DISCLAIMER : Xena, Gabrielle, Argo, etc. are ©copyright MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. I don't own them, I just play with them for a while and, like the good girl I am, I put them back when I'm done…okay, they get a little worn, but hey…I play hard! Absolutely no Copyright infringement is intended in the writing of this fiction. All other characters that appear are ©copyright to the author, Devlin@xenafan.com. This story may not be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies may be made for private use only and I'd appreciate if you included all copyright notices and this disclaimer.

VIOLENCE WARNING: There is some violence (come on it's the Warrior Princess). There is also a dream sequence that depicts violence against a baby (it's not too terrible…just wanted folks to know).

TIMELINE:   My own making. Instead of Xenaverse...it's Gabrielleverse! Let's just say that India never happened, Eli never sucked the bard into buying what he was selling, Gabrielle never became a wimp and tossed her staff away, Ephiny never died, and our ladies were never crucified. I think I blocked out all the episodes of XWP I didn't care for midway of season four! This is mostly how I wanted the series to go.

HIGH ANGST WARNING: I was threatened within an inch of my life if I didn't start putting this disclaimer on some (all?) of my work. I will henceforth rate the angst content with sad faces, one being the lowest and four being the highest. That being said…this story earns:   L   (6 sad faces for those without TT Fonts…yep, "off the scale sad." I do, however, always believe in happy endings!)

SEX: Yes, I'll have some, thank you.   I mean, yes there is. It is our favorite two Soulmates, after all. It's not gratuitous, but it is quite explicit when it gets going. This story shows consensual love/sex & even occasional light bondage between two adult females. Even when they get carried away, it's all done in love.

UNDERAGE WARNING: Hey, the Supreme Court said in Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union (1997) that laws against making available, online, certain "indecent" materials for those under 18 was unconstitutional…look it up! Besides, this is perfectly "decent."

SPECIAL THANKS: Goes to the Ex-Guard (Now The Bards' Village) mail list for all their valuable feedback. To KT, for her poem, Looking Back At You.

I only know how others feel about my stories from feedback. Let me know what you think...I'm at: Devlin@xenafan.com

*This is the fifth story in the "Queen" series. You may be more than a tad lost if you don't read them in sequence. The series begins with "To Become A Queen" and follows with "Quest for A Queen," "The Heart of a Queen," and is followed by "The Queen of My Heart."

Queen Series

This is not a light hearted tale. The first part is sad, plain and simple. I can only describe it by saying that we all have trials and tribulations in our lives. It is not whether we come through them or not, which makes us great individuals. It is the journey through the pain, the path we take, that shows what kind of people we are inside. I've written this one to reflect those thoughts. It's Gabrielle's journey. You will like the end, however.

Chapter 1



Gabrielle listened to the sound the long handled axe made as it bit deeply into the wood. A Queen's paperwork forgotten, she cupped her chin in her hand and watched in equal parts fascination and desire, at the strength in her warrior's frame. A heavy sigh escaped her, remembering the sharp words she'd thrown at Xena just before the dark-haired woman left the hut. Her wife bore the stinging words with the good grace that was fast becoming the warrior's trademark during Gabrielle's last few moons of pregnancy. Xena would nod her head, calmly accepting blame for whatever indiscretion her wife thought the tall woman guilty of, and then be there a candlemark or so later, to hold Gabrielle in her strong arms, as the Queen apologized and wept over her unmanageable mood swings.

The hard sound of the axe disappeared, the sound of a pounding hammer taking its place. Xena was laboring hard to complete the final work on the addition to their home. The extra room would come in handy with the baby arriving, and all too soon, Gabrielle thought to herself, it would become the child's bedroom.

The warrior wore a shirt with the sleeves ripped off and a pair of leather trousers while she worked with the wood. The clothing felt a bit stifling to the woman who was accustomed to much less attire, but it protected her skin more. Xena finally gave in and switched from her leather battle skirt to the leather trousers when she got tired of picking splinters out of skin.

The weather was hot, as it had been most of the summer. Even now, as they entered the harvest season, the sun continued to burn down. Rain was scarce this summer and the meager harvest showed it. All across the Amazon lands, dried creeks and ponds turned into nothing more than cracked, parched landscapes.

Gabrielle continued to stare at Xena, a myriad of fantasies playing themselves out before her mind's eye. She sat there with a little half smile on her face and a dreamy expression in her eyes. The young Queen knew she was a basket case full of conflicting emotions lately. Each fortnight that passed her libido traveled further and further away. She adored making love to Xena and found it intensely satisfying, but she couldn't even explain to her partner why she had no interest in Xena pleasuring her. How could she explain something she had no answers for herself. It brought her to tears on more than one occasion, Xena's patient love, and understanding coming into play to calm the overwrought Queen. Xena would eventually reward her with a tiny, all-knowing grin, and tell her it was normal and Gods help them when the young woman was ready.

Gabrielle felt as if that time had finally come.

She felt for her wife, watching the warrior work so hard. There would be days when intimacy, even at the talented hands of her wife, was the last thing Gabrielle had on her mind. She still worried, even after Xena's reassurances, that she would never feel that spark of passion drive through her like a lightning bolt scorching the earth; that she would never again feel desire possess her body so completely that only a certain dark-haired Warrior Princess could release her from its spell.

She gazed out the window just as Xena paused to take a drink of water from a skin, conveniently hanging on a nearby tree branch. She watched as the tall warrior tilted her head back, drinking deeply. Gabrielle realized her mouth was hanging open, her breathing coming in small, shallow pants. Tiny rivulets of water escaped past the seal of the waterskin where it met Xena's lips. The thin streams trickled down her chin, falling onto her chest, soaking the shirt, and causing the fabric to cling to the well-developed chest.

Gabrielle swallowed hard and felt a warmth flush her skin, a feeling she hadn't felt in moons. Amazing! Of all times to be ready. I'm nearly ready to give birth and I want hot and heavy sex! Get a grip, woman!

The young Queen gazed down at her swollen belly, looking quite large on her small frame. "Oh, yea…that's attractive." Gabrielle grumbled aloud to no one but herself.

Her eyes were drawn once again to the warrior outside. She felt her heart do that little stutter that it always did when she thought about her love for Xena. Gods! That does feel good, though. It's been so long since I've wanted Xena to touch me.

Xena paused to wipe the sweat from her eyes. She tried to get the majority of the heavy work done in the early morning and evening hours, taking a much deserved rest during the heat of the afternoon. She reached for a waterskin and drank deeply, feeling the unnerving sensation of being watched. When she raised her eyes and scanned the area, she immediately locked on to her wife's penetrating gaze. Her eyes met Gabrielle's and the waterskin very nearly fell from her grasp.

Her need clawed at her belly as if it were a living entity. Not the need for pleasure, Gods, Gabrielle had been more than generous with her affections, well, the last two weeks had been pretty dicey, but it could have been worse. Xena hadn't made love to her wife in moons. She couldn't really blame the young Queen, though. Xena remembered when she was carrying Solon. She had an insatiable need to satisfy Borias, her lover at the time and Solon's father, yet her own body was off limits. She didn't know why, but she assumed it had something to do with the way she felt in her body at the time. She definitely remembered that it was no fun having that huge belly going ahead of her at all times. Frankly, she felt like a pregnant mare.

Because of this, she neither complained nor fussed about her wife's decreasing libido. She accepted what Gabrielle was able to give and took pleasure in the fact that Gabrielle did appear to be deriving a certain amount of gratification from satisfying her warrior. Xena was content that the young Queen would give her some sort of a signal when she was ready.

Xena recognized that her wife was sending her a signal so large it might as well have been a bonfire. The look in Gabrielle's eye was unmistakable, and pregnant or not, Xena still thought she was the most beautiful creature in the Known World. She had to admit, going the last fortnight without Gabrielle even touching her made her more than willing for anything the young woman might have in mind. She was rather hoping Gabrielle would have had the baby by the time her dry spell snapped, but she was the Warrior Princess, after all. She was willing to improvise. She was getting laid this afternoon and the look in her wife's eye, told her the pleasure would be reciprocated.

"It's getting hot out here, warrior."

Xena caught herself staring off into space. She quickly looked down with a sheepish grin at the small blonde standing beside her. Gabrielle's emerald eyes sparkled with undisguised lust and the warrior was struck speechless. You have no idea how hot, my heart!

"Thinking about taking a break for a while?" Gabrielle asked.

"As a matter of fact, I was thinking of heading of to the baths right now."

"Sound like a good idea," the Queen replied quickly.

Xena heard the tenor in Gabrielle's voice. The sound was a combination command and desperation. The notion, in itself, that Gabrielle wanted Xena, made her wet. She could feel her arousal washing over her like a penetrating warmth.

"Be right back, love," the warrior bent down to steal a quick kiss. Xena practically ran to the hut for a clean shift and took off in the direction of the baths.

Gabrielle chuckled to herself, thinking once again of the small surprise she had fashioned for her warrior. A worried frown creased her brow, wondering if Xena would have a problem with something like this. No, it's not like we've never used anything like this before, she shook off the nagging worry. She owed her wife a good time after what she'd been putting her through lately, and this would be the perfect way to satisfy Xena for a good long time.


"Mmmm…feels so good. Brie, if you keep that up…" Xena yawned, "I'm going to fall asleep."

"It's okay to fall asleep, love," the Queen responded.

Gabrielle's hands gently massaged the scented oil into the muscles across the warrior's broad back. She used a light and loving touch, meant to relax and not arouse.

"But, I don't want to fall asleep during this…" Xena answered sleepily.

"It's not that kind of massage, Xe. Just relax," Gabrielle whispered close to the warrior's ear and smiled at the goose bumps that rose up on Xena's skin. "I want you to take a good long nap because you're going to need all your strength when you wake up."

If Xena heard that last statement, she never gave any indication as the light sound of the warrior's snores filled the room.


Xena felt she was floating on a cloud. The hands that cupped her breasts…she would know the feel of those hands anywhere. The fingers moved to run in teasing strokes up and down her body as she lay on her back across their large pallet. Nails lightly raked up the inside of her thighs and she felt a delicious trickle of wetness between her legs. Still halfway between sleep and the waking world, Xena sighed as she felt soft lips kiss across her chest.

"Oh Gods, Brie…yes!" She exclaimed when she felt a warm wet mouth enclose an aching nipple in its grasp.

Xena opened her eyes to a beautiful site. Gabrielle's golden hair fell across her chest as her wife teased and suckled her breasts. The young Queen bit down gently on the tender flesh in her mouth and Xena arched her body into the sensation. Her forward progress was halted immediately and Xena's eyes flew open wide.

She tugged experimentally to discover she was bound to the bed by thick leather straps at her wrists.

"What in--"

"Sshh, love…relax…" Gabrielle said softly, bending once more to administer her loving touch upon the warrior's body.

"Brie!" Xena's voice sounded panicky to her own ears.

Gabrielle raised her head in concern. She stroked Xena's smooth cheek, attempting to gentle her.

"Xe…it's all right. It was my doing. Relax and let me love you."

Xena tried. She took deep breaths of air, attempting to concentrate on her wife's touch. Her heart was racing along and she couldn't seem to slow its pace. She realized she wasn't getting enough air.

Gabrielle moved up to look into her lover's face. The sound of Xena's breathing grew loud, exhaling in short bursts. It resounded throughout the room and Gabrielle thought her wife was very close to having an anxiety attack. She'd never seen the warrior in this state and it frightened her.

"Xe…it's okay, love, we've done this before."

I--I can't…" Xena tugged hard on the leather straps, and feeling no give to them at all, she panicked all that much more. "Let me loose, Gabrielle."

Gabrielle had no idea what was happening, but she immediately tried to respond to her warrior's request, which soon became a demand.

"Now! Gabrielle, please…get these off!"

Xena was pulling with all her strength by this time and even the headboard of the large wooden bed creaked and groaned under the stress, but the thick leather held. Gabrielle was trying to loosen the straps, but by now, Xena's constant tugging had tightened them considerably. Her wife's eyes were wide in what Gabrielle could only determine was fear. The warrior's chest rose and fell deeply, but she couldn't seem to take in enough air.


Xena's panicked plea cut through Gabrielle's confusion at this turn of events and she quickly looked to the floor. Swiftly reaching down and grabbing Xena's breast dagger, the Queen sliced through the thick leather in heartbeats.

Pushing her wife's naked body aside, Xena leapt from the pallet. The warrior had a crazed look in her eye as she searched the room for her clothes. Tugging on her breeches and leathers, she pulled the laces of the leather battle dress closed, and slipped into her boots.

"Xena? Are you okay?" Gabrielle asked in total confusion.

"I--I…" Xena stammered, but the warrior refused to raise her eyes to her wife.

"Xe…I'm so sorry. I had no idea--"

"It's…it's…I need some air." Xena rasped, swinging the door open and rushing out into the late afternoon sun.

Gabrielle looked at the shredded toys that she purchased and wondered what in Hades just happened. Her wife just panicked at being tied up and made love to. That was definitely different. She rose up from the pallet and put her robe on, removing what remained of the leather straps. She wondered if she should run after Xena to try to explain, but with Xena, that was never a good idea.

Gabrielle decided to give the warrior a candlemark or two to calm herself, but if she weren't back by then, the Queen would go looking for her herself.

"Gabrielle," the young woman shook her head and spoke aloud. "The next time I wonder if something is a good idea…maybe I better just go with my first instinct!"


The small blonde reclined against a number of pillows stacked into their favorite corner by the fireplace. It was too warm for a fire, but it was still the coziest spot in the hut. She and Xena usually sat together, talking and making plans for the baby. It surprised the young Queen when she first heard Xena speaking of their family and a future. She never would have thought her warrior would ever become this domesticated, but it was as if Xena made a decision.

The warrior confessed to Gabrielle that she wanted to be around for her wife and child. She couldn't afford to take foolish risks anymore, not with a family and a future to think about. Gabrielle cried tears of joy that night, watching her warrior sleep. She realized that for all these seasons, what kept Xena from enjoying any aspect of her life…it was the future. The warrior never thought she would last long enough within the mortal realm to ever fall in love, have a wife, and a family. Now that it was happening, Xena actually seemed relaxed. In the past, she stoically participated in Amazon life within the village, but it was usually for Gabrielle's benefit. Now, Xena appeared to actually take pleasure in a place that would become home, for herself, and those she loved.

Gabrielle sat alone, but knew that as soon as the candle on the table burned down another quarter of a mark, she would go in search of her warrior. Before the thought was gone from her head, she heard the door softly open. She didn't look behind her; there was no need. She caught the unmistakable scent of her wife, that familiar combination of jasmine, leather, and wood smoke. She closed her eyes and breathed in, enjoying the feeling of comfort that scent provided.

Xena removed two of the large pillows Gabrielle leaned against, sliding behind her wife and replacing the cushions with her body, the young Queen settling herself in her favorite position.

"How do you feel, Xe?" Gabrielle wasn't sure what to ask.

"Incredibly stupid, that's how I feel."

A small silence ensued before each woman attempted to break it at the same time.



They each paused a heartbeat,

"I'm so sorry…"

"I'm so sorry…"

They said in unison, looking up at one another and smiling.

Gabrielle noted her wife's red-rimmed eyes and knew the warrior had been out, crying tears of frustration for being less than perfect.

"Xe, I am sorry…I never thought…I mean we've done that before, and--"

Xena grasped her lover's hand and brought it to her lips. "Never like that," the warrior whispered softly against the fingertips pressed against her lips.

"I'm sorry for over reacting, Brie. It's just that before…well, I've always had an out…you know, a way to release myself. This way I…I just had no…no…"

"Control," Gabrielle finished knowingly.

Xena lowered her head in shame and admission. She knew what this was telling her wife about the amount of trust she held in her. How could Xena explain, when she didn't understand it herself?

Gabrielle turned in her wife's embrace in order to see her better. The Queen lifted the proud chin with her fingertips and looked again into the beautiful blue eyes she so loved. She could tell from the set of the warrior's jaw that Xena was disappointed and angry with herself. The warrior had so few flaws to her character that Gabrielle understood how this affected the strong woman. Xena did what she always did. She pointed the finger at herself and found this to be some serious failing in her.

Gabrielle looked deep into her wife's eyes until the warrior felt the young Queen must have surely been reading her thoughts. As always, the young woman said just the right words to ease the warrior's heartache.

"Xe, I know this doesn't have anything to do with us."

Xena gave her wife a small smile for her understanding.

"I know you are the consummate warrior, and that there haven't been any situations that you haven't been able to get yourself out of. You do know, however, that someday that may happen. It's inevitable, my love. Someday you're going to run into a situation that you simply can't control. It will be out of your hands and I'm afraid that if you don't deal with that eventuality, it will hurt you…badly."

Xena took the hand that stroked her cheek and placed a light kiss in the palm, entwining her own fingers within the smaller one.

"I'm not sure I can change that about myself, Brie. I have always had a warrior's mentality. I never accept defeat because I've always managed to come out on top. Even when I have to lie and cheat my way out of a situation, I eventually win. Look at our lives, my heart. All that we've been through, all the pain, and yet now we know such happiness."

"That doesn't mean that sadness can't still touch us," Gabrielle answered.

The Queen watched her wife's face turn confused, her brows coming together.

"Xe? What's wrong?"

"What you just said, the Oracle of T an told me that very thing. When we were in the caverns on Delos, we ran into an old woman who said she was an Oracle," Xena related the events that she all but forgot before this moment.

"You met the Oracle of T an and you didn't tell me?" Gabrielle asked in amazement.

"Frankly, I didn't think she was too famous…I never heard of her."

"Now that surprises me, my all knowing warrior." Gabrielle smiled at the woman who smirked down at her. "Only some of the very oldest scrolls mention her. She's supposed to be an elder sister to the fates. It's said that it was she, who assisted Gaea in giving birth to Uranus, to form the world that we know. If it's true, then she was here long before the Gods, Olympian or otherwise, ever were," Gabrielle finished in excitement. "I can't believe you didn't tell me this."

"Yea, well, we were a little busy once I got back if you'll remember," Xena grinned.

Gabrielle grinned right back, feeling the twinges of desire that assaulted her earlier, returning.

"Anyway," Xena continued. "I don't think she was much of an Oracle. She told me something terrible would happen, but that I would rise above it…something like that. Wait…no; she said a sadness, just like you just did. She said a great sadness would come upon me. Hades, everyone knew that! You were back here, somewhere between life and death because of Hera's spell over the Amazons and I didn't know if I would be able to defeat Hera in time. It didn't take an Oracle to give me a prediction like that."

"Are you sure that was the incident she was referring to?" Gabrielle asked, a worried frown creasing her brow.

"Sure…it was obvious," Xena replied. She had to admit to herself, however, that she hadn't really thought about the Oracle's words since that time.

"I'm sorry for throwing you in a panic…you know…earlier," Gabrielle apologized again.

She turned and snuggled into Xena's embrace and the warrior kissed the top of the golden head. The warrior placed both her hands over the large swell of Gabrielle's stomach and caressed the swollen area, smiling when she felt the baby's kick against her hand.

"I'm sorry I ruined your plans for the day…it seemed as if you had something very specific in mind," the warrior kissed the edge of her wife's ear, allowing the tip of her tongue to graze the skin there.

Xena's smile grew when she felt the shiver that ran through Gabrielle's body. Oh yes, warrior…you still have a chance here. "Come on, let's go to bed."

Xena stood, scooping her wife into her arms with her.

"Are we through discussing this?" Gabrielle asked, desire sparkling in her eyes.

"Oh yea…. I'm all through talking for the night," Xena replied.

She leaned in and placed a passionate kiss on her wife's lips. Gabrielle's immediate responsiveness to the kiss told the warrior that her wife was indeed ready for pleasure. Gently placing Gabrielle onto the bed, she quickly removed her own boots. She slowly removed her clothes, standing before the young Queen who leaned up on one elbow to watch the seductive display. The last time Xena disrobed this way, strictly for Gabrielle's pleasure, was on their wedding night.

Xena lay alongside her wife and began to pull open the wrap around shift Gabrielle wore. A small hand stopped her and the warrior looked up, captured by a very pensive expression.

"What, love?" Xena reached in and brushed her lips lightly against her wife's.

Gabrielle paused before answering, her insecurities surrounding her own body, putting a damper on the overwhelming passion she felt moments before.

"I look so different than the last time you touched me. I don't even know how we're going to manage this. I mean, I'm so huge, Xe--"

"Brie." The compassionate tone in her wife's voice cut right through to the heart of the young Queen's fears. Xena's fingers tenderly caressed her wife's face. "Gabrielle, don't you know how beautiful you are like this?" Xena whispered, never stopping her hand's caresses. "You are absolutely breathtaking," she added.

Gabrielle looked into her warrior's eyes and for the first time since she became pregnant, she actually believed it. She saw the truth of the warrior's words mirrored in blue eyes and finally, Gabrielle saw herself through her wife's eyes.

"Why didn't you say it like this before?" the Queen asked.

Xena paused and lay facing Gabrielle once more. Leaning upon a bent elbow, her head resting in the palm of her hand, she smiled that particular grin of embarrassment, the smile that would only ever be witnessed by this young Amazon Queen.

"I was afraid it might…I don't know, frighten you. At the very least make you think you were married to some kind of pervert that gets off on pregnant women," Xena chuckled and Gabrielle laughed along with her.

"Oh, Xe, the things you think of to worry over," Gabrielle wrapped her arms around Xena's neck, drawing her closer. "Thank you, love. You've made me feel more beautiful than ever.

"You are Gabrielle. When we are quite old and can't even remember what these bodies looked like in our prime, I will always be looking at you and thinking how beautiful you are. It's because your beauty comes from the inside, my heart. It has very little to do with the exquisite shell that you happen to be wrapped up in at the moment. You and I are destined to be together, Brie, I believe that now, with all my heart. Lifetime after lifetime, no matter what mortal guise we wear, you will always be mine. Your heart will always belong to me, just as you will forever possess mine."

Xena punctuated the profound sentiment with a breath-stealing kiss, which left Gabrielle softly moaning and pleading for more.

Xena slowly pulled the Queen's shift open and ran the palm of her hand across Gabrielle's belly. She bent down and kissed the smooth skin. Her hand slid up to tenderly cup a full breast, delighting in the way the flesh around the nipple pebbled and grew taut as her lips grew closer. She smiled inwardly, realizing that before long, she would be sharing this precious treasure with her child. She left a soft trail of kisses from the swollen belly, up to Gabrielle's lips, the young woman offering up a sigh into the teasing kiss upon her lips.

"Oh, Xe…it feels so good…"

"Mmm, you're absolutely right," Xena breathed in her ear, the warrior's touch, as well as her kisses becoming more passionate.

Gabrielle's passion rose at the same pace as her warrior's and soon frustrated growls escaped from the smaller woman's throat.

"Xe…this is so hard. I want to feel you pressed against me. I want to be able to feel you," Gabrielle pleaded through her kisses.

"Roll over," Xena said quickly, "onto your side, facing away from me."

Gabrielle complied, then felt Xena pull the shift completely from her, the warrior's body wrapping around her from behind. Xena's hands were everywhere at once, tender and demanding. The Queen could feel the tightened points of Xena's hard nipples, sliding against her back. She groaned loudly when Xena pressed her mound against the young woman's backside, leaving a wet trail as evidence of the warrior's arousal.

Xena kissed, licked, and nipped at her lover's skin, not able to get enough of the taste of her. Carefully, using a lighter than normal touch, she grasped the elongated nipples, pinching and pulling them ever so slightly. The sensation skyrocketed Gabrielle and she covered the warrior's hands with her own and pressed into the touch.

"Yesss…harder," Gabrielle begged, pressing Xena's hands against her chest.

The warrior tugged the flesh between her thumb and forefinger repeatedly, until Gabrielle was writhing and moaning against her. Sliding one hand between her wife's legs, Xena stroked the drenched folds of Gabrielle's sex.

Gabrielle cried out at the pleasure as Xena's fingers explored her sex. The sensation was unbelievable and she wanted nothing more than to make this feeling last forever, but she could feel her climax already beginning. Xena's fingers pleasured her with expert care. Gabrielle reached her own hand up to touch the breast that Xena abandoned. Her slender fingers tugged at the sensitive nipple just as the warrior had done.

Xena watched as Gabrielle thrust her body against the hand between her legs. The warrior could feel Gabrielle's body begin trembling with the small tremors she experienced just before release. She looked on as the Queen stroked her own breasts, and Xena knew she couldn't hang on long after that sight.

"Oh, Gods, Brie!"

Xena slid her own screaming clit against her wife's backside, while stroking Gabrielle's. Xena held out until Gabrielle screamed out the warrior's name and they lay there, wrapped around one another, shivering and shaking as aftershocks of pleasure passed through their bodies with even the slightest movement.

"Gods! That was wonderful," Gabrielle exclaimed, "but too soon."

"What?" Xena asked.

"I'm a little out of practice," Gabrielle turned her head with a seductive smile. "It felt so good, I couldn't hold out, but I didn't want it to be over so fast…I wanted it to last," she finished with disappointment.

Xena chuckled, kissing her wife's neck and shoulders. "I have a plan beta for just such a problem," the warrior whispered in a voice that sent shivers up the small blonde's spine.

"Oh? And, what would plan beta be?"

"A repeat performance," the warrior expressed her intent by pressing her body against her wife's once more.


Chapter 2


Xena's impatient voice rang out and Gabrielle stopped in her tracks. She plastered an innocent expression on her face before turning to face her warrior. By the time she turned, Xena was at her side and grabbed the bucket of mud from the smaller woman's hands.

"What?" Gabrielle tried to sound like she didn't know that she'd been caught.

"Brie, this is way too heavy to be lifting. Sartori said that you needed to take it easy. That means rest, not helping me mortar the foundation."

Xena's voice was sharper than she intended, but she was trying to make a point. Gabrielle nearly scared the life out of her when she experienced a bout of painful stomach cramps a few days earlier. The pains eased up, eventually disappearing altogether. Sartori, the village healer, examined the Queen and could find nothing wrong with the young woman, but given the fact that the baby dropped so low, she advised Gabrielle not to do anything that might strain her abdominal or lower back muscles.

Xena wiped her hands and pulled her dejected wife in for a hug. "I'm sorry, Brie, I didn't mean to yell, but I think it's important for you to listen to Sartori. I'm only concerned because--"

"You love me," Gabrielle sighed.

Xena chuckled at the young Queen's pout. "If only your subjects could see you now," she teased, touching a clean finger to the lower lip that Gabrielle stuck out.

"Very funny, warrior. I'm sorry I'm not doing what I'm told, Xe, but I'm going crazy not being able to lift so much as my own dinner plate."

"I know, my heart, but think of the consequences. Just do it my way for once, okay?" Xena asked.

"But, you're doing all the work on the house!"

"Sweetheart," Xena tried to control her laughter, "You are going to give birth to our child. You do realize that you're doing the hard part, right?"

"I'm only having a baby. It's not the same as building a new house," Gabrielle replied.

"Tell me that when your first labor pains hit," Xena mumbled to herself once she turned away and resumed working.

"I thought you said it wouldn't be that bad?" Gabrielle looked truly frightened now. She thought the pain she went through giving birth to Hope was caused by the unnatural acceleration of the pregnancy.

Damn! Her hearing is getting better everyday. "I didn't mean it like that…I was just joking. I mean, it's not going to be painless, Brie, but some women, especially first time mothers, have their babies so fast, that there's no time for it to hurt."

"Oh." Gabrielle said quietly, obviously thinking about that.

"Just take it easy, all right?" Xena pleaded, slapping another handful of mud in between the roughly hewn logs.

"Oh, okay," the dejected Queen finally gave in.

"Promise?" Xena asked. She knew she was probably pushing it, but Gabrielle and their unborn baby's safety came above all else.

"I promise…I don't have to like it, but I do promise to behave," Gabrielle promised.

"I tell you what…let me clean all the mud off and I'll take you to the food hut for a midday meal. How does that sound?" Xena asked, knowing the only sure way to get her wife's mind off the subject.

Gabrielle's eyes brightened immediately. "Now you're talking, warrior!" She exclaimed with a smile.


Gabrielle drummed her fingers on the table impatiently. She looked around their now spacious surroundings and couldn't believe they once called this, the Queen's hut. It looked more like a mansion now. Xena started out intending to only add on a room. Something to give them a little more space and a place that in another season or so could be used as their child's bedroom, or their bedroom, depending on how they worked it. Naturally, being the Warrior Princess, she never did anything in a small way. With some help from Eponin and a number of other Amazons, Xena was able to build two more rooms and a separate area to be used as a bathing chamber.

Gabrielle rose and paced the room.

"She's not going to a ball, just the food hut. What in Hades is taking her so long?" She said to no one but herself.

The young woman began to tidy up. She'd rearranged the bedroom a hundred times already. Xena did what she promised to do since the day they became lovers. She built a warrior size bed for them. The baby's cradle sat beside the bed, one corner of their new bedroom situated for the child's cradle and other assorted items. A large chest already held clothes and diapers, everything they would need.

Everything was ready and in place, but Gabrielle couldn't help arranging and rearranging until she knew she was going to drive her warrior mad. She lifted a small pile of clothes and bent to place them into the chest, on the floor. The strangest sensation of being watched came over the Queen, but when she stood, looking around the room, the warrior she expected to see smirking at her, was not there. She shook her head and grinned at herself, bending slightly to move the wooden cradle just a little bit more to the left.

A white-hot bolt of pain seared its way across Gabrielle's abdomen. Her hands fell from the cradle she was attempting to move and she dropped to one knee from the pain's intensity. She reached out and clutched the side of the bed, her fingers clawing at the blanket and balling it under her fist. She finally found her voice enough to gasp, but as quickly as the pain came over her, it disappeared.

Gabrielle wiped the sweat from her forehead and slowly eased herself back up until she was sitting on the bed. She took slow, deep breaths, running the palm of her hand over her large belly. She could still feel the after effects; small twinges in her abdomen that she knew weren't normal labor pains. Gabrielle sat and cursed herself for attempting to move the cradle. She promised Xena she wouldn't do anything like that, yet the first time the warrior wasn't around she broke her word. She wasn't sure if it was that or the muscle spasm that hurt worse.

"Hey, you must be famished by now." Xena strode into the room.

"Y-Yea…you ready?" Gabrielle asked, rising slowly from the bed.

She knew she should tell Xena about what just happened, but she also knew that Xena would be angry and disappointed in her. I swear, I will be more careful from now on, just don't let anything be wrong, Gabrielle silently prayed to any Gods willing to listen.

Brie? Are you okay?" Xena asked.

More lies, to cover up the first one. Oh, forgive me, Xe .

"Yes, of course. Ready to go?" Gabrielle put on a smile and headed for the door.

Xena stopped to kiss her wife and they walked outside, toward the center of the village. Gabrielle felt no residual pain and thanked the Gods above for listening to her pleas. The only change in the young Queen was that she suddenly lost her appetite. Xena knew how that could be. You had a craving one moment, but once it passed, you were on to something else. The warrior never pushed or prodded. She simply rubbed her wife's back, watching as the young woman pushed her food around on her plate.


Gabrielle felt her abdomen cramp up again and winced slightly. It wasn't the sharp pain that she experienced earlier, rather the discomfort she often felt when it was her time of the moon. The pains didn't seem to be increasing in intensity, only frequency. Unable to ignore her wife's countenance any longer, Xena leaned over to whisper in Gabrielle's ear.

"Brie, what's wrong? Are you in pain?"

The look of understanding and concern on her warrior's face caused Gabrielle to rethink her earlier idea of keeping silent about breaking her promise. Something was wrong and her only thoughts were of her baby's welfare now, not the fact that this would probably start a fight between she and Xena. The young Queen decided to tell the warrior exactly what happened.

"Xe, I--Oh Gods!" Gabrielle grabbed the edge of the table as a particularly strong spasm shot through her abdomen.

"Gabrielle, what's wrong?" Xena looked up sharply.

The others at the Queen's table were beginning to realize something was wrong and paused in their own meals or conversations to watch the Queen and her Consort.

"Oh, Xe…I--I…" Gabrielle willed the words to her tongue, but they wouldn't come. She needed to tell Xena the truth. She, of all people, knew where lies and half-truths could bring a couple.

"Gabrielle, you are in pain, aren't you?"

Gabrielle nodded. "It's like my time of the moon, at least it started out that way. Now it's getting worse. Oh, Xe, I--"

"Sshh, love," Xena slipped her hand inside Gabrielle's shift and placed it, palm side down, against the lowest part of her wife's belly.

Gabrielle felt another cramp begin and tensed.

"There was that it, did you feel the pain just now?" Xena questioned.

Gabrielle could only nod her head again. She looked up into her wife's blue eyes, expecting to see fear or worry. Instead, a broad smile broke out across Xena's face.

"Brie, it's all right. I think your labor pains have started, that's all there is to it. Gods, your good, woman, almost nine moons to the day."

Are you sure, that's all, Xena? I mean, my water didn't even break yet."

"It will, not to worry. How long have you been having them?"

"Since just before we came to lunch."

Gabrielle finally let herself relax. It wasn't something she'd done at all; it was simply her labor beginning. There was nothing wrong with her baby. She allowed herself a weak grin in her wife's direction.

"I guess it's time, huh?"

"I guess so, my heart," the warrior grinned back


Sartori felt Gabrielle's abdomen just as Xena did moments earlier. "Do you two want to go home or over to the healer's hut?" The healer asked.

"Home," they both answered in unison.

"Well, since the contractions are coming closer together, why don't you two head over there? I'll go get some things I'll need and Adia and I will meet you there. Gabrielle, who will bless the child?"

Sartori asked about the blessing, knowing that Gabrielle's best friend within the village was Ephiny. It was still a formality that had to be taken care of. This wasn't just any child coming into the world; this was the Queen's heir. If it was a boy, he would be blessed in the Amazon fashion, and the Gods thanked. If the child of the Queen and her consort were a girl, the infant would be blessed in the same manner, but she would immediately be recognized as Amazon royalty and given Gabrielle's right of caste. The Queen's Consort would then present the child to Artemis for her blessing.

