Legend of the Last Amazon

Part 12

By Fantimbard



The characters of Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, and Argo and all other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles, and back-story are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. The story is written only for fun, and no profit is being made. All other characters such as Tarren, the story idea and the story itself are the sole property of the author. The story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. The story itself as well as the character created by the author may NOT be duplicated or archived without the author’s permission. All works remain the copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the authors consent. This story is a continuation of my first stories called SHE HAS MY EYES, ON THE ROAD AGAIN, NALA’S GIFTS, HOME SWEET HOME, and Little Thief of Hearts You really MUST read those stories first. Otherwise you will be lost as to who some of the characters I have created are. This story contains some violence, no subtext, and the use or reference of corporal punishment. I will be putting that statement in all of the Tarren series whether it exists or not in that particular story. Please understand that this does NOT reflect on my personal beliefs or politics. I am just trying to stay true to the characters and culture of that period of history. Feedback is ALWAYS appreciated and I am most grateful to all that have written and will hopefully continue to write me with your thoughts.

Artemis raised her hand in the air and all the Argonians both living and dead along with any trace of their existence disappeared leaving only a field filled with one nation of cheering Amazons and a very confused queen.

Part 12…

Chapter – 36 – Temporary losses

On the field…

Ephiny stared at the proud form of the goddess who she had since birth prayed in the name of. The weary queen’s eyes grew dim as she realized for the first time that the entire battle fought with the Argonians was something that had been orchestrated by Artemis herself starting with the disappearance of the very first Amazon. Ephiny shook her head as she stared blankly at the goddess. "You set all of this up?" she asked trying her hardest to hide her anger and indignation for the stoic figure that now stood before her.

Artemis glanced around at the field that was now littered with a mixture of cheering Amazons from her many tribes their hoops and hollers tied to together in a chorus that for once sang as a singular voice of unity. Suddenly with no more than a quick wave of her hand she froze each figure where they stood. Arms held in warrior salutation were locked in time’s dominion. Smiles and tears were solidified like sculptures taken from the great halls of Athens. She motioned her hand to a small group of Amazons. Each of the three figures was from a different tribe and yet their arms and their thoughts were joined together as one victorious group. "Look around you Ephiny and see what has happened on this great day. This battle has brought our people together again," the goddess replied her chin lifted and her shoulders straight.

The queen stared at the now stone like figures of her own warriors mixed with those of the other tribes and shook her head. Her usually steady voice became shaky and low. "You thought that a war was the only thing that could bring my people together again? We were already talking of peace. Why did you have to interfere?" she asked in the most pleading of tones hoping for some clarification that would balance her world again.

There was none.

The goddess stared at this Amazon queen bewildered by the Ephiny’s sudden lack of taste for a good fight. Her eyes closed so that only the small wrinkles of her brow demonstrated her confusion. "So then Ephiny you think words would have brought your people together as one nation again?" she asked with a sad little laugh.

Ephiny looked again at the motionless figures of her friends some still caught with a sword held high while others were left in a mid-air jump of excitement at an obvious victory. She let out a long breath and again faced the goddess. "I don’t know much about the power of words…but I’m learning." Her face became stiff and her jaw tightened. "But we deserved the chance to try. We’re not animals or play things Artemis." She paused and smiled just a bit as she thought of the bard’s reaction at hearing this tirade of ‘wisdom.’ A long breath was taken and exhaled. "We are people and as a friend of mine says ‘fighting should be a last resort.’"

Artemis tilted her head to one side and smiled at the Amazon that now stood proudly before her. "You have changed Ephiny. You are not the same angry young warrior I once knew. You have opened your mind and your heart to new ideas. That will be a great gift to your people in this time of growth," she said with a nod.

Ephiny turned away and looked again to the field of still frozen Amazons. Her eyes dropped to the bodies of the fallen now lying lifeless in the tall grass of this unnamed battlefield. She did not turn again but merely spoke with the pain of each lost friend dripping from each word. "And what of those that died? Who decides how high a price we pay for this unification?" She closed her eyes and thought of Shalia and little Tarren and all the others that had suffered or died as a result of this god made war. "As far as I can tell we have already paid too high a price," she said in a near whisper tossing her heavy blade to the ground with a thud and swallowing hard. "Artemis please let my people go. We are mortals and as such we have wounds to tend, tears to shed and…." She again swallowed hard. "Dead to honor."

The goddess of the Amazons again tilted her head to one side and stared at the queen’s slender form. Her words were low and seemed filled with a strange regret. "It was only my wish to rewrite the wrong of so long ago. Sometimes Ephiny, the price of the future is a heavy one but we have no choice but to pay it if we are to go on." With the wave of a godly hand the Amazon people were once again animated and the air rejuvenated with shrills of a battle just one. "Think of this moment Ephiny. Yesterday is just a memory. For you tomorrow is still a mystery but today is a gift from the gods…that my queen is why it is called the present."

Ephiny turned to address her goddess once more but it was too late. Artemis had already vanished.

The queen took a deep breath and lifted her eyes to the sky. After a slight pause she moved slowly into the center of the cheering crowd to see just how many friends she would have to honor on this "great day."

As she moved through the fields the Ephiny was met with hardy slaps on the back and words of congratulations. However the Amazon queen’s steps came to a fast halt and her eyes narrowed as she fell to her knees beside the familiar body of another fallen Amazon lying just beside a large puddle of blood. Ephiny closed her eyes and let the tips of her fingers touch the fatal spill of life. She shook her head and held the red stained hand up in the air for all to see.

The cheers of victory stopped and this field of glory soon became so silent that not even the birds dared to sing.

Ephiny felt the air draining through her nostrils as she gripped the lifeless arm of the fallen warrior and held it tightly pressed against her own. "No Artemis the price of tomorrow should not be paid with today," she whispered as she stared at the body of an old and respected queen lying on the ground with a fatal arrow positioned in her heart. " Penella!"

Meanwhile back at the village…

In the silence of the vacant village the only sounds that could be heard were three heartbeats of life and the prayers of hope echoing so loudly through a mother’s mind that the very trees themselves seemed to drop the leaves from their branches as an offering of faith.

Xena made her way quickly to the royal cottage. Once inside she immediately placed the now unconscious child on the largest pallet pausing only long enough to wipe the beaded sweat from little Tarren’s face with the palm of her hand as she gently lowered the child to the sheets. "Come on Monster. Everything’s going to be just fine now that I have you. Momma’s going to make you all better," she whispered kissing the unconscious youngster tenderly on the cheek.

With a quick breath and a hard swallow she looked back at the bard who was still standing in the doorway as if afraid to re-enter the sanctuary of this peaceful world she had left behind only hours earlier. "Gabrielle please get some cool water and cloths. I want to try and bring her fever down," the warrior said trying to control the concern in her voice.

It had been a long and quiet ride back to the village and these were actually the first words the young woman had heard her warrior friend speak since they had left the battle area, the place that had taken something from both of them that might never be returned.

Each was fighting separate demons this day but each was first and foremost thinking of little Tarren.

The bard stared for a moment at the now still youngster and then her warrior friend and nodded. "Sure…I’ll get that." Her thoughts were lost in the silence of the now vacant village and the sight of a little girl she loved that she knew might die. Gabrielle swallowed hard and closed her eyes trying to find a happy and peaceful place inside her that would allow a ray of hope into the blackness that was enveloping her thoughts. She could not. "I’ll ….run over to the healer’s hut and get some mixtures for poultice too," she said quietly running her hand through the lost strands of blond hair that sat on her shoulder.

"Yeah that will be good." The warrior turned and offered her friend a weak smile. "Thanks." That one word seemed to speak volumes between these two comrades in life.

Gabrielle nodded and slowly turned but paused as if caught by a singular thought that would not let her move any further. "Xena she’ll make it won’t she?" she asked more bluntly than she had intended, her eyes focused on the outside world but her heart never leaving the confines of the hut.

The warrior mother ran her hands down the side of her child’s face letting only the tips of her fingers trace the outline of the little girls cherub like expression. "Of course she will. She has my recuperative powers right?" she replied with a forced smile and a voice that was trying to exude a faith that was not all that sure she had.

The bard nodded and quickly blinked her eyes allowing only one tear to fall. "Yeah she sure does. She’s just as stubborn as you are. Tarren wouldn’t dare leave us like…." She paused choking on the last words.

Xena closed her eyes and a tear ran down her cheek. She cleared her throat as she forced her words out in a steady thought. "Hey how about those cloths and things? You know how Tarren hates a bath so we better get her clean before she wakes up and makes a fuss about it," the warrior mother said with a cracking voice as she tried to get a hold of her quickly crumbling emotions.

Gabrielle knew her friend needed a moment alone to gather that special strength and find control. She took a deep breath and then glanced one more time at the small child lying on the pallet. "Ok… I’ll be right back," the young woman replied as she exited the cottage.

The door swung shut leaving the mother alone with her young daughter for the first time. Xena let the air drain from her lungs as she knelt beside the bed caressing her child’s face with the tip of her fingers. "It’s Ok Monster. Momma’s right here and everything is going to be just fine now," she whispered placing a tender kiss on the child’s forehead. "I’m right here with you baby and we’re going to make you all better now…I promise."

Xena reached under the pillow and was not surprised to find the thin vile Shalia had said would be there. But the warrior was quick to notice that the ornate silver top was positioned on an angle allowing all the precious liquid that had been inside to spill out onto the sheet beneath the child’s pillow.

The mother stared at the now empty vile in her hand for a long moment as if trying to imagine how it might have looked full. "No…N0," she whispered in disbelief. Gently moving the youngster to one side she ran her hands over the medicine stained sheet and again stared at the cylindrical container. "Just two drops is all we need and two drops we’re going to get," she said in a frantic and desperate voice.

Xena grabbed a mug of water and submerged the apparently empty vile in the liquid. If there were so much as a half of a drop of medicine left in the tube it would surely remain in that water. She then pulled out her boot knife and cut away the pieces of medicine stained sheet smelling the dark spots trying to allow her senses to register as many familiar odors as possible in case she needed to attempt to copy the remedy.

Carefully the warrior dipped each tattered bit of cloth into the mug dunking drenching and squeezing each fabric to make sure that every drop of medicine was either soaked or scraped into the mug. "Just two drops is all we need," she repeated desperately as if chanting the words in a prayer. When the warrior was confident that no more of the magical medicinal remnants could be saved she again allowed her nostrils to take one more instructive whiff of the mixture so her acute senses could register that there was nothing dangerous in the concoction.

With a withering smile the mother lifted the youngster’s head coddling her close to her chest. "Come on baby take a drink," she said gently, hoping the little girl’s eyes would just pop open and the child would fight the consumption of the liquid.

Tarren did not move.

Xena was not sure if the medicine gathered was enough or even if she should trust the word of the strange Amazon who had offered it. However, she was sure that Tarren was sick enough to die and that this Shalia had somehow helped the warrior’s child once before with the same mixture of medicine.

The warrior cradled her daughter’s head up to her broad shoulder allowing the youngster to lean in close to a place Xena knew the little girl felt most protected.

Using just the tips of two fingers the warrior opened the youngster’s mouth slowly forcing the liquid down the little one’s throat eliciting gags and coughs from the body but no cry from the child. "I’m sorry," she whispered hugging the small form closer to her allowing her cheek to drop to the youngster’s head as she held her in a protective maternal embrace. "I know that was pretty bad but I had to get it down. I’m sorry…I’m really sorry," she said tossing the now empty mug to the floor and drying the child’s face with a torn piece of cloth. The words spoken seemed to apologize for not just the forced medicine. Xena’s words and expression were filled with an absent mother’s guilt and love for her sick child.

