treated her soldiers well. The pay was good and it was frequent. She got the most out of us because she expected the best from us. Tough standards, Xena had, but everyone knew what was expected."

"I guess it was her example. Xena never set up a plan of battle so that she could watch from some distant hillside. No, she would actually lead and get in the middle of battle, fighting alongside us. She was amazing! I tell you, watching her ride into the thick of battle was a work of art. Nothing ever got the best of her. No matter what, Xena could create a battle plan or change it in a way that would always turn things our way. She was a brilliant commander!" Tikkís face radiated her admiration of the Warrior Princess. "After awhile, just hearing that Xena was in the area would cause a village to bring out all their valuable stuff. Weíd take it, even if that village hadnít been the original target."

Since Gabrielle was enthralled with the narrative, Tikk paused for another swallow of cider. Before the bard could interrupt with another question, Tikk continued her glowing appraisal of the Warrior Princess. "Yeah, she was wounded every so often. It took a lot of damage to take her out. If it happened, one of us would drop back and defend her or carry her off the battlefield. She was the fastest healer I have ever seen! I swear that woman could sever a limb, re-grow it, and be back in command within a few days! She was truly amazing!"

The warrior altered her course slightly. "Gabrielle, I know how you feel about war and killing. I know the things we did as an army must make you sick. I canít help that. Believe me, though, I was proud to serve in Xenaís army. To be associated with the best warlord who ever lived...even if the things we did were mostly evil...was the best part of my life. Xena always had that excellent way about her. I knew she wouldnít be evil forever. It just isnít possible in someone like her. I have always admired Xena. Guess that sounds a little weird..." Gabrielle shook her head and smiled reassuringly. "Not to me, it doesn't."

Tikk didnít like the way this was going. While she enjoyed the opportunity to brag about Xena, Tikk felt as if she was betraying a confidence by saying these things. She had lost track of who she was talking to and why. "Giving too much information out way too easily. And to a bard, no less," she lectured herself. As a distraction, she concentrated entirely too much on removing a particularly stubborn piece of bark. Every so often, the warrior shot a glance at Gabrielle, hoping she would get tired, fall asleep, begin ranting, anything. Anything except ask about...

Gabrielle rose and deliberately moved her chair beside Tikk. She leaned forward and studied the warrior intently for a very long time. Tikk refused to look up from the piece of wood. At last Gabrielle spoke. "This is a part of Xenaís life that Iíve never understood very well. She never talks about it, but I know itís still killing her." The warrior knew what Gabrielleís next question would be, and she dreaded it. "Tikk, how did it end? Why did you leave Xenaís army?"

The warrior barely glanced up at the question. She began to protest, "Gabrielle, I Ė"

"Answer me," Gabrielle quietly commanded.

Tikk carved in silence for a long time before saying anything. Gabrielle did not move, not wanting to provide any excuse for changing the subject. Her eyes remained fixed on the warriorís face, compounding Tikkís discomfort.

At length, the warrior stated, "Iím only going to tell you because you asked. If Iíd been paying attention earlier, I wouldnít have even started any of this. Itís just been too long since anyone was around...guess Iím out of practice." Tikk felt Gabrielle's gaze slicing through her, but ignored it. She focused her entire attention on drilling out a knotted part of the stick. Without looking up, she spoke evenly. "I donít know how much Xena has told you about...not much, I suspect." Gabrielle maintained her silent intensity. Tikk glanced at Gabrielle, sighed heavily, and sank her knife deeply into the wood she was holding and set it on the floor. She leaned back in the chair and, with obvious effort, began the story.

"The last time I fought with Xena was unlike any other battle. Xena hadnít been herself. She was Ė she acted like she was distracted. Everything was different. Some of the other soldiers had started talk about her not being fit for command any more. Stupid things, like sheíd become weak, stuff like that."

"We were supposed to attack some irrelevant village. I donít remember its name. The attack began like all the others, but then everything went out of control. The men began killing everyone in sight. Total destruction -- that just wasnít Xenaís style. Even Xena couldnít get control of them. Some of us pulled back and returned to camp. I thought they were just renegades Ė that theyíd be out on their own very quickly. That...uh, that didnít happen."

"When we were in camp, word got around that a large number of the army wanted to remove Xena from command, permanently. The traitors! They came back to camp, all impressed with their own ability, making a lot of noise about 'thatís how to take out a village' and so forth. Even some of the officers were talking like this. I couldnít believe it!"

"It was a rough night. Fights broke out everywhere. Not everyone agreed with the traitors' ideas. Those trash-talking idiots tried to persuade us that Xena was finished and that we should join them and form a new, better army."

"Eventually the word came down that they had demanded that Xena run the gauntlet to prove her worthiness for command. Thatís a bad sign in any army. It means that no one is willing to follow the commander. Itís usually a quick easy way to kill the leader with everyone watching. Most soldiers left right then. Some of the others actually believed Xena wouldnít survive. The army had broken down completely."

"A few of us who remained loyal to Xena stayed on. I guess we thought we could defend Xena and rebuild the army later. We seriously underestimated the opposing force. We had gotten together to form some sort of battle plan. By then, we knew Xena had agreed to the gauntlet. Actually, she couldnít refuse once the challenge had been issued. We knew she would make it through. Our first priority was to make sure some traitor didnít seize the opportunity to kill her once it was over, just because sheíd survived."

"When we broke up to take our positions, we realized how badly we had underestimated the traitors. We were surrounded. Fighting an enemy is bad enough; fighting your former comrades is much worse. Many died right then. The rest of us were separated and dragged away."

"I still donít know what happened to the others. I ended up just above the place where they had set up the gauntlet lines. I donít know why, but they were very insistent that I watch the whole thing. I kept fighting, of course, but there were about ten of them. Not very good odds. My right arm got broken. As if that would keep me from fighting... When that didnít work, they cracked my ribs and broke my leg. Encouraged physical compliance on my part, I suppose. There wasnít much fighting after that. Then they held a sword to my throat and made me watch as the proudest, bravest commander who ever lived was slowly beaten to death by her own Ďofficers.í"

Tikkís voice was heavy with contempt and helplessness. Gabrielle wondered if the contempt was directed at the traitors or at herself for her inability to act. The warrior continued, "When it was over, they dragged me into some ditch and rode off. One of them sneered, ĎWhat do you think of your commander now?í laughing as he rode off. The last one knocked me out as he rode by."

"When I came to, it was daylight and no one was around. I knew Xena had survived; I had to believe that. I couldn't have done anything for her, anyway. Thatís the worst part. I was useless. I hate that! Anyway, I never saw Xena again. Itís probably a good thing, too. She would have every right to run me through, letting her down like that. She deserved so much better."

With that Tikk lifted the hacked up wood and removed a few more very large chunks before disgustedly throwing the entire piece into the fire. Brutal self-contempt surrounded her like a fog. The warrior's eyes blazed with horrible unrequited rage. Gabrielle sat back without speaking, taking it all in. Had been alone, Gabrielle would have mourned the aftermath, for both warriors.

Looking at the roof, intentionally avoiding Gabrielle's eyes, the warrior spoke again. "Iíve heard different things over the years. First that Xena was dead, then that she had changed, and then that she had turned Ďgoodí and was traveling around defending the innocent. It still sounds strange." Tikk paused, then turned to face Gabrielle. "You must be good for her. She needs someone of quality in her life." Gabrielle blushed at this. Something she had not expected from the warrior: respect.

Tikk added, "you donít have to tell Xena any of this, you know." Gabrielle nodded slightly, then smiled.

"I think Iíll go check on the critters one last time," Tikk said, rising and grabbing her cloak. The dogs jumped up and surrounded Tikk protectively as she limped heavily out of the room. Gabrielle just let her go. She felt the cold air rush into the cabin and shivered. "I was right...there was a story here." She sighed, "I wonder what Xena thinks about all of this." Xena had never said much about the time just before she met Gabrielle. The Warrior Princess had spoken of other times, and she had alluded to her armyís leaving, but nothing like the story Gabrielle had just heard. Xena always shouldered this burden alone. Again, Gabrielle found herself wondering if this living nightmare ever ended for anyone involved.

Gabrielle moved over to her cot and wrapped up in the blankets, preparing for the cold that would come when Tikk returned. She waited a long time, resisting the urge to find Tikk. Gabrielle wanted to offer some comfort to the warriorís ancient torment, yet she felt that anything she offered would be woefully inadequate. Gabrielle decided that waiting was the best course of action. She knew from experiences with Xena that warriors hate to be interrupted when they get "like that."

A creaking door and a blast of cold air signaled Tikkís return. She had been right about how cold it was outside the cabin. Gabrielle was glad she had sought the blankets ahead of time.

"Sorry it took so long, just got to doing things in the barn. Took longer than I thought." Tikk knew it was a lame excuse, but felt compelled to say something anyway. "Itís all right," Gabrielle said reassuringly. Even in the wandering light of the fire, Gabrielle could tell that Tikk had been crying. "Warriors always get so embarrassed about feeling anything," she thought. Gabrielle also knew that now was not the time for questions; she simply sat on her cot and remained quiet.

"The trip will be cold tomorrow, but weíll make it all right. Better get some sleep. You donít want to be all worn out when you meet up with Xena." Tikk really had no idea how to act. She was hopelessly embarrassed and was desperately seeking some casual escape from the entire evening. Tikk guessed she would probably never see Gabrielle again, yet she had given up some of her most intense secrets. "This is stupid! Get over it already!" she commanded herself mentally. Casting about to fill the uncomfortable silence in the cabin she added a few logs to the fire, then threw her cloak on the floor. "See you in the morning...?" she said. It was more of a question than a statement, as if she expected Gabrielle to jump up and run screaming into the night.

"Yeah, in the morning. Sleep well, Tikk," Gabrielle added, knowing it wouldnít happen.

Xena continued riding Argo toward Onteia. The rain had nearly stopped and the sun was low on the horizon. A small break in the clouds illuminated the final remnants of the day. The trees above the road dripped irregularly, surprising both horse and rider as they made contact. Xena was exhausted and puzzled by the recent attacks. Attacks only happen for a reason, revenge being the most common. Normally attackers cannot resist reciting their list of grievances when they exact revenge. None of the recent attacks fit a usual pattern. Xena searched her memory, there were no active warlords in this area; there hadn't been any for several winters. Even if there were, warlords usually kept their warriors well away from the Warrior Princess. "Nothing about this situation makes sense!" Xena thought in exasperation. The gathering darkness heightened her already keen senses. Because Xena maintained a cautious awareness of everything around her, she heard the sounds of fighting long before she came upon the scene.

