I've Seen the Devil's Eyes
Sinful [

Disclaimers: See Part 1


~ Part 3 ~


In order to survive, alone you must fight,
First comes the hunger and then comes the night.
But you will not miss what you never have had,
It is more than just fear that makes you so sad.

Hold out your hand and open your heart,
Beg for forgiveness, but where do we start.
Nothing can change what was done in your past,
Step out of the darkness and the shadows you cast.

Come forth and answer all that you know,
But if it's not in your memory, then where do we go?
Trust is the beginning on a road to somewhere,
But you have to be willing to go out on a dare.


Chapter 11

The two friends stood only paces apart, but never before had there been such a distance between them.

“Gabrielle it's me.”

“I know.” The bard's words were spoken without emotion as she released her hold on the arrow.

Xena turned and dipped backwards just as the arrow whistled past her. She heard her own heart beating heavily in her ears as she straightened back up. Face to face with Gabrielle, she was amazed to see the bard already had another arrow cocked and ready to go.

“Gabrielle!” Her tone was harsh as she commanded the blonde's attention.

Nothing else was said as they stood on unfamiliar ground. Warriors locked in a battle of wills as they challenged their abilities, facing each other for the first time as adversaries. The pain of the situation was clear on Xena's face as she studied her friend for the first time in a new light.

The aim of her arrow was steady. Xena's eyes followed the shaft back to the fingers holding the bowstring tight against Gabrielle's cheek. Looking into her empty green eyes, Xena wondered and not for the first time, just when the light in them had begun to dim. The dried blood on her face bore the ritualistic markings of an Amazon Queen on a warrior's quest. Xena couldn't help noticing the mud, blood and sweat covering the sculptured features of her friend's hardened body.

There she stood, the battling bard of Poteidaia, Amazon Queen and she was ready for battle. Her weapon held motionless with the unblinking eye of one who had danced with the devil and had done his evil bidding. Gabrielle had become a true warrior with lethal abilities and it broke Xena's heart.

“Back off Xena!” Gabrielle's words were spoken clearly through clenched teeth as she waited patiently, studying and calculating any move Xena could make.

“No,” was the only response the Warrior Princess could whisper. Slowly she raised her empty hands in hopes of a truce before she took a hesitant step forward.

Without uttering a single word, Gabrielle relayed her intentions by pulling back tighter on her bowstring. Xena stopped and raised her hands higher.

“Please Gabrielle, put down your bow and talk to me.”

“The time for talk is over. The only thing people seem to understand or listen to is a warrior who's willing to fight.”

“I will listen, give me a chance, please.” Before Xena could attempt to get closer, the bard released the hold on her second arrow.

The movement of Gabrielle's fingers on the bowstring had been enough of a warning. Xena turned just in time, but it had been close enough for her to feel the wind of the weapon as the feathers brushed past her in a blur. Swallowing the disbelief she held in her dry throat, she turned back just as Gabrielle was fitting another arrow onto her bow.

“Stop this! Gabrielle, what are you doing? You're not thinking clearly.”

“Why, because for the first time I'm standing up to you?”

“No. Gabrielle, do you hear what you're saying? You can't mean that.”

“Oh, I do mean it. Believe me. Or is it that you don't think I'm capable? Trust me, I'm more than capable. Ha! … trust ... now there's a word we don't use much anymore. Because trust is something you like to twist around to fit you. Not this time Xena! You're not going to blame me. He's dead and I'll do whatever I have to do. Believe me even if you don't trust me.”

If Gabrielle saw any of the confusion on Xena's face, she showed no sign of it.

“You're not making sense Gabrielle. I do trust you, and I know you're more than capable. But I'm having a hard time believing you had anything to do with his death. It's not in you to murder in cold blood.”

“Not in me! Warm blood, cold blood, does it really matter? There's so much blood on my hands Xena … so much blood … too much blood. I've killed so many … I never wanted to kill anyone. But things happened … things I couldn't control.” Xena saw the crack in Gabrielle's armor as the bard spoke in a pain-filled voice of regret. The green eyes finally left their target and drifted to the forest floor. Releasing the tension on the bowstring, the tip of the arrow lowered slowly away. Gabrielle's shoulders slumped in dejection and it was more than Xena could bear.

Releasing a breath she hadn't realized she had been holding, Xena dropped her hands. Wanting so desperately to take care of Gabrielle, to hold her in the protection of her arms, the Warrior Princess took a step towards her.

Instantly the arrow was brought back up, pulled back and aimed.

“Stop right there Xena. Not another step further. Do you honestly think that's it? A few words of wisdom from you and all is forgotten, after everything that's happened? I've to answer for what I've done, we both have to answer for what we've done.”

Her green eyes may have been brimming with tears, but her icy stare of contempt held the warrior back.

“Don't push me Xena, I will shoot you.”

“I'm not pushing, I want to talk … I want to be here to listen. I want to understand. Gabrielle, I know the real you and you don't want to do this.”

“Maybe I did.”

“No, you're not a killer Gabrielle. You had to have your reasons for what you did.”

Xena saw a shadow cross over Gabrielle's green eyes.

“Reasons, for what I did?” The bard's demeanor changed instantly in an explosion of anger. “You never had to have reasons. Did you Xena? No! But I did, I always did. You want reasons, I'll give you reasons.”

Xena could only watch as Gabrielle's emotions tore away any rational thought. In one sentence, she would go from hurt to anger, from remorse to revenge. The bard's neck veins extended as she seemingly growled out whatever thoughts crossed her mind.

“What reasons would be good enough for you Xena? When I killed someone before they killed us? Or when I watched someone I cared about die in front of me? When is it right? When our lives are on the line … or … in the heat of battle or just because? Does it really matter now? No! People around us died. Isn't that it? Everyone is dead! Everyone I've ever loved is gone … everything I've ever believed in -. “Her voice may have choked on the words, but the steady aim of her arrow never wavered.

It tore at Xena's heart to see this happening to the woman she had loved for so long. The torment of her past was twisting her inside out and Xena knew she had to do something to stop the downhill slide.

Looking at their past from a different point of view, put things into a better perspective for her. Xena had lived her life to the fullest extremes of a warrior, without thought of the repercussions, and Gabrielle had willingly come along with her. Now her young friend was paying the price and it was up to Xena to calm the rising anger inside the bard. The question in her mind - was how?

“Not everything you believe in is gone Gabrielle.”

The bard stayed silent and Xena hoped that meant she was listening.

“You believed in me when no one else did. You saw something good inside of me when I didn't even know it was there. And it has only been with your help that I've spent all these years trying to right some of the wrongs that I've done. If anything, believe in that.”

She stopped and waited for a response, but none came.

“Believe in us, Gabrielle. Believe we can do anything … together. This anger you're feeling is not the real you, I know the real you and she is still in there. You're a pure hearted person. Even after all we've been through, you still see the good in people. That's part of why I love you and nothing … nothing, will ever change that.”

The paused silence between them hung with anticipation, but all Xena saw was the hardened edge of a warrior and she knew she was not going to get the response she was looking for.

As if sensing it was her turn to talk, Gabrielle finally spoke, and when she did her words were spoken slowly and clearly. “Are you finished? Because if you are, I have news for you. Your plan is not going to work.”

“What plan? This isn't a plan, Gabrielle, this is the truth, this is how I feel.”

“The truth of how you feel? It sounds more like a mind game, something along the lines of, 'divide a women's emotions from her sensibility, and you have her.' Divide and conquer, wasn't that Caesar's motto?”

The Warrior Princess refused to respond to the verbal challenge, but she noted Gabrielle had spoken of Caesar in the past tense. Xena hung on to that as she dug deep into herself in hopes of finding some way to pull Gabrielle back from the edge. This was a battle she had to win, because the thought of what she could lose was incomprehensible.

“Gabrielle … listen to your heart. Our souls are meant to continue together for eternity. No one is ever going to separate us. I would never do anything to hurt you, you have to know that.”

“But we have hurt each other, haven't we Xena?” The question took the warrior by surprise. It was an opening and no matter what the cost was, she knew she had to take it.

“Yes Gabrielle, we have, but we had our reasons at the time. There are things we both wish we could take back, but we can't. We made the best choices we could … at the time.”

She looked to her friend and companion, then softly spoke. “Please … trust me.” With that plea, Xena took one more step closer to Gabrielle.

“I did … once.” Was all Gabrielle said as she released her arrow, without hesitation. This time Xena was not as lucky. Gabrielle had read her movements before the warrior had even made them. Faster than her blue eyes could follow, the warrior grabbed at the shaft of the arrow, but not before it struck her in the chest. Xena looked from the arrow in her hand, to the blood coming to the surface of where the arrowhead had split open her skin. It was a wound, though thankfully not a mortal one.

Xena struggled to control all the emotions clawing inside of her and it took everything she had to keep her outward appearance calm. But inside she was a boiling mix of raw emotions. Anger, sadness, pain, confusion, remorse, compassion, fear and most of all: guilt. The seasoned warrior standing before her had been the result of years of exposure to elements of evil and hatred. Being at Xena's side had all but destroyed the purity of Gabrielle's own beliefs. She had been unknowingly tutored and groomed to become a product of the Warrior Princess. It wouldn't matter if she had learned them out of loyalty in helping a friend, or by pure instinct in their need just to survive. The end result was still the same. Even if it had been out of a love they had never acted upon on, Gabrielle had still become what Xena had always feared: a warrior not unlike herself with lethal skills and abilities. But Xena had thrived on battle; Gabrielle had been eaten away by it.

The battling bard before her may have been the Gabrielle she loved, but the love in her heart had been darkened by the evil she had seen.

The dam on her emotions burst and the warrior snapped the arrow in her hand into two pieces.

She had fought for Gabrielle's life before, she had even fought for her soul, so there was no way she was going to back away from saving her mind. Xena lifted her eyes to the woman standing before her.

“Is that what it has all come down to, trust?”

She stood before Gabrielle with her hands open in question, but the bard remained mute.

“After everything we have been through, you still don't trust me? I don't believe that. Whatever thoughts you're having in your mind at this moment are not the real you. Not the Gabrielle I know. Ask yourself that question Gabrielle.” She held her voice steady but continued to push on.

“What you are remembering is the past! Solon is dead, Hope is gone and yes, our families and friends have all but passed away while we slept for twenty-five years in an ice cave.” Xena kept at her, forcing her to recall what had already been.

“But it is over. We have each other, and that you can count on. Gabrielle, we've had our share of problems, hell, we've had more than our share, but we held on to each other and got through it. Together, you and me. Think … think hard, because it's in you.” Watching her features with each word, the Warrior Princess was hoping to see some sort of response in her friend's eyes. She watched and waited but they remained cold and green.

“We are beyond that past. Those wounds have all but healed. Think about Eli and his message of peace, and Alti … remember Alti,” Xena offered a weak smile, “when I had to cut your hair.” There was no change in Gabrielle's face, and no change in her mind as she stood in silent defiance in front of Xena.

“Amarice …or Caesar, when he had us crucified, we went to heaven together and then fought through Hell to stay together. Even when Alti and Caesar tried to change our destiny … we still found each other. Search your heart Gabrielle. It's all there. It's inside and you know nothing will ever come between us again. Gabrielle, you were by my side when I gave birth to Eve.” Xena voice wavered ever so slightly, but she wasn't sure if it was thinking back on her daughter's birth or the flicker of emotion that crossed Gabrielle's face.

“Together we were going to raise her, but … well things just didn't work out that way, did they?” She tilted her head as she pursed her lips, trying to swallow away the lump rising in her throat.

“We've lost so much, both of us. We've lost friends and family, and yes we've both lost children, … but we always had each other.” Xena paused for a moment and attempted to collect herself. “Don't you see, we're meant to be together? Please -” The plea came from a place inside her she had kept hidden behind the armor of a warrior. It was a place where she held her love for Gabrielle.

Xena waited, she could see her words were having an effect, but the bard had yet to lower her weapon.

“Gabrielle - “ A tear slid slowly down Xena's face as she opened her heart. When she spoke again her words barely held back a sob. “You're the best thing that's ever happened to me … without you how could … Please, I can't go on without you. I'm not going to lose you too. I just can't … I couldn't go on without your love.”

The rigid expression on Gabrielle's face softened to the desperate pleas of the warrior. Time seemed to slow for both of them, but finally after a long moment of silence, Gabrielle's cold green eyes … blinked. A single lone tear spilled over the rim of her eye and slid down her cheek.

“Please, put down your arrow and listen to your own heart.” The stare of hatred had been broken, and her blonde head tilted forward. It took a moment, but Gabrielle finally lowered her weapon. Silence hung in the forest as if all were waiting for one of them to speak. Xena swallowed several times before she found her voice and spoke again.

“I couldn't live with myself if I lost you now. I couldn't go on. You are my reason, … the light by which I judge myself. We are meant to be together. Gabrielle … I.” The tears rolled unchecked down her cheeks as she prayed for the return of her soul mate.