Tears filled the warrior mother’s face as she stared at her youngster still lying limp in her arms. "I shouldn’t have left you Tarren. I’ll never leave you behind like that again. You have my word," she said stiffly as if making it a vow to any and all that could hear it. "I’m your mother. I should have known you’d follow." She lowered her head to her arm and kissed the child’s cheek lovingly. "I should have known."

Xena continued to caress the youngster’s face with her fingers as if trying to draw a map in the soft skin that would allow her young daughter to find her way back to her mother’s arms. She held the small hand clasped tightly in her own as she waited to hear a squeaky little response or some complaint about the awful taste of the medicine but there was nothing but the sound of a mother’s regret.

Xena took a deep breath, closed her eyes and buried her face in the only slightly exhaling chest of her little girl and in what she believed to be the privacy of a vacant cottage the Warrior Princess allowed her tears to fall.

Meanwhile at the healers hut…

Gabrielle rummaged through various viles and wooden jugs filled with answers for other peoples ailments in search of all the ingredients that were needed to help Tarren. "Gotta hurry," she muttered as she haphazardly tossed things into a large burlap sack sure it would be better to have too much medicine rather than not enough.

As the young woman nervously moved from one cluttered corner to the next she accidentally knocked from its pedestal a small-carved statue of Artemis. The stone figure crashed to the ground with a resounding sound of thousands of shards hitting the wooden floor.

Gabrielle turned quickly dropping the heavy sack and covering her ears as if the sound of the broken pieces dropping to the floor were crashing against her lobes like a rush of stones in an avalanche. "Nooooooooooo!" She screamed protectively covering the sides of her head with the palms of her hands.

As if caught in the rain of broken pieces that now covered the healer’s floor, the bard kicked at tables and tossed chairs against planking in an attempt to free herself from this mysterious prison. With the shattering of the stone she was enveloped, her mind amplifying all the darkness she felt in her heart into a flurry of exaggerated senses.

Gabrielle moved anxiously from one side to the other in an uncontrollable fit of fear and loss of all she ever was and would be again. "Stop it. Just stop it," she yelled dropping to the ground, her fists pounding the floor in an effort to make the offensive little droplets of sound release her.

As the sun rises darkness disappears but it is merely an illusion for later the light shall again fade and the blackness return uninhibited by desire.

All at once the moment passed and the young woman found herself huddled in a corner of the healers hut surrounded by a most unnatural silence. Her legs were twisted beneath her among the broken pieces of the statue and clutched tightly in her hands a few sharp stones that had cut her soft skin and left it draining small puddles of red relief.

Gabrielle eyed the cuts on her hand and felt the tears flowing down her cheeks as she wiped the blood on her skirt in an effort to clot its movement. "Oh gods what have I done?" she asked running her hands over the soft skin of her skirt and staring at the now wrecked cottage. Her voice became a low tear filled whisper. "What have I done?" she repeated letting her head drop to her knees as she pulled them tightly in front of her. "Tarren," she whispered.

After a moment filled with tears the bard stood ready to compose herself. She reached for a cloth and wrapped her still bloody hand in the linen like bandage. "I’ve got to get this stuff to Xena and help take care of Tarren," she said drawing on every ounce of strength in her being to make her stand straight again.

The soft green eyes paused in front of a mirror where for the first time the bard was able to see a reflection of the person she had become.

The once bare arms were draped in tight Amazon feathered armbands and beads. Still positioned on her head was the bonnet of the queen. It had not fallen off in battle and the bard had not even felt the weight of it on her journey back to the village. The young woman’s eyes dropped to her skirt, which was now stained with blood. She stared at it for a moment wondering if it was just blood from her own hand or that of the Argonian that she had taken the life of. She let her fingers run over a spot that looked drier than the rest as she eyed her own reflection. "I killed a man," she whispered to the twin staring back at her, dropping her hand to the red stained fabric as if wanting to believe it was all just a bad dream.

It was quite real.

Gabrielle ran her fingers over the small red stain and could feel her face draining of color as she again looked into the mirror that was her soul and saw the face of the once peaceful bard looking back at her questioning why she had murdered another of the god’s creatures. "I killed him…I…." She grabbed a cloth from the ground and submerged it in water from a nearby bucket and started rubbing at the red stained spot fiercely. "Go away…go away…." But the blood would not disappear no matter how hard she rubbed or wished it away.

The reflection allowed no time for second thoughts. It spoke freely and directly to the bard. "Gabrielle you took a life to save your friends," the second part of the young woman’s soul said quietly.

Gabrielle’s head snapped up at the unexpected solace from her own image. She dropped the cloth and moved closer to the figure with equally green eyes now addressing her.

At first her slender fingers traced the outline of the reflection tenderly touching the cold picture wishing she could reach through the glaze and embrace this familiar stranger. Knowing she could not the bard balled her fingers into fists and pounded them on the table beneath the mirror. "Xena didn’t need me. She could have protected herself and Tarren. I killed for no reason," she yelled.

The image of a gentle and more understanding Gabrielle answered in a soothing tone. "You didn’t know that. If you had hesitated then Xena and Tarren might both had been killed just like…."

Gabrielle jumped back placing her hands protectively in front of her to shield her from the words. "Don’t say it. Just go away. I don’t want to see you now. Just go away." She again looked at the image now and always looking back at her with warmth and understanding. "And stop watching me...stop staring at me," she yelled snapping the tip of her boot into the mirror shattering the image in an explosion of reflective thought.

The frantic Gabrielle dropped to her knees in a fit of sobs and muttering. "Please go away …just please go away," she cried burying her head in the crux of her arm.

Thoughts of Tarren and time already wasted brought the young woman’s thoughts back to the present. With a few hurried breaths and the swipe of her hand against her damp eyes she lifted her head from her arm and what she saw left her speechless.

The hut was no longer in a shambles and the statue of Artemis sat proudly on its pedestal in the corner just as it had when she had first entered the cottage. Taking deep breathes and turning quickly from left to right in disbelief, the bard was again caught by the sight of a now unbroken mirror.

Gabrielle moved tentatively to the image of vanity caressing the surface wishing that she could again see the self she once knew but the only image staring back at her now was that of a tired and confused young woman unsure of who and what she had become. She looked again at her reflection but it did not speak and all the distraught young woman could see was a confused and unidentifiable blond figure. "I don’t understand," she mumbled running her hand over her face. She took one last look at the stain of blood on her skirt and swallowed hard knowing this was not the time for her to try and understand her own dilemma. "Xena and Tarren need you. You can fall apart later but right now Gabrielle you’re family needs you," she whispered taking a pile of cloths, a burlap bag of herbs, and all her remaining strength back to the cottage.

The reflection watched as Gabrielle left the hut. The soft hearted and gentle young bard that lived on the other side of the mirror shed a tear for she could not follow the figure that had departed without her. "I will be waiting for you," the image said before fading from existence.

Back at the cottage…

As the door behind her creaked closed the warrior lifted her head from Tarren’s side and wiped her own eyes dry with the back of her hand. She did not have to turn to recognize the soft but now slightly dragging steps of her best friend.

The warrior made a mental note that the soft leather souls that usually moved with quick confident strides stalled every few steps as if unsure which direction to go. However Xena did not turn around but instead just started removing her youngster’s dirty and matted clothes. "Good you’re back I…want to get her clean…Can you bring over the large basin?" the mother asked, her voice unsteady and her hands shaking in a way she did not know they had the ability to do

Gabrielle took a deep breath and stepped closer to the pallet taking a few deep breaths to try and clear her mind of what had happened in the healer’s hut. She swallowed hard and stared at the warrior knowing her usually stoic friend had been crying but also sure now was not the time to try and press her friend for any conversation. "Sure…I…I…have the water and cloths we need…Xena…I…." She moved up beside the pallet and put the cloths and sack on the table beside the bed. "I got everything…I wasn’t sure so I just…"

Hearing the unusually weak tone of the bard whose voice was always filled with such faith and good cheer made the warrior turn and stare at the figure of her friend. She quickly noticed the now disheveled appearance and blood soaked cloth wrapped around the young woman’s hand. "Gabrielle what happened?" she asked reaching for the bard’s wound.

Gabrielle immediately stepped back hiding the bandaged hand behind her back. "It’s Ok Xena. I just…broke a jug…and …cut my hand…." she said in a near whisper, trying to feign an indifferent attitude. "It’s nothing."

Xena held out her own hand and her features became tight as the blue trained warrior eyes traveled up and down the blond figure. "I’ll be the judge of that…let me see it," she said in a stern but steady voice.

Gabrielle was about to protest when she saw in her friend’s eyes a message that said this was no time for being stubborn or playing games. They both needed to be fit for whatever was to face them. With a slight nod the young woman placed her hand in front of the warrior. "Ok but it really is nothing," she said with a slight sniffle and a sickly smile

"Uh huh." Xena started unraveling the bandage until she reached the bare skin. Her eyes grew wide as she turned the young woman’s hand over and found not even a scratch. "Gabrielle there really is nothing here. What is going on? Where did all this blood come from?" she asked trying not to think the worst.

The young woman looked at her own hand in disbelief and then the bloody rags. "Xena there was a cut there," she exclaimed staring from her friend’s questioning face to her now clean skin. "First I…broke the statue and then I…knocked the stuff over and then the mirror…" She paused as she remembered the reflection that had spoken to her as if in a dream. "The mirror…I broke the mirror and it spoke to me…." she whispered as if lost in a far away daze.

Xena looked at the bard with concern knowing that both the memory of the dead Argonian and little Tarren’s illness were taking their toll on her gentle friend. She pulled the bard down and wrapped a tender arm around her shoulder. "It’s OK you don’t have to explain."

Gabrielle jerked away from the rare offer of open affection. "But the mirror Xena…I broke it and then everything was fixed…even the cut is gone now…but the blood…I still see the blood." She felt her shoulders collapse and she surrendered to her friend’s hold. "I’m sorry. I didn’t want to…"

The strong hand moved up and down the younger woman’s head. "It’s OK Gabrielle. It’s battle fatigue. You’re in shock. Its Ok." Her voice was low and tender but steady. "Look I…we…need to take care of Tarren now but I promise that when this is all over and she’s…."

Gabrielle closed her eyes and pulled away from the warrior. "I’m OK now Xena…really. I’m sorry I fell apart," she said with a sniffle as she straightened out her skirt and tossed the bloody rags to the floor kicking them beneath the bed.

The warrior shook her head. "Gabrielle you are not Ok and you don’t have to be sorry," she replied

The bard shook her head and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye with the edge of her finger. "I’ll be fine Xena. Right now we need to take care of that little girl of…yours," she said picking up a damp cloth and motioning to the sick child in the bed. "Tarren is our first concern."

Xena could not argue. Right now little Tarren needed her mother’s complete attention. "Yeah you’re right." She stared at the blond figure as if sizing her up. "Ok lets get to work," she said making careful note of every gesture and move the bard made.

The warrior stood and with a single motion of her hand wiped away her own tears and reached for the requested items taking water and cloth from the now silent bard. The mother’s own voice a stream of shaky words. "Thanks…we have to get her undressed and cleaned up. We need to cool her off as much as we can…while still keeping her warm. It won’t be easy but we…."

