By Sinful [
Warrior, Bard and Healer


For Disclaimers: See Part One.


Part III
- the Conclusion -

I want to hold you, and then let you go.
I have no right, to your heart and soul.
The choice you make, will set you free.
The question is, will you choose me.

I know you will, but at what cost.
I will always know, what you have lost.
The pain that I have put you through,
When all I offer, is my heart to you!


Chapter 27

The silence in the healing hut was heavy with apprehension. All eyes watched as the warrior's entire body lifted as Gabrielle withdrew the strange arrow. Immediately, a gasp escaped from Xena's lips and then echoed an exhalation of final release. Gabrielle looked down at the arrow she was still holding, much to her amazement, there was no burning, no pain, and then suddenly ... there was no arrow! All the witnesses in the room stood in disbelief, their mouths hung open in shock.

No longer concerned with the arrow, Gabrielle went to Xena's face and held it in her hands. Her green eyes scanned the warrior's features as she looked for any sign of life in her friend. A sob broke from her tear stained face when she saw the steady beat of Xena's pulse in her neck. The warrior princess was breathing, and within a few beats, the color was returning to her face.

"She's alive ... by the Gods, she's alive," Gabrielle's words triggered a collective sigh of relief throughout the hut, but it didn't stop everyone from shaking from what they had seen.

Clio came up next to the bed and began checking the warrior's vitals. With a knitted brow she watched the impossible rise and fall of Xena's chest. She laid her fingers on the bronze skin of Xena's neck and closed her eyes. It was there, the strong rhythmic beat of a healthy heart. In all her years as a healer she never saw anything like it. Clio's trembling fingers went to the sight of the wound, she felt around before she pulled back Xena's torn leathers.

If she was shocked before, there was no description of what she was now. With the gentle touch of experienced fingers, the healer checked all around the wound site. Finally she looked up at Gabrielle and then over at Ephiny.

"There's nothing here."

Gabrielle looked down at Xena's chest. Clio was right. All she could see was the smooth bronze skin pulled gently over the warrior's muscled chest. There was no wound, no scar, not a mark.

The bard looked from where the arrow had been, to the closed eyes of her warrior. "How is that possible?"

The hut remained silent, no one had an answer to Gabrielle's question, but they knew it must have had something to do with the Gods. Ephiny was certain Artemis had a hand in this, but she had never known the Goddess to get involved with anyone other than Amazons.

Gabrielle leaned down and placed a kiss on Xena's forehead, with a soft caring touch she brushed away the dark hair off the warrior's face. It felt so good to touch her soft skin again. All she had ever wanted to do was be by her dark warrior's side, to follow Xena wherever their journey's took them. Never in her wildest dreams, nor her most horrifying nightmares, could she have ever imagined what that would entail. The pain and sorrow they had both endured were testaments to their friendship, and a show of the commitment they had for each other. None of that made any difference now, as she gazed down at the relaxed features of her warrior princess. All she wanted was for their past to stay where it belonged, and a future by the warrior's side.

The fatal wound no longer an issue, Clio attended to Xena's other injuries. Gabrielle glanced over at the healer now and then as she inspected the two Amazon arrows in Xena's leg and shoulder. She held Xena's relaxed hand as Clio, with the help of Eponin, pulled the arrows out of Xena's body. Gabrielle turned her head away as the first arrow was pushed farther through the skin, and then pulled out on the other side. She felt the muscles tighten in Xena's hand, but she knew by her closed blue eyes, this had only been a reflex reaction to pain. Gabrielle felt her own stomach lurch as Clio cut away the skin of Xena's thigh to reveal the head of the second arrow. Only then did she notice the fresh scar on Xena's other thigh. The savage wound only made Gabrielle's heart ache more as she watched Clio quickly suture the incision she had made.

The bard left the doctoring to the healer and she turned her attentions to Xena's face. With the impatience brought on by their long separation, Gabrielle's eyes inspected every cut and bruise on her warrior's face; the dark circles under her eyes and the paleness of her normally dark complexion.

"What in Tartarus have you been doing to yourself?" With shaking fingers the bard traced the injuries as she whispered into Xena's ear.

"What now?" Ephiny's words broke the silence engulfing the hut, nevertheless, it was the question they had all been thinking. The regent stared down sadly at her two friends, she tried to hide behind her rigid expression, but everyone could still see the turmoil and regret clearly on her face.

"Rest ... I guess. This is all new to me too. A couple of days and the arrow wounds won't feel as bad." Clio said without looking at anyone.

"Maybe not for her ...," The pain in Ephiny's hushed voice was clear, and without another word, the guilt ridden regent left the hut. The full impact of her statement sucked the air out of all who remained, as the door quietly closed behind her.

Gabrielle looked at the sullen face of the Amazon warrior. "Eponin? ..."

"I think it would be better to give her some time Gabrielle ... This isn't something she's going to get over quickly ... but I'll go try anyhow." Eponin took a few steps forward and placed a hand on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gabrielle ..."

"It's ok ... I know AND I understand. I just hope she does when she wakes up," the bard tried a smile as she felt the gentle squeeze on her shoulder. Eponin turned and left, nodding to Clio on her way out.

"She should wake up soon ... shouldn't she?" Gabrielle asked without even looking at the healer.

"After everything that has happened in the last few weeks ... I don't know what to tell you. But ..." Clio's voiced strained as she pushed another cot up next to Xena's. "You could use ... some rest ... yourself." The cot in place, the healer turned to the door.

"I won't be far ... try and get some sleep. I think Xena is going to be fine."

As the hut door closed, Gabrielle climbed onto the cot next to Xena. She reached for the warrior's hand again, and once cradled in her own, the bard took a closer inspection of the wound in Xena's palm. It was then she had noticed the identical wound on Xena's left hand. Following Gabrielle's gaze, the healer reached and had removed the bandage off of the warrior's other hand. The bard's heart filled with pain as her mind tried to fathom what she was looking at.

With care and concern, Gabrielle took Xena's injured hand into her own. The scabs were not new by any means, about the size of a dinar, they had split and cracked open many times, due to over use. Gabrielle turned Xena's hand over and back, trying to figure out what could have caused such a gruesome injury. Her eyebrows knitted with question and curiosity, as her eyes drifted back and forth between Xena's hands.

Suddenly Gabrielle felt her heart turn cold as a horrifying thought entered her mind.

'Crucifixion!' She swallowed down the fear rising in her throat, as her eyes darted to Xena's booted feet. Gabrielle scrambled down to the end of the bed and began to unlace Xena's boots. It seemed to take forever, but it didn't stop the moan of agony as she pulled off the boot and saw the gut wrenching site that confirmed her suspicions.

Anger and pain forced her head to drop into her hands. She covered her mouth in hopes of keeping her agony quiet, but it didn't cease the ache in her heart. Gabrielle didn't want to think of who could have crucified Xena ... or why. All she knew was her friend had been in trouble and she hadn't been there to help.

Without the true knowledge and understanding of what she had actually seen, Gabrielle removed Xena's other boot as the tears flowed unchecked down her face. The wounds on her feet weren't as bad as those on her hands, but the bard couldn't have imagined the pain they must have caused. She collected a cloth, some water and a bowl of salve she had seen Clio use earlier, and she returned to tend to Xena's feet. Once she was finished, she dried them off, applied some of the salve and then wrapped them gently in clean cotton bandages.

Gabrielle knew there was nothing else she could do for her friend, so she reached for a blanket and brought it up over both of them as she curled up next to Xena. Though the two cots were pushed tightly together, most of Gabrielle's body was on Xena's bed. She found comfort in the closeness as she listened to the gentle snore coming from her silent protector. The loving words they had exchanged earlier replayed in her mind. The bard laid her head down on her pillow as her eyes drifted over Xena's bruised face.

'What in Tartarus happened to you? ... Who did all this, and why? ...And what was with that arrow?' The unanswered questions tumbled from her mind, as she reached out with her hand to touch Xena's dark locks. The close smell of Xena's leathers brought about a whole new set of questions to her mind and a familiar ache in her heart. Gabrielle finally fell asleep as she played with the raven hair. A content smirk of happiness graced her young face.

Hours later, Xena began to stir and then finally awoke out of her slumber. Within one beat of her heart, she knew where she was and she knew who was lying next her. She closed her eyes as she felt the agony of separation leave her as the warmth of Gabrielle's body filled her soul. They were back and they were together ... nothing could have made her happier. Just as she started to drift off into her first peaceful sleep in a moon cycle, Xena's eyes snapped open. The arrow ... she looked down at her chest ... and cursed at the Gods.

"I should have known ...," Gabrielle felt the low rumble in Xena's chest as the warrior spoke. The bard opened her eyes and sleepily looked up at the dark frown.

"Xena. Are you all right?"

"Yeah ... I think so," Xena flexed her muscles and took an inner inventory.

Gabrielle sat up on her elbow, her flushed face was bright with a smile as the tears shimmered in her pools of green.

"How are you? ... I can't believe I finally found you, Gabrielle!"

"I'm much better now ... that you're here."

"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," the warrior's face relaxed into a caring smile as Xena reached up and brushed away the tear off from the corner of Gabrielle's eye. The blond bard responded by tilting her head into the pressure of the warrior's touch.

"I've missed you Xena. You gave us all quite a scare!"

"I gave you a scare ... I thought you were dead! I've been searching for you for over a moon."

"I'm sorry ..."

"I've missed you ... Don't you ever do that to me again!"

The smiling bard leaned down and kissed the warrior's forehead. "Now ... can you explain to me what that was all about?"

"You mean who the arrow belonged to?" Xena looked down at her chest and then back at Gabrielle, her dark eyebrow arched in question.

"Yeah ... That would be a good start."

"I thought you knew ... It was ...," Xena felt the words stop just before they left her throat.

"It was ..., was what? Whose arrow was it? It didn't belong to the Amazons. And how did you survive 20 warriors shooting at you ... Eponin said ... The Gods. It was the Gods ... wasn't it?"

Xena could only nod as the full ramifications of what she knew swirled in her mind. There was only one person who shot those kinds of arrows. Only one person ... then Xena remembered her promise ... if she found Gabrielle she would tell her true feelings.

Xena swallowed as she looked into the innocent eyes of her bard.

"It was Cupid's arrow," she said in a throaty whisper.

Gabrielle's mouth fell open in shock and surprise. "Cupid ... but ... " The two old friends became very silent as the information settled in their minds.

"It was Cupid's arrow?" Gabrielle still couldn't fathom the idea. "But his arrow can only be removed by ...," the full realization hit the little bard full force as Xena quietly finished the statement for her.

"... your one true love, ... your soulmate." Gabrielle's face immediately flushed a deep crimson as Xena averted her eyes to the cross beamed ceiling of the dimly lit hut. The warrior and the bard fell into an uncomfortable, unfamiliar silence. The stillness of the sleeping village just outside the thatch walls of the hut was louder than the air that hung around them.

It was the one area of their lives they had never really shared with each other, the one secret they had refused to ever discuss. Not once over a flickering fire had they ever talked about their deepest feelings. They had never spoken about the one passionate kiss they had shared many seasons ago, or the marriage that had separated them. The union that had torn at their hearts and had divided their souls. But it hadn't stopped the longing looks, nor the lust filled thoughts they had for each other. The death of a child had almost destroyed them, but their love couldn't be denied. The ache of desire had never been given the little push it had needed ... until now.

Gabrielle knew how hard it had been for Xena to say the words 'I love you', and the bard herself had never told the warrior the true depth of her own heart, and the longing desire in her soul. Though they had much to say, neither could find neither the words, nor the courage, to speak.

Suddenly it was like their absence from one another had caused a silence they didn't know how to deal with. A simple arrow had brought the two friends closer and farther apart then they had ever been.