Xena and Gabrielle walked from the large food hut. The tall warrior had her arm wrapped around the young Queen's shoulder, moving at a very slow pace to accommodate the smaller woman. Xena was nervous now. She'd been through this before when she gave birth to Solon, and she remembered how difficult and painful her own labor was. It stabbed at her heart to think of Gabrielle going through that kind of pain. She knew her wife would consider it all worth it, just as she had when it was over, but that didn't make it any easier to take right now.

"Oh, Gods!" Gabrielle paused and squeezed the hand Xena offered. The pains were coming one after another and suddenly Gabrielle felt the wet warmth that she knew could only be one thing.

"Great," the Queen muttered.

Xena took in the dark stain on Gabrielle's shift and nodded her understanding. "Your water broke?"

Gabrielle nodded and took a step forward. The moment she placed her foot on the ground a pain unlike any of the others ripped through her body. She screamed and fell back, Xena's arms scooping her up before she fell to the dirt.

"Brie!" Xena cradled Gabrielle's body to her own.

"It hurts…Gods, Xe!" Gabrielle hissed out between clenched teeth. "Something feels wrong."

Gabrielle didn't have to explain any more than that. Xena knew that her wife had a sense about things, being half Goddess; she had abilities that Xena stopped questioning. She turned away from the path that led to their home and moved toward the healer's hut. She met Sartori and Adia coming her way.

"Something's wrong," Xena said in a tense voice.

Both Healer's stopped and turned to rush ahead of the warrior, carrying the near hysterical Queen. Ephiny appeared only moments later to find the Healer's hut in a state of controlled chaos. Adia handed Sartori herbs as she mixed some medicines together, while Xena tried desperately to calm her wife, who was nearly shrieking in pain.

Sartori pressed a small piece of root into Xena's hand. The warrior immediately recognized the plant and knew what to do.

"Brie, baby, look at me," Xena requested.

Gabrielle focused terrified eyes on her wife and the calmness that Xena willed into her gaze infected the Queen. Xena moved Gabrielle forward on the pallet and sat behind her, the support immediately lessening the lower back pain the young woman was experiencing.

"Bite down on this, love," Xena said, slipping the small piece of root into her wife's mouth.

Gabrielle was in no position to argue. She bit into the soft root and obeyed Xena's further instructions. She pressed down, swallowing the saliva that tasted like almonds. The effects were immediate, as Gabrielle felt lightheaded. Her pain was still there, but for some reason she felt slightly disconnected from it. Xena searched her wife's eyes and noticed the telltale glazed over look. She also took note that Gabrielle's breathing slowed down considerably, the undesirable side effect to the medicinal pain-killing root.

"Spit it out, Brie." Xena commanded, holding her hand in front of her wife's mouth.

When the young woman spit out what remained, the warrior tossed it away, looking up at Sartori. The Healer wore a fresh apron and bent down to examine Gabrielle.

"Oh Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed, pressing herself into Xena's strong body behind her.

"Okay, Gabrielle it's a contraction, don't try to fight it or bear down, just try to work with it the way we discussed."

Gabrielle closed her eyes to concentrate on going with the flow of the contraction. She could feel the pressure between her legs and suddenly the cramping sensation was easing up.

"Good…good job. I can just see the baby's head. You're doing fine, Gabrielle," Sartori encouraged.

Gabrielle's scream took everyone by surprise, especially the Healers and Xena, who knew she shouldn't be able to experience the pain because of the herb's anesthetic properties. The young woman went rigid in Xena's arms, not even able to breath. The pain was unlike anything Gabrielle ever felt before. She knew that if a blade sliced her belly open to the core; it would have felt just like this. She never knew a person could experience or tolerate this much pain and still be conscious.

"Something's wrong!" Xena shouted over Gabrielle's screams to Sartori.

"The baby's nearly here. Gabrielle you have to try, just push once," Sartori shouted back.

Gabrielle didn't think she could. She didn't think she could even breathe much longer. She could hear Xena talking to her, but she wasn't able to make out the words…just sounds, wonderful, loving sounds of strength and encouragement. She took a deep gulp of air and pushed. The pain was worse when she did, but Gabrielle grit her teeth and willed her mind to forget the pain for her baby's sake. She felt something like a release, and then the pressure between her legs was gone, replaced by a warm wetness.

"That's it!" Sartori cried out. "It's a girl," she held the child up to clear an airway. Before either the parents or anyone else could breathe a sigh of relief or speak congratulations, they waited for the cry.

The silence was deafening.

Xena held Gabrielle as she watched Sartori frantically clear the baby's mouth and nose, smack the infants' bottom, rub its chest, anything to induce that first breath of life. Gabrielle screamed once more as another volley of spasms took control of her body.

"Adia," Sartori held the child up for her own wife. "It's the afterbirth," she commented quickly.

  Xena was still splitting her attention between the woman who writhed in agony in her arms and her child. Adia and Ephiny were hunched over the baby, attempting to breath air into its lungs, Adia pulled some powders from the shelf and Xena could see her try one after another on the baby's tongue, all while Ephiny attempted to breath for the baby, massaging her tiny chest.

Gabrielle fell still and Sartori looked even more worried than before. Xena felt powerless and was about to rise from the bed to assist in saving her child.

"She's bleeding," the Healer stated.

Sartori's face looked strained yet she moved quickly and without panic. She set the package of the afterbirth aside, as was the custom for the blessing. She also pushed a handful of cloth bandages to the floor. Xena looked down at the bandages in uncharacteristic silence. They weren't just bloody cloths; they were completely soaked in blood. The Healer repeated the action and Xena could only watch as Sartori pushed large cloths to the floor, saturated in Gabrielle's blood.

Gabrielle felt pain free at last, but tired and cold, so very cold. She wanted to close her eyes and go to sleep, but her baby…she knew something was wrong and couldn't focus on the chaos around her to know what was happening. She hadn't heard her baby cry. A terrible fear clutched at her heart and the pain was nearly as great as the physical pain she suffered from moments ago. She knew now that her labor hadn't been normal. She'd done something to her baby because of her own stubbornness. Xena would hate her, but she had to tell her wife that she was responsible for whatever was happening to their child.


Xena looked down at her wife's face just as Gabrielle's head hit the warrior's shoulder, slumping to one side. Gabrielle's eyes fluttered as if she were struggling to keep them open. That's when Xena heard both voices come at her.

"I can't stop the bleeding," Sartori's voice was tinged with fear.

"I don't know what else to do," Adia sighed in defeat.

Xena watched as Sartori jumped up from her position at the end of the bed. The Healer moved two wooden blocks over to the end of the bed. The warrior saw that Ephiny continued to breath for the tiny infant, but Xena knew it was too long. She made the only decision she felt she could make.

"Brie? Gabrielle!" Xena gently slapped her wife's face until the green eyes tried to pull her into focus. "Stay awake, baby. Don't go to sleep." Xena slipped out from behind the young woman and moved to the end of the bed, lifting it up as Sartori placed the large blocks under the rear legs of the pallet. The end of the bed was raised up into the air and Xena quickly returned to Gabrielle's side.

"Brie! Stay with me, baby."

Gabrielle did all she could do to muster a weak smile for her wife. "I'm so cold, Xe. Xena, I've done something…I have to tell you…"

"Sshh…" Xena calmed the young woman, quickly jabbing two fingers at the area where Gabrielle's thigh met her hip. "You're cold because you're bleeding too much, Brie. I'm going to use the pinch on this area to stop the flow of blood, then I'll release it after a few seconds. That should eventually slow it down, okay?"

Gabrielle squeezed her wife's hand in response.

Xena looked up as she repeatedly released the pinch from her wife's artery. She watched with tears filling her eyes as Ephiny and Adia took turns breathing their own air into her child's body. She brusquely wiped the tears away, turning back and releasing the ancient hold on Gabrielle once more. She had to make a decision. She couldn't take her attention away from her wife, and so, she had to leave her child's life in the hands of competent and caring friends. She'd lost Gabrielle before, she was determined not to let her beloved's life slip away again.

When Xena looked up at Gabrielle, she saw the Queen more alert, looking on the scene of Adia, Ephiny, and their child. When the Queen's eyes pulled themselves away to look into her Consort's eyes, their exchanged gaze spoke the truth. Xena and Gabrielle both knew that too much time had passed. The unspoken acknowledgment passed between them and tears fell from the Queen's eyes as she laid her head back down. Her eyes held an incredible pain and guilt so immense, Gabrielle wasn't sure she knew how to overcome it. At the same time, Xena watched her wife, her own gaze screaming out her frustrated helplessness and overwhelming anger.

Xena released the pinch again, silently counting the beats between releases.

"Xena, it's slowing," Sartori said, tossing more bandages aside. She couldn't look up at the warrior, her own guilt over the situation behind her apparent.

The second Sartori spoke those words; Xena shot up and crossed the room to where her child lay. She knew. She knew when she pushed her friends aside and attempted to breathe life in to her child's limp and unmoving body, she knew it would do no good. The warrior tried every healer's trick she'd ever been taught, even using a few herbs that surprised Adia. Time passed quickly, but to Xena those long moments in time lasted an eternity.

"I'm…I'm so sorry, Xena…it's been too long," Adia's tears stained her own face as she watched her friend lean her body protectively over her baby, her large hands stroking the dark head.

Xena nodded her head when she felt Ephiny's hand on her shoulder, but she didn't move. She couldn't bring herself to step away from the child. That would be to admit that it was over. It was with a supreme effort that she stood and looked at Ephiny.

"Bless her," Xena said in a voice thick with emotion.

"Xena, she--"

"Do it! Please, Eph…it's the only way they'll know." The warrior choked out the rest.

Ephiny immediately understood why Xena wanted the blessing. Amazon royalty were blessed at birth as heirs to the throne. This way, their heritage or parentage could never come into question. The warrior wanted people to forever remember that this child belonged to Xena of Amphipolis and Gabrielle of Potidaea.

The Regent nodded and turned to bathe the tiny, still figure.

Xena moved to the bed where Sartori already stripped the blood soaked sheets from the bed and put fresh bandages in place. Xena gently sat beside her wife, taking her hand in her own. Gabrielle's eyes opened, her jaw clenched against what she knew her wife was about to say.

"Brie…" Xena whispered hoarsely, trying to keep a reign on her own emotions.

"I know," Gabrielle replied flatly.

Ephiny placed a tiny feather choker around the baby's neck, smudging herbs across her cheeks and forehead. She wrapped the child up in a clean blanket and picked the still body up.

"What will she be named?" The Regent asked, looking between Xena and Gabrielle as the Queen and her Consort sat gazing at one another.

"Brianna," Xena answered without hesitation.

Gabrielle looked into the blue eyes filled with as much pain and sadness as her own. They argued many nights back and forth about their baby's name. The young Queen was adamant about not naming her daughter after herself. Xena, on the other hand, wanted their first child to be called at least something similar to the name that she loved so well.

The stoic, dark-haired woman refused to cry, attempting to be strong for her wife. Xena's voice left no room for discussion, however, as to what their daughter would be named. Gabrielle looked over at Ephiny and nodded, returning her gaze to the warrior who looked as if the rug had just been pulled away from her entire life.

Gabrielle squeezed Xena's hand, acquiescing to her wife's wish. She ground her teeth together listening to the sounds of Ephiny's chanting. She would not fall apart. Gabrielle would not allow herself to cry any more tears. She would bear it as an Amazon Queen should, knowing her wife was in as much pain as she.

Ephiny turned and held the infant's body in her arms. She wasn't sure either of the women wanted to actually hold the child, and so she simply stood there.

"The Princess Brianna," she whispered softly. "Daughter of Queen Gabrielle and her Consort Xena of Amphipolis."

Gabrielle took some very deep breaths and Xena could see that the young Queen was trying very hard not to break down.

Xena could only look on the sight of her wife, her jaw clenching and releasing as she fought back tears. This seemed to be the last straw. One last knife in her warrior's heart was the sight of her tender and compassionate wife, stifling back her own emotions. Xena was keeping a tenuous hold on her quickly mounting anger, anger brought on by this immense sorrow. That hold snapped when Xena rose from the bed, holding out her arms for her child. Ephiny placed the infant in its mother's arms, gazing in concern at the expression in Xena's eyes.

"Xena?" Ephiny asked.

"Now she meets Artemis!" Xena sneered.

The warrior turned toward the entrance and strode angrily out, slamming the door loudly behind her.

Chapter 3

Xena didn't really want to examine her feelings or even think about what she actually held in her arms. Her warrior's brain pushed aside the pain and the agony of her broken heart. She placed emotions like that into a spot where they couldn't interfere with her capabilities as a warrior. She shoved to one corner of her conscious mind, the fact that she had a wife back in the Healer's hut whose world was falling apart also.

A sharp stab, like a thorn penetrating her skin, pierced her heart. It was difficult to put on that warrior's mask when it came to Gabrielle. She briefly thought of the horror of the crimes she committed when her only child, Solon, was murdered. She remembered the anguish and completely empty state of her heart. That's what Gabrielle was going through right now and it frightened the warrior.

It wasn't exactly what her wife would do, that worried the dark-haired woman. What terrified Xena the most was that she didn't know what she would do. She didn't know if she could be there for Gabrielle. How could she be a source of strength, to encourage her wife to grieve, heal, and then continue with her life, when Xena felt like falling apart herself? Through all of the life and death tragedies the warrior and her bard suffered, it always fell on one of them to carry the load for the other.

Over the seasons, it became a truly equal partnership. When Xena felt she'd lost her way, Gabrielle was always there…her beacon, the light that would guide her. When Gabrielle found herself lost in the trials and consequences of life, Xena's love for her bard was always the one thing that could be counted upon. Now, the two women found themselves faced with perhaps the greatest challenge of their lives. This time they both hurt. This time one could not carry the load for the other.

Xena looked down at the baby in her arms. Her lips were pale and lifeless, but otherwise she looked as if she were sleeping. The warrior paused at the entrance to Artemis' temple. She looked down on her daughter's lifeless body and reached down to kiss her forehead.

"It's not that I don't love you, my Bri, nor will I ever forget you, but your mother needs me, maybe more than she ever has before. I have to be hard and strong for her. You understand, don't you?"

Xena paused as if expecting some sort of answer. She swallowed her tears and pushed the doors to the Temple open. Striding purposefully up to the altar, she laid her daughter gently down across the polished stone.

"Artemis! Your faithful requests your presence!" Xena shouted out.

I took only heartbeats for the Goddess' shape to materialize from shimmering sparkles, to the tall, lithe form of Artemis. Her gray eyes immediately smiled at the offering on her alter.

"Xena, at last…Apollo will awfully upset he missed--"

Artemis scanned the warrior's mind. Unlike her brother, Apollo, she felt no qualms at invading the mortal's minds in her care. She stared hard at the warrior and the vehemence projected from the warrior's thoughts was like a physical blow to the tall Goddess.

"No," she stated, "that wasn't fated to happen!"

Artemis rushed to the lifeless form and tenderly lifted the child to her. Her own heart ached and she reached out to touch her brother's mind. It was rare, but Apollo's thoughts were unavailable to her.

"I'll be back," Artemis hissed and instantly disappeared.

The Goddess reappeared moments later, but she stood in a great hall, massive spinning wheels turning and weaving threads in enormously complex patterns. An eerie blue light glowed, now and again changing to green, them magenta. The Fates went about their tasks, the women never bothering to look up when Artemis came forward. The Olympian Gods only came here for one reason, which was when they didn't like the way the threads fell.

"Do you see this?" Artemis tried to control the rage in her voice. It did no good to anger the three women, who literally held her mortal's lives within their hands.

Clotho looked up first. "A mortal child."

"Yes, the child of my chosen and her Consort. The child is dead," Artemis replied.

"That is impossible. Look," Atropos indicated a bright white thread, still glistening with its newness. "This is the child of Xena and Gabrielle, the Princess Brianna."

"This is the child, just from its mother's womb!" Artemis held the baby out before her.

All three sisters passed their hands over the lifeless form to ascertain the truth of the child's identity. They exchanged worried glances at the impossibility of the situation.

"This cannot be," Lachesis sat down near the glistening thread. "This was not fated for the child of Xena and Gabrielle, this was not the way. See, the thread still holds strong."

Atropos tested threads further away from the bright one of the baby, Brianna, to discover that threads were darkening and shriveling up farther and farther down the line.

"This child's fate was to touch so many lives…to save so many. The threads are changing because the child will no longer live to bring salvation to those in the future. Innocents will die over this."

"The structure of humanity will change over this," Clotho added.

"We will call upon our sister, we have no other choice."

"She will not listen. It will be useless to summon her, she has never desired to intervene."

"The Oracle of Taan is our only hope. She will not wish to see humanity's destruction."

Clotho looked at the Goddess. "There is nothing we can do to reverse what has befallen the infant. A powerful hand was needed to change the will of the Fates. There are few with that power. We will do what we can, but the mortals are not to know of this incident."

Artemis understood why they gave her that directive. The last thing the Fates wanted to get out was the fact that there might possibly be a power in the universe that could outwit them. She nodded and left the great hall.


It was only heartbeats later, within the mortal realm, when Artemis appeared before Xena again.

The Goddess felt the wave of anguish as soon as she materialized before the warrior. She may not be able to tell Xena the outcome of her talk with the Fates, but she was not about to let her chosen, who just happened to be her niece, lose her firstborn child.

The Goddess cradled the infant within her arms; a soft warm glow surrounded her hand as it made it's way across the child's flesh. Artemis worked twice as long as necessary, trying to bring life back into the child.

Nothing happened, the baby didn't even stir and Xena looked on in heartbreak, even as Artemis gazed at the warrior in confusion.

"I don't understand. I have always had Athena's blessing to heal," Artemis whispered.

The Goddess reached her mind out to encounter her sister's mind. She begged, searching the universe for Athena's thoughts, they were as absent to her as her brother's were earlier.

Artemis walked down the steps and approached the warrior again. "I'm sorry, Xena. I'm so very sorry. I swear to you, I won't rest until I find out who took your child's life."

As much as she detested most of the Gods, she was perfectly willing to risk anything to be able to place her living, breathing daughter in her mother's arms. Xena's eyes burned blue fire in the Goddess' direction. The warrior hated relying on others. It was nearly impossible for her to bring her child here, knowing it was tantamount to begging. She hated not being in control of the situation, having her fate placed in another's hands.

Xena set her jaw firmly in place. "Neither will I."

The warrior took the child from Artemis' grasp, and she carefully cradled the infant in her arms as if the child were still alive. Xena didn't say another word to the tall Goddess who appeared as distressed as the warrior herself did. Xena turned and left the Temple, making her way back to the Healer's hut. The warrior cursed the fact that she would have to tell her wife that she failed.


"Xe?" Gabrielle called out. The Queen didn't even have to ask. She could see, by the look on her wife's face, there would be no miracles for their child.

Ephiny sat by Gabrielle's side. She patted her friend's hand and moved to leave the hut. Sartori and Adia rose to leave also.

"We'll give you some privacy," Adia said to no one in particular. She squeezed her friend's arm as she passed the warrior with the body of her child in her arms.

It was long moments later, when it was only Xena and Gabrielle left in the room, before the warrior lifted her eyes to her wife. She noticed Gabrielle's color was a little better, but only just.

"I'm so sorry, Brie. I--I couldn't…" Xena trailed off, fearing her tears would start. She would be useless to Gabrielle if she broke down, so she swallowed up the pain and the regret, and all the guilt she felt, and moved to lay the lifeless infant in Gabrielle's arms.

Xena hesitated, pulling back slightly, wondering if Gabrielle would rather not hold a child that she would soon have to put to rest.

Gabrielle held her arms out and the warrior gently placed the delicate bundle in her wife's embrace. Xena sat beside the young woman, leaning down to place a tender kiss on the Queen's forehead.

"She could practically be asleep, Xe. If I didn't know better, I would think she was sleeping," Gabrielle said in a far away, dreamy kind of voice. Xena realized Sartori must have given her a painkiller or a sedative.

"See, I knew she would have your hair color…see?" Gabrielle lovingly stroked the thick patch of hair on top of the child's head.

"Yes, my heart, I see…you were right," Xena replied.

The warrior put an arm around her wife and the two women said their own goodbyes to the child that they would never see grow. At length Ephiny came back in and accepted the child. She told Gabrielle they would begin the purification and would send the Princess' spirit to the Amazon Land of the Dead on the sacred flames.

Once Xena and Gabrielle were alone, they simply stayed close and held onto one another.

"Xe?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes, my heart?"

"I want to go home…I want to sleep in my own bed."

The warrior pulled back to look into her wife's eyes. Gabrielle hadn't really accepted anything yet. Her face held a drugged sort of expression, but she looked so tired.

"I'll check with Sartori," Xena responded.

Xena returned a few moments later, followed by the Healer. "I'll come see you in the morning, Gabrielle," Sartori touched the side of the Queen's face. "Check the bandages for any bleeding," she whispered to Xena.

Xena nodded and tucked an extra blanket around the still pale woman. The warrior easily lifted the young Queen into her arms and they left the Healer's hut.

Gabrielle buried her face against Xena's neck, wrapping her arms around the warrior's neck. Xena looked neither right nor left, not caring to meet the sorrowful glances directed their way. She carried the precious bundle in her arms and placed her in their own bed. She went to make a cup of warm tea for the both of them, suddenly needing something to keep her busy. When the warrior returned to the bedroom, she saw Gabrielle reaching out with one hand to gently rock the cradle that lay beside the bed.

"Do you want me to move that, Brie?"

Gabrielle looked up and shook her head. "Not yet," she said simply.

The two women settled into bed, Xena's strong embrace tighter than normal around her wife. There were no words to say, not yet anyway. Each woman buried herself in her own pain and guilt. The hurt was the same for each of them; only the reasons for their guilt were different.

Xena burned with the shame of failing to save her child's life. She knew there must have been something more she could have done, some way to save Gabrielle and their baby at the same time. Gabrielle knew that she would have to live with this guilt for the rest of her life. She knew in her heart, that she killed their baby, just as surely as if it had been a knife she plunged into the child. If she'd listened and not acted like a stubborn child, she never would have overexerted herself to the point where she put her child's life in jeopardy.

She knew she would have to tell Xena. Of course, she also felt that if she admitted her crime to her wife, Xena's love would quickly grow cold. Normally, she would never dream that a tragedy like this would be able to drive a wedge between she and her wife, but she already killed Xena's first child. Would her warrior be able to handle Gabrielle being at fault a second time? With one act, one moment in time, Gabrielle felt she destroyed, not only her baby's life, but her marriage, too. Everything she held dear to her was now slipping from her grasp and she could do no more than watch as it slid away and shattered against the earth.

Chapter 4

Gabrielle's screams startled Xena from her own fitful sleep. The young Queen thrashed about, Xena finally able to hold on to her and bring the young woman against the warrior's own body, to still her movements until she awoke more fully.

"It's all right, Brie, just a bad dream," Xena said while stroking the young woman's hair.

Gabrielle pulled slightly away from Xena, looking down at her own stomach, and absently placing the flat of her hand against her abdomen. She looked up at Xena and all the previous candlemarks flashed by her mind's eye in a swirling rush. The young woman remembered the events and looked at her wife, tears filling deep green eyes until they spilled down her pale cheeks.

"Oh Xe, I'm so sorry…" Gabrielle sobbed.

She slumped forward, Xena quickly pulling the small woman back into her embrace. Gabrielle's wracking sobs shook her small frame. The warrior held her wife, wishing she could join her in her tears, but Xena refused. She had to remain strong for Gabrielle. Falling apart would never do. She would wait, and then later, when the crisis was over and Gabrielle was stronger, then she would allow herself to examine her own pain. Now, she swallowed the rising anger and hurt down, holding Gabrielle closer, and rocking her body in a soothing motion.

"It's okay, baby…I'm here," Xena whispered repeatedly. "You have nothing to be sorry about, my heart."

The warrior kissed the top of the blonde head, stroking Gabrielle's face, wiping the wet tear stained cheeks with her hands.

"I'm right here, Brie. Talk to me, love."

"Xena…I--I…" she looked up into the blue depths of the warrior's eyes, seeing only love and understanding in her wife's gaze.

Why isn't she angry? Cursing the Gods or even screaming? Gabrielle couldn't bring herself to admit it. She wanted to tell Xena, to unburden her own heart, but the warrior looked at her as though she was willing to do anything for Gabrielle. The Queen was taken back once more by the selflessness within her spouse's heart. She only ever thinks of me, Gabrielle thought to herself.

"Talk to me, my heart," Xena repeated.

At last, Gabrielle shook her head slowly back and forth. "I can't," she muttered.

Xena settled the young woman against her larger body once more. "I understand," she pulled back to kiss her wife's forehead. "Whenever you're ready, Brie. I'll be right here."


Gabrielle opened her eyes when she felt a gentle kiss on her cheek. Xena sat on the outside edge of the bed, fully dressed, and reached out to brush her fingers against her wife's cheek.

"Morning," Xena said.

"Morning," Gabrielle returned, trying to match the look of love in her warrior's eyes.

"How do you feel, Brie? Any pain or cramping?"

Gabrielle shook her head back and forth, in answer to the latter question, but ignored the first. Xena seemed to understand and didn't press.

"I need to check the bandages and packing, unless you'd rather have Sartori do it?" Xena said tentatively.

"No, Xe…I think I'd rather have you do it."

Xena removed the bandages and the packing that the Healer left in place after the great amount of bleeding Gabrielle experienced.

"How does it look?" Gabrielle cautiously raised her head to see what Xena was doing.

"Good. Actually, there's hardly a spot on these cloths. I find that a little strange, Brie. You bled more than anyone I've ever seen that didn't have a fatal battle wound. I'll put these fresh bandages in place under your breeches just in case."

"I really don't understand it, though," Xena repeated, shaking her head. "Guess you're getting to be as fast a healer as me." Xena said as she rose and poured some water from a pitcher into a bowl to wash her hands.

The warrior came and sat by her wife's side once more. "Tired?" She asked, running her hands through Gabrielle's golden hair.

Gabrielle nodded. Her eyes, swollen from crying, felt scratchy and burned.

"It's to be expected. You've been through a lot"

"We've been through a lot," Gabrielle interrupted, squeezing the hand that now held her own.

"Yes, but my body didn't go through the same physical trauma that yours did," Xena answered. "You need rest and lots of it."

"Xe, I need to tell you--"

"Sshh…" Xena pressed two fingers against Gabrielle's lips, preventing the young woman from continuing. "All I want you to do is rest today, Brie, no heavy thoughts. Give your body a chance to heal. Okay?"  

Gabrielle offered her wife a weak smile and Xena helped to make the young woman more comfortable, pulling the thick blanket up to the small blonde's chin. The warrior situated herself beside Gabrielle, stroking her hair and face, feeling the young woman relax little by little. Eventually, Gabrielle's deep even breathing told the warrior that her wife was finally asleep.

Unfortunately, as soon as Gabrielle fell into a deep sleeping pattern, the nightmares were there. The Queen didn't wake, but her moans and soft cries tore at Xena's heart in a way that nothing else in life could. The dark-haired woman pulled the sleeping form closer, rubbing her back, and stroking her hair.

With a deep sigh, Xena tilted her head back against the bed's headboard and let her own pain wash over her. It was an odd transformation, almost physical, as the warrior let down her guard for just a few moments. The expression on her face, which only moments before was full of love and compassion for her partner, turned into one of anguish. She thought if she could release some of her pain and hurt, just a little at a time, then lock it back up again, at least she would be more of a help to her wife. Gabrielle didn't need the added burden of worrying about how Xena was handling the loss of their child. The warrior would simply handle her grief privately, and then be there for Gabrielle when her wife needed her.

And so, the warrior let the tears spill from her eyes, silent sobs causing only slight tremors to shake through her body. She kissed the top of her wife's head, the warrior's tears splashing onto the small figure in her embrace. Like the consummate warrior she was, Xena took control of herself and stilled her tears after only a short time. Taking deep breaths, her fingers curled into tight fists, she fought the need to scream and curse at the world around them.

Gabrielle finally slept, but Xena could tell that nightmarish images still plagued the Queen's rest. The young woman's body twitched and jerked, with her moans occasionally turning to cries. Xena sat at the small wooden table, and nibbled at some bread and cheese. Eponin brought it by and seemed as reluctant to speak as Xena did. Warriors had different ways of coming to terms with death than others, so the two sat on the steps of the veranda. The Amazon inquired as to Gabrielle's well being and they spoke of hunting, fishing, even combat training for the younger Amazons. When Eponin stood to go, she placed one hand on Xena's shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. Without looking up, Xena placed her own hand over the Amazon's.

"Thanks, Ep."

"No problem, my friend. Make sure Gabrielle eats something."

Eponin didn't have to tell Xena to be sure she ate. She was a warrior, and would eat for nourishment and strength, no matter how little of an appetite she had.

So, Xena sat at the table, her hands warmed by a hot mug of tea, and took small bites of the food before her. It lay, tasteless on her tongue, but her warrior's instinct for survival pushed her to chew and swallow, repeating the action until she couldn't bear to take another bite.

Xena felt the chill in the room as the sun crept lower in the sky. She always enjoyed summer and the evenings when it took Apollo many candlemarks to pilot his chariot toward the horizon. She got up and checked on Gabrielle, sleeping silently at last. She would visit the food hut in a while and wake her wife then. Some warm broth would do the exhausted Queen much good.

The warrior pulled the blanket back over her wife's body and leaned down, pressing a tender kiss against the sleeping woman's temple. Xena stepped outside and walked to the back of the house, to a woodpile that she laid in last season. Stacking a few logs in her arms, she heard the sound of someone clearing their throat.

When Xena turned, she saw two of Gabrielle's Royal Guard. The Guard were always stationed at the Queen's home and these two were probably walking the area, when they spotted the warrior. They just stared for a moment, until the taller of the two worked up her courage to speak.

"Our hearts are with the both of you, your Highness," she said.

"Thank you, we cherish the thoughts," Xena replied using the customary Amazon statement.

Xena mounted the steps back into the house, thinking how uncharacteristic it was for her to have taken part in such a traditional conversation. The Guards offered her the customary sentiment on the loss of a loved one. The two women looked a little taken back at the warrior's response, but Xena knew it's what Gabrielle would have said. It wasn't as if she was unaware of Amazon custom, therefore she responded with the expected response when offered bereavement thoughts from the two Guards.

Right now, Xena knew she had to take her wife's place in front of these people. She would have to be Gabrielle's Consort and hold up her end of things. For once, she couldn't frown or roll her eyes at the Amazon's long-standing customs. Xena would have to take a deep breath and try her best to be the Consort this village expected.

Xena walked in to find Gabrielle sitting up in bed, her eyes still held the confusion of sleep. A chill breeze entered the room with the warrior and Gabrielle pulled the blanket around her shoulders.

"Just give me a moment to get a fire lit," Xena said as she placed the logs in the fireplace, "and it will warm up in no time."

"It's funny how the heat can be scorching during the day, yet the instant the sun goes down, I'm freezing, Gabrielle answered.

True to her word, Xena had a blaze going in no time and it quickly took the chill off the room.

"How do you feel?" Xena asked in concern, coming over to sit beside her wife.

The warrior noticed the dark shadows under the Queen's eyes, due in part to the amount of blood she lost the previous day. Xena also understood that no matter how long Gabrielle slept, if the nightmares continued to plague her sleep, the young woman would never get any rest. They had quite a bit of personal experience with that scenario a few seasons back. After Gabrielle's attack, violent images began to haunt her sleeping moments until she looked like a wraith. The young woman was so tiny, it only took a few days, and she lost weight, and sleep, at an alarming rate. Xena could see the same troubled expression in Gabrielle's eyes as she did back then.

"Like I could use a hot bath. Do you think…I mean, would it be okay?" Gabrielle asked.

"It should be fine. Let me go and set some water on the fire in there." Xena replied, gone to fulfill the request before Gabrielle could say another word.

Xena designed the bathing chamber like the one's they had in Athens. A large tank outside the house held water and when a spigot was turned inside, the water rushed into the large basin. During the summer, the sun heated the water in the outside tank, making for a nice temperature for bathwater. Xena filled the basing for her wife, adding a few drops of the hyacinth oil Gabrielle loved. Once filled, she started a fire in the fireplace and placed two metal containers, filled with water, over the heat.

"I've got some water over the fire now. It should be ready in no time." Xena came back into the room and addressed the small blonde.

Gabrielle wore a long robe, made of a light, cottony material. She sat on the edge of the bed, staring down at her own hands. She felt the mattress shift as Xena sat down beside her and watched as her wife's large hand reached across to cover her own. Without the warrior's greaves covering her forearms, the tattoo that ran around her wrist was completely visible. The marks matched the ones on Gabrielle's own wrist, the sign of a Royal Amazon marriage. The Queen traced along the outline of the pattern on her partner's wrist with her own index finger.

"You didn't sleep well," Xena said softly.

Gabrielle nodded.

"Bad dreams?" The warrior asked.

Gabrielle looked up in alarm. "Was I talking in my sleep?"

"No, but I heard you cry out." Xena answered.

The warrior remembered the last time. Gabrielle let herself become ill, trying to keep the truth of her dreams from Xena. The dark-haired woman moved to kneel in front of Gabrielle, taking both of the young Queen's hands within her own.

"Brie, you know that you can tell me anything…even what happens in your dreams. You do know that, right?" Xena reassured.

"I know…" Gabrielle answered reluctantly.

"I just don't want you becoming ill because you're trying to be strong and bottling it all up. You don't have to be the Queen in front of me, my heart."

Xena looked up into pools of forest green. Gabrielle raised a hand and cupped her wife's face within the graceful touch.

"You take such good care of me," the young woman said softly.

Xena lowered her eyes. "Not good enough," she said in a voice so soft, it was barely a whisper.

"Don't!" Gabrielle said sharply. She placed her fingers under Xena's chin and tilted her face up, drawing the blue gaze to her own. "Don't ever think you're to blame, Xe. I couldn't bear it if I knew you felt that way. Please, my love," Gabrielle pleaded.

Xena was somewhat startled at Gabrielle's reaction. She looked in the emerald gaze that stared back at her with a sort of quiet desperation. The warrior formed what she hoped came across as a halfway decent smile.