There was soon a familiar and gentle group of fingers curled around the warrior’s wrist. "Whatever it takes…we’ll do it…together," the bard said now offering her trademarked smile of confidence. "That kids not even allowed out of camp at night alone. Do you think we’re going to let her wander anyplace further without us?" she asked with a reassuring nod refusing to give in to her own growing darkness.

Xena stared at her friend for a moment and then closed her eyes and nodded. "That’s right. We’ll do it…together Gabrielle…like we always do. Right?"

The blue eyes were filled with a wealth of appreciation and words that could not be spoken in any language other than a brief stare that told the bard all she needed to know in that one glimpse of her friend’s souls.

Gabrielle answered with two short blinks and another smile. She was determined to push away her own feelings of terror and loss and hold together the only part of her being that made sense, Xena and little Tarren.

A bit later…

After bathing the child in cooling waters and placing poultice after poultice on the youngster’s chest the warrior mother placed the youngster back in the warm blankets of the pallet.

The bard positioned a chair beside the bed and sat reaching out a hand to touch the hot but baby soft skin of the little girl she loved as her own. "Now what?" she asked watching the way the warrior gripped the tiny hand in her own rubbing each finger tenderly with the tip of her thumb.

Xena took a deep breath and shrugged. "Now we wait."


Xena kept her hand still tightly griped around Tarren’s small fingers as she hummed a soft lullaby hoping the little girl could hear the words of love.

Gabrielle was still positioned in the small rocking chair just to the side of the pallet. The gentle creaking noise had become almost a soothing sound in the pale silence of the otherwise quiet room. "Any change?" the bard asked with a slight yawn and an exaggerated stretch of her legs.

The warrior mother ran her finger across the child’s forehead and bit her lip. "The fever broke a few hours ago," was the quiet and flat reply.

The bard’s eyes shot wide open and she leapt from the chair. "That’s good."

Xena closed her eyes and continued to caress the youngster’s face. "No…not really." She turned her head and faced her bewildered friend. "The fever is gone but she’s not awake." She took a short breath. "Tarren’s fever is gone. I had hoped that was the reason she was unconscious but obviously it’s not…and if she’s not awake now I don’t know when she’ll wake."

Both women stared down at the little girl they each loved so deeply hoping there silent prayers would be answered and the little eyes would flicker open but their was no movement.


Gabrielle dropped sadly back into her seat reaching out a hand and pulling the child’s blanket up closer to her face allowing a finger to run gently over the youngster’s skin. "Xena I don’t understand. If the fever is gone why doesn’t she just wake up?" she asked, her face filled with a mixture of frustration and fear.

The warrior who had healed many both on and off the battle field closed her eyes and let her voice become low and distant as she recalled the bodies of many soldiers she had been forced to leave on nameless battle grounds in a life of long ago. She pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers and shook her head. "Gabrielle Tarren is very weak and her mind has turned inward. I’ve seen it happen before." She wiped a few stray hairs from the child’s face and slipped a mug of water to the youngster’s lips pouring just enough liquid in to keep the little one hydrated. Leaning back she placed the mug to one side and faced her friend. "Some just never wake up. They just fall asleep giving up the fight and then…." She paused in the thought as she remembered how this small child had captured her heart.

Xena’s mind raced with images of moments spent by a stream.

"Momma look what I caught?"

The face of the child was now cemented in the warrior’s mind with a little girl’s mischievous smile and the glint in the big blue eyes.

"Momma can I have a pony?"

The mother closed her eyes as she felt the youngster’s heart still beating against her chest. She reached into her cuff and pulled out a small familiar object still wrapped neatly in parchment that was covered with a child’s scribbling of love and faith. Xena held the odd blue amulet in the air allowing it to dangle just over her child’s eyelids. "But not my little girl. She’s a fighter. She will wake up Gabrielle. By the gods she will wake up." There was a force and strength in the words that made even the bard tremble a bit at the sound.

The bard reached over and squeezed her friend’s shoulder and nodded reassuringly. "Of course she will. She just needs some rest."

The warrior cleared her throat as she continued to think of the first day she saw little Tarren, the cocky little raga muffin that swung through the trees without thought nor care for another soul. Her memories jumped forward and she was faced with mischievous smiles and a teary eyed child standing beneath a gnarly old tree outside of Amphipolis rubbing the seat of her britches.

"Momma do ya think if Uncle Lyceus had been a girl and your daughter and had just gotten the worst spankin ever that you’d sing her to sleep?"

The mother ran her hands down the little girl’s face and felt a tear escape as she whispered to her child. "I’ll always sing for you baby girl...always."

Gabrielle watched her friend battling what she knew was a wealth of loving and happy memories of not so long ago mixed with a weight of guilt for not having been with Tarren since birth.

Xena leaned over and placed Nala’s magical amulet around the youngster’s neck where she knew it belonged and kissed the child gently on the cheek. "I love you Monster. No matter what happens and what you do I always will love you lots and lots. Don’t you ever forget that…Do you hear me?" The large shoulders were starting to slump a bit as the usually strong hands shook from movement. "Tarren if you could just wake up long enough to use the amulet…momma would be so proud of you." She sniffled and tried to hold back the lump in her throat that was fighting its way up. "Please come back to me. I need you. I need you so much." She picked up the little girl’s hand and rubbed the outer part against her own cheek gripping tightly to the small fingers as she cried. "Tarren don’t go. Fight baby girl…You fight like you have never fought before," she yelled her lips clenched so tightly together that it sounded more like an order than the plea from the heart.

Gabrielle watched the raven-haired woman’s head drop to the child’s side never releasing the small hand she had laced around her own fingers. "You can’t leave me Tarren. I won’t let you go. I need you baby…I need you." The mothers thoughts were now lost in the closet of her own pain and fear. "I can’t lose you too."

Seeing that Xena was losing her usually steady hold, the bard immediately slid from her chair and crouched at her friend’s side wrapping her own body protectively around both mother and daughter wanting to shield them both from all the pain and suffering of the harsh world. "Shh Xena it’s Ok. It will be Ok. You’re going to see. Tarren will be just fine." She paused and thought of her own empty feeling and the things she had seen or maybe imagined in the healers hut wondering what the meaning of it all truly was. It wasn’t battle fatigue and she knew it. Gabrielle tightened her hold on her friend and whispered. "We’re all going to be just fine." The words were spoken with feeling and love, but in her own heart the bard was not now sure just what the future would bring for any of them.

There was no embarrassment at the display of open affection or the tears that followed but only the love of a mother holding her child and a bard clinging tightly to her family. For these two people were now the only reality the young woman was now sure existed in her life.

"Gabrielle she can’t die. She just can’t," the usually strong and stoic voice said in a wave of hard broken sobs.

The bard felt the salty ripples racing down the surface of her skin as she held the famed Warrior Princess and once destroyer of nations caressing her friend’s head as she spoke in her most tender voice. "She’ll come back to us Xena. Tarren wouldn’t leave you. She’ll come back to us…you’ll see."

The bard glanced down at the little girl lying still on the pallet. The breathing was slow and the skin was still pale. Heavy lids camouflaged the usually bright and mischievous blue eyes. "Tarren where are you? Where are you?" she asked as if hoping the wind would answer the question the child could not.

In a place far away but not out of reach…

Two children sat in the green pasture near a small brook staring at the water as it rushed by. The older child a boy of about 11 sat beside the little girl nearly half his size and age.

"Tarren are you ok?" the boy asked placing a gentle arm around the little girl.

The small child looked up at the blonde haired boy and shrugged. "Uh huh. I just miss Momma."

Solon sat on the log beside his little sister and patted her back affectionately. "I know but you can’t go back just yet," he said sadly tossing a small stone into the stream with a loud clink.

Tarren bit her lower lip and stared at the face of her brother. "Why? Why can’t I go back to momma now Solon? She needs me and I need her," she replied taking a similar stone and repeating the action noting happily that her rock had caused more ripples than her brother’s had.

Solon scratched his head and lowered his chin into an open palm. "I dunno Tarren. Nobody ever tells me anything." He picked his head up and smiled. "Ya want to play warlord like we did the last time?" he asked hoping the game would take the little girl’s mind off the mother she missed so greatly.

Tarren rolled out her lower lip and slid to the ground letting her feet dangle just above the high grass that stood beside the shoreline. "Nah! I don’t really feel much like playin."

There was no sun blaring in the sky yet the air was warm and the sky was bright and colorful.

"Why not? You always liked playing that before," he said confused by his little sister’s change of heart.

Tarren shrugged her shoulders and let her fingers fumble with the laces on her boots noting that they were neatly tied for a change. "But that was different. I was just dreamin when we played. I could go to Momma anytime I wanted…Now I wanna go and I can’t." A tear formed at the corner of the little girl’s eye and a larger sibling’s hand wiped it away. "I want momma."

Solon could feel his own heart ache for the child because he knew what it meant to lose a mother. In fact he had lost Xena before he had ever gotten a chance to have her as his mother. He leaned in closer to the youngster and whispered in her ear as if revealing a secret. "Look I promise you’ll get to go back real soon. Mother just needs a little time," the boy replied tasseling the little one’s hair.

Little Tarren’s eyes grew wide and bright at this knew information she was being given. This was the first definite word she had received that she would be returning to her mother since she had come to this acre of time that stood between the land of the living and those that had already passed.

Tarren leaned back as she tried to get a clear picture of her mother in her head hoping she could send a thought to Xena as she had done when she was a prisoner in the cell. The youngster frowned as she recalled a last image of her mother’s face just as the warrior mother had arrived to save her child. Tarren had felt the beat of her heart increase when she saw her mother arrive on the back of the great-war-horse and slide from the saddle rushing to her side. "Momma," the child had cried before something from another place took her from that moment and placed her in this dream place. In the darkness of her mind she had tried to reach out to touch her mother but as she did the world went blank. Xena was gone. Shalia was gone. When she awoke she was in the middle of this large field greeted at once by her brother’s always-welcoming smile.

"Are ya sure I’m going back to momma soon?" the little one asked biting her lip and staring at the brother she had only come to know in the world of dreams.

"Hey would your big brother ever lie to you?" the boy asked giving the little girl an affectionate hug.

Tarren twisted her lips as she considered the question. After all she did not know this boy from anyplace but her dreams. "No I guess not…." She let her large blue eyes open wide and stare up at the tall boy. "I’m real sorry you can’t go back with me. It would be fun to have a big brother to play with…and maybe I wouldn’t get in so much trouble if you were around for momma to yell at too."

Solon chuckled at the thought of being his mischievous sister’s constant alibi "Something tells me you’d be Mother’s first concern no matter how many brothers you had," he said with a grin knowing the link between Xena and Tarren was more special than either realized.

Tarren sighed as she dropped her still booted feet in the water knowing full well that in her mother’s presence this would be cause for a lengthy scolding. "I guess…But I still wish ya could come back with me Solon," she replied with a sad frown.

For the first time the expression of the male child changed and he became a bit sullen at the thought of the life he might have had but knew he never would.

"So am I. I’d really like to know what it’s like to have known mother as a mom," he replied, as he remembered a time long ago. It was just outside a cave with a waterfall where he had for one brief instant been given the chance to tell Xena he loved her before being sent back to his place in the circle.

He glanced at the sad face of his young sibling and smiled. "But you know Tarren, when you meet me in the dream place and tell me about everything you mother and Gabrielle do...it’s almost like I’m there too."