Without a word, Gabrielle laid back down, her head nestled on the warrior's shoulder.

"I think we could both use some more rest," Gabrielle mumbled as she forced her eyes to close and tried to slow the rapid beat of her heart.

"Yeah." Out of habit Xena began to play with the bard's blond hair. In no time at all she heard the gentle snoring that had comforted her to sleep on many occasions, but now the noise she had prayed to hear again, only kept her awake.

Xena had hoped after finding Gabrielle the ache in her chest would finally subside. Now, as she looked down at the bard's sleeping form, snuggled up close to her own, Xena could feel the terrifying agony ripping at her chest. With glistening blue eyes, she looked down at her hands and cursed the memories she could no longer forget. As she closed them to the pain, she felt the cotton on her feet ... It could only have been Gabrielle, anyone else and she knew their touch would have awakened her. Once again she wondered if it was possible to change the future. Xena tilted her head, laying a kiss on Gabrielle's hair ... she wondered if it would be easier just to change the past.

Chapter 28

The sounds of pottery dishes being clanked together woke the warrior as Xena noticed the healer looking up from her table of herbs.

"Good morning, sorry if I woke you." Clio's smile was bright as she strolled over to the bed. Xena felt Gabrielle's muscles twitch as the young bard began to stretch awake.

"How are you feeling?"

The healer pulled the edge of Xena's left shoulder bandage back as she glanced over at the warrior with a raised eyebrow.

"Fine." The word was short and without emotion, though she could feel the burning pain where the arrows had hit her. Xena lifted her right arm off the bard's body as Gabrielle smiled up at the healer.

"How is it?"

"They both look good." She said after looking at the second arrow wound and the stitches she had sewn.

"I guess I should be thankful the Amazon's didn't use any poison."

They all turned at the sound of a scrapping chair as it slammed down onto all four of its legs. Without a single word exchanged, Ephiny was out of the hut before anyone said a word.

Xena closed her eyes with regret, she hadn't realized Ephiny was in the hut. Gabrielle was quickly up on her knees and crawling off the bed, before the warrior could say a word.

"Tell her I didn't mean that ... I understand what she did..." Xena tried to sit up, but was pushed back down onto her bed by the strong hand of Clio.

"I'll be right back." Gabrielle was out the door as Xena let out a deep sigh of remorse.

"I'm sorry Xena. I should have let you both know she was here."

"No ... I should have chosen my words a little better."

Clio reached for a chair and brought it up next to the warrior's bed. She took a seat and then sat back and crossed her arms.

"I have been a healer for as long as I can remember. I have never seen anything like I have in the past week or so. First my Queen arrives and lays here unconscious, then wakes up and doesn't remember anything of what has happened to her. Then you arrive with a strange, burning arrow in your chest ...THAT SHOULD HAVE KILLED YOU. Then we all watch as Queen Gabrielle removes it ... with no fatal effects. Please tell me you can explain this?"

"Explain it all ... NO. But I have a very good idea where some of the blame lies."

Xena turned and looked at the healer, she could tell Clio wasn't going to move without a further explanation.

"I don't know what happened to Gabrielle, and I'm not certain why 20 well-trained Amazon warriors missed me ... but to put it into words ... interference by the Gods!" Xena could hear the anger in her own voice as she stared at the door of the hut.

"And the arrow?"

Xena refused to look at the healer. She herself hadn't fully understood those reasons yet, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to discuss it with someone she didn't know.

Clio watched the warrior struggle with the answer, as the blue eyes scanned the room. The healer was all too aware Xena was looking everywhere but at her.

"I've heard stories ... and I've heard myths, but I didn't put much truth to them ... until now. That was Cupid's arrow wasn't it?" Xena said nothing, but Clio watched as the strong features twitched in acknowledgment. Not wanting to reveal the emotional surge that had gone through her body, the warrior only nodded.

"And it all has something to due with the wounds on your hands ..." Xena lifted her hands and turned the palms up. She curled her fists and tried to crush the memories she knew she couldn't run from.

"No ... these had nothing to do with the Gods. No ... these are just small reminders that you can't run from your past."

Chapter 29

Gabrielle squinted at the bright sun of the early morning. A few of the women of the village looked up at her as she stood outside the healing hut. She looked left and right, but she couldn't see the blond curls of Ephiny anywhere. She thought for a brief moment and then turned in the direction of the regent's palace. The bard nodded to the odd good morning, but her attention was on the whereabouts of her friend.

Taking the steps two at a time, Gabrielle peered in the shutters of Ephiny's home. She felt discouraged when she saw no movement inside. With two sharp raps on the wood door, the bard walked into the palace.

Although by right of caste she was the true Queen of the Amazons, Gabrielle was still in awe of the Queens before her. The bard's green eyes traveled along the mask filled walls, she felt a sudden urge to bow before them. Realizing, with the shake of her head, the futility of the honor, she crossed the large room to the regent's bed chambers. Much to her unhappiness, they too were empty. Gabrielle exited the palace and stood on the porch and looked down at the village. Even in her desperate attempt to find her friend, Gabrielle had to admire the location and growth of Ephiny's village.

With a heavy sigh, she placed her hands on the tree branch hand rail and scanned the growing activity below. There was still a mist in the distant fields surrounding the village, the high treetops beyond poking up through the floating fog. Gabrielle felt like she was in a dream, and nothing from the outside world was allowed in.

It was almost like any other village in the morning, with a few exceptions. There were no men, and very little noise. Mothers with their daughters were making their way out of their huts, as paired off partners still slept soundly in each others' arms. Free range chickens roamed the village pathways, racing out of the way of anyone coming too close. Gabrielle tried to ignore the rumble in her stomach as the smell of breakfast wafted up from the kitchen.

Regretfully realizing she had no idea where Ephiny had gone, Gabrielle went looking for the only person she thought might know ... Eponin.

Back down the palace porch steps, three huts over on the right, she stopped and knocked loudly on the door. Within a moment the door was opened by the leader of the Amazon warriors.

"Gabrielle?" Eponin was surprised at her morning visitor, she didn't think the bard would have left the warrior princess's side. With a closer look into the bard's green eyes, she knew something was bothering her young blond friend.

"What's wrong?" Eponin opened the door wider and motioned Gabrielle inside.

She quickly relayed what had happened this morning and then looked to the quiet warrior for help.

"I just need to know where she might have gone. I know how guilty she feels and I just want to talk to her."

"Let me find Ephiny, I'm certain I know where she went. Besides, I think you would be better off talking to Xena. I mean, do you really know how she feels about this?"

"She's ok with it."

"Her words ... or yours Gabrielle."

"Well ... mine, but I know Xena." Eponin slowly raised her eyebrows and then crossed her arms.

"I think you better talk to her, and ask her how she really feels."

"Fine ... but I'm telling you she felt bad for what she said this morning."

"Gabrielle ... Feeling bad about making a comment is one thing. Forgiving your friend from trying to kill you is another. It was Ephiny's orders, and now they both have to deal with that."

Gabrielle thought for a moment and then slowly nodded. She knew Eponin had a point ... about 20 of them.

The quiet warrior opened the door to her hut and as Gabrielle started to leave, Eponin put a hand on her shoulder.

"We'll get them through this ... I promise," Gabrielle smiled at the warrior's words. "When you two talked this morning ... did Xena know who or what that arrow was?"

Eponin was startled to see the redness quickly flush Gabrielle's cheeks as she started to fidget and looked down at the ground.

"Idda whaas umm ahhuid ahhrow," Eponin strained to hear and understand the bard's mumbled words.

"It was what?"

"It was Cupid's arrow!" Eponin's eyebrows shot straight up as her mouth dropped to the ground. There was nothing for her to say, but she smiled broadly as Gabrielle quickly departed in the direction of the healer's hut.

"Well, I'll be a bacchae with a dryad toothpick! It's about time someone splashed some water in their faces. Never thought it would be Cupid though."

Eponin's smile didn't last long as she headed out in search of her childhood friend.

Chapter 30

It had been a long night of torture for the regent, a long night of nightmares driven by guilt. Everytime she closed her eyes, she saw the vision of Xena with an arrow in her chest.

Xena would reach up to her with an outstretched hand and beg to understand what had happened.

'Why ... Why Ephiny?' The nightmares would get worse from there. Sometimes Xena's hands would start bleeding and other times her chest would be oozing thick, dark blood. Then Gabrielle would suddenly appear, and she would try to hold Xena's blood-soaked body. Then she too would look up and start screaming. 'Why ... Ephiny ... Why?' The regent would feel her own chest exploding as she struggled to wake herself. She knew it was a nightmare, but there wasn't anything she could do to stop them.

Suddenly Ephiny found herself in the forest. The cold moist air clung to her body as its fingers crawled up inside of her and scratched at her conscience. The branches of the trees would lash out at her and she fought them back with the arrows she held in her hands. But there were too many of them, and she would strike left and right, beating them back away from her ... then the branches became arms and legs. And then she realized it was Xena she was striking with the arrows. The mutilated body of the warrior princess was laying at her feet, and Ephiny looked up at a lone figure standing across from her. It was Eponin, and she knelt down to Xena's body to check the warrior's pulse.

"She's dead!" The words echoed loudly throughout the forest and then suddenly the entire village was there looking at her holding the bloody arrows. The Amazon's parted as Gabrielle walked through them and knelt beside her warrior. The Amazon's began to surge toward her as Ephiny tried to explain to them.

"It wasn't my fault. I had no choice!" She began running but she couldn't seem to move, all she could do was scream.

Ephiny sat straight up, her blankets were twisted around her legs, as the sweat from her nightmares had soaked the mattress of her bed. She pulled her knees up to her chest and held on as her body shook in silent sobs. Somewhere under all thought and reason, in the regent's own mind, she truly believed she had betrayed her friends, her Amazon sisters, and the memories of the Queens before her.

The exhausted woman dragged herself from her bed and splashed some water of her face. Ephiny looked down at her shaking hands and closed her eyes. She knew she had to face her demons and there was only one way to do that.

In the stillness of the night, Ephiny quietly made her way to the healer's hut. Her soft leather boots made no sound as she crossed the soil of the pathway. There was a light mist in the air and Ephiny felt it cool her overheated body. The lone figure high up in the tower lookout waved in recognition to their regent. A distant owl hoot let the two women know they weren't the only ones awake in the middle of the night.

Ephiny laid a gentle hand on the door of the hut and silently pushed it open. Raised as an Amazon, the regent's steps were silent as she made her way to a chair in the back of the room. She leaned back on two legs and set her eyes on the two still forms' curls up so closely together. If she hadn't felt so torn up inside, she would have felt the pride of a mother.

The dark of Xena's hair and skin contrasted so much against the light of Gabrielle's fair complexion and blond hair. Almost complete opposites that needed each another to be whole. Ephiny just sat and watched the two, the protective arm of the warrior curled around the body of the bard. Never had two people completed each other as Xena and Gabrielle had. Ephiny ignored the tears that fell as she tried to convince herself what she had done was right.

Ephiny said nothing to Clio when the healer quietly entered the hut just moments after day break. The healer's eyes had softened when she saw her two patients curled up next to each other. Clio stood at the foot of the bed and watched the visual beat of Xena's heart in her neck. Confident the warrior would be fine she turned to her table and was about to start making some new salve when she spotted her Queen sitting in the corner.

Ephiny slowly brought her finger to her lips, and Clio nodded in understanding. It didn't surprise her Ephiny was there, but she was a little startled at the appearance of the regent. A blind Cyclops could have seen the dark circles under her eyes, and the sadness of her normally bright face. Clio sighed deeply as she turned her attention back on her bowl of herbs. She knew as everyone did, Ephiny had to deal with this herself. If not ... her days as a regent would soon be over.