"I'll try as long as you'll do the same," Xena said.

Gabrielle conveniently brushed aside the part of the answer that pertained to her. "Try hard, Xe…please?"

Xena took the hand that still held her chin and placed a gentle kiss in the palm. "I'd do anything for you, Brie. You know that, don't you?"

"Yes…I do," Gabrielle replied in a very small voice.

The young Queen only hoped that her wife couldn't hear the strained sadness within her answer.


Xena poured the steaming water from the small metal bucket and the instant the hot water mixed with the hyacinth oil, the whole room filled with the tantalizing floral scent.

Gabrielle stepped into the large tub and Xena kneeled down beside the basin. The warrior picked up a sponge and began to wash her wife's back.

"Ep brought by a basket of food. She brought some of that sweet cheese you like." Xena said, hoping to entice her wife to eat.

"That was thoughtful of her," Gabrielle answered, "but I'm not very hungry right now."

"You need to eat, Brie." Xena said as gently as possible.

"I know…you're right. I'll try to eat something when I'm through here."

"I'm going to go to the food hut, you need something hot in your stomach. It shouldn't be too hard to get down a bowl of broth and some bread, will it?"

"I don't get a choice in this do I?" Gabrielle asked.

"Not much of one, no," Xena replied, kissing the young woman's ear.

"Then I guess broth sounds fine. Thank you, love."

"Do you want help with your hair?" The warrior asked.

"No, I can get it, thanks."

"Okay," Xena said, rising from the floor. "I'll be back by the time you're done. Anything else sound good to you?"

Gabrielle shook her head. Even the thought of eating the broth made her nauseas, but she didn't want to disappoint Xena.

"Be back…" Xena kissed the top of her head and left the room.

Gabrielle washed her body, wincing as the hand cloth passed over the tender flesh between her legs. She washed and rinsed her hair, then reached for the ivory comb that sat on the rim of the metal tub. Gently running the comb through her long hair to remove the tangles, she realized her hair grew quite a bit in the last season. She needed to get a bit cut off. She hated having to tie her hair back when she practiced with her staff, although she hadn't been out to the practice field in moons. She would never understand how Xena fought with her raven mane whipping around her face. Gabrielle found it most distracting.

Her mind wandered around to nearly every inconsequential thought in her head, neatly avoiding the one that caused the most pain. Eventually, there was no way to avoid it. She leaned an arm against the metal tub's rim and laid her cheek down on her forearm. Xena was being so loving and understanding towards the young Queen. If only she knew what I'd done. I don't think she'd look at me with such compassion if she knew that I'm to blame.

As Gabrielle stepped from the tub and dried herself off, she felt only guilt and pain when she thought of her wife taking such good care of her. Each one of Xena's kind words was like a slap to Gabrielle. Each loving look; a bitter strike, this is the way her own guilt pulled at Gabrielle's head.

Pulling on her robe, she played with the delicate ring on her finger, the one her father gave her. She thought about it…last night, calling her father and asking the God to intervene on her and Xena's behalf. When she managed to pull herself, screaming, from her nightmare, she asked Xena what Artemis said to her in the temple. Her wife told her of Artemis' inability to heal Brianna, and of Apollo's absence, which the warrior thought odd.

Gabrielle thought it odd, too. Apollo acted almost as excited about the baby's first appearance, as Xena and Gabrielle. He is a God, after all. Wouldn't he know I was in labor…wouldn't he know something went wrong? The young Queen had one hope left and she hung onto it as if it were her lifeline to salvation.

Feeling the warm metal of the ring on her finger, Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but slowly closed her mouth again. He was a God after all, wasn't he? She thought to herself. Gabrielle knew that her father would have seen exactly what happened, the birth of her child and everything leading up to that moment. She was sure he saw the things she did to put her baby's life in jeopardy, stubbornly refusing to listen to Sartori or Xena. That's why he was noticeably absent. Her father turned his face away from her too.

If she would have taken the time to examine the whole situation, to talk with her warrior, or the Healers, who cared so much for their young Queen, she may have learned the truth. Sometimes it's so much easier to believe the outlandish or the near impossible. When your grief clouds your vision and your judgment, the unfeasible becomes truth and reality.

Gabrielle pulled her thoughts away from the ring. She would not beg for anyone's forgiveness. Her crime was too great. She didn't deserve forgiveness. She pulled her robe tighter and walked into the other room.


Gabrielle sat at the table, looking at the unappealing basket of food. She wanted to please Xena by eating something, she just hoped her stomach didn't rebel at the first bit of food she put in it.

The door opened and Xena came in, leaving the door slightly ajar.

"Hey, you look good," she kissed Gabrielle's cheek. "No dizziness, pain, or anything?"

"No, I'm fine." Gabrielle returned.

"Brie, I met Ephiny halfway between here and the food hut and she was on her way here with a dinner tray for us. She wanted me to check with you first, whether or not you wanted to see her. She's waiting at the bottom of the steps."

Gabrielle thought of the woman who was perhaps her best friend, aside from Xena. Ephiny was not only her Regent, but also the first Amazon that the young Queen ever had the chance to know. Most of her early perceptions about her people were based on Ephiny's teachings.

"Of course, Xe, tell her to come in."

A moment later, the Regent came through the door carrying a tray of hot food. She placed the tray on the table and Gabrielle stood to greet her friend.

"Please, Gabrielle, don't get up for me."

"It's all right, I'm feeling a lot better physically." Gabrielle tried to offer the older woman a smile, but it was a weak attempt.

Ephiny came to where Gabrielle stood and she hugged the younger woman, situating a light kiss on her cheek.

"Sure you're feeling okay?" She asked warmly.

"Yea," Gabrielle answered, her voice breaking a little. "Eph, what…I mean, I've never…I don't know what's expected at the funeral, what Xena and I are supposed to do."

Xena stood silently by and Ephiny watched as the warrior clenched her jaw and looked down at the floor.

"Gabrielle, don't worry about that, we can go over it later--"

"No, now," Gabrielle answered. "Please, can we go over it now?"

Ephiny looked confused. She never intended this conversation to be taking place just now. She looked up again and found Xena looking back at her. The warrior nodded her head slightly.

"Okay…why don't we sit down?" Ephiny directed them to the table.

Xena reached over to hold Gabrielle's hand as it rested on top of the table. The Queen turned sad eyes on her wife and squeezed the hand in response.

"Adia and two of the elders are preparing Brianna for her journey to the Amazon Land of the Dead. For two more days, the Princess will go through the purification ceremony. You're both familiar with those rites, correct?" Ephiny looked on as each of the women before her nodded their heads.

"The day after tomorrow, early in the morning, the village will begin to construct the funeral pyre. When…when someone from the Royal family passes over, every person in the village comes by and lays wood on the pyre. Just before sundown, we'll gather. I'll call on one of you," she paused to look between them, "to start the flames."

Xena noticed that Gabrielle's hands trembled at the thought of setting her daughter's funeral pyre aflame. The warrior squeezed the hand within her own tighter.

"I'll do it," Xena said.

Gabrielle lowered her eyes to the table and when she lifted them up again, tears clouded the green gaze. "Go on…" The Queen prompted Ephiny.

The Royal Guard will stand watch through the night as the pyre burns down. Princess Brianna's ashes will be sealed in a container and placed in the Temple of Artemis," Ephiny finished.

The Regent watched as Gabrielle rose, reached over, and hugged her.

"Thanks, Eph. Excuse me, please." Gabrielle said, all but rushing from the room.

Both women watched the young Queen hurry from the room. Xena's first instinct was to follow the young woman, to be there for her, but the warrior had to remind herself that Gabrielle needed time to herself too. Just not too much time.

"How are you doing?" Ephiny asked the warrior.

Xena looked at the Regent and Ephiny knew that stoic, tightly held faÁade that Xena put on for the world, for everyone but Gabrielle. She could see the warrior pulling back within herself slightly.

"Fine…I'm doing fine," she answered.

"I really didn't mean to do this now…" Ephiny said, turning to look at the door Gabrielle rushed through.

"She hasn't really…she's still denying it. I mean, she's accepted what's happened, but I think she's denying her feelings. I can't seem to get her to talk about it. She's been having nightmares."

Ephiny understood the warrior's fear concerning Gabrielle's nightmares. The Queen and her Consort were to Tartarus and back a few seasons back. After Gabrielle's attack, she spent moons suffering in silence from the violent images that haunted her dreamscape. She knew also that Xena blamed herself for being unable to get Gabrielle to open up to her about the dreams.

"It's only been a day, Xena. It may not be the same this time; they may go away of their own accord. We just have to get her talking about it in a way that will be conducive to her healing…a way for both of you to heal."

Ephiny pointed out the obvious, but she knew the warrior mentality or mindset. She especially knew Xena and Gabrielle. Xena would walk through fire, denying her own welfare and safety, to care for Gabrielle.

Xena was going to argue. She raised her head, prepared to confront the Regent regarding her ability to put aside her own hurt, and why it was more important to take care of Gabrielle. Gabrielle came first. Xena stopped and simply stared at the Amazon, realizing that this was only because Gabrielle came first in her heart. She would do her wife no good if she didn't grieve herself. Now may not be the time, but Xena understood that she couldn't put her emotions about her daughter on hold forever.

The warrior lowered her head again, nodding in agreement with Ephiny.

Well, that's different. Xena agreeing? She must be hurting more than even I understand. If Xena is feeling this much pain, I can only think that Gabrielle is absolutely devastated. Ephiny kept her thoughts to herself, but reached out and placed her hand on Xena's arm.

"Hey, we're all here for you Xena…for the both of you, please, don't forget that. You can come and rant at me when you need to, but just remember that you and Gabrielle need to talk to each other too."

Xena looked up at the Regent once more and Ephiny couldn't quite place the emotion within the unwavering blue gaze. It was somewhere between sadness and jealousy.

"There's a little problem with getting Gabrielle to talk to me," Xena paused, her jaw clenched tighter. "I get the distinct impression that she's deliberately hiding something from me."

Chapter 5

Xena opened her eyes, instantly fully awake. That's simply the way her body was. She usually woke slightly before dawn, immediately aware of all her surroundings.

She remembered the time, right after she and Gabrielle first became lovers. Xena never could understand, in the seasons they traveled together, why her young lover was so difficult to rouse in the morning. It was as if Gabrielle hadn't any sleep during the night. It shocked, surprised, and flattered the warrior to find that the young woman sat up in the middle of the might, for candlemarks, simply looking down at the beautiful dark-haired woman.


One night, the warrior felt Gabrielle's body, leaning down over her. She silently opened one eye, surprising the small blonde.

"Gabrielle, why are you staring at me when you should be asleep?"

"I--I'm not staring!" Gabrielle replied defensively, flopping down onto the bedroll. The bard rolled away from her lover, taking most of the blanket along with her.

Xena was awake now and in the mood to tease her new lover. She pressed her long figure to Gabrielle's back, snuggling up against the small blonde.

"Hey, you have all the blanket now. I'm cold too," Xena lied. She pressed her body tighter against the young woman, nuzzling her neck and placing small kisses on the smooth skin.


"Hhmm?" Gabrielle answered. She was rather enjoying the sensation.

"Do you always sit up at night, watching me?"

Xena asked the question in a sultry voice, interjecting it at just the right moment. Gabrielle had her eyes closed, neck tilted to one side, and a dreamy expression on her face. Her eyes opened wide when the warrior's words registered.

"Oh, you!" The bard brought her elbow back sharply into the warrior's midsection.

Xena knew the young woman and braced her abdominal muscles, anticipating the blow. She chuckled as Gabrielle rolled further away.

"Brie, I'm sorry…I was just teasing." She lightly touched Gabrielle's shoulder.

"I don't know what you want with me anyway. You're the Warrior Princess…I'm such a nobody," the bard said forlornly.

Xena lost the expression of mirth, replacing it with a frown. Realization dawned bright and she pulled the reluctant woman toward her.

"Gabrielle, don't you know how beautiful and wonderful you are?"

"To you."

"To everyone, my heart. Everyone we meet can see the light in your soul, can feel the warmth burning there."

Gabrielle finally let herself relax in the warrior's embrace, but to Xena, it felt more like a gesture of defeat. She wrapped her arms tightly around the young woman and kissed the back of her head.

"But, you…you're…well, you're you, Xe. People will always wonder what you see in me."

"Yes, love, people do know of me, but only you know the real me. I've been across the Known World; my reputation has traveled far and wide. People recognize me the minute I walk into a town. They've seen many of my faces over the seasons and they think they know the me inside this shell, but more often than not, I'm ashamed for the reasons they know me. There is only one thing that I'm proud for people to know about me, my heart."

"What's that?" Gabrielle asked.

Xena smiled and kissed the mouth that turned toward her.

"That I won your heart," the warrior answered.

Gabrielle reached up to capture the lips again that, in return, pressed against hers so softly.

"It wasn't much of a contest, Xe," she whispered as they pulled apart. "All you had to do was ask."


As she always did, Xena simply felt Gabrielle's presence. Therefore, when she opened her eyes, she wasn't surprised to see her wife, lying in bed next to her. Gabrielle leaned up on one elbow, looking down on the warrior. Xena noticed that the emerald eyes, which gazed down at her, generally filled with love and adoration, were filled with something more. Clouding those emotions was a look of guilt and sorrow that was new to the warrior. Her wife's face mirrored the grief they both experienced over the last three days. Now, when the warrior looked up, it was as if Xena caught Gabrielle looking down at her with feelings of remorse etched across her face.

Xena reached out to pull Gabrielle to her, but instantly felt her wife's hand on her chest, discouraging the ploy. The warrior's questioning expression urged the Queen to quickly explain.

"I…um, my chest…it's a bit tender."

Xena sat up and with an extremely light touch, cupped her hand around one of her wife's swollen breasts. Her fingers delicately brushed the skin, feeling the hard fullness. Gabrielle winced, even at the gentle touch.

"Seems like a lot tender would be a better way to put it," Xena said. "How do they actually feel, besides tender?" Xena asked in concern.

"Painful," Gabrielle answered. "They feel strange…full and hard as rocks. This didn't happen with--before." Gabrielle didn't even want to say Hope's name to herself, not now when she was on the verge of some sort of breakdown already.

"I'm sorry, Brie, I should have prepared for this the other day, but I think it's…well, it's from the…the milk you're producing."

Xena wasn't shy or embarrassed about the topic, but she hated bringing up one more thing that would remind her wife of their loss.

Gabrielle looked across at her wife. She didn't want to let it out, but she couldn't seem to hold back. Silent and unexpected tears tracked their way down the Queen's cheeks.

"I'm sorry," she said, wiping the tears away with her hand. "I didn't mean to cry again."

"Brie…it's okay," Xena reassured, reaching out her own hand to brush her fingers against the young woman's cheek. "It's something that reminded you of our loss. It's okay to cry about it."

Gabrielle nodded her head, too unsure of her voice to speak. Xena sat against the head of the bed and encouraged the young woman to lay with her back against the warrior's chest.

Finally settled, Xena said, "I can ask Sartori, I know she has the herbs. I can make a tea and all you have to do is drink a mug in the morning for around seven days or so. It will…it will dry up…" Xena couldn't finish.

Gabrielle placed a hand on the warrior's forearm, which was resting across her abdomen. "Not yet, Xe."

Xena was thankful that her wife's back was to her, so the Queen couldn't see the expression forming on the warrior's face. It took a few moments until realization broke across the features that were frowning in confusion. At first, Xena couldn't think of a reason or understand why Gabrielle wouldn't want the pain of her current condition removed. Why would she want the reminder…the pain? Understanding flowed through her and the warrior knew that was the reason. The pain was Gabrielle's last reminder that only three days ago, she carried their child. Three days ago, she was looking forward to a future with the life growing inside of her. For nine moons, the young Queen bonded with and grew attached to their child, and now, all she had to remind her of Brianna's existence was the physical pain.

Xena kissed the back of her wife's head and they lay together, no conversation breaking the painful silence that hung between them. The sun was in hiding this morning under the slightly overcast conditions, and now, dark clouds moved into view. They watched through the large window, by the small wooden table, as the gray-black clouds hung low in the sky, the morning light growing dimmer. Normally shuttered during the winter months, a thin gauzy curtain covered the window when the days were so unbearably warm, as they had been recently. It occurred to Xena that they usually kept the curtain drawn until they were awake and about.

"Brie, did you open the curtain?"

  "Yes. I opened it earlier when I had some tea. I was just watching the sun come up." Gabrielle didn't tell her wife that she was thinking, rather forlornly, of her father as she watched dawn break over the Amazon village.

"I never even heard you get up," Xena said with a hint of amazement.

"You were sound asleep," Gabrielle replied, squeezing the warrior's hand. "You looked like you needed the sleep as much as me."

"Couldn't you sleep?" Xena asked.

"Something like that."

"Dreams again?"

Gabrielle nodded and sighed deeply.

"Brie, do you remember when you were afraid to tell me your nightmare because you thought it would hurt me?" Xena questioned her wife. She didn't have to say when, they both knew.

"Yes," Gabrielle replied.

"My heart, there isn't anything that you can't tell me. I'll understand. You know as well as I that our dreamscapes don't always tell the truth. Sometimes they're just bits and pieces of our own thoughts or guilt."

Xena tried to explain as best she could, but she also knew her wife. If Gabrielle was determined that something remain a secret, the warrior could talk until sundown and still never convince the bard to open up. The warrior suspected what her wife's nightmares held. Obviously, they revolved around the sudden death of their child, but Xena knew that she probably factored in there somewhere too.

Xena's own guilt over her inability to save Brianna gnawed deeply at the warrior's conscience. She understood Gabrielle's pain. How could her wife keep from blaming her, even unconsciously? She was the Warrior Princess, the woman who conquered death and most of the known Gods. She never accepted defeat, and yet, this time she was beaten. Why this time, Gabrielle?

Xena never blamed Gabrielle for the dreams, not the last time, especially not now. The feelings were real for Gabrielle and the dreamscape is where they made their presence known for the young Queen. Xena simply wished that she could convince her mate that it was a normal response and that it wouldn't hurt the warrior to know of her wife's dreams.

"I'll understand whatever you're feeling, Brie. I just wish you'd talk to me. It's been three days, love, and you've hardly eaten a bite. You've already lost all the weight you gained." Xena ran her hand along Gabrielle's belly, noting the flat lines that were so recently hidden by soft flesh.

"Yesterday, you worked out with Eponin for nearly half the day. Please, don't bury yourself in that like the last time. I know it helps to be able to focus your mind on something, but don't immerse yourself in being a warrior just to hide from the truth. Please, talk to me, baby," Xena at last pleaded.

"Xe…I--" Gabrielle stopped abruptly.

The Queen was about to unburden herself of her terrible secret. Her wife was so loving, willing to do or suffer anything for her. Gabrielle listened as Xena explained, and there was truth to the warrior's words. The last couple of days, Gabrielle felt herself slipping into the same hardened mode she fell into a few seasons previous. Her heart told her that Xena would find a way to forgive the young woman, but Gabrielle's head pulled her in another direction completely.

Not again, not this time, Gabrielle thought to herself. She forgave me the death of her child the first time, how could she ever do it again? How could I stand losing her love? I'll die, I'm sure of it, if I ever have to see her look at me with contempt or hate again.

"Xe," Gabrielle whispered in a broken voice. "Not today…maybe..." she sighed heavily, "just not today. Okay?"

Xena kissed the young woman's cheek. Today was their daughter's burial rites and she understood Gabrielle's wish to wait.

"Of course, my heart. I'm always here for you, Brie, always just a step away."

Thunder rumbled from a distance and rolled through the village, the two women feeling the vibration of it, deep within their chests. Shortly after, a light rain followed, and the couple lay in bed, watching it fall.

"That seems apt," Gabrielle said softly.

Xena nodded her head in complete understanding. Both their hearts mirrored the dark dreariness of this day. They lay in bed, knowing that in a few candlemarks, they would fight their greatest battle yet. Their hearts held pain and regret, sadness and guilt.

A plan formulated in the young Queen's brain, just then, the agony of her situation effectively clouding her reason. A way in which she could pay for her own sin, and not have to see Xena look on her with anything but the warrior's customary expression of love and devotion. It would be painful, but her own suffering would be her penance. She regretted the hurt she would cause her wife, knowing Xena's feelings would still turn to anger and hate, but this way, Gabrielle wouldn't have to see the look in her wife's eyes. The Queen wouldn't have to watch, as her warrior's love grew cold.

Chapter 6

Gabrielle helped her wife fasten the top catch on her tunic. Once the jacket was secure, Xena took a step back, but not before brushing the back of her fingers along Gabrielle's cheek. The Queen gave the warrior a weak smile and Xena returned one of the same. Xena watched as the small blonde turned away to finish dressing herself. The dark-haired woman wore the outfit she used for diplomatic purposes as the Queen's Consort. Black leather trousers, a long sleeved silk shirt that laced up the front and the tight fitting jacket with the Amazon Queen's insignia on the sleeves. Xena felt stiff and uncomfortable in the outfit, but she thought that fitting. She didn't want to wear her customary leathers; she would feel too relaxed in her battle skirt. She didn't want to wear something that would remind her; each time she put it on, of this day. No, better to be ill at ease now, the warrior thought to herself.

The two women were preparing for their customary visitation before their daughter's funeral ceremony began. They would have their time alone, then, along with the Queen Regent and several other witnesses, they would watch as the Healers sealed Brianna's body into the tiny sarcophagus the woodworker carved.

Crista fashioned the small box. In only two days, the woman completed an ornately decorated cover, in which to send off the little Princess. She carved the Queen's crest into the lid and added small areas of red paint, to signify royalty. The older woman brought the carved lid by their home the previous day, in order to obtain the Queen's approval.

Xena stood, gazing pensively out the window, watching as the light rain fell from the sky. She always loved the rain. She loved the way it made everything smell; the humid, earthy scent that hung heavy in the air. Fresh and clean, the rain always washed away the dust from the roads. Now, Xena feared that, with the coming seasons, she would only remember one thing about the rain…that it fell on the day of her daughter's funeral.

She turned her head to watch Gabrielle. The young Queen wore one of her longer leather skirts, belted at the waist with a length of braided, soft leather. The skirt came well past her knees and the top was made of the same soft leather. Xena showed Gabrielle how to cushion her swollen and tender breasts with one of her tighter undergarments, placing soft cloth in the center of the cups of the top. Gabrielle refused the tea the warrior offered to make her, so she had to face, not only the discomfort of her breasts, full and heavy with milk, but a natural side effect of that also. The cloth was to protect her top from the unbidden instances when the droplets of milk would leak from her body and wet her garment.

Gabrielle gathered one last item from the room, placing it in a cloth sack and wrapping it up carefully. She paused, and then looked up at her wife. The tall woman crossed the room and opened a chest, lying on the floor. She picked up a small item and tucked it into her tunic. Rising again, Xena retrieved the Queen's cloak from a peg on the wall and held it open for her.

"Xe, it's awfully warm for that, it's only a little rain."

It was true. Although the rain was providing the precipitation that they desperately needed, it was still extremely warm outside. The rain managed to simply make everything unbearably humid.

"I know, love, but you'll get soaked by the time we get back here and I don't want you to catch your--" Xena caught herself.

"I just don't want you to get soaked," she added quickly.

Gabrielle knew it was pointless to argue. She simply nodded her head and turned around so her warrior could drape the cloak across her shoulders. She felt the strong arms embrace her from behind and a kiss against the back of her head. She would have liked to turn and sob heavily in the warrior's arms, to just let go and have Xena pet her, kiss her forehead, and whisper reassuringly in her ear. Gabrielle refused to allow herself even this small bit of comfort. She wouldn't allow Xena to use all the warrior's own strength, simply for her. She couldn't allow her wife to take on the burden of carrying Gabrielle. The Queen set her jaw in a show of fierce determination. She would have to show them…everyone…that the Queen could walk down this path herself.


It was difficult for the Queen and her Consort to accept that this small, gauze wrapped package was their daughter. The tiny form lay in the small sarcophagus, which sat upon a low-lying table. The two women sat in silence, one on each side.

In truth, Gabrielle, admittedly a woman of words, found that she had none. Not any that made sense, anyway, and she needed to make sense of this. Gods, maybe I am becoming too much the warrior. She realized this was how Xena got through. Trying to sort events, especially the tragic ones, and placing them in an appropriate place, just waiting for the day when you would have time to examine them closer. Only, that day never comes, but the hope is that enough times passes and makes the happening easier to bear.

Suddenly she found herself thinking of Crista, the wood carver who fashioned Brianna's sarcophagus. Gabrielle tried to follow her train of thought backward, wondering what prompted her to think of the woman. It was because she was remembering when she and Xena walked through the village, on their way here, to this small hut set apart from all the others of the village.

Gabrielle remembered thinking that to most of the Amazon village, this was just another day in their lives. They probably had no idea at the depth of the pain she and her wife were enduring. They would be sad, and respectful, and some would shed tears, but they wouldn't feel as she and Xena felt. They wouldn't sense that their whole world just became devoid of pleasure or happiness. No one would feel that…but Crista would.

Last season, the woman lost her only child. Gabrielle presided over the burial rites, in a somewhat less formal situation than today. The Queen truly thought, on that day, that she was feeling the woman's sadness as her own. Now, having encountered the sorrow and the loss, Gabrielle realized that she felt nothing of what the woman was experiencing on that day.

The Queen looked over and slipped her hand within her Consort's, which lay resting atop the casket. Without looking over at her, Xena squeezed the small hand reassuringly. The thumb of the larger hand stroked the trembling fingers, as the two women silently shared the immense burden of their anguish.

Gabrielle knew, the women whose eyes followed them through the village today, could not truly understand what she an Xena were feeling. She merely hoped and prayed that none of them would ever discover it first hand.

Sartori's hands came to rest, first on one of Xena's shoulders, then on Gabrielle's shoulder. The Healer could think of no appropriate words. Saying, ‘it was time,' seemed so harsh and final for the two women who most certainly suffered their fair share of trials in their young lives.

"Would you like a little more time…to offer your gifts?" Sartori asked.

Both women nodded and the Healer moved to a corner of the small hut where her own wife stood. Adia, the taller of the two, wrapped an arm around the smaller woman's shoulder, Sartori's arm slipping around the tall Healer's waist without much conscious thought.

Xena looked over at Gabrielle for a few long moments, trying to decipher the expression on the young Queen's face, wondering if her thoughts took the same meandering paths as the warrior's did for the last candlemark. The dark-haired woman lifted the small hand, cradled gently in her own, to her lips, placing a light kiss on it.

Gabrielle looked across at her wife, noting the dark circles under the warrior's eyes. The skin that was usually a dark bronze from the sun, uncharacteristically pale. The blonde understood the unspoken question the blue eyes posed. Gabrielle reluctantly nodded her head in response.

Both of them rose at once, each appearing somewhat unwilling to release the other's hand. When at last they broke apart, Xena stood and waited as Gabrielle bent to retrieve the small sack she carried from their home. Pulling the object from its covering, Gabrielle paused, understanding that this gesture was a release of sorts. She hesitated because she really wasn't sure if she was ready to let go. Knowing she had no other option, the Queen pulled the object completely free of its wrapping to reveal an Amazon Mask.

Amazon tradition required the reigning Queen to create the mask for her future heir. Gabrielle spent many painstaking hours creating just the right combination of paint, feathers, beads, and carvings. The final product was an impressive mask, one in which the small blonde hoped conveyed just the right amount of ceremony, tradition, and intimidation.

Gabrielle looked at the mask as she held it in both her hands. The young Queen's face was unreadable, even to her lover. At last, Gabrielle gently placed the mask inside the sarcophagus, beside her lifeless infant.

As Gabrielle withdrew a step from the casket, Xena unfastened one of the middle catches on her tunic and reached into the open jacket. She pulled a small object out. It was a shock of sweet lemongrass, braided, and then fastened into a loop. Every inch or so, along the length of the braid, was a decorative knot.

Cyrene showed the warrior how to fashion the complicated knot pattern. The older woman explained to her daughter that when Xena was an infant, Cyrene fashioned the braided grass, just as her own mother showed her. According to Xena's grandmother, the object was a teething ring. The circular shape gave the infant's hand something to easily grasp, the anesthetic properties of the lemongrass eased the baby's teething discomfort, and the knotted areas were a symbol of a mother's love. Those decorative knots began with an intricate series of over and under moves. The result was a tight loop in the shape of a heart.

The warrior hunched over her child's casket, the carefully constructed gift in her hand, fingering each knot in turn. Usually, Amazon tradition allowed for the family to send their loved one off with one gift from each of them, something of special meaning to the deceased. It was believed, that when the departed began their journey to the Amazon Land of the Dead, special memories from the gifts surrounding them would guarantee that the love of family would never be forgotten…even in death.

The warrior returned to her standing position after having laid the small gift beside her daughter's body. She stepped back beside her wife and the two women watched as the ceremony was performed to seal the royal casket. Xena and Gabrielle stood side by side, the length of their arms touching the entire time. Some would be surprised that the Queen and her Consort were not sharing an embrace or clasping hands tightly, during this heart-wrenching scene. Those onlookers would be mistaken, however, if they thought the two women stood separate in their pain, for not a moment passed when they weren't in physical contact some way. The connection they shared, in their grief, was very nearly psychic. No words needed to be spoken or sentiments shared between them. This was a bond created by pain, and shared on this level between only these two.

Four Royal Guard surrounded the sarcophagus, waiting patiently, for Xena to escort the Queen to the area of the funeral pyre. The Queen and the warrior exchanged a brief glance; unshed tears held in check by both women. Gabrielle turned, and in a slow deliberate motion, crossed the small room, pausing at the open door.

The young woman experienced a sudden attack of dizziness, fighting a wave of nausea back with deep breaths. Xena moved quickly when she saw Gabrielle clutch at the doorpost, her nails digging into the soft wood. The warrior watched, as the Queen's mask nearly fell from her grasp.

Gabrielle leaned her body back against the tower of warm strength behind her. Xena's body pressed up against the Queen's back, the warrior's hands gently holding the young woman steady. The episode of lightheadedness passed and Gabrielle sighed heavily, as if there were no strength left in her body.

"Easy, my heart…breathe," Xena whispered. "Okay?" The tall woman pressed her lips against the back of her wife's head and felt the motion of Gabrielle slightly nodding.

What would I do without her , Gabrielle thought to herself. No…what will I do without her.

Gabrielle took a small step forward, breaking away from the comforting embrace of her wife. She raised the Queen's mask in both hands and, taking one last, deep breath, she placed the mask across her face. She felt an odd comfort from the act. She felt as if she were not only hiding her face away, but her heart, as well. This…this would make it bearable, her mind comforted. The wall that could be slipped around one's emotions, the wall that warriors were so famous for, that her own warrior spent seasons trying to overcome. This was Gabrielle's salvation and she wondered why such a thing as a warrior's trick should come so easily to her now.

Xena took her position beside Gabrielle, sparing a fleeting moment to glance down at the small woman, before she slipped on the mask. The thought that stuck in the warrior's mind was how familiar the look of emptiness and grim determination looked on her lover's face. Familiar expressions, but out of place on her wife. What the warrior really thought, as she felt Gabrielle move beside her toward the pyre, was how much Gabrielle looked like her. The ache in her heart was caused by the knowledge that when they stepped from the small hut, Xena no longer saw the sweet bard of Potidaea, only the Queen of the Amazons.

The Guard followed half a dozen paces behind the Queen and her Consort. Xena was glad she made her wife wear the cloak, as the rain fell lightly, but steadily. The young Queen could barely see the rain, let alone feel it. Nearly in front of the large pyre, Gabrielle unconsciously reached out for Xena's hand, the warrior sensing the contact before it arrived. They walked the rest of the way like that, stony expressions masking their true emotions. Forced to control their display of grief because of who they were, what they represented. For this small space in time, they were not allowed to be two women enduring perhaps the most difficult day of their lives. They existed as rulers and leaders within this community, and because of this, their lives were not fully their own.

The Guard slid the sarcophagus onto the platform above the wood that the village carefully situated for the fire. The funeral rites began, chanting and songs, some in a language Xena didn't understand, but that she had only heard before. It's happening so quickly was Xena's first thought. At the same time, the warrior felt the day would take an eternity to end. The warrior disappeared into herself, the only connection to the physical world was the small hand that trembled in hers.

Xena looked next to her, blocking out the happenings around her, she watched the young Queen by her side. Gabrielle stared straight ahead, her body tight as a bowstring, but trembling all over at the same time. The fearsome mask covered the Queen's beautiful face, hiding Gabrielle's usually expressive visage. She could have been carved in stone, but for the tears Xena saw slide out from under the mask. The warrior no longer held back her own tears as they mixed with the rain that wet her face.

She watched as two of the Guards poured a thick black substance out onto the base of the pyre. All along the wood, they poured the viscous liquid from the hollowed out gourds used as containers. The rain made the wood wet and so; Greek Fire seemed to be the answer to give the damp logs a chance to catch and burn.


Even behind the Queen's mask, Gabrielle appeared stunned that they had been standing there for nearly a candlemark. Two of the Royal Guard broke their stiff formation, one carrying a large brass bowl, filled with hot coals, the other a long bow with one arrow.   The coals were placed at Gabrielle's feet and the Guard knelt before the Queen, offering up the bow and arrow. Gabrielle didn't move, she simply stared down at the bow as if she didn't know what to do.

Xena cursed herself for the hundredth time. The pyre was to be lit by either she or Gabrielle. Xena agreed to do it when Ephiny first explained the Royal funeral rites to them. The warrior didn't want her wife to have to experience one more brand of pain. Gabrielle argued with her all last evening, becoming upset and breaking into tears. She was so adamant about being the one to light the pyre that Xena agreed, simply to calm her wife down. Now, watching Gabrielle struggle with the burden, Xena had to clench her fists to keep from stepping in.

Gabrielle realized that she was the one they were waiting for. Her mind went completely blank. The only thing she was aware of was the sharp hissing noise the raindrops made as the splashed into the bucket of hot coals. She watched as her own hands reached out for the offered bow, seeming as if they belonged to someone else's body and not her own. Gazing at the trembling fingers as they wrapped themselves around the unfamiliar weapon, she felt as if she were watching herself from far off, not even feeling she was really in her own body. It was a matter of memory, the limited lessons that Eponin taught her on how to use the bow, that Gabrielle fell back on now.