Xena fell to her knees and reached out her arms to the women before her, “Gabrielle I need you. Please … come back to me.” Gabrielle finally lifted her head and looked her in the eye. “I love you.”

Tears had washed streaks through the blood markings on her face. Her lower lips quivered as she lowered her eyelids over her red-rimmed eyes. Her head drooped forward, her shoulders shagged, and finally her bow and arrow dropped to the ground.

She opened her eyes and but said nothing as she looked down at the kneeling warrior. In Xena's eyes, it was the first time in a long time that Gabrielle actually looked vulnerable. It was one more reminder to Xena just how hard of a life they had led together.

Without a word, Gabrielle sank slowly to the ground.

Xena scrambled over to her as fast as she could, wrapping her arms around the broken bard. At first, the sobs were silent but Xena knew the tears were there.

“It's okay, I'm here,” she whispered reassuringly as Gabrielle's emotions poured out of her.

With a sob from a broken heart the bard uttered, “What have I done?”

“Gabrielle,” Xena pulled the bard onto her lap and rocked her slowly. It was a long time before the bard found enough air to finally speak.

“Xena … I'm so sorry.”

“Shhh … that's enough of that. I'm the one who needs to say I'm sorry, for everything I have put you through. You never should've -” Gabrielle cut her off before she could finish.

“No one forced me, I did what I wanted to do and that was to be with you. I wouldn't trade that for anything.”

“You shouldn't have to trade in your beliefs just to be with someone.”

“I know that … Xena, I don't know what happened to me.” She took in a stuttered breath before she turned and spoke face to face with the warrior.”After everything we've done for each other. How could I have raised a weapon against you?”

“It's okay, I was pretty sure you weren't really aiming to kill me.” Xena's lighthearted attempt at humor only produced stronger shivers of emotion from Gabrielle's small frame.

Without words, they held on to each other as they always had before, finding the strength in themselves.

“Xena, I am so sorry.”

“So am I Gabrielle, so am I.”

Rocking slowly back and forth, they found the comfort they needed to begin to mend their scarred souls. Together they were unbeatable, time had found away to strengthen their unity, but alone without the other they were vulnerable. The cracks in their armor could only be covered by the knowledge of love that they would have for eternity.

When Xena finally spoke, her voice echoed off the darkened walls of the forest.

“Gabrielle, I'm so sorry for everything I've put you through. You were never meant to walk the path of a warrior. I should've been more aware of the toll it was taking on you.”

“And how could you have changed it? You couldn't have. Xena, I would and I have followed you anywhere you have gone, by my choice. All I ever wanted was to be by your side, to be with you. I love you, Xena, and I will never regret anything that has happened because it has taken me to be here with you.”

“But you have gone so far away from where you were destined to be. Your gift is your words, … and I … you should have never picked up a weapon -” Once again Gabrielle stopped Xena's words in mid-sentence. Holding her hand up, she gently placed a finger against Xena's split lip. Gabrielle's green eyes were only inches from the warrior's.

“Stop this Xena, right here and right now. I became a warrior out of necessity, and I would do it again. I am a fighter because I am a survivor and that's all that matters.” She pulled her finger away, but did not back down.

“Besides, even when Caesar interfered with the fates and I was a playwright, I wasn't happy until I met you. My life was empty without love to fill my heart. I had everything but I wasn't happy, because I didn't have you in my life.” Gabrielle lifted her hand and gently wiped the warrior's tears away.

“Our lives are destined to be together, because without one the other is not whole.” Xena leaned forward and laid a soft kiss on Gabrielle's forehead. She closed her eyes and relished the tender moment.

“You're a gift to me, and I don't ever want to lose you.” Gabrielle gave her the best smile she could, then turned and snuggled deeper into Xena's shoulder. The warrior responded by pulling her in closer and wrapping her up in her arms.

Neither knew how long they stayed like that, but it did not matter. They felt safe in each other's arms again. Their tears had dried, their emotions had receded, leaving them spent and exhausted. With her back against a boulder, Xena closed her eyes and found the peace she needed as she held Gabrielle in her arms.

Nothing had been said about Brimstone, and for the moment that was fine with Xena. For once her priorities were where they should have been, with the woman she held in her arms and in her heart.

Chapter 12



“Will it ever stop?” Poking at the fire, Xena hesitated for a moment before she looked over at Gabrielle.

The bard was leaning against a fallen tree, staring mesmerized into the flames. She looked so lost and alone Xena could not help but feel the need to protect her like she had in the past. She crossed the distance separating them and then kneeled down in front of her. Xena collected one of Gabrielle's hands and held it in her own.

“I don't know, maybe one day.” She reached forward and brushed away her blonde bangs, but Gabrielle never took her eyes off the fire.

“What, when one of us is dead and the other is left alone?” It was a matter of fact question, but the thought of it turned Xena's blood cold.

“That's not going to happen, I won't let it. … Look at me.” With a tender touch she lifted Gabrielle's chin so she could look into her eyes.

“We're going to grow old together. I promise.” The bard closed her eyes and pulled away from Xena's touch. She took several deep breaths, and then lifted her head up as a tear slid slowly unhindered down her cheek.

“You can't promise that Xena and we both know it.” She paused for a moment. Xena turned to see the flames of the fire reflecting off a trail that a tear had left behind on the bard's face.

Gabrielle looked Xena in the eye. There was no mistaking the 'matter of fact' tone she laid out before her.

“Solan died … we couldn't stop it … Joxer died … we were there and there wasn't a thing we could do to stop it. Eli knew his fate and there was nothing we could do to stop him. The only things I've had in my life to hang on to are my beliefs … and you. My beliefs have been battered and bruised, and I've had to leave some of them behind. I don't want to wait around until the same thing happens to you.”

Every word and every comment that came to Xena's mind sounded like a hollow reply. She so wanted to soothe Gabrielle's mind, but there was nothing she could think of to say to do that. Gabrielle's words held the truth whether or not they wanted to admit it.

Without a response to offer in defense, Xena sought refuge in the flames of the fire. For once, the silence between them made her uncomfortable. Xena reached for another log and tossed it on to the fire, then sat back down next to Gabrielle. The bard moved in closer and Xena put a protective arm around her.

Looking up at the warrior's face, Gabrielle reached up and ran her gentle fingers over her bruised and battered face.

“What are these from?” Her voice was almost child-like as she looked closely at Xena's split lip.

“A difference of opinion.”

“All of these?” Her hand trailed over Xena's forearm.

Her blue eyes went back to the fire as she watched a thin ribbon of smoke float high into the trees.

“My opinion ruffled a few feathers.”

“Your opinion about what?”

Xena poked at the fire, trying to think of an answer that was honest without prejudice. “That the innocent should have a chance to speak before they are punished for a crime they didn't commit.”

“Cryptic comment, but I do agree with you.” Xena watched her as she replied, but there was no indication Gabrielle knew what she was talking about.

“You are okay though, right? Some of these look pretty bad?”

“Nothing a little rest won't cure.” The answer seemed to satisfy Gabrielle's curiosity and for that Xena was thankful. She didn't want to get into the injury on her head and so far the bard hadn't seen it. Somehow she knew that the less said about Brimstone for now, the better.

She looked down at the woman huddled into her shoulder but said nothing. The time for talk was over for the moment. They were both exhausted and needed to rest.

Her eyes went from Gabrielle to the crude bow lying next to her. There was little doubt that it had been constructed with the knowledge of an Amazon. Reaching down with her fingertips, she collected one of the arrows and passed it over to her free hand. She spun the arrow's shaft between her thumb and forefinger; she watched the feathers spin with interest.

There was no question and no suspicion, just the facts, as she knew them. Her eyes drifted into the high treetops, thinking about the ghost demon for the first time since this afternoon.

Xena closed her eyes and sighed deeply when her thoughts took her back to Brimstone and the events that had brought them to here.

“You okay?” Gabrielle asked quietly without even opening her eyes.

“Yeah,” Xena whispered as she leaned down and gently kissed the top of Gabrielle's head.

The bard opened her tired eyes and turned to look at her. Xena did her best 'things will work out' smile, but Gabrielle offered nothing in return. She turned her attention back to her lap, and then began playing with one of the leather slats of her red skirt. Something more was on her mind and for once Xena was unsure if she really wanted to know what it was.

The fire crackled, popped, and although there was more than enough heat coming from it, Xena couldn't help but notice Gabrielle was still shivering. The warrior's right arm was wrapped around her shoulder and Xena rubbed her upper arm briskly, hoping to comfort the chill away.

The movement pulled Gabrielle out of her thoughts and she looked up into the fire.

“What do we do now?”

“We deal with the future as it comes, one day at a time.”

She turned and looked at Xena, her eyes drifted downward and fell upon the wound she had made with her arrow. Reaching up, she slowly traced the scab that had replaced the open wound. Pain and regret shadowed her feature as she looked back up into Xena's blue eyes.

“And how do I deal with what I've done and the nightmares that come with it?” She sat back and waited for an answer.

Xena looked from Gabrielle to the flames of the fire, and then down at the ashes on her lap. She attempted to brush them away, but like Gabrielle's questions, she couldn't easily brush them off. That left only the truth and the pain that came with it.

“You find someone who believes in you and together you face them head on.”

Gabrielle pondered the answer and it took a long time before she spoke again.

“They can be so real and so vivid. I can't always tell what is real and what's just in my mind.” The bard's blonde head dropped forward and Xena leaned around to see her looking into her own hands. It was something she herself had done many times since her days as a warlord and it pained her to see her young friend struggling in the same realm.

“That day in the compound … when Callisto hit you in the back and broke your chakram. I don't regret picking up your sword. If I were to live that day over again, I wouldn't change what I did. I was defending our lives,” Gabrielle's thumb was feverishly working the palm of her left hand. “I did what I had to do, but I have killed so many since then.” Xena closed her eyes to the pain in the bard's voice.

“When did things get so out of control?” If Xena had not been so emotionally and physically drained she may have chuckled at the simplicity of the question.

“I don't know. It seems like we've never stopped long enough to really look at it.”

Nothing else was said to Xena's comment, but the warrior knew the bard's mind was swirling around in a sea of confusion. She watched her closely but Gabrielle dropped her head back down, obscuring the warrior's view. Xena turned her concerned eyes back to the fire and waited.

It was a long wait but after a stretch of silence between them, then Gabrielle finally asked.
“How do I get the blood off my hands?”

Xena turned at the question just in time to see Gabrielle's features crumble. Wrapping her powerful arms around her, Xena rocked and swayed hoping to soothe some of the pain. The bard's small frame shivered and shook as the terror in her mind threatened to take her away again.

“Hey, come on … Gabrielle, that's enough. You're just tormenting yourself. You can't keep doing that. Let it go …let it all go.” Xena held her tight as wave after wave took hold of her body. Gabrielle never saw the tears of regret rolling down the warrior's face.

By the time Xena got her calmed down again, the fire had burned down to just hot shimmering coals. Gabrielle may have released many of her demons, but Xena knew there was more to come. As she watched the steady rhythmic rise and fall of her breathing she wondered just how she was going to approach what had happened in Brimstone.

Chapter 13

A light cool breeze of the night caused her to shiver involuntarily, and the movement of her body woke her up. Gabrielle was startled at first by her surroundings and she questioned where she was. She was in a dark forest, but that didn't tell her anything. Looking down to her left, she found comfort in the leather-clad warrior sleeping next to her. There was an ache in heart as she watched Xena, a sadness she couldn't put her finger on. A chill went through her again as the cool night air washed over where the warmth of Xena's body had been. She crossed her arms and rubbed her biceps and shoulders.

Deep in the ashes of their fire, she could still see some red coals but she didn't want to move to get it going again.

Slowly, she leaned back and carefully reclaimed her space next to Xena. The warmth of the warrior's body instantly relaxed her shivering muscles as she nuzzled in tight to her. She couldn't help but smile at the familiar smell of pine needles and leather.

'Some things just smell like home,' she thought.

The smile froze on her face when the echoed silence of the forest stirred her instincts of survival. Opening her eyes just enough to see through the small slits, Gabrielle surveyed their surroundings. She saw nothing at first but something told her they were no longer alone.

A gust of light wind blew up the ashes in the fire-pit causing the coals to glow red, but still the bard saw nothing. The heavy branches above her head swayed gently as the flakes of gray ashes swirled about. The only sound she could hear was Xena's steady breathing and Gabrielle turned to see if the warrior had been awakened as well. To her astonishment, Xena's eyes were closed and her relaxed features told her she was still asleep.

Releasing a sigh, she turned back to the embers glowing in the fire-pit just as flames exploded into a sea of dancing light. Gabrielle froze at the sight before her.

There stood Hope, her evil eyes staring intently at her with her head cocked slightly to the left. The flames grew giving Gabrielle more than enough light to see her evil child. Her young features were pulled into a questioning expression as she stood locked in a stare.