Xena turned Argo and galloped toward the affray. Considering her options, she decided the best course of action was to approach without Argo. She stopped in a small clearing just beyond the fight and dismounted. With sword drawn, Xena ran toward the sounds of the fight.

Reaching another clearing, the Warrior Princess immediately sized up the scene. A band of thieves had attacked a group of travelers and had piled everything of value at the feet of their apparent leader. The travelers huddled together near their large wagon. They obviously had no weapons and were evidently unable to retreat from the thieves. Xena could not tell much about the group, except that the pile of goods collected was more than a normal group of itinerants would be expected to have. She evaluated the attackers. There five of them, each armed with a sword. The leader was apparently unarmed. They had not yet realized the Warrior Princess was in their midst. With her fearsome war cry, Xena got their attention. The attackers turned their attentions from collecting the spoils to menacing the travelers.

Three of the thugs immediately turned to attack Xena. The Warrior Princess met this onslaught with her characteristic cheerful force. At first, she operated in a subdue-and-disable mode. She blocked the first attacker's sword slash and kicked a second attacker in the chest. As he stumbled backwards, Xena spun to the left with a high arcing kick, her foot contacting the third attacker squarely on the jaw. He dropped to the ground, unconscious. The first attacker was now behind her. He lunged forward to strike. Xena deftly sidestepped his sword and slammed her elbow into his face, breaking his nose. He dropped to his knees, bleeding and dazed from the blow.

With two fighters down, Xena eagerly sought the next attacker. She was not disappointed. He had circled around in an attempt to attack from the side. Turning to meet this challenge, she saw that the other two thugs had already murdered three of the travelers. The men's bodies lay in a twisted gruesome heap before the remaining travelers. The two thieves were preparing to open the throat of the next victim, a woman. With customary skill, Xena disabled her nearest attacker by slicing his forearm. She drew her chakram, and sent it soaring at the nearest murderer. The chakram bounced off the side of the wagon and imbedded itself in the thugís chest. He had anticipated this and methodically completed his "task" just as the chakram found its mark. The woman slumped to the ground, dead. The thug turned to Xena and staggered toward her with his hand on the chakram, laughing scornfully as he died.

Xena was now in full combat mode. There was a lot to do. She was torn between defending the two remaining women and simply dispatching the remaining attackers. She was annoyed at the travelers' inability or unwillingness to defend themselves. The Warrior Princess decided to attack the thugs, hoping this would give the women an opportunity to escape. At first, the decoy worked. The one assigned to kill the two women, ran at Xena, as if expecting her to stand still and accept her fate. She countered his downward slash by raising her sword over her head. With his blade blocked, she swiftly dropped her blade and made a wide countering slash which caught him just below the ribs. Blood gushed from the gaping wound as he struggled unsuccessfully to breathe. He made one last raging slash at Xena. The edge of his sword cut into her arm as he fell dead. She was barely aware of the wound. She had turned her attention to the other thugs who were now preparing an attack.

The two who had been knocked down in the first attack had regained consciousness. They mounted an attack with the unsteady courage of the recently wounded. They circled before moving in. Just before they rushed in, Xena caught a glimpse of the two women who were frozen in terror by the wagon. She yelled at them to run, but they simply stared at her. At that moment, the two attackers made their move. Xena was forced to deal with them instead of ushering the women to safety. They each approached her from the side, in a staggered attack pattern. The first came in with a low slashing attack. Xena easily jumped over his sword, and landed beside him. She caved his chest in with a brutal kick. He dropped to his knees, gasping for breath, but did not go down completely. Using his sword for balance, he struggled to his feet, supporting his broken ribs with his other arm. Xena was watching him warily when she heard a noise behind her. She crouched on the ground and spun around as the other attacker rushed at her. He raised his sword and howled with rage. He covered the last few steps quickly, and was ready to bring his sword slashing down when Xena abruptly raised her sword and planted it firmly in his stomach, driving it forcefully upward. He died instantly. His body fell toward Xena. She rolled backward with the body and landed on her feet. She retrieved her sword from the manís body by pulling it upwards, ignoring the wet grinding and tearing sounds it made.

Two wounded attackers remain. The one with the broken ribs came crashing in first. He was determined to kill the Warrior Princess, but he was severely hampered by his injuries. His movements were clumsy and flailing. Xena easily kept him at bay while watching the attacker with the broken nose. Unable to breathe, the fighter fell to his knees, struggling forward against the pain. Seeing that he was nearly incapacitated, Xena turned her attention to the remaining attacker.

The attacker with the broken nose was a better fighter than his colleagues and chose a more strategic plan. Xena was surprised at this, but countered each of his blows without difficulty. He was focussed completely on the fight. Both his eyes were black and his face was streaked with blood. In the light of the fire, his face and the fight became quite surreal. The gruesome thug and the warrior princess fought a prolonged duel, trading blows, clashing swords. He seized an opportunity during a fleeting moment of Xena's inattention and landed a forceful backhand blow. Xena reeled back and fell, quickly rolling to the side. She narrowly avoided his blade as he furiously slashed downward, burying his sword in the ground. He was beginning to stagger and weaken from pain and the loss of blood. She turned this to her advantage, staying just beyond reach of his sword. They continued fighting like this until Xena realized that the man with the broken ribs had crawled over to one of the women and was preparing to kill her. Swiftly, she raised her sword, causing her attacker to slash low. She countered this with a circular motion, spinning his sword around and up, nearly disarming him. With his last ounce of strength, he held onto his sword and lunged at Xena. She had misjudged the blow and her counterstrike brought his blade down across her leg. She was cut deeply just above the knee. As the man turned for one last attack, Xena held her blade firmly in front of her. The fighter steadied himself and leaned into the attack. The lunging motion impaled him firmly on Xenaís sword, which she twisted mercilessly. Placing one foot against his chest, Xena held him upright as she withdrew her sword from his body. Bright red blood gushed from the wound, covering Xena in a crimson wave. His eyes blazed with rage and pain, then dulled with death. She stood before him, scornfully observing his last moments on earth.

Xena turned to see that the attacker with the broken ribs had successfully murdered one of the remaining women. Xena gave way to her rage. She walked deliberately to the attacker, aiming her sword at his throat. By this action, she was assured of his full attention. He struggled to his feet and attempted to defend himself. Xena slashed mightily with her sword, each blow driving him back several steps. He was barely able to hold his sword in defense, but he fought on. He gathered his dwindling strength for one final charge. Xena stood with her back to the wagon, ready for anything he had planned. He knew it was the last thing he would ever do and poured every fiber of his being into the attack. Xena met his final challenge by easily knocking the sword from his hand. She deftly spun around as he lurched past, grabbed his hair in her free hand and brought his head down across the wagonís wheel, crushing his throat. He clutched his throat with one hand, struggling to breathe and choking on the blood. With his other hand, he grabbed for Xena's throat. She stepped away and avoided his grasp. The man fell to his knees. Again he struggled toward Xena, as if convinced he could kill her with his bare hands. She quickly stepped back, drawing him off balance. As he fell forward, Xena jumped behind him and crushed the back of his skull with her sword pommel. He died instantly.

Weakened by combat and blood loss, Xena surveyed the scene. She was bewildered by the battle, by the slaughter. A sudden noise brought her back to reality. Xena spun around and realized she had forgotten the gangís leader. He was holding his knife to the throat of the last traveler. An evil grin spread across his face. "Not even you can save everyone, Xena Ė" he said as he drew the knife quickly across the womanís throat. He stood and casually wiped the blood from his knife as the womanís lifeless body crumpled before him. He licked the blood from his fingers. "The tasty blood of innocence," he chided. "Naturally you remember this, don't you?" Xena was frozen in place. "Xena, you poor misguided creature," he said condescendingly.

Galvanized into action, Xena hefted her sword and threw it at the leader with all her strength. The sword found its mark, lodging at an angle between his ribs, the dripping blade protruding from his back. The leader looked at the sword hilt buried in his chest, then looked back at Xena. He seemed to take this injury in stride, as though it were a minor inconvenience. He gave Xena a wry smile and sank to his knees. At that moment, everything human in her ceased to function. She strode purposefully to the dying man. Standing before him, she took hold of her sword. The evil gleam in his eyes taunted her. "You couldnít even save -- one of them -- could you? Some Ė warrior Ė you Ė are." His draining life made his words come slowly. She systematically and mercilessly twisted the sword twice and slowly removed it from his body, meeting his arrogant gaze with a sneer. He produced his arrogant, wry smile again and breathed his last.

Leaning heavily on her sword, racked with pain and exhaustion, Xena looked across the camp. She saw only death. She was stunned by her ability to slip back into the killing machine she had been so long ago. She was furious at her inability to stop the thugs from killing the travelers. She also felt revulsion at how easily she had fallen back into the system of methodic, merciless slaughter. It was just as instinctive as it had been in the past. She was sickened by the battle's aftermath. It had been so long since she had reacted like that...

Xena stood in the middle of the battleground, covered in blood, surrounded by the dead. Everything was quiet, except for the rain that had begun again. She stared at the bodies of the travelers, then at the dead thieves. There was no victory here. There was nothing here; only death and destruction. The sight darkened her soul. She went to retrieve the chakram. It was so firmly embedded in his chest that his entire body came off the ground as she attempted to remove it. His face was frozen in a twisted sardonic smile, mocking her attempts to retrieve her weapon. She snarled at his dead face as she stood on his chest and ripped the chakram free. More blood gushed from the wound. Broken ribs poked through the edges of the new wound, constructing a grotesque frame around the gaping hole. Xena stared at the wound then at the bloody chakram. She could not tear her gaze from the blood soaked weapon. As she struggled to assimilate the reality, a sudden burst of light interrupted her thoughts. Xena instantly recognized the insolent god of war.

"Ah, yes, thatís what I like to see: the Warrior Princess holding court after a successful battle," Ares began sarcastically. "The blood, the death, the darkness Ė all in all, Iíd have to say it was a good dayís work!"