The head of the arrow was wrapped in gauze and dipped in Greek Fire. The Queen notched the arrow, standing still for the longest time. Ephiny looked over and searched for some sign that Gabrielle would be unable to continue. The Regent was comforted by the fact that Xena edged herself closer to her wife, noticing Gabrielle's erratic behavior.

Gabrielle took a deep breath, the first one having caught it her throat. Her limbs felt frozen, too heavy to lift. With what the Queen thought of as a massive effort, she bent and slowly let the coals spark the arrow into flame. Her warrior watched the slow movements, understanding the hesitation in her wife's momentum. Once the arrow flew, it would be over. There would be no redemption from the Gods, nothing Xena could do to save the day.

The Queen brought the bow up and drew back the string. The flame from the arrow felt hot against her hand as she pulled the bowstring back farther, then Gabrielle froze. She could neither continue, nor go back, and so she froze in place.

Xena watched on as Gabrielle's motion stopped. It was longer than necessary and the warrior wasn't sure how long she should wait before stepping in. Finally, Gabrielle's arms began to shake with the effort at holding back the taut bowstring. Xena was so close; all she had to do was grasp the bow in her left hand, covering Gabrielle's small hand. The warrior reached her right arm around the Queen and plucked the bowstring from Gabrielle's shaky fingers.

"We can do this, Brie," Xena's low voice whispered in the blonde's ear.

Gabrielle nodded, unable to speak, and let the warrior's strength flow into her. Together, the Queen and her Consort let fly the arrow. The flaming projectile imbedded itself into a large log at the base of the pyre and the fire spread quickly until it was a roaring blaze. The singing and chanting continued around the two women, but they were as oblivious to that as to the rain that fell steadily from the sky.

Gabrielle felt limp and never resisted when Xena turned the small woman in her arms and they stood there, the Amazon Queen wrapped in the warrior's embrace. Her mask pressed against her face as Gabrielle rested her head on her wife's chest. They stood like this for some time, two, then three candlemarks having gone by before Ephiny could convince Xena that the only way Gabrielle would go inside, would be if the warrior led the way. Xena once again cursed her own foolishness at risking Gabrielle's health. The warrior eventually led the young Queen from their place in front of the still blazing fire, back to their home.

Ephiny watched the Royal couple walk away and prayed to Artemis that she would intervene at some point. There were some things that people came back from, even Xena and Gabrielle, but this one would be a test of epic proportions. The Regent knew other couples whose love for one another grew cold over their inability to cope with the death of a child. She hoped and prayed that the Queen and her Consort were prepared for the battle ahead.



Gabrielle's scream broke through the stillness of the early morning once more. Xena quickly wrapped her own body around the small one wrapped into a fetal position beside her.

"Sshh…baby, I've got you. It's okay…" the warrior murmured to the exhausted young woman.

Xena felt Gabrielle's body eventually go still again, deep, even breaths coming from the sleeping Queen. Even though the warrior's sleep was fitful, she at least slept. Gabrielle spent the previous night and day passing between sleep and her nightmare-laden dreamscape. After the exhausting funeral yesterday, Xena tried to allow Gabrielle time to rest today, but the dreamscape images that haunted her bard, simply became stronger.

Having finally slept for a few uninterrupted candlemarks, Gabrielle rose to find the day sunny and warm, as if yesterday's rain had never been. Xena walked into the house, dirt, and sweat plastered to the warrior's skin. She carried a tray of food and Gabrielle couldn't help but notice her wife and the friend who tagged behind the tall warrior. Gabrielle envied the look of peace on her wife's face, brought about, no doubt, by a strenuous workout on the practice field. Xena told her on more than one occasion that was the way warriors worked things out.

She's working it out…why can't I? Well, that's easy…she wasn't responsible for her child's death.

Gabrielle felt sleepy, battered, and beyond weary, but the expression on Eponin's face caused the young Queen to make the attempt at a smile.

Eponin timidly followed Xena into the house. Seeing Gabrielle bathed and dressed was a relief to Xena. The young woman looked a little battle-weary, but at least functional. The warrior didn't like the dark circles that hung under the bard's eyes, which grew darker every day. Her wife's weight did not escape the warrior's scrutiny either. In four days, Gabrielle managed to lose a considerable amount of body mass. Yes, Xena admitted, a great deal was due to the birth, but her wife wasn't eating, and that worried the warrior as much as the constant nightmares that plagued the young Queen.

"Gabrielle?" Eponin asked quietly.

The small blonde met the warrior halfway across the room to accept a hug. Eponin gingerly placed her arms around the young woman, using as gentle a touch as she could.

"It's okay, Ep," Gabrielle said, pulling out of the embrace. "I won't break."

The Amazon smiled back and let out a short sigh of relief. Eponin wasn't used to dealing with these kinds of situations and it broke her heart that it was happening to two of her closest friends.

"I didn't know what to say…yesterday…"

"It's okay…I understand," Gabrielle mustered up another smile that tugged painfully at her friend's heart. "But, I'm not that fragile…you're not going to crush me or anything with a hug." Gabrielle tried to tease the serious warrior and received that relieved expression once again.

"I'm not so sure." Eponin grinned. "When's the last time this woman fed you?" the Amazon jerked a thumb in Xena's direction.

The Queen and her Consort exchanged a hurried glance that spoke volumes to the Amazon.

"Well, I've been here all of two heartbeats and I've already put my foot in it, haven't I?" Eponin muttered. The warrior could have kicked herself, realizing that Gabrielle probably had no stomach for food, and that it was certainly already an issue between her two friends.

"Hey, no big deal," Xena said, coming forward to slap the Amazon on the back. The tall warrior slipped an arm around her wife's shoulders and gave her a tender kiss. "We were just going to sit down for a bite, right Brie?" Xena indicated the tray of food on the table.

Gabrielle nodded. Her wife stepped in just in time to save everyone from embarrassment.

"There's plenty, Ep," Gabrielle looked at the large wooden platter of food. "Why don't you join us?"

Xena was surprised at the request for company her wife made. She took it as a good sign, however, and nodded her head up and down at the Amazon standing in front of her.

"Sure, if you really want me to," Eponin replied.

It took about a quarter of a candlemark before the Amazon warrior felt comfortable again in front of her old friends. Eponin figured it was a warrior thing, the ability she and Xena had to slip right back into their easy friendship. Xena didn't talk about anything touchy–feely and Eponin tried to veer as far away from any sensitive type moments as she could. It was the perfect solution. Gabrielle was a different story.

The Amazon felt like she was walking on eggshells with her Queen. Gabrielle had a sensitive nature and Eponin felt as if she was sure to say the wrong thing. If Gabrielle cried, Ep didn't know what she'd do, well, after she got up off the floor, because she was certain that's where the Warrior Princess would put the Amazon if she did make the small blonde cry.

Gabrielle tried to keep up her end of the conversation, but she was failing miserably and she knew it. She just didn't feel like talking. She didn't want to see anyone or be with anyone. It was almost like a hollow spot, the space within her soul that knew love and compassion. It was once filled, but now all she could sense was this emptiness there and no matter how hard she tried to pull herself out of this funk, she couldn't get past it. She was reminded of a deep, dark pit. She kept trying to climb up the sides, little by little finding some purchase, but all of a sudden, for no reason at all, the walls would crumble within her grasp, and she would slip back into the darkness once again. She would try again, but Gabrielle knew that if she didn't make it out soon, she might eventually lack the strength to try anymore.

The young Queen couldn't hide her lack of appetite from her wife or the Amazon warrior who shared their meal. Gabrielle made a good show regarding the food on her plate, but all she was really doing was moving it around from place to place. The two warriors eventually ate their fill, but neither mentioned the fact that Gabrielle consumed a total of one piece of cheese; unless you counted the small piece of flatbread, she nibbled on throughout the meal.

"You two look as though you had quite a workout," Gabrielle mentioned.

"Yep," the Amazon replied. "There's nothin' like taking on a class full of zealous students, to get your mind in focus."

"Does it help you like that, Xe?" Gabrielle asked Xena with curiosity.

"Yea, I guess it helps…some." Xena answered. Her wife caught her off guard with that one. It wasn't like Gabrielle to question the ways of a warrior.

"Then maybe I should head out to the practice field." The young Queen answered.

"That's a great idea, Gabrielle. Get a good workout and you'll have that appetite back in no time!" Eponin responded, perhaps a little too enthusiastically.

Xena just stared at the small blonde for a moment or two. The silence became slightly uncomfortable and the Amazon suddenly understood that she might have overstepped her bounds.

"Of course, you want to take it easy…you know, just…um…well, uh slow, yea, slow to start…"

Xena could only stare at her wife. She recognized that look within Gabrielle's green gaze; the warrior had seen it before. Gabrielle was struggling with something from within, something that went far deeper than the loss of their child. She gave the impression of a woman who was trying to keep herself afloat in a sea of insanity. Her bard was grasping, reaching out to try to find something to hold onto. How can I deny her anything that might help bring her back to me?

"You don't want to overdo it," Xena said, reaching over to place her hand upon Gabrielle's forearm. "You know, make sure you stretch and loosen up some of those tight areas before getting into anything."

Gabrielle heard the reluctance in her wife's voice, but she also heard the tender concern, and that pained her. I'm hurting her more everyday and I can't seem to stop myself. Oh, Xe, why can't you be harsh or angry with me…at least make this easier for me to bear?

  "Yea, well…um, lunch was great guys…so, maybe I'll see you on the practice field, Gabrielle," Eponin said, rising from her seat. She watched as Xena raised an eyebrow in her direction and quickly added, "or not…you know, whatever…"

"I think you scared her," Gabrielle said to her own warrior once Eponin closed the door.

"Sorry…I didn't mean anything by it," Xena responded, a contrite expression on her face. "Brie, if you want to get your mind off things and get in shape, I think it's great that you want to get out on the practice field, but I don't want to have to worry about you the whole time."


"Meaning that you are losing too much weight, you're hardly sleeping a full candlemark the entire night, and you're not eating enough to keep a bird alive. If you start overexerting yourself, I'm afraid you might become ill, or worse, hurt yourself. Suffering from sleep deprivation and malnutrition are hardly conducive to safe weaponry practice."

Xena took a deep breath, just this moment realizing she'd risen and begun to pace the floor. She circled around, having no recollection of getting this far. She turned around to face her wife, just in time to see Gabrielle approaching, a small smile on the young woman's face.

"What?" the warrior asked a little defensively.

Gabrielle reached the tall woman and slipped her arms around the warrior's waist. "Thanks for always worrying about me."

"You mean, you're not going to yell at me and tell me you're a grown woman, and can make your own decisions?"

"Would it stop you from worrying?" Gabrielle asked.


"That's what I thought," the Queen responded.

The two met in a gentle kiss, her wife's sweet touch lighting a fire within her, as always. Xena responded to the kiss by pressing her mouth harder, pulling her wife's body against her and enjoying the feel. Gabrielle was the first to pull away, pressing her hand to the warrior's chest.

"Hey," Gabrielle whispered. "I better get out to the practice field while it's still daylight.

Xena reached down to nuzzle the Queen's neck, placing soft kisses on the skin there.

"You could postpone that workout. Or, I could give you a private workout," Xena whispered seductively.

Gabrielle pushed herself further away from the warrior, but not before she caught the wounded expression on Xena's face.

"How long were you out on the practice field?" Gabrielle asked, trying to change the subject.

"Huh? A couple candlemarks, I guess. Why?"

"You need a bath, warrior," the Queen answered with a grin.

"You could help…" the warrior offered.

Gabrielle broke completely free of the taller woman's embrace and tried to make it sound as if she were teasing. How could she explain to Xena that she simply had no desire…even for her wife?

"I better go or I'll never get in that workout," Gabrielle answered.

Before Xena knew it, she was standing in the room alone. The warrior wondered how one minute she could feel like whisking her wife off to bed, then the next moment be standing there, feeling rather abandoned.

Hades! Gods woman, that was pushing…no wonder she ran off. You're pushing too hard, warrior; give her a chance. Xena wanted to make love to her wife, but it wasn't out of random lust. She wanted to be with Gabrielle, and no other, simply out of love. She felt like being close to the small woman, feeling that bond…their lovemaking always brought about. The only problem was that the feeling she received from her wife, didn't appear to be mutual. Gabrielle…pushing me away? Gods, I have to give her some more time. You thick headed, warrior!

Xena crossed to the window and watched as her wife walked with her staff, toward the end of the village.

"You take all the time you need, Brie," Xena whispered aloud. "I'll be here when you find your way back."

Chapter 7

"Anyone home?"

"Xena," Adia welcomed the tall warrior into the home she shared with her mate, Sartori. "Of course, come in."

The tall blonde rose, dusting her hands of powdered herbs, and then clasped the warrior's forearm in greeting. A number of sacks and wooden bowls were scattered atop a small wooden table and Adia pulled over another chair, indicating it to Xena.

"Please, sit."

"I didn't mean to interrupt…if you're busy…" Xena let the statement trail off.

"No, no, come on, sit down," the Healer pushed aside some of the bowls.

Xena sat down in the chair and the worried expression on her face told Adia that this wasn't merely a social call. Besides, the warrior wasn't exactly the type for chatty visits over nothing. Just then, the door to the bedroom opened and Sartori appeared in the doorway.

"Xena, how wonderful to see you," the small Healer welcomed. "I was just going to make some tea, won't you join us?"

"Um…well, actually…I kind of wanted to…well, to talk to Adia," Xena responded hesitantly.

Sartori was a smart woman and considering her wife's area of Healing, whenever they had visitors that asked for her mate, Sartori made herself scarce.

"Of course. Well, how about a cup of tea anyway? I have a patient to see in the infirmary, so I can get out of your hair for a while."

Before the warrior knew it, she was sipping on a soothing mug of raspberry mint tea as the small Healer gave her wife a kiss on the cheek before heading out the door.

"I won't be long." Xena said, half rising from her seat.

"Nonsense, I'll be busy for candlemarks. Take all the time you need."

Sartori gave the warrior's arm a squeeze on her way out and Xena responded with a grateful smile.

Xena gazed around the room, then at the floor, seemingly unable to start the conversation, now that she was sitting here in front of the Healer. Adia recognized the reticence, having seen it in many patients, especially warriors. There were some who always found it more difficult than others to ask for the help they desired.

"How about grabbing a bowl and helping?" Adia asked her friend, hoping that the act of sorting through herbs might calm Xena's mind.

In truth, Xena was one of the few, actually, she was the only person Adia ever let see the herbs she used for her dreamscape healings. Xena knew nearly as much as the Healer about the medicines used in the procedures, so there was no fear the knowledge would be abused.

The two women sat there in silence, sipping on mugs of tea and stripping the tiny dried leaves off the stiff green branches. Adia was patient; her understanding of her friend's ways went deeper than even Xena understood. She allowed the comfortable silence to continue, not feeling the need to fill it up with mindless chatter. Eventually, Xena's mind sorted through her thoughts and she began to speak.

"Do you remember when you helped Gabrielle and I to heal her dreamscape?" Xena asked the Healer.

Adia nodded. "Yes, yes, I do."

It wasn't something she would easily forget, knowing the two women loved and cared for one another so much, yet having to hold back from telling each of them how the other felt. Her job as a Healer had often put her into that position, a reason why she and her wife were so well trusted. The two Healers knew virtually every secret, of every Amazon in the village, but they were very closed mouth about their patient's private lives. Everyone was entitled to privacy, even in such a small village.

"She's having nightmares…I mean, not just regular bad dreams," Xena was quick to interject. "She's having some kind of hellish dreams. She wakes up screaming, crying, she pleads for forgiveness in her sleep, but when I try to get her to tell me about them, she starts crying, saying she can't. Not that she doesn't remember, or anything like that, but she says she can't."

Xena paused and tossed the stripped branch into a basket on the floor. "You should hear her, Adia, begging in her dreams. She sounds so frightened, terrified of not being forgiven. It's so hard to listen to," Xena finished.

"Xena, you know I'd do anything to help Gabrielle, but she has to want the help. I'm curious as to why she didn't come to me and ask herself. She's never been afraid to talk to me."

"I know it sounds like I'm making more out of this than there may be, but I have the strangest feeling that she doesn't feel like she deserves forgiveness for whatever she thinks she's done. I even thought maybe…" Xena stopped abruptly and tears welled up in her eyes. "I thought maybe she blamed me in her dreams again…you know, in a way she can't control," she hastily added. "Maybe that's why she feels guilty…for blaming me."

"Xena, do you think Gabrielle holds you responsible in some way for your daughter's death?" Adia asked in confusion.

"I don't know!" the warrior jumped up. Xena began to pace the floor and the Healer realized that she was one of the few who would ever see the Warrior Princess this way, the warrior wringing her hands in frustration. Xena's heart, her entire world, was so focused on Gabrielle that the Healer didn't even want to think what would become of Xena, should any harm ever befall the Queen.

"I only know that she's pulling away. Not just from me," Xena lifted concerned blue eyes to the Healer, "but from life. When Gabrielle suffers heartbreak, she writes or buries herself in something to get her focus back. Do you know where she is right now?"

Adia silently shook her head back and forth.

"She's down on the practice field with her staff." Xena responded.

The Healer raised her eyebrows slightly. "Well, I admit, that is rather uncharacteristic of Gabrielle," Adia muttered, almost to herself.

"It's what I do, Adia," Xena said in exasperation. "I do it because at one time I didn't know any better. Because I had no idea, what it meant to be in touch with my feelings or my emotions. They were foreign to me. Most of all, I still do it because there are days when I look into my own heart and what I see there, what I've done in my past, still terrifies me. What I want to know is, why is my wife feeling that way? How could someone so full of compassion and light, be afraid to confront their feelings?"

The warrior's passionate plea struck right at the Healer's heart. She'd heard of the things that lay in Xena's past and she knew that the stories she'd heard were probably only the things people would dare speak. She cringed to think of the atrocities that people were too afraid to mention regarding the woman before her. If anyone understood or recognized the concept of being too afraid to deal with something from the past, it was Xena.

"How about if I talk to Gabrielle? Let me see if I can't encourage her to enter the dreamscape with you?" Adia said.

Relief flowed across Xena's face and the look on the warrior's face told Adia that if the dark-haired woman hadn't thanked the Healer so quickly, and nearly rushed from the room, Xena would have broken down in tears.

The tall Healer stood in the middle of the room; hands on her hips, trying to decide the best way to handle someone like Gabrielle. Unsure of her Queen's frame of mind, Adia was sure of one thing, however. She walked into the bedroom and retrieved a long staff from one corner, then opened the large chest at the end of the bed. It was quite a long time ago when she last used them, but when she unwrapped the soft leather, they looked the same as when they were first forged. She tested their weight, one in each hand, grinning and flipping them easily, then sliding them, one into each boot.

Adia left the hut, headed for the practice field. The Healer knew what it was like to feel rage, pain, and hurt. Because of her nature, and her gift, the accepted outlet had always been compassion, to help and heal. There was a time, though, when she couldn't find her way to feel those emotions. She could barely sustain them for another, let alone herself. She needed a way to sort through the mess her life was in, a way to create order from chaos. She needed a path to follow; perhaps it was just a way to channel all that anger. Even though the rage was what she leveled at herself out of her own guilt.

Adia hummed a tune she remembered from those days. She paused when she neared the practice field. Closing her eyes, hearing the shouts and cries of women sparring, and hearing the sounds of their weapons striking against one another, it all combined to bring the Healer back to another time. Some decent memories, but most…ones she would rather not relive.


"It's been an honor, my Queen." The young woman said, bowing stiffly to Gabrielle.

Gabrielle smiled up at the fifteen-summers-old warrior, who was already taller than she was. The smile was genuine and not forced, that felt good. This was the first time in nearly two candlemarks that the small blonde thought about herself, her pain…her guilt. When she was fighting, there was no thinking, only doing. She acted on instinct and learned skills, her world revolving on only the amount of space between herself and her opponent.

Eponin very gently cuffed her student in the back of the head. "Honor? You let a woman half your size kick the crap out of you!"

Gabrielle smiled again. She remembered her friend's manner of teaching, reminiscing back to the days when Eponin and Ephiny first taught her to use a staff. They treated her like the novice she was and she became a better student because of it.

"Well, yes I did, Weapons Master, but…well, she is the wife of the Warrior Princess, after all." The young warrior grinned.

Eponin looked at Gabrielle, giving her a wink, then turned back to glare at her student. "Oh, I see. So, you were…shall we say, holding back some, out of courtesy, of course."

"Yea, that's it," the youth said, lowering her voice in case her Queen should be listening. "I mean…she is our Queen and I wouldn't want to--"

"Hurt her," Eponin finished for the girl.

"Yea, that's it."

"I see," Eponin drawled, watching as Gabrielle walked up behind the young student. "Well," she turned the girl and enjoyed the expression, a combination of embarrassment and fear, which came across the girl's face. "I'm sure since your Queen knows how you feel now, she wouldn't dream of making you hold back. As a matter of fact, I bet she'll try twice as hard this time…just for you."

The young woman swallowed the lump that suddenly formed in her throat, causing an audible sound heard throughout the camp. Suddenly her classmates, catching on to the ruse, started laughing at their comrade. Seeing that her bragging had undone her, the young warrior bowed deeply to the Queen.

"My apologies, your highness," she said with a disarming smile.

"Go on…get out of here!" Eponin barked, trying to keep the look of amusement off her own face.

Once they stood alone, Eponin turned to Gabrielle, noticing the Queen still breathing rather heavily.  

"I guess it'll take more than one day to get into shape," Gabrielle commented.

"You need more than practice to get in shape," the Amazon said under her breath.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that you need to eat, sleep, and practice to be a healthy warrior, Gabrielle." Eponin didn't want to come down on her friend so soon after the tragedy in Gabrielle's life, but this was the only way she knew to be.

"Ep, I am not a warrior," Gabrielle replied.

"Could have fooled me."

Gabrielle smiled slightly. "Yea, I guess I did kick a few butts out here today."

"Perhaps that's because you haven't been fighting anyone your own size," a voice commented from behind the Queen.

Gabrielle turned and the exclamation of surprise written on her face was quite evident. The Queen looked at the tall woman who, in Gabrielle's mind up to this point, was a peace-loving Healer. Adia stood as tall as Xena, looking more the part of a warrior than any healer did. The Amazon casually leaned on a staff that appeared to be a bit longer than Gabrielle's stave, plus, she had two weapons peeking out of the top cuff of each of her leather boots.

"Adia, I've been using this thing quite a long time," Gabrielle said to her friend, unsure of how to dissuade the tall woman from the sparring match she seemed intent on having.

"Well, then a warrior of your skill won't have any trouble holding back if it should become necessary," Adia drawled with confidence.

The comment got under her skin just a tiny bit. Something about the Healer's mild arrogance reminded Gabrielle of her wife. "I'm not a warrior," Gabrielle added flatly.

"Gabrielle," Adia smiled in a friendly manner. "You've lived enough of life to know that things aren't always as they appear. The same holds true for people."

"So, you've used the staff before?" Gabrielle asked in surprise.

"Like you, My Queen, I have found that occasionally peace works best when it comes at the end of a very large stick." Adia twirled the stave expertly, to seemingly prove her skill.

"All right…" Gabrielle smiled.

Adia tried to appear unaffected by that smile, but it seemed awfully close to the one Xena got, just before she laid someone out with one blow.

"Step into the ring, you who are so much more than a Healer," Gabrielle finished.

Adia stepped forward and bowed slightly, never taking her eyes off the smaller woman.

"I am honored, you who are so much more than a bard."


Gabrielle was breathing through her mouth, but Adia didn't seem to be in much better shape herself.

Gods, this girl is good! Adia thought to herself, narrowly avoiding having her legs swept from underneath her.

Hades! Where does a Healer learn to fight like this , Gabrielle thought, going on the defensive once more.

In two quick moves, Gabrielle managed to put the Healer on her back, the staff flying from her grip. The Queen moved her stave in to her opponent's throat, to command the victory, but Adia pulled what looked like a cross between a short sword and a dagger from each boot and succeeded in blocking Gabrielle's staff away from her prone body.

The match was on once more as Adia continually fought off Gabrielle's attacks with nothing more than the oddly shaped handles of the weapons, which looked like curved prongs. The Healer blocked, parried, and even managed to hook Gabrielle's leg, flipping the small woman to the ground. Gabrielle rolled and brought herself up quickly, more than surprising the stunned Healer. That was all the advantage Gabrielle needed. A swing right, then left, dealt a stinging blow to both of the Healer's hands, causing Adia's weapons to go flying.

Adia was certain that Gabrielle saw she had disable the Healer, but Gabrielle didn't seem to realize that fact. Either that or she didn't want to recognize it. The end of the Queen's staff ended up coming across and Gabrielle brought the powerful strike up into the Healer's ribcage. It wasn't until Adia was on her knees, gasping for air, that Eponin's shouts got through to the young Queen.

"Oh, Gods!" Gabrielle exclaimed, dropping her staff and rushing over to the fallen woman.

"Okay," Adia croaked. "I'm okay."

Gabrielle helped the Healer to her feet, apologizing repeatedly.

"Gabrielle, it's okay," Adia said, lowering herself to sit upon one of the low benches that were situated around the field. "No need to apologize, you didn't mean to do it." Adia looked up into Gabrielle's silent face. "That is unless you did mean to do it," she added softly.

Gabrielle and the Healer simply stared at one another knowingly.

Suddenly Eponin felt as if she were intruding. "Uh, I guess if you two are through beating on each other…um, I'm gonna take off."

Gabrielle acknowledged the warrior with a nod, never taking her eyes from the seated woman.

"Sit down before you fall down," the Healer ordered, once Eponin left them alone. "And, if you say you're sorry one more time…" she grinned.

"What's going on, Gabrielle?" the Healer decided to pull no punches.

Gabrielle brushed sweaty bangs from her face, shaking her head back and forth, as tears filled her eyes. "I'm not sure I know. All of a sudden…I'm not very sure of who I am."

"Then you happen to be in luck, my friend," Adia responded, placing an arm around the small, forlorn woman's shoulders. "I just happen to be having a special today on helping people figure out that very thing."

Adia grinned down at the young Queen and Gabrielle leaned against the taller woman, relieved to be able to let go of this burden…if only for a little while.

"I hurt, Adia, and I don't know how to make the feeling go away," Gabrielle said.

"I know you do, Gabrielle. I wish I could tell you that I had some type of herb that would make the pain go away, some medicine you could take, but there is only one healing agent for pain like this."

Gabrielle looked up expectantly.

"Time," Adia finished.

Gabrielle lowered her head again. "In most cases I would agree with you. In this situation, time is my enemy."

"I think you're going to have to explain that statement."

"With every candlemark that goes by, the pain is worse. Every moment that passes buries me a little bit more until I feel as if I'll never get the real Gabrielle back again. Even just now, Adia, when I hit you. I'm acting like a warrior, but I don't have enough of a warrior's mentality to make those kinds of decisions. I feel almost as though I have a skill I can't control. The odd thing is, I don't even know why I'm turning to this. I am not a warrior." Gabrielle added that last as if she were trying to convince herself.

The Healer thought about what she'd just heard, trying to convince herself that this was still Gabrielle, but it simply didn't sound like her friend. She decided to take a stab in the dark and hope she hit on the truth.

"Gabrielle, I only know of one thing that would cause pain to grow worse over time instead of becoming easier to bear. That would be guilt."

"I know," the young Queen nodded her head sorrowfully.

Gabrielle held her head in her hands as Adia looked on. The Healer was slightly stunned to hear this revelation from the young woman.

"Gabrielle, talk to me. What could you have possibly done to cause such guilt?" Adia asked in disbelief.

Again, the Queen shook her head. "My baby…"

Gabrielle trailed off, realizing suddenly that she couldn't admit the truth to Adia. There was only one woman she could possibly share this grief with, but that was the very woman that Gabrielle couldn't tell. She couldn't admit the truth to Xena. What she had would surely end then.

"I can't, Adia…I just can't talk about it."

"Not even to Xena? Gabrielle, do remember what happened the last time you said that to me? It turned out that Xena acted as your champion in your dreamscape, as well as in reality."

"I can't say anything to anyone, especially not Xena," Gabrielle responded, her eyes closing and a heavy sigh escaping past her lips. "I'm so tired, Adia."

"Gabrielle, Xena told me about your nightmares. She loves you, she would understand anything she saw in your dreamscape."

"Not this," she answered, her eyes filling with tears.

"Then let me help you," Adia offered.

"It won't work," Gabrielle answered.

"What do you mean by that?"

"You told me the first time that if anything in the dreamscape appealed to us, we wouldn't be able to change its outcome."

"Do you feel as though you deserve this guilt?" Adia asked.

"Yes," Gabrielle's tears fell in earnest with her answer.

Adia reached over and held the young woman in her arms, feeling the tension in the body she was holding. She could tell that Gabrielle hadn't completely allowed her guard to go down.

"We can work around that, my friend. The first thing we need to do is to get in there and stop the nightmare. Will you let me at least try?"

Gabrielle straightened herself up and wondered if she should at least try to end the nightmares. She couldn't tell the Healer that the pain could never be taken away, but perhaps if just the nightmares would end.

"I keep doing something in my dream…I can't tell you why, but I can't stop it. The harder I try, the worse it is. It's like someone else is directing my body, making it do something terrible."

"Should we get Xena and try this right away?"

"No! Not Xena," Gabrielle exclaimed. "It can't be Xena…she can't see…I don't want her to know."

"But, Gabrielle--"

"No, please, Adia, can't you do it? Please?"

"All right, it's okay," Adia tried to calm the young woman. As soon as the Healer mentioned Xena, Gabrielle became nearly hysterical. "I'll enter your dreamscape, but I won't do it behind your wife's back. Xena is the Queen's champion, on any plane of reality. You'll have to explain to her why you want me to take her place."

Gabrielle's face twisted into such a tortured grimace that Adia almost gave in. Finally, Gabrielle's desire to rid herself of the horrible nightmares was greater than the fear of explaining to her wife. She nodded to the woman seated next to her.

"Give me a few candlemarks to clean up and explain things to Xe. Can you come by our house?"

"Of course. I'll ask Sartori to come along as a little moral support for Xena, okay?"

The silent nod of Gabrielle's head again. Adia wondered what in the known world could be plaguing Gabrielle's dreams, to turn a normally open and loving person into such an uncommunicative woman.

Gabrielle rose to go. "What are those little things you fought with?" she asked.

Adia grinned. "They're called sais. I learned to use the sai when I traveled around Chin for a few seasons. It seemed deadlier than a staff, but it didn't have to be if I didn't want it to."

The Healer pulled them from her boots and handed over the weapons, which looked a bit larger in her smaller friend's hands. Gabrielle flipped them; end to handle, easily and the sudden smile on the Queen's face surprised Adia. She looked on as Gabrielle tested their weight in her hands, looking quite as ease with the weapons.

"Would you like to learn how to use them?"

Adia didn't know for certain why she even asked. She knew that Gabrielle was skilled with a blade, having seen her spar with Xena once or twice, but it was rare. She knew that Gabrielle never really came to grips with the idea of killing anyone, even an enemy. It was something in the young woman's eyes, in the way she appeared completely comfortable with the sais that caused Adia to ask. She thought that Gabrielle looked rather natural with a weapon that could be used for defense, but could also be made to kill.

"Yes, please…they feel very…I'm not sure, but they give me a feeling of security, in a way," Gabrielle answered.

Gabrielle finally remembered the seated woman and flipped the sais back, exactly as Adia had, handing them to the Healer.

"No, you keep them, my friend," Adia smiled. "I think they know who to belong to better than we."

"Oh no, I--"

"Please, Gabrielle. I have no need for them anymore."

Gabrielle accepted the gift and Adia demonstrated some of the fundamental moves. The Queen caught on quicker than the Healer had, all those years ago. She remembered what her instructor told her, back in Chin, that anyone who wielded a staff, as a weapon, already possessed the skills to become expert with a sai.   

Adia watched the young woman walk away, Gabrielle flipping the sais in her hands as she strolled along. The Healer was curious as to what could be so terrible in Gabrielle's dreamscape that she couldn't make her own wife privy to it. She knew Xena would do anything to see Gabrielle well, but she certainly didn't envy the small blonde the task of explaining to the Warrior Princess that she would not be the Queen's champion this time.


Gabrielle walked into their home with a heavy heart. She was torn between ridding herself of her nightmares, and allowing anyone else to see the terrifying images that existed within her mind's eye. She didn't understand why Morpheus was torturing her so; she thought the God had befriended them after Xena fought against Hera to save all the Olympian Gods. Morpheus even made it possible for Xena and Gabrielle to meet in the dreamscape, when the Queen was lying ill and dying and Xena searched for the Elixir of Life in the caverns below Delos. The young woman grew sadder as she realized that even Morpheus knew of her guilt. Her father wouldn't come to her, now Morpheus was trying to punish her through her dreams.

Gabrielle enjoyed the way the small sais felt in her hands. It was a strange sensation, rather like when she fought with her staff. The wood became an extension of her, just as these small weapons seemed a part of her. Using a sword wasn't completely foreign to her. Xena taught her the basics, and it must have been assimilation, from watching her warrior fight and practice, which added what little polish she had to her swordplay. Gabrielle never felt comfortable with the heavy blade in her hand, however. Whereas Xena literally felt it was another part of her body, the young Queen thought it felt unnatural to her.

With a heavy sigh, Gabrielle opened the door and immediately the lovely scent of lilac assailed her. She sat the weapons on the table as Xena appeared in the doorway of the bathing chamber, a knowing look on her face.

"I saw you coming up the hill and thought I'd get a bath ready for you. If your muscles ache anything like mine do after a layoff, you probably need it about now."

"Thank you, Xe…you're too good to me…I don't deserve you," Gabrielle added sadly.

The warrior quickly moved across the room and enfolded the small woman within her embrace. Xena made it a gentle hug, not even hinting at the desire she felt whenever she touched Gabrielle. She wanted the woman in her arms to know she was safe here and that Xena would wait as long as need be, for her wife to find her way back to herself again.