Hope tilted her head to the right and Gabrielle opened her mouth to a silent gasp when she saw the reflection of the flames in her blood red eyes. They were the eyes of evil and that was all she could think of as she watched her daughter move closer to her. Gone was the perfectly combed honey blonde hair, this time she had a mass of unkempt, shaggy white hair. It was Callisto.

Gabrielle turned to waken the Warrior Princess, but no sound came out of her mouth. When she went to reach out and shake Xena, she found she could not move her hands. She was frozen, physically unable to do anything other than watch. She turned back to the figure before her, only to see Callisto was Hope again. Gabrielle felt helpless as Hope glided closer and closer towards them. She could hear her own breath coming in panicked gulps, as her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She had to do something to wake up Xena, but the closer Hope got the less Gabrielle could move.

Being unable to defend either of them from Hope had always been one of Gabrielle's worst nightmares, and here it was coming true right before her eyes. Anger and frustration exploded inside of her but she was helpless. In her mind she wanted nothing more than to run her Sai through Hope's chest. To kill all she hated, to crush the life out of the evil child and throw her back down into her father's world.

The reality of the hateful thoughts sent a shiver down her spine but it did not stop her desire. Desperately she looked around for her weapons, but all she could see was the empty ground of the forest. She turned her eyes back to the evil entity that was her child and glared into her red eyes.

Hope stopped just inches away from Gabrielle's feet, the bard couldn't help but shudder at the situation she found herself in. Then to her horror she saw one of her Sais in Hope's hand. The evil child looked to her in question but Gabrielle had no idea what she was up to. Her green eyes looked from the weapon to the faceless evil that had once looked so innocent.

Hope looked from her mother to the warrior still sleeping soundlessly next to her. An unseen force tied Gabrielle's hands, and she could only watch as Hope moved closer to Xena. Fear ripped through her as Hope raised the deadly weapon. The flames flickered brightly off the battle marred weapon as Hope's red eyes bore down on her intended victim.


Gabrielle's blood curdling scream woke the Warrior Princess from her sound sleep. Xena was on feet with her sword at the ready but there was no one there. Blinking rapidly, she turned in question to the bard who was sitting up and starring into nothing. The horror on Gabrielle's face explained what had happened, Xena dropped her sword and collected the small shaking woman into her strong arms. Holding her tightly, Xena rocked her back and forth as she ran her hand over her strawberry-blonde hair. Gabrielle knew now it had been a nightmare, but that did nothing to calm her already fragile state of mind.

“It's ok. I've got you now.” Xena's low tones continued over and over, but it still took some time before the bard could find her voice.

“It was Hope.” She didn't need to say anything more for Xena to understand what had ripped her from her sleep. The warrior said nothing but held her tightly until Gabrielle felt the need to pull away. With both hands she wiped the tears from her face and drew in a long stuttering breath.

“Are you OK?”

Gabrielle nodded and then looked up into the reassuring blue eyes she knew so well. “It was Hope … and then it was Callisto then … it was Hope and … we were here in the forest … I couldn't move. I couldn't speak, I couldn't do anything.”

Still visibly shaken, the bard wiped her nose with the heel of her hand before she attempted to continue.

“She … it was her, but she was different. Her eyes were black at first … and then umm … and then they were red … really red.” She stopped and Xena pulled her in and held her tightly. Though the tears had stopped, the violent shivers had not and Xena looked to the remains of the fire.

“Let me get the fire going again, okay?” Gabrielle nodded and leaned back against the fallen tree. She watched as the warrior laid a few twigs on the coals and then leaned down to blow the embers hot. Still sniffing and shaking from her ordeal, Gabrielle kept huddled in a ball as she waited for Xena to return.

“It all seemed so real.”

“Nightmares tend to do that, that's what makes them so frightening,” Xena said as she recalled some of her own nightmares.

“I thought she was going to kill us. There was nothing I could do but watch … as she … she had my Sai in her hand …I … I knew -” Gabrielle stopped talking to moment she saw the look on Xena's face.


The Warrior Princess looked from the ground across from the fire-pit, to Gabrielle's face and then back at what she had seen.

Gabrielle felt the air leave her lung when she followed Xena's eyes to see what she had spotted. There lying on the ground beside the fire was one of Gabrielle's Sais!

“Xena?” The color drained from her face as she looked at her weapon on the ground.

“It's not possible. Xena, tell me it's not possible for that …for her to be alive again.” Each word she spoke flip-flopped back and forth between fear and disbelief. Gabrielle jumped to her feet as Xena scrambled across the ground to get a closer look at the area around the Sai.

The bard turned in slow circles, spinning slowly around as she stared into the blackness of the forest. Keeping her eyes alert, she reached down next to where she had slept and collected her bow and arrows. But try as she might, she could not get her hands to stop shaking long enough to fit the arrow onto the bowstring. So caught up with trying to defend against what she couldn't see, she didn't see Xena coming to her aid.

The warrior reached for her hands and stilled the tremors. Without taking her eyes off of Gabrielle's, Xena pulled the bow and arrow from her grasp, and laid them on the ground. Taking one hand in each, Xena leaned down just enough to look Gabrielle squarely in the eyes.

“Listen to me. Gabrielle,” Xena roughly jolted her to get her full attention. “Look at me …whatever's out there is not Hope. Do you hear me?”

She said nothing as she looked blankly into Xena's blue eyes.

“Listen to me, you had a bad dream, a nightmare. But it's just a nightmare, I can assure you it's not Hope and it's not a ghost either.” This time when Xena went to pull Gabrielle into her arms, the bard raised both of her hands pushing away the warrior's embrace.

“How do you know?” she said as she sat down on top of the tree she had been resting against.

Crossing back to the fire Xena pointed down to the ground. “See these, footprints. Someone was here with bare feet and these are not the first ones I've seen either. Ghosts do not leave foot prints.”

Xena crouched down and rested on the balls of her feet as she lightly ran her fingers over the imprints. She looked back up at Gabrielle. “Hope is dead. That part of your nightmare was just that, a nightmare. But I think subconsciously you saw whoever returned your Sai.”

Gabrielle waited a moment, as if absorbing the information that Xena had said before she spoke.

“But how did they get my Sai?”

When Xena did not answer her right away, Gabrielle looked over at her friend.

“Xena, how did they get my Sai?” she questioned again.

“I think they pulled it out of a tree.” The confusion was clear and evident on Gabrielle's face.

“Who is 'they'?”

“I don't know, but I intend on finding out.”

“What tree?”

“I saw it yesterday embedded in a tree, but when I went back to get it. Well … it was gone.”

Xena watched Gabrielle with interest, but the bard seemed to be oblivious as to what had happened.

“Why don't I remember any of this? I mean I recall some of it, but it all seems so strange and distant.” Xena said nothing as she turned her apparent attention back to getting the fire going again.

“I mean the last thing I really recall was us following the coast line. Wait … I remember coming into this town and … we were looking over some fruit.”

Xena closed her eyes and wished she could go back to just two days ago as well. Back to a table filled with mangos, back to when the only thing on her mind was Gabrielle -.

“Xena, are you even listening to me?”

“I'm sorry, I was thinking. What did you ask me?” Xena wondered if Gabrielle remembered those words from earlier.

“I asked you what happened to your head?” Her voice was low and soft as if she barely had the energy to speak.

“I … I told you,” Xena's fingers went to the thick scab on her scalp as she searched for answer. “I had a few run ins with the wrong people.”

“And you used your head? And you say I am stubborn.” Gabrielle crossed the distance between them and stood behind the Warrior Princess as she examined Xena's head.

“That is one nasty wound.”

“Yes it is, but it's ok now.” Xena stood up, forcing Gabrielle to back away from her and her head wound.

Taking several steps away from the light of the fire, Xena looked into the darkness of the forest. Though she couldn't see anything, her instincts told her whatever was out was watching them.

“It will be light soon,” she turned back to look at Gabrielle. “Are you hungry?”

“A little.”

Seated in front of the fire, Gabrielle kicked a log further into the flames. “I … I feel so … I don't know … lost, and confused. You know what I mean?”

Xena nodded as she reluctantly made her way back to the light of the fire.

“Are you sure you are okay? Xena, you look kind of pale.”

“Yeah, I'm okay,” she replied as she pulled on her lower lip. She knew she would have to answer the inevitable questions she wished she could forget.

“Where is all of our stuff? I mean I thought we had … I distinctly remember putting our horses in a barn. It all seems so cloudy now, like a dream. I mean … I recall parts clearly and then things turn ugly.” Gabrielle closed her eyes but she could not close her mind.

Xena moved in right behind her and waited for the worst.

“All I could think about was the blood on my hands, and then I got angry … really angry. Then Hope was there, I followed her but she disappeared on me. It was horrible … I couldn't seem to control my thoughts … I just kept going … but I couldn't tell where I was going or what I was running from.”

“Its okay now. You don't have to run anymore.” Xena squatted down and wrapped her arms around Gabrielle.

Suddenly Gabrielle jumped up, pushing Xena away from her. “I was not running away. I haven't done anything to run away from. I have regrets yes, but I haven't done anything that I'm ashamed of. Everything I've ever done has been out of the need to survive!” She had been pacing the entire time, and then suddenly she stopped and angrily balled up her fist.

“I left because I got angry and I didn't want to take that anger out on Tiberius!” Looking down at the ground in search of answers she did not want to admit, Gabrielle recalled what she had desperately had tried to forget. Her world crumbled as she tried to stop the images flashing in her mind. The horror of it all showed on her face like an open book as she attempted to come to grips with what she had done.

“I did … didn't I. I took my anger out on an innocent stranger. Oh my … what've I done?” She closed her eyes and dropped her head in shame. “What am I going to say to him?” Gabrielle lifted her head and looked over to Xena for answers.

“What am I going to say him?” she asked as she opened her hands in question. “There is no excuse for what I did.”

Xena felt the constriction on her vocal chords as she realized what she had to do. Thoughts and words came at her, but she could not find the right ones to say.

“By the way of the … we have to go back to town now. I don't know what I am going to say, but I've to say it to his face.”

“No you don't,” Xena's words were almost a whisper.

“Yes I do. I won't be able to live with myself if I don't apologize to such a gentle man. I don't know what made me do it, but there is no -” Gabrielle couldn't place the look on Xena's face, but she stood firm on her principles.

“Xena, we're going back to Brimstone and I'm going to apologize to Tiberius.”

The truth of the situation put Xena in a place she did not want to be, but she knew in her heart there was nothing she could do to stop the inevitable.

“You can't Gabrielle. Tiberius is dead.”

The bard froze at simple statement. It took several moments for her to find her voice.

“What? How? Who would have done such a thing?” Gabrielle shot out the questions but Xena could answer them, if she wanted to.

“I don't know.”

“What do you mean 'you don't know'? We have to go and find out who would do such a thing?”

“Why? For once why don't we just let the town deal with it? Why do we always have to be the ones who solve the conflicts? Let's just go.” Xena begged.

“Leave? Have you lost your mind? We can't just leave. Someone is responsible for his death, and I'm not going to just leave and forget that.”

“Just this once … for me.” Gabrielle looked Xena in the eyes. It was a plea she seldom heard.

“What aren't you telling me, Xena?” This time it was the warrior's turn to look away, but the bard was going to have none of it. Two quick steps and they were toe to toe.

“Tell me!” It was no longer a question it was a demand. But Xena's only reply was to purse her lips and look to the skies for a way out.

“Dammit Xena, don't do this. No more lies … no more secrets.” She had a hold on Xena's arm as she pointed a direct finger as her.

Xena looked down into the green eyes blazing in frustrated fury. She felt herself being torn in two different directions, one for love and one for truth.

“What could possibly make you want to turn your back on the murder of someone like Tiberius?”

“Because I don't believe in their version of the truth. Nothing could make me believe it.”

“Xena? What are you talking about? Version of the truth?” Gabrielle's words suddenly felt so cold and so empty.

“For once let's just leave -”

“Xena what has gotten into you? Tiberius is dead and we need to find out … something is wrong here. Something you are not telling me.” Her green eyes stared into Xena's until the warrior looked away.

“What is it? Look at me … why would you want to leave … you are trying to protect someone.” Gabrielle saw the flash of truth in the warrior's face. “You are trying to protect me … from what?”

She waited, but it was as if she knew what the answer was before Xena spoke it.

“They think … they think you killed Tiberius.”

There it was, the truth Gabrielle so desperately wanted … and it slapped her hard in the face.

“But … how …why -” Gabrielle stumbled over her words as she struggled to remember any of what she knew.

“Your Sai,” she reached down and untied the weapon from her ankle. Standing up straight, Gabrielle was only inches from it when Xena continued. “It was found … in his chest.”