Xena was too stunned to speak. She glared at Ares with utter contempt.

"You see, Xena," Ares continued casually, "I know that somewhere deep down you remain Ė one of mine." He laughed. "You just need a reminder every so often."

"You Ė you set all this up?" Xena demanded.

"Well," he began modestly, striding through the carnage, "I think everyone should stay in contact with their inner darkness. Keeps you honest, donít you agree?" This thought delighted him. He continued his tour of the battleground. "Very nice, Xena. I really like that double twist of the sword. It makes a chest wound that much more agonizing." Ares sighed mockingly, "You know, this one actually had potential." He kicked the side of the leader's head. With a sickening, grinding crunch, the leader's head twisted until his dead eyes gazed upon the wound on his own back. "Oh well, too bad. Can't live forever, you know." He laughed again. He condescendingly gazed at the murdered travelers' bodies. "Don't you hate it when the innocent die, just to prove a point?" Ares knelt and took something from the leader's hand. "Here, Xena. He would have wanted you to have this. Something to remember him by." Ares held up the dagger and admired it as he licked the blood from the blade. "Ooh, nice..." Then the god of war abruptly sent the dagger flying straight at Xena's throat. Without blinking, she grabbed the dagger from midair and mechanically placed it in her belt. "All these guys were just warlord wannabes trying to get on my good side. You know, I like that in a mortal. Makes them expendable." Ares was pleased by his selection.

Ares continued, "One day, Xena, I know you will be back. Back with me, where you belong. No mortal can overcome the evil inside, not really." He shook his head and grinned knowingly. "Some things just never change, Xena. Iíll be waiting!" Ares laughed evilly and vanished in a cold flash of light.

Xena was overwhelmed by this encounter with the god of war. She knew she had to get away, yet she remained frozen in place. The fresh pain of all the blows and gashes of the fight began to seep into her awareness. Finding Argo was her first priority, but her body would not respond with movement. Her mind swirled, unable to grasp reality. A snapping twig brought her mind to immediate clarity. Raising her sword, Xena quickly turned to face a group of three unarmed people. The first woman raised her hands as a gesture of peace. Xena continued watching the group with great suspicion.

"Itís all right Xena, we saw what happened. We know you tried to help our friends. You have our thanks, " the woman said simply.

This development added more confusion to the warrior's mind. Xena nodded at the leader and looked around once more. "Go ahead," the leader urged quietly. "Weíll take care of this Ė of them. Our peaceful ways sometimes have an extreme cost. You did what you could." Xena was now at a complete loss. The leader addressed the Warrior Princess again. "Xena, everything is all right. Go on now. Finish your journey."

Xena turned and walked heavily away from the camp. She managed to find Argo some distance away. Xena painfully climbed into the saddle and guided the horse back onto the road. They walked a short distance from the road, Xena's mind reeling from the events of the fight. Abruptly she spurred Argo to a gallop, hoping to run the whole image into the ground and out of her mind. As they rushed down the road, Xena was completely numb. Her only goal was to get away.

After a time, she slowed Argo to a walk. She was becoming weak from blood loss. Her scattered mind continually replayed the night's actions. Xena was sick with rage at Ares. She loathed herself for the ease with which she had returned to her old ways. Only rarely had the futility of her past life swept over her this way. The situation defied resolution. This night had served as a reminder to her of how close to that "edge" she truly was. The knowledge infuriated her. Xena had successfully ignored that dark part of herself, expecting that by not giving in to it, it would die of its own accord. The night's events convinced her otherwise.

Xena was still wrestling with all of this when the lights of Onteia came into view. Dragged back into reality, she began to feel the inescapable of her injuries. As much as she wanted to take shelter in the village, she slowly realized that a strange woman injured and covered in blood would not be welcome in any village. "Yeah, like I need to be around people right now," she turned Argo away from Onteia and rode to another hill that overlooked the village. There she set up camp. The rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to clear. A few stars showed from between the clouds. She hastily threw together material for a fire. Because everything was still wet from the storm, the fire gave off more smoke than flame, but it was a bit warmer. Xena bandaged her arm, surprised at the depth of the gash. The leg wound was also very deep and throbbed horribly. She wrapped a bandage around the gash and tightened it, ignoring the pain. She dragged the saddle off Argo, removed the bridle, and turned the horse loose to graze. She found a blanket and a wineskin. She drank deeply from the wineskin, then wrapped the blanket around herself. Impervious to the cold hard ground, Xena sat and rested against a large rock. She alternated between staring at the feeble flames and drinking wine until unconsciousness overtook her.

The sun was high when Xena finally awoke. She had stayed in one position all night and her entire body was stiff and racked with pain. Although she did not want to move at all, Xena realized she had no food or water. All the wine was gone as well. Slowly she convinced herself that she would have to make the trip into Onteia. Swearing continuously, Xena struggled to her feet. She almost fainted as the blood rushed to her feet, causing the leg wound to throb vigorously. This enraged her further and gave her the strength needed to break camp and load Argo. She completed the packing and loading, surprised to find some water in the canteen. She took a drink, then used the remaining water to wash most of the blood off her. Finally, she mounted Argo with considerable difficulty and began a slow, painful descent to Onteia.

As they walked, the dim recesses of Xena's mind reminded her that she was supposed to meet Gabrielle in the village. Normally she would have looked forward to the reunion, but now she resented it. There was no way Gabrielle could understand any of this. The bard would just ask a lot of ignorant questions and pester her for details until Xena gave up and explained everything. Xena hoped Gabrielle had found somewhere safe during the storm and that it would be a few days before she arrived. "That's what I really need, time. Time to get all this sorted out," Xena thought.

Tikk woke even earlier than usual. She got up and quickly pulled on her tunic and boots, shivering in the cold. She barely noticed the cat as he settled into his normal warm nest of blankets on her cot. She built up the fire, donned her cloak, summoned the dogs, and went out to the barn. She tended the animals as she did every day. The horses seemed surprised to see her again, so soon. Normally, she was only in the barn twice a day. Since Gabrielle had arrived, Tikk had spent more time in the barn, splitting wood, throwing things, swearing, and generally disrupting their peaceful existence than ever before. Tikk was convinced they knew she was out of her element. She offered all of the animals extra food and some sweet grain in apology. Whether they understood the gesture was anyoneís guess, but it made Tikk feel better. She added clean straw to the sheep pen and opened the gate so the animals would be able to return to the pasture. Now that the storm had passed, there wasnít much reason for them to remain in the barn.

Tikk sat in the quiet of the barn, as she did every morning. It was not as soothing as usual; this agitated her. "See how humans can mess up your life?" Tikk demanded of the sheep. They declined comment, as usual. "Well, yeah, after yesterday, I guess you do..." Tikk rested against the cold barn wall and considered the best method to send Gabrielle on her way. "It'd be easiest to point her in the right direction and shove her out the door," Tikk thought, entertained by the mental image. "No, that won't work." Giving directions would be difficult, at best. Several parts of the road were probably washed out and she didn't want Gabrielle getting lost. "No, the best thing would be to take her to Onteia myself. That way I know she'll get there without any trouble." Tikk thought, "Well, no more than she would usually get into. Anyone who could miss a storm coming while she is out in it shouldn't be left to her own devices." Tikk actually wanted to go with her, but felt stupid for thinking this way. Not that she believed that Gabrielle would object, Tikk just hated that part of herself that liked being with people. With no other recourse, Tikk resolved to see the humor in the situation. "Xena owes me for this..." she mused. Tikk knew accompanying Gabrielle was the best solution, but she felt that she had been defeated by her loneliness.

The aching warrior stayed in the barn until sunrise. By that time, most of the animals had wandered out into the field. Tikk could no longer justify sitting there, pondering life's little questions. She slowly pulled herself into a standing position and began looking for the water jug she had thrown the night before. Tikk found it after a brief search through the woodpile and filled it from the barn's cistern. She rummaged through a food storage bin, finding some grain and dried fruit that would become breakfast. She dumped the food into a sack for ease of carrying and set everything down on the stool before she left. Tikk selected a log from the woodpile and set it against the barn wall. She then picked up a small hatchet and examined the edge for sharpness. She stepped a few paces back, slowly turned, and hurled the hatchet at the target. It stuck firmly in the log. "That is for causing me all this stress, Gabrielle," Tikk thought as she collected the food and water and left the barn.

Tikk set the food on the table. She grabbed a handful of fruit and sat by the fire, waiting for Gabrielle to wake up. Just briefly, she felt sad that Gabrielle was leaving. It was, well, different having another person around. It had been a long time since Tikk had met anyone who... Tikk stopped the thought before it went any further. "Talk is cheap," she reminded herself, shaking her head vigorously. She chewed the fruit methodically. Tikk pointed at the sleeping bard. "I wonder if you cause Xena all this stress..." after short consideration, she added, "probably. Poor Xena." The shadow cat rose from his blanket nest and meowed. "Yeah, go do your thing." Silently Tikk admitted, "itís not really a nice thing to do to her, but itís kind of fun to watch."

The cat complied by leaping over to Gabrielleís cot and striding onto her pillow. He settled in, pausing to study the sleeping form. Suddenly he buried one paw in her hair and jabbed at her head several times. A flurry of arms, blankets, and swearing launched the cat onto the mantle. He drew his tail around his paws and feigned innocence.

"Morning, Gabrielle," Tikk said, laughing at the growling bard.

"Was that REALLY necessary?" demanded Gabrielle.

"Of course!" Tikk laughed and ducked the pillow Gabrielle had thrown. "Youíre not much of a morning person are you?"

"No, not really. I rather enjoy sleeping in a real bed under a real roof. Rocks and stars arenít all that they are cracked up to be." Gabrielle yawned and stretched.

"Yeah. Never got the hang of mornings myself," Tikk answered. "Sleeping always seems like such a good way to pass the time. Speaking of travel, it should be a good day for it."

Gabrielle got out of bed and went to look out the front door. The sun was just barely beginning to break over some distant mountain. "Itís cold, but not too bad. Will the road still be there?"

"Most of it will be fine. Parts of the road will be washed out, just because it always happens. I know ways around them; it'll be all right. Maybe a bit out of the way...but youíll get there."