"You're right…you don't deserve me," Xena teased. "No one as wonderful as you, my heart, deserves to be trapped with this old warrior for the rest of their lives. But, you made an honest woman of me, so I guess you're stuck with me."

Gabrielle wrapped her arms around the warrior's waist and squeezed tightly.

"Hey, did I put my foot in it again?" Xena asked, pulling back slightly. She tenderly lifted Gabrielle's face and saw the fatigue, along with the hurt, written on the young woman's face. "Brie, what is it? I was only joking, you know that, right?"

"It's not that, Xe," Gabrielle answered, closing the distance between them once more.

The smaller woman laid her head against the soft leather covering the warrior's chest, listening to the steady heartbeat. How could she tell her wife how true the statement was? She doesn't even realize that I don't deserve her. She doesn't see that all I ever do is bring her hurt and pain.

"I talked with Adia," Gabrielle said.

"Oh…did she tell you I talked to her?" Xena asked. The warrior didn't think now would be the best time to start lying to Gabrielle about it.

The Queen nodded her head.

"Mad at me?" The warrior questioned. Xena didn't think her wife was angry. This definitely wasn't Gabrielle's ‘you are toast, warrior' face.

"No, honey, but we have to talk."

"Okay…" Xena drawled hesitantly. She had never known those words to preface anything but bad news.

"It's not as bad as you think, warrior." Gabrielle offered up a grim smile. "Do you mind if I take that bath first?"

"No, come on…" Xena began to lead the way, but stopped abruptly. "I mean, well you probably don't want me in there. I'll just--"

Gabrielle reached out and grabbed Xena's hand, pulling her into the bathing room. "Come on, warrior. You're on back washing detail."


Xena sat on a small stool beside the large tub. She gently ran the soapy sponge along Gabrielle's shoulders and back, watching as her wife stretched some of her tired muscles.

"Brie! You've got a pretty nasty bruise under your shoulder blade," Xena exclaimed.

"I think I got that when I hit the ground. It's okay, I think it must look worse than it feels," Gabrielle answered with a deliberate air of nonchalance.

The Queen caught her wife out of the corner of her eye, seeing Xena wince as the warrior examined the bruise. The dark-haired woman fought harder every season, trying to stay unaffected, as the woman she loved became increasingly more like a warrior. Gabrielle saw Xena's expression and she wanted to reassure her, show her as much love as Xena had shown her in the difficult times. Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment. She wanted to reach out to Xena; to explain what she was going through, but she simply couldn't. Gabrielle could barely understand the feelings of aggression and anger, hurt and betrayal that she was experiencing. If she didn't understand why she seemed drawn to a warrior's path; why the pain only lessened when she fought, then how in the world could she explain any of it to her wife?

"Did someone give you a new toy?" Xena referred to the weapons that Gabrielle laid on the table when she came in from the practice field.

"Yes, as a matter of fact. Adia showed me how to use them. I was just…taken with them I guess. Does that bother you, Xe?"

"Yes and no, I guess. I'm proud of you Gabrielle, proud that you can take care of yourself, be a strong leader for your people. I worry less because I know that you're not only smart, but you're skilled with a weapon too. I have to admit, though, I truly wish we lived in a world where the woman I loved didn't feel the need to carry a weapon. I've killed so many people, Gabrielle, even in the name of good, and I know how that affects a person. Sometimes I even carry guilt because I feel as if I'm to blame for setting you on this path in the first place."

"Xena, you never forced me to pick up a weapon, that was my own choice."

"Maybe…maybe not," Xena replied. "Was it really your own choice, Brie? I let you travel with me, knowing what a headstrong, stubborn girl you were. I should have put my foot down, shipped you off to the Academy in Athens that day you bought the breast dagger."

"Then why didn't you?" Gabrielle asked with a tinge of irritation in her voice.

"For completely selfish reasons. I think I was in love with you by then."

Gabrielle's ire disappeared like ice melting away. She turned her body to look into the beautiful blue eyes that captured her heart so many seasons ago.

"Xe, when you say things like that…you make it impossible for me to argue with you. You know that, don't you?" Gabrielle said with a small smile.

Xena responded with a sad smile of her own. "Don't you see what I mean, Brie? I should have known that you wouldn't be content standing behind me, allowing me to protect you all the time. I should have known that being around a warrior would set you on the same path, as well. It was all because I was too selfish. I didn't want to let you go, and so I've watched, saying nothing all these seasons while you strayed further and further from your own path."

"And what path would that be? Bard, Queen, Amazon, your wife? Xe, which path is mine…which one am I supposed to follow?" Gabrielle responded.

"It seems as if you're following a warrior's path lately," Xena said quietly, her eyes unable to meet Gabrielle's.

"I'm not a warrior," Gabrielle repeated for the third time that day. "And if I was, what would be so bad about being like you?" Gabrielle added, turning her face away from her wife's intense gaze.

Xena's hand shot out and she quickly turned Gabrielle's face toward her own. "Gabrielle, I am not someone to emulate! You of all people should know that I am the way I am due mostly to the horrible, awful things that I've seen or done. Sweetheart, don't you know yet that any good qualities I possess are because of you, and what you've given me?" Xena finished with tears in her eyes.

Tears rose up in Gabrielle's own eyes at the warrior's powerful statement. "I'm sorry, Xe…I just don't see those qualities in me anymore."

Xena smiled and cupped the small blonde's face in one hand, brushing away an errant tear with her thumb. "Do you remember the first time we made love?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle's eyes sparkled for a moment. "It's hard to forget that evening. It was perfect," she answered.

You told me something then, when I explained to you that I had no idea what you could possibly see in an old warrior like me that would be worth loving. You said that you would just have to teach me to look at myself through your eyes." Xena reached over and placed a gentle kiss on her wife's forehead.

"That's what I need to teach you, to see yourself through my eyes. No matter what happens, Brie, now or in the future, you will always look like that young girl who ran away from Potidaea to follow me."

Neither of them exchanged another word as Gabrielle rose from the tub, the warrior wrapping a large towel around the small blonde. Gabrielle toweled the dampness from her long hair and sat beside the fire in the bathing area, letting the heat from the flames dry the golden locks. Finally, Gabrielle dressed and she and Xena moved to sit at the table in the main room. They shared a mug of tea, neither of them knowing what more to say. Gabrielle knew there could be no other way but to simply say it, so she held her breath and stepped right into it.

"I told you I spoke with Adia…"

Xena nodded her head. Every muscle in her body felt tense, as if she were prepared to do battle. "Yea…how'd it go?" she asked in a soft voice.

Gabrielle reached over and placed a hand on top of the warrior's hand. "We're going to try entering my dreamscape…to see if it will help me to get rid of the nightmares," Gabrielle responded, keeping her eyes trained on the table.

Xena breathed a thankful sigh of relief. She noticed quickly, however, that Gabrielle wouldn't raise her head up to meet the warrior's eyes. That's when Xena first saw it. It was in the way Gabrielle held her body, and how she brushed her thumb across Xena's own hand. It looked a lot like her wife was trying very hard to break something to the warrior.

"When you say we, you mean you and I, right?"

Finally, Gabrielle looked up. "No, Xe. I mean Adia and I."

Xena's jaw tightened. It was a reflexive response and few people would have noticed, but those others didn't know this woman's every move…every breath as Gabrielle did. She recognized the barely discernable move as Xena's way of coping with something new and unpleasant. She was grinding her teeth together, trying not to make her displeasure apparent.

"I see," the warrior eventually replied in a controlled voice. "So, the Queen is appointing a new Champion?"

Gabrielle let out a heavy sigh; she knew this wasn't going to be easy. "Xena--"

"No, I just want to be clear on this."

They stared at one another for a brief moment. Xena didn't want to act this way. In fact, she didn't understand why she was reacting this way. She wanted Gabrielle healed…that was the purpose, right? Did it really matter who entered the dreamscape? It was just the niggling fear that her wife was choosing another over her. For the first time in their relationship, Xena felt Gabrielle was lying to her. That's where her anger came from. It wasn't simply anger…it was fear.

"Gabrielle…why are you lying to me?" Xena decided to come straight out with it.

"Hades! Xena, why do you have to make such a big deal out of this?" Gabrielle jumped up from the table and began pacing the floor.

"Why aren't you being honest with me?"

"Because you wouldn't understand!" Gabrielle shot back.

"Then explain it to me," Xena stood in front of the agitated woman. "Brie, help me to understand."

"That's impossible! It would change things…change the way you feel!"

"Brie, didn't I just explain that could never happen?"

"It's what you say now, but--"

Xena's anger sparked with those words. "So, you're either telling me I'm a liar, or that you simply don't believe me."

Gabrielle took a deep breath. "I believe that you want to believe it, Xe," Gabrielle admitted in exasperation. "When you say you'll love me, no matter what, I know you think you mean it, but there are things…things that could change that…that will change it."

"And you won't tell me what those things might be," Xena straightened herself up, a grim expression on her face.

"No," Gabrielle said softly, turning to face away from the warrior.

Gabrielle didn't have to turn around to know that when she heard the closing of the door, she was standing alone in the large room.

Chapter 8

"Let's wait just a little longer, okay?" Gabrielle asked the two Healers.

"Sure, we have some time." Adia responded.

The tall woman proceeded to set up the rest of the items she might need, exchanging a concerned glance with her wife. Sartori took the boiling teakettle from the fire to refill it again. The water boiled away twice already, but still Gabrielle wanted to wait, hoping Xena would appear.

The young Queen stood with her back to the two Healers, her arms folded across her chest, looking out the large window. Gabrielle would have to go ahead with this, but she so wished Xena would change her mind and return. She knew she didn't deserve her wife's understanding, but it didn't stop her from wanting it, needing it. Gabrielle held nothing against her warrior. The Queen thought she would be acting in much the same manner if their roles were reversed. She wondered if it were herself out there, seething over her wife's refusal to share the truth with her, if she would stubbornly hold onto her anger, or if she would come back to support her wife. She couldn't answer the hypothetical question, even to herself. She had no idea what she would do in a similar situation.

Oh, Xe, I know I don't deserve your help or your compassion, but I dearly would love both right about now. Even if this helps, I'm just prolonging the inevitable aren't I? There's only one way you'll be able to forgive me…that's if you forget me. I can put it off for a little longer, though, can't I? I just have to make sure that you don't find out…just a little more time…


Once Xena was outside all she wanted to do was get away; from the anger and the hurt, so she ran. She ran through the woods until her lungs burned with the same fire that she felt in the muscles in her legs. She felt the strength leave her body and she leaned back against an old tree, sliding along its length until she was seated at its base.

She cried out and slammed both fists into the ground at once. Why couldn't Gabrielle tell her? What could her wife be experiencing that could be so terrible? More importantly, why can't I deal with it?

Xena froze, listening intently to the slight sound of the branches high above her, creak under someone's weight. The warrior wasn't in the mood for games or enemies tonight.

"Whoever you are and whatever you're up to, you'd better make yourself known pretty quick, unless you want to find out what a really bad mood I'm in!"

It took only heartbeats for a length of braided horsehair rope to drop from the branches, a tall, slim figure following the rope to stand at Xena's feet.

"Ep! What in Hades are you trying to do, get yourself killed?" Xena hissed.

"Hey, I was here first," the Amazon countered. She dropped down beside her friend and pulled up a few blades of grass, tossing them into the breeze. "I was going to say something when I first saw you, but then, well, I heard you yell and…well, by then I figured it might embarrass one or both of us if I said anything."

"It's okay," Xena responded tiredly.

"Um, look Xena, a bunch of us are going into the mountains hunting. We should be gone about a fortnight."

"A little early for it," Xena instantly replied. A dozen or so warriors and students gathered twice a season to hunt for the village. It was late summer now, but the deer didn't usually fill the forests until early fall.

"Yea, well, we heard there was a big herd of elk running in the high mountains. I thought it might be the perfect opportunity to bring along some of the younger hunter and tracker wannabes."

"Ah," Xena responded.

"I was thinking…actually wondering…why don't you come with us, Xena."

"I can't leave Gabrielle, Ep, not right now, anyway."

"I just wondered if maybe some time apart…well, if it wouldn't…you know, help each of you get a different perspective on things. Shit, I know I'm not putting this well at all, but--"

"Ep," Xena placed a hand on the Amazon's arm, quieting her. "It's okay…and I do understand, but I just can't leave Gabrielle alone right now."

"Okay, just thought I'd offer, ya know. If you change your mind, we're not leaving till morning, after the hunters get the Queen's blessing."

"If anything changes, I'll let you know," Xena replied.

The two warrior's exchanged farewells and Eponin jogged off in the opposite direction. Xena sat still, waiting for some sort of enlightenment to come to her. She was ashamed that she'd run from the situation. Gods, she and Gabrielle's roles were reversing more and more lately.

The warrior thought about why she was so angry with Gabrielle for not confiding in her. There was fear, yes, but something more…helplessness. Xena was a woman of actions, not words, or emotions. When Gabrielle needed help, Xena was always there. Now, Gabrielle was telling her that she didn't need the warrior's help, that she could work it out on her own. Xena winced internally at the number of times she did that very thing, not allowing Gabrielle to help the warrior heal.

Why is this so important? If she needs to get a handle on this herself, why should I be angry about it? Why am I taking it so personally, when I've done the very same thing to her?


The answer simply popped into her brain and she recognized it immediately as the truth. Xena's whole life was about control, more importantly, getting back the control she'd lost. It wasn't merely a warrior thing; it was something in Xena. Yes, admittedly, Xena chose a warrior's path, not simply out of necessity, but because it was something, she was born to do. Her natural abilities and strengths all but foretold that it would be the path she was destined to choose. Ever since that day when Cortese attacked her village, she'd been fighting to get it back. The things that were ripped from her on that day…she'd been raped, her brother murdered, her mother's love lost…all things that put a subconscious message inside of her head. The message was a need really; a need that said, if she could control, a situation, she would never have to depend on anyone else again.

Gabrielle refusing to allow Xena to be a part of the Queen's healing process, removed that control from Xena's hands, thus creating the feelings of helplessness and anger she was now experiencing. The warrior looked at her wrists, remembering the claustrophobic fear that encompassed her when she realized that Gabrielle had actually removed the warrior's control in their bed.

That's what it's all about for me, isn't it? Controlling any situation. My grief at losing Brianna…it hurt a hundred times more because I didn't have control of the situation. So, now that I know what my major malfunction is, how do I overcome it? Even more, what do I do if I never can?

Xena's thoughts turned logically to Gabrielle, once more. If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be able to let go as much as I do. Okay, I admit, I had an inkling of what giving up some of that control was like before I met Brie, but if compassion is something that grows like a plant, then the seed was sown the day I saved that baby from its death. Gabrielle's been the one to nurture this wild rose, though. I can't give up on her now. How many times has she stuck by me, never knowing the whole story? If part of loving you, Brie, means letting you keep some things to yourself, then I'll just have to find a way to live with that.

Xena was constantly amazed. For all the times she felt the Fate's hand treated her unkindly, if not cruelly, she still felt blessed at the path she was allowed to travel, which led her to Gabrielle. Through it all…through life and death, and even their most recent, heartbreaking turn of events, Xena swore she wouldn't change a thing about her often times painful life, if by changing one small thing, it would have caused her to stray from the path on which she met her bard.

"Thank you," Xena whispered aloud. It was the second time the warrior thanked the Fates. This time, her thanks would not go unnoticed.


Lachesis still held the bright thread between her fingers. She didn't understand the power that could reverse the will of the Fates. What was odder still was the fact that the mortal child's life had ended; yet still the thread glowed brightly, just as brilliantly as the mother's, who came before.

Lachesis heard the warrior's thanks, and the thought echoed softly throughout the hall.

"Yes, I hear your thoughts, sister," Atropos paused her busy work to turn her head, shears still poised above a twisting network of threads. "A debt still hasn't been paid and we find we owe another."

"For such repayment, the gift should be suitable," Lachesis replied. She was overjoyed her sister felt the same way. It became increasingly difficult to hide the fact that she wished to bestow a gift upon the warrior and her Queen.

"I know what the gift should be," Clotho added with uncharacteristic enthusiasm.

"Impossible!" Atropos said immediately.

The other two sisters looked at one another. They would be able to sway their sister, and before the thought was complete, Atropos nodded her head in agreement.

"We should wait for our sister, however. She deals well with the Gods. It should come from her lips."

"But, we haven't the time," Clotho said. "Besides, she cares little for mortals or Gods any longer, what if she refuses to aid us?"

"I will go," Lachesis said with an air of finality. She rose, even as the other two nodded their heads in agreement. Lachesis swept through the Hall of the Fates, leaving her balls of threads on the stool where she was sitting.

It was mere moments, simple fragments of time, before Lachesis stood in the chambers of the God of the Underworld.

"It must be a matter of great importance for you to be separated from your sisters," Hades commented.

"We would ask a boon of you," Lachesis stated simply.

"The Fates asking blessings and favors of the Gods? That's rather new. And what would you have, if I were able to grant it?"

Lachesis explained. For the first time the sisters were in disagreement. She could hear Atropos arguing in her head. The God would only be persuaded if he was told the truth of what happened, but Atropos was against telling. She argued that the universe would become chaotic if the Olympian Gods were to discover that someone, somewhere developed a power strong enough to defeat the will of the Fates.

Lachesis weighed her sister's argument, but also realized that if the God granted their request, the time must be now. She explained all to the quiet and thoughtful God. When she was finished with her tale, he sat down and brought his hands together until only the very tips of his fingers were touching.

"It appears that we both have a chance to repay a debt…"


Gabrielle turned toward the women in the center of the room. "We might as well begin," she said with a heavy voice.

Just then the door opened wide and Xena's tall frame filled the doorway. "Sorry I'm late," she said to Adia and Sartori. The warrior walked to where Gabrielle stood and tenderly touched the back of her hand to the Queen's cheek.

"No matter what," the tall woman said softly as Gabrielle put her arms around the warrior's waist.

Adia quickly prepared the tea for Gabrielle and as she drank, the four women discussed the nuances of the dreamscape. They spoke in much the same way that Adia explained things seasons ago, when they first entered the realm of unconscious reality.

Gabrielle settled herself in Xena's arms, on the cushioned loveseat, while Adia chose to remain seated on the floor. The Healer's preferred spot for dreamscape healing was sitting, cross-legged, her back firmly against the wall. Adia smiled at Sartori, sitting on a wooden chair beside the tall Healer, reaching her hand out to touch her wife. Adia didn't reveal the fact to many, but when she used her gift and entered another's dreamscape, there was always the very real chance that she would be trapped or even killed there. Sartori knew the risks as well as her mate, but she couldn't ask the woman to be less than she was.

Adia watched as Xena brushed Gabrielle's bangs from her forehead, gently kissing the young woman's head. The Healer would actually have preferred that Xena not be present for the healing. The more Adia thought about it, the more she was convinced that the Queen and her Consort had more than just a loving bond between them. Their relationship seemed to exist on a number of levels, considering their ability to join one another in the dreamscape, fueled on mere thought and desire alone.

Many times, Adia wished she had the nerve to tell her friends that the times they entered the dreamscape on their first anniversary, over the Summer Solstice, they did so without the aid of herbs. What she gave them was no more than a placebo, a harmless herbal sleeping concoction. The Healer was quite amazed that day when Gabrielle thanked Adia endlessly for her help. Now, she was thankful that Gabrielle was more relaxed with Xena near her, but a small part of the Healer feared what would happen if Xena saw the nightmares, that Gabrielle seemed so desperate to keep from the warrior.

"Remember, Gabrielle, if any part of the dreamscape appeals to you, in any way, you won't be able to stop it, nor will I be able to change it. I'm going to leave you with two thoughts before you sleep," Adia told the sleepy young woman. "First, I want you to believe that we can change your dreamscape, no matter how you feel. Second, I'm going to give you the power to end the dreamscape at any time, by simply asking for my help. The moment you use the words, ‘help me,' you'll awake. Do you understand, Gabrielle?"

Gabrielle struggled to open her eyes, grown weary with fatigue. Her tongue felt uncooperative so she merely nodded her head before falling into a heavy sleep.

"Remember, Xena…Tori, under no circumstances are you to wake me or Gabrielle from the dreamscape. If it doesn't end of its own accord or by her own will, using the phrase I gave her, there's no telling how long I could be trapped there. Okay?"

Xena nodded, settling Gabrielle against her chest and wrapping her arms around the small figure.

Adia smiled one last time at her own wife, as the Healer adjusted her back against the wall, and closed her eyes. Adia had performed this routine so many times, it took only a dozen heartbeats for her to fall into her meditation, and slide into the young Queen's dreamscape.


Adia paused to catch her breath, moving quickly after Gabrielle once more. She wasn't sure she could even consider the woman she'd been fighting for candlemarks now, her friend Gabrielle. If we all had a personage that was our complete opposite, then that's who the Healer had been battling.

Adia spent the entire dreamscape on the run after Gabrielle. It started on the steps of the Temple of Artemis. Gabrielle had a baby in her arms and the Healer didn't have to think very hard to guess who the child was. Once the bard was inside the Temple, she set the child down and turned around, prepared to fight the taller woman. Adia did all she could in trying to reason with Gabrielle, but the small blonde never spoke a word. She disarmed the Healer easily; armed with the sais that Adia gave her. Gabrielle scooped up the child and took off through the Temple.

Adia had never seen the underground tunnels beneath the Temple. There were rumors, of course, but she was even more amazed at the fact that Gabrielle knew her way. The Queen traveled along the passages, and then just when Adia would catch up to her, the young Queen would pause to confront the Healer. These continual encounters usually ended up with Adia flat on her back as Gabrielle picked up the child and ran off again.

Adia skidded to a halt as the passageway opened into a large circular room. Located in the center of the room was an altar, where the baby lay on top of the stone altar, quiet yet moving its arms and legs. Amazon warriors circled the perimeter of the room, their gazes fixed upon a hooded figure in a red silk robe. The individual hovered over the child and looked up as the Healer came into view. The hood was pushed back, revealing Gabrielle's face, the Queen looked at Adia with eyes that were colorless and devoid of any emotion. The Healer slowly walked toward the Queen, all the while speaking as if this apparition truly was Gabrielle. The robed version of Gabrielle opened her mouth to speak, but all eyes in the room were suddenly drawn to the main entrance.

"Oh Gods!" Adia exclaimed under her breath.

Gabrielle took one look as Xena appeared in the doorway and nodded her head in the direction of the Amazon warriors. This was Gabrielle's dreamscape, after all, so it shouldn't have surprised Adia or Xena how quickly the Amazons moved. One moment Gabrielle's guards stood there, silent and unmoving, the next moment they pinned the two women to the wall as if they were rag dolls.

"Xena, what have you done?!" Adia shouted at the warrior.

"I didn't mean to…I don't know what happened," Xena turned a confused face to the Healer.

Gabrielle never seemed to be aware of the two intruders, with the exception of ordering their bondage. She moved around the altar as if making preparations. Finally, pulling the blanket away from the infant, Gabrielle opened a wooden box that sat beside the altar. When the young Queen revealed the contents of the box, Adia was the first to catch on. By the time the small blonde held up the gleaming dagger, Xena's eyes grew wide.

"Gabrielle!" Xena cried out.

The hooded figure looked up and Gabrielle's lifeless eyes stared at the warrior as Xena cried out the young woman's name, begging and pleading for her to stop. Suddenly, Gabrielle's brow came together and her face softened, color flowing back into the green eyes. The Queen looked around the room as if realizing where she was for the first time. Adia realized that the apparition had indeed transformed into the real Gabrielle.The Queen's gaze dropped down to her baby, lying on the stone altar, then at the blade in her hand. As quickly as she gained comprehension, her expression turned into one of fear. The Queen's body trembled as her arms fought against a course of action that could not be stopped.

Xena and Adia both screamed now, their voices hoarse with the effort.

Gabrielle raised the blade until it was directly over her child's heart, tears streaming down her own face. She looked up one last time to the two strangers in her dreamscape and whispered the words her unconscious mind held onto, in order to ease the pain.

"Help me…" she begged in a strained voice.

It was apparent that Gabrielle was unable to control her body as some unseen force controlled her actions. Gabrielle could only continue to scream out the words over and over again, praying for an end to the torture.

"Why isn't it ending?" Xena shouted through her tears, unable to look away from what she knew her wife was about to do. The warrior struggled in vain against her captors. "Why can't we help her?"

"I don't know…I don't understand…" Adia said, watching horror stricken as Gabrielle's arms came down.

"Brie…no…"Xena said in barely a whisper, as her strength left her.

"Help Meeee!" Gabrielle screamed as the blade came down and settled into the infant's chest.


Sartori's heart nearly stopped at the blood-chilling scream that came from Gabrielle's throat. Within heartbeats of one another, all three of the women awoke, Gabrielle continuing her terrified wail. Adia was doubled over, unable to catch her breath, then Xena became aware of the woman in her arms, whose screams had just turned to sobs.

Sartori placed a small amount of foul smelling herbs under Adia's nose. The Healer took a deep breath and gagged, pushing her wife's hand away.

"I'm okay…I'm all right."

Gabrielle sobbed even more as she came into awareness, remembering the dream's events and who was present in the dreamscape. She looked up into Xena's face, the warrior's expression a mask of confusion.

The warrior didn't mean to, but as soon as Gabrielle looked at her, Xena pulled back, physically as well as mentally. It was a very human reaction to what she'd just witnessed, but to Gabrielle, it was the confirmation of her greatest fear.

The Queen jumped up and bolted through the front door of the small home. Xena wasn't quite sure what just happened. The warrior looked at her own hands, turning them over and inspecting them, as if she expected to find blood on them.

"Gabrielle," Adia rasped at Sartori. "Don't let her do anything foolish."

Realization flowed through the warrior's entire being at the Healer's words. Xena scrambled from her seat and bolted out the door, in search of her wife.

"Addy, what happened?" Sartori asked fearfully.

Adia could only shake her head, hoping the strong cup of port her wife offered her would soothe her nerves. She eventually calmed, hoping Xena was able to catch up with Gabrielle. When the Healer explained what she could repeat to her wife, Sartori was as shocked as anyone.

"I don't understand, Tori. Gabrielle used the safe word I gave her and still it wouldn't end. She had no control over her actions and we were completely helpless to stop her. I've never visited a dreamscape like that before, and I thought I'd seen some bad ones," Adia explained.

"Addy, you know as well as I, Gabrielle could never have harmed her own child," Sartori responded.

"All I can say is that if she didn't, then she thinks she has. Something must have happened to convince the girl that she did something terrible to her baby. Either that…or Morpheus has some pretty sick ideas and a grudge against that young woman," Adia replied.


Xena was only a half a dozen strides behind the young woman as Gabrielle rushed into the stables. The warrior rounded the corner to see her wife curled into a ball, hiding in the corner of the nearest stall. Lying in the hay, it was as if the young woman was trying to burrow in, and find a hiding place from the world. Xena's sob wasn't even heard over the gut wrenching wails that Gabrielle was making. The warrior approached her wife and dropped down beside her in the hay.

Gabrielle scrambled to move away from her wife; unable to bear the look of disgust and hate she would see in the warrior's face. Xena reached out, to have her hands pushed away by Gabrielle. Using her speed and long arms, the dark-haired woman quickly grabbed the smaller woman and drew Gabrielle to her, pinning her flailing arms to her body.

"Brie…Gods, please, Brie…baby it was only a dream…"

Gabrielle continued her struggles and Xena's heartache turned to fear when she saw the vacant look in her wife's eyes. The warrior knew insanity and what it felt like, first hand. She remembered the fear and the confusion that stole her mind when the Furies cursed her. She could only hold on to the woman in her arms, praying to anyone who would listen, for their help.

"It's just a dream, baby…it's not real…" Xena repeated, holding tightly to Gabrielle.

She felt the small blonde's struggles cease, but the weeping continued. She held and rocked the young woman as her own tears fell, until she began to feel Gabrielle's body trembling uncontrollably.

"Brie…baby, are you with me?"

"So…c-c-cold…" Gabrielle's teeth chattered, her body curling tighter into herself.

"Okay, baby, come on…we need to get you home," Xena said, lifting the small woman into her arms."


Adia still sat on the floor when Xena flung open the door. Both Healers jumped up to assist the warrior as she carried Gabrielle into the room and gently placed her into bed. She grabbed two more blankets from the end of the large bed and wrapped them around the shivering young Queen.

"She's in shock," Xena stated to Sartori as the Healer nodded her confirmation.

Sartori began to care for her patient as Xena stacked three large logs in the fireplace, a roaring blaze crackling in the hearth in heartbeats. The warrior gulped down a large helping of the port and stood beside Adia while Sartori wrapped some warmed towels around Gabrielle's body.

"How could you let all this happen in there?" Xena finally spoke to Adia.

"Let which part happen? The part where you showed up in the dreamscape, unannounced, or the part where your wife went screaming into the night?" Adia shot back.

Xena turned quickly and grabbed the Healer by the throat of her tunic. It was only Sartori's interruption that kept Adia from being tossed across the room.

"Quiet!" she hissed. "Go outside if you want to hit each other."

Both women froze, each prepared to strike the other. "I don't want to hit you, Adia…I just…I just wanted to hit something…I'm sorry," Xena muttered.

"Me too," the Healer replied.

"Adia, what did happen? I had no intention of entering that dreamscape," Xena whispered.

"I honestly don't know. I've never…I just don't understand it."

Xena could feel the betrayal in simply voicing the words, but she couldn't stop them. "Did Gabrielle kill our child?"

"I don't believe that anymore than you do," Adia snapped.

"Then how do you explain what happened? Can misplaced guilt cause that kind of a reaction?" Xena hissed.

"It's possible…"

"I know that anything is possible, but I thought only someone guilty of their crime could illicit uncontrollable dreamscapes like that. I want to know if you have ever experienced misplaced guilt reacting like that."

"No," Adia answered, realizing the conclusion that Xena was coming to. "But, you can't tell me that you actually believe that Gabrielle did anything--"

"I don't know what I believe anymore," Xena ran a hand through her hair in exasperation, her voice sounding tired and fragile.

"She h-hates me…she hates m-me, now, d-doesn't she?"

Adia and Xena both heard the question Gabrielle directed at Sartori. Xena's face fell and as soon as she heard the sound in her wife's voice, she moved to the young woman's side. It was easier for the warrior to believe outlandish thoughts when she wasn't close to the young woman, but hearing Gabrielle's voice, seeing the terrified and lonely expression on the small woman's face, Xena didn't want to believe there was any validity to the dreams.

"It's okay, Brie," Xena sat on the bed, taking the smaller figure in her arms. "I'm right here, baby…it's going to be okay."

"I'm s-sorry, Xe…s-so sorry…" Gabrielle cried softly as Xena held and rocked her.

"Ssh, it'll be okay."

"She'll be all right as long as she stays warm," Sartori said. "Gabrielle, try to drink some of this…it will relax you so you can sleep."

"No!" The young woman pushed the cup away with one hand. "I can't go back there."

Xena shook her head at the Healer. "It's okay, sweetheart, don't be afraid. I'll be right here to wake you up if the dreams start again."

Gabrielle seemed to relax at that thought and grew silent.

"I'll wake her up every couple of candlemarks, that should do the trick." Xena said to the Healers. "We'll be okay for tonight."

Adia knelt down, on the floor near the bed. The Healer was experiencing her own epiphany, never having experienced a situation within the dreamscape that she couldn't control.

"I'm not going to give up, Xena," the Healer whispered. Placing a hand on the warrior's arm, she gave it a gentle squeeze. "There are a lot of meditative, even hypnotic techniques that I can use to rid Gabrielle of the images in her dreamscape. She just needs a fortnight or so of rest. I have some medicines that will calm her down enough to sleep without dreaming. We'll get her through this, Xena, I promise…it's just going to take a little time."

Adia and Sartori both nodded their heads to the warrior, returning some order to the room, and then quietly pulling the door closed behind them. Almost two candlemarks later, Gabrielle's body twitched and jerked as she moaned in her sleep.

"Gabrielle…Brie, wake up," Xena gently shook the young woman awake.

Gabrielle gazed up into the worried blue eyes looking down at her. She knew she would see this expression. Her wife was trying not to hate her, condemn her; things had already changed. Xena watched as tears welled up in the sad green eyes, spilling over the edges. Gabrielle tried to roll away from her wife, but the warrior was stronger. She held the young Queen in her arms, too afraid to let her go, yet just as terrified at the thoughts that were racing through her head.

"Talk to me, Brie…" the warrior said.

Gabrielle slowly shook her head, turning away from her wife. There isn't any point is there? She was there…I can see it in her eyes…she knows what I've done. It's changed already.

Xena continued to hold the small woman in her arms, the dark-haired woman's mind racing with the implications of what Gabrielle had done, and what the warrior saw for herself in her wife's dreamscape.

There's an explanation…I know it, there has to be. Gabrielle wouldn't…she couldn't. The Gods…that's it! It was one of them…they've been suspiciously silent lately. Gabrielle says she did it…why would she say that if she were innocent? Please no, don't let it be true. Please, just don't let it be. Would Gabrielle have made a deal with one of the Gods? Maybe to save someone, to save me…thinking she was doing the right thing.

No! She wouldn't do that!

She did, though…once before, didn't she?

That was different…she was confused…she thought she was doing what was best--

It cost Solon his life, though…

No! That's not who Gabrielle is!

But, she did it before…

Xena closed her eyes and pressed the back of her head against the headboard in a futile attempt to silence the voices at war within her head. Every explanation she could come up with, the strong voice in her mind reasoned away.

Upon opening her eyes, she saw Gabrielle staring back at her. They both knew the expression the other was wearing; they'd seen them before. Gabrielle's held sorrow and regret, coupled with a pain so enormous that it took all of Xena's strength just to hold the eye contact and return her wife's gaze. The warrior didn't even have enough strength left to muster a weak smile. She ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair, watching as tiny bits of straw and chaff fell from the blonde strands. She gathered what love and understanding she could from the warring factions of her brain, and expressed it through her eyes. Xena knew it wasn't much, and try as she would, she was simply too confused to offer any more.