“Oh my Gods … I … “ A sob broke from deep with in her as she dropped her head into her hands. All she could really remember was striking the gentle giant and the sound of breaking wood as he landed hard on the floor in his home. She searched her mind, but could not come up with any other information as to why she would have killed him. There was nothing she could do as the guilt took over her heart and her conscience.

“I do not believe it, Gabrielle. No matter what they say, I do not believe that you would have killed him for no reason.”

The bard lifted her head and looked at Xena, “I struck you, did I not … and I shot arrows at you. If I could do that -”

“No way. I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now. You are not a murderer!”

“Aren't I?”

She pushed past the Warrior Princess, but Xena reached out and grabbed her bicep.

“I don't believe you did it. Don't you see that it's not in you to do that?”

She looked back over her shoulder and answered in a very matter of fact attitude. “But it is in me now, isn't it? And if you really didn't believe I did it, then why were you pushing for us to leave?” She yanked her arm out of Xena's grip, took a few steps then turn back at her disheartened friend.

“I'm going back to Brimstone. And I will face up to what I've done.” With that she turned to leave. Xena stood and watched her for a few moments.

“That's why I didn't want to tell you. I knew you would go racing back into town and face that angry mob.”

She stopped and turned back. “Xena, Tiberius is dead and I think they've every right to be angry.”

“Yes, they do, and they have the right to the truth.”

“Then we will get to the truth. And that starts with me returning to town and facing up to what I've done.”

“I'm not even sure they're going to listen.”

“It doesn't really matter Xena. I need to go back for myself. I need to know … for me. “ The plea was in her eyes and Xena understood as she watched Gabrielle turn and head back into town.

“I know, because that is who you are,” the warrior whispered under her breath as she kicked out the fire, and then trotted out to join her friend. If Gabrielle was going to face the accusations, she was not going to do it alone.

Chapter 14

A somber mood hung over the town of Brimstone, and had since they had discovered the death of their blacksmith. There were many hushed whispers that were in disbelief that Gabrielle, the Bard of Poteidaia couldn't have done what was said. But the whispers were drowned out by the blustery voices that wanted justice. One of their own had been brutally murdered and his killer was still walking free.

Kummel had heard almost everyone's opinion since Xena had left to find her friend. His small shop had turned into one of the main gossip points, so he knew how most of the town felt. Who wanted justice and who wanted blood? Some of the talk frightened him. He had never seen his fellow villagers turn into such an angry mob.

The day was early, and though his door was open, he had yet to see a single customer. With one eye on his sweeping and the other on his son playing in front of his shop, Kummel went about his daily chores. He was about to put his broom away, when he noticed something had the attention of his son.

“Salvador, what is it son?” he said as he came around the front counter.

“It is her, Papa.”

“It is who?”

“The one you said I should watch for,” he said as he pointed towards the forest.

Kummel came quickly to the doorway and looked in the direction his son was pointing. He was more than a little surprised to see Xena and Gabrielle walking slowly into town. Somehow, he thought he would never see them again.

If he had listened a little closer, he would have realized they were who they were and part of that meant they would not just walk away from their responsibility.

“Salvador, go inside now, hurry up.” He shooed his son inside, not out of fear, but out of concern.

“I knew you would come back, once you found your friend,“ He bowed deeply to both Xena and Gabrielle. The warrior shook her head in denial of the formality, but Gabrielle only had eyes for the other end of the town. Kummel looked from the warrior to the bard and then they both turned to look at the empty blacksmith's open work area.

Xena reached for Gabrielle's shoulder, but the bard brushed her off as she returned to where they had met Tiberius the first time. Walking slowly around the front of his shop, she let her fingers trail over the horseshoes lined up on the split rail fence. She could hear the constant banging of his hammer against his anvil as she envisioned his bright smile.

Xena and Kummel watched as she roamed through the blacksmith's shop. He said nothing as the warrior left his side to join Gabrielle.

“Hey, this isn't going to help any.”

“I know, but I just can't believe -” her voice trailed off as she turned to look at the entrance to his house. Seeing where Gabrielle's eyes had gone, Xena took the last few steps to stand beside her friend. With a caring hand on the bard's shoulder, Xena turned in puzzlement at the heat coming from the blacksmith's fire pit.

'Why would someone have Ti's fire going?' Her thoughts were interrupted by the bard's quiet words.

“I want to go inside.” Gabrielle's words pulled Xena back to the here and now.

“Gabrielle, I don't think you need -” Ignoring Xena's words, the bard made her way to the front door of Tiberius's house. She closed her eyes and tried to pull back any memory she had of that morning.

She heard the warrior come up behind her, but Xena remained silent. Gabrielle reached for the wooden handle. Sliding it back, she opened the door and stepped inside.

The room looked as if it had been suspended in time. Their breakfast dishes were still sitting by the tub waiting for the water for them to be cleaned with. Gabrielle covered her mouth as she walked over to the chair she had been sitting in just a few days earlier. She looked everywhere about the room, except where Tiberius had fallen. There was no way she could look to where the friendly giant of a man had been struck down so brutally.

Xena had stepped in behind Gabrielle. She had seen the movement following her and she knew Kummel was right there as well. The Warrior Princess also felt the hands of time as she looked to the shattered remains of Ti's chair and the bloodstain left behind where her head had been. Slowly she made her way around the large room, her trained eye picking up bits and pieces of information and filing them away for future reference. Some things looked exactly the same, but there were a few things out of place as she recalled them.

Gabrielle must have felt the same way, as she slid into one of the chairs left at the table. There was no sound of the remorse she felt, but Xena could see it in the shuddering of her shoulders as she dropped her head once more into her hands. She looked up at the warrior when Xena placed a hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle said nothing, but she nodded the understanding at her friend.

Standing behind Gabrielle, Xena's eyes went over the table then stopped when she looked over at the countertop in the kitchen. Turning, she motioned Kummel to come further into the house.

“Yes? he said in a hushed tone.

“Who's been in here?”

“No one that I know of. The house has remained empty since … they removed Ti's body.”

“Who moved the body?”

“Admetus and a couple of his friends. But no one else has been in here that I have seen.”

“Then who cleaned up in here?” Xena asked as she reached for one of the empty bowls on the table.

Kummel shook his head. It was obvious he had no answers to her questions. Gabrielle looked up from her hands.

“Where did the leftover food go?” Even in her emotional state, Xena saw Gabrielle's forehead crinkle in question.

“So you came back after all!” Admetus's booming arrogant voice instantly filled the room with distaste.

All three of them turned to face the speaker.

“I honestly did not think you would return to the scene of your crime. I figured you would have high tailed it out of here.”

Gabrielle's chair scraped the floor loudly as she pushed away from the table. She pushed back Xena's cautionary hand and stood before her accuser.

“If I did what everyone says I did, then I'll face my punishment standing, face forward. I'm not a coward like those who hide behind other people's fear.”

The accusation was bold and straightforward. Xena couldn't help but hide the prideful twinkle in her eye. She was not the only one who felt the red-haired leader was nothing more than an over zealous windbag.

Admetus looked from Gabrielle to Xena and then to Kummel, his puffy face turning red with anger.

“What are you doing in here with them, Kummel?” The two men stared intently at each other, and then Kummel lowered his head in submission. “Don't you have a shop to run and a family to look after?” The shopkeeper nodded and left without lifting his head.

Xena could not help but compare him to a scared mouse as he scurried out the door.

“Since you were foolish enough to return to Brimstone, you will pay for what you have done here.” Having frightened Kummel away, Admetus tried his best on the small bard, but Gabrielle had no fear of man.

“I'd expect nothing more of myself.” Gabrielle stepped forward to offer herself for her crime she had been accused of. But she was not as fast as Xena, as the Warrior Princess stepped between her friend and the town leader.

She looked into Gabrielle's green eyes, only inches from her own, but the bard never wavered. “Xena, please?”

“I'm not going to let you just hand yourself over to this man. Not until I get to the bottom of all of this.” Her patience with the situation was growing thin and she turned to growl her disbelief at Admetus.

“You're not going to touch a hair on her head until the truth is seen.”

“Oh, we will get to the truth here, Xena. The people of Brimstone want justice, swift and true justice.”

“Justice … I have seen your justice and it is swift but I wouldn't call it true.” Her icy glare showed her utter contempt for him. “You had Gabrielle convicted before I even left to find her. Now you want me to believe that you're looking for justice?” Xena's temper was beginning a slow boil as she step closer towards him.

“Xena no, please. I have to know the truth. Xena please -” Now it was Gabrielle's turn to step in front of the moving force, and when she did, she looked up into the burning blue eyes. “I have to know …I can't …I couldn't live with myself if I walked away from this.”

The Warrior Princess looked down into the face of innocence. Closing her eyes, Xena pulled back her anger and swallowed her pain. She opened her eyes and reached for both of Gabrielle's shoulders.

“I won't let you pay for a crime you didn't commit,” she said in a forced whisper.

“I know … and I'm counting on it.” Gabrielle reached up and touched Xena's cheek as the warrior leaned her head onto the caring hand.

Gabrielle rubbed her thumb over Xena's bruised cheek, but before she could say a word Admetus's men pulled her away.

Though Gabrielle went willingly, she never lost contact with Xena's blue eyes. Pausing at the door, she took one last look at the woman she had shared most of her life with, and offered her a smile.

“The truth.” It was all the bard had a chance to say before they escorted her out of the house.

Chapter 15

Xena walked back into the barn and stood there for a moment trying to pull herself back together. Part of her wanted to follow Gabrielle out of Ti's house, crack a few heads and then get the hell of Brimstone. But she knew deep down Gabrielle was right; without the truth, she would never be able to live with herself had she indeed killed Tiberius.

The Warrior Princess made her way over to their horses and was surprised to see they both had fresh water and oats. Someone had been looking after their horses, and Xena paused for a moment to wonder who.

“Hey girl.” She rubbed her palomino's nose and scratched the forehead of Gabrielle's stallion. It seemed like months ago that they had ridden in unaware of the goings on of this small coastal town. She walked back to the stack of hay and sat down where they had slept just a few nights before. Xena's mind was a whirl of activity as she tried to sort out some of the questions she had no answers for. But no matter how she tried, there were just too many.

Jumping to her feet, she paced the barn back and forth. At first the horses watched in interest as Xena went past them again and again, but soon they were bored of her and they turned back to finish their oats. Neither horse paid her any attention when she finally left the barn out of frustration.

It was mid-morning by now and the town had been up stirring for hours. There was not the bustle there was when they had first rode into town, but it was clear to the warrior's eye the people of Brimstone were trying to return to the life they knew. Moving slowly as not to attract attention, Xena made it back to Tiberius's house unseen. She stood still for a moment at the back door, just like she had before, but this time she was not carrying a bucket filled with well water. Silently, she opened the thick wooden door and walked back inside.

It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, there was nothing different for her to see. The room was filled with a ghostly atmosphere as the rays of sunlight cut through the dust in the air. Her eyes scanned over the table and the bowl left there, the splintered chair where Tiberius had fallen on it, and the telltale blood staining the floor. Xena knelt down next to the broken chair. She picked up a piece and examined it, but it told her nothing. She tossed it to the floor, the stood up and wiped her hands off as she looked down at the table. It still bothered her that someone had come in here and had cleaned up the leftover food.

She reached down, collecting the bowls off the table and then took them over to the counter. A cherry tomato plant sitting on the windowsill caught her attention. It looked to be in desperate need of water, but when she picked it up to give it some, something rolled out from behind it. Her eyes narrowed as she picked it up and examined it.

It was a small clump of melted gold.

Chapter 16

Gabrielle followed Admetus in silence. She could not help but notice the angry stares she was receiving as their small group walked through town. She had nothing to say and for once she was thankful someone didn't want to talk to her. Her memory of everything was filled with so many holes, so many twists and turns, that even she was having troubles keeping reality straight in her mind. Paying little attention as to where they were taking her, she kept her eyes on her feet and let her body follow along. Gabrielle only lifted her head when they walked up the stone steps.

They entered what appeared to be a small building and once inside there was very little to see. There were two chairs set side-by-side next to a large wooden door. Against the wall to her right was a man scratching away on a piece of parchment.

“Feldigard, look who we've got here.” The man looked up, his expression changing from annoyance at being interrupted, to surprise at the young blonde in custody.

“Where'd you find the little murderer?”

“She came crawling back into town with Xena.”

“So what do you have to say for yourself?”

“If you're asking me if I killed my friend Tiberius, the answer would be, I don't know.”

“Convenient, but it will not stop us from punishing you for what you've done.” Feldigard said in a tone of revenge.

“I can't tell you what I don't remember. But if I did kill him, then I'll deal with whatever punishment I have coming.”

“Once you're convicted, you'll be executed for the crime of murder.”

“Someone needs to remind you people just what the definition of justice is.”

“Oh come on,” Admetus pushed her toward to the large wooden door. One of the young men with them opened the door and reached for a torch. With only the dim light to see, Gabrielle strained her neck to look down into the darkness.