Chapter 31

When Gabrielle opened the door to the healer's hut, she was surprised to see Xena pulling on her boots while sitting on the edge of the bed.

"And where do you think you are going?"

"To find Ephiny!"

"Eponin is doing that. Are you supposed to be out of bed?"

Xena ignored the question as she continued to lace up her boots.

"Did Clio say you could get up?"

"Well, she didn't say I couldn't."

"No Xena. I believe my words were. You shouldn't."

Gabrielle turned at the annoyed voice of the healer as she stood in the doorway.

"Yeah, well. I was never good at following other people's orders." Xena finished with her boots and looked up at Gabrielle. The young bard noticed the small beads of sweat on the warrior's upper lip.

"Clio could you give us a minute?"

"Yes my Queen." Gabrielle only continued to glare at the stubborn warrior as she waited for the door to close behind her.

"What are you trying to prove?"

"What?" Xena tried to pretend she didn't know what the bard was talking about.

"Don't you dare say 'what' to me Xena. You're pale and sweating from just putting on your boots." Gabrielle had her hands on her hips as she now stood at the foot of the bed. The two locked eyes in a battle of wills, neither willing to give up what they thought was right.

"I'm leaving to find Ephiny."

"I told you Eponin was doing that. You and I need to have a chat first and you're not leaving this hut. Not without dealing with me and I'm in a lot better shape than you are!"

The warrior's features darkened with the thoughts going through her mind. There were many things she didn't want to talk about right now, especially with the main concern standing so strong in front of her.

"Which brings me to the first question."

"How do I feel about being shot at by a bunch of vengeful Amazon's?" Xena offered the only question she thought she might want to answer.

"Well, that wasn't my first choice, but it was definitely in there somewhere."

Subconsciously the warrior rolled her injured shoulder as she looked down at the sutures on her thigh.

"I don't know ... I realize now you were right about one thing. I should have come back with you to apologize. But from what Clio and you have told me, I can't blame them for what they did. They were only following orders."

Gabrielle sank down on the foot of the bed, suddenly she didn't feel as confident as she had earlier. She looked at the back of her friend sitting only a hand's length away. Xena's head was tilted forward, Gabrielle assumed she was looking down at the floor.

But Xena's blue eyes weren't on the floor, they were staring at the wounds on her hands.

"Xena ... Are you blaming Ephiny for this?" The sound of disbelief whispered from her lips.

"No ... not blaming, but I can't say I'm overly forgiving either. It seems to me she was a little quick to hold me responsible for the condition you were in."

The stinging comment bit sharply into the bard. A spark of anger flashed for a brief moment in her eyes.

"True ...," Gabrielle picked her words carefully. "But ... you have to remember the last time you were here."

Xena spun her head around, and for the first time Gabrielle could see the strong emotions in her blue eyes as Xena's own anger flashed to the surface.

"Are you saying that was something I could ever forget?"

"No ... I'm saying put yourself in Ephiny's shoes ... before you judge her actions."

"I would if she could stick around and accept the consequences of her orders ... at least long enough to apologize."

"She only did what she thought she had to, Xena!" The words between the two friends were rising in volume and in strength.

"And what exactly is that Gabrielle? Protecting you from me!" The vile statement stung at the bard's heart as she saw a sneer on the warrior's twisted features.

"I never said that Xena. Don't put words in my mouth!"

"If you hadn't been trying to protect me from Hope ... None of this would have happened!"

"Don't you dare bring that up now! I did what I had to do!"

"Yeah ... well, don't we all!"

"What is that supposed to mean Xena?"

"Just that sometimes we make choices that we later regret."

"Just what is it that you are regretting." The loud angry words were now raising heads outside of the hut, and tempers inside.

"MY PAST!" Xena's eyes flickered with fury. "I never should have let you follow me. I should have left you in Poteidaia!"

The statement lashed out at Gabrielle, her heart froze as the last of her air left her lungs. It was the first time Xena had every mentioned regretting letting her follow along.

Xena rose to her full height and limped awkwardly to the door. Gabrielle did nothing as she stared at the woman she loved. This time it was she that felt the arrow sink deep into her heart, but she knew this one didn't belong to Cupid.

"And maybe next time Ephiny can try and do a better job of protecting her Queen!" Xena reached for the door handle and yanked the door open with a powerful pull. "By the Gods, I can't seem to do it!" She was out the door as Gabrielle continued to sit on the bed, dumbfounded by what had just transpired.

Chapter 32

It took Eponin a few hours to find her, not because she didn't know where to look, but because of the distance she had to travel to find Ephiny in their favorite spot.

High up in one of the mountain peaks of the Amazon land, two young children had found the only place where they felt bigger than anyone else. Many, many seasons ago, Ephiny and Eponin had stumbled across 'their spot'. A place they could go when being an Amazon child wasn't enough for the two strong-minded children.

Somewhere, sometime long ago, a waterfall had cut a deep grove into the solid granite of the mountain. Over time, the waterfall had moved to an easier pathway, leaving behind a platform overlooking the valley floor far, far below. When the rush of the water had left, the forest had gladly taken over, creating a wall of thick undergrowth and a canopy of branches hiding the platform.

The two young girls had been running through the forest, searching for the freedom of adventure. It was Ephiny who had broken through the trees first, and had no chance to stop before she reached the edge. They had both said it was only the hand of Artemis that had saved the future regent, that and the strong arms of a future warrior. It wouldn't be the first time one of them would save the life of the other, but it sealed a bond of friendship only they knew about.

Over the years, the spot had become their solitude. The flat, moss free, platform was only as large as a small hut, but it had become a refuge, a place to ponder their lives. Eponin had built a bench for them years ago, out of vine maple. The twisted limbs had supported each of them at different times, when the world seemed to be too heavy for their small shoulders. Very seldom did they come here together anymore, the childhood sanctuary had given strength to the highs and lows life had dealt them.

Ephiny leaned forward and placed her elbows on her knees as she viewed the unchanging world below. From the rise of the distant mountains, to the soft greens of the forest, her eyes followed the line in the valley where the river sprang forth from the waterfall next to her. She knew you would have to sit here for centuries to ever notice a change in the landscape. Oh the deciduous trees would color the forest with spots of golden red and sunshine yellow in the autumn. And if you looked close enough you could see the vibrant colors of the wildflowers in the spring. But none of that would ever change the lay of the land, the mountains, nor the rivers, nor the people who called the forest home.

The light spray off the nearby waterfall brought a rainbow so close to the solemn regent she thought she could touch it. Her eyes followed a hawk as it floated in circles above its prey. She was aware of the light breeze of the morning as it pushed the clouds over her head. None of it made her feel any better. None of it could change what she had done.

There was no sound of the warrior approaching, and that alone told Ephiny who the presence was behind her. She bit at her lower lip and silently cursed her childhood friend for having the knowledge of her sanctuary.

"Hello Eponin."

The quiet warrior stood with her back against the wall of green. She wasn't certain as to the response she would receive and she knew she would leave if requested.

"Hi Eph. You all right?" The regent kept her eyes on the view in front of her. The question was simple enough, but Ephiny knew the answer was not. Her eyes casted down to the valley floor below before she coould find the words to answer her best friend.

"Nope ... not really." Eponin stood her ground as she lifted her gaze off of Ephiny's curls and admired the breathtaking view below.

"Can I help?"

"Probably not ... You were right and I was wrong."


The silence between them was filled with the rush of water and the sounds of the nearby forest. They had known each other too long to waste words, and they knew each other too well to lie. That only left one option ... the simple ... painful ... truth!

"So what do I do now Ep.?"

"Get over it."

Ephiny smirked at the simplicity of the warrior's response, she finally turned and looked Eponin in the eye.

"Could you be a bit more forthcoming ... 'Get over it' is a little vague ... even for you."

The warrior showed no emotions as she came up next to the bench and waited for Ephiny to slide over. Once she was seated, she tilted her head to the sky and closed her eyes to the warmth of the sun.

"If I could answer that ... Gabrielle would have made me Queen." Without missing a beat, Ephiny reared back and slapped her friend hard across the shoulder.

"In order to be Queen you have to talk, you have to discuss. You have to make verbal decisions. You can't just lean against a wall and nod at the council. You have to give orders, you have to take charge and you have to plan. And all of that my quiet friend, has to been done with conversation. Something you know little about."

Ephiny stared at her warrior, her frown deepened even more when Eponin started to smile.

"What are you grinning at?!"

"You ... Think about what you just said Eph. I'm not a leader, but you are, and one of the best we have ever had. You made a judgement call ... based on the information available to you. It turned out to be wrong ... Now deal with it. Go talk to Xena and sort this out!"

Ephiny's flushed face showed the anger she had for the words Eponin had pulled out of her. She had struggled with the decision and its outcome and the guilt was eating at her soul. With just a few words, the warrior had put it all into perspective, and Ephiny saw clearly what she had to do.

"Sure is peaceful up here,"Eponin remarked as she took in the grin.

"Oh shut up and quit gloating!"

Ephiny ignored the smile she knew was on Eponin's face, as the quiet warrior put an arm around her shoulder.

"Nothing much changes, hey Eph."

"No ... You still say more in your few words than I do in all my speeches."


"You talk to much!"

"Yup." Ephiny could only shake her head and smirk at the subtlety of her oldest friend.

"Gabrielle told me what happened this morning? Did you know the origin of the arrow?"

Ephiny shook her curls against the warrior's shoulder.

"It was Cupid's!"



"Oh don't start that again ... huh ... So someone decided to give those two a helping hand."

"Yup." Eponin grinned.

"Oh would you just knock it off. What do you think? It wouldn't be Artemis."

"Nope." Eponin caught the glare of the regent's eyes and quickly added. "No ... I think it was Aphrodite."

"How do you figure that?"

"It only makes sense. Look at it. Gabrielle risks her life to save Xena ... Why? ... Love. Xena has crossed the known world to come here to find Gabrielle ... Why? ... Love. When she thinks Gabrielle is not here, she walks right into 20 armed Amazons ... Why? ... because she can't live without her. I think it was Aphrodite who protected Xena from our arrows, and then with a little help from her son ... bingo ... Xena and Gabrielle have to tell each other the truth!"

Ephiny only stared in disbelief. Partly because she wasn't used to long winded explanations from Eponin, and partly because the warrior had a point. A very good point.

Chapter 33

Xena had fought many battles in her life, but none tore her apart like the one raging between her heart and her mind. With a dark glare and lowered eyebrows, Xena scanned her surroundings as she stood outside the healer's hut. Many of the Amazons were now on their feet, having heard the heated words between their Queen and her warrior princess. Xena ignored the greetings and the stares in the same uncaring fashion, all she wanted was some privacy and a place to think.

"Just where do you think you are going!" Xena didn't even acknowledge the healer's presence.

"I'm not in the mood, Clio. Back off.," the words snarled from the warrior's lifted lip.

"I will once you tell me where it is you think you are going?"

"I was going to look for Ephiny!"

"She's not here, apparently she went into the forest, Eponin has gone to find her. Besides, you're not going to get far on that leg. You need rest and some time to heal."

"Look, if I wanted ..." Xena stopped herself and checked the anger boiling in her veins. "I just need some space and some time to think."

"Are you sure you want to be alone to answer the questions gnawing at you?" The icy stare from the warrior's blue eyes was enough of an answer for Clio. "There are a few empty huts you could stay in, at least until you find the answers you're looking for. I would prefer that to you hobbling around in the forest."