Xena situated Gabrielle's head to rest on her chest, her own chin resting atop the blonde head. "Gabrielle, I'm…I'm going to go with the warriors in the morning on their hunt."

Xena paused. Gabrielle became so still, the warrior wondered if her wife fell asleep. The small blonde stirred slightly, but she just lay there as if she knew there would be more.

"It will only be a fortnight and…I think we could both use some time--it's just that I need to sort things out…get it straight in my head, you know? Adia will be here, she's got some really good ideas…she has medicines she hasn't even tried yet."

Xena ran her fingers through Gabrielle's hair, smoothing long bangs away from a furrowed brow.

"She can help you, sweetheart," Xena's voice broke and she knew what she was doing, even as she cursed herself for doing it. What she did now, she did for herself, not her wife. Her own tormented mind left her confused and unable to help anyone, not even herself.

"She'll take good care of you, baby. You just…just need some rest, that's all. Some rest…plenty of sleep without any dreams. You relax and get well and I'll be back in no time."

Xena looked down at Gabrielle and the young woman had her eyes closed. The warrior could tell from Gabrielle's breathing that her wife wasn't asleep, but she understood the smaller woman's behavior. Xena wondered if she would react any differently if Gabrielle decided to abandon her.


"Well, well…how the innocent have fallen," a female voice laughed evilly.

"I will see you chained on the highest mountain top until the vultures pick your bones clean."

Again, the laughter.

Apollo struggled against his bonds until his wrists and arms were raw and bleeding. His efforts were futile. The oppressive air that existed in the small cell sapped a God's powers entirely. He wasn't alone in the small area that enclosed him. A tall figure was bound next to him, a blindfold fixed across the hooded figure's eyes.

The cell was familiar to the handsome God, as it should be, since he was the one who created it. The small room, deep underground in the subterranean caverns on the island of Delos, was created to remove the strength of any God or mortal that should attempt to steal the Elixir of life that was housed there. The Elixir had since been removed and a new hiding place created, but Hera never forgot the site of her defeat.

The small room had one wall blown out, compliments of the Warrior Princess. Now, the open space was covered with bars, fashioned by some Godly spell. They sparkled and shimmered, the illusion of solidity.

"Did I tell you it was a girl? Yes, you had a granddaughter, Apollo…well, for a heartbeat…until I stole her life-force."

"Why, Hera? I do understand how you could be that evil, it wouldn't be the first time you've taken the life of an innocent child, but what's the point in destroying my daughter's relationship with Xena? What have you to gain?"

"Oh, Apollo," Hera spoke from the other side of the barred cell. "You have no idea what I will gain. You don't understand what it's like to feel that rush when you see your enemies crushed under your feet. Especially the ones that were so smug when they thought they'd bested me. It's your turn to fall, Apollo. You and Xena stole victory from me last time, now it's payback time, and I'll settle for nothing less than your complete destruction."

"If it's me you want, Hera, then so be it, but please…I beg of you, not Gabrielle." Apollo's eyes filled with tears at the visions he'd already seen, his own daughter ready to give up on life and Xena believing her wife had slipped into madness.

"But you're missing the point, Apollo. I've discovered the one thing to bring about the sure annihilation of you and the warrior with one blow. It's ironic that the God of Healing and the Warrior Princess should both have only one true weakness…and imagine my delight that it's the same thing. There is only one vulnerability that you share with that mortal warrior, and that is the little Amazon Queen."

Hera made the scrying bowl disappear with a wave of her hand. She stood outside the bars, forcing the young God to watch some of what transpired in his daughter's life thus far.

"Aren't you forgetting, Hera? People will miss me. Don't you think my sister will wonder where I am? Gabrielle will call to me…the sun can't set without me," Apollo spat.

"Oh, dear Apollo, the mortal world has experienced many sunsets since you've been…shall we say, detained. I've found someone to fill in quite nicely, riding that little chariot of yours. And, do try to be a little more unassuming. Your sister wonders where you are, but that little tramp is too stupid to figure it out, and as for your pathetic Gabrielle, I've arranged for her to believe that you've turned your back on her."

"That's impossible! Gabrielle will never give in to the kind of despair you're talking about."

"Guess again, young Apollo. Your cellmate has made it excruciatingly easy to manipulate the little blonde. You see, with Morpheus bound, he is but a prisoner. With his sight denied, he cannot enter the dreamscape…Gabrielle's or any other. I've been using an old friend of mine, a mystic from the wrong side of the road, if you will. He was happy to help in exchange for a little R&R from Tartarus."

"On the other hand, perhaps you'd like to keep up…" The Goddess returned the scrying bowl, allowing Apollo to view his daughter once more. "Take a good look, Apollo. By the time the sun sets tonight, your daughter will slit her own throat. Her warrior will fall on her sword once she finds out. All's well that ends well."

Hera's laughter continued long after she disappeared, just as Apollo's screams echoed off the walls of the caverns.


"Just look after her, okay?" Xena asked the Regent.

The warrior rose early and packed enough supplies for the fortnight away. She checked to find Gabrielle sleeping soundly for a change. Xena knew that leaving to join the hunt would not go over well with Ephiny. The Regent made it clear that she felt Xena was deserting Gabrielle, just when the Queen needed her the most.

"Look, I know I don't know everything that's gone on with you two in the last couple of days, but leaving Gabrielle…you can't tell me that's going to help," Ephiny said.

"I'm not leaving her!" Xena hissed. "I am going on the hunt for fourteen days, maybe less. Adia is going to be seeing Gabrielle and helping her to…to work out some issues, but I am not leaving her."

"Does Gabrielle know that? Tell me, Xena, do you think if you say it enough times, you'll start to believe it?" Ephiny asked softly.

Suddenly Xena lost the hard edge to her voice. "I don't know what else to do, Eph. I swear, if I could come up with another way, I would. Right now, I just don't know what's going on with Gabrielle and I don't want her to see that everyday in my face. I'm not asking you to believe me, or even agree with me, I'm only asking that you be a friend to Gabrielle."

"Xena…you never have to ask me to do that. Gabrielle was my friend, long before she became my Queen. You're my friend too…" Ephiny placed a hand on Xena's shoulder. "If I can do anything to help you deal with all of this, Xena…"

"Just keep an eye on Gabrielle. That will help more than you know," Xena finished before leaving.


"Hey," Xena said softly as she walked in to find Gabrielle fastening her leather belt around her hips. The young Queen was dressed in the traditional leather top and skirt that she wore to many official ceremonies.

"Hi," Gabrielle said, quickly lowering her eyes to the floor. She could barely look at Xena, now that the warrior knew the truth.

"I wanted to say…to see you before I left," Xena stammered. She wanted to say so much, but her tongue felt heavy and uncooperative. She crossed the room to retrieve her weapons and saddlebags, laying them on the table.

"You'll see me at the ceremony. You'll need to be blessed if you want to join in the hunt."

"I know, but…I meant alone."

"Oh," Gabrielle replied, turning to look out the window.

"I guess…I'll see you in a fortnight, then," Xena said.

"Are you coming back, Xe?" Gabrielle asked in a low whisper.

The young Queen's voice sounded so forlorn and frightened that Xena moved behind the woman and wrapped her arms around the small figure.

"I'm your wife, Gabrielle, of course I'll be back. Please believe that."

Xena kissed the back of her wife's head. Quickly grabbing her belongings from the table, the warrior walked out the door and toward Eponin's hut.

Gabrielle swallowed back the sobs that rose up in her throat. She took note that her wife said nothing about love. Because she's my wife, she'll return…out of duty…you shouldn't have to live that way, Xe.

Chapter 9

Gabrielle was nearing the last few hunters. She blessed the experienced, then the hopeful students, many of them, obviously waiting all their life for a chance to bow down before their Queen as a hunter and receive her mark of faith. The young Queen chose not to hide behind her mask today, although a part of her desperately wanted to. She knew she looked like Tartarus, her eyes red rimmed and swollen, dark circles underneath, and her face drawn and pale. She looked down at the last woman to kneel before her, recognizing the dark head.

She placed her hand on top of the raven hair and spoke the same words the other hunters heard, "You have the blessing of the Queen."

Gabrielle watched as the face lifted, but Xena made no move to rise from her knees. The warrior's blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears.

"Soon, Brie…I'll be back soon."

Gabrielle placed her hand on Xena's cheek, touching the soft skin as though she were committing it to memory. She gathered the last of her resolve and offered a smile to her wife. The Queen was amazed and grateful that Xena put up with her this long.

"Good bye, Xena," Gabrielle whispered softly.

The warrior's keen hearing picked up the soft-spoken farewell. She was glad that Gabrielle was actually speaking to her, but there was something in her wife's eyes, something she couldn't place. Xena looked momentarily confused, then gave a small smile to her wife, right before she jumped on Argo and trailed after the other members of the hunting party.


"Is what she said true?" Apollo asked his cellmate.

"Sadly, my friend, it is. These ropes mean nothing to me; the dreamscape knows no physical boundaries and nothing can bind it. Having my eyes blindfolded, however, means a great deal. I can see, but cannot enter your daughter's dreamscape at all."

"What do you see, Morpheus? Is Hera telling the truth…did she kill my grandchild?"

"I fear for your little one. Hera speaks the truth; she stole the child from its mother's womb only candlemarks before its birth. Your daughter…Hera is manipulating the young girl's dreamscape to the point…I fear Gabrielle has given up. Unless we can intervene in some way, Hera's words will come true…your child will take her own life and give up the mortal realm."

Once again, Apollo strained and lunged at his bindings, but in this cavern room, now converted to a cell, his strength was less than even a mortal man. His arms and wrists bled, his shoulders sagged forward in an unmistakable posture of defeat. Gods never experienced pain or defeat; they were new emotions. Many of the Olympian Gods had numerous children, sprinkled throughout the mortal realm, the product of romantic dalliances with mortal women. Apollo felt this loss especially hard, as Gabrielle was the only child he had. The handsome God was never one for trysts with mortals, but he fell in love with Gabrielle's mother the very first time he saw her walking along the river with his sister. It pained him to see the life she now led, living with a man who became more bitter and angry as the seasons past. Because of his promise to Hecuba, he never told the girl that he was her real father, content to watch and hope that someday, Gabrielle would learn who the people were that truly loved her.

He did break his promise on occasion. There were times in his child's life that required the intervention of a God. Apollo would never forget the day he carried Gabrielle's burned and broken body to the Halls of Olympus, requesting his father's permission to return life to the girl. Gabrielle gave her own life that day, pushing Hope into the lava pit, simply to save the woman she loved. Zeus looked down in compassion at the young God, acquiescing to Apollo's wish. Gabrielle never knew that she'd been dead, then reborn. It became one of the many instances in her life that she could not explain, yet did not examine too closely. Deep inside, the young Amazon Queen feared what she would see as an answer to the unexplained miracles in her life.

A shimmering flash appeared on the other side of the illusionary bars. Apollo looked up, disappointed, but realizing that this would be the obvious choice for Hera's partner in crime.

"Man, little bro…that chariot is a bitch to drive!" Ares flicked some imaginary dust from his arms. "Hera says she'll let you out once you've learned not to mess around with her. Hey," the dark-haired God said in alarm. "Don't pull on the ropes, bro…look what you're doing to yourself. Hera says your punishment will be over soon and she'll let you out of here."

Apollo took a deep breath. Ares was not a stupid man, but a pair of pretty eyes always had the power to sway him. He could be incredibly dense at times. Apollo didn't want to sound to panicky or patronizing. Ares was his brother, after all, faults and all.

"Ares, please listen closely. Hera is punishing me, it's true, but this is not temporary. She is going to destroy me and Morpheus…I expect Artemis will come next--"

"She said you might tell me something like that…said you didn't want to take your defeat like a man." Ares smirked.

"Ares please…look here in the scrying bowl…the image of Gabrielle. Hera is using the girl's dreams to push Gabrielle into killing herself, and when that happens, Xena will take her own life out of guilt and remorse. Please, brother, just look into the image in the bowl."

Ares peered past the bars, into the bowl. He could only see the blurry shapes of movement from his angle.

"Oh, sure…I step in there to look in the bowl. Right!"

Apollo let out an exasperated sigh, but held his temper. "Ares, open up the image for yourself."

"Oh, yea…" Ares waved his hand and the shimmering image of Gabrielle came into focus. "What's the deal?" Ares grew concerned when he saw the young woman laid a sharp dagger beside the tub.

"Step into her mind and you'll se the truth, Ares," Apollo pleaded.

"This is a trick, right? You said if I ever entered her mind again you'd have Athena castrate me," Ares drawled.

"Ares…this is an emergency, just do it!"

Ares' brow furrowed together, staring intently at his younger brother. It wasn't like Apollo to become this agitated over anything. The dark-haired God turned back to the spectral image before him and concentrated on the small blonde.

The Queen filled the tub in the bathing area with hot water. Gabrielle once read that if you cut an artery, the pain would be short lived; it would feel as though you were going to sleep. She also read that warm water would prevent the blood from clotting, and ease the sensation of being cold, which followed when the human body suffered a large amount of blood loss.

The last thing the Queen did before disrobing was to place her Queen's dagger beside the tub. It was her ceremonial dagger, more for decoration than practical use, yet she didn't have anything symbolic in mind; it was simply the sharpest dagger she owned. The young woman wanted to die, not cause herself unnecessary pain.

Ares pulled his mind back from the small blonde's and had to take a deep breath. The mortal's emotions of despair and sorrow were a step beyond intense. The God looked over at Apollo.

"Is this a trick, Apollo? I swear if you an Artie are--"

"Damn it all, Ares, my child is about to kill herself!" Tears streamed down Apollo's face. "Please, Ares…help her," the God begged in a small voice.

"Okay, I'm confused all of a sudden…give me a heartbeat."

"Gabrielle doesn't have a heartbeat!" Apollo shouted at the top of his voice.

Ares looked from his brother to the image before him. Gabrielle sat in the tub, her eyes closed. Suddenly, with a fierce look of determination, the young Queen picked up the dagger.


"I'll take that, thanks," Ares said, plucking the dagger deftly from Gabrielle's fingers.

"Ares! What in Hades…get out of here and leave me be, you miserable son-of-a-bacchae!" the Queen hissed vehemently.

"You're getting a mouth on you like a soldier. Didn't anyone ever tell you that a Queen isn't supposed to talk that way?" Ares shot back. "This is serious stuff here, Gabrielle…is this some sort of a trick?" Ares asked, turning his head to look around the room.

The despair in Gabrielle's voice was apparent. "Ares…just go. This is my business."

"Okay, give me a heartbeat, here," the God said in concern, pacing across the room. "It could be a trick…and I ought to let you do it, for all the times you tried to make me look like an idiot. I gotta check on this, though." Ares mused this last part to himself.

"Don't do anything stupid until I get back." Ares turned to go.

"Ares…my dagger…" Gabrielle held out a hand.

Ares nearly placed the weapon in the young woman's hand, but pulled back at the last moment. "Nah, you never do anything your told, that much I do know."

The God swirled a hand over the Queen's head and Gabrielle felt a tingling sensation in her chest.

"The power of might against the power of will, on this day will stand…The heart's judgment I will prevent, to keep you from hurt at your own hand." Ares handed the dagger to Gabrielle. "That ought to hold you till I can get this mess figured out," Ares said, quickly leaving in a flash of blue shimmering light.

Gabrielle thought she understood the spell the God placed on her, but she immediately tested her theory. Raising her arm, dagger in hand, she attempted to slice open her own wrist. Her arms shook and sweat broke out across her forehead at the strain to get the blade close to her skin. The frustrated woman snarled, tossing the blade across the room. Ares put a spell of protection on Gabrielle…to protect the Queen from herself.

"Ares! Arrreeeesss!"

All in the village heard Gabrielle's screams. The Royal Guard had to explain to the perturbed Queen what they were suddenly doing in her bath, but since there was no foe to be found, the chagrined guards left as quietly as possible, offering only a shrug to the Regent, who arched an eyebrow in return.


"Do you want to talk about the dream?" Adia asked.

"No," Gabrielle replied. Her failed attempt to end her life put her in a dour mood. She knew…as soon as Xena looked at her through eyes that held something less than the unconditional love they always shared…Gabrielle knew this was the only way. Her grief-stricken mind reasoned that it made perfect sense. Unbeknownst to the young Queen, Hera's interference in Gabrielle's mind, caused her to believe that Xena would be hurt at first, but Gabrielle was sure her wife would breath a sigh of relief.

The Healer and the Queen sat outside in the warm afternoon sun. The entire village knew this small cove as Gabrielle's Pond. It was where the young Queen often spent her quiet time, when she needed peace from the rigors of managing the Amazon Nation. Adia thought this would be the perfect spot for she and Gabrielle to talk about last night's events.

The Healer was a little surprised to hear Xena was leaving on the hunt. A small part of her, however, expected something of the sort. Adia admitted to her wife later that she had been, quite literally, terrified of a dreamscape encounter in which she had no control whatsoever. She never before saw Xena in the shape she was last evening. It wasn't the same warrior who faced any challenge, braved any terror, for her wife. Xena appeared to believe what she saw, rather than what her heart told her about the woman she loved. The Healer could see Xena trying to believe in Gabrielle. Adia just wished she had spoken to the warrior before she left. The Healer would have liked to tell the dark-haired woman to discount what she saw in Gabrielle's dreams and trust in her love for the young Queen.

Adia lost her opportunity when the warrior stopped by to quickly tell Adia and Sartori, she was leaving Gabrielle in their care for the next fortnight. Xena was taken back to hear that Sartori would be traveling with the hunt. For some reason Xena appeared suspicious, perhaps wondering if the Healer meant simply to keep an eye on the warrior. Sartori talked at length, attempting to convince the dark-haired woman that with all the students traveling with the other Amazons in the hunting party, a healer seemed a smart idea. Especially after last season's incident where one of Eponin's own students accidentally shot her in the leg with a practice arrow.

So, with her wife gone, Adia saw no reason to waste any time. Once the hunting party left the village, the Healer was prepared to give Gabrielle a couple of candlemarks before Adia showed up at the young Queen's door. The screams from the Queen's quarters and the Royal Guard's inability to explain why, prompted the Healer's visit even sooner.

"How was Xena feeling about what happened?" Adia asked.

"I guess you'd have to ask her."

"Did you sleep last night?"

"A little…off and on," Gabrielle answered tersely.

Adia sighed heavily, falling backward from her seated position, her back hitting the grass with a soft thump.

"Gabrielle…" she began, "little one…" she said softly rising to one elbow.

That got the Queen's attention, as Gabrielle turned and looked in surprise at the Healer. "I've never heard you call me that before."

"I'm sorry, Gabrielle. Does it bother you?" Adia asked in concern.

"No…no, it's just that…when Xena and I first traveled together…she called me that sometimes."  

"I apologize, I hope I haven't brought up any bad memories," Adia commented.

"Not at all…good ones, as a matter of fact." A small smile appeared on the Queen's face. "Why did you…call me that?"

"It…it was just a slip of the tongue, that's all. I guess because you exasperate me, my Queen, like someone else I used to know."


"Never mind, it's not important," Adia replied.

"So, you ask me all the questions…I tell you my most terrifying fears. You want me to confide the secret I don't want to share with anyone, but you won't even answer one simple question," Gabrielle responded.

Adia listened and, not only heard, but agreed with the young woman. She looked up at the Queen, who was sitting on a log beside the Healer, and expressed her apology in the form of sheepish grin.

"Well said. You're right, Gabrielle…it's not fair for me to expect you to open your heart and your mind to my examinations, without being as candid myself."

Adia sat up again and folded her hands in her lap. "The endearment really did just slip out, Gabrielle. I used to call my sister that. I'm so tall and she was a tiny thing…I guess you just remind me of her."

"What's her name?" Gabrielle asked.

"Her name was Emily."


"She died a number of seasons ago…a fever took her," Adia added unconvincingly.

"Oh Adia, I'm so sorry. Was she ill for long?"

Adia ran her fingers through her short hair. Looking up at Gabrielle, tears entered the Healer's eyes. "I'm sorry, Gabrielle…that was a lie. Emily wasn't ill, not like that anyway. She…she was beautiful, she loved everyone, and I don't think she had a hurtful bone in her body."

Adia paused and cleared her throat, the Queen sat, listening intently to every word.

"Emily had one problem…she heard voices. She could go on for moons, simply being the loving girl she was born to be. Then, for no apparent reason, something would set her off and she would do the oddest things. Just when everyone was sure that she was completely mad, she'd come back to herself again. It was always the same. Sometimes the voices would disappear for a whole season and we thought that she'd beaten it, that perhaps we appeased whatever God afflicted her with the curse. Then as quickly as it left, it would return. Finally, when the voices returned, Em began trying to hurt herself…trying to kill herself. She said the voices told her to. I tried to take care of her after our mother died. I told her everyday how important it was not to listen to them…not to give in to what the voices said."

The Healer drew her legs up against her chest, wrapping her arms around her legs, resting her chin on her knees.

"She became worse one winter and I thought her mind finally left her for good. She was like that for 3 seasons. The hardest part was to have her come up to me when she would be lucid and ask me to call her, little one. It was my pet name for her and I always knew she was all right when she would do that. I think the worst of it, for her, as she grew older, she was always aware that something was wrong with her. Some time later, she simply couldn't take listening to them anymore.

She turned up missing and I tore the forest apart searching for her, the whole tribe did. They found her in the bottom of a deep ravine; her tiny body was so broken. She was barely alive, but when they brought her into the village, she asked me to call her, little one. She said she did the only thing she could think of to frighten the voices out of her head. She said when she jumped from the cliff; the voices all ran away.

She looked so…so happy that day. She said she finally got something right. I think I lost a piece of myself that day. I could go into a person's dreamscape, into their mind, but I couldn't heal my own sister enough to make her want to live."

Gabrielle placed a hand on Adia's shoulder, squeezing slightly. "Why do I remind you of your sister?"

You're both small in stature, but enormous in heart. She had a smile filled with light, just like yours. She also had a secret. It took many seasons before I even found out about the voices. She kept it to herself; afraid she would hurt our family name or me. She finally gave into her despair, though. I wasn't good enough to save Em."

Long moments of absolute silence passed between the two women. When at last, Adia wiped her tears on her shirtsleeve and looked up, she met with the sight of Gabrielle, sitting hunched over, as if in pain. Tears streamed down the young Queen's face. She turned to Adia, and in that moment, the Healer did indeed think the young Queen reminded her of Emily.

"Do I remind you of her because you believe I'm going mad?" the Queen's small voice asked.

"Oh, Gabrielle…" Adia said, opening her arms to the young woman.

It was all the encouragement the Queen needed and she fell into the embrace, sobbing. Adia let her cry for a long while, until Gabrielle's eyes had no more tears to offer.

"Promise me. Adia…please, promise me…I don't want anyone to know…I don't even want you to know, but I want you to see that I'm not crazy."

"I don't think you're crazy at all. Why don't you want to tell me your fears, Gabrielle? Do you think I'll change my opinion of you…once I hear?"

Gabrielle nodded her head. "I know you will…you won't be able to help it."

"My dear, Gabrielle, I can't begin to explain what I've seen in my travels through the dreamscape. I've witnessed the worst that humanity can offer to his fellow man. I've seen into the hearts and souls of the most heartless of killers. There is nothing you can show me that will change my mind about what kind of a woman you are.

"I murdered my baby," Gabrielle stated flatly.

"Why do you believe this to be true?"

"Because it's what happened," Gabrielle explained. "Sartori told me…Xena told me…I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn't. I cared nothing for the welfare of my child and I did what I wanted to do."

"Why?" Adia asked, trying to decide if it were true or if Gabrielle's grief was clouding her judgment.

"I don't know," Gabrielle answered. "Pride? I was tired of having everyone tell me to take it easy. Xena began to care so much about the baby's safety; I felt that I didn't matter. I really don't know why, but it's not something I did once…I did it again and again."

"Gabrielle, that is called an accident, not murder," Adia explained.

The Healer held the small Queen in her arms, stroking her hair, feeling the young woman shake her head back and forth in disagreement. Adia was fighting an uphill battle, but she believed that with some time and patience, she and Gabrielle could overcome the guilt that plagued the woman. What the Healer had a hard time understanding was how Gabrielle could have let this build up so high in her mind. It was tragic and terrible, but it wasn't justification for the label of ‘murderer' that Gabrielle stamped upon herself. The Queen was usually a very patient and intelligent woman. This kind of hysteria simply wasn't normal for Gabrielle.

Adia explained, in detail, where she wanted to go from here, regarding Gabrielle's treatment. The young Queen nodded, but the Healer thought she saw something unusual in Gabrielle's gaze. It looked suspiciously like defeat, even though; suicide was also uncharacteristic for the Bard.

"Little one, I want you to promise me something. Promise me, Gabrielle, that you won't…won't hurt yourself. I know what despondency does; it plays tricks with the mind. Don't let your misery dictate your actions."

Gabrielle answered the plea very carefully, for as Adia spoke, the young Queen already formulated a plan. Gabrielle knew what she would have to do. One way or another, she would free her wife of the burden of having to see Gabrielle's face…having to live with the shame.

"You have my word, Adia, I won't try to kill myself, if that's what you're worried about," Gabrielle answered.


Nightfall seemed as if it took an eternity in coming. Gabrielle spent the rest of the day preparing. She realized that Ares, for whatever sick reasons he had, wasn't about to let the Queen harm herself by committing suicide. There would be only one other way for Gabrielle to free Xena of her obligation…if she disappeared.

Half the village already thought her touched with a grief-induced madness. They would believe she ran off, happy they didn't have to deal with an insane Queen. Then there was Xena. Gabrielle's chest felt a stabbing pain whenever she thought of her beloved warrior. Xena would take off after her. The warrior would search, but Gabrielle believed the warrior wouldn't look long. Her Consort would breathe her own sigh of relief, simply glad that Gabrielle chose an honorable way out. In the young Queen's mind, this was the only path she could take. She would run…far away, where they didn't know Greeks and had never heard of the young woman who followed the Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle outfitted herself with only a small pack. She brought a sack full of Amazonian dinars along, tied to her belt, yet hidden by her cloak. The problem was that Gabrielle was well known as the Amazon Queen, her own tales of her travels with Xena were told in taverns and inns all across Greece. Her clothes, her looks, even the staff she carried, and fought with, she had a reputation with all of them. They marked her as who she was, and when Xena asked around, Gabrielle would be an easy target to follow.

Gabrielle thought about it and realized she would have to become something, or someone, who no one would expect. She would have to become something she knew was inside of her. She crossed the room and lifted the sais Adia gave her. An unknown woman warrior, that was who she would have to become.

She dressed in a soft leather outfit, the kind of clothing she wore hunting. The shirt had long sleeves, long enough to cover the marriage tattoo, on her wrist. A loose, short sleeve covering that fell down past her thighs went over that, along with leather trousers. Plain brown boots finished off her new outfit. She needed to look completely different, so that any mention of a blonde haired warrior would not spark attention.

She gazed into the polished looking glass Xena placed on the wall by their bed. Gabrielle ran her fingers through her long blonde tresses.

"Completely opposite," she said with sadness.

The Queen reached for the Amazon dagger one last time and began to slice through the long lengths of her hair. She congratulated herself, as she looked in the mirror, rather impressed at the job she'd done. She quickly tossed the long strands of hair into the fireplace.

Gabrielle looked longingly at her staff. She would feel naked and unprotected without it. She sewed some leather loops onto her own boots to give her sais a resting place. She had to admit that she had some natural ability with the weapons. She learned extremely fast and felt confident enough to use them in a fight. That, combined with the hand-to-hand arts that Xena made sure the Queen mastered, would protect her. The problem was that Gabrielle could use a staff in her sleep.

"No one ever said this would be easy," she muttered.

The young Queen recognized the fact that she could be killed trying to defend herself with untested weapons. That's when Gabrielle's determination grew. If Ares wouldn't let her kill herself, perhaps she could work around this spell of protection. If she fought with the sais, chances are her end would come more sooner than later.

Gabrielle collected the necessary travel items and placed them in her small pack. There were two items the Queen refused to part with. She removed the ring her father gave her and placed it on the opposite hand. Lastly, she tucked the long chain and medallion that Xena made for her, under her shirt. Two hearts had been formed from the shape and scrollwork of Xena's breastplate, each heart holding a small stone, one blue sapphire, and one emerald green. The hearts were joined together at the points so they created the letter X.

With a heavy sigh, Gabrielle turned her head to look around the room. Her writings, small tokens and gifts, she was giving up her life in order to allow Xena the freedom the warrior deserved. Tears welled up into her eyes, but the Queen refused to release them. She wouldn't cry, not over this. She was doing this for Xena, just as the older woman made sacrifices for her. Gabrielle's last thought, as she left their home, was that she hoped Xena wouldn't hurt for very long.

The small blonde found it no easy task to sneak out of the protective embrace of the Royal Guard, or to elude the sentries in the trees, but she was an Amazon Queen after all. That and seasons spent with the Warrior Princess were all Gabrielle found necessary to slip from the Amazon village in the dead of night.

There were three small towns, half a day's walk in any direction. Gabrielle vowed she would bypass them and would not stop until she neared the large city of Pella. There, perhaps, she could lose herself at an inn. The most important point was simply not to head in the direction of either Amphipolis or Potidaea. Once she reached Pella, she would stay north of her homeland, crossing the Strymon, making for Abdera. From that point in Thrace, she could book passage on a ship and head anywhere in the known world.

The night was still warm, yet Gabrielle moved quickly. She was focused on her goal…to place as much distance between herself and who she had been as possible. She used the meditative technique her father taught her, in order to close her mind to prying Gods. The last thing she needed was Ares telling Xena where the Queen was.

"Good bye, Xe. Please believe that I loved you…to the very end," Gabrielle whispered to herself, slipping from the open road, to follow a path, deep within the woods.

Chapter 10

"So, are you going to speak to me at all on this trip?" Xena asked in a tense voice.

"I'm not sure it would be a good idea," Eponin answered.

The two warriors laid their bedrolls on opposite sides of the large campfire, slightly apart from the rest of the group. One of the other experienced hunters noticed the friction between the two earlier in the day, in the way they intentionally avoided one another. She passed the word to a couple of the others and managed to get the students to keep their distance for a spell, at least so they could get through this first night.

"Meaning?" Xena asked through clenched teeth.

Eponin already stretched out on her blanket, watching the stars in the night sky. She sat up to look at Xena, who seated herself on a nearby log.

"Meaning that I can't understand what you're doing out here, babysitting a bunch of students, when you should be home with your wife."

Xena sighed. She knew she would take some hits over the fact that she left Gabrielle at the worst possible time, but she left her in Adia's hands…that was a good thing, wasn't it? It made perfect sense to the warrior. Xena knew one thing in her heart…she still loved her wife. It was her head, the logical part of her brain, that seemed as if it were under another's control. It was causing her to think and feel things that she knew couldn't be true. Her brain made such good arguments regarding those thoughts, though. Her mind reasoned and the answer sounded plausible, it was simply that Xena felt almost…manipulated. Since she couldn't narrow anything down, beyond a vague feeling of unease, she took it all as a part of her own grief.

"You don't understand everything that's gone on," Xena replied.

"I know that, Xena, and whether you want to admit it or not, I know you're hurting, but Gods, Gabrielle is hurting too. I just don't get why you wouldn't want to be there for her."

"I don't understand it either," the warrior said softly. Xena lowered her head and stared at her own hands in the yellow glow of the campfire. "We're going through…it's pretty private, Ep. I don't know if it would be right for me to talk about it. I don't know if Gabrielle would want anyone to know. I just knew that it was the kind of thing that we needed to be apart for a little while to get a new perspective on."

"Do you still love her?"

"Of course I still love her!" Xena exclaimed, bringing her head up quickly. "What kind of question is that?"

"Sorry, I just…well, you know I don't know anything about women in that way or being married or anything. Hades, I count myself lucky that I can get laid once or twice a season," the Amazon said dryly. "It's just that…well, you know…I get kinda protective when it comes to Gabrielle."

"I never would have noticed," Xena said. The warrior grinned over at the Amazon and Eponin felt embarrassed enough to lower her head to stare into the flames of the fire.

Xena realized something that she forgot on occasion. The fact that Gabrielle not only had loyal subjects in her Amazons, but that more than a few of them were enamored of her lovely wife. It helped that Gabrielle never had eyes for anyone other than the Warrior Princess, but Xena knew that if anything ever happened to her, Gabrielle would never lack for a suitable mate.

The warrior shook that thought from her head. "I know you care for her, Ep, I do too. Trust me when I say I need this time. I wouldn't be any good to Gabrielle, in fact I feel like I would have done more harm than good if I stayed with her in the village."

Eponin nodded her head. If the Amazon didn't completely understand her friend's reasoning; it was apparent that Xena was struggling from within over it. She'd never known the warrior to make a decision in haste. Xena most definitely had the look of a tortured woman on her face.

"Hey," the Amazon said quietly. "I'll be here when you want to talk, Xena."

"Thanks, Ep." Xena offered up a small smile in relief.

"Well, I can still think of a reason you should have stayed back in the village," the Amazon said seriously, lying back on her blanket.

"What?" Xena tensed for her friend's next words.

"You snore so damn loud, you're liable to scare away all the game," Eponin said matter of factly.

Xena stood and nudged her boot at the prone woman's backside. "I do not snore!" Xena said.

The warrior walked away, content that she at least had things settled a bit with Eponin. The warrior in her hated these kinds of emotional confrontations, preferring to settle things with as little talk as possible. Gabrielle did the sensitive chats.

She thought of her wife and the first time Xena broached the subject of sensitive chats with Gabrielle. The warrior lay back upon her own blanket, staring in to the sky. She smiled into the dark as her mind's eye filled with the vision of Gabrielle, thinking Xena quite mad, just as the flying parchment fell from the sky and nailed the young woman. The warrior chuckled aloud, looking at the stars, just as she and Gabrielle did every night when it was warm enough to camp out of doors.

Up before sunrise, it turned out to be a long day for the young hunters. By midday, some of the younger ones were lying in their bedrolls, exhausted. A couple of the older Amazons took down an elk apiece, putting everyone in a good mood. At least they were in the right spot and the rumors of the elk herd were true.