Tarren crawled back onto the log and nestled beside her brother happy for his company. She smiled broadly at the thought that she was actually bringing comfort to the boy with her visits to his world on her ship to Morpheous "I can tell ya lots of stuff…Momma’s really great. She plays with me and teaches me stuff and always loves me…." She twisted her lips and let her voice drop to a whisper. " But if you’re real naughty she warms your backside really good." The child ran her hands up and down the seat of her britches to emphasize the point. "But she’s momma and I know she’s always there and that’s why I love her most," the child said with a confident nod. Her eyes grew suddenly dim and her lip rolled out and she clutched the side of the boy’s knee. "Solon I gotta go back to her now," she cried. "I don’t wanna play no more. I wanna go back to momma right now."

"I know Tarren but it’s not time yet." The boy placed his arm around the smaller child and squeezed gently "Are you naughty a lot?" he asked hoping to distract her from her fears and their mother’s absence.

Tarren sniffled a bit and wiped away tears with the back of her hand. "Uh huh but Momma says that I’m supposed to be cause I’m a kid and she loves me anyway."

The boy’s eyes grew wide at the thought of such unquestionable love and devotion. "Wow it sounds like Mother is …very special."

In the midst of this perfect world of beauty and peace two children allowed tears to fall for a mother they both wished to hold them.

Tarren leaned up against her brother’s chest allowing her head to drop on his shoulder. "Uh huh…She’s the best momma in the world."

The boy swallowed his tears and smiled at the affectionate act. He took in a deep breath of the fresh air around him and leaned back on his arms. "And you have all these great adventures. Tell me again how you saved Mother and Gabrielle from the big dragon and the fifty warlords with only one pebble and a sack of mushrooms," he said with a sigh knowing that while the act was fiction Tarren enjoyed the telling as much as he enjoyed hearing the tale.

The little girl raised a brow with confusion. "Huh? What dragon?" She bit her lip remembering the old story she had made up and shared. "Oh…uh…not now…maybe another time. I’m sort of tired ya know," she said with an exaggerated yawn not too anxious to have her brother find out her heroic stories were merely fictional yarns she told for his enjoyment.

Solon shrugged his shoulders trying not to show his disappointment. "It’s OK…next time."

The little girl nodded her agreement and then picked her head up and stared at the boy with a questioning glint. "Solon?"

Solon closed his eyes and tried to imagine life on the road with Xena, Gabrielle and Tarren. He let his head drop back a bit as he replied. "Yeah Tarren."

The small child fidgeted with the sleeve of the boy’s tunic. "I’m sorry I haven’t told momma how you visit me in my dreams but she gets real upset when she thinks about you too much out loud." She paused. "But I did draw a picture of both of us standing with momma that I gave her and I think she really liked it but…" She paused. "I think it made her sad too."

The boy again swallowed his feelings and forced a smile as she glanced down at his younger sibling. "It’s OK…I hear her thoughts…I know what she feels Tarren…I just wish she would stop blaming herself for my…ya know…. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t…" He paused remembering that Xena had asked in her thoughts for his understanding for never revealing just how the boy had died to Tarren. "It’s not anyone’s fault," he said softly thinking of the rift his death had caused between his mother and Gabrielle.

The child raised a brow at her brother’s cryptic words. "You know how grownups are. They’re not real smart about some stuff." Tarren shrugged and then took a deep breath. "Solon what’s momma thinking right now?" she asked eager to connect with Xena in any way at that moment since she herself could not sense the mother whose thought s and visions she usually shared.

The boy closed his eyes and frowned. "She’s worried…real worried about you. She’s…crying." He lowered his head. "Mother misses you very much Tarren."

Tarren jumped to her feet as if wanting to run in some direction that would take her home. "Solon please tell me how to get to momma. I don’t want her to be sad. It’s all my fault. I ran after her when she said to stay behind and now she’s cryin cause of me. I gotta go back to her."

The tears turned into wavering swabs and the older brother wrapped his arms tightly around the little girl. "I know. It’s Ok Tarren. You’re gonna be going back real soon. I promise and when you do mother will be so happy to see you that she’ll hug you really tight."

"Really?" she asked wishing she could feel the strength and security of her mother’s arms now.

Solon grinned and nodded in agreement. "Yes really." He hugged his small sister and closed his eyes in thought. "Tarren if you ever do tell mother how I visit you would ya tell her how much I love her and not to be sad or blame herself or anyone else. Just tell her I’m OK and I’m always with her." His words became a bit softer and his expression again a bit sad. "And tell Gabrielle I miss her a lot too. I always liked her a lot." He shook a warning finger at the youngster he knew enjoyed torturing the bard. "And you be nice to her. Gabrielle is real special and you’re lucky to have her."

The little girl frowned at the length of the message "I know that. I’m not dumb ya know. Momma and Aunt Eph say I’m a genius." She bit her lip. "That’s good right?" she asked wanting to be clear before she bragged too much.

The boy shook his head. "Yeah that’s good," he replied with a wide grin. The smile faded and he looked to the trees filled with the song of birds that were not really there. "Can you just give them the message genius?" he asked with a smirk.

Tarren pursed her lips considering the task. "Gee that’s a lot to remember but I’ll tell them… someday," she said raising her hand in the air as if offering an oath. After a moment she let her hand fall and stared at her now silent brother. "Solon?

The boy turned his head just enough to allow their blue eyes to lock. "Yeah."

"Do ya think mommy wills till love me when she finds out my secrets?" the youngster asked finding it harder and harder to pretend any longer.

The boy nodded. "Of course little sister. Why would you think otherwise?" he asked with a look of genuine confusion.

Tarren picked a blade of grass from the ground and ran it through her fingers as she dropped her chin to her chest. "I do get in lots of trouble and…She’ll be stuck with me so long…and…I just don’t want to lose momma. I need her Solon…I really need my mommy again," she replied wiping her eyes dry with the back of her small hand.

The boy stared at his sister for a moment before opening his arms and pulling the smaller child closer. "Shh It’s OK…You’ll see everything will be just fine. Mother will be happier than you can imagine to find out how special you are." He tasseled the younger sibling’s hair "Now come on we don’t have a lot of time before you have to go back to mother. Play one game of warlord with me."

Tarren let her head lay against her brother’s chest wishing with all her might he could return with her but knowing that could never be. She took a deep breath and then started the usual banter that existed between them in their private dream world. "We’ll play Warrior Princess," she said firmly folding her arms tightly against her chest.

The boy got to his feet and shook his head. "No we play Warlord."

"Warrior Princess!" was the immediate response.

Solon folded his arms against his chest in equal imitation of his sister’s gesture and stood to his full height. "We play Warlord because I’m older."

Tarren frowned at the action noting it was similar to her mother’s. She stood up on the tree stump staring her brother straight in the eye. "We play Warrior Princess cause if we don’t I’m not gonna help you slay any more dragons with my slingshot," she replied now staring off into the distance.

The boy frowned at this small child’s use of blackmail. "OK fine you can be a Warrior Princess and I’ll be the evil warlord…." He grabbed Tarren and tossed her over his shoulder. " I‘ll be the evil warlord that carries the spoiled little brat off to his castle where you will be tickled until you surrender and agree to play warlord."

Tarren giggled loudly as the boy tossed her from one side of his shoulder to the other. Soon all that could be heard in this large and perfect clearing was the sound of two children playing happily.

Chapter 37 -

Back at the village…

The sun was slowly fading from the sky and the gray dusk was waiting patiently for darkness to put an end to this bit of day.

The Amazons returned to the village in large groups and in the solemn privacy of soft whispers all had agreed to stay for both the celebration of their victory as well as the honoring of the dead. Each of the tribal leaders had said that it was appropriate that Amazons that had fought together and died together in this one great fight, which was now referred to as the ‘Battle of Yesterday,’ should all make their journey to Artemis together as well.

Ephiny pulled at the reigns of her new mount as the familiar cottages of the village came in to complete view. Her eyes narrowed looking at nothing but empty cottages and dusty statues in a square that was normally filled with the vibrant voices of her tribe.

Without the people to make this place a home it was nothing more than a vacant and lifeless arena with no spectators or sport.

The queen took a deep breath and dismounted with a huff. She turned to her friend and fellow Amazon. "Solari I want you to take a band of warriors and go to the centaur village and bring our children home immediately," she said with a stiff nod.

Solari bowed her head slightly. "Yes my queen." She paused. "Ephiny do you wish all of our children brought home?" she asked keeping her eyes low so that the queen could not see the true question.

Ephiny let out a quick breath and grinned knowing her friend had overheard the conversation she had with little Tarren about her own son returning to the village. "No…" She paused. "I will bring Xenon home myself after things have calmed down here a bit." In truth it was Ephiny who needed a little time to find her own peace. She again looked at the waiting Amazon. "Besides I need to talk to his grandfather before I take him. I want him to understand that this is where my son belongs…with me and with his tribe," she replied with a nod as if trying to convince herself it was the truth.

Solari again bowed her head and tightened her hold on her reigns ready to ride in the direction of the centaur lands. "As you wish my queen," was the obedient reply.

Ephiny leaned against the side of her horse letting her fingers run through the mare’s soft mane. She watched her friend start to depart but with a quick lift of her hand brought her to a halt. "Wait!" She turned and faced the now stalled rider. "Can you tell Xenon…tell him…." She bit her lip and let her voice drop to a whisper. "Tell him I’ll be bringing him home to stay very soon and that I miss him," she said her eyes showing her genuine love for the boy.

The corner of Solari’s lip lifted and her eyes grew bright knowing this meant the young prince truly would be returning to his mother and his true home. "Yes my queen! I will be very happy to tell the young prince that he will be coming home."

Ephiny folded her arms and allowed a crooked smile as she watched the now grinning Amazon ride away. "It’s a conspiracy," she mumbled knowing that Solari was among those that felt she should never have sent the boy away in the first place. "Xena’s kid has brainwashed my entire tribe...might as well give Tarren my bonnet and retire," she mumbled with a smirk.

The smile quickly faded as she remembered that the last any one had heard was that Xena and Gabrielle had returned to the village and that the warrior was seen carrying the sick child cradled in her arms. Nobody was sure if the child moved.

Ephiny knew that for Xena not to rejoin the battle could only mean one thing. Tarren was sick enough where it was a choice between life and death for the youngster. Without further hesitation the now panicked Amazon rushed though the thick crowds of dismounting tribes and headed for the royal cottage.

However before the queen could reach her destination a large Amazon wearing a bonnet with many feathers stepped in front of her grabbing her arm bringing Ephiny to a fast halt. "Damn," she muttered knowing this was a delay she could not avoid.

Mussona gave a fast nod holding Ephiny’s arm long enough to force it into a warrior salute with a hearty shake nearly knocking her off balance. "Ephiny I just want to say that I am in full support of the tribes now forming as one nation again." She took a deep breath. "I’m not sure how it will be done but by Artemis it shall be done." There was an odd and slightly evil smile that formed on the woman’s lips as she recalled the glory of the battlefield. Her tongue ran along the side of her lip as if still savoring the taste of a blood. "Amazons fighting beside Amazons against any that would dare to challenge us…That is the way it should always be."

Ephiny lowered her head a bit and nodded knowing from the hunger for further victory that dripped from Mussona’s words that this was a queen that was only seeing a great army being formed and not a great nation. Ephiny pulled her arm back and shook her head. "I’m glad you feel that way Mussona but I don’t wish to bring together an army. I wish to bring together a people."