“Nice place you have here.” Her words echoed off the stone walls as they made their way down the stairs. Looking around the dark room, Gabrielle tried not to show her uneasiness at the damp conditions of her new surroundings.

When the metal door creaked, she turned her attention on cell before her. For a town the size of Brimstone, she was expecting something a little less. Instead she found herself looking at a cell. A finely crafted enclosure made with stone and iron bars. No one would be leaving this cell unless they had a key.

“Pretty extreme conditions for a town of this size.”

“We used to have a problem with sailors when they first came back from the sea. We don't anymore.”

One of Admetus's men gave her a strong shove in the back. She glared at him, but then turned and stepped inside her cell without a comment. Keeping her back to them, her eyes roved over her new barren and cold surroundings. There was not much to look at, a cot, a bucket and a small window that let in just enough light to see the dampness on the cold stones. Gabrielle crossed the cell and sat down on the small cot in the corner. A shiver went through her when the cell door was slammed shut.

“Even Xena can't get you out of this one.” Admetus chuckled as he turned and left the bard to her own thoughts.

She was sure she and Xena had been in worse predicaments, but for the moment she could not think of one that had made her feel this empty.

Out of frustration, she jumped to her feet and started pacing her small cell. Four steps, that was all she had room for, four steps before she had to turn. At times, she found herself with one hand on her hip and the other hand on the back of her neck, holding an in-depth discussion with herself. And, it frightened her to realize how well she could hold a one-sided debate.

She tried to clear her mind of all she knew so she could search the dark recesses, to see what she had forgotten.

Gabrielle had no idea of how much time had passed, and she did not really care. She had busied herself with mental and physical tasks, relying heavily on what she had learned about her body and mind.

Sitting crossed legged in the middle of her cell, Gabrielle began the long journey of cleansing her soul and her mind. Controlling her breathing, slowing her pulse, she became as one. But try as she might, she could only keep the negative thoughts away for a while. Her mind's sanctuary of quiet streams and mountain meadows would be brutally interrupted by rivers of blood and eyes of red.

Her green eyes flew open as the visions slammed her back into reality. The time she had spent out in the forest had severely shaken her inner strength and confidence. Images came out of nowhere and she could not tell if they were real or not. It was as if her entire life had flashed at her while she stumbled around in an insane haze of hate and fear. Just when she had convinced herself that she could not have killed Tiberius, she recalled with vivid clarity how she had shot more than one arrow at Xena.

The one constant thought in her mind had always been her feeling for the Warrior Princess, but even that had been rocked to its foundation. Her feelings for Xena were changing and she had no idea how to stop them.

Jumping to her feet, she rolled her neck on her shoulders and shook out her hands as she desperately tried to shake off her mixed thoughts. She reminded herself that now was not the time for her to be thinking about …

“Just forget it, Gabrielle,” she said out loud to herself in a forced whisper. “Let's concentrate on getting to the truth.”

Forcing her mind back to the morning when they were having breakfast, she went through each picture she had in her mind. But if she could not control where her mind went, and soon she was back in the forest, walking around in the mist.

Questions continued to tug at her as she paced back and forth in growing anxiety. Words mumbled unconsciously from her lips as she continued to loosen her tight muscles and search into the dark recesses of her mind.

Stopping in the center of her cell, she closed her eyes and took in a deep cleansing breath. Her frustration of the situation exploded and the battling bard of Poteidaia sprang into action. Her hands and feet moved in sharp un-striking blows as she fought down the shadows in her mind. To the left, to the right, a high kick, a low sweep, the bard battled on. Fluid movements blocked and countered as the sweat started to glisten on her firm body. She continued without a rest, until her breath was labored, her body was dripping and her frustrations were battled back, beyond mercy.

She only stopped when the war raging inside of her was over. Nothing was left as she huffed and puffed between steps as she returned to pacing in her small cell. Coming to rest against the bars, she reached for a firm grip and then leaned back, stretching out her shoulders. Something caught her attention as a ray of sunlight from her small window glimmered off one of the bars. Taking a step closer, she felt the cold emptiness return when she saw a name pounded into the flat bar.


Her head dropped as she turned her back on the name and the painful sorrow that came with it. For just a brief time she had almost forgotten why she was here. Dejected, she slowly returned to the cot in the corner of her cell. She sat for a long time with her eyes closed and her head in her hands. When she did open her eyes, she focused on a spot on the dirt floor. No matter how hard she tried, she could not keep herself from falling further and further into the dark abyss. Her face showed no sign of care when the dark spot she had been watching, suddenly scurried into the corner.

Chapter 17

Her blue eyes stared intently as she examined the clump of gold between her finger and her thumb. Bringing it to her mouth, she gently bit down on it.

“It's real alright,” she said as she looked at her bite mark in the soft metal.

“But where in Tartarus would Ti get a piece of raw melted gold?” Xena curled her hand around it as she pondered the many questions in her mind.

Long ago she had learned one of the basic rules of observation; when walking down the path of life, do not study just what you see, but keep your eyes and mind open to what doesn't belong. More often then not, that would tell you more of the true story. But unfortunately too many things seemed to be out of place in Brimstone and Xena had no idea where to start.

Looking down at the shiny clump in her hand, she bounced it around while running through her thoughts and memories. Crossing the room, she stopped in the back doorway and turned to recall the scene of that morning. It was not hard to do, because she couldn't forget the look on Gabrielle's face when she had come at her. Her features had been twisted with hatred and anger, her green eyes blazing with a desire to destroy. Xena still felt the pain of Gabrielle's Sai as the bard had driven it into her stomach. The pain was not from the weapon, but from who had held it. This was not the Gabrielle who had walked beside her as she had struggled with her own demons. No, this Gabrielle now had her own nightmares, her own demons, and they were growing angry inside her.

Xena walked away from the doorway, but she couldn't walk away from what she knew. Gabrielle could say what she wanted, but the truth as Xena saw it, was clear. She bore part of the blame to what had happened to the innocent girl who had joined up with her six years ago.

Crossing the kitchen with long powerful strides, she was out the front door in four steps. No longer caring who saw her, she made her way down the dusty street but slowed to a stop in the middle of town. Xena had no idea where she was going, or what she was going to do when she got there. It was then she realized she didn't even know where they had even taken her friend.

Looking around the town, she could see looking for answers here wasn't going to be easy. Admetus was wrong about these people. They didn't want justice, they wanted revenge.

The warrior turned to the only person in Brimstone that might help her.

Stepping through the doorway of Kummel's shop, Xena waited for her eyes to adjust to the shadows.

“Ah Xena, welcome to my shop and home.” Kummel bowed to the warrior's presence.

“Thank you. I need to talk to you. I need some answers and I don't know anyone else that I can go to.” The shop owner glanced nervously outside and Xena noticed the relief on his face when he realized no one was within earshot. Taking the warrior by the elbow, he hustled them both into the back of his store.

“I am sorry, but many people are angry with me still. I do not want more trouble.”

“Trouble from whom? … From Admetus.”

“He is not a nice man when he gets angry.”

“And what makes him angry?” Xena asked as she reached for an apple.

Kummel said nothing as he strained to look outside his front door.

“Kummel, what makes him angry?” She bit into the apple and munched loudly as she looked about the store. Clean and well supplied, Kummel obviously took great pride in his establishment. Fruits and vegetables were piled high in front of her, linens and clothes lined the back wall, and much to Xena's surprise, he even had a few tools hanging about.

“You've quite the store here Kummel.” She offered the compliment as she strolled over to the tools, while continuing to devour her apple. It was obvious he wasn't going to answer her previous question.

“Thank you, you are too kind.”

“Tell me, who makes your tools?”

She knew the answer by the sadness on his face.

“Ti did,” he replied.

“Sorry, I didn't mean to bring up - ”

“It is ok, you did not know, or you would not have asked.”

Coming back around a barrel of potatoes, Xena stopped. “How much stuff did you lose, or rather … how much of your stuff went missing?”

“Now it is my turn to apologize.”

She looked up at him, confused by his eager politeness.

He smiled at her,”I do not understand your question … What is missing?”

“This ghost demon you talk about. What did you have go missing?”

“Oh, yes. Well a blanket and some food mainly, you know … odds and ends in the beginning.”

“In the beginning?” She took another large bite of her apple.

“It was hard to say when it really started, that was until I lost one of my good blankets. By then we all had some things missing.”

“I would think you would've made a better target, with all of your supplies.” Finished with apple, the Warrior Princess picked up a loaf of bread, a slab of cheese and placed them next to a blanket she had pulled out. She looked at him, and could see her statement had caused him to pause. Collecting a few pieces of fruit she raised her eyebrows at the shop owner.

“I guess yes … but when I really stop and think about it … I really have not lost much in the last while. Just normal amounts that get taken now and then … when someone does not pay for what they have taken.”

Xena couldn't help but smile at his polite inquiry to her in-store-meal. Gathering up the few things she needed, she took several steps towards the door before she turned back to the shop owner.

“Do you know where they took my friend?”

“She would be in the jail, that is in the building at the other end of town, the one with the stone steps. I have kept an eye out for her, but I believe she will be safe in there.”

“Thank you Kummel, you've been more than kind and I do appreciate it.”

He bowed several times to her, and muttered something in his own language.

Xena bowed in return, and said thank you to him in Egyptian.

Kummel's eyes opened wide. “I did not know that you knew the language of the Pharaohs.”

“I have been to the Nile and spoken the language of its people.” Xena didn't think it was necessary to explain she was also a friend to their Queen, Cleopatra.

“The land of the sand.” He smiled in memory.

“Just one more thing. Any idea why someone would've had a fire going at Tiberius's shop?”

“No, I have not seen anyone near it.” Kummel shook his head as he thought about the question.

“Okay, and Kummel thanks for everything.” She tossed him something. “This should cover everything.”

His eyes lit up at the piece of melted gold in his hand. When he looked up to graciously decline such an over payment for what she had taken, he was not surprised to see the Warrior Princess was gone.

Strolling down the center of town with her purchases in her arms, Xena caught sight of every look and glare the town's people had to offer. She passed the inn where she and Gabrielle had eaten and then passed the vendor who made the woven baskets, before coming to the building Kummel had described. Her leather boots made no sounds as she went up the stone steps and entered the building.

Xena looked around the inside of the room, and wondered to herself why they had not brought her here the morning of Tiberius's death. She couldn't help but notice the once-over from a man sitting at a table before he rose from his chair and exited the room, leaving one person seated next to a large wooden door.

Seeing the warrior woman glance in his direction, the young man rose and without a word, unlocked the door and opened it to let Xena through. He knew who she was, everyone did, so he knew why she was here.

Xena nodded to the young man as she stepped through the door. She was surprised to see an elaborate set of stairs that had been carved away leading down into the dark. Once she had descended a few steps, she felt the cold dampness as a single torch lit the way farther into the sunken room. A couple more steps further and Xena could see some natural light coming from a window high up on one of the walls. Seeing the view from her vantage point on the stair, she could tell they were below ground level outside.

This was no ordinary jail, this was a cell they wanted no one to break out of. A dingy damp dungeon built to keep someone or something locked up permanently.

The dim light was enough for Xena to see this was not a place she wanted Gabrielle to be. It took everything she had, not to bust her friend out of the pit of hell she was in.

The bard felt her presence and turned as Xena silently approached the bars.

“You okay?” Gabrielle only nodded at Xena's empathetic question.

“This is insane. Let me get you out of here. We'll get to the bottom of this, whether you are in here or out there.”

“And how would that look to the people around here if you broke me out? Besides, I see my friend brought me a few blankets and some food, I'll be fine.” She did her best to smile, but it didn't fool Xena.

“I'm serious Gabrielle, let's just get out of here.”

“I'm serious Xena, I've never been more serious. I can't remember what happened that morning. I need to know the truth.”

Folding up the blankets around the food she brought, Xena pushed them through the bars.

“Here, I thought you might need some of these.”

Gabrielle unfolded the blanket and looked down at the food. Xena was happy to see a small smile lift the sad corners of her mouth, but the smile faded quickly when Gabrielle felt her heavy weapons inside the blanket.

“I don't want them in here,” she said without looking up.

“Gabrielle you need -” The bard cut her off in mid-sentence.

“I don't want to see them right now.”

“For me, please. I'd feel better knowing you had some protection in here.”

The bard said nothing, but folded the blankets back up and then packed everything over to her cot. It gave Xena a chance to look over the severity of the cell they had put her in. Xena wondered to herself again, why Gabrielle had been brought here and why she had been taken to a place a fly fart
would have knocked over.

“So what've you found out?”

“Not much,” Xena said as she hung her hands through the bars. “Though I did notice someone had a fire going last night in Ti's blacksmith shop.”

“That's strange. Why would someone do that?”

“I don't know, to hide something maybe.” Silence fell between them as they truly looked at each other for the first time.