Xena was able to keep her mind busy, teaching the younger girls the subtle nuances of tracking, the kind of things that took more than skill. She taught them that technique and skill would take you far, but natural ability and your own instincts would carry home the prize.

The warrior watched the girls work together within her small group. More often than not, Sali, a tall, hulking young girl, became the butt of their jokes. At first, Xena thought the silent girl slow witted, never having interacted with her before. Sali would simply smile slightly and lower her head in embarrassment at the other girls' attempts to humiliate her. Xena shook her head, keeping a protective eye on the tall Amazon. It turned out, however, Sali needed little help in tracking, and she was already an above average hunter for a girl her age. It still saddened the warrior, always amazed at the ways people could be cruel to one another.

So, besides being a teacher, Xena felt like she'd suddenly become a mother too. No matter what the dark-haired woman said to the girls, no matter how many times she explained, she couldn't get the students to call her by name. She now knew how embarrassed and frustrated her wife became at being called ‘Your Highness' all day. Given her babysitting chores for the day, Xena was exhausted when her body hit her bedroll. The warrior who single-handedly held off the Persian army was coming close to defeat at the hands of seven wide-eyed, not-so-very innocent Amazons.

A few girls giggled and whispered in the darkness of night.

"I am waking you before sunrise tomorrow, so I advise you all to close your eyes!" Xena said to no one in particular.

The warrior heard Eponin's muffled laughter. Xena simply rolled over, muttering words about the difference between glorified babysitters and hunters. It was a long time before sleep finally claimed the Warrior Princess. Her dreams were filled of unsettling visions and her heart was filled with a disturbing feeling of dread for her wife.


"All right, you've each received your instructions from Eponin," Xena went over the directions for the day's exercise, one more time.

"Your Highness, perhaps you should go over it one more time," a young student asked sweetly. "I mean, for Sali's sake…she never gets things the first time around."

Muffled laughter filtered around the group. Xena watched as Sali lowered her head, seemingly enthralled with the dust on her boots.

"Perhaps you should keep your mind on your own map, Talissa. You worry about yourself and let me do the worrying for the rest of the group," Xena said in a tightly controlled voice. The warrior had to keep reminding herself that these were students, but her temper was understandably short these days.

"Choose partners and head out in the direction your map indicates. Collect all the information required by your map and return to the camp by nightfall. It's going to be a long day and this is no contest, so take your time and be careful," Xena instructed.

The young students were embarking on a daylong journey through the woods, in an area that few of them ever traveled before. They weren't aware of the fact that the older Amazons were taking time out from the hunt to keep an eye on the younger girls. ‘Watch without being seen' was Xena's directive, step in only when injury or illness threatens. It would be one of the few chances the girls would have, to lose themselves in the wildness of the forest, while still being this protected by their elders.

"Your Highness, we're a person short." Talissa said, standing before Xena. "You could be my partner, though."

Xena was becoming more and more certain, that Talissa probably wasn't known as the nicest girl in her class. She was manipulative and unkind, two things Xena couldn't tolerate.

"Sorry, kid, but Sali already asked me to be her partner."

"What? Her?" the girl exclaimed, as if offended.

Sali looked as surprised as the other girls in the group did. "Me?" she asked Xena with surprise.

"Let's go," Xena said. "Everyone, remember to be back by nightfall."

Xena walked off with a stunned Sali by her side. Once they were out of earshot of the rest of the group, Xena looked down at the girl, who wasn't that much shorter than she was.

"Have you got your map? You'll do most of the work, but I'll point you in the right direction."

"Oh, yes. It's right here, your Highness," Sali said, unrolling the parchment she'd received.

Xena stopped her movement and put an arm around the young girl's shoulder. "Okay, kiddo, here's the deal…you will earn major points with me by calling me Xena, instead of my title, okay?"

"But, your Hi--I mean, Xena," the girl quickly recovered, "my mother said I must always treat you and the Queen with respect, that I should always use your titles. She said it would be disrespectful to address you any other way."

Xena sighed. It was going to be difficult to challenge a mother. "And your mother is teaching you properly, I admire that," she responded as they walked along a slightly beaten down animal trail. "What do you call my wife, when you see her?"

"I say, ‘hello, Queen Gabrielle' or I call her, ‘your Majesty,' just like mom said."

"Uh huh. And what does Gabrielle do when she hears that?" Xena asked.

Sali giggled. "She rolls her eyes a lot."

"Do you know why we act like that?"

Sali shook her head back and forth.

"Because we don't really expect our friends to use our titles. Friends should only have to use our names…kind of casual like." Xena answered the young girl.

"Do you mean me? That I'm your friend?" Sali asked in wonder.

Xena felt a twinge of sorrow for the girl. Somewhere along the line, her height had made her an outcast, an easy target for childish teasing and pranks. She acted as if she didn't know what it was like to have friends.

"Yea," she answered with a smile. "That's just what I mean. Are you interested?"

"Yes!" Sali answered quickly. The youngster never had anyone ask her to be a friend, especially not someone like the Warrior Princess. "The Queen, too? Would she be my friend?"

"Absolutely," Xena chuckled. "Come one…show me how well you can read a map."

"All right, Xena," Sali replied happily.

The girl was better than Xena thought she'd be, leading them to the exact spots marked on the parchment. Sali occasionally stopped to mark down on her parchment the tracks she spied or the important plants and herbs that certain animals fed on. During their relatively silent trip through the forest, Xena noted the happy enthusiasm Sali put into everything she did. It reminded her of her bard.

That's all it took for thoughts of her wife to consume the warrior. Unfortunately for every happy memory she shared with the young Queen, two more unhappy ones popped into her head. Her mind battled back and forth, even through the time when she and Sali rested and had a bite to eat. Xena felt her head and her heart torn into two different directions, lost in her own thoughts until Sali's voice brought her to attention.

"Xena, I've never seen tracks like this."

The warrior looked down at Sali's hand, the girl's fingers spread out beside a paw print, embedded in the soft earth. The print dwarfed the girl's hand.

"It's big," Sali remarked.

Xena spread her own large hand out, just covering the print. "Damn big."

The warrior stood up, hands on her hips, scanning the area, tilting her head, listening to the sounds of the forest around them. She glanced down at the print again, noting, not only its size, but also the deep impression it made in the dirt.

"It's a cat, one big, heavy cat from the looks of those prints," Xena said softly. "Sali, I think we better cut our afternoon short. We should get back to let the others know that we need to keep our guard up."

"Okay, Xena," Sali replied, casting a frightened glance in the warrior's direction.

"Don't worry, you'll have quite a tale to tell the other girls tonight."

Xena gave the young girl's shoulder a squeeze and they made their way back down the same trail they came up. This wasn't anything new for Xena. She'd spent the last six years anticipating trouble and attacking it in such a manner as to protect Gabrielle. She was used to thinking of someone else beside herself in a dangerous situation, but for the last few seasons, Gabrielle had become a consummate warrior herself. It had been quite some time since Xena had to act as guardian or protector to a young woman who couldn't defend herself.

The path widened out and Xena's senses went on full alert. She had that tingling along her spine that warned her of trouble. It was the same feeling she got when she felt she was being watched. She searched the trees around them, seeing nothing. Examining the path closer, she discovered more prints, these coming at them, as if something had been trailing along behind them.

"Stop, Sali," Xena said in a low voice.

The girl froze and Xena thanked the Gods for a well-trained Amazon student. In addition, the warrior sent a silent thank you to the Amazons who instructed the girl.

"You see these prints?" Xena asked. "See what direction they're facing?"

Even as Sali nodded, realization dawned brightly. "They're coming up the trail, facing towards us, not like the others that moved away from us."

"That's right. I have the feeling this cat was ahead of us on the trail and heard us. I think he circled back and was following us," Xena replied.

"Do you think he means to make us dinner?"

Xena was surprised at the calm in the girl's voice.

"Not if I can help it." The warrior grinned at the girl, who grinned back. "Just tell me what to do, Xena."

"I think he's out there, watching us. He could be crouched low or even up in the trees." Xena looked up, trying to see the sky past the dense canopy of trees. "He'll probably wait until the sun goes down and try to catch us outside of camp. He has the advantage in the dark."

"Will we be able to make it back to camp before it's dark, especially if we have to go this slow just to keep track of him?" Sali asked.

"No we won't." Xena looked up at the girl, trying to determine if this was the best course of action. All the concerns in the world didn't much matter, considering that they had no options left. It was the law of the forest out here; either hunt or be hunted.

"The best defense is a good offense," Xena began. We're going to turn the table on this guy, but I'm going to need your help. Do you think you're up to the task?"

"Yes, I am!" the girl stated clearly.

Xena couldn't help but smile. The girl didn't make excuses or say, she would try, she simply said she was up to the task. The Queen didn't know the diamond in the rough she had with this one.

"How good are you with that thing…accuracy wise?" Xena indicated the bow slung across the young woman's back.

"I can hit the center of a target from fifty yards," Sali replied proudly.

"Good. If everything goes according to plan, you won't need it, but if something happens, I want you to let go one arrow and only one. Then I want you to jump into the nearest tree. We'll rig a rope so you're prepared for a fast lift off, but I want you to know something ahead of time. An arrow to the heart of a cat is usually enough to bring him down, but this is one big mother, you can tell by his paw print. It'll take two or three to knock him off his feet, but by that time, he usually has his paws on you."

"What will you be doing?"

"I'm going to try to lure him down the trail. If he's smart he'll take the big meal first, that's me," Xena winked. "When he thinks he has an easy kill, I'll slit his throat with a toss from this." Xena held up the chakram at her side.

"Remember, Sali…If anything at all happens to me, shoot one arrow, and get in the tree. You can nail him from there, but it's best to play it safe and not be a tough guy. Okay?"

"Okay, Xena." The girl nodded her head, suddenly licking dry lips.

"Are you any good in the trees?" Xena asked, tossing the girl's tree harness over a high branch.

"Yes. I just pull on this rope and it will lift me clear," the girl replied.

"You'll do fine," the warrior said before heading up the trail the way they'd just come. "I believe in you."

Even as Xena said the words, she knew why she did. They were the very words that she wished she was able to say to Gabrielle. No matter what. That's what she promised her wife, but then she didn't keep her promise, did she? She wanted to see her wife's face again, simply to tell the small blonde that her warrior believed in her.

Xena lifted her hand and tousled the girl's hair, turning and walking up the sparse trail. Sali watched as the warrior removed her dagger, lifting it and making a quick slice in her own hand. She held the hand away from her body and allowed the blood to flow from the wound, falling onto the ground below. Xena continued to walk away, pausing every twenty yards to allow the blood to drip from her hand. In no time at all, the warrior was out of view and the young Amazon stood alone, her back to a large tree, one arrow notched to her bow.


Xena's keen hearing picked up the cat's low growl and could tell it was pacing in the underbrush. Suddenly the high-pitched scream of the cat echoed through the forest. Xena tilted her head slightly, trying to get a better fix on the animal's exact location. It must have been a trick of the dense forest. She heard the snapping of the underbrush as the cat roamed back and forth, just near the edge of the trail. The smart animal tried to resist being lured out into the open, but the smell of human blood on the path called to the beast.

"Here, kitty-kitty," she whispered under her breath.

Xena hid just off the path, knowing that all she had to do was wait for the animal to give in to its nature, following the scent of the blood. It was moving closer and eventually, she saw the cat slink out of the green growth of the forest. It was much smaller than she thought it would be and was tempted to allow the beast to live to hunt another day. The thought entered her brain too late, however, as the black cat sniffed at the drops of blood on the trail, catching the warrior's scent.

It took only heartbeats for the beast to cover the dozen paces that separated the two. He was in mid air when the blade of the chakram neatly sliced through his throat. The black cat lay still and unmoving when the warrior nudged it with the toe of her booted foot. She squinted down at the animal, much too small to have made the tracks she and Sali saw earlier.

She nudged the beast again. "You couldn't possibly--"

That's when she heard it. The yowl of a cat, farther down the trail, the way she'd just come…where she'd left Sali.

Xena took off running, dodging trees and jumping over logs, moving as fast as she could. The warrior cursed herself, realizing that there were two animals, and the larger of the two was now bearing down on Sali. The howl of the cat sounded angry and frustrated. All at once, the animal's roar turned into a scream of pain. The warrior flipped herself into the clearing just as Sali's arrow imbedded itself deep within the huge beast's chest. It slowed the animal momentarily and the warrior prepared herself for an off balance chakram throw.

She helplessly watched as the young Amazon disregarded the warrior's advice and calmly, without a trace of panic in her movements, notched a second arrow and let it fly. The cat stumbled and rolled as the second arrow hit its mark, but the creature rose and launched itself in the girl's direction. Xena was caught, unable to throw her weapon without taking the chance that it would ricochet into the girl in front of her.

In the half of a heartbeat that this took, Sali had a third arrow sailing toward the massive beast. At the same time, Xena lunged, putting her body into the air. The warrior landed on the big cat's back, Xena, and the animal landing in the dirt at the terrified girl's feet. The cat wasn't dead, but gasped as a thin line of blood trickled from its nose. The warrior quickly grabbed the animal's head and twisted hard, ending its misery.

"You okay?" Xena asked the girl.

Sali nodded, sliding her back down the tree until she was in a sitting position before the massive animal.

"Wow," was all the girl could say.

"Sorry I didn't get here sooner," Xena explained about the second cat, silently thanking Artemis for watching out for this young Amazon.

"You remind me of my wife," Xena said, retrieving the waterskin and kneeling down to give the young girl a drink.

What do you mean?" Sali looked perplexed.

"She never does what I tell her to either." Xena grinned.

"I know I was supposed to jump in the trees, but all of a sudden I thought that if he got this far, he must have hurt you. I just…I figured I didn't want him to get away with that."

"Yea, well, don't feel too bad about it," Xena replied. "I never jumped into the trees when my brother told me to either," Xena finished with a knowing smile.

The young Amazon moved to the large beast, running her fingers through the sleek coat, so black it shone blue in the waning light. Tears filled the girl's eyes as she examined the massive creature.

"What a waste. Such a beautiful creature…it's a shame he couldn't have lived a longer life."

Tears rolled down the girl's face and when she looked back up at Xena, she was smiling. "Do I really remind you of the Queen?" Sali obviously took the remark as a compliment.

The warrior gazed upon the young girl with the skill of a seasoned warrior, yet the compassion of a grown woman. Xena thought of her wife more than once today, but Sali's actions were exactly what Gabrielle would do.

"More than you know, my young friend…more than you know."

Sali smiled up at the warrior, honored at the comparison.

"Hey, we're losing the light. We'll never get this beast down to the camp with just the two of us. How about building a fire and we'll skin them here? This one should make a rice winter robe."

"I've never skinned anything this large before. I'm not sure how."

"Come on, I'll show you," Xena answered. "We'll do a quick cutting now and finish the job in camp tomorrow."

It took another three candlemarks before the two reached the base camp again. Eponin confided to Xena that if she hadn't been the one with Sali, the Amazon would have sent out a search party long ago. When the warrior rolled out the two skins, there were exclamations from around the camp, but when the Xena told them how Sali brought the largest cat down, they were astounded.

Suddenly all the girls wanted to know this quiet girl, whom they'd teased and made fun of. Talissa was relegated to a back seat position and the youngster didn't care for that. Xena listened to the girls' conversations as she sat farther away, sipping on a warm mug of tea.

"So, then what happened, Sali?" One of the girls asked.

"Well, Xena told me--"

It isn't respectful to call the Queen's consort, Xena," Talissa said with a superior smile.

"Oh, but she told me to," Sali said in earnest. The poor girl never seemed to realize that Talissa was baiting her. This time, however, right beat might.

"Xena said that friends don't have to use titles like that…she told me I should call her Xena."

"She really told you she was your friend?" another youngster asked.

"Sure," Sali replied, "and the Queen too. She said I should call her Gabrielle."

A collective sound of awe came from the group of girls and judging from the looks that Eponin and Xena exchanged, the warriors were having a difficult time keeping a straight face. Xena enjoyed the fact that she'd helped the young girl go from outcast to hero in a single day, but realized that it would have happened anyway. There were some people in the world that were destined to be thrust into the limelight, it just came a little slower for others.

The warrior grabbed a towel and some soap, prepared to head to the river and wash the dirt and blood from her body. She couldn't resist playing her part, however, in Sali's little scenario. She rose and walked into the circle of youngsters, knowing what kind of an impression that would make.

They were seated on logs around the fire and had to crane their necks high, in order to see the warrior's face. Their mouths tended to drop open a bit and Xena knew it was simply the armor and her physical stature that caused the young girls to view her in rather mythic proportions.

"Sali," Xena said and the young Amazon jumped up, to stand before the warrior. "Exceptional work today," Xena said and offered her arm to the youngster.

Sali grasped the warrior's forearm in the fashion she saw older Amazon's display their camaraderie. The young girl's mouth went dry and she mumbled, "thank you, Xena."

Xena chuckled, as the other girls were awed into silence, the warrior walking away and heading off to her bath.


The next day, Eponin split all the students into three groups. One group went with her for some weapon practice and drills and one went with the hunters, after more game. The final group stayed with Xena in camp, the warrior instructing them on the intricacies of skinning and preparing furs, using the cats from the previous night as examples.

It was a dirty, messy job, but the girls enjoyed learning from the Warrior Princess, plus the warrior had a surprise for them at the end of the day. Xena found a small waterfall with only a ten or twelve foot drop. The pool the water cascaded into made for a wonderful swimming hole to clean the sight and smell of blood from them. The warrior demonstrated the fun they could have by quickly stripping off her armor and leathers and diving from the top of the falls. The group of youngsters quickly followed the dark-haired woman's example, and soon Xena lay in the warm sun, keeping a watchful eye on her charges, still cavorting in the water.

It was an exhausting day and Xena lay in her bedroll as the campfire slowly burned away to embers, aware of why she was unable to sleep. She'd hunted and taught, worked damn hard throughout the entire day, but when her mind stopped focusing on the tasks meant to keep her busy, and she lay down to sleep, thoughts of her wife kept her awake.

The warrior decided to quit fighting the elusive rest and left her blankets. Throwing another log on the fire and watching it finally spark to life, she gathered herself up and took a walk through the woods. She ended up at the top of a rise that looked down into the camp, only to find that someone beat her to the spot.

"Is this hill taken or can anyone join in?" Xena said dryly.

Sartori jumped a bit in surprise before recognizing the warrior's voice. "Xena…of course, please, sit."

"I thought I was the only one that couldn't sleep at night," Xena commented, dropping to the ground beside the Healer.

"I just don't sleep right when Adia's not beside me. I suppose you find that silly," Sartori said.

"Not at all," Xena answered, realizing she felt the same thing for her own wife. "It makes a lot of sense to me."

"I'm sure she's doing fine, Xena."

The warrior grinned. "So, now you're a mind reader, as well. Tell me…what am I thinking now?" Xena chuckled, placing her fingers on her temples.

Sartori smiled slightly at the warrior's antics, but kept her serious expression. "That you shouldn't have left her in the first place."

Xena suddenly lost her smile and she lowered her hands, folding them in her lap. "Well…you don't pull any punches when you read minds do you?"

"I'm sorry, Xena, but you know, it doesn't take a seer to see that you're suffering too."

"I don't think some people see that," Xena responded in a quiet voice.

"I think that's so for a number of reasons. We're used to seeing you hide everything behind that warrior's mask. We get quite used to you taking it on the chin and always bouncing back…always being the strong one. Then of course, it seems that all of us seem to have a soft spot for Gabrielle. She's only a few seasons younger than I am, but she has some quality about her…almost as if she could be anyone's daughter. Because of that, we become very protective of her. However, like any caring parents, we tend to want to guard her from everything and when she suffers, we feel her pain as our own. It's very human of us to want to blame someone for her pain…you often tend to bear the brunt of that particular accusation."

Sartori finished the explanation and Xena could only nod, unable to find the words to agree.

"I'm having dreams at night. I didn't want to tell Gabrielle, she had enough to deal with," Xena carefully explained. "They're dreams full of doubt…doubt of Gabrielle…of how I feel about her. Tori, to you honestly think Gabrielle could have done something, anything, to our baby?"

Xena had tears in her eyes when she looked at the Healer, seated beside her. Sartori only saw the warrior reduced to this condition in situations involving Gabrielle, a testament to the strength of their bond.

"No, Xena, I honestly don't believe it. Personally, I don't think Gabrielle could ever have done anything to your child, to harm it in any way. Professionally, I saw no evidence of anything out of the ordinary. It was simply unexplainable."

Xena rubbed her face, trying to hold on to a notion that hung just on the fringes of her conscious mind, but the harder she tried, the more it faded into the dark recesses.

"Xena, you need some sleep. You do no one any good in this shape, least of all yourself. Why don't you let me make you something that will help you sleep?"

"I'll be all right," the warrior replied with a sigh.

"I would hate to think what could have happened to you and Sali up there on the mountain if you were as tired as you are now. If your reflexes had been off the slightest bit…" Sartori trailed off.

It was enough to get at Xena. The warrior rarely did things for herself, but the Healer played the dark-haired woman correctly, prodding her at her weakest point…her need to care and protect others.

"Yea, okay," Xena complied, "but not something that will drug me into incoherency."

"I've been using something new that Adia brought back from the tribes up north. It's a plant named mazellia. As opposed to most of our sleeping mixtures, which affect your muscles and nerves to sedate you, mazellia acts directly on the brain. It won't cause you to sleep for any more hours than you usually do, but it will block out any thoughts from outside of your conscious mind. Simply meaning, you won't dream about things rolling around in your subconscious. I know Adia was going to start using it on Gabrielle in a day or two, if the Queen's dreams continued."

"That sounds great, Tori, thanks…for everything."

"No thanks necessary, Xena. You and Gabrielle are like family to us. Remember that you never have to go through pain alone. Come one," Sartori said, rising to her feet, "let's get that tea for you."


By the time Xena sipped the hot tea, which tasted oddly of celery, she was already feeling its effects. The warrior fought it off for a while, enjoying the sudden clarity with which she was able to think of her wife. Gone were the doubts and the fears that plagued her mind for the past week. All she could think of was how nonsensical her petty thoughts were and how terrible she'd treated Gabrielle, running off as if she believed that Gabrielle was actually capable of hurting anyone.

Xena thought only of Gabrielle and how precious the Queen had become to Xena; how important the young woman came to be over the seasons, cradled protectively inside the warrior's heart.

"I do love you, Gabrielle…" Xena whispered, just as sleep claimed her.

Xena proved Sartori wrong. She did indeed dream, but the visions in her mind's eye, were ones that came from her own heart and not any outside source. A smile broke across the sleeping warrior's face, seeing Gabrielle in her dreams, that first night…

"I was gonna follow you, until you were in some jam.   It's so cold out there, and I couldn't get a fire started, and the mosquitoes are as big as eagles."

"You know, I'm sending you home in the morning."

"I won't stay home.   I don't belong there, Xena.   I'm not the little girl that my parents wanted me to be.  

"Gabrielle-- I want you to understand something.   We both have families we were born into, but sometimes families change, and we have to build our own.   For me, our friendship binds us closer than blood ever could."

"I thought you had a pony when you were young."

"I did.   His name was Tympani."

"Did you leave Tympani with your sister?"

"No-- actually-- he got very sick one day, and-- I thought he would get better, but-- it's just what happens with things that you love.   Sometimes they just leave you."

"Watch out for a man with a double-edged sword."


"I had a dream-- and he came through the roof.   Just be careful."

"Always looking out for me, huh?"

"Always.   Xena?   About Chin…I hope you know I never meant to hurt you.   I only did what I thought was right."

"Gabrielle, that's all in the past. All I want is to be with you right now. You're my best friend…my family.   I love you, Gabrielle."

"I love you, Xena."

"Till the other side, then…we'll be together."

"Till then."

"A long time ago, I accepted the consequences of our life together…that it might one day come to this.   It has.   I'm not afraid."

"You always said that I was the brave one.   Look at you now. If this is to be our destiny, let's see it out together.   Even in death, Gabrielle—I will never leave you."

"No!   Hope!" Gabrielle screamed and Xena watched as the young woman flung herself at her daughter.

"Ahhhhhhh!   Gabrielle!"



She could hear Callisto's cackling laughter. "I never thought I'd feel so good again!   Seeing poor, dear Gabrielle sacrifice herself makes it all worthwhile. It finally gives me a reason…for living, and I have you to thank for it, Xena!"  

"Ahhhhhhh!" Xena screamed, turning to plunge the Hind's dagger into her enemy. "No more living for you."

"Gabrielle!" Xena cried out breathlessly.

The warrior grabbed her sword and leapt up from her blankets in one swift move.

The closest Amazons, including Eponin, were on their feet in an instant at the warrior's cry. Most of them realized that it was a dream that startled the warrior into the waking world, but Eponin and Sartori were there at her side to calm Xena within moments.

"Xena?" Eponin gave her a questioning look.

"Gabrielle…something's happening to Gabrielle," Xena rasped. The warrior began grabbing her belongings and stuffing them into her saddlebags. "I have to go back."

The Amazon took in the wild-eyed expression on her friend's face, but she also understood the bond that the two shared. "Okay, Xena, give me a minute, we'll all go back. If Gabrielle is in trouble, then we're all needed back at the village."

"There's not enough time…it will take too long. I can't believe I didn't see it before."

"Xena, what can we do to help?" the Healer asked.

"Sartori, what you said to me last night about Gabrielle," Xena paused for a moment. " When you said what happened when she lost the baby was unexplainable…"

"I'm sorry that I didn't have time to talk to you about this before things started going a bit wild back in the village, Xena, but there wasn't anything to indicate why she lost that baby. If a woman is injured, or suffers a strain of some sort, there would be a tear, some type of explainable reason as to why she was bleeding. In Gabrielle's case, it appeared as if it was almost spontaneous. That girl bled, nearly to the point of death, yet I couldn't see any point of origin…there was simply no reason for it. It was almost as if…"

"Someone made it happen," Xena finished in a low, ominous tone.

"Yes…" Sartori whispered her answer. She was afraid to mention it before, fearing she could be wrong, but the longer she thought on it, over the last few days, the more convinced she was that she was right, that Godly intervention was the cause.

"Someone did and I think whoever it was has been planting these dreams that Gabrielle and I have been having. They've found a way to work around Morpheus, either that or he's switched sides. They've been planting ideas and thoughts in our head that we wouldn't normally accept. Like the notion that Gabrielle could have killed our baby," Xena finished.

"You actually believed that Gabrielle did that?" Eponin asked with a hard edge to her voice.

"My heart didn't, but my head did," Xena explained. "Last night, the tea you gave me," Xena motioned to Sartori. "You said it blocked thoughts from outside our body, well it works because for the first time in a week, I had true thoughts about Gabrielle…dreamed real dreams."

"So, what does all this mean, Xena?" Eponin voiced the question that she and Sartori both wanted an answer to. "One of the Gods killed your baby…why?"

"I don't know, but I'll tell you one thing, there won't be a safe enough place for the Olympians to hide once I find out who did it," Xena hissed.

By this time, Xena was saddling Argo as she spoke. "If they're still playing with our dreams, causing us to doubt our commitment to one another, then they aren't satisfied yet. I don't want to think about what Gabrielle might try to do if they keep at her this way. I just hope Adia used the same tea on her."

"I'll go with you," Eponin stated, tossing her own horse's saddle on the mare's back.

"I'll wake everyone else," Sartori looked about the camp as adults and children began to wake at the sounds the three were making. "We'll be on our way by first light and should reach the village by midday."

Xena merely nodded her head and quickly squeezed the hand that the Healer offered. The warrior grabbed Argo's reins and the horse sped off into the night, followed by Eponin's brown mare.

"Please get to her in time," Sartori whispered under her breath, praying that Xena arrived before Gabrielle had time to do anything the young Queen would regret.


"Well, we've lost her." The Mystic said. "I told you not to let anyone get near her with a sleeping draught. We've lost our link now."

"Well, get it back!" Hera ordered. "Perhaps it will come as news to you, but I can't be everywhere at once!" she snapped.

"Do you know how many moons it takes to develop that kind of connection? It's impossible to duplicate."

Hera sat back in the large, throne-like chair. "There's nothing to be done about the warrior, then. No matter," she said suddenly, with a casual wave of her hand. "Our little runaway Queen has quite a lead on Xena. As long as that blonde slut continues to feel as though she is undeserving of life, she'll keep running."

Hera smiled an evil smile that turned her pale blue eyes a translucent, colorless hue.

"And as long as Gabrielle keeps running, my revenge against the Warrior Princess grows closer and closer to its completion." The Goddess' laughter echoed through the halls of her Olympian chamber.

Chapter 11

Gabrielle entered the smoky tavern, stiffening herself against the odor of stale sweat and sour ale that assaulted her nostrils. Here in Pella, there were three areas to the capital city of Macedon. The extremely wealthy section, the middle class, and the ne'er do well's area. The small blonde chose the end of town where only the most destitute or those wanted by the law congregated. It was part of her plan to do everything the opposite of what Xena would think her to do. It would throw the warrior off, if and when she came searching for Gabrielle.

It was early evening and Gabrielle had been walking or running for nearly twenty-four candlemarks. She was able to hitch a ride with a few farmers and a wealthy trader. She had to pull her hood far over her face, once she realized the trader who stopped his wagon to give her a lift, was the same man who just left the Amazon village. He sold a number of Thessalian horses, excellent stock, to the young Queen and her village. Gabrielle congratulated herself, once the man left her off near the crossroads at Timinus. He'd talked for three solid candlemarks and never realized to whom he was speaking.

The small woman crossed the room, feeling the weight of the stares that followed her into the tavern. She realized that must be how Xena felt whenever she walked into a room. The looks that were a combination of wonder, leering, and fearful. Gabrielle decided to play her part to the hilt. After all, when one has no regard for their life, it's easy to bandy it about.

"A room for the night," Gabrielle asked the man serving drinks behind the counter. She set her voice lower than usual, imagining what her wife sounded like, speaking with just a hint of intimidation.

The bartender looked over at the cloaked figure and watched as a beautiful woman pulled back the hood of the cloak. He grinned, but the smile froze on his face as soon as he met the green eyes. They stared back at him with an emotionless glint and he followed the length of her small body down to the floor to capture the sight of long dagger-like weapons protruding from each of her boots. He swallowed, smart enough to know that warriors came in all shapes and sizes…even genders.

"That'll be six dinars," he said.

"Six!" Gabrielle responded before thinking. She knew that was highway robbery, but considering that's probably what half the current customers did for a living; she had no choice. The small blonde loved nothing better than a good haggle, but that would be the first thing Gabrielle would do. Completely opposite, she said to herself.

"Yes…b-but that includes a hot meal."

Gabrielle was tired, hungry, and her feet hurt something terrible. She arched an eyebrow and fixed the gaze on the young man.

"For a little extra, I can see you get a hot bath…private…in your room, of course," he added nervously.

"How much extra?" The words, hot bath, suddenly interested her.

"Three more dinars."

Gabrielle grumbled a bit as the young man showed her to a table and he ordered a serving girl to bring the blonde a plate of food. Gabrielle ordered mead, a drink she usually avoided, but was determined to carry out her vow to do things differently.

The young man stood at the table, once he delivered her drink, apparently waiting for his pay. Gabrielle remembered Xena's words, to never allow anyone to see your money purse. Keeping that in mind, she slipped a hand inside her cloak, reaching into her bag of dinars, she pulled out the appropriate amount. She dropped the coins into the man's hand and watched as he examined the money. She held her breath as his gaze went from the coin, then back to her again.

"Amazonian dinars…" he said thoughtfully.

"Silver is silver, isn't it?"

"Oh, sure…it's just that we don't see too many of these down here anymore."

Gabrielle gave the man a disarming smile. "I just sold a sizeable herd of Thessalian horses to an Amazon village."

"Ahh, yes, I heard tell of a big herd of horses moving from down south. Funny," he grinned nervously as he glanced at the coin once more. "She looks kinda like you," the young man referred to the embossed image on the coin.

Gabrielle's smile was beginning to cause the young man to blush. "Can I help it if one good-looking girl looks pretty much like another?" she lied about the one thing she forgot. It was Gabrielle's own image on the silver coin.

The young man laughed.

"Corlis!" Get over here boy and leave the warrior be!" an older man shouted from behind the bar.

The young man excused himself quickly and left Gabrielle to her meal.


Gabrielle leaned her back against the wall, taking in the assortment of characters inside the busy tavern. She sat in the back, beside the kitchen door, sipping on her second mug of mead. The heavy meal, the warm fire, and the drink, all combined to put her in an easy, relaxed state; something she hadn't felt in quite some time.

A woman walked into the tavern, a quiet baby in her arms, a small child hiding behind her skirt. The woman appeared timid and afraid, but there was a certain look of determination in her eyes. Gabrielle watched as the woman bravely approached the older man that tended bar beside the younger one, who first greeted Gabrielle. The small blonde noticed more than mere determination in the woman's gaze. It was almost a fierce, yet silent desperation.

"Excuse me, sir. Would you have a room for the night, something I could work in exchange for? I can cook, clean, or serve," she explained with a hopeful look.

"Just gave away the last room. You can bed in the stable if there's an empty stall," the older man said gruffly.

As the woman nodded and turned away, he called back to her. "Look, if you want a hot meal, I'll give you enough for you and the kid. Got a tubful of dishes in the kitchen that need washin'."

"Thank you, sir," the woman said and Gabrielle continued to watch until the woman passed her, to walk into the kitchen.

As the woman moved past, Gabrielle felt that the stranger was probably many seasons younger than her physical appearance indicated. She stared at Gabrielle, pulling her child along by the hand. The small blonde simply stared at the small bundle in the strange woman's arms. The stranger paused at Gabrielle's stare, unconsciously pulling her children closer to her.

Gabrielle sighed deeply and got up from her seat, approaching the older man at the bar.

"Give that woman my room," she said shortly.

"You crazy?"

Gabrielle had to stand on her tiptoes to do it, but she grabbed the neck of the man's shirt, pulling him hard down to the bar. The smaller woman had surprise on her side; that and the fact that she was in no mood for an argument at this point in the evening.