"You're coming with me? Gabrielle was surprised. "I just expected to get directions and to be left to my own devices. I know how warriors just love to develop the character of unsuspecting bards..." Gabrielle grinned and nearly ducked the returned pillow.

"Yeah, right. Youíd probably make it just fine. I just figured it would be good exercise. Besides, the animals threatened an overthrow if I didnít get out of here and leave them alone today. You donít mind, do you?"

"Not at all. I prefer traveling with another person, even if it is another warrior."

"You keep that up and Iíll take you toward Chimara instead of Onteia," Tikk warned.

"Isnít that the wrong direction? I just came from...oh, I get it. Very funny!" Gabrielle was relieved that the intensity of the previous night had not spoiled their current interactions. She gathered her things and packed them into her satchel. She regretted leaving today, surprised by the feeling. Gabrielle was glad that she would be back with Xena this afternoon, but she still found it hard to leave. She decided to remain casual about the whole situation. "There is time for breakfast, isn't there?" she asked hopefully.

"Yeah, itís over there on the table, where breakfast is normally served," the warrior said sarcastically. Gabrielle sat at the table eating breakfast and watching the process. Tikk first secured the back door. Then she took some dried fruit and bread, placed this in a large leather sack, and hid it behind a loose stone on the side of the fireplace. Then she took her large sword and hid it in a groove under her cot. Another fireplace stone became the hiding place for two large knives. Gabrielle found this behavior odd, but dismissed it to warrior-weirdness.

Finished with the hiding process, Tikk walked along the wall beside the fireplace. "Now where did I leave it?" she muttered. Gabrielle had no idea what Tikk meant. After much consideration, Tikk snapped her fingers. "Of course, itís right here!" Tikk reached under the mantle and removed a long piece of wood. "My short sword!" she announced triumphantly. "Itís been so long since I last used it...almost forgot where it was." She removed the sword from its sheath. It was considerably shorter than the other sword, easily handled in one hand. "Now I'm ready," Tikk stated triumphantly, securing the sheath to her back. "I'll wait for you outside." Gabrielle nodded and continued nibbling on her breakfast.

Gabrielle finished eating and leaned back in her chair with a contented sigh. She drained the last bit of tea from the cup setting it on the table decisively. Then she began making her own preparations for leaving. She changed back into her own clothes. "They were so wet, it's hard to believe they would ever dry..." Gabrielle thought. She put on her cloak, retrieved her satchel and staff, and went to the door. She looked around the cabin one last time. In such a short time, she had come to feel very comfortable here. For an instant, she considered how it would be for one person. Alone. The cabin suddenly felt colder. Gabrielle knew it had nothing to do with the fire dying out. Gabrielle closed her eyes and turned to leave, reluctantly pulling the heavy door closed behind her. She paused and collected herself before starting toward the road. Tikk had walked a short distance away and was waiting. Gabrielle caught up to her and began with, "You know, you are so hyper, someone might get the idea you were trying to get rid of me..." Gabrielle could not resist teasing the warrior. Tikk was embarrassed, "No, nothing like that, Gabrielle. Itís just...I havenít walked with anyone for a long time...Uh, letís get going." Tikk moved methodically down the road, not looking at Gabrielle. The bard leaned on her staff and smiled. She let the warrior establish a decent lead, then followed. She walked quickly and was beside the warrior in no time. The air was crisp and cold. The sun gathered its strength but it take some time before it experienced any success. After about thirty seconds, Gabrielle began talking.

"Yes, this is a good day for a walk! Everything feels so refreshed after a storm, donít you think so?" Without waiting for an answer, she continued. "I love being outside on these days! It makes you feel so alive." Tikk just smiled, again amused by Gabrielle's enthusiasm. "I guess Iíve gotten used to being constantly on the move. Iíve almost forgotten what it feels like to stay in one place for very long. Xena never seems to settle down anywhere."

"She canít, you know. Staying in one place makes you a target," Tikk stated simply.

Gabrielle frowned, puzzled by the statement, but continued talking. "Days like this always bring out the stories in me," she began. Tikk smiled again. "Why am I not surprised?" she asked, dodging Gabrielleís scornful look. Undaunted, Gabrielle launched into further tales of her travels with the Warrior Princess.

Tikk watched and listened with amusement. She could tell Gabrielle had truly missed Xena and was very excited to see her best friend again. She listened patiently to the bardís tales of adventure and heroics. It was almost cute how Gabrielle went on about the Warrior Princess. Tikk wondered how Xena would react, hearing herself spoken of in this manner. She started laughing when the image of the fearless Warrior Princess crushed under the weight of this adoration formed in her mind. Unfortunately, Gabrielle was at a very deep point in her story and was not amused by this reaction. "Whatís so funny," she asked indignantly.

"Oh nothing. I was just thinking of what Xena would do if she heard all this. Canít quite picture it -- does she know you talk about her this way?"

"Well, she knows, but Xena doesnít handle epic stories that well. She has trouble hearing about her heroic side."

"I bet. Imagine, the great Warrior Princess drizzling through the cracks in the floor, all because she has you for a fan club. Thatíd be something to see." Tikk could contain the laughter no longer. They stopped while she regained composure. Although it was not the reaction she had been leading up to, Gabrielle enjoyed seeing it; all bards like it when their stories are well received.

Following the short laughter break, they resumed their journey. "Weíll have to leave the road here," Tikk said. "The next part of the road is a curve and always gets washed out after a big storm. Itís a bit rough, but itís more direct. I figure itíll save about an hour." This part of the hike involved descending into a small canyon. It was not a steep climb, but the ground was still slippery in places. Several trees had fallen, uprooted by the wind acting on the rain-softened soil. At the bottom of the canyon was a stream that was much larger than normal. The rocks, trees, and other debris left several feet above the stream bank showed how high the water had risen during the storm. Carefully they forded the stream, using a fallen log as a bridge. When they were safely across, Tikk surveyed the stream and said, "good thing you werenít here when the storm hit. Youíd have been swept all the way to the sea. Then you would have been REALLY late to meet Xena."

"Yeah," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "Who would have thought that being late would turn out to be a useful thing?" The evidence of the stormís fury impressed the bard.

They made their way up the other side. It was somewhat steeper and there were more rocks to avoid. It was difficult enough to require concentration, but not so bad that it was impassable. Gabrielle watched Tikk negotiating the rocks and slippery ground. The warrior had some trouble keeping her feet, but would not accept any help Gabrielle offered. She was intent on completing the detour without assistance. Judging by the amount of swearing Tikk produced, Gabrielle guessed that her leg must have been aching terribly. At last they found the road and resumed an easy pace. Gabrielle deliberately walked very slowly, hinting that she was tired, so that Tikk would be able to rest. At first, Tikk was impatient with this rate of travel. "You'd think that someone who travels with Xena would be able to handle a short cross-country hike," she thought scornfully. Eventually it dawned on her that Gabrielle was being considerate. This was even more annoying to the warrior. "Can't she just ... I hate it when this happens..." Tikk hated any weakness in herself, real or imagined; it was hard to accept this consideration from the bard. Gabrielle let Tikk take the lead. Even at the slow pace, Tikk limped badly. True to her warrior nature, she never mentioned to the difficulty, but Gabrielle knew how hard it was.

As they walked, Gabrielle was surprisingly quiet. Tikk enjoyed the silence, but was slightly nervous, nonetheless. Silence in a bard only meant one thing...

"Can I ask you something?" Gabrielle started.

That was it: a quiet bard is a questioning bard. Tikk sighed good-naturedly. "Like it would stop you if I refused...What is it?"

"What you were saying, about staying in one place and being a target Ė is that why you live so far from other people?"


"At your place...I saw the burn marks on the barn and how you hid food and..."

Tikk interrupted before Gabrielle completed the list. "Yes thatís the other reason. Look, Iím not much of a warrior now. I don't even matter in the grand scheme of things. Most people have nothing better to do than to remember the bad things that happened to them." Tikk saw that Gabrielle did not understand. "Folks around here know I rode with Xena. People everywhere seem to know about it." The warrior sighed. "Sometimes one of them will start wanting revenge. Iím a quick easy way to settle an old score. Itís not like they could go up against Xena with any degree of success. I figure that if they get it out of their systems, they can go on with their lives. Maybe not -- revenge tends to feed on itself," Tikk shrugged. "Anyway, itís the very least I can do for Xena now."

"Thatís terrible! Iím sorry," Gabrielle offered.

"Hey itís not your fault I have no life," Tikk responded, with forced cheerfulness.

"That is not what I meant, Tikk," Gabrielle began indignantly.

"I know," Tikk sighed. "Itís just the way things are because of the way things were." Tikk desperately tried to change the subject. "Donít you have another story?"

"Not right now," came the response. " But I do have another question."

"You never quit, do you?"

"Not without a fight Ė words, not swords," Gabrielle added quickly, as Tikk drew her sword.

"OK, what is it now? By the way, you should understand this will be the last question I will answer today..." Tikk had suffered enough questioning. She considered how much easier it was to handle physical brutality than it was to answer the deep queries of the bard. She kept her sword out and made a few practice slashes. Gabrielle was not intimidated by this and forged ahead with her question. "I was just wondering why you ended up avoiding civilization. You're not a menace. You have a good heart. How come you didnít start fighting for good and defending others like Xena did?"

Tikk was taken aback. She had not expected this naïve orientation from the well-traveled bard. "Weíll take a break here. As much as Iíd like to walk away from this question, I wonít." She sat on a large rock and drank from the canteen. She offered it to Gabrielle who drank deeply. The bard leaned expectantly on her staff, patiently waiting for the answer.

"Look at me, Gabrielle," Tikk began. "My arm, this leg...I can barely defend myself, let alone anyone else. Most everyone who mattered to me is dead. Xena is pretty much the only exception. She matters, a lot. However, she's about it. I donít really have anything to defend, when you get right down to it. I'm not a noble person. I'm just a broken down, worn-out warrior with too much time on her hands. That is not the stuff of heroes."