“I don't like this, I'd rather have you out of here,” Xena said as she reached farther into the cell and rest her hand on Gabrielle's forearm.

“So would I.”

Gabrielle pulled away from Xena's touch as the sound of the big door opening echoed down the stairs. They looked up at the noise made by many footsteps. Neither was surprised to see Admetus in front of several villagers.

“I heard our prisoner had company.” Xena pursed her lips at the word prisoner as she crossed her arms in front of her chest.

“Is there a problem with that?”

He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and looked from the warrior to the bard and then back again.

“Depends Xena, are you here as a visitor … or as an aid in helping Gabrielle escape?”

She looked hard at the red-haired leader before she choose to answer him.

“Might I remind you Admetus, Gabrielle turned herself in. We're both here for the truth, and we're not going to leave until we have it.”

“You make her sound so innocent, … like she actually might not have murdered our friend.”

“You know what I believe.” Xena offered the challenge, but Admetus struck from a different verbal direction.

“Oh I know what you believe, you honesty don't believe she killed Tiberius. Funny … you also don't believe it was her who split your head open like an over ripe melon.”

She heard Gabrielle whisper in question just behind her, but Xena didn't turn around.

“I'm so glad we're here for your amusement, Admetus. Funny, it was your friend who died but you don't seem to be mourning him.”

The smile slid slowly from his face as he attempted a glare at the Warrior Princess. “Makes me wonder just how much you'll be laughing when we get to the truth behind your little ghost demon.”

Anger instantly flashed as his face turned crimson. “We'll be trying your friend tomorrow. I suggest you prepare for whatever story you are going to tell.”

He spun on his heels and loudly stomped his way back up the stone steps. Neither said a thing until they heard the door slide shut.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Xena closed her eyes to the contempt she heard in Gabrielle's voice. “Turn around and look at me.”

Reluctantly, she did as the bard requested.

“You talk about truth and honesty, then you lie to me? How dare you? Why didn't you tell me I was the one who split open the side of your head?”

“Because it was not you!” Xena's answer was firm as was her belief.

“Then who hit you?” Gabrielle challenged.

Touching her still tender wound, “I think he did.”


“Yes, all of this keeps pointing back to him.”

Gabrielle started pacing again, four steps turn … four steps turn.

“I thought all of it was pointing at whatever is running around out in the forest.”

“Whatever is out there didn't hit me. I heard heavy footsteps just before someone cracked me. That means it wasn't you, and it wasn't our 'ghost demon'.”

Gabrielle stopped pacing and looked to Xena for the answer.


“Our 'ghost demon' is barefoot.”

Gabrielle chewed on the inside of her cheek as she thought about Xena's answer.

“And I don't believe this 'ghost demon' is a killer either.”

“Why not?”

“It had more than a few opportunities to hurt me, and it took none of them. See this,” Xena pointed to the long thin scab on her shoulder. “It was from an arrow … fired by someone I couldn't see.”

“Someone you couldn't see, but how?” Gabrielle saw the flicker of annoyance cross the warrior's face. “Okay, but you said yourself Xena, ghosts don't leave footprints.”

“I know.” Xena did nothing to hide her irritation. “And ghosts don't leave these either.”

She opened her hand and showed Gabrielle the three round molten droplets.

Puzzled, the bard opened her hand and Xena dropped them into it.

“What are they?”

“They were shot at me by whatever is out there. I'm not certain but I think they came from Ti's shop. And the more I think about it, the more I think whoever is out there did not want to hurt me, they just wanted me to leave.”

Gabrielle waited, but Xena offered no other information. She handed the warrior back the round pieces. “Okay, I'll bite. What does this have to do with Admetus?”

“That part I haven't connected yet,” Xena said.

“But why would Admetus want to kill Tiberius? He wouldn't have harmed a horsefly.”

“I'm not sure, but I have a few ideas.”

“Such as?” Gabrielle questioned with her hands on her hips.

“I think we just happened to be the first people who came along. It was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.”

“But it still doesn't tell us why.”

“No, but I think something in the forest might.”

Chapter 18

With a heavy heart, Xena left Gabrielle in her damp dungeon; she didn't want to leave but she knew she had to. They needed answers and they needed them soon.

She made two stops before she left town. The first was at the blacksmith's shop.

The hard packed earth gave witness to the size of the man who had worked hard here most of his life. She had to search to really find them, but they were there. Careful not to attract any more attention then she already was, Xena collected what she needed. Afterwards she stopped at the rain barrel to wash the soot, ash and dirt from her hands. Then she headed over to Tiberius's house and packed a few more things into a bag she found. Confident she had what she needed, Xena headed out of town.

The shadows on the dirt road were long as the Warrior Princess made her departure from Brimstone very public. She wanted everyone to see her as she passed the large timbers at the edge of the forest and disappeared from sight. Several times she looked back to see if anyone was going to be foolish enough to follow her, but to her satisfaction, she was alone. Carrying a small bundle over her shoulder, Xena headed farther into the forest in search of a ghost.

The ever-present fog left her with a chilling feeling as she jogged further and further into the forest. Without a keen sense of direction, most people would have easily gotten lost in the mist, but it didn't slow the Warrior Princess. Onward she pushed until she realized by the sound of the breakers that she was again close to the ocean. Slowing to a walk, Xena carried on until she broke from the darkness of the forest, out onto a sunny, bright oasis of luscious green grass.

Stopping in her tracks, Xena couldn't help but admire the beauty that had been hidden from the world by the mysterious thick forest. It had to be more than a few acres of rolling pasture, fenced on one side by the mighty trees, bordered on the other by the ocean. Walking through the grass, she let the tall blades run through her outstretched hands as she hiked up the hill to the highest point. When she reached the crest, she stopped and looked down the steep cliffs falling away to the ocean hundreds of feet below.

“No ghosts down there,” she muttered out loud to herself.

Turning her back to the ocean, she looked over the valley and at the green of the forest beyond. She faced the ominous task of trying to find a ghost somewhere back in the mist of the forest. Looking over her shoulder, she knew by the depth of the sun, that she didn't have much time left.

Sighing deeply, she was getting ready to leave when she caught movement at the bottom of the valley, where the cliffs met the tree line of the forest. Standing still, she was disappointed to see it was only a mother deer feeding on the grass with her white spotted fawn. It was not who she had been looking for.

Throwing her bag higher on her shoulder, she turned just as the deer's head jerked up. On pure instinct, Xena dropped to the ground and waited to see what had spooked the mother deer. Her blue eyes drifted over the trees and the edge of the forest, searching for whatever was out there. She was beginning to think the deer had been frightened by nothing, when suddenly she too sensed something in the forest.

She waited … and waited, then right before her own eyes she saw what she couldn't believe. A ghostly image was rapidly moving from tree to tree, right at the edge of the valley. Her expression changed from impatient curiosity to utter disbelief. Xena's warrior instincts melted as she watched it silently moving along the forest edge and coming right at her.

There was no mistaking what she was watching and it was no ghost. It was a child!

Her eyes squinted in question as she watched it. From where she was she couldn't tell if the owner of the mangy mess of white hair was a boy or a girl, but whatever it was it had obviously been living in the forest for a long time. Its movements matched that of a timid animal warily moving closer, but not out of curiosity, more like - a hunter tracking its prey.

Xena realized then, it was not moving in on the deer, it was looking for her.

Moving just below the top of the grass, Xena edged her way, getting closer and closer, until she could see the child appeared to be a girl. Her hair was messy and matted, but beneath it all, Xena could tell it was the color of snow.

'Or the color of a ghost,' she said silently to herself. So this was what had frightened the entire town of Brimstone: a small child eking out an existence alone in the forest.

If the situation hadn't been so bad, she may have found the humor in it. But for right now, that child held a lot of answers Xena needed. Working her way closer and closer, she was only five paces away when the child turned and looked straight in her direction.

What she saw took her breath away and even Xena, the experienced warrior, couldn't help but let go a gasp. It wasn't the overlapping scars on the child's face and body, but rather the color of her eyes. They were blood red and with the sharp contrast of her white hair, they looked like rubies buried in the snow. She had heard of Albinos before, but never had she actually seen one.

The child froze at the sound Xena had inadvertently made. Almost faster than her blue eyes could follow, the child scaled the tree next to her and disappeared into the green foliage.

Recovering quickly from her startled surprise, Xena gave her head one good shake. “You're not going to disappear into the trees on me this time!” The Warrior Princess took off in hot pursuit.

Though the sun was still high in the afternoon sky, the dark of the forest sucked most of the sunlight away before it ever hit the ground. She followed the swift-moving child as she zigzagged back and forth through the trees. Then without warning the child dropped to the ground and disappeared right before her eyes.

Standing alone on the forest floor, the warrior was in disbelief that once again she had been duped by a child. Never before had her pride been so battered, leaving Xena with an unfamiliar feeling of frustrating incompetence. She scoured her surroundings for any sign of the white-haired child, but like always she found nothing.

Beneath her exterior calm, the warrior was beginning to boil. She didn't have the time to be playing games with a child. Just as she was getting ready to leave, her keen eyes spotted a pathway crudely covered by branches in the undergrowth. Instantly she knew this was not the work of their clever and careful ghost demon. No, this was a trail that was used by someone who didn't take the time to care, or didn't think they needed to.

Though not heavily used, the path was easy enough to see as it twisted and turned through the thick trees. Xena knew by her instincts, it was taking her back in the direction of Brimstone. Slowing her pace down, she was not far from the edge of town when she spotted it - A huge pile of bubbled, glassy and crystallized chunks of stones. There had been a poor attempt to cover the evidence, but once Xena dragged the cedar boughs off the pile, there was no doubt as to the origin of what had been left behind. Kneeling down, she collected a handful of the glassy slag, examined it and then stowed a few pieces into her bag. She was no blacksmith and certainly no expert, but she knew what it was. Not wanting to give her new knowledge away, she covered the pile again with the cedar boughs.

The little white haired child had shown Xena a possible motive for the murder of Tiberius. With the melted ore relieving some of the weight on her shoulders, Xena quickly returned to where she had lost sight of her guide. Emerging from the pathway, Xena wasn't at all surprised to see the child sitting high up in one of the trees. Her ruby red eyes watching every move the warrior made, like a hawk safely watching its prey from a distance.

Seeing a fearful question on her young scarred face, the warrior offered a pleasant smile.

“Hello there.”

Still smiling she tried once again. “What's your name, little one?”

She said nothing, but Xena did notice a slight tilting of her head.

“You move pretty good up there in those trees, don't you?” Xena was too far away to see if there was any real change in the expression.

The child remained still and silent.

“Not going to say anything? Hmmm?” She stayed mute, but her eyes showed the warrior a keen interest.

“You may not have anything to say, but I have a strong feeling, you know everything that goes on in this forest.” She waited but there was no reply from the child.

“Do you even understand me?” Again there was no response.

Keeping her movements slow as to not startle her, Xena reached into her bag and pulled out one of the shiny rocks. “This is it? … This was what you wanted me to find wasn't it?” If she had not been watching so closely she would have missed the slight nod.

“Thought so. What else can you tell me?” The child sat still, defiantly refusing to answer her.

“You want to show me?” There was no physical response but Xena was sure she knew the answer.

“Ti … Tiberius was your friend wasn't he? He knew about you?” Xena waited, and then very slowly, the child nodded.

“I thought so, see I have -“ Xena took a step towards her, but before she could even take another step, the child rose and was ready to flee.

“Wait … stop. Okay, okay. I get the picture. I'm not going to hurt you.” Xena lifted her hands in peaceful surrender. “I only want to help, please stay.” In a reassurance, she took a step backwards.

“How is this? Is this better?” The child didn't respond, but she didn't leave either.

“See, I have a bit of a problem, and I think you can help me.“ The warrior crouched down and emptied the contents of her bag onto the ground. Balancing on the balls of her feet, she lifted a small square covered by a piece of linen.

“Here …I brought you some cheese,” she reached forward and laid the food on the ground. “And I brought you some more of these, I thought you might be running low.” Xena emptied a small bag of melted clumps of lead out next to the cheese.

Rising to her feet, she backed away from the offerings, hoping it was enough to make the child want to stay. Looking back up to see the small figure still standing there, Xena couldn't help but be thankful for this small victory. The child had stayed, but she showed no sign of coming down out of the safety of her trees.

“You live here in the forest?” A smile of instinctive understanding spread across Xena's face. It was obvious this child was not going to be forthcoming on information.

“What's it going to take to get you to come down out of the trees? How about if I move over there.” The warrior pointed to a boulder a little further away. Keeping one eye on the child, she walked over and sat down.

Even from this distance, Xena could see the fear she still had. The warrior wondered to herself, just how much of that fear came from the scars littering her small body. It was easy to see she really wanted the gifts Xena had left for her, but she was wary of the Warrior Princess.