Angry or not, Xena knew the healer was right. Besides where was she going to go? She had no idea where, or even what direction, Ephiny had gone. She nodded to Clio who lifted a hand in the direction of one of the huts. Xena felt the stares of the Amazons as she followed the slight body of the healer to the outer edge of the village. Clio obviously knew the warrior was looking for some privacy. There wasn't another hut for ten paces.

Clio opened the door to the thatch hut and turned back to Xena.

"I'll get you a few supplies and your things out of the healing hut. All that's in here is a bed, but it should suit your needs. I know we don't know each other that well Xena, but I'm here if you need an ear ... and I will be stopping in to check on your injuries."

Xena nodded as she ducked in through the low doorway. Clio hadn't been kidding. The only thing in the hut was a bed. A small window on the opposite wall let the only light into the empty hut. Xena could see the large vegetable garden just beyond the view of the window.

"Thanks ... again, I'm sorry I snapped at you."

"I'll be back." Xena left the door open as she walked over and sat on the bed. So much had happened, she still couldn't keep it all straight in her head. She couldn't believe she had exchanged such heated words with Gabrielle after spending so long just trying to find her. She closed her fists on the scabs on her hands and leaned back on the bed.

Gabrielle sat alone in the healing hut, shaking inside from the argument with Xena. The bitter words, spoken in anger, were echoing in her head. No matter how many times she tried to tell herself that Xena hadn't meant them, she still felt the physical pain they had caused. The bard pulled her knees up to her chest and rested her chin there. 'Where did all of that anger come from?' Gabrielle didn't know, but she knew Xena enough to understand when the warrior lashed out like that. Something was tearing her up inside and no matter how she looked at it, Gabrielle couldn't believe it was just Ephiny. No, there was something else ...something but what? She scoured her thought and all she could come up with, were a lot of questions without answers.

For the first time Gabrielle wondered where Xena had gone when she had left. She was certain she wouldn't leave, but she had also been certain Xena wouldn't have ill feelings toward Ephiny. She swung her legs onto the floor just as the door opened. Gabrielle didn't try to hide her disappointment when it turned out to be Clio.

"Hi," Gabrielle offered a smile at the greeting, but Clio could see the concern on her face.

"Relax ... She is in one of the empty huts down by the gardens. I was going to take her down some blankets and things, and I guess she'll want her saddle bags. That is ... unless you would rather take them to her?" Clio watched as the question worked its way through the bard's mind.

"You two need to talk."

"We tried that remember. Didn't quite work out the way I had anticipated ... We haven't spoken cross words at each other in a long time."

"So why did you this time?"

"I don't know ... it just happened."

"Are you sure there isn't more to this ... You both have been through quite a lot."

"I know ... I don't know what to think."

"Well ... she's waiting for me to bring her some things. The hut she is in is empty. Do you want to go or do you want me to do it?" Gabrielle pondered the question for a moment and Clio could see it wasn't an easy question.

"While you are deciding, I'll grab what she needs."

Clio left the bard to her thoughts as she collected a few blankets, a couple of bowls, a mug, a pitcher for water and two towels. She packed them into a wooden box and then returned to face the young blond bard.

"You go Clio. I'll see her later."

"Are you sure my Queen," the healer said as she placed a firm hand on the bard's shoulder.

"Ephiny is your Queen. My name is just Gabrielle."

"Understood ... Gabrielle. Last chance," the healer raised an eyebrow in question, and she knew by the hesitation, Gabrielle was still deciding.

"Yes ... I need some time to myself."

"All right ... you can stay here as long as you like, or ..."

"I think I'll stay here ... thanks Clio."

"You're welcome my Que ... Gabrielle." Clio smiled and patted the bard on the shoulder.

The healer held her box of supplies to her chest as she made her way back down to the warrior princess. She was not surprised to see Xena standing looking out the window of the small hut. Clio paused in the doorway for a moment and then cleared her throat.

"May I come in?"

"Sure, it's a free country. Isn't it?" The warrior didn't turn away from the window.

"I got you some blankets and a couple other things I thought you might need. I also filled this pitcher with some cold well water." Xena showed no signs of acknowledgment, so Clio placed the box on the floor. She placed the pottery bowls, towels, the mug and the pitcher on the only shelf in the room, then pulled the blankets out and spread them on the bed.

"Feel like talking?" Clio asked to the sullen woman at the window.

The warrior turned and set her blue eyed gaze on the healer.

"Don't give up do you?"

"Not when I feel I can be of some assistance." Clio patted the bed next to her. "Come on, I have all the time in the world and I've been told I'm a good listener."

Xena said nothing as she turned back to the window, she had no intentions of bringing anyone into her thoughts of the moment. She heard the heavy sigh of the healer and the soft creak of the bed behind her, without looking, Xena knew Clio had just made herself comfortable. The battle of silent patience and strong wills had begun.

After a longer wait, Clio wondered if she had misjudged the warrior princess. Xena had continued to stand at the window with her arms crossed in front of her chest. She hadn't even looked over at the healer on the bed, she just stood and stared out the window.

Clio looked up when without warning Xena turned from the window and headed for the door.


The warrior stopped and raised an eyebrow at the healer.

"Are you all right?"

"No ... I'm hungry and I'm going to get some lunch. I was hoping you wouldn't be here when I got back."

"Sure ... I'd love to join you."

Xena headed for the opened door with a look of confusion and frustration clearly imprinted on her dark features.

"I wasn't aware I had invited you to join me."

"You didn't ... I did."

Side by side they headed to the kitchen, Amazons greeted the two with hellos and surprised expressions. By now everyone had heard about the strange arrow, and it's disappearance, but the sight of the dark warrior alive and limping in the direction of the kitchen brought a whole new level of shock to the women of the village.

The eating area of the kitchen grew hushed as the dark warrior entered the doorway, Clio could feel the tension directed at the broad shouldered woman in front of her. Xena gave no outward appearance that the attention she was drawing was having any effect on her. But Clio watched with interest as Xena strolled confidently across the room toward a table of food, the warrior's pride and self-preservation had shown through ... she had refused to let the Amazon's see her limp.

Chapter 34

Ephiny crouched down and examined the marks on the forest floor. Her long slender fingers brushed the damp soil away from the marks made by the falling warrior princess.

"What do you think?"

"I think you were right Eponin. She walked right into them ... We could have killed her!" Ephiny closed her eyes at the chilling thought.

"Don't start that again! Xena is alive and well, the rest is now history!"

The regent rose slowly, wiping the dirt off her hands as her eyes looked up into the cover of the trees.

"I know ... ," the Amazon sighed deeply, " ... I know."

The two Amazons started in the direction of the village, Eponin could see Ephiny's mind was still working, but the warrior remained quiet, if she wanted to talk she would. Their soft leather boots made no sound as they followed the path Eponin had taken just yesterday morning. The only evidence left behind was the scattering of leaves by the feet of the warriors who had been packing Xena's litter.

"Didn't you say Xena wasn't riding Argo?" Ephiny's question brought Eponin back from her own thoughts.


"Any idea why?"


Ephiny shook her head, "You can be quite annoying when you do that."

"Yup!" Eponin's face broke into a rare smile as she ducked the flying hand of her irritated friend. The warrior knew her friend was going to be ok, as a slight smile showed through her angry demeanor.

The childish antics over, Ephiny's mind went back to the questions that had been twirling since her and Eponin had left the private platform.

"We don't know why she burned her mother's tavern down?"

"Nope ... but I have been thinking about that. You mentioned Hope ... and Gabrielle mentioned Hope ... so maybe it was Hope!"

"But Gabrielle killed her!"

"Did she?"

"I don't know ... With all that has happened. I'm not sure what I believe anymore! There just seems to be more questions then there are answers!"

"Yup!" Ephiny could only smile and shake her head at her quiet friend's normal response.

Xena sat on the bed, her back was against the wall and her forearms were resting on her raised knees. Her head was slightly tilted to one side as she picked at the scab on her palm.

"They're part of all this aren't they?" Clio was leaning on an outstretched arm at the foot of the bed. Xena said nothing as she looked at the healer with raised eyebrows.

"The arrow? Your survival of 20 Amazon warriors shooting at you? Your absence when we found Gabrielle?"

Clio's trained eye caught the smallest of reactions to the bard's name.

"What is it with you two?"

"I don't believe that is any of your business!" Xena found herself fighting the anger rising up again inside her.

"No, it isn't ... but I believe you want to talk or I wouldn't still be here."

"What gives you that idea?"

"Because Xena, I'm still here. If some part of you didn't want to talk, you would have removed me a long time ago."

As much as the warrior wanted to argue the point, she suddenly realized Clio was right. She went back to examining her palm.

"What are they from?"

"My past." Clio frowned at the statement, she didn't believe Xena at first, but the words did have a ring of truth to them.

"Someone tried to crucify you didn't they? I've seen those types of wounds before."

Xena swung her legs off the bed and sat on the edge.

"Is that what started the fight between you and Gabrielle? I noticed you lacing your boots this morning and I know I didn't take them off. But she did! Are there wounds on your feet too?"

Xena could feel the start of a very intense headache coming on and she dropped her head into her hands and started to massage her temples.

"There's the door, please close it as you leave!"

With a disappointed sigh, Clio lifted herself off the bed and stood before the warrior.

"I don't know what is eating you up inside Xena, but it will destroy you if you let it. You can only push away so hard before someone is going to push back." Xena gave no response to the healer, but she wasn't expecting one. With a heavy heart, Clio turned and left, closing the door silently on her departure.

Xena lifted her head and wiped the falling tears away with the heel of her hand. She made a pillow out of one of the blankets, then curled up in hopes of getting some sleep. She made her decision, but it did nothing to relieve the pain in her heart.

Chapter 35

It was very late into the afternoon before Ephiny and Eponin emerged from the forest. The long dark shadows behind them were a testament to the setting of the sun. Both Amazons looked a lot better on their return than they had on their departure. Silently they walked through the village and headed straight for the healer's hut. Ephiny knew she couldn't avoid the situation any longer. It was time to face up to the decision she had made, and the pain it had caused them all.

"I'll see you later."

"Oh no you don't. You're going in there with me, Ep."

"Why? This is between you and Xena."

"As a friend I'm asking ... please."

"For support ... or protection, Eph.?"

"Neither ... I owe you both an apology. Now get in there." Ephiny opened the door and gently pushed the warrior inside. She almost ran into the back of Eponin when the warrior stopped just inside the door. Ephiny peered over her shoulder to see why the sudden action.

"Where in Tartarus is Xena?" Ephiny whispered, Eponin only shrugged her shoulders.

Gabrielle was curled up on the bed that had held the warrior princess. A blanket was pulled up tightly around her shoulders and all they could see were her gentle relaxed features. Ephiny took a closer step to her friend, and she could see the tear stains on Gabrielle's pillow.

The two Amazons exchanged glances of raised eyebrows. Eponin had seen the evidence of heartbreak too.

"I'll go and see if I can find out what happened." Eponin whispered.

"Find Clio, she'll know ... she always does." Gabrielle's eyes opened as Eponin motioned the regent with a nod toward the bed. Ephiny took the two steps and knelt next to Gabrielle as the bard's face crumbled into tears. The regent wrapped her arms around the tearful blond as she looked up at Eponin's face.

"Shhhh ... Hey what are the tears for? What happened?"

"Xena ... and I ... had a fight ... and ... and she left!" Ephiny's eyes widened in shock as Eponin blinked in disbelief.

'Find Clio,' mouthed the regent to the quiet warrior. Eponin nodded in understanding and silently left the two women alone.

Ephiny rocked her back and forth, until Gabrielle had regained some control. The regent released her and the bard sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Ephiny rose up from the floor and sat next to her on the bed.