Before Gabrielle could interrupt, she continued, "Donít get me wrong, it would have been an excellent way to atone for the past. After -- when I left Xenaís army, I stayed away from everyone. Every time I had to enter a village, someone would recognize me as one of Xena's warriors. Folks werenít too keen on housing an enemy in their midst. I've been beat up and run out of more villages than most people have even been in. I even tried to join up with the Amazons. I thought maybe they could use someone to order around. They wouldnít have me, of course Ė everyone has their 'standards.'" Tikk spat these words out. Gabrielle pretended to listen, but her gaze of unbelief indicated her mind was elsewhere. Tikk set her sword down and continued. "So there I was, not good enough for regular folk and not honorable enough for the Amazons." The warrior leaned over and gathered a handful of small rocks. She looked at each one before casually tossing it across the road. She continued, "After that, there werenít many options. I could go try to get killed or I could avoid Ďcivilizationí altogether. I chose hiding. I'm not all that anxious to get into Tartarus... Anyway, I found that place up in the hills. Been there ever since. Itís not a bad place, really." Tikk looked at the bard who was now staring off into the hills. She picked up her sword. "Hey, Gabrielle -- you in there?" she asked, waving her sword blade in front of the bard's face.

"I canít believe the Amazons were so," Gabrielle sought the right word, "self-righteous!"

"Oh, sorry. I forgot youíre an Amazon. Nothing personal." Tikkís statements were increasingly sarcastic. "I guess I should have warned you that I was an Amazonian reject when I figured out who you were. Hope you didnít violate some 'honor code' by staying at my place." Without giving Gabrielle a chance to respond, the warrior reigned in her sardonic commentary and resumed her casual, off-hand style. "Besides, back then I was still a warrior, I could have served in some way, but the body damage was done. I'd have been a pathetic excuse for an Amazon anyway." Tikk studied the last small rock before throwing it a long way down the road. She was not trying to offend Gabrielle with her comments. It was just one more reminder that her life experiences left her on the fringe of normal life, even where other warriors were concerned.

"That is no reason for them to toss you out like that." Gabrielle resolved to mention this to Ephiny when the opportunity first presented itself. She returned to the original question. "OK, I understand all that. But Xena was able to Ė"

"I know," Tikk cut her off mid-sentence, a tactic she was beginning to enjoy. "I suspect that what Xena has done has more to do with you, than with any strength of her own character." Tikk frowned. "Wait, that's not what I meant. She is an amazing woman. The Xena I served in battle was invincible. Her strength came from her many skills -- from what she was able to do. Her strength was all on the outside. She was hollow inside. Your strength comes from your heart. It works from the inside. That is what you give Xena and that is why you are good for her." Tikk put her hand on Gabrielle's shoulder and looked intently at her. "Gabrielle, it's alarmingly easy to go out and fight for someone. It is not even that hard to die for someone. The trick is to find someone worth living for. I donít have that. Xena does. She has you. Donít ever forget that."

Before Gabrielle could respond, Tikk stood and walked away. The warrior was a good distance down the road before Gabrielle realized she had left. Tikk had knowingly taken advantage of the bardís tendency to chew on things mentally before acting. Tikk turned and grinned at Gabrielle as she hurried up the road.

"You realize thatís not fair, walking off like that" Gabrielle stated.

"Of course," Tikk countered. "I also realize that Iím an amateur in the battle of words. Retreat was the best option -- before you could start another question-attack. Remember -- that was the last question. So, do you have a story now? You are the Bard of Potedeia, after all." With that, Tikk returned her sword to its sheath.

Gabrielle was still out of her element. "Iím not up to telling a story right now."

Tikk was determined to return the responsibility of conversation back to Gabrielle. "So tell me how you get your stories. Bardistry has always intrigued me."

Seeing the quizzical look on Gabrielle's face, Tikk grinned. "Aw, címon word-fighter, work with me here. Surely you understand the word Ė artistry of the bard. Bardistry. Hey, Iím lazy, Iíll do anything to avoid extra words." She smiled again as Gabrielle shook her head. "Anyway, I like hearing about it, if youíre up to the telling."

Gabrielle fell for it. Tikk visibly relaxed when Gabrielle resumed talking. "Sometimes the stories just come to me. Other times something happens that makes a good story..."

They passed the next hour with Gabrielleís tales of bardistry.

Gabrielle was entirely wrapped up in her subject. She continued walking slowly. Tikk became frustrated at the pace and walked a bit faster. This put the bard a few paces behind the warrior for the duration of their journey. Consumed by the point she was making, Gabrielle paused for a moment to catch her breath. She almost ran into Tikk when the warrior came to an abrupt halt.

"Whatís wrong?" Gabrielle asked, anxiously searching the landscape, instantly prepared for an attack.

"Nothingís wrong," Tikk said, puzzled at Gabrielleís immediate battle readiness. "You have been around Xena too long, my friend." Laughing at Gabrielleís obvious confusion, Tikk motioned down the hill. "Relax, Amazon-bard. Thatís Onteia down there. The main tavern is the big building on the right. Iím guessing thatís where Xena will be. The other taverns are too Ė well, just donít eat anything in the others.

Confused, Gabrielle asked, "arenít you coming with me? Iím sure Xena would like to see you."

"No, I better not. Itís been way too long and we didnít...uh...part under the best of circumstances. Youíll be fine."

"Iím sure she understands all that. Look, you come with me and Iíll Ďwarní her that youíre in the area. Itíll be fine."

"No, Gabrielle." Tikk spoke firmly. The accompanying look ended further attempts at persuasion.

Gabrielle gave up. "Oh all right. It was just a thought."

Tikk was relieved that Gabrielle had given up so easily. She did want to see Xena -- very much, in fact. She wanted to see what "good" looked like on her former commander. Briefly, she reconsidered the bardís offer. Then reality set in. She did not want Xena to see her like this, scarred up and hobbling around. It had just been too long. "No, itís better this way," Tikk convinced herself.

Turning away from Onteia, Tikk extended her hand to Gabrielle. "So, anyway, thanks for the company, Gabrielle. It was kind of nice having someone around who wasnít a threat." Gabrielle shook Tikkís hand then reached around and gave her a quick hug.

"What the Ė " Tikk sputtered. "Bards! I swear..."

Gabrielle responded, "Hey, you have it easy. I have to deal with warriors all the time.

"At least warriors carry weapons you can see!" Tikk grinned. "You better get going. Itís not wise to keep the Warrior Princess waiting." Then seriously, she added, "Iím glad Xenaís got you in her life. Take good care of her, ok?"

Smiling, Gabrielle thought, "me taking care of Xena. Who would have ever thought..." Aloud she said, "All right, I will. Thanks for everything, Tikk."

"Later!" Tikk gave a brief salute and started back up the road. After a few steps, she turned back. "Gabrielle! Tell Xena...I...Iím...oh forget it!" Tikk turned back to the road and walked away.

Gabrielle watched until Tikk disappeared around a bend in the road. Before starting for the village, she said, "Donít worry, Tikk, Iíll tell her." She turned and walked down the hill to Onteia.

The bard walked quickly, losing herself in her thoughts, as was her custom. She was quite near the village when a tall lanky figure approached.

"Gabrielle? Is that you?" a cheerful voice asked.

She looked up, stunned. "Joxer? What are you doing here?"

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Got stranded here during the storm. Quite a gully washer, wasnít it? Iíve been staying with my Ė uh, cousins, waiting for the weather to calm down. This is a dull place, no action. Really boring for a true warrior. Youíll probably like it, though." Gabrielle rolled her eyes.

"Speaking of true warriors, Xena got in early this morning. Where are you guys headed?"

"I donít know yet. I just got here." Gabrielle stated the obvious. "Where is Xena?" she asked; distracted by a group of brightly dressed young women who were obviously trying to get Joxerís attention

"Xenaís over in, uh, the big tavern." The group was also distracting Joxer. "Iíve been hanging out in that other one. Lots of action and the food is great!"

"Uh huh," Gabrielle said suspiciously, remembering Tikkís warning. "Joxer, who are those girls and why are they Ė"

Before she could finish, Joxer interrupted. "Oh them, theyíre, cousins. Very close family. So, I think you and Xena will be all right. Itís pretty tame around here. Uh, would you mind if I, er, ah..." Joxer paused, clearing his throat. "Would you mind if I, ah, didnít go with you guys, just this once? If anything did happen ... If you need warrior backup..."

"Weíll manage," Gabrielle said flatly. "Cousins, Joxer?"

Joxerís attentions were obviously divided. "Well, ok. I better be getting back. You know how cousins are..." he said gleefully. He backed away from Gabrielle and tripped over nothing. "Iíll catch up with you later!"

"You do that," Gabrielle said, watching Joxer as he caught up with the group. She heard him say, "Hi girls! Oh her, thatís just one of my warrior chums. No, nothing like that. Iím training her in the ways of battle." Taking one girl under each arm, he steered the group toward a small dingy looking tavern.

"Cousins?" Gabrielle shook her head vigorously. "The mind reels..." She sighed and headed for the big tavern.

Gabrielle found the doorway leading into the tavern. As she waited for her eyes to adjust to the dim light, she could make out several people sitting at tables throughout the room. At first, she could not locate Xena. Maybe Joxer had been mistaken. She went in to inspect further. Back in the far reaches of the building in the darkest possible corner, she could barely make out the familiar silhouette of her best friend.

The tavern clientele was quite subdued. Gabrielle made her way through the tables and chairs, barely noticed by the other customers. For a tavern, it was too quiet. Gabrielle decided it was a slow day. The whole place had a dark feel to it. She did not know what to expect. The environment dictated caution. She approached Xenaís table carefully.

Gabrielle stood to one side of Xena before addressing her. The warrior sat looking over the tavern, not really seeing anything. Not wanting to interrupt unnecessarily, Gabrielle started, "Hi, Xena..." Under normal circumstances, Xena would have immediately reacted. Actually, under normal circumstances, Xena would have noted Gabrielleís arrival before she even entered the building. This time, however, Xena slowly turned toward her. After several seconds she quickly shook her head and greeted the bard with a simple, "Oh, hi, Gabrielle."

Concerned, Gabrielle sat down and put her hand on the warriorís shoulder. "Xena, are you all right?"

"Yeah, Iím fine. Guess I had a little more wine than I thought." Xena was slow in responding to everything. "How long have you been here?"