Her red eyes darted from Xena to the cheese sitting so invitingly close. It seemed so easy, but for the fearful child it was an insurmountable distance.

“Go ahead, I'll stay sitting right here.” It took a long pause but she finally started to climb down a couple of branches, but stayed in the tree.

With the child's attention not totally focused on her, Xena took the opportunity to study the child more closely. By the look in her eyes she was indeed hungry, but she was far from starving. It was hard for Xena to judge what her age might be, but she guessed it had to be somewhere around 6 or 7, or maybe older. For her size, her body was lean but well muscled.

“It was you who hit me with those lead balls, wasn't it?” Xena studied the white-haired imp, knowing she wouldn't get an answer, but to her surprise, she did. The child reached behind her and pulled something from the rope tied around the waist. Her tattered clothes fell back into place when she showed Xena her most prized possession. A slingshot made to fit her small hand.

“Let me take a guess, Ti made that for you didn't he … and then he gave you those pieces of melted iron to shoot with?” The small trace of a smile on her face was all Xena needed for an answer.

Looking down at the scab on her shoulder, “I have a feeling you did this too, didn't you?”

The smile disappeared off her face as she challenged the warrior with a steady steel-like stare. There was no sign of a bow or any arrows on her, but Xena was still certain it was she.

“You had me in your sights, but you only aimed to wound, why?” If there was any answer she showed no sign of willingness to share it.

Xena fell silent as she sifted through her mind to the many questions she wanted to ask. The child took another opportunity to judge the distance between herself and the cheese.

“Do you know who was dumping that melted rock?” The red eyes lifted from the hunk of cheese and she looked Xena squarely in the face. There was no mistaking her answer when she nodded her head twice.

“You do? Are you sure?“ The child pointed at her red eyes, then turned her finger to point at the Warrior Princess.

Xena's brow pulled down in confusion. “You saw me?”

Her white hair danced from side to side answering no. Once again she pointed to her eyes and then at Xena.

“You saw me -,” the warrior's voice trailed off as she watched the child's small finger turned and touch the side of her head.

The answer hit her like a bolt from the sky, a revelation of just what the child knew. “You saw who hit me on the head!” The child nodded without hesitation as she bore her red-eyed stare into Xena's memory.

“Then you saw who killed Tiberius!”

Chapter 19

She was different and because of that her life had never been easy. All she had in her memories were of the different times when she had been the brunt of people's fears and ignorance. The only way she had learned to survive them was by out-running them and then disappearing right before their eyes; running in fear from those chasing her as she hid high in the tree, keeping so still even the birds couldn't see her.

Physical pain came with everything she knew. She never really understood what everyone was so afraid of, but after awhile it no longer mattered. It just was, and she left it at that. No one talked to her, no one touched her and she was shunned in every way. Her physical appearance had robbed her of more than just her childhood. It had taken away her innocence, her freedom and desires. But the physical pain she had endured was nothing compared to the mental anguish she had suffered at the hands of the people who should have loved her the most, her parents. But they hadn't, instead they had taught her to fear human touch and the physical pain that came with it.

The distant foggy memory of her parents gave her no comfort. If she had only known, they feared her more than she feared them. And like the others in her villages, their fear had turned to hatred. There was no nurturing comfort in her life, no loving home to run to and no arms to feel safe in. It was not a good life, but it was all she ever knew, so she accepted it for what it was.

Then one day the horror of it all came to a climax, when they came and got her from the shed she was forced to sleep in. With no explanation, they put her into a dug out canoe, with a blanket, a loaf of bread and a bladder of water. Without a single word, they unceremoniously shoved her away from their shores and out of their lives.

Through her tears she watched the only place she had called home, disappear over the horizon. Without knowledge of the sea, she had no idea how long she bobbed in the waters or how far she traveled. After the first day, she learned she had to stay under the blanket, if not, her pale, milky skin would turned painfully red and grown bubbles. The brightness hurt her eyes as she constantly scanned the distant horizon for any sign of land. She was smart enough to know that if she was to survive, she had to have water. The first and the last drops of rain were collected in her blanket and then squeezed – drop by drop – into her bladder of water.

She was fast asleep when she struck the rocky shore. Lifting the blanket, she fearfully peered through the night in search of those that would hurt her, but to her surprise, she was alone. The light of the moon outlined the new land and she climbed cautiously out of her canoe and on to shore. Wrapping her blanket around her peeling and blistered shoulders, she scrambled nimbly over the rocks, leaving her canoe and her past behind her.

But the first town she came to, she realized her past would never leave her; she was who she was, and she couldn't change it. The moment someone laid eyes on her, she saw the horror in their faces. Her long tangled white hair covered many of her scars but she couldn't hide her eyes. In this new language, they had called her many names, and soon she recognized them for what they were.




Though she didn't know what they meant, she easily knew they were referring to her.

She was a child without a home. Alone without some parental guidance or love, her world would be tough, but she learned to be tougher. She had never been given a choice, so she did what she had to do. Survive by any means possible.

The dark of night became her cover, and the forest became her home. When the morning skies turned gray she would sneak into towns and steal only what she needed and then she would disappear back into the cover of the forest.

Traveling alone, she went where she wanted, and did what she needed. With a sharp mind and a keen eye, she learned by observing as she stayed close to the trees on the outskirts of towns she came across. Fire was one of the hardest things to get, but she did because she needed it for her own survival. The flames gave her comfort, warmth and best of all … cooked food.

Many nights she had gone to sleep alone and hungry. It didn't take her long to realize she needed to make a weapon. The only thing she knew how to make was a bow. When all of her own attempts to make one failed miserably, she had to resort to stealing one. Now mastering its use wasn't easy and it had taken great patience, but once she got the hang of it, she no longer had to go without meat. Hunting came naturally, especially with her speed and quickness. Her ability to be still for long periods of time, became a lifesaving asset in many degrees.

By the time she found the forest of Brimstone, she was no longer totally reliant on what she stole. Everything she needed came from her forest, with few exceptions. She had neither the skill nor the ability to make blankets or clothing. Fresh fruit would almost always bring her out of the shadows, but only in the dim of twilight when no one could really see her. But there was one thing she longed for, one thing she had no been able to find. A friend.

She had been traveling along a dirt road, when the smell of the sea hit her close to home. Her red eyes filled with tears, until she realized she was living a better life now, not much, but still better. Following her nose, she made her way through one of the thickest forests she had ever been in. The undergrowth made for slow progress, so she did what she had been born to do, she took to the treetops. Climbing high into the canopy of green, she found a feeling she never had before, a place where she belonged. A carefree existence high in the cover of the trees, no one could hurt her up there, no could see her and that was how she liked it.

There was a village right next to her forest, but it was seldom that anyone came into her world. That was how she though of it, her world, her home. When she needed things she couldn't get from the forest she would 'borrow' them, or take them in trade for whatever she had that she could leave behind in exchange.

No one knew of her, no one ever saw her … until one day, he did.

It was her own fault, she had gotten careless and hadn't been paying attention. She was picking berries and when she turned around he was standing there. He was the biggest man she had ever seen. Her heartbeat was so loud in her ears she was sure he could have heard it. Looking him over as he looked over her, fear ripped through her small body when she saw the size of his hands. She knew if he had a chance to hit her, his massive hands would bring her great pain.

Strangely enough though, neither of them moved. She kept waiting for his reaction of horror, but it never came. Their eyes stayed locked, even as he bent down to unload the wood he held in his arms, they continued to stare at each other. She wanted to run, to disappear into the trees, but something held her in place. His size scared her even after he knelt down, she still had to looked up to see his face. And then he spoke.

Her eyes grew in fear when his voice boomed from his massive chest, and quickly he stopped. She had no idea what he had said, but she knew it wasn't one of the words she had heard before. No, his words seemed different and it wasn't because they hadn't been spoken loudly. It was something more, she felt a comfort in them she had never felt before.

He had seen her response and not wanting to frighten the small child, Tiberius stopped talking instantly. She looked so different than any other child he had seen. He wasn't the smartest person, but he knew it wasn't her appearance that tugged at him. It was her eyes, not there color, but the pain and fear he could see in them. In his mind, no one especially a child should be that afraid.

Tiberius did the only thing he could think of … he offered her his hand. She reacted so quickly, there was nothing he could do but watch as she disappeared into the forest.

He waited a long time beside those berry bushes, but she never came back. Crestfallen, Tiberius collected his firewood and headed back home. He never told a single person about the white haired girl in the forest because in his mind there was nothing to tell.

Racing through the trees, she never stopped as the branches scraped and cut her in the hurry to hide. Once she was safely in her rock home, she huddled in the corner with what was left of her tattered blanket. She had nightmares about the giant with the large hands and when she woke up she was frightened, but something inside her kept wanting to go back.

It was two long days before she ventured out again, and even longer before she returned to the spot where she had seen the giant. She watched and waited, and only after she was certain she was alone did she descend from the trees. There was no sign of the giant, so she was relieved when she strolled slowly back to where she had been picking berries.

Her mouth opened in disbelief when she saw someone had left her a basket. A basket filled to the rim with big plump berries. With great caution she moved closer and closer, then she snatched the basket and ran as fast as she could. She didn't stop until she was up in her trees with the basket swaying between her teeth.

Never before in her short life had anyone ever given her anything. Sitting on a branch high up in the air, she took the basket out of her mouth and looked at what he had left for her. There was no doubt in her mind who had left it, but for the life of her, she couldn't understand why.

That night she laid in her bed, her belly full of ripe red berries and her eyes locked on the basket they had come in. No matter what she did, she couldn't get the smile off of her face. The next morning, she returned the basket to where she found it, but not the smile it had given her.

Everyday she would return to where she had found the basket, and like a wary animal she would take her time before retrieving what he had left her. It started with small things … flowers and berries. Then the items grew to become things she had originally had to steal. Then he started to bring her things she desperately needed - a new blanket, food. He even made her a knife. It was one of her most prized possessions and it helped immensely in the construction of her treetop highway, not to mention the construction of her first homemade bow.

He also brought her things she didn't need but thoroughly enjoyed, like colorful beads, feathers she could use for her arrows or in her hair, even sweets that made her mouth water. He didn't always know what she needed, so he brought her anything he could think of. Her life took on a happiness she had never known before and slowly she learned something no other person had ever taught her … trust.

She had many special places in her forest. The valley - with the green grass next to the high sea cliffs - where she liked to watch over the ocean and dream about what would never be. The waterfalls - where she liked to swim in the pools and bathe under the steady stream of fresh mountain water that fell from the great heights. The switchback - in the rock cliff where she had made herself a home, it had a rock pit for her to cook her meals and a real bed of soft, fragrant cedar boughs. Then there was the large tree where she sat and watched the people of Brimstone, especially him, as they went about their daily lives. The forest was her home and for the first time in her short, young life - she was happy.

Slowly over time she learned to trust the gentle man she had come to know. When he brought her things now, sometimes she would let him see her as she sat in a tree waiting. It took time and patience, but finally one day when Tiberius got to the berry bush, she was there waiting for him.

He smiled and sat on the ground and untied a bundle he had been carrying. With the curiosity that a young child should have, she couldn't wait to see what he had. Laying the bundle open she frowned at his present. Tiberius motioned her closer, though still hesitant, she did wiggle over. His smile beamed with pride when he reached for the leather strip with a wooden handle and showed her what he had made. He could tell by the puzzled look, she had no idea what he was holding in his hand. As he stood up, he was not surprised to see her take a step backwards.

“It's okay,” he said, but once again his words startled her. Tiberius opened his right hand and showed her two small round pieces of molten lead. He placed one into the leather thing he was holding. She watched with a stern curiosity as he pulled back.

“Phwap!” Tiberius let go of his slingshot and the lead ball struck a nearby tree. He looked over at the shocked child and smiled. She was fearful, but he could tell he had her attention. He placed another ball onto the leather, pulled back and then released.

“Phwap!” Looking over at her, he could see the wheels of the hunter were turning in her mind. He leaned down and collected a few more lead balls he had gotten from the ground around his anvil. A few more times he showed her how he did it, and then he held the weapon out to her. With a knowing smile, Tiberius could see she wanted the slingshot badly, he only hoped she wanted it enough to come and take it from his hand.

He waited and she watched, he motioned again and she licked her lips. Then slowly ever so slowly … she started inching her way forward. Tiberius didn't move, he didn't change his smile, and then she was there. Hesitating so painfully slowly, Tiberius wasn't even sure she was even moving, until she struck out like a snake and snatched the slingshot from his hand. He sat down on the ground with the biggest smile and watched her.

She turned it over and over, examining it closely before she finally grasped it with her left hand. Several times she pulled back on the sinew and released it without a lead ball, as if feeling the action of the weapon before she used it. When she was ready to try it, she looked over at Tiberius. He smiled at her as he unclamped his hand and offered her several lead balls. Still hesitant but a little more trusting, she inched her way over and took several balls out of his hand.