Mussona stepped forward her breath swaying the hair on Ephiny’s forehead. "Ephiny what is wrong with you? We were victorious against an old and feral enemy today and you seem almost disappointed by it," she said with a slight growl at the Amazon’s reaction to an offer of an alliance.

Ephiny faced her fellow queen allowing her own features to stiffen and her jaw to tighten. The dead had not even placed on their pyres and already the petty arguments were beginning again. An alliance might be possible but it was far from an easy reality.

Ephiny could feel the muscles in her back tighten as she recalled the sight of the dead Amazons and the words that Artemis had shared with her about the price of the future. She stood straight with her chin high in the air. "I am as proud as any here that we were victorious and I am just as proud of the way the Amazons stood together shoulder to shoulder, but I do not want to be part of a force that only wants pointless wars." She felt her fists tighten at the mere thought of another such meaningless battle. "We do not need conquests to be what binds us together Mussona. We are Amazons and that should be enough. I want the Amazon people to be a nation of warriors but warriors who know when they have to fight and when they don’t." Ephiny gave her fellow queen a slight jab in the chest with her finger before turning away. "Think about that before you pledge any further allegiance to these negotiations and this cause Mussona," she warned

Mussona stood speechless and dumbfounded by the shattering words and could only watch in disbelief and even awe as the wisest queen of the Amazons walked away.

Ephiny felt the air from her lungs drain as she again headed in the direction of the royal cottage. But before she could make the final steps that would bring her into the solitude of the hut she was again stopped by another familiar but much less imposing Amazon of the eastern tribes.

The queen placed her hands on her hips and dropped her chin wondering if she would ever make it to Tarren’s side and see for herself that the child was still among the living. She stared at the young Amazon who now blocked her path and grinned. There had been no time for head counts of every tribal member so this was the first Ephiny had seen of this young stranger since they had joined forces to escape from the cave. "Hello Fern. I am glad to see you made it back," she said with a crooked smile remembering how the young girl had helped rally the Amazons of the eastern tribe into action back in the captivity of the caverns.

Fern bowed her head slightly but never allowed her eyes to break with that of the queen that now stood before her. "We would not have escaped if it had not been for you Queen Ephiny," she said trying to mask the admiration she held.

Ephiny shook her head and placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder giving it a gentle squeeze. "No Fern…If it had not been for all of us." She smiled offering her other hand in meaningful warrior salute. "We were a good team."

Fern bowed her head again and accepted the compliment as graciously as she knew how. "Yes I agree. Perhaps we would not have survived if it were not for…." She paused and tapped her finger on her chin trying to find the right words. "As Xena’s child would say…us acting like a family."

Ephiny grinned as she thought of little Tarren and how the youngster’s innocent remarks had bestowed a simple but effective wisdom on the captives of the cave. "I agree." She nodded and started to move past Fern anxiously but was immediately stopped again by the girl’s words.

"I heard what you said to Mussona and I want you to know that I stand with you," this girl from the east said proudly.

Ephiny turned and faced the younger Amazon surprised by this sudden allegiance from one who only a week ago was part of a party that had set out to assassinate her in hopes of ending all such talks. "I’m glad Fern…but what made you change your mind?" she asked a bit bewildered.

Fern smiled and moved up beside the queen. "Family should stick together…no matter what. Is that not right my queen?" she asked with a smirk knowing she was repeating the very words that young Tarren had said to Ephiny.

The queen smiled. "Is there anyone who did not hear what that youngster said to me?" she asked with a grin and a sigh. She looked at Fern staring for a moment at the proud chiseled feature of this young warrior. "I can only hope that you’re new queen agrees with you and offers her support," she said in a gentle but firm tone knowing Penela’s death meant their would be a new leader with new ideas for the tribes of the east.

Fern smiled broadly throwing her shoulders back and raising her chin as high as she could hoping the movement would give her a bit more height. "Queen Ephiny you have just been given the support of the queen of the eastern tribes…I am now the queen," she said with vigor, trying very hard to seem much older than she really was.

Ephiny’s eyes grew wide and she studied the girl’s face to see if there was truth in this mere child’s words. "You but…."

Fern let out a quick breath deciding that her pose was not making her look any more regal or any taller. Her shoulders slumped a bit and her voice became quiet and a bit subdued. "Ephiny I told you that Tyrell was my best friend but I did not tell you that she was also my sister in blood. I am the second daughter of Penella and now with the death of my mother I am the queen of the eastern tribes."

Ephiny was silent for a moment. The events of the day kept getting stranger and stranger. After a brief pause she again offered her arm out in a warrior salute and bowed her head slightly. "Then I am sure you will lead with the same wisdom as your mother did." She paused. "She was a great warrior and a great leader."

The girl’s eyes watered a bit but she would not allow any tears to fall. That would have been unforgivable in Penela’s eyes and Fern knew it. "Yes my mother was a great warrior," she said her voice filled with obvious pride. "And had she lived past this day I know she would have agreed with what I am about to say." She again stood tall since this would be her first official declaration as queen. "Ephiny you have the allegiance of the eastern tribes. I pledge to stand beside your tribe and whatever Amazon tribes will stand with us as one nation." She smiled and winked at the queen. "We will be a family again."

There were no words that Ephiny could speak to express the weight of her emotions and now growing hopes for the future of her people, all her people. The dream was coming alive and the Amazons were now starting to weave the bonds that would make them of one fabric again.

In the cottage…

Xena’s head lifted slightly and she turned to the still silent bard. "They’re back."

Actually the highly trained and acute hearing of the Warrior Princess had heard the sound of the breaking twigs and distant hoof prints some time ago but did not feel it was worth mentioning.

Gabrielle kept her eyes trained on the small and still unconscious child in the bed letting her own fingers run along the youngster’s forehead. With a shrug she leaned in closer to the pallet and kissed the little girl’s cheek. "I’m glad they’re…ok," was all she managed to say.

The bard was torn between the hope that she had lost no more friends after her departure from the battle and the desire to not look at the faces of those very people she felt had caused her life to be torn to shreds.

Xena took a deep breath and ran her thumb over the small hand that was still encased in her own. "Yeah I hope that Eph made it through," she replied feeling a twinge of guilt but not regret for not having chosen to care for her child rather than rejoin the battle.

Gabrielle’s words became light and distant. It was as if all the emotion had been drained from the soul of the young bard leaving behind only a shell of vacant thoughts and hopes with nothing strong enough to support the weight. "Yeah me too," she said making no attempt to rise and see just who amongst her friends still walked amongst the living.

Knowing it was only a matter of time before the stillness of the village was completely vanquished by the sounds of life returning to empty huts and vacant halls, the warrior smiled and turned to her friend eager to share a private thought. "Gabrielle do you remember that Solstice game we played for Tarren back on the trail?" she asked in a near whisper never releasing for a moment her child’s hand.

The bard grinned a bit at what seemed like such a distant time and place when in fact it the event was only a few weeks earlier. "Yeah I remember."

Xena let her eyes drop to the face of her child again and moved the fingers of her free hand slowly up and down the youngster’s cheek. "She really liked that a lot and so did I. Thank you," she said quietly with a hard swallow.

Gabrielle closed her eyes knowing that this was Xena’s way of holding on to her faith. The warrior was reliving in her mind each and every moment of Tarren’s time with her by playing the past months over again like a favorite movie. "You’re welcome," the younger woman replied simply with a slight jerk on each word. She took a deep breath and forced a weak smile anxious to move away from the subject of her own contributions. "I really did nothing…I can’t wait until we can show her a real Solstice instead though," she said with a fast gulp trying to keep her voice steady.

Xena ignored the words almost angered by the light way she felt her friend had taken the importance of the part she played in Tarren’s life. "No I mean it Gabrielle. I really want to thank you for everything you’ve done for her and for me. She loves you and needs you and so do…"

Gabrielle could sense it. She was sure she could feel it. The bard felt as if Xena were toying with her, waiting for the right moment to drown her in a pool of blame just like she had when Solon died. "Xena stop it. I’ve been no help at all lately. I failed you. I failed Tarren and…." She turned in her chair facing the door. "I failed myself," she said closing her eyes and gripping one hand tightly in the other as if trying to hold on to the last shred of her being.

Xena’s brow raised and her already dark features seem to cast a new shadow. "Gabrielle what are you talking about? You haven’t failed anyone." She glanced at the little girl and let her voice become soft and tender. "You share your life with Tarren and that’s the greatest gift you could give her. You are…"

The bard jumped from her seat stealing her touch from the child’s skin. She moved back gripping the sides of her temples trying to drown out the words she was sure would come. If Xena would not blame her then she would surely blame herself. "Enough! Please no more. Please don’t tell me how kind I am or how generous. I came here because I wanted to change the Amazons. I had to try and make them see the way of peace and as a result of that and everything else I did Tarren may…." She paused and covered her mouth with both hands to keep the words from escaping. "It’s my fault"

"No it’s not! "What’s wrong with you?" the warrior yelled turning in her seat but never even for a moment releasing her touch from the child.

The now anxious bard paced around the room sliding her hand up and down her arm as if trying to warm a sudden chill. "Xena don’t you understand? This is my fault. Tarren is lying there because of me," she said closing her eyes long enough to try and block out the sight of her friend’s expression.

The warrior lowered her chin, let out a long breath and shook her head as if trying to make sense of her friend’s sudden outburst. "That’s ridiculous. Tarren is lying here because she didn’t do as she was told," the mother replied adamantly, feeling still that it was her own responsibility to shoulder the blame for her child’s actions.

Gabrielle ran her hand over her forehead wiping the blond strands away in a mass of anxiety. She took a deep breath and looked at the warrior making an effort to control all the emotion that was now welling up inside. She spoke in quick but controlled whispers. "Xena she’s a little girl…a small child. They don’t always do what they’re told. It’s our job as adults to watch them and care for them and I left her alone when I shouldn’t have." The tears were starting to well and the voice starting to crack. "It was…It was…only for a few minutes so…just so… I could get her the medicine but it was a mistake…a mistake you wouldn’t have made," she said staring oddly at the warrior, her voice suddenly filled with an unexplained anger directed at her best friend.

Green eyes that were usually soft and filled with compassion were now filled with a rage that was foreign to the gentle pools of emerald that usually flowed in this place. "You never do anything wrong. Do you? Everything you say or do or are fills Tarren’s world and yours too. You’re her mother and her hero." She gave a sick little laugh. "She doesn’t listen to me…I’m not…." There was a pause and the bards face went blank as she let her hands fall to her side as if surrendering without a fight. "Why should she? I’m no great Warrior Princess. I’m not even a real Amazon. I’m just the storyteller Gabrielle." She shook her head and smiled weakly her voice so soft it was barely audible. "I’m not even that anymore am I Xena? Bard’s don’t kill…It’s all…my…fault…everything…." She slid against the wall and pressed her hands tightly behind her. The voice became soft but distant and apologetic. "I’m sorry Xena. I am so sorry I didn’t take better care of her. I really wanted to but…."

Xena swallowed hard and looked from her child to the woman who had been her best friend for many summers. "Gabrielle stop it! This is not your fault," she barked.

"Yes it is," was the fast reply of a tiny little voice of a figure still pressed firmly against the wall.

Xena kept Tarren’s hand in her own but started to rise wanting to reach out to her friend. "No it’s not. If it’s anyone’s fault then it’s mine for leaving her in the first place," she said tenderly.