Puzzled, Gabrielle answered, "Only a few minutes. Did you drink all of this?" she asked, holding up the empty wine bottle. "Not exactly," Xena answered slowly. "It wasnít even full when he brought it." Xena glared at the tavern owner who had come to the table. "Whatíll you have?" he asked Gabrielle, eyeing Xena warily. Gabrielle ordered food and water, suspecting that Xena had not eaten yet. The tavern owner nodded and left them.

"OK, so youíre not drunk. Whatís wrong?"

Xena dismissed the question with a wave of her hand. "No Ė nothing. Iím fine."

Gabrielle knew that it always took some time for Xena to readjust after they got back together. It had never started like this, though. The food arrived. Gabrielle paid for it, divided it, and put some in front of Xena. "Here, eat something," the bard directed. Xena actually complied, much to Gabrielleís surprise. "So, where are we headed now?"

"I thought weíd head toward Kozani. Itís a few days journey from here." Xena's tone was casual and distant, as if she had only this moment decided where they were going.

"Any particular reason we need to go there?"

"Nothing special. Itís been awhile since I was in that area. A return visit is in order."

When they had finished lunch, Xena asked Gabrielle if she had paid for everything. Now fully confused, Gabrielle began, "you were sitting right here when I paid..." Xena rolled her eyes impatiently. Gabrielle was irritated by her friend's reaction. "Xena, what is wrong with you?" she demanded.

Xena snapped, "I told you. Nothing's wrong. I'm fine."

"So why are you missing things that happen right in front of you? And why is everyone in here watching you like they're expecting something? Was there any trouble -- "

Xena interrupted calmly, yet forcefully. "No, Gabrielle. Nothing happened here. My old reputation seems to have preceded me. I think my army rode through here a long time ago, but that's all. We didn't even stop in this valley."

Gabrielle was now truly concerned. Usually when the Warrior Princess encountered a group of people who reacted to her with suspicion, she left. That sort of reaction always carved a deep trench in her soul. It usually required several days for her to get back to normal after an encounter like that. Now Xena was acting as if it wasn't even an issue. This was a different situation in new and scary ways.

Xena stood and interrupted Gabrielle's train of thought. "Ok, so you paid for everything. Are you ready to go now?" Gabrielle agreed, yet remained suspicious of this abrupt decisiveness. They left the tavern and added Gabrielleís things to Argoís load. The horse was not impressed with this, but remained compliant. In the bright sunshine, Gabrielle noticed the bandages on Xenaís arm and leg and the bruises on her face. "What happened there?" she asked pointing at the bandages.

"Nothing much, fight, cut, you know how it goes,"

"Yeah, right," Gabrielle sighed. "Itís going to be one of those trips." Xena took Argoís reins and turned the horse around. The bard started up the road. Xena stopped her. "Hey, weíre going that way," motioning toward a smaller road. Gabrielle studied both roads. "Oh. I thought this was the right direction."

"It is, but weíre taking the scenic route this time."

"Ok, whatever," Gabrielle was curious about this, but did not argue. The bard had been through this routine enough to know that all questioning would be futile. They traveled in silence for about an hour.

Every so often Gabrielle would drop back and watch Xena. The tall warrior walked confidently, if slowly, but she was not as watchful as usual. This was not the Xena she was accustomed to. Gabrielle knew something had happened. She guessed the warrior would tell her sometime. "I just hope itís sometime soon," Gabrielle thought.

Several miles of silent travel had passed when Xena decided to take a break. Gabrielle knew it would be an extended break when Xena built a small fire. This was so out of character that the bard considered that she was traveling with an imposter. Gabrielle sat on the ground a short way from the fire and studied her friend. It was a little weird, how Xena just sat there staring into the fire. Normally she would have sharpened her sword or polished the chakram Ė she would have been doing something. Not just sitting there. Gabrielle attempted a conversation; "Youíre kinda quiet today."

Xena was obviously distracted. "What? Oh yeah, like Iím the one who talks a lot," she smiled. "Did you need something."

"No. Iím just a little surprised at how quiet you are. Quiet warriors are always scary."

"Hey, whatís that supposed to mean?!" Xena played along very well. Gabrielle was greatly relieved to see Xena returning to normal. Well, for Xena it was normal.

"Oh, nothing. I was worried about you. You were so distant Ė even for you," she said. Xena glanced at Gabrielle then looked away. Gabrielle continued, "Did anything happen, back there at Onteia? Before I got there?" The tavern customers' reaction to Xena still puzzled the bard.

"Donít worry about it. It was just one of those stupid things from way too long ago." Although she spoke with absolute calmness, the statement was punctuated as Xena snapped a large branch in two.

Noticing the action and disregarding the words, Gabrielle tried again. "Yeah, right. You want to talk about it?"

"No, I donít," Xena grumbled. She stabbed the stick pieces into the fire.

"Ok, ok," Gabrielle said. After a long pause, she said, "Xena?"


"This isnít going to become one of those grab-everything-and-run trips, is it?"

With contempt, the warrior sputtered, "No. It isnít. I took care of Ė" Xena suddenly stopped speaking and looked guilty.

Triumphantly, Gabrielle continued, "Thatís what I thought. What happened?"

"Nothing much to tell. Ares must have been bored. He just couldnít resist causing me more stress."

"You know, Xena, it scares me Ė just a little Ė that when the god of war gets bored, he comes looking for you."

"Yeah, well, everyone needs a hobby."

"So what happened? I mean, there were a few days to fill up," Gabrielle tried to give Xena somewhere to start. Inwardly she added, "Besides, how much trouble can there be during a storm like the last one?"

"I told you it wasnít any big deal. Ares conned some warlord wannabes into coming after me. They werenít even a challenge. We fought, I won, and it was over. End of story."

"Thatís it?"

"Yup, thatís about it."

"Then the gashes on your arm and leg -- those are for dramatic effect? And why havenít you touched your sword?" Gabrielle was insulted by Xena's offhand dismissal of her concern.

"Now what are you talking about?" Xena bristled at the questions.

Gabrielle was also irritated. "No, Iím not buying any of this. You always check out your sword, polish it, sharpen it, you do something whenever we stop. You havenít even touched your sword since I came back."

Xena made a feeble attempt at avoiding Gabrielleís intense gaze, then looked away altogether. "Somebody got killed, is that what happened?" Gabrielle asked directly.

The warrior turned and met the bardís gaze head-on. "No. Somebody didnít Ďget killed.í I lost control and I killed them. Then I stood there and watched them die. I left their sorry carcasses out to rot." She continued glaring at Gabrielle, demanding a reaction. "There," she said simply. "Now you know."

Gabrielle was taken aback. "Xena, that doesnít sound like you. Itís not Ė thatís not your style. What happened?"

"They were Ė well, letís just say that Ares put more effort into it this time."

"More effort? Xena, what does that mean?" As much as Gabrielle wanted to let Xena answer in her own time, she was desperately curious about the encounter with Ares. Several similar post-fight discussions had given Gabrielle many opportunities to develop patience. Still, it was not easy to let the conversation drop at this point.

Xena remained distant for a long time, speaking only with great effort. Gabrielle understood that it was only out of a friendís obligation that Xena was even telling her this and did not interrupt or react to the story.

"None of these guys were good fighters. They all were warlord wannabes that Ares used as expendable resources. I guess Ares sent the stupid ones in first to get my attention. They werenít even a challenge." Xena shot a quick look at Gabrielle. "None of them died, by the way. They were inept and were quickly out of the way."

"I was traveling toward Onteia when I heard an attack in progress. A bunch of worthless thieves had attacked some travelers. They were about to start murdering everyone when I got there. Some of them came after me and the others started taking out the travelers. I couldnít get to anyone in time. I just snapped, I guess. They killed the people, I killed them. Everything happened fast Ė it was all instinct."

"When it was over..." Xena paused and gathered strength for the next part. "I just stood there, covered in blood, surrounded by the dead. Then Ares showed up with that stupid grin of his. He said something about how Ďthings never change.í Then he laughed that evil stupid laugh and vanished." Gabrielle surmised that there was more -- much more -- to this story. Out of respect for Xena, Gabrielle did not ask anything more about it.

It was then that Gabrielle noticed the knife Xena held in her hand. It was a heavy knife with a wicked curvy blade. It looked evil; something Ares would have enjoyed, Gabrielle thought, caustically. Xena was holding the knife, studying it, hefting it evenly in her strong hand. Gabrielle was about to ask about it when Xena leaped to her feet. She turned and threw the knife into a nearby tree with a roar that sent shivers down Gabrielleís spine. The knife was stuck in the tree up to its hilt. Gabrielle looked at the knife, then back at Xena. The Warrior Princess slowly lowered herself to the ground. She appeared calm, but her eyes blazed with rage. Gabrielle wondered where Xenaís rage was directed: at Ares for causing all this or at her for asking. She quietly watched Xena as the warrior watched the fire.

A short time later, Xena stood and kicked dirt over the fire. "Thatís enough of a break. We need to make use of this daylight." She took Argoís reins and started down the trail. Gabrielle was left sitting on the ground, staring as the warrior walked away. Then she regained her senses and followed. Another long silent trip was about to begin. Gabrielle resigned herself to mentally working on stories. Xena would definitely not appreciate conversation at this point.

The sun was beginning to set before Xena spoke again. "Weíll camp here." Startled, Gabrielle looked around. She had become so busy with her newest story that she had been unaware of the landscape for quite awhile. Even Argo seemed surprised. Xena cleared a spot for the fire and went off in search of wood. Gabrielle saw to the rest of the camp duties, muttering to herself. "Why is this such a big deal? Sheís gone for three days and all this happens Ė now sheís still acting like we just met. Again. Does it really have to be this complicated?" This last question was directed to Argo, who tossed her head and walked away to graze.

As the campground became more organized, Gabrielle could hear Xena off in the forest yelling and shattering wood. "At least one stays warm in the company of emotion-wrought warriors," she thought sarcastically. "They are much better at providing firewood than explanations," Gabrielle sighed. "Still, it is a useful skill." She sat down on a rock by the future fire pit. She tried to retrieve her interrupted story outline. It was getting colder as the sun set. "She sure is taking her time," Gabrielle grumbled, shivering.

Just then, Xena returned with a huge armload of wood. Cheerfully, she greeted the grumbling bard, "Hi, Gabrielle! Miss me?" She dropped the wood on the ground and began arranging the fire pit.