"Should I ask what the two of you fought about?" The regent feared she already knew what the answer was, and when Gabrielle didn't respond right away, Ephiny felt another stab of regret.

"It was me, wasn't it?"

"No ... well ... not all of it. I don't know what happened, one minute we were talking and then suddenly we're yelling at each other." The tears started to well up again in her green eyes.

"Ephiny ... she said she wished she had left me in Poteidaia." The pain of the warrior's words crushed her thin veil of control. Once again she fell into Ephiny's arms and cried. As Ephiny rocked and swayed the woman in her arms, she thought about what Gabrielle had said. Nothing in her believed the words Xena had spoken had been the truth.

Gabrielle said nothing more, but soon the tears had stopped and all that could be heard in the hut was the sound of shuddering intakes of the bard's halted breath.

Eponin had stuck her head in to check on the two, and to inform the regent of the location of the healer and the warrior princess. Ephiny had nodded in understanding and Eponin had backed out of the door. Ephiny continued to sway as she ran her fingers over the bard's blond hair. By the time darkness had fallen on the village, Gabrielle was fast asleep in Ephiny's arms. It was what both of them had required. Gabrielle had needed the comfort of a friend, and Ephiny had needed a little more time to think.

She laid her small bundle down on the bed and pulled the blankets up around her. Leaving a gentle kiss on her head, the regent crept soundlessly from the hut. Ephiny was not surprised to find Eponin standing outside the door.

"Figured you didn't want to be disturbed." They spoke softly, standing only a hand length apart.

"Thanks ... Did you talk to Clio?"

"Yes ... Xena wanted to come and find you." Ephiny ran her hand through her blond curls.

"This is turning into a nightmare." The regent said between clenched teeth.

"Go talk to her Eph. She's in the last hut by the gardens." Ephiny nodded and looked in the direction the warrior had mentioned. The bright light of the moon silhouetted the huts, but lit the path she knew she had to follow.

"Clio said to tell you to ask Xena about the wounds on her hands."

"Yeah ... and the ones on her face, and her thigh. And maybe some other answers too." Eponin nodded to Ephiny's statement as the regent turned and started down her own path of redemption with the warrior princess.

Chapter 36

Ephiny stood outside the door and pondered whether to knock or not. Deciding it might be safer to be announced, she rapped sharply on the door. She heard the sound of movement, but no invitation to enter was heard.

"Ah to hell with it." Ephiny muttered under her breath as she opened the door. Not surprised, Ephiny looked over at the bed and looked into the lowered glare of the warrior princess.

"Can we talk?" The regent stood in the doorway waiting for a reply.

"I'm listenin'." Ephiny lowered her gaze to the floor, she should have known Xena was not going to make this easy. She slowly closed the door leaving only the moonlight through the window to chase the dark shadows away.

"Where should I start ..." Ephiny could feel the dryness of her mouth as she took a deep breath.

"How about a reason?"

"Xena, you have to understand the position I was in. I didn't know what had happened to Gabrielle. I was ..."

"So your first thought was to blame me!" From the shadows Ephiny could hear the contempt in Xena's voice.

"NO ... my first thoughts were for Gabrielle, the condition she was in and why. Then we thought about you and where you were. I couldn't help the direction my mind went after that. All I could think of was the last time Gabrielle arrived here alone."

"I apologized for that, and I thought it was in the past. I guess I was wrong."

Ephiny wandered over to the window and leaned against its frame.

"It may be in the past Xena, but it still happened and I hold myself to blame. No one should be able to ride in here and drag our Queen out by her ankles."

Ephiny couldn't see Xena's eyes close with the painful memory of what she had done.

There would always be things in the warrior's past she wished had never happened, but nothing as regrettable as what she had done to Gabrielle. Once again she was reminded of the pain she had caused the young bard and she questioned herself as to why they continued to hurt each other.

"I had to think like a leader, before I could think like a friend. My main responsibilities were to the village and its Queen, not my personal feelings for someone who had tried to destroy both."

"So you decided it was better to shoot me on sight than to take a chance I was after Gabrielle or your Amazons."

There was a long pause before the regent whispered, "yes."

As tough as Xena wanted to be, the regret in Ephiny's voice was clear, and for the first time she saw the position she had been in.

"It wasn't a decision I made lightly Xena and I hope one day you'll understand that. I could only go off of what information I had and what I knew to be possible."

From the corner of the bed, Ephiny heard Xena whisper, "for the greater good."


"It was something I taught Gabrielle a long time ago. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do ... for the greater good." The warrior's words were soft and distant, the anger she had felt before was beginning to dissipate.

Ephiny crossed the dark room and stood in front of the bed. She couldn't see the warrior's face, so she spoke to the dark outline leaning against the wall.

"Yes. For the greater good I protected Gabrielle and the village from what I didn't know and what I did know. Xena ... I am sorry. I should have trusted you as a friend, but as the leader of the Amazons, I couldn't. So as your friend, and as the reigning Queen, please accept my apology. If only I had known sooner ... my orders to stop you only came after Eponin returned and we heard about you riding around the country side ... burning down your mother's inn ... and trying to kill Gabrielle."

Xena sat forward in the bed and for the first time Ephiny could see her face clearly in the moonlight. Her dark features were pulled down into a frown of concern, her eyelids were lowered in confusion.

"You knew about the fire?"

"Only that you started it ... trying to kill Gabrielle."

"I WASN'T trying to kill Gabrielle. I was trying to destroy Hope," Xena's voice lowered as she snarled the name of the daughter of Dahak.

No longer fearing her friend's retaliatory anger, the regent sat down on the bed.

"That consideration came up today in my conversation with Eponin. It never crossed my mind before that it might have been Hope."

"It was Hope ... Hope and Solan."

"What?!" Ephiny felt the color drain from her face as her heart dropped into her stomach.

"When I found out Gabrielle was alive, I went to Poteidaia first. Lila told me she and my son had left for Amphipolis. When I got there, it didn't take me long to realize it wasn't Gabrielle and it wasn't Solan. It was Hope and her child, fathered by Ares!"

"Oh by the Gods Xena. That must have been dreadful."

Not wanting to delve into those emotions, Xena ignored Ephiny's words and continued the story her mind wouldn't let her forget.

"She thought if her son looked like Solan, I wouldn't be able to destroy him. Well she was wrong on both counts."

"Both counts?"

"Hope wanted to play with my mind and toy with my conscience. She thought making me decide between me and my mother would be the same as what I had done to Gabrielle. In the end she was wrong and she died with her son in her arms. I didn't start the fire in mother's tavern ... she did."

"I'm sorry Xena. I'm sorry you had to go through that alone. I can't imagine anything worse than watching your own child die."

Their words had softened now as the two old friends opened their hearts, as Xena shared some of what she had lived through. It didn't take long before the conversation turned to Gabrielle. Ephiny watched as the strong shield of the warrior princess cracked under the pressure of heart break. Xena told the regent all of what had happened in Amphipolis, ending her tale of Hope's deception with the death of the two in the fire.

"I can't believe that evil creature had any compassion."

"In the end she was a mother who couldn't watch the death of her child." Ephiny knew those words hurt Xena as they brought back the painful memories of her own dead son.

"I can't imagine outliving your child. Nothing could be more devastating."

"It's almost as hard as watching someone you love take their own life to save yours," the pain caused by Gabrielle's decision was still fresh in the warrior's whispered words.

Ephiny sat listening as Xena went over what had happened and how the two friends had been separated. The regent was thankful for the dark. She didn't have to hide the tears streaming down her face. When the warrior princess was done, Ephiny reached a hand out until she felt Xena's leg. She gave the warrior a squeeze of compassion, and the reassuring touch of a friend.

"I still don't understand why or how Gabrielle wound up here? Or what was wrong with her?"

"I don't understand that either Ephiny, but there is only one way she could have survived that fall into the pit."

"Artemis." The answer seemed to be obvious to Ephiny now.

"Possible ...or one of the other Gods." That consideration troubled Xena, it wasn't the first time she thought the Gods might have something to do with this. The warrior princess may not have been able to see her hands in the dark, but she recalled the wounds and how they had vanished and then reappeared right in front of her eyes.

"But what I don't understand Ephiny, is the description Clio gave me of what she was like for the first while she was here."

"Or the fact she woke up one day without any knowledge of what had happened, and with no ill effect of being asleep for a long period of time. But Xena, I tried to talk to Artemis and I got no answer."

"Like I said ... maybe it wasn't Artemis?" Xena's statement rung in Ephiny's ears as she recalled Eponin's words earlier.

"Aphrodite ...," The word escaped her thoughts before the regent even knew she had spoken.

"What?" It was Xena's turn to be confused as she leaned forward to try and hear what Ephiny had said.

"Eponin said it this morning."

"Since when does she talk so much?"

"The woman figures everything out in five words, while the rest of us run around trying to say something but actually saying nothing. Anyhow, she thinks it was Aphrodite. It would explain how you survived walking into 20 Amazon arrows."

The room got suddenly silent as Ephiny unveiled the secret Xena thought no one knew. The regent waited for a response as she noticed the dark of the room lifting with the pending arrival of dawn.

"Well, you did explain why they were shooting at me in the first place."

"Don't change the subject Xena."

The warrior looked to the window as she placed her hand over her mouth. She tried to control the collapse of her strong demeanor by hiding her quivering lips behind her hand. But as hard as she tried, she couldn't hold back the wave of anguish torment as it finally found a chink in Xena's emotional armor.

"You thought she wasn't here ... I am right, aren't I?"

By the grey light of the morning, Ephiny watched a single tear slide down Xena's grimaced face. The warrior quickly brushed it away, but refused to look Ephiny in the eye.

"Why? Why would you walk into ... Xena?" The question had been bothering her since it had happened, but she hadn't been able, or willing, to think of the answer. The moment she spoke the question out loud ... Ephiny knew.

"You love her that much don't you?" It took a long, tense moment before Xena answered, and when she did, all she could do was a nod. The movement of her head caused more tears to fall down her face.

"Have you ever really told her?"

With a heavy sigh and a shake of her head, Xena whispered, "yes ... no."

"OH for the love of Artemis ... What are you two waiting for? ... Was it not Cupid's arrow we found buried in your chest? ... Was it not Gabrielle who removed it? ... What is it going to take for you two to figure this out? ... We've tried to tell you? ... Even the Gods are now trying to tell you? For the love of Zeus ... even Solan tried to tell you? Open your eye's Xena, you two were meant to be together!"

Ephiny stared at the solemn warrior in utter disbelief.

"You risk your life for her ... she risks her life for you! What more do you want?"

Xena closed her eyes to the question she didn't want to answer. The one thing she knew she could no longer offer to the woman of her desires ... a future.

"It's not going to happen."


The blue eyes shot open with a fury of emotion Ephiny had not been expecting.

"Because, all I do is hurt her ... and if she stays with me ...," Xena cut the words off and left the bed. She stood at the window and watched the sun spread its light across the distant field.

"If she stays with you what?" Ephiny rose and stood in front of her. The regent's heart broke for the dark warrior as Xena turned to face Ephiny, the pain of her own private torture was evident in the shimmering of her eyes.

"She'll only get hurt and I can't let her do that any more."

"Isn't that for me to decide?" Ephiny and Xena turned to the red eyed blond standing in the doorway. The bard stood for a moment longer before tossing Xena's saddle bags onto the bed and then crossing over to them. Xena closed her eyes and turned back to the window, not wanting Gabrielle to see her tears.

"I think this is where I should leave." Gabrielle nodded, but she never took her eyes off of Xena. The bard waited patiently for the sound of the hut door closing as she placed a hand on Xena's arm.

"That's what the fight was about wasn't it? You are afraid of me getting hurt?"