Seeing Xena was making an effort to be comforting only infuriated the already confused bard. "What you really mean is leaving your daughter with me because had she been with someone who watched her well…who was more responsible…who Tarren respected…then she wouldn’t have run off."

The words thought can be changed but once spoken can never be retrieved.

The warrior’s eyes flared at the obvious accusation that she did not trust her friend. "No that’s not what I meant! Why are you twisting my words around?" she asked, trying not to let the growing venom in her own voice become too apparent. "What I mean is that I should have stayed because I’m her mother and she’s my responsibility and…."

Gabrielle threw her hands up in the air and again paced around the hut nervously, her words a string of thoughts tied together by only one word, guilt. "Oh and here I thought we were sharing the responsibility. I thought I was helping you raise Tarren," she ranted.

The warrior shook her head in disbelief. All of this had started with a simple compliment she had tried to share. "Gabrielle you are helping and we are…."

The bard threw her hands up in the air again knowing that if she allowed Xena to finish her sentence that her words might make sense, might make her feel better and Gabrielle did not want to feel better. She wanted to feel the weight of her actions and the pain of all she had done. It was all she knew and all she had left.

The green eyes paused in their frantic flurry of movement long enough to lock with a familiar blue gaze staring back at her. Her words became low and the soft voice began to crack again under the strain of its own confusion. "Xena you never would have had to leave here if I hadn’t taken off on my own trying to spread my useless words of peace…Ephiny wouldn’t have been taken and you wouldn’t have led the rescue mission and had to leave Tarren behind," she said, tears running down the sides of her face.

Xena realized that there was little she could say to ease her friend’s obvious pain and feeling of guilt. She herself knew all too well that was a burden one carried alone. Her eyes flickered as she thought of the words she could say to lift the weight from her friend’s shoulders and for the first time in her life wished she had the well spoken bard’s gift for saying the right thing. "Gabrielle we can sit here and "what if" all the way back to the path I chose to travel from Amphipolis." She let out a short breath "What if I had not gone there? What if I had taken a different path out and we never met up with Ephiny? What if I had never allowed Tarren to leave my sight?" She thought of her last statement and cringed under her own weight of responsibility. Her eyes fell back on her young daughter as she continued her words to the bard. "Yeah we can do that and it’s not going to change anything," she whispered caressing the child’s face again with the side of her thumb.

Gabrielle covered her eyes with her hands as if trying to find some kind of strength in the very fingers that had brought words to life in scrolls, but when she removed them all that was left was the tear stained cheeks of a once gentle spirit lost in a mask of confusion. "Xena I…." She ran her hands together in a sliding fashion and then rung them nervously against her chest as she spoke in a withered tone. "I…I know nothing can change the fact that Tarren may not get well and it won’t wash the blood from my hands." She placed her clean hands in front of the warrior "You see the blood Xena?" she asked with a slight shiver.

The warrior looked at the gentle hands now placed before her. They were trembling but there was no blood. She reached up and held the younger woman’s hands in her own squeezing them gently. "No Gabrielle I don’t see any blood." She paused and let her voice become gentle and steady as she studied her wavering friend. "Do you?"

Gabrielle looked at her hands and shrugged. "I see lots of things. I see blood…I see death. It will never go away. I can wash and wash but it will always be there. I will always see it," she cried, yanking her hands free and taking a few steps back until her back was again pressed safely against the wall.

Xena took a long and hard look at the bard. This had been a subject they had not even broached. Even the warrior herself was finding it hard to accept that her gentle young friend had taken a life in such fashion. "Gabrielle you did what…you thought you had to…I know you are having a rough time and…."

The words were fast and filled with venom never spoken in the younger woman’s words. "Xena I killed someone…murdered! Stop making it sound like I burned breakfast or lost a fishing line." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I killed a man and what’s worse I stabbed him in the back." She shook her head at the horrid memory that was now playing over and over again in her mind.

The warrior’s lips pursed together and her brows lowered. "Gabrielle you did what you had to do. In a battle sometimes we just don’t have a choice." She made a motion as if starting to rise from her place on the pallet but the bard’s fast hand waving in the air halted the warrior’s movement.

The younger woman laughed a sick little chuckle that was mixed with both anger and tears. "We don’t have a choice? I had a choice. I didn’t have to be there. I didn’t have to be here." She motioned to the hut and Amazon village around her. "No Xena this is not like the temple." She cringed at the memory of how she had spilled the blood of another soul in an effort to save the life of a man who was destined to be a sacrifice to Dahok. She closed her eyes and shook her head. "No Xena not this time and not now…Please gods not now. I just can’t listen to your justification for killing because you do it so well and with such ease…." She took a deep breath. "I need some air I’ll be back. You take care of Tarren. She needs you and I need to be alone," she cried bolting out the door leaving the warrior both stunned.

Xena held her daughter’s hand in her own squeezing it gently as she watched her friend race from the hut before she could find the words to say. She glanced down at the child. "Well Monster it looks like it’s just you an me for a bit." She glanced back to the door wishing it would swing open and the bard would reappear but she did not. "Gabrielle needs to find her own way back." She kissed the child on the forehead and wrapped her arm around the small form pulling her in close to her chest. "Just like you do baby. Find your way back to me Tarren. I need you. Please find your way back to me…to us," she whispered," rocking the child lovingly in her arms.

Just outside the hut…

The smell of the fresh air filled Gabrielle’s nostrils but the normally calming clean and brisk winds that ran across her skin felt too distant to sooth her. She crossed her arms rubbing herself briskly trying to chase a way a phantom chill. It was as if the bard’s skin was no longer hers but only the exterior part of the mask she now wore.

Gabrielle felt the world start to spin and steadied herself against the cottage door. A tear escaped as she realized that the very body she inhabited and was trying to calm now seemed to belong to some stranger in a far away place, one she could no longer touch or speak to…one she no longer knew but only longed to feel again…longed to be again.

The bard took heavy gulps of air as she let her fingers slip from the door hearing the wood of the frame bounce a bit as it made contact with the latch that secured it. Her breathing slowed and she bent grabbing onto her knees as she tried to get a focus on her thoughts. "You just need to relax and be by yourself and everything will be ok," she said quietly trying to reassure herself.

However as her breathing slowed and her shaking hands steadied a bit the young woman’s ears perked and the pupils exploded. The green eyes blinked frantically as they swallowed the sight of the returning Amazons now surrounding her space, her very private space.

There were horses with dismounting warriors everywhere she looked. Some were so caught up in their conversation and whispers about the battle that they did not notice their bardly queen in the shadow of the pale sun. A few pointed and waved and Gabrielle just swallowed and let her eyes scan the area for the fastest escape route. With a few quick steps and her eyes low she began to move. The crowd was closing in and it was time for a fast retreat. The bard took a deep breath and picked up her pace ready to sprint through the crowd but she moved so fast that she ran right into the familiar force of another queen also moving with great determination but in a different direction.

Ephiny smiled broadly and grabbed her friend’s shoulders drawing the young woman into a fast and reluctant embrace. The bard froze wincing at the touch as if the affection was now somehow causing her pain. "Gabrielle!" The queen jumped back just as the two bodies collided mid-step. "I am so glad to see you. How’s Tarren?" she asked eager to enter the cottage just paces away and see the sick child for herself.

The bard tried diligently to avert her eyes and mask the tears that surely stained her cheeks. "Ephiny...I…I…." She took a deep breath and forced a smile and reached out giving her friend a quick hug. "I’m…I’m very glad you are all right," she said in a heartfelt but quick stammer of words.

The queen raised a brow and stared at her friend oddly. "Are you Ok?" The Amazon’s eyes grew wide. "Tarren is not…"

The bard placed a single finger in the air as if not wanting to even hear the thought. "No Tarren is in the cottage." She lowered her eyes. "Tarren’s not doing too well…yet…but she’s still with us." She sniffled a bit and gave a weak smile. "Tarren’s a tough little kid…just like her Mother. I think she’d rather run through Hades bare than leave Xena and…" She took a hard swallow of air. "But…but…"

Gabrielle was slowly losing her grip on her thoughts and words again.

Ephiny placed a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder. "Gabrielle I’m sure she will be fine. You said it yourself she’s a tough little kid." She studied the broken expression on the younger woman knowing there was more than just the child’s illness weighing on the bard’s mind. Gabrielle had a sickness of the soul. "But you? What about you?" she asked noting an odd mixture of emotions and a nervousness about the bard that was not usually present in the eyes of this confident young woman.

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders and looked down at tips of her boots wondering if they always looked so warn at the very edge or if she had merely never noticed before. "Me? Oh Eph I’m just tired and worried about Tarren and Xena." The tears started to fall again. "You know Tarren is that big bad warrior’s world. She ….We both…." The words would not form in her mind and not be spoken leaving all the emotions of the once vibrant bard now pale.

The friendly hand that was still positioned on her left shoulder tightened. "I know you love them both," the queen said with a nod and a gentle smile.

Gabrielle glanced up wondering just when her Amazon friend had gone from the stiff regal warrior queen to this wise and perceptive oracle. She nodded and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I’m sorry Eph. I really should be holding it together better."

The queen tilted her head to one side and patted her friend’s shoulder gently. "Hey the way I hear it you held it together just fine." Ephiny straightened up a bit as if wanting to say these words with a warrior’s pride. "You led these people," she motioned her hand around the now bustling village. "When they needed a leader you stepped forward and you earned your place as a Queen of this nation," she stated proudly bowing her head slightly.

The bard shook her head frantically and backed away from the comforting hand of her friend. "Please don’t thank me Ephiny." She shook her head nervously "And don’t ever call me that again…I’m not a queen…I’m not an Amazon…I’m just Gabrielle…Just Gabrielle…That’s all I want to be," she yelled, still placing distance between she and the queen.

Ephiny’s eyes narrowed at her friend’s odd reaction to a compliment. She felt a wave of confusion break against her mind. There was time not so long ago when this talkative bard would have traded her tongue for a chance at adventure, to be called a warrior like Xena and here she was turning away any thought of tribute to such actions. The queen took a step in the direction of the now stalled figure. "But Gabrielle you were a good leader. You led our people into battle and were as you always should have been…their queen."

By now the two infamous figures encounter had drawn a crowd of murmuring Amazons around them forcing Gabrielle to back even further away from the faces she once knew.

The bard could feel her insides twisting and churning as the voice penetrating her ears came through like loud bells warning her of an attack she was not armed for.

As if trying to shield her hearing and save her mind she shook her head and covered her ears trying to steady her words enough to respond to the tirade of meaningless words being throw in her direction. "No! No! No! I am not a queen! I don’t want to be your princess or even an Amazon. I’m a bard." Tears fell from her eyes as she stared at her friend. "Damn it Ephiny I’m a bard and I only acted the part of a leader." The words were now free and there was no holding back what she felt in her heart. "There’s a difference between acting and being and I was only acting because I had no choice. Don’t you understand? I’m sorry I came here." The face was now swollen with tears and again the young woman found her chest tightening forcing her breathes to shorten. "I‘m just sorry I ever came here," she cried, looking at the mixture of familiar and strange faces studying her like an animal on display at a fair.

Before the queen could respond the younger woman sprinted through the compound heading directly for the temple of Artemis, hoping to find solitude in a place of peace and worship.

Sheloppa stepped from the crowd and stood beside Ephiny as she watched Gabrielle break through the crowd without so much as an acknowledgement for a simple hello or a polite bow of respect.

Shelopa’s eyes went wide at the sight and she turned to Ephiny. "Do you wish me to follow her and she that she is safe my queen?" she asked with noted concern.