“Now be careful.” She froze at his words, but when he nodded she seemed to understand that it was okay. Without any further experimentation, she loaded up the slingshot and let it go. Though she didn't hit anything, they heard her shot as it whistled through the dense underbrush.

“Go again,” Ti urged her on as she loaded and fired again. When the lead ball hit the tree, her face broke into a smile of success.

“Yes, very good,” he said as he nodded. Looking back at him, she nodded in gesture. Tiberius reached into his bundle and pulled out a few more lead balls. The look on her face told him how much she really wanted them and that was what he had counted on. She watched and waited, then walked over and plucked them from his hand.

And that was how their afternoon went. He would hand her two or three lead balls, and she would fire them off and then look to him for more. Tiberius had no idea how many balls he had brought, but it took the entire lot before she took them from his hand without fear or hesitation.

When the bundle was empty, he turned it inside out to show her there was no more. It nearly broke his heart when he saw the disappointment on her face. With heavy feet she walked back to him hold out the slingshot.

“No, it's yours,” he offered, but she didn't seem to understand. He put his hands up to say stop and then at the slingshot. She said nothing, but her red eyes widened when he pointed at her.

“It's a gift … for you.”

Tiberius nodded when she pointed back at herself.

“Yes … for you. I made it for you.” He got his reward when her face opened with a delightful smile.

“You have a nice smile … um …I don't even know your name. My name is Tiberius, but my friends call me Ti, like the Titans.” She watched with interest, but showed no sign of understanding him.

“Ti,” he pointed to himself and then at her. He tried again,”Ti.”

Her head tilted with the curiosity of a puppy who had no idea what he was talking about.

“Ah, that's okay, we don't have to talk to understand each other, do we?” He smiled at her and she mimicked it in return.

“I have to go now,” he took a step toward Brimstone and then motioned for her to follow. She shook her head in strong defiance as fear quickly covered her features.

Tiberius brought his hands up in a show of surrender. ”Okay, okay. You don't have to go, I just thought maybe you would like to see where I live.” He looked over his shoulder and pointed in the direction of his house. “It's not much, but I could make you dinner – Hey where did you go?” Ti had turned back in mid-conversation, only to discover she had left him.

“Hey!” He hollered up into the trees as he saw her ascending into her shroud of protection. “Okay, but I will be back.”

She stopped and turned back to look at him. Tiberius raised his arm and waved with all his might. Though he couldn't see the smile that crossed her face he did see her wave back at him.

It was a start.

It took a long time, but slowly over time, Tiberius gained her trust. Most of their time together was spent as friends, laughing and playing, enjoying each other's company. Every once in awhile, he saw that she still tried to hide a painful past that had left her scarred - both physically and mentally. A dark pain was held in her heart that even a simple giant could see. She never told him anything of her past, not her name, nor where she had come from. Matter of fact several times he had to stop and realize she never said a word to him and if Tiberius found this unusual, he never spoke of it.

Then one day as he turned to head for home, and instead of taking to the trees, she followed him. At first she walked next to him, her short little legs moving swiftly to keep up with his long strides, but when Brimstone came into view her fear took over. She stopped next to the trunk of a massive cedar. He didn't have to say anything. He understood as she watched from a safe distance until he entered his house. Once inside, he ducked down to look out one of his windows, and he saw her white hair disappear into the green.

Chapter 20

The bard brought her knees to her chest and then wrapped the wool blanket around her shoulder. It didn't matter, nothing could warm her, not when the chill she felt came from within. The damp cold stones glistened as the light from the full moon came through the small window of her cell.

Gabrielle sat cross-legged on her cot as she looked out the window with a lifeless gaze. The gray of the night and the white of the moon showed her how much her world had changed. The vibrant hues of life had been drained away, leaving her in a shell of black and white. Everything that had happened left her mind in a foggy realm of disbelief. As much as she wanted to believe Xena, the evidence told her a different story.

Dropping her head onto her knees, the young bard rocked silently back and forth on her cot. She pulled her blanket in tighter and prayed the truth would be swift.

Though in deep thought, her skills as a warrior instinctively reacted to an unseen presence. Lifting her head, her eyes held shut as she listened to a sound that was out of place. She turned her ear to the small window above her cot.

There it was again, the unmistakable sound of leather soles quietly approaching her cell. Soundlessly she rose from her cot and stood on the end, trying to peer out into the night.

“Gabrielle,” her name was whispered in low tones.


Looking left and then right to see who was there, Gabrielle spotted her gentleman caller as he crawled into her view from the shadows.

“I know you?” She stated as a man of dark skin laid down outside of her window. His pleasant features brightened as he reached through the bars.

“My name is Kummel, we meet earlier in Tiberius's house. Your friend Xena … she was in my shop today.” Pointing to the blanket around her shoulders, he continued. “The items she brought you came from my store.”

“Thank you.” Though her words were hospitable, she didn't feel the same towards the stranger. Her mind was previously occupied and all she wanted was to be alone.

“I did not come here for the thanks. I came to make sure you were all right and to see if there was anything I could do.”

Gabrielle's eyes lowered from his gaze as she turned and stepped off her cot. “That was kind of you, but there is nothing anyone can do.”

“Your friend Xena does not believe that. Never has. Not from day one when she came stumbling out of Tiberius's house. She believed even then that you were innocent.”

“I sometimes think Xena's eyes see only what she wants them to see.”

“And what is it that you think she saw?” His polite manner only pushed her deeper into her own guilt.

The bard walked over to the bars and leaned against them. She let out a deep sigh as she closed her eyes.

“I don't know … I don't remember much about that morning. But I do know someone killed that innocent man, and if it wasn't me then who?” She turned and sadly looked the shop owner in the face.

“I thought Xena was looking in the forest for that answer.”

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders but said nothing. She didn't see Kummel look down at the gold he held clutched in his hand.

“For what it is worth … I should have spoken up sooner … I thought you -” He stopped abruptly when the bard looked up at him. “I do not know what it means, but here.” He reached through the bars of the window and held out something in his hand.

Gabrielle came back to the window and reached up with an opened hand. She felt the weight as she brought her hand down to see in the moonlight what he had given to her. With a look of confusion, Gabrielle turned back to the shop owner.

“This afternoon, Xena gave me that.” She looked back at the gold in her hand.

“This I found on my counter many months ago, when a few of my items went missing.” He reached through once more and dropped a large nugget in Gabrielle's hand.

Her green eyes went from the nugget of gold to the melded clump of gold in her other hand. She lifted her eyes from her hands.

“I don't –“ Kummel held out his hand to stop her in mid sentence. He looked over his shoulder and then back at Gabrielle.

“I was not honest with your friend.”

“What do you mean you weren't honest with my friend?” She did nothing to hide her rising annoyance.

“I know … It seems … I am.” Gabrielle grew impatient with his hesitant admission.


“It seems when certain things went missing, other things were left in their place.”

“You mean to say, someone was taking things, but paying for them in gold?”

“Yes. Until a few months ago.”

“What happened a few months ago?” Curiosity was pulling Gabrielle out of her self imposed prison, as the pieces of information started scratching on her conscience. Though she was still speaking in a whisper, her inner strength was building.

“Ah … let me think. I guess looking at it now, that would have been around the time Gorgon disappeared and that poor boy was found dead.”

With a piece of gold in either hand, Gabrielle's mind went to work and she started to pace.

“Who found him?”

“Uhmm … let me think. I believe it was Admetus.”

He could hear the bard mumbling under her breath as she rolled the gold back and forth between her hands, while still pacing her small cell.

Suddenly she stopped as a gleam of light flickered to life in her eyes.

“I've got to get out of here.” She bent down, grabbed a hold of the edge of her cot and pulled back the straw mattress. The shop owner was startled to see her Sais had been hidden from sight. Gabrielle grabbed them both and slid them easily into each of her boots. She turned around and looked at the heavy bars in front of her. Bringing her hands onto her hips, she chewed softly on her lip as her mind swirled clearly for the first time in days.

“I do not understand. What did I say?”

“There is someone in the forest killing children … and now I know why. I have to get to Xena.”

Chapter 21

Xena watched from the ground as she followed the white-haired child deeper into the forest. She couldn't help but be fascinated by the girl's fluid movement through the trees. No words had been spoken since she had fled from their conversation. Something or someone had spooked the child, but this time she stayed in view, allowing Xena to follow behind.

The Warrior Princess knew of no one or of nothing that could match this child's skill in the trees. In all their travels from India to Chin to Rome, nothing held the grace of this white-haired, red-eye child as she ran along her treetop highway. Even the Amazons would have been envious.

Her mind preoccupied, Xena almost missed the tell tale signs. At the last second she grabbed a hold of a vine maple as her body fell away to empty air. Her feet dangled over the edge as she peered down to the gorge below. The roar of a distant waterfall had warned her just before she broke through the trees. Looking down now, she knew it would have been a painful landing if she survived at all. Pulling herself back on to stable ground she looked up at the child as she stared down at her.

“A little warning next time would be nice.” Brushing off her leathers, she mumbled almost the same words to herself. She had been so caught up with watching the child's movements in the moonlight, she hadn't heard the warning until it was almost too late. Peering over the edge of the cliff one more time, she shook off the feeling and concentrated on the task at hand.

“Just where are you taking me?” The child pointed further up the cliff, following the river.

Before she had a chance to say anything further, the ghost of the forest was off, leaving Xena little choice but to follow. Higher and higher, steeper and steeper the mountain climbed until the roar of the river had quieted to a swirling rush. The child had the ease of going from branch to branch, but Xena had been forced to make her way through the unforgiving terrain. When the thick undergrowth finally gave way to the rocky hillside, her lungs ached for air as the moonlight glistened off her bronze skin. Xena watched with interest as the child reached the end of her treetop highway. Her red eyes scanned the rocks below, but there was no way she could continue without coming down from the trees.

“If we're going to get up this rock face … you're going to have to come down out of those trees.” The struggle for trust was easy to see even in the gray twilight. Her white hair tossed from side to side and then stopped. She knew the tall dark woman was right. Like a leaf floating through the branches, she made her way down until she landed on the ground with ease.

“You lead … I'll follow.” Xena said as she motioned up the rock face.

Though the going was tough, they made light work of the almost vertical climb. Nothing was said when they finally reached the top. Xena looked over at the winded child and smiled. Without hesitation, the child smiled back.

“Now where?”

She put her finger to her lips and then pointed to the river that was now a small stream.

“Alright.” Xena said under her breath as she turned and followed. Quietly as possible, the two snaked through the forest, both thankful for the bright night to guide their way. After what seemed like a long time, Xena's ears picked up the sound of another waterway. Sure enough, the stream they had been following crossed with another small stream. Just as the child turned to follow the new stream, Xena stopped, getting a look at where she was.

“Hey, why didn't we just come up that way?” Xena said as she gestured towards the easy sloping hillside she had walked before. Startled by her outcry, the child spun on her heels and put her finger over her lips.

“No, I have had enough of this. What was your plan, to keep me out here in the forest half the night? Just what are you up to?” Whatever fear she had of Xena was forgotten when she rushed over in front of her, desperately trying to silence the Warrior Princess.

Now only inches away, Xena got her first real good look at the ghost of the forest. Her small body was lean with muscle, her pale skin was marked by deep scars. As a warrior Xena had a pretty good idea what had made some of them, a whip would slice skin, but heat and fire melted it. Her anger was quickly forgotten as she thought about what she would like to do to the people who could scar a child like this. But as the Warrior Princess she saw something else in the child, an aura of a survivor, one who would not be beaten down. There she stood, barely coming to the height of Xena's waist, yet standing in challenge for the warrior to be quiet.

Slowly, Xena sank until her knees touched the damp ground and her eyes came even with hers. The warrior held her emotions in check when she saw the depth of pain in the child's fear-filled eyes. They held a knowledge few ever would … or should have to know. As a warrior she had seen the level of destruction man was capable of, but it appalled her to see that devastation in one so young.

As Xena studied her face, the girl too was studying, almost in awe at being that close to another person. Her red eyes absorbed all she could see as she followed the warrior's lips and then her nose before looking into the bluest eyes she had ever seen. Xena held herself still as the child reached out with shaking fingers to touch her face.

Her hand stopped just a hair's whisper from Xena's cheek. Wanting and needing to gain the child's trust, the warrior remained absolutely still. Her desire was easy to see as her fingers moved closer to finally touch the warrior's unblemished skin.

Xena's blue eyes softened with compassion as she watched the curiosity of the child take over her survival instincts. But it was a short-lived moment, as Xena's eyes flew open in shock.

Both of them turned when they heard a distinctive voice coming from further up the hill. There was no doubt in Xena's mind, it was Tiberius's voice they had heard.

~ Continued in Part 4 ~

Heroes and Villains

C.L. Hart; Sinful@telus.net
Time is the most important thing in a person's life. I cannot thank you enough for spending yours enjoying my tall tale.

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