Gabrielle felt her own misery as she watched the struggle on the strong face of the woman she loved.

"Xena talk to me. We've been apart too long and all I want is to be with you."

Without saying a word, Xena turned and wrapped her arms around her little bard and held her tight. The warrior closed her eyes as she fought down the sob threatening to consume her as she felt Gabrielle's arms slide around her waist. This is all she had wanted as she searched the known world for her companion. Now in her arms, Xena was aware of the conflict between her desires and her fears, the ache of want verses the pain of letting go. The warrior held on tight to the woman she so wanted as she ignored her protective instincts to set her free.

Gabrielle buried her face into Xena's shoulder as she felt the rippled movement of the warrior's muscles beneath her leather's. Xena's embrace tightened and Gabrielle melted into the comfort and security of the only home she had ever wanted to know.

They stayed like that for a long while, once again comfortable with their own silence as they savored the moments of their embrace. The close physical contact fortified their friendship once again, while churning up emotions that had yet to be discovered.

Gabrielle nuzzled her head into the warrior's shoulder and finally found the courage to speak.

"I don't want to fight, and if that is what we are going to do if we talk, then I have nothing more to say. I'll just stay right here, in the safety of your arms, until you tell me what is going on."

The warrior said nothing, but Gabrielle felt the shudder of emotions go through her taut body.

The words came in a whisper, spoken gently through the bard's blond hair, but she heard them loud and clear.

"I'm sorry Gabrielle. I'm sorry for every moment of pain and sorrow I have caused you. I told you once before, the last time we spoke, you are the best thing to ever happen to me, and I never want to let you go."

Gabrielle closed her eyes as Xena's words warmed the emptiness she had in her soul.

"Then don't."

"Believe me Gabrielle, I don't want to, I have to ... my leg is killing me."

The bard pulled back and looked up into the reluctant grin on the warrior's face.

"You find humor at the most inopportune times. Come on." Taking the weight off of Xena's leg the best she could, Gabrielle helped the warrior back to the bed. Once she was sitting, Gabrielle knelt in front of her. She wanted to have the ability to look Xena in the eye.

"Why did you say you wished you never let me join you?" The warrior tried to overt her eyes from those of the bard's, but Gabrielle reached up and turned Xena to face her.

"Answer me."

"I'm tired Gabrielle. I'm tired of trying to redeem myself from my past. If the Amazon's still don't trust me, what chance do I really have? Ephiny was right in what she did ... and I know I have even caused her pain. I can't do it any more." Gabrielle watched as the broad shoulder's of her dearest friend sagged in rejection.

"I trust you."

The blue eyes searched Gabrielle's face as the bard watched them fill with pain and regret.

"You trusted me so much, you risked your life to kill Hope."

"No Xena ... I love you so much, which was why I killed Hope." Gabrielle had no way of knowing how much pain her words caused the warrior.

"I could have handled it Gabrielle ... A lot better than I could handle watching you fall."

With a gentle hand to her mouth, the bard stopped Xena's words, but not the pain in her heart.

"Does it matter now ... It's over, Hope is dead and somehow I survived."

Xena closed her eyes and removed Gabrielle's hand, she turned it palm up and pressed it to her cheek. If only it was over, if only it had never happened at all. If only ...

"Xena ...," Gabrielle's forehead creased with concern as she felt the wetness on the warrior's cheek. Her heart fluttered with fear as Xena opened her eyes, and the bard saw for the first time the true reflections of the warrior's tormented soul.

"Hope didn't die in that pit," Xena felt the tremor go through Gabrielle's hand as she removed it from her face.

"How ... but ... I ... we," the words stumbled from her shocked mouth as Xena told her what had transpired in Poteidaia and in Amphipolis.

"Oh, by the Gods Xena," Gabrielle stood on shaking legs and turned her back to the dark haired woman still seated on the bed. The moment Xena saw her shoulders start to shake, the warrior rose to her feet. She came up behind the little blond, her arms ready to embrace in hopes of easing some of the pain.

"Why ... why is this happening? How long will I have to pay for the mistakes of my past? How many more times will I hurt you because of what I did in the past?" As Gabrielle raised an angry fist to the ceiling of the hut, her anguished cry to the Gods stopped Xena in her tracks. The warrior closed her outstretched, open hands and dropped them to her sides. It was as if Gabrielle had spoken the words that had been carved into her own heart.

Gabrielle turned and collapsed into the chest of the warrior. Reluctantly, Xena brought her arms back up and held the small woman. Gabrielle never heard over her tears the whispered words of the warrior.

"Never again, my love, never again."

Chapter 37

Xena woke up to the sound of light tapping on the hut door. She looked down her body to the sleeping bard snoring lightly on her chest. In the past, this was all she had ever dreamed about, now she wished she had more.

"Yeah," Xena mumbled as she looked out the window at the afternoon sun. She couldn't believe they had slept through the morning, or that Gabrielle had slept through both breakfast and the noon meal.

The door of the hut opened slowly as the warrior spotted the blond curls of the Queen. Xena did her best to produce a smile, but it was nothing compared to the delighted grin on Ephiny's face. Xena motioned her head, the regent nodded and quietly crept into the room.

"Are you two all right?" Ephiny whispered as she slowly sat down on the foot of the already filled bed.

Xena looked down at the woman in her arms and nodded.

"I told her about Hope ... and her child." The warrior was also keeping her words hushed.


"Let's just say she didn't take it well."

"Is there anything I can do or get for you?"

"No, thanks Eph. For the moment I think we have everything we need." Xena's eyes drifted downward again and she couldn't resist the opportunity of kissing the strawberry blond hair.

Ephiny looked at Xena with an endearing smile. Nothing would make her happier than to finally see these two together, which was where she thought they belonged. She reached out and patted Xena on the shin.

"Are you going to be sticking around for a bit?"

"Yeah, I was thinking about it ... If it is ok?"

"I guess this isn't a good time for me to say that you are always welcome, is it?" Ephiny lifted her eyebrows with a light smile.

"All is forgiven ... and clearly understood."

"I'm glad Xena. I don't know what I would have done if this had been a fatal error on my part."

"I would rather not think about that at the present moment."

"All right, I'll leave you two alone, for now. Are you sure there isn't anything I can get you?"

"How about a lock on the door and a bigger bed?" Gabrielle mumbled, her face still resting on the warrior's chest.

Xena's eyebrows shot up in surprise as Ephiny beamed with happiness.

"I'll see what I can do," the regent could barely stifle a giggle at the look on the dark warrior's face. Gabrielle lifted her head slightly and winked at her. Xena closed her mouth and glared at the parting regent.

"Not a word from you ... Ephiny. Did you hear me?" The warrior grumbled as she heard the laughter outside of the hut. The blue eyed woman scowled down at the giggling bard.

"You do realize that will be all over the village by the time we go for dinner?"

"Xena ... I love you. I have waited too long to tell you that, and right now, I really don't care who knows, as long as you do." Gabrielle watched as Xena swallowed, the young bard tilted her head as she saw something flash in her warrior's eyes.

"Xena?" Gabrielle waited for a response and was concerned when she didn't get one. She wiggled her way up the warrior's leather clad body as Xena closed her eyes.

The full gambit of emotions was playing tag on the warrior's heart. Her years of want and desire wrapped up in her arms, the slow movement of Gabrielle's tight little body was doing things to the warrior's, she could only have dreamed about. The ache of sexual tension was almost more than she could control, but the struggle to maintain herself was balanced by the knowledge of what she had to offer her ... and that was ... nothing. Never had she yearned for something so much, only to have it taken away by the knowledge of what would happen if she was to accept the offer her heart demanded.

Xena opened her eyes and was momentarily taken back by the close proximity of the bard, and the brightness of her sea green eyes.

"What is going on in that head of yours?" Gabrielle reached up and emphasized her point by tapping on Xena's forehead with her finger.

"I guess I'm just tired." The bard pushed herself up onto her knees.

"Xena ... don't hand me that. What's going on? On minute you're confessing your love to me and the next, you're becoming distant and aloof. I want to know ... please Xena, don't shut me out." The pleading words coming from the woman she loved began to tip the balance of Xena's control.

"I'm not shutting you out. I ... I'm just not sure if this is a direction ...we should go in."

"Why? ... Does this have something to do with those?" She pointed to Xena's hands and the wounds the warrior bore.

"No." The moment she spat out the strong denial, Xena regretted it.

"It does ... I can see it in your eyes. What are they from?" It was no longer a question of curiosity, it was a demand, and Gabrielle wanted answers.

The longer Xena hesitated, the greener Gabrielle's eyes turned.

"What ... are ... they ... from?"

As much as she wanted to, Xena knew she couldn't give Gabrielle the answer she demanded. But the warrior didn't realize how angry Gabrielle was until she tried to leave the bed.

Years of traveling and fighting by the warrior's side had honed the skills and reflexes of the little blond. The moment she saw the warrior's shoulder muscles flex, Gabrielle pounced on her and pushed her back against the wall.

"You are not doing this again. I want an answer Xena. I deserve an answer. Look at me ... look me in the eye." Gabrielle grasped Xena's chin and cheeks and turned the warrior's head until their eyes were inches apart.

The dark haired woman stared into the face in front of her, she felt her walls of conviction crumbling and she finally relented.

"When I was trying to find you, I ran into an old acquaintance ... her name was Alti." Gabrielle relaxed her grip on Xena's face, but the blue eyes refused to leave the green that gave them the strength to carry on. "She was a Shamaness I knew when I was ... from my past."

"So this Alti ... she did this to you?"

"Not directly ... but she had the power to have it done." It wasn't the whole truth, but it wasn't a total lie either. Gabrielle could have stood over her with a sword and Xena wouldn't have given her anymore.

"You were crucified weren't you?" The words frightened Gabrielle, having been placed on a cross once herself. But unlike Xena, Gabrielle had been tied, not nailed, and she couldn't fathom the pain it must have caused her friend.

"Yes." Xena couldn't look her in the eye, but she didn't have to. Gabrielle was not good at hiding her emotions, or the regret she was feeling. It was several minutes before she found the courage to speak again and Xena could hear the remorse in her words.

"You said this Alti had the power?"

"Yes, but not anymore ... she's dead."

Without saying the words, Gabrielle knew Alti's death had been by the hand of the warrior princess.

"But ... I don't understand what that had to do with your future, or in finding me?"

"Alti had seen you in a vision." Not wanting to take the answer any farther, Xena's tone lowered, signaling the end of the conversation. "Now, can we please change the subject?"

Gabrielle reached up and lightly touched the warrior's cheek. "Yes, but I do have one more question."

"What?" Xena wanted to let it all go, she was tired and was no longer in the mood for the bard's questions. Suddenly she was aware of the feather light touch on her cheek, and the wave of want rolling up from the core of her being.

Gabrielle's eyes were following her fingers as they caressed the warrior's cheek. Trailing one finger down, she traced the crease next to Xena's mouth and then followed the jaw line as it curled under her chin. With an increase of pressure, Gabrielle lifted the warrior's face and leaned in to claim a tender kiss.

Xena felt the warmth of Gabrielle's lips as her heart pounded from her chest, the sweet softness of innocence sucked the air right out of her heaving lungs. The delicate feel of their first real kiss was turning into a force of passion caused by years of denial. Gabrielle's finger left its position from under Xena's chin as she slid her hand into the dark hair and pulled the warrior's lips harder into her own. The bard's body surged with pleasured delight as a small moan came from within their kiss.

Gabrielle pulled back and breathlessly smiled a look of desire.

"Well, that pretty much answered my question."

Xena's lips were still burning from the raw passion exchanged between them. She discovered Gabrielle had awakened a hunger from deep inside her, and she wasn't certain if she could control it, even if she wanted to.