Ephiny took a deep breath as she stared at the now distant figure entering the temple of their goddess. After a brief moment she shook her head and turned to her friend. "No Sheloppa. Where Gabrielle needs to go we…nobody can follow. She must make this journey alone."

In the cottage…

The smell of the wood burning in the fireplace mixed with the aroma of a heavy herbal poultice hung in the air but the warrior mother was immune to all odors and sounds. Only her eyes were needed to see her child and only her hands were needed to touch the soft warm skin of the little girl who shared her heart.

One long finger skillfully traced the youngster’s cherub like face as the mother hummed a gentle lullaby. "Momma’s here baby," she whispered as the tips of her fingers caressed the youngster’s skin with her fingers while she sill held the small hand in her own securely in the other.

The soft creaking of the hinge made Xena’s eyes flicker but she did not move nor pause in her careful touch of her child "Hi Eph. I’m glad to see you made it back in one piece," she said in a near whisper, never turning to face her friend but merely acknowledging the queen’s presence.

Ephiny grinned. "I should have known you’d smell me from a mile away especially knowing how bad I must wreak after being in that pit for nearly two days," she said with a forced smile glancing at the small child in the bed.

The warrior nodded and kept her eyes focused on Tarren but did not respond.

The queen stepped quietly into the cottage and sat in the chair beside the pallet glancing down at the little girl still lying motionless. "How is she?" she asked with genuine concern for the youngster who now had a place in her own heart.

Xena shrugged as she wiped a few stray hairs from the youngster’s brow. "She’s alive and that’s something." She turned her head slightly to face her regal friend. "Right?" she asked hoping for a bit of reassurance.

The Amazon nodded but decided against offering the comfort of a touch. She knew Xena was somehow connected to little Tarren and that any touch would be an intrusion. "Yeah that’s…everything Xena," she replied reassuringly.

The warrior took a deep breath and leaned down to kiss the little girl on the cheek. "The fever’s gone but she’s just too tired to come back right now. She needs lots of rest," she said with a sad sigh, hoping in her heart that her child would find her way back to the land of the living.

Ephiny closed her eyes and took a moment to find her strength. She looked at the pale complexion of the small form barely giving a wisp of air. "Yeah Xena she …just needs rest," she said with a hard swallow, wondering if the anxious warrior really knew house close to death the little girl appeared. "Do you want me to send in a healer?" she asked wanting to offer some kind of assistance.

"No Eph she’s my baby and I can take care of her," the warrior mother replied with a weak smile.

The queen shook her head and chastised herself for the words. Xena was just as reputed for being a great healer as she was great a warrior. "Of course you can. I’m sorry I didn’t think…"

The warrior shook her head. "It’s Ok Eph…I really appreciate your concern." There was a deep breath taken and held for a long moment. "If you really want to do something for me you’ll talk to Gabrielle. She’s having a tough time dealing with this and …" She rubbed the side of her temple with the tip of one finger trying to force the words out of her mind. "Gabrielle killed one of the Argonians because…" She closed her eyes. " Because she thought he had the drop on me while I was carrying Tarren."

"Did he?" the queen asked with a look of disbelief at the words she was hearing.

Gabrielle had killed in cold blood. The very gentle bard who had lectured on the useless deaths of the battlefields had taken a life. It seemed so unreal. It was as if an ivory statue had fallen from its stone white pillar shattering everyone’s faith.

Xena could feel her hand rubbing the round weapon at her side and remembered the touch of cool metal against her finger, as she turned ready to take the life of the man who was raising his blade in the air a few feet behind. "Yeah I heard him but Gabrielle didn’t know that and she’s blaming herself for everything." She shook her head and leaned in closer to her daughter’s face. "She even blames herself for Tarren being taken and that’s…." She swallowed hard. "Not her fault."

The queen could feel the air drain from her lungs and her shoulder’s slump as she listened to the heartfelt words of the Warrior Princess. Ephiny had left one battlefield only to enter another. Except on this ground each of the parties was a very good friend and each was fighting demons inside of themselves that she could not battle with them "Well that explains a lot," she said in a near whisper.

Xena tucked the blankets up closer to the little girl as she continued to hum. "What are you talking about?" she asked keeping her eyes trained on each rise and fall of the child’s chest.

Ephiny folded her arms in her lap and dropped her head down a bit as she spoke. "I ran into Gabrielle outside…literally…and she wasn’t looking too good," she explained.

Xena closed her eyes and spoke with a broken voice as she caressed the little girl’s sweaty brow. "I know…she ran out of here when I tried to talk to her about today." A quick breath was let out. "I guess I said the wrong thing."

The queen shook her head and leaned back in the chair she had positioned herself in. "I didn’t do much better. I told her how proud I was of her for leading the army and she went wild and ran off."

Xena’s eyes went wide and her head snapped in the queen’s direction. "Gabrielle led the army? I thought she just followed," she said her words filled with disbelief.

Ephiny took a long hard breath and then exhaled it as if looking for strength to say the words that she herself still found hard to believe. It had become obvious by the warrior’s reaction that she had no idea just what part the bard had played in the battle. "No Xena…she led the army and the way I heard it she even set up the strategy for the attack too."

Xena closed her eyes. "Damn! I told her to follow her heart and lead her people but I didn’t mean for her to lead them into battle. That is not her heart’s way…." She shook her head. "It’s mine. I thought she would just keep the tribe together with her words of faith and peace until the other tribes arrived," she said staring blankly into the air. "I should have done something more to help her but I had to find my daughter."

The warrior’s heart was now torn in two feeling the pain for each of the two people that made her world complete.

Ephiny tilted her head to one side. "She did well Xena. I don’t understand the problem," the Amazon said with a slight grumble.

The warrior took a deep breath and turned her head just enough to catch the sour Amazon’s expression. "Eph, Gabrielle is not a warrior. Her heart is gentle and soft and she went against everything she believes in by leading people into a bloody battle." Her head dropped a bit. "Now she’s lost herself Eph. She’s not sure who she is anymore," she said quietly, still feeling a sting from the bard’s words as she played them over in her mind.

Ephiny rubbed her hands together nervously. As an Amazon she had been raised to be a warrior knowing death and even killing was part of life. However in her most recent days she had come to understand that the sword was not always the answer. "I’m sorry Xena. I know she has a right to feel as she does. It was wrong of me to ever push her and you into coming here," she said with a sigh never really taking into account the effect that acting as a true warrior might have on one so gentle as Gabrielle. "So what do we do?" she asked with noted concern for all three of her friends.

Xena closed both hands around little Tarren’s finger and bowed her head to touch them. "Right now Gabrielle needs to figure this out for herself and I…need to be here with Tarren." She turned her head a bit to look at the Amazon. "When she’s ready for us to help her…Gabrielle will let us know."

Ephiny nodded in understanding and again glanced at the child lying snuggly in her mother’s arms. With a fast breath she reached into her belt pulling out the child’s chucks and placing them on the bed beside the youngster’s head. It was time for a change of subject and for keeping promises. "Xena I want you to know that if it wasn’t for Tarren’s weapons and her… heart I don’t know if we…." Her voice trailed off and she patted the metal wands. "I uh polished them up as best I could. I promised her I would before I gave them back to you."

The warrior’s fingers crawled cautiously along the pallet until they ran over the cool metal of the item she knew was her young daughter’s most prized possession. "Thanks Eph." She forced a smile and faced the queen as she caressed the weapon. "She really hates cleaning these. I always tell her she has to do it but truth is I wind up doing it myself. I don’t know why I just don’t polish them for her in the first place. I guess maybe I just like the way she tries to…tries…to…." An image of the mischievous smile of the youngster appeared in the mother’s thoughts and she gripped the weapon tightly fighting back the tears that wanted so much to be set free. "Thanks Eph I’ll make sure she gets them just as soon as she wakes up." Xena again focused all her attention back on her youngster.

Ephiny placed a gentle hand on her friend’s shoulder. "Xena I also promised that I would give you a message for her," the queen said with a bit of hesitation.

The mother’s eyes closed and a few tears escaped. "Tarren can give me the message herself when she wakes up," she replied stiffly, pulling away from the touch and shadowing her body protectively over her child.

The queen bit her lip and remembered the look on the youngster’s face when she had asked the words to be given to her mother. "I know but…She wanted you to hear it right away and I did promise." She gave a crooked smile. "I don’t want that kid of yours mad at me again," she said softly, hoping a bit of levity would make the delivering of the message easier.

Xena turned her head away so that the water spilling from her eyes and down her cheeks could not be seen. "OK. What is it?" she asked, clearing her throat in an effort to steady her voice.

Ephiny took a small breath and stared at the child now wrapped in her mother’s arms. "Tarren just wanted to be sure that you knew that she loves you and that she thinks you’re the best mother in the whole world." A hard gulp is taken. "She said that she didn’t want you to ever be sad," she said as steadily as she could without her own control being lost but making sure to repeat the child’s words with precision. "She’s a really special little kid Xena."

"I know she is." There was a sniffle and the warrior clasped the little girl’s hand in her own and kissed it. "Oh you’re just trying to get on my good side because you know you are in big trouble. Right Monster? Well it’s not gonna work." Again she sniffled and choked back her words as she held the small hand in her own. "You’re in big trouble…very big trouble and…." The cracking words were cut off and Xena turned to Ephiny making no effort to mask her pain. "That’s all she’s doing ya know. She knows she’s in for it for following me so she’s not waking up." The mother’s husky voice broke in two. "Why won’t she wake up Eph? Why won’t she come back?" she asked in a pleading tone.

The queen slid to her knees and placed her arms around her warrior friend hoping it was the appropriate gesture to make. "Gods Xena don’t you dare lose hope. That kid never lost faith that you’d come for her. Don’t you lose faith that she’ll come back to you. I just know she will," she said with a touch of anger sure it was the reaction her friend needed to regain control.

The warrior mother took a deep breath and nodded. "I know. I know she will Eph but thanks." She smiled as she spoke to the Amazon beside her knowing that as a mother she knew the pain that Xena felt. " It was nice to hear right now." She swallowed hard and for the first time stared directly at her friend allowing their eyes to meet and the battle scars to be exchanged with a glance. Two mothers…two warriors and each knowing the others pain. "I’m sorry I couldn’t come back to help."

Ephiny grinned a bit as she ran her own hand down the little girl’s arm. "Hey you did enough for us. Cutting away those branches and clearing the path…You gave us the edge we needed." She reached behind her back and removed a sword from her own scabbard. "Solari found this and we thought you might like it back." She placed the warriors famed battle blade on the table beside the bed.

Xena closed her eyes and looked away from the instrument that had led her away from her youngster. "Thanks but…"

Ephiny’s voice became taught and serious. "Xena you can no more change who or what you are than I can so don’t say things now that you will only take back later." She gave the warrior a friendly slap on the back. "Tarren would say you were fibbing and if I know that kid of yours she’s listening to everything we say and taking notes"

The mother smiled and let out a long breath as she pulled the youngster closer wanting the child to feel and share each of the heartbeats in her own chest. "Yeah I’ll bet she is."

The queen turned to leave wanting to give her friend some privacy with her child. "I’ll check back later," she said ready to depart.

A husky but fragile voice stopped her. "Queen Ephiny?"

The Amazon turned surprised by the sudden use of title that the warrior princess never used. "Yeah."

The warrior turned her head slowly and swallowed a bit as she spoke. "Thanks."