"No, I was just sitting here, freezing, and wondering who you would be when you came back," Gabrielle answered dryly.

"Aw, you gotta learn to relax," Xena chided. She added playfully, "Itís a beautiful night and weíve got a great place to sleep. Lighten up!" Xena grabbed a handful of kindling and tossed into the fire pit. She knelt and arranged the wood so it would be easier to light.

Gabrielleís patience finally snapped. "What is it with you? Weíre apart for about three days, you have all these things happen, we get back together and even after our earlier Ďfireside chatí you act like we just met. We walk for hours and you say nothing. Then you leave me here while you go out and beat up some trees. I am cold, tired, and I canít even remember the story I was working on. Now you wander back into camp, acting like nothingís wrong. Whatís up with that? I donít get it."

Xena had been expecting this. She was not quite ready to give in, so she began with "Well, for starters, you could have put on your cloak. It would be a little warmer that way." Gabrielle looked around for something heavy to throw. She was about to begin another arm-waving rant when Xena held up her hand. "I know, I know Ė Iím sorry." The warrior shrugged, "sometimes it just takes time for me to get back to normal." Gabrielle responded by throwing her hands up in disgust and turning away. Xena thought she heard the bard muttering something about Ďnormalí and Ďwarriors,í but let it go without comment.

Xena started the fire and had it burning well. She went to Argo and finished unloading her. The cold was much greater away from the fire and Gabrielle hadnít budged. Xena got Gabrielleís cloak and tossed it at her. The bard grabbed it and dismissed the gesture with a sniff. "Well, at least sheíll be warm in her anger," Xena thought. The warrior got some dried meat and bread and returned to the fire, watching as the bard donned her cloak. Xena leaned against a fallen log, eating silently, waiting for Gabrielle to calm down and forgive her.

Time passed slowly for Xena. There wasnít anything to do; it was dark and cold. To make matters worse, Gabrielle hadnít even looked in her direction for a very long time. Even Argo was keeping her distance. Xena decided to try making first contact.

"Ok, Gabrielle. Enough with the silence. I'm sorry."

Gabrielle shot back, "does this mean youíre Ďback to normalí now?"

"Hey! I said I was sorry Ė" Xena was unsure of what to do now. This relationship thing was Gabrielleís specialty. Normally Xena let her take the lead. This brief interchange had exhausted Xena's abilities in the apology department. Fortunately, Gabrielle turned to the fire and faced Xena.

"All right, I give up. I don't understand this Ďprocessí you have to go through every time. I donít think Iíll ever get it," she muttered in frustration. With abrupt optimism, she added, "On the other hand, all this lets me work on new stories." She stood, glared at Xena for effect, then walked past the warrior to get a scroll. "Which reminds me; I wanted to write down something Tikk said. It was -- " At this, Xena grabbed Gabrielleís arm and spun her around, sending the bard to the ground in an enraged heap.

"Xena! What was that for?" she demanded, struggling to her feet.

"Tikk? Youíve seen her? Where is she?" Xena asked eagerly.

"Warriors!" Gabrielle was furious again.

"Címon, Gabrielle. Where did you run into Tikk?" Xena was suddenly very animated.

Bewildered, Gabrielle answered, "She lives about a half-dayís walk above Onteia. I stayed there during the storm. Quite an interesting visit, on the whole..."

Xena interrupted, "how did ... what does..." The warrior could not decide what to ask. As a last resort, she settled for a lame "How is she?"

"Yeah," Gabrielle studied her friend with suspicion. Considering how the rest of this day had gone, she was not sure what Xena was looking for in an answer. Cautiously, she began, "Tikk looks older than she should and then thereís all the battle scars, but other than that she seemed fine." She paused, "Xena, how come you never mentioned her before? Tikk isnít what I expected one of your warriors to be like."

It was Xenaís turn to be confused. She had been surprised by her own reaction to this information. Now she had obligated herself to answering Gabrielle. She tried to be evasively informative. "No, she isnít like the others. Tikk was always different in just about every possible way. She was a fine warrior, though. One of the best in my army." Xena trailed off here, hoping Gabrielle wouldnít follow this up with more questions, although she knew better.

"And?" Xena was too late; Gabrielle knew there was more to the story.

"And what?" Xena tried to act annoyed, but there was no escaping the bardís desire for information. She also didn't want Gabrielle to get mad at her again.

Patiently, Gabrielle pointed out, "Whenever you wander off a subject like that, there is always a story behind it. She repeated the question, "So -- how come youíve never talked about Tikk before?"

Xena sighed. "Thereís not really much to tell. She was fiercely loyal, devoted to the army, and followed orders without question. She always completed the mission, no matter what. She didnít really like the killing, but she was very good at it. Taking out sentries was her specialty. She was quite resourceful, too. I was proud to have her in my army."

Gabrielleís response to this was a simple, ĎHmmm."

"Why Ďhmmm?í What did she tell you about?"

"Oh, nothing much," Gabrielle said casually. "You know how talkative warriors are." The bard could not resist this battle of words. It was one of the few arenas in which she could outmaneuver the Warrior Princess. She delighted in this form of combat and pressed the advantage.

Xena said warningly, "Gabrielle...."

After a dramatic pause, Gabrielle relented, "Tikk just told me some of your war heroics. Stuff like that..." She tried to maintain her verbal advantage; Xena wanted this information so badly it was almost funny. It was too hard, though. She had so anticipated this conversation with Xena that she could not maintain a superficial level for long. She chalked this one up as a victory for talkers everywhere, then deftly steered the conversation toward a deeper level.

"You know," Gabrielle began, "If someone had told me that there was another human being who had as much respect and admiration for the Warrior Princess as I do, I donít think I would have believed them."

To the bardís astonishment, Xena reacted with utter disgust. "Gabrielle, if youíre going to make up a story, at least make it believable!" She tossed a small log into the fire.

"Itís true, Xena! Tikk told a few war stories, but she talked mainly of how confident your army was in battle because of you, and how brilliant a commander you were. Yeah, I guess the killing got to her sometimes, but Ė Xena, she mostly talked about what an honor it was to serve as one of your warriors."

All of a sudden Xena stood and walked away. It was as if she had not heard one thing Gabrielle had said. "We need more wood for the fire," she said, disappearing into the darkness.

Gabrielle watched her leave, stunned. "Somehow, that is not the reaction I expected..." A short time later, she could hear Xena tearing her way through the forest, battling the trees again. "Another one of Ďthoseí nights, right, horse?" The horse snorted and shook her head. "I wish you could talk, Argo. Maybe you could make sense of all this." Gabrielle reconsidered, "No, you'd probably be just about as informative as she is. It figures." Gabrielle sighed.

Xena returned with another armload of very splintered wood.

"Who won?" Gabrielle asked sarcastically.

"Won what?"

"Xena, we had enough wood for three days when you left. I thought maybe some tree warlord had challenged you to a duel or something." Gabrielle had had her fill of the warrior-flight from emotion, and she was not going to let it remain unchallenged.

"Gabrielle, cut it out." Xena sounded very tired.

"Xena, what is it? Whenever someone brings up the awful things that happened in the past, it bothers you, but you take it in stride. Then I tell you about someoneís admiration and respect for you and you lose it completely. Why?" Gabrielle leaned forward and stared expectantly at Xena.

Xena answered with surprising directness. "No one should respect anything I did or who I was then. I was a ruthless warlord, entirely devoted to the service of Ares and I am responsible for the deaths of thousands. Anyone who Ďadmiresí that is irrational." Xena walked away from Gabrielle and went to Argo. She found the brush and began brushing the horse ferociously.

"Tikk always was different. Always pushing it to the limits, she was. What is she doing now? Living in caves, scaring village children? Oh, yeah. Thatís a credible witness..." Argo neighed and stepped away from the ranting warrior. "Just this side of sanity, thatís where Tikk was. Always near the edge."

Gabrielle walked to Xenaís side. She looked at the horse, then to her friend. "Xena?" When she received no answer, she grabbed Xenaís arm, "Xena!"

Annoyed, Xena snapped, "Now what?"

"Xena," Gabrielle began patiently. "If itís cold enough that we will need this much wood, I donít think Argo will appreciate having all her fur removed."

Xena looked at the horse, then at the brush. "Oh -- yeah. I guess youíre right. Sorry, Argo." The horse eyed them both and simply walked away. Xena and Gabrielle returned to the fire. They sat for a long time before either spoke.

Naturally, Gabrielle broke the silence first. "You want to talk about it?"

"Why do you always ask that as if I have a choice?" Xena said dejectedly. "Yeah, yeah, I know. ĎWarriors!í"

Xena gathered her thoughts as Gabrielle waited expectantly for the story. Reluctantly, Xena began.

"It was the last battle. My army was on the brink of desertion, but I didnít want to see it. I suppose it had been building for awhile. I was distracted. Everything was changing so fast. Battle had become routine and my heart wasnít in it. The village we attacked wasnít even worth it. My men went crazy, killing everyone Ė even the women and children. Towards the end, I tried to regain control, but it was entirely too late. My officers saw this as a final sign of weakness Ė as evidence that I was no longer fit for command. The army camped together for the last time. They all fought among themselves. They were all setting themselves up to be the next commander. And I didnít know what to do."

"For the first time Ė I just didnít care. I knew things werenít the same, not with the army and not within me. It was like a nightmare. Everything was out of control and I couldnít do anything about it. Some brilliant commander, huh?" Xena spat into the fire and fell silent.

"Go on," Gabrielle cautiously encouraged.

"My Ė The officers demanded the gauntlet. I agreed. I had to." She sighed. "Just giving up would have meant certain death for me and any of the soldiers who remained loyal to me." Xena paused, expecting Gabrielle to ask about the gauntlet. When she said nothing, Xena knew Tikk had told her about it.

She continued, "I ran the gauntlet and I finished it. When it was over, everyone was gone. My officers, my army, my whole life Ė was gone. I wasnít even worth killing, I guess. Even the soldiers who I thought were loyal had left. There was nothing and no one."

The warrior looked earnestly at Gabrielle as she said, "You canít ask someone to go into battle, to be ready to die at your command, and then let it all end. Not like that."

Xena dropped her head and studied the ground. "I failed them, Gabrielle. A commander should always be in control. Of battle, of the army, of everything. It was my responsibility and I failed them. I let Tikk down. I let all of them down. And it was all for nothing."