"Which was what ... may I ask," Xena's voice was low and husky, she found no way to hide the rage of desire coursing through her body.

"If I kissed you ... would you kiss me back?"

Xena had never thought her bard could look, or sound, so seductive, but before she could steady her nerves and control her growing appetite, Gabrielle's lips returned to ignite the fires they had started. Before she could even think about her reactions, Xena was responding to the bard's enticing moves.

Xena wanted to stop, her mind was demanding it, but her heart refused to respond. She immersed herself into the bard's kisses like a sponge to water, taking everything Gabrielle could offer. Lost in the moment of a dream finally realized, Xena made no attempt to cease her desires. A part of her was floating in a euphoric bliss as she felt the pressure of Gabrielle's tongue parting her lips.

Reality burst forth from her mind and she knew she had to extinguish the flames of passion threatening to engulf them both.

"Gabrielle ... please ... Gabrielle ... stop!" Loathing the control she had on her body, Xena pushed the young, flushed bard back. "We need to slow down here ... catch our breath so to speak."

Gabrielle couldn't help but stifle a giggle, as she too felt the sudden need for air. Her lips tingled as the rush of blood filled them on its way to her already bright cheeks. Her entire body was alive with what she could only describe as sexuality, as a seductive smile spread across her innocent face.

"Is my tough warrior having a problem?" Her impish grin was an invitation all on its own.

"I just don't want to rush into anything ... we might regret later."

"Regret? ... Rush in? ... Xena, we have known each other for more than four years, what exactly are we rushing into?"

"Gabrielle, so much has happened lately. We have been apart for over a moon cycle ... I just ..."

The loud knock on the door interrupted the warrior's words. Xena closed her eyes and was thankful for the reprieve.

"Oh for the love of Zeus! Why don't we just leave the damn door open," Gabrielle grumbled before loudly answering the intrusion. "Yes ... What is it?"

"We ... ah ... have a new bed for you Princess Gabrielle." The bard sighed loudly as she looked the warrior in the eye.

"I told you it would be around the village in no time." As much as she tried to sound annoyed, Xena was very thankful for the interruption. Though her body was reacting very differently to the departure of the little blond.

"How about getting some dinner while they are rearranging the furniture?"

Gabrielle nodded in agreement as she opened the door to the smiling Amazon's. Hushed giggles and sly smirks were exchanged between the village residents as they packed in the parts for a new, larger bed. The dark stained pieces of yew wood were laid to the floor as the Amazons cleared the old bed of its coverings and began to dismantle it. No longer wanting to be the subject of knowing looks and raised eyebrows, the warrior made her way out of the hut, the small blond was right behind her.

They made their way between the huts in the direction of the dining hall, Xena did her best to act nonchalant. Seeing the nervousness in Xena's profile, Gabrielle collected the warrior's fingers into her own. She offered the little blond a smile as she felt a loving squeeze, even though her heart was breaking on the inside.

Once inside, Xena felt the eyes of the village on both her and Gabrielle, as they made their way to the head table. As rightful Queen, but self-imposed Princess, Gabrielle was obligated to eat at the front of the hall. Regrettably, Xena realized with the layout of the room, every table with Amazons would be able to watch their every move.

"Why do I feel like I'm on display?" Though she had kept her words quiet, Gabrielle had still heard them, and turned with her own feelings clearly visible on her pink cheeks. Xena waited for Gabrielle to be seated, not out of respect for her standing as Princess, but out of pure instinct for her protection.

"I guess Ephiny has already eaten?" Gabrielle said out of the corner of her mouth as she smiled to the friendly nods she was receiving.

"Ummm," was the warrior's only response.

The conversation was kept to a minimum as the two feasted on chicken and fresh vegetables. Xena was thankful for the time to think as she tried to put things into proper perspective. Gabrielle didn't seem to notice the warrior's silence as she happily consumed her meal, while chatting with the table of women in front of them.

Her meal finished, Xena politely interrupted Gabrielle's conversation.

"I'm going to head out. I'll catch up with you later." The bard smiled and nodded as she patted Xena's hand.

The warrior rose and made her way through the tables and out the doors of the hall. Once outside and away for the stares and glares, Xena felt much better. Her blue eyes scanned the horizon as the last rays of light faded into the trees. Taking in a deep breath of cool evening air, the warrior's mind went over her options. As much as she knew what she had to do, she just couldn't bring herself to execute her decision.

"Dinar for your thoughts," Xena pulled her mind to the present and turned to face the speaker.

The two warriors said nothing at first, each looked knowingly into the others face. Eponin could see Xena had a lot on her mind. Not wanting to intrude, the quiet warrior lifted her face to the sky.

"Should be a nice night? Cool though."

"Yes." Xena furrowed her brow as she looked at the new moon of Artemis. Without conversation, the two began to stroll away from the doors and away from the village. Soon they were deep in the forest, the sounds of night filling the silence left by the two warriors.

Eponin came to a stop at the edge of a small stream and she nodded toward a downed poplar. The tranquil sounds of water rolling over the moss-covered stones relaxed the tension growing in Xena's shoulders.

"You wanna talk?" Eponin finally asked as her eyes followed a moonlit leaf down the rambling stream.


"Ok." Eponin crossed her arms and waited. Silence was what the quiet warrior knew best, but she could also see the storm of emotions in the blue of Xena's eyes. You didn't become the leader of the Amazon warrior's without being very observant.

"Do you want to talk about something else?"


"Xena ..."

"Eponin, when did you become such a chatterbox?"

The Amazon waited for the smirk to leave her face before she turned to the warrior princess.

"Around the time I saw a good friend ... walk into a wall of arrows ... and then survive!"

Xena was pretty certain of who had talked to Ephiny, but Eponin had just confirmed her suspicions.

"Which was right before hearing the scuttle-bug of that same friend and her relations with a certain Amazon Princess? Which, if the rumors are true, I can't understand what she is doing out in the middle of the forest with me, instead of being back in the arms of the woman she loves!"

"Eponin ... I don't think I have ever heard you say so much in one sentence." Without waiting for a response, Xena stood up and started back in the direction of the village.

"Xena ... Xena," Eponin scrambled to her feet, Xena's departure had caught her off guard. "Talk to me ... I can see something is bothering you."

The warrior princess swung around and growled into the face of the Amazon. "Yeah, all the questions you Amazon's think you have a right to know!"

Xena turned back around and continued on her way as Eponin stood and watched her. "It's a lot more than that, my friend." Eponin sighed deeply as she followed close behind the warrior. Nothing else was said as the two separated upon entering the outskirts of the village.

Chapter 38

The hut was empty when Xena opened the door, and for the first time ever, she was grateful for the bard's absence. A quick look around the room told Xena the larger bed wasn't the only thing the Amazon's had brought. There were a couple of chairs now tucked into the corner, a small collection of candles on a tall stand next to the bed. Spotting the pieces of flint by their reflections of the full moon, Xena lit the candles casting a warm orange light about the room. She couldn't help but smile at the basket of fruit and nutbread placed on the shelf.

Xena collected her saddlebags and dropped them next to one of the chairs. With a small moan of stiffness the warrior pulled off her leathers and folded her long body into the wooden chair.The light cotton shift she was wearing, did nothing to stop the chill in her heart. Running her fingers through the saddlebags, Xena removed what she needed to repair the hole in her leathers left by Cupid's arrow.

Engrossed in her sewing, and in the thoughts swirling around in her mind, Xena didn't look up at the green eyes observing her from the doorway. Instead she fought down the urge to collect her little bard into her arms, the wanton desire to take her to bed to make passionate love...

"Xena," Gabrielle's voice shook the warrior out of her dream and away from her fantasy. She smiled up at her, expertly masking her emotions of the moment.

"You could do that later, you know?" The bard raised an eyebrow as she placed a warm hand on the shoulder of the shift-covered woman.

"I could, but what would I wear tomorrow?"

"Me." Xena felt her entire body shift with the pending collapse of her sexual control. She narrowed her eyes at the task in her lap as she stilled the wave of desire.

"Though that thought is very attractive, it is not practical."

"Who said anything about being practical?" Gabrielle was once again confused by the mix of signals she was receiving from the warrior. Not wanting to ruin the mood, Gabrielle placed a gentle, but sexual, kiss on Xena's parted lips.

"Don't be long ... I may just fall asleep." The bard purred as she climbed into the bed. She had no idea that was what the warrior was counting on.

Gabrielle laid snuggled under the layers of blankets, until she finally cleared her throat in the warrior's direction. Xena looked up with raised eyebrows as Gabrielle folded back the covers and patted the side of the bed.

"I'm almost done," Xena said as she bit through the sinew she was sewing with. But it didn't matter how long she stalled, everytime she glanced in Gabrielle's direction, the green eyes were wide awake and watching her. With a silent sigh, she finally put her leathers aside and strolled over in the direction of the bed.

"Roll over," she requested gently. Gabrielle immediately responded by laying on her stomach. Xena pulled the blankets back and closed her eyes to the naked, firm body laying so willingly in front of her. When her blue eyes opened again, the warrior had steeled her emotions and had forcibly forgotten her own desires.

She straddled the bard's naked hips causing a moan from the bed the moment the skin of their thighs touched. Xena looked down at the sutures in her leg and was thankful the pain of the injury gave her something to concentrate on. She leaned her body forward and placed her hands on Gabrielle's muscular shoulders.

"This was not what I had in mind Xena." The young voice replied through a goose-down pillow her face was buried in.

"Are you complaining ... or explaining?"

"Ahhhh ... neither. Ohhh ... your hands are magical." As hard as she tried, the bard couldn't keep the pleasureful groans from her voice as Xena strong fingers began their seductive dance across her back.

Working with an expert touch of a seasoned masseuse, the warrior worked the body beneath her. Her strong fingers working the tight muscles, forcing Gabrielle to moan in low, deep tones.

"Oh ... Xena, I forgot how good you were at this."

"Shhh ... just relax and enjoy it."

Starting soft and low, Xena began humming, filling the hut with a soothing melody. Fighting to keep her control, Xena refused to let her mind go anywhere other than the task at hand. The rhythmic workings of her talented fingers soon lulled the bard to sleep. Even though she had accomplished what she had set out to do, Xena still couldn't bring herself to remove her hands from Gabrielle's young, supple skin.

Lifting herself slowly from the bed, Xena turned her back and closed her eyes. Her tears feel silently as she donned her leathers and armor. With her saddlebags in her hand, she gazed at the young bard asleep on the bed. Struggling to maintain her control, the warrior knelt next to her love. Xena studied the peaceful features of Gabrielle's face, as if permanently imprinting her image on her mind. With the touch of a lover, she brushed away the golden locks off the bard's face. Unable to control herself any longer, Xena leaned over and placed one last gentle kiss on Gabrielle's cheek. She rose slowly to her feet and closed her eyes on the tears cascading down her face.

"I will always love you Gabrielle. You have made my life worth living ... you believed in me when no one else did. And leaving you is the hardest thing I have ever had to do ... but I love you too much to hurt you anymore. It's time you learned to fly on your own ... without the darkness of my past ... to ground you. Be strong ... and be true to your heart." With quivering lips, Xena kissed her fingertips and placed her heartache on her soul. She tore herself away and stood at the foot of the bed for a few moments longer.

"Good bye my love," an anguished sob started to rise in her throat, but the warrior was gone before Gabrielle could ever have a chance to hear it.

Chapter 39

The warrior made her way through the forest by the light of Artemis' moon. Bright streams of silver sparkled lightly on the forest floor. Each step Xena made took her farther and farther away from the Amazon village, and from Gabrielle. It was the best thing for her to do, but it didn't make the start journey alone any easier. Her heart ache, her mind was spinning and her stomach churned. Xena felt the distance she was putting between them tearing at her, each step got heavier and heavier, and so she was questioning her decision.