Ephiny stared at the dark chiseled features staring back at her. "For what?" she asked feeling that if there was a debt owed it was she herself who was in debt.

Xena grinned at the modesty she knew her friend was showing. "I know you took care of Tarren…I could feel her thoughts inside of me. " She motioned to her head and heart "And …well thank you for taking care of her…that’s all."

The queen paused long enough to move back to the pallet and run her fingers loosely through child’s hair. "We took care of each other." She thought of her own son. "And I learned a lot…but let’s not tell her that. I’ll never hear the end of it," she said with a smirk.

Xena was about to reply when she heard a slight but audible gurgle from the figure lying in her arms. The great warrior’s breathing increased ass he moved in closer to the child. "Tarren? Baby I’m right here," she said in a fast breath filled with emotion.

"Stuffy…Stuffy?" was all the little whisper would say.

Ephiny dropped beside the bed. "What is she saying?" she asked staring with equal intent at the youngster’s quivering lips.

Xena dabbed the child’s forehead with a cloth. "Stuffy? Maybe it’s too stuffy in here because of the fire." Xena leaned in as close as she could. "I’m sorry baby but I have to keep you warm."

As if locked still in another world but reaching out one hand to touch the heart of those she loved most the child repeated her whisper before falling back into a trance of solitude. "Stuffy Momma…Where is my Stuffy?"

Xena kissed the little girl on the cheek and held her tightly against her chest. "Eph would you find Gabrielle. Tell her that my little warrior is trying to fight her way back here and …she…." The mother paused and thought of her friend’s previous reaction to her words. "Just tell her we both need her right now."

Ephiny smiled and patted the little girl’s leg before sprinting out the door in search of the bard. "You bet I will." This was the first sign of real hope that Tarren might ever return.

Xena rocked the youngster in her arms as she nestled the child’s face against her chest. "That’s right baby you fight. You want to be a Warrior Princess like me then you fight your way back to me. Do you understand?" she said in a soft but parental tone hoping her little girl could here both the words and the love intertwined in each breath.

Again there was silence and the mother was left to rock the youngster in her arms praying that Tarren could win the battle she knew the child was now fighting.

Xena took a deep breath and as her eyes wandered across the pallet she caught site of the large leather saddlebags that had been thrown on the mattress in a frantic flurry of movements when the warrior had first returned to the cottage with Tarren in her arms.

The warrior mother’s eyes locked on the now familiar bound parchments that contained the early life of both her young daughter and the very essence of the old mystic who had once guided Xena in her darkest times. With a hard swallow she stretched out her hand never allowing her body to so much as shake the now twitching child in her embrace. "Tarren baby I have Nala’s diary here. You know how you always wanted to know what was in it." She swallowed a massive lump and gave the youngster a soft squeeze. "I’ll tell you what’s in it. You’re in baby. It’s all about you." Xena held the diary tightly in one arm as she rocked the little girl gently and whispered in her ear. "Come back to me. I know you’re fighting real hard baby but Momma needs you really bad right now so please come back to me."

The youngster’s body flinched a bit but her eyes did not open. From that distant place where the little one was trying to escape she spoke again. "Momma! I want Momma! Where’s my Stuffy?"

Xena lifted the child from the pallet deciding her own touch was worth more that a pile of blankets and a soft pallet. She kissed the child’s forehead as she opened the diary and began reading from the beginning.

"Today my Princess gave the world a gift…a very special little girl. This child shall change the path of the our chosen one forever."

Xena let out a quick breath wondering why she was so often referred to as "chosen one" in Nala’s entries. She remembered back to the events in the old mystic’s home village of Goden where the other mystics known as the circle of 12 had called her by the same title after she had saved the children of the village somehow changing the course of history for that one odd little place.

The warrior mother let the thought pass over her and brought her concentration back to the little bundle in her hold. Xena felt a tear race down her cheek and made no effort to stop it. She looked down at the child in her arms waiting for the eyes to pop open and the pale features to be filled with new life and strength. "You see baby. You were special right from the start," she whispered as she pressed the little girl closer and allowed her fingers to flip through the pages of time. So now you come back to me. You’ve been away long enough Tarren. It’s time for you to come back where you are needed and loved…come home to me little one."

In that place where there is no true darkness…

The boy jumped from behind the tree but his sister was nowhere to be seen. He scratched his head and dropped his makeshift sword to one side wondering where she was hiding. "Tarren!" he called afraid the little girl had somehow found a way to seek trouble even in this place of peace.

There was nothing but a soft whistle and whoosh and the squeaky sound of a child’s battle cry. By the time the boy looked up a small pair of boots had already made contact with his chest knocking him to the ground.

Tarren straddled the boy keeping him pinned beneath her boots. She smiled arching an eyebrow as high as she could while offering her own version of their mother’s evil little laugh.

Solon could feel the wind returning to his body as he tried to sit up. He grinned, looking at the satisfied expression of his little sister. "That was really good Tarren. I didn’t even hear you and you even sound like Mother," he said attempting to rise.

The little girl smile broadened and she pushed her brother back to the dirt flopping on top of him. "Really Solon? Did I really sound like Momma?" she asked eagerly.

The boy again grimaced at his lose of wind but nodded. "Yup. You are a Warrior Princess in the making if I ever saw one," he said knowing it was just what the child wanted to hear.

Tarren’s eyes grew wide but then her brow arched and she pinned the boy’s arms to the dirt. "You are a prisoner of the Warrior Princess Tarren and I have not finished with you yet boy," she said with as much force as her squeaky voice could muster.

Solon frowned. This was no longer fun. "Come one get up," he said giving the youngster a nudge.

The little girl merely shook her head as she placed her knees closer to her brother’s chin wanting to make sure he did not turn away as she gave him her best warrior princess grin. "No I like sitting right here." She shook her butt from left to right and sighed. "You’re nice and squishy to sit on," she teased.

The boy frowned at this stubborn youngster’s behavior but then smiled and did a quick roll on the ground jumping to his feet with his surprised little sister straddled over one shoulder. "You are not the only one that can act like mother," he warned giving the smaller child a quick snap in the britches and lowering her safely to the ground.

Tarren yelped a bit at the action and rubbed her seat. "Hey what did you do that for?" she asked giving the tall boy a quick shove to show her displeasure.

Solon gave a crooked as he rocked on his heels. "Because you are a brat," he replied his arms folded in Xena fashion.

Tarren moved forward again giving the boy a quick shove. "You’re not Momma so I don’t care what you say," she yelled turning away. She paused for a moment and bit her lip. "How come I always get in so much trouble anyway?" she mumbled, knowing that Xena would surely paddle her good for disobeying and following after her mother.

Solon shook his head and moved up beside his sister. "Maybe because you never behave yourself Tarren," he said sternly.

Tarren chewed on her lower lip and let her eyes grow wide as she glanced up at her larger sibling. "I behave lots Solon." She lowered her eyes and shrugged. "But nobody’s ever watching when I am being good. They only catch me when I’m bad," she said with a sulk for the injustice of the system.

Solon chuckled a bit at his little sister’s use of logic. He tasseled her hair and then placed a loving arm around her shoulder. "I don’t think it works that way Tarren. Mother loves you and she wants you to grow up to be good." He gave the child a little nudge. "She only punishes you because she loves you so much and she doesn’t want any bad stuff to happen to you. Understand?" he asked not sure if he could impart this newfound wisdom to the child. He himself only had come to learn these things from listening to his mother’s thoughts. He knew how much she loved Tarren and how truly terrified she was of losing the youngster. Xena would not allow Tarren to follow the very path of darkness she herself had once taken.

Tarren shrugged. "Yeah I know Momma loves me…but…." He looked up at the boy. "Being good is awful hard and I don’t always wanna do what Momma tells me, " she grumbled.

Solon threw his hands up in surrender. "Well then considering the size of Mother’s hand and the size of your butt I’d say you better get used to eating on you feet little sister," he replied with a grin.

Tarren again rubbed the seat of her britches. "I already am," she murmured. The sour expression quickly disappeared replaced by the mischievous glint of the small child returned. "I do get to sit on Mommy’s lap all the time and she kisses me and hugs me and tells me how much she loves me and me and…Sometimes she even cries if I get a spankin," the youngster said awed by her own words.

Solon swallowed hard and lowered his head. "Sounds like Mother loves you very much," he said quietly.

Tarren folded her arms and took a deep breath. "Yup! I’m Momma’s great goody ya know? We’re partners. Uh huh we share one heart and what’s hers is all mine accept her sword and chakrum." She took a hard swallow. "I’m not allowed to touch those…yet." She turned to see that her brother’s expression was now sullen. She squinted at the boy. "What’s wrong with you?" she asked giving him a quick poke in the arm.

Solon shrugged. "Nothing…well…it’s just that I never got a kiss or a real hug or even a spanking from Mother," he said sadly.

Tarren twisted her lips. "You can have all my spankins if you want," she said hopeful this was an arrangement that could be worked out.

The boy grinned a bit but his shoulders still sagged from the weight of the sadness of never having truly known Xena as a mother. "I would take them all if it meant I could have the hugs and kisses too Tarren." He paused. "You don’t know how lucky you are," he stated staring intently at the child.

The little girl’s eyes widened. "Uh…well …the hugs and stuff are mine so I guess I’ll keep the spankins too. Like you said it’s cause Momma loves me and I wouldn’t want her to think I didn’t want her to love me. Besides she wouldn’t want me givin stuff away without askin first," she said suddenly feeling a mixture of jealousy and regret for a brother she knew would never again know the touch of their mother’s hand.

Solon nodded in understanding. "I wouldn’t trade any of it either if I were you…even if it meant a paddling when I was bad," he said trying to force a smile. "Does Mother sing to you? I always wanted her to sing for me."

Tarren bit her lip not quite sure what to say. "Yeah I like it lots when she sings." She smiled. "Sometimes she sings to me when she thinks I’m sleepin and I keep my eyes closed so she keeps singin cause I really like it lots."

Solon sniffled a bit and then took in a deep breath of air. He stared at his little sister for a long moment as her small figure started to change color and fade right before his eyes. He smiled broadly knowing it was time.

Tarren glanced at her nearly transparent hands and then looked frantically at her brother for answers. "Solon what’s happenin?" she asked reaching out a hand but unable to touch her brother.

The boy stood tall. "It’s time for you to go back to mother now Tarren. She needs you and you need her. Please hug her for me," he said with a wave and a nod. "And try and stay out of trouble."

Tarren looked from the fading image of her brother to her own changing form. "Solon…Solon…I can’t hear you," she cried.

Soon the world that had been filled with bright colors and sunny skies faded replaced by a lonely black tunnel with a very tiny point of light at one end. Tarren swallowed hard as she tried to find her way in the blackness of this strange place. "Solon?" she called but there was no response.

Just as the little girl was about to scream out his name she heard a familiar voice calling out to her from somewhere in the distant darkness. The words were soft and pleading and filled with love and fear.

"Tarren baby come back to me. I need you. Please come back to me."

Tarren turned in circles until her eyes caught the tiny spec of light once again. "Mommy!" she yelled running in the direction of the now growing illumination knowing that was the place the voice had emanated from, sure it was the path back to her mother’s arms.

OK folks it looks like there will be a part 13 after all. I’m sorry it took so long for 12 but bringing it all together and setting up the next story is a lot of work. I appreciate your patience. Little Ego and I thank you. Back to work on part 13. J fantimbard@aol.com

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