Xena chose this opportunity to build up the fire and to avoid looking at Gabrielle. When the fire returned to its original blaze, Xena sat back and stared into the flames.

"Xena," Gabrielle began quietly, "do you know where Tikk was? During the gauntlet, I mean?"

Without looking from the fire, Xena answered. "I thought she was dead. Either that or she left with the others. Everyone knew when to leave a hopeless cause. She had sense enough to know what was going on. She obviously left camp. Canít blame her for that."

"No, Xena, she didnít leave. Tikk and some of the others were planning some way to defend you. Youíre right about one thing: she knew what was going on. They knew the traitors were planning to overthrow your command. They just didnít know how many traitors there were...and how well it had been planned. Before they could act, they were surrounded. That was probably some of the fighting you saw."

"I donít know what happened to the others. Tikk didnít say. She fought, but they had planned for that. They broke her arm and her leg, then held a sword to her throat and made her watch while the others tried to kill you during the gauntlet. When it was over, they dragged her off and left her for dead."

Xena watched Gabrielle closely, as if she couldnít bring herself to accept this information. Gabrielle was unsure whether to continue or not. She decided to press on, while she had Xenaís full attention. "Tikk still feels guilty about all this, over not being able to do anything to protect you. Thatís what she believed in her heart was her duty. Xena, she believes she failed you!"

At this, Xena turned away. From Gabrielle, from the story, from everything.

"She should have left with the others. I trained all of them. Never die for a lost cause..." Xena voice was quiet and shaky.

Gabrielle answered softly. "Tikk didnít think you were a lost cause. She knew that you wouldnít be a warlord forever. She could see the good in you, even back then."

"Tikk is actually still fighting for you, Xena. Sheís not Ďliving in caves scaring villagersí as you said. She has a place up in the hills away from everything. People there still associate her with your army, and every so often, someone will get the bright idea about getting revenge for something you Ė your army did. They ransack the place, burn things down, the usual stuff. Tikk can't fight like she could years ago -- sometimes she can barely move -- but she does fight. She believes that if they get it out of their systems, they wonít be looking to fight you personally. She still sees it as her duty to defend you, even now, after all this time." Gabrielle gently put her hand on Xenaís shoulder. "Devotion like that is never wasted on a Ďlost cause,í Xena."

Without looking at Gabrielle, Xena stood and walked away from the fire. Gabrielle let her go. She knew how Xena hated for anyone to see her when she got Ďlike that.í Gabrielle got their blankets and wrapped up in one. She tended the fire and waited patiently for Xena to return.

The proud warrior stood motionless in the moonlight. Gabrielle watched her, wondering what the warrior was thinking. It would have been easier if Xena had gone raging after the trees again. This way, Xena just stood there, absolutely still. Gabrielle was concerned. Seeing Xena standing there, without her weapons, without her armor, was a little unsettling. The warrior looked -- almost vulnerable.

Gabrielle considered the Warrior Princess. She thought of how much Xena had changed. Xena was still very much the warrior, but now she was fighting a different enemy -- the past. Gabrielle thought of the things that Tikk said, particularly what she had said about Xena. Tikk had seen beyond the fierce commander that the Warrior Princess had once been. Both warriors were similar. They had survived combat and its aftermath. They each take responsibility for their actions and want to atone for the past. Neither one truly knows how to go about it. The only difference between them is that Xena alone shouldered the entire burden of everything done by her army. Tikk bears this guilt as well, but for Xena, not because of her.

Xena remained still in the clearing for a long time. Gabrielle realized that if she was this cold and this close to the fire, Xena must have been freezing. She took a blanket and cautiously approached the warrior. As she draped the blanket around the shivering warriorís shoulders, she said, "Itís a little colder than I thought. It would be a shame to waste all that wood on one person and a horse. Come back to the fire." Gabrielleís voice was quiet and soothing as she gently steered the tall warrior back toward the fire. Xena looked at Gabrielle, without recognizing her. The bard knew she was lost somewhere in the past.

Xena sat mechanically, leaning against the log and watching the fire. Gabrielle added more of the abundant firewood and the renewed blaze soon warmed the area. She wrapped up in her blanket and sat down next to Xena. Gabrielle expected that all discussion had ended for the night. She was concerned about Xena but realized there was nothing she could do at this point. She concentrated on the warmth of the fire. Soon, Gabrielle had fallen asleep.

Gabrielle abruptly woke when she heard Xena talking. Briefly bewildered, she sat up and listened. Xena was in mid-sentence. "... had thought Ė I had chosen to believe that the entire army had turned against me. That the few who didnít leave were dead. It was easier to believe they were dead than thinking of them living with all this nightmare of a life that I put them through...It Ė I just never expected any loyalty beyond the battle lines." As an afterthought Xena added, "Certainly not after all this time."

Unable to resist, Gabrielle added a few thoughts of her own. "Tikk doesnít remember it like that at all. At least she doesnít talk about it that way. She understands the reality of everything that happened, but she doesnít look at that life Ė or at you Ė with any regrets. She saw the good in you, even then. I think Tikk knew who you would become after that was all over."

Xena went on. "You know, I never expected to hear of Tikk again. A few of the warriors are still around, not many, of course, but no one ever knew what happened to her. Oh, well." Xena shrugged. "Once the door to the past closes, it should be over and done with."

"It is over, Xena. Tikk lives in the present, just like you do. Youíre just going about it differently." Gabrielle was unsure where Xena was going with this.

"So, tell me. Why didnít Tikk come with you into Onteia?"

"Iím not sure. She was very insistent about it. I think she Ė " Gabrielle stopped and considered that she might not want to add this to the conversation.

"And?" Xena asked expectantly.

"Well, I think she was embarrassed," Gabrielle began. "I gathered she didnít want you to see her like Ė like she is now. I know she didnít want to cause you any stress, considering the last time she saw you." Gabrielle was aware that this was all her own interpretation. Even for a bard, conjecture is not always easy. She was not sure how Xena would react, but it was too late to stop the process. She let Xena start the next round.

"She would. Are you sure she wasnít afraid Ė to meet me again?"

"No. Tikk is definitely not afraid of you. She just said Ė well, that she was glad I was in your life and that I should take care of you. It sounded a little strange, considering which of us is the Warrior Princess, you know." Gabrielle risked a smile, which Xena returned.

"I think I know what she meant."

Several silent minutes passed. Gabrielle was about to fall asleep, when Xena interrupted again.

"Gabrielle, Tikk told you not to tell me anything about this, didnít she?" It was a simple question, yet Gabrielle realized that Xena already knew the answer.

"Well, yeah. I guess she did." Gabrielle frowned slightly, embarrassed.

"Then why did you tell me?" Xena had that donít-even-try-to-get-out-of-it look on her face.

Gabrielle summoned her storytelling energy. "I just couldnít stand the thought of both of you -- warriors to the core Ė trudging through life chained to this stupid mutual guilt trip. That would be a waste... of both your lives."

Xena asked the next question as if the answer were obvious. "Not that the opportunity will present itself, but what if I tell you not to ever say anything to Ďanyoneí about this?" She raised an eyebrow in mock warning.

Gabrielle rose to the challenge. Casually, she said, "Oh, Iíll just wait until youíre off doing something heroic without me. Then Iíll go back to Onteia and finish the story for Tikk."

"You would, wouldnít you?" Xena asked, resigning herself to this possibility.

"Of course," Gabrielle replied with confidence. "It keeps things balanced that way. I live for balance."

"So Iíve noticed," Xena said, rolling her eyes. "Bards!"

"Warriors!" countered Gabrielle, with equal disdain.

"All right. Now, we should get some sleep. Iíd hate to think the whole night was spent on Ė talking," Xena shivered, as if the very thought was repulsive.

Gabrielle jabbed, "At least weíll be warm all night. All that wood will last Ė"

"Gabrielle, drop it," Xena warned. She settled in for the night.

"Just making an observation," Gabrielle offered happily.

"And a point?" Xena muttered from underneath the blanket.

Gabrielle grinned. She arranged her bedroll for maximum warmth, as close to the fire as she dared. It is not easy for bards to switch off after intense conversation. A question occurred to her; one last bit of information lay just beyond her grasp. She decided Xena could not possibly have gone to sleep that fast, so she forged ahead.

"Xena, why did you call her Tikk?" The warrior removed the blanket from her head and glared wearily at the bard. "Thatís her name, Gabrielle. Itís what she wanted to be called." Gabrielle persisted. "But why ĎTikk?í It sounds like an insect or something."

Xena decided she would get to sleep faster if she just answered the question. "I asked her that once. Warriors should not be named after bugs. It doesnít sound good." Gabrielle waited expectantly for the story. She knew Xena was exhausted and would do almost anything to get some sleep.

"Well, it seems Tikk was born to a woman who was a slave in one of the Israelite tribes. Her mother evidently believed her children would experience a better life than she had, so she named them accordingly. Sounds a bit overly optimistic, considering the kind of life Tikk ended up with."

Gabrielle was becoming impatient. She knew Xena was being deliberately slow and she hated it. She prompted, "How does this fit in?" Gabrielle despised begging for information.

"íTikkí is short for ĎTikkun.í Itís an Israelite word." Xena maintained her casual demeanor.

"What does it mean?"

Xena reflected momentarily before answering. "It means Ďrestorationí Ė thatís why she shortened it. Sounded a little..." she sought the right word, "inappropriate at the time."

Satisfied, Gabrielle said, "I donít know about that. I think it is the perfect name for her, then and now. To think that Ė "

"Gabrielle, go to sleep." Xena had had enough speaking for the night.

"Thereís a great story here..." Gabrielle began, renewed by the prospect.

"Gabrielle, please Ė " an exhausted Xena pleaded.

"All right, all right," the bard happily pondered all the stories she had heard over the past few days. Gabrielle noticed how bright the stars looked against the dark sky. All was right in her world. She had new stories to work on, she had learned much more about Xena and she had found a new friend -- albeit another warrior. Although the day had been completely exhausting, Gabrielle was flooded with enthusiasm. Eventually she fell asleep, long after Xena. Even in her dreams, new stories took shape. Bards never really quit working on their stories. Gabrielle was no exception.


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