She couldn't do it, she couldn't just walk out, not without explaining why.

The warrior princess turned back to the Amazon village. Even though she knew why, it didn't relieve the pain of separation she was already feeling.

Xena stood in front of the solid wood door for what seemed like a lifetime before she lifted a hand to rap lightly. Much to her surprise, the door was opened immediately by Agina. The Amazon's eyes held the same expression as Xena's.

"Ah ... um. I need to see Ephiny." Agina looked over her shoulder and then back at the sullen warrior. Xena's eyes followed Agina as the Amazon slipped past her and made her way down the palace steps. Sliding her eyes back to look inside, she looked down at Ephiny standing only inches from her.

"Come on in ..." Xena frowned at the tone used by the regent. She entered the palace and closed the door behind her.

"What ... the hell ... are you doing?" The snarl of anger took the warrior princess by surprise. A quick look into Ephiny's eyes told Xena the Queen was beyond annoyed.

"Excuse me?"

"Sneaking off in the middle of the night isn't your normal style, Xena."

The warrior princess dropped her eyes to the floor, "I wasn't sneaking."

"Then would you like to tell me why Agina was just here, telling me she spotted you leaving?" At first Ephiny didn't believe what the Amazon had told her. She didn't think anything would separate the bard and her warrior, but with a quick check of their hut ... Ephiny was distraught at seeing Gabrielle sleeping alone. She had returned to the palace to change into something more suitable for travel, when Agina had spotted the warrior returning.

Ephiny waited for Xena to reply, for the first time she got a good look at the torment on Xena's face. The telltale signs of red and puffy eyes, eyes that were looking to the mantle.

"Because I was," the words were whispered, but it didn't stop the sound of desperation in Xena's voice. Ephiny crossed the short distance between them and put her hands on Xena's shoulders.

"Why?" Xena shook her head at the simplistic question, knowing only she knew the complexity of the answer.

"Because I don't want her by my side any longer!"

"Oh, that's believable."

"It's the truth."

"No, it's not ... and we both know it. You walked into a wall of arrows because you thought she wasn't here, and then you expect me to believe that once you found each other, you are going to leave. Try again Xena, because I'm not buying what you are trying to sell me."

Ephiny's sarcastic words hit the warrior square on. The regent watched as Xena's strong facade crumbled with the tears she tried to ignore.

"She can't come with me Ephiny. I want to leave her here ... I know in the long run she will be better off." Xena tried to pull away from the Queen, but with the strength of an Amazon, Ephiny held on tight.

"Why?... Oh, for the love of Zeus Xena, can't you see you two were meant to be together?"

"We can't!" Finding her strength in her decision, Xena answered with clenched teeth.

Ephiny's face turned a deep crimson as her temper began to rise.

"Answer me ... Or as leader of the Amazons, I will have you locked up until you tell me the truth."

" ... Because if she stays with me ...," Xena paused long enough to steady herself, "she is only going to get hurt."

Shaking her head in disbelief, Ephiny was exasperated. "It's a dangerous world out there Xena. We all could get struck down at anytime."

"But what would you do if you knew when ... where ... and how!" The words stopped the regent in her tracks as she saw the pain and regret in the warrior's red-rimmed eyes.

Xena lifted her palms to Ephiny, her voice broke with every word. "It's our future ... If she comes with me ... she will die ... on a cross."

It took a few moments for the Queen to find her voice, "How ... what ...?"

Xena explained the best she could, what she knew of her limited future, and the how and where of their deaths.

"Do you understand now? She can't come with me. I want her to stay here with you!" Ephiny had never heard Xena plead before and it broke her heart.

"But Xena, there is no guarantee she will be any safer here. The Roman's have been around a lot lately, no one is really safe."

"Yes, but at least she wouldn't know ... and I wouldn't be to blame." Wiping her face free of tears, Xena turned to the Queen of the Amazons.

"I have to go ... Please Ephiny ... look after her. Don't let her follow me ..."

"Where are you going to go?"

"I have to find Argo first ... and then I thought ... I don't ... maybe I'll go see Cleopatra."

"There's nothing I can say to change your mind ... is there?"

"No," Xena's voice sounded a lot stronger than she really felt.

"I will hold my silence on one condition!"

"Which is?"

"One year Xena. One year from today, you return. If the prophecy hasn't come true ... it may never."

The warrior thought over the proposition, it wasn't a new idea, it had crossed her mind many, many times.

"I don't know if I can promise that?"

"I don't want a promise Xena ... I want your word." The warrior remained quiet for a moment and then slowly nodded her head.

"I will see you in a year Ephiny."

"If the Gods are willing Xena ... if the Gods are willing."

The two clasped hands and then embraced for what would be the last time. Neither could find the words to express their sorrow as the warrior princess silently slipped out the front doors.

Every step she took in the first hour was a lesson in tortured torment. She had never felt pain like that before. Xena had stopped twice and had almost convinced herself to go back, but she knew it was the right thing to do. By the grey skies of morning, she could see in the distance, the Kaltaka river. She figured it would be afternoon before she crossed it, leaving the Amazons and Gabrielle behind. She closed her eyes to the wave of despair closing in on her heart. As she tried to relax her tense filled muscles, she felt a presence she didn't like. Someone was watching her. Showing no signs of having heard them she hoisted her saddlebags back onto her shoulder and continued on. Emptying her mind of everything except survival, Xena swung around to face the shadow behind her. The warrior's emotions lurched as she held her sword to Gabrielle's throat.

"Xena?" The bard's ashen face and puffy eyes widened in shock and horror.

"Gabrielle!" Xena immediately dropped her sword and collected the small woman into her arms. A sob broke from the bard's chest as she felt Xena's warm tears on her shoulder. Though only separated for a few hours, the two held each other like it had been months. Their body's shook with relief and it took everything Gabrielle had to find her voice.

"Why?" It came out in a broken sob, but it tore at Xena's heart just the same. She closed her blue eyes and prayed for the vision to stay away.

"Because it is the best thing for you."

Flames of anger shot from her green eyes as Gabrielle pushed the warrior back.

"How dare you ... How dare you make a decision like that for me!" Xena went to open her mouth, but it was quickly closed by the bard's shaking hand.

"I have been by your side through thick and thin, through Tartarus and back ...I have cried with you and I have died with you ... And now, after all we have been through. You want to leave?" Tears were rolling down her wet cheeks, but Gabrielle's attention was on the tall warrior in front of her.

"What is it that you are so afraid of?"

Xena fought with her mind and with her soul, but she couldn't bring herself to tell the truth. She started to turn her head away, but before she could move, Gabrielle reached up and turned it to face her.

"Is it me ... It is ... isn't it," the disbelief came out of the bard's mouth with the last of the air in her lungs.

"No Gabrielle," regreting the pain she had put her through, Xena pulled her into the protection of her arms as she spotted a movement high in the trees. With clear understanding, Xena now knew how Gabrielle had found her.

When the quiet Amazon had made the eye contact with Xena, Eponin raised a hand as she dropped Gabrielle's belongings to the ground. With a final nod, the quiet warrior disappeared into the thickness of the forest, leaving Xena alone to answer for her desertion.

"So now I know how you found me?"

Gabrielle turned and looked back in the direction of the trees.

"Eponin is gone ," Xena whispered. The bard turned her attentions back to the warrior.

"Then we're alone, Xena." The dark raven hair hung as the warrior dipped her head with remorse at what she had done. The were no words at first, just a longing on both their parts. One wanting answers, the other wanting just to run.

"Why did you leave me?" Gabrielle's tears had subsided for the moment, and the young bard looked clearly up into Xena's face.

"It's for the best."

"Don't ... Don't do this to me."

"Gabrielle, you would be better off with Ephiny."

"Damn it Xena! Talk to me, don't shut me out! We have been through too much."

Xena closed her eyes as she tried to escape the vision of how much more they would go through, if she didn't leave her friend behind. It was for the best, and that was what she kept telling herself.

"So after all this, you just walk away." The strength and conviction Gabrielle now possessed was aimed at the honor and pride of her best friend. "That is not like you Xena. Is it me? What did I do wrong? Why do you want to leave me behind?"

"NO! ... I can't ... I," She couldn't do it. She couldn't leave without some kind of explanation.Something to explain to Gabrielle, why she was leaving. With a haunting whisper, the warrior finally relented, "I don't want to hurt you anymore." Xena's bottom lip shuddered as the only truth she could admit to, escaped from her heart.

"You don't think it would hurt me even more, to wake up and find you gone."

"You would get over it, eventually."

"And what if I didn't ... or what if I couldn't, get over it! Are you willing to gamble on my heart and on my mind?"

"You would get over it. You are stronger than you give yourself credit for Gabrielle."

"I don't want to be strong, and I don't want to be alone. I want to be with you ... What happened to forever ... you told me Xena ... forever?"

Emotions she had fought against for so long, had weakened the fight in the warrior. No longer able to stand on her shaking legs, she crumbled to the ground. Before a heart could echo, Gabrielle knelt at her side. She reached over to tuck some of the dark hair behind Xena's ear. The tenderness and compassion was more than Xena could take. The last of her resolve crumbled away. The warrior reached for Gabrielle's hand and brought it to her lips.

"I can't promise you forever, Gabrielle."

"I never asked you too." They looked into each other's eyes and smiled through their falling tears.

"I have nothing to offer you. No home, no stability, I can't even protect you from the pain of my past."

"My home is with you Xena. And nothing would be more stable than our friendship ... but if you leave me now ... all you will leave me with is pain. Pain and heartache. And I would forever blame myself, and wonder what I could have done differently." Gabrielle reached over with her free hand and wiped away the warrior's reluctant tears.

"Gabrielle ... you would be better off here with the Amazons, than you would be with me."

"No, I wouldn't. My life is with you. I know that now."

"They can protect you. They can give you a home. What can I give you?"

"The only thing I have ever wanted," she pulled her hand from Xena's grasp and cupped the warrior's face. "...your heart Xena." Gabrielle leaned forward, and with quivering lips, kissed Xena with all the passion and desire her small frame could offer.

A breathless moment later, the warrior princess broke the entanglement. "You already have it ... and you will until the day I die."

"And what if I want more?"

"What if I can't give you more?"

"Then I guess I will have to wait a bit longer. Or maybe I will have to wait forever. It doesn't matter Xena. I am not giving up."

"I don't think I ever wanted you to."

Gabrielle's green eyes lit up with delight as she reached up and kissed Xena again. The warrior's face warmed to the feelings in her heart as she returned the kiss with all the desires she could no longer control.

"I'm not letting you go, my tough warrior. I want to be with you, I want to care for you and I want to love you."

The warrior pulled back and looked Gabrielle in the face, Xena smiled, "one step at a time Gabrielle ... one step at a time. I think we should go slow. You should always learned to walk before you run."

"Didn't I ever tell you," Gabrielle's face lit up with a smile as she placed both of her hands onto Xena's shoulders. She broke into a giggle as she pushed the warrior to the ground. Her long blond locks tiggle the damp face of the warrior as Xena looked into the loving eyes of her bard. Her heart quickened as she watch Gabrielle lowered herself onto her body, her head tilting down for a kiss.

"I guess I should have mention Xena. I hate walking ... I would rather run."

The End

In a world on unknown powers,
In a land of make believe,
Two souls were once united.
And that's the truth from me.
There are no absolutes,
Forever is just a myth.
But when you find someone to love.
Just remember ... that it's a gift.

Sinful [

C 02/18/00

** Thanks one again to R & M, for not letting an old warrior run too far.

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