"I am going to sleep in that spot in the stable," Gabrielle hissed. "You are to tell the woman that, out of the goodness of your heart, she doesn't have to cook or clean your miserable dishes." Gabrielle flipped another few dinars onto the wooden counter. "This is for her food. I'll be here all night. If I find out that the woman didn't get the room…or the hot bath I paid for, I'll be back to discuss this further with you. Do you understand?"

The muscles in Gabrielle's arm stood out against the tight leather of her sleeve and the portly man could only nod, the small woman's surprising strength holding his face down to her level. Gabrielle shoved the man back slightly and walked from the tavern, a number of admiring eyes following the small warrior in the dark cloak.


Gabrielle had slept in worse places by far. Actually, she experienced a pang of lonesome homesickness, lying on the soft, dry hay in the stable's loft. She remembered the times she and her sister, Lila, spent the hot summer evenings sleeping in the loft of the barn in Potidaea. Her reminiscing turned painful when she thought about the nights she and Xena would have been more than grateful for a nice dry stall sleep in. She shook off the waves of anguish that threatened to overwhelm her. She could no longer afford to feel sorry for herself, breaking down into tears at the slightest provocation. She was out in a world where human frailties were considered a weakness. There was no one to protect her from those who were stronger or smarter. She was on her own and the only way to stay alive was to keep up your guard. With that thought rolling through her brain, the young Queen fell into an exhausted slumber. For the first time in her life, Gabrielle slept lightly, knowing she was the only thing to stand between danger and herself.

She surprised herself by waking just before dawn the following morning. Actually, the sky was a rather predawn gray and seemed to stay that way for the longest time. Gabrielle was up and washed before the sun eventually made it's way into the sky. The Queen couldn't help wondering what her father would be doing, allowing so much time to lapse before he piloted his chariot across the sky.

Gabrielle had a thought just before she fell asleep the previous evening. It was an idea, although she wasn't sure it was the smartest idea she'd ever had, but it was a plan, and it most certainly was the opposite of what Gabrielle would ever do.

"I need to purchase a mount," she said to the man who walked into the stable that morning.

The grizzled looking man rubbed his hand over a few days worth of beard growth as he appraised the small figure in front of him. She was a tiny thing, but he'd lived in this part of Greece long enough to know that size didn't count for much. He'd seen smart warriors live a heck of a lot longer than the big, dumb beefy ones.

"Heard you sold a herd up at the Amazon village?" he asked.

"Word travels quick around here," Gabrielle responded warily.

"That ain't the half of it. Guess I was wonderin' what happened to your own mount if you brought a herd up from Thessaly."

The man made a good point, but Gabrielle was finding that she was becoming a quick thinker, or liar, however you wanted to look at it.

"I sold him, too. Hey, I saw the money the Amazons were offering for Thessalian horseflesh," Gabrielle grinned sheepishly, "guess my greed got the better of me."

The man laughed loudly. It appeared that Gabrielle came up with a concept that the old man could understand.

"Let's walk out to the corral. I'll show ya what I got."

Gabrielle took one step and looked down at her boot. The soft mud she thought she stepped in was something else entirely.

"Lovely," she whispered. "What a nice way to start the day."

The old man laughed again, slapping Gabrielle on the back as he passed. "If it's brown and it's warm, it ain't mud!"

He continued laughing as Gabrielle followed along, rolling her eyes. Note to self, stable hands have an odd sense of humor! Gabrielle kept the last thought to herself.

They walked up to the corral where a couple of patrons from the tavern were already haggling over a scrawny looking mare.

"Now this one here is nice and gentle, she--"

"That one. How much?" Gabrielle asked, pointing her finger to the far side of the fenced in area.

"Are you insane?"

"How much?" Gabrielle insisted.

"You do know that's a stallion, don't ya? He ain't no ridin' in the country animal, he's a warhorse, and as wild an' unbroke as they come."

"How big do you think he is?" Gabrielle asked the man, quietly reevaluating the insane notion.

I'd say 15 hands to his back would be a fair guess," he answered. The old man looked at Gabrielle, waiting to see if he'd misjudged her.

Gabrielle swallowed hard. She decided she needed a horse to help her put some distance between her and her home. Gabrielle would definitely choose the gentle mare, and anyone asking after her would certainly be told that a short blonde bought the most timid animal of the lot, and they would immediately know that the buyer was Gabrielle. Completely opposite, she repeated. The snow-white stallion reared up on its hind legs and kicked the fence nearby where the men from the tavern were dealing. They scrambled out of the way, throwing curses toward the beast.

"Oh, yea…this is turning out to be a great day," Gabrielle muttered.

"Name your price…with a saddle," Gabrielle added pointedly, and she and the old man shook on it.

It took three men to get a bridle and saddle on the wild horse, but they each held a noose around the stallion's neck as Gabrielle approached. The horse eyed her warily as she stepped up, the animal's muscles jumping and quivering with anticipation. It snorted air through its nostrils and to the small woman; it may as well have been fire.

Gabrielle gingerly took the reins, the horse pawed at the ground with his front hoof when she placed a hand against the saddle. Xena taught Gabrielle to ride, but she never considered doing anything this crazy. Gabrielle knew the Thessalian secret to breaking horses, but she'd never practiced it. She was seriously wondering if it was truth or just a rumor she'd gleaned from a drunken centaur.

The Queen caught the men from the tavern out of the corner of her eye. They added a few more to their number in the last few moments and she watched as three more showed up. They exchanged handshakes and began tossing money in a pile, and she suddenly realized they were betting on her little situation. She was rather curious as to whether they were betting on her or the horse.

The old man stood behind her and laced his fingers together to give her a leg up. "As soon as your ass hits the saddle, they drop the ropes," he said in warning.

Gabrielle nodded her head and took a deep breath. Well, this is about as opposite as you can get, old girl.

Gabrielle took the hand up and the instant she hit the saddle, she tucked both feet into the stirrups. The men dropped the ropes and scrambled for the fence. There must have been a dozen gamblers around the corral now. There was only one problem with it all…the horse wouldn't move.

The animal looked at the men scrambling over the fences as though he didn't even know anyone sat astride him yet. The long white neck turned and the animal was very nearly eye-to-eye with the Queen. Gabrielle thought if it hadn't been so damned dangerous, the stallion's antics would actually be laughable. She thought that for all of three heartbeats, because that's how long it took the animal to realize she was there.

"Hey, there," she murmured nervously to the horse.

She didn't know it was possible for a horse to jump straight into the air. She certainly never saw Argo do that. She did a good job of hanging on while the animal was airborne, but the minute the streak of lightning hit the ground, the Queen, and the saddle parted company. She even fancied she heard one of the men saying that he didn't know a woman could fly straight up into the air like that. Of course, in the young Queen's mind, the flying part wasn't so bad. It was when she landed in the dirt, and assorted other soft piles of things she would rather not mention, that her day started getting worse.

She looked up from her position on the ground, flat on her back and swore the horse was laughing as loudly as the men watching the display were.

"Well, this day just keeps getting better and better," Gabrielle got up slowly, wiping a foul smelling mess off her sleeve. That's when she heard it.

"Hey, little darlin'," one of the tavern patrons called out. "If you're lookin' for somethin' to mount, I'll give you a ride that'll be a lot safer!"

"Get him back over here!" Gabrielle said coldly and the stable hands were quick to comply.

The whole routine was about to begin again, but this time Gabrielle wasn't going to waste time. She would have to put her plan into action the moment she hit the saddle. She took a deep breath, just like the last time. If this trick didn't work, she was silently reminding herself to go back to that bar in Athens, where she waited all afternoon for Xena, and castrate a certain drunken centaur.

The stallion was waiting around this time. The moment he felt Gabrielle's weight, slight as it was, he was airborne. The Queen didn't waste her opportunity either. She felt herself rising from the saddle and leaned over the beast's neck, quickly grasping one of the animal's ears. She lowered her head further and bit into the horse's ear. It wasn't a little nip, but a full-fledged bite. Gabrielle wondered if she went too far when she felt her own teeth, bite into each other.

The stallion came straight to earth on all four legs. It let out a neigh, that while it wasn't a scream, it was the highest pitched sound Gabrielle ever heard come from a horse's throat. The animal stood stock still, quivering from tip to tail, sort of like a dog, shaking the water from its coat. The animal pawed the ground once and snorted, shaking his mane back and forth.

Gabrielle composed herself, listening to the deafening silence around her, a smug smile appearing unbidden on her lips. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and tested the stallion against the rein. He did exactly what his mistress bid, but the look in his eye indicated he wasn't sure why.

Suddenly the noise began and men started laughing, talking, and arguing all at once. The amazed and the ones who said they knew she could do it, all congratulated the small blonde. Gabrielle thanked the well-wishers, doing her best to slink away in the ensuing commotion. The last thing she needed was talk of a small blonde who tamed a fierce stallion. Although, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that Xena and the Amazons would never take the character in the legend these men were about to spread, for their Gabrielle. She dismounted and led the huge stallion from the corral.

"I never would have believed it, if I hadn't of seen if fer myself!" the old man exclaimed, almost to himself, as Gabrielle left the stable.


Gabrielle made her way through the end of town, managing to ignore the stares of those who simply had to do a double take at the tiny woman on the huge stallion's back. She started past the maze of market vendors and she paused her horse when she saw the woman from last night. She watched as the young woman gave her small daughter a hard chunk of bread to chew on and tucked the young girl into the top of a wagon, loaded with household and personal belongings. The woman looked into a bundle of moving cloth beside the girl, smiling as she adjusted the objects around the baby to protect her on all sides.

The youngster appeared to be three or four summers, judging by her height. She gnawed on the piece of bread, distracted by the sites and sounds from the market.

"Ooh, mama…look at the sweets there." The young girl pointed in Gabrielle's direction.

When Gabrielle pulled even with the wagon, the woman was on the other side, securing the harness that held the roan mare pulling the old wagon. The youngster looked at the blonde and smiled broadly.

"I remember you," she said. "From last night."

Gabrielle enjoyed the way the easy smile transformed the little blonde-haired girl's face into a small bundle of sunshine. What captured the Queen completely were the incredible green eyes that made her feel as if she were looking at her own image.

"I remember you, too," Gabrielle replied.

"Wanna bite?" the girl asked, holding her bread out to the Queen.

Gabrielle chuckled. "No, but thank you. I don't think I'll have any breakfast this morning."

"Oh," the girl responded seriously, "you don't have money for food neither, huh?"

Gabrielle's heart broke at the words and the expression on the child's face. Just then, the girl's mother climbed aboard the front of the wagon, and when she looked back to her children, she met Gabrielle's eyes.

The young Queen saw another mirror image in the woman's face. Pain and unhappiness made themselves known from within the stranger's carefully guarded features. The woman pulled back at Gabrielle's attempt to draw the stranger in with a smile.

"Good morning," the small blonde finally said.

"Tai, don't bother the warrior," the woman said and snapped the reins on the horse's back. She steered the wagon clear of the growing throng of people visiting the market and left.

The young girl waved a tiny hand at Gabrielle and the young woman found herself repeating the action.

Gabrielle noted the wagon taking the same road she would be using, since it was the least traveled path into Thrace. The Queen visited a few of the food vendors and bought more food than she would be able to eat in days. She tied the sack onto her horse's saddle and looked back toward the booth that had so captured the young girl's attention. She smiled at her horse and patted his neck. The white stallion snorted a bit in response.

"Yea, I know," Gabrielle said to her mount. "I shouldn't, but I'm a sucker."

The Queen walked over to the vendor and when she returned, she tucked the small sack into the larger one on the saddle. It was a good thing she worked with a staff and built up her upper body strength, she told herself. Mounting her horse again was an athletic feat, considering his back was about as high as the top of her head. She was actually starting to get the hang of jumping up and pulling her body onto the beast's back.

It was a good two candlemarks later by the time the small blonde had the blacksmith fashion a new set of shoes for her horse, and she was traveling down the quiet road. Most of the roads to Pella were non-stop traffic, but Gabrielle knew that roads like this, in poor condition, or used by farmers for cattle and sheep, were the most likely route for someone trying to stay out of the flow of the city. There was just one real drawback to that fact and as she spied the woman's wagon up ahead of her, she saw four of them surrounding the woman and her children.

Trail thieves were always common, but you took your chances when you traveled the back roads. They knew the people who used the out-of-the-way side roads, usually had something to hide themselves, therefore they were the least likely to report the bandits.

They all looked up as Gabrielle strolled in on the huge white stallion, stopping beside the wagon. She acted as if she hadn't a clue as to what was going on.

"Nice day, isn't it?" Gabrielle commented to the men, cheerily. "Think we'll get any rain?" she asked, looking into the sky.

One of the young men on the ground in front of her followed her eyes, looking up into the sky. The man next to him slapped him in the head; he was obviously the leader of the group. Gabrielle lifted her leg over her horse's neck and jumped to the ground, landing in front of the men. The leader eyed her stature, and then followed her body down to the weapons in her boots.

"What do you want?" he asked suspiciously.

"My friends were waiting her for me to catch up with them," Gabrielle offered, keeping a hand on the stallion's rump as she spoke.

"No they weren't, we stopped ‘em," the first young man replied, only to be slapped in the head again by his friend.

"I see," Gabrielle began.

Two of the four men began to sidle their way behind the small blonde. The white stallion neighed and shook his head back and forth.

"That horse of yer's is a might skittish," the leader said, drawing his sword and taking a step forward.

Gabrielle reached for her sais and easily flipped them over so the handles were in her grasp, the shafts tucked against the inside of her forearms.

"I guess he just doesn't like anyone behind him," the Queen said. Without moving her eyes, she saw the shadow the man moving up behind her, cast on the ground ahead of her.

"Neither do I," Gabrielle finished ominously.

Reaching out quickly with her left hand, Gabrielle placed a gentle, yet well placed jab into her horse's rear flank. The stallion knew exactly what the young woman was thinking because he kicked out with both of his rear legs, striking each man and causing them to sail a good 10 feet away.

The Queen stepped into action, easily knocking out the first man in front of her. She knocked aside a few blows from the leader's sword, waiting for her opening. It came and she took advantage, rendering the tall man unconscious with a shocking uppercut to the jaw.

By the time Gabrielle looked at the four, very unconscious men, the young girl that the woman called, Tai, was jumping up and down in the back of the wagon.

"Wow, mama did you see that…did you see that?" she giggled with glee.

"You better start off and put as much distance as you can between you and these guys before they wake up," Gabrielle instructed the woman. "Oh, wait."

The Queen turned back to her horse, patting him on the neck. "Good boy," she said softly. She grabbed the large sack of food and stood before the woman.

The woman eyed her with something more than wariness; almost fear. "I don't have any money…anything of value. You can look, but it's just personal stuff in the wagon, I promise. I just ask that you don't hurt my babies."

"What?" Gabrielle asked in awe. "Do you think--look, I'm not like them. I'm not a thief, and I most certainly would never hurt your children. I…uhm, I have too much, she said, holding out the sack to the woman. "I hate to see it go to waste."

When the woman wouldn't take the bag, Gabrielle laid it beside her in the wagon. "Look, I know you don't have to believe me, but I really am a nice person. I just--" Gabrielle turned her head sharply at the sound of the baby crying, tears filling the Queen's eyes at the natural response.

"I just thought that maybe since we seem to be headed the same way, we might travel together for a while. As you can see," Gabrielle offered a small smile, waving her hands around her. "I can come in rather handy at times."

For the first time the woman smiled and Gabrielle thought it made all the difference to her appearance.

"Well, I have to admit, you're right there. I do thank you for the protection…and yes, we'd be happy for you to keep us company for a spell."

"Great," Gabrielle jumped up on the stallion's back and rode beside the woman in the wagon. It was simply nice to have someone to talk to again.

"Just one thing, warrior," the stranger said.

Gabrielle looked up, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"Someone should have told you, but…well, you smell pretty bad," she said to Gabrielle.

The Queen's entire face flushed scarlet. "I…uhm…" Gabrielle looked down at her clothes, unwilling to think about what the stuff was that had dried and caked on her leather shirt and trousers. "I had an accident. I'll wash them, and me, as soon as we stop."

"Es okay," Tai said, listening from her spot in the wagon. "That happens to me sometimes, too."

"Thanks," Gabrielle said, fighting off a grin, simply happy for some human company.

Chapter 12

"…den I turned over, and wham! I knocked the big monster down…and den I--"

"Tai! Honey," the woman said to the bundle of non-stop energy in the back of the wagon. "Why don't you take a nap, sweetie?"

"Not tired!" Tai answered, jumping up and down as Gabrielle turned her head to avoid having the child see the grin on her face. "See what I have? I'm gonna be a warrior someday, too!" She smiled brightly and pulled out a small wooden sword.

"And how old are you, little warrior?" Gabrielle asked.

The woman in the wagon didn't say much, her daughter carrying on the bulk of the conversation with Gabrielle. The Queen was rather desperate for a little talk, even if it was with a child.

"This many." Tai held up her hand, extending all five fingers in Gabrielle's direction.

"Five summers?" The Queen asked in surprise.

"Uh huh…and I'm gonna be a warrior, just like you!"

Gabrielle blanched a little at that. I wonder if this is how Xena felt when I tried to be like her?

The stranger's voice broke into Gabrielle's musings.

"She's small for her age. I've been telling her all her life that she was too small to be a warrior," she gave the Queen a slight smile. "Seeing someone like you, well I guess I'm going to have to let her have her dreams now."

They were able to cover quite a bit of ground before the sun was high up in the sky. They traveled at something more than a leisurely pace, Gabrielle often wondering during the trip, what her new friends were running from. Now you're letting that bard's imagination get the best of you. She may be in a hurry simply because she's running to someone!

"Wus your name?" Tai asked a surprised Gabrielle.

The small blonde never really thought about what she would say to anyone who would ask her name.

"Brianna," she answered without thinking.

"Pretty name," Tai answered.

"Hey, my little warrior friend, are you hungry?" Gabrielle asked.

The youngster looked up at Gabrielle hopefully, then over at her mother and shook her head back and forth. The woman reached out a hand to tousle her daughter's blonde hair, a sad smile on her face. The action pained Gabrielle. Too damn young, to have to do without.

"It's okay. I have plenty of food," Gabrielle looked at Tai, then her mother. "Look," she spoke to the woman driving the wagon. "I understand not wanting to be obligated to anyone, but lets just say the food is payment. I mean, you are letting me travel with you, after all."

Gabrielle smiled, and when she did, most people had trouble refusing her anything. The stranger found that she could count herself among the many caught in the power of the small blonde's spell.

"All right, it's a deal," the woman answered with a smile of her own.

"I bet you're about ready for a break," Gabrielle told her. "Why don't we follow this creek into the trees and stop for a rest, and something to eat?"

"I guess I could do with a walk around. Driving a wagon all day can be back breaking, that's for sure."'

"Come on, up this way," Gabrielle led the way. "I promise I'll sit downwind until I can clean up."


Gabrielle scrubbed her face and hands, removing her outer leather shirt, which had the worst of the corral muck on it. She would wait until they stopped for the night and wash her clothes, allowing them time to dry overnight.

When the Queen returned to the wagon, she found Tai, fighting imaginary foes in the grass, and the woman, cradling the baby against her chest, as the infant fed greedily on the breast she clutched with tiny hands. Gabrielle paused a moment, fighting down the feelings of her own loss, as she watched the sight. The woman looked up and caught the expression on Gabrielle's face. The Queen tried to cover her momentary anguish with a smile.

"She's big." Gabrielle stated the obvious.

"Yes, eight moons, now, and she just keeps getting bigger. I swear, she'll be as tall as this one is tiny," she indicated Tai, still battling her imaginary monsters, oblivious to her mother's softly spoken words.

There was an awkward silence before Gabrielle turned and pounced on Tai. The girl giggled and screamed as she tried to squirm away from the small blonde.

"Would you like to eat?" Gabrielle asked the girl in her arms.

"Yes, please." Tai giggled again.

"Okay, lets get you cleaned up first," Gabrielle replied, carrying the youngster down to the creek.

The woman looked up with concern as the small blonde walked away with her daughter, but she watched as the usually shy and reticent young girl, put her arms around the blonde's neck and allowed herself to be carried to the water's edge. The woman kept her eyes on the pair the entire time, relaxing only when she saw them returning, hand in hand.

By the time Gabrielle set out the food from the sack, the woman was just finishing changing the baby. The slender, dark-haired woman tried to hold the baby and see to it that Tai ate the food before her. Gabrielle watched as the woman attempted to do three things at once.

"Here, let me hold the baby while you and Tai eat," Gabrielle offered.

The woman appeared to want to trust Gabrielle, but there was something in her eye. It was a look of wariness, as if the stranger was still not convinced that Gabrielle meant her no harm. She had the air of someone who spent a long while building up a natural mistrust for people. Eventually, she conceded, and placed the large bundle in Gabrielle's arms.

The stranger watched, as Gabrielle's eyes took on a haunted expression, looking down on the now sleeping baby. The woman's brow furrowed together, still unable to ascertain whether the small warrior could be completely trusted or not.

"She's so beautiful," the Queen said softly. "Just like you," she reached out and poked one finger at Tai's belly.

The small girl laughed and scrambled closer to the small blonde. Having eaten her fill, a luxury Tai hadn't experienced in a fortnight, she laid her head against Gabrielle's thigh and promptly fell asleep. The young woman reached down a hand to gently stroke the girl's hair.

Quickly pushing down the feelings that were rising insistently to the surface, Gabrielle laughed off the intense emotions that she couldn't erase from her face.

"As bad as I smell, I can't believe she could fall asleep like that; so fast."

"She's like that," the woman replied. "One minute she's running in circles, the next, she's curled up, sound asleep. She usually doesn't take to strangers so well, though."

"Guess I just have that way with kids," Gabrielle smiled sadly. "Maybe it's because I'm not much bigger than they are," she added dryly.

Gabrielle smiled down at the sleeping infant, tenderly brushing her fingertips across the baby's cheek. "What's her name?"

"Emery," the woman answered. She took another bite of the bread in her hand, continuing to watch, and feel there was more to this small woman than she understood. "My name is Helen," she added, hesitating slightly.

Gabrielle couldn't help it, looking down at the baby who grabbed one of the blonde's fingers and held on tightly. The young Queen's eyes misted over and she felt a single tear roll down her cheek.

"You're a very lucky woman, Helen," Gabrielle responded hoarsely.

The stranger examined the myriad of emotions that passed across the young woman's features. She never expected tears from a warrior, but then again, she never met a warrior quite like this sensitive woman. The tears spoke volumes to the stranger, a silent message that communicated in a language that only another tortured heart would understand.

"Brianna," the woman said to Gabrielle. "My name isn't Helen…it's Ella. Helen is my sister's name."

Gabrielle never looked up at the woman, knowing what a step it was for Ella to put her trust in a stranger. The young Queen felt that she could do no less than reciprocate with the truth.

"And my name isn't Brianna…it's Gabrielle," the Queen finally looked up into the relieved eyes of her new friend. "It's very nice to meet you, Ella," she smiled.

Ella released a nervous laugh. "If only my sister knew that I've been using her name since we left Ambracia. So, Gabrielle, who is the real Brianna…your sister?"

A pained look flashed across her features as Gabrielle prepared to speak. "No…I…it's not my sister." Gabrielle wasn't quite prepared to open up just yet, unsure of exactly what she could reveal about herself; what her heart would allow her to say, without breaking down completely. "It's a subject better spoken of later."

Ella nodded in understanding. She could see the young woman suffered, and Ella definitely knew something of suffering. "Later," she agreed. "Perhaps we should get back on the road…cover some more ground before we camp for the night."

Gabrielle nodded, wondering how she would explain her traveling companion. How to I describe who I really am and why I'm running away from my life?


"Having fun up here?" Gabrielle asked the small girl seated in front of her.

"Uh huh," Tai nodded her head up and down, pausing to turn and smile up at the blonde.

Gabrielle found that Tai's naturally rambunctious behavior was sedated as long as she rode astride the Queen's white stallion. The small girl held onto the pommel with both hands, appearing to enjoy the view from atop the large horse. They walked beside the wagon, the stallion's height putting them on the same level as Ella, driving the rig.

"Make him go fast, Bri," Tai pleaded, rocking forward as if her own motion might propel the horse onward at a speedier pace.

"Honey," Ella called out to her daughter. "Her name is Gabrielle."

"Nooo…she said…before, Mama. She said Bri…bri-ranna."

Ella looked across at Gabrielle. "Well, she was just teasing you then, sweetie. Her name is Gabrielle."

"Gabri…llel," Tai tried to wrap her tongue around the new name. "Bri…I like Bri." The youngster was adamant, and seemed happy about her decision.

Ella opened her mouth to object, but Gabrielle held her hand up to the woman.

"It's okay, someone else used to call me that," a bittersweet smile appeared on the young Queen's face. "I'm used to it…really."

Ella shook her head back and forth, an amused grin on her face. "I swear, that girl could get away with murder around you, Gabrielle."

The small blonde laughed and Gabrielle realized she couldn't remember the last time she did that. Gods, not to know how long it's been since I laughed. What's happening to me? Somewhere in the far recesses of the Queen's mind, something called to her, trying to make itself known. It was like a gnawing ache, never increasing in intensity, but always there, steady and uncomfortable.

"Come on, Bri…make him go fast!" Tai began bouncing in the saddle.

"You want to go fast, huh?" Gabrielle asked, wrapping her arm more securely around the youngster's middle. "Yah!" Gabrielle cried out as she used her heels to spur the white stallion forward.

Ella laughed at her daughter's squeal of delight as the huge animal carried the small blonde and her giggling package quickly down the road and up the hill in only heartbeats. Ella surprised herself, having no fear that Gabrielle would harm her child. Here they'd known the small blonde for less than a day, and already Gabrielle felt like an old friend. She continued to watch them as they topped the rise and looked into the valley below. Suddenly, Gabrielle spurred her mount, swiftly riding back to the wagon.

"Here you go, pumpkin," Gabrielle said, breathlessly, as she lifted Tai off the horse's back and into the wagon.

"Gabrielle, is something wrong?" Ella asked in response to the look of concern on the small blonde's face.

"Ella, I need to leave you alone for a bit. Don't worry…" Gabrielle hurriedly added at the woman's frightened expression, "…I won't be far. I'll be in those woods over there and I'll be able to see everything that happens."

"Gabrielle, I don't understand. Did you see something over the hill?"

"I'm sorry, I'm not explaining this well. There's a small band of warriors…it's okay, they're Amazons and they won't harm you. It's just…well, I just can't let them see me. Please, say you understand?"

"Gabrielle…are these the people you're running from?" Ella asked.

"Yes," the young Queen answered. "They won't bother you, but I know them and they may see you alone and insist on helping you out. If they do want to escort you, I--"

"I can handle them," Ella answered confidently. She took note of Gabrielle's worried frown when the blonde looked over at Tai.

"Tai, honey," Ella began. "Remember when we left home and I told you that when strangers come around, you had to be quiet as a mouse?"

Tai nodded her head in understanding.

"Tai," Gabrielle drew the young girl's attention toward her. "I don't want you to lie, because that's bad, right?"

Again, the youngster nodded.

"Some women are coming down the road; warrior women, but I want to ask you not to say my name while they're here. Do you understand? Pretend you're a warrior and that you're keeping a big secret. Okay?"

The small girl held up her hand; her thumb and forefinger just a pinch apart. "Quiet as a little mouse," Tai whispered.

"Go on, before someone spots you," Ella said as the blonde quickly turned her animal away from the road. "Gabrielle," Ella called out.

Gabrielle turned, a frantic look of trepidation etched across her face.

"Don't worry, my friend," Ella smiled reassuringly.

A quick smile from Gabrielle was all the blonde allowed herself, before urging her horse off into the trees.


Gabrielle watched from deep within the darkened forest as the small group of Amazons hailed and approached the wagon. The young Queen knew the leader well. She remembered her first meeting with Tarazon . The young warrior literally fell unconscious before she and Xena last season, when Hera's sleeping sickness spread through their village.

Tarazon started out in the guards, under Eponin's direction, quickly being promoted to Watch Commander. Gabrielle had no idea the small group of Amazons would be coming back from Thrace so soon. They were visiting their sisters, in the northernmost provinces, but weren't expected back, into Gabrielle's village, for another week. She could only assume that Tarazon was missing her new bride. The young Queen pulled further back, into the shadows, to watch the meeting that was taking place in the road below.

"Good Afternoon," Tarazon hailed the woman driving the wagon.

"Afternoon," Ella answered with what she hoped was a convincing smile. "What can I help you with?"

"Are you traveling all alone?" Tarazon asked. "I don't mean to pry, and we mean you no harm, but it can be dangerous for a woman alone on these back roads. Won't you allow us to escort you?"

"Oh, I'm almost there now." Ella laughed. "I could have used you a few days back, but there's no need at this point. My children and I are going to live with my sister and her husband…it's just the next farming community up the road."

"Still, it's not the safest area in the known world, and Queen Gabrielle would have my hide if--"

"Excuse me, what did you say?" Ella wondered if she heard the name right.

"My Queen doesn't teach us to neglect those in need," Tarazon said slowly, smiling at the youngster seated beside the dark-haired woman.

"Your Queen…Gabrielle?" Ella was simply dumbfounded. Had she been traveling with the Queen of the Amazons all day? No, that's impossible, it's another Gabrielle…It would explain it, though, wouldn't it? A small warrior…woman warrior.

Tarazon was beginning to think the woman simple-minded, but she shook her head and smiled.

"Sorry, my thoughts were elsewhere. Honestly, my brother in law will be on his way already to the crossroads. He's going t meet me there. I do appreciate the offer, but--"

"And what's your name?" Tarazon interrupted to smile at Tai.

Tai sidled closer to her mother.

"She's shy is all," Ella explained.

"I can understand that," Tarazon grinned, reaching over to muss the young girl's blonde hair.

"Oooh, pretty," Tai said before she could catch herself. The youngster immediately slapped her own small hand over her mouth.

Tarazon chuckled. "It's okay. You like this, huh? It's called a tattoo," the Amazon turned her wrist over to display the Amazon wedding symbol tattooed there. "See these blue feathers? Now if I was a Princess or a Queen, those feathers would be red."

"It's very nice," Ella responded. "Well, I best be going…I don't want my brother in law to have to wait long."

"All right, if you insist, I defer to your judgment," Tarazon answered. "It was very nice meeting you. And you too," she pointed at Tai and the girl finally smiled.

"Let's be on our way," Tarazon called to the women riding behind her.

When they rode away, Gabrielle watched as Ella steered the wagon slowly up the road. The Queen followed the Amazons for a short while until a younger woman called, Alli, looked behind her nervously, once or twice. Gabrielle knew the Amazons were now headed for home. She turned her horse and urged him into a light canter, easily catching up to Ella and the children.

Getting closer to the wagon, Gabrielle reached down and rubbed the white stallion's neck, slowing the animal down to a walk.

"I don't even know what to call you yet. It's funny I was always so afraid of horses, but I don't feel that way sitting up here on you. You move as quick as lightning…so how about that for a name? Do you approve, Lightning?"

The stallion snorted in response.

"I'll take that as a yes, then. Come on, Lightning, lets catch up with the others."


"By the Gods, what did you roll in while wearing these?"

Ella sat on the bank of the creek, taking a soap and stiff brush to Gabrielle's leathers. The Queen held Tai, both she and the youngster taking a much-needed bath in a deep pool. The small and winding creek ended within a secluded copse of trees. Gabrielle was rather proud of herself for finding such a good campsite. She relied on Xena for many seasons for those skills.

"Ella, I told you, leave those be, I can scrub my clothes," Gabrielle answered.

"Nonsense. You're the one doing me a favor. Someone among us hates to get a b-a-t-h," Ella spelled out the word.

Ella paused to watch her daughter and the small blonde woman. The two laughed and giggled as if they were the only two people in the world. Ella appreciated the fact that Gabrielle's presence caused her daughter to open up and live the carefree life of a child again. She regretted her own actions, the ones that stole her daughter's childhood, putting them on the road, and demanded that Tai grow up too soon.

Gabrielle sat Tai on a large flat rock, slightly above the surface of the water. Gabrielle worked the soap into a lather and massaged it into her hair, repeating the procedure on the small girl. Gabrielle used the foamy lather to create spikes in her hairdo, just as she and Lila did when they were children. Tai laughed and clapped her hands.

"Me, too, Bri!"

The youngster looked into the water at her own reflection, pointing at the stiff points that stuck out at weird angles from her head. Gabrielle changed the shape by flattening the hair into one long line down the middle of the girl's head.

"Okay, let me show you how warrior's rinse the soap off, okay?"

Tai nodded as Gabrielle scooped her into her arms and walked into the waist high water.

"Now, we hold our breath under the water…"

"I can do that!" Tai exclaimed.

"Good girl! Okay, we hold our nose, go under the water, and shake our head back and forth," Gabrielle explained, trying to make it sound like a fun game. "Ready?"

Tai had no fear of the water and held onto her nose, just as Gabrielle, did. The blonde held onto the girl in her arms and ducked under the water, rubbing the soap as the youngster had her eyes squeezed shut, shaking her head. They popped up and Gabrielle rinsed the last bit of soap from their heads.

"Ready to eat some of that stew?" The Queen asked.

"Yes, please…I'm hungry!"

"Well, we better see this big warrior gets her fill Ella," Gabrielle laughed. She deposited the child in her mother's waiting arms, the woman wrapping a large towel around the youngster.

When Gabrielle stretched out her arms to set Tai down, Ella looked for the mark that, in her heart, she knew would already be there. The young Queen never saw the dark-haired woman's eyes widen in surprise when she glanced at the artistic design tattooed on the inside of Gabriele's wrist. There, set into the Amazon crest, were a pair of red feathers.

So, what are you running from, my small Amazon Queen?

Gabrielle dried herself off and put on the extra shift Ella lent her. Since they decided to stop for the night, Gabrielle accepted the clothing, draping her own leathers on sturdy branches by the fire. The Queen merely hoped they didn't run into any trouble during the night. It was hard for the small blonde to look intimidating under the best of circumstances. It would be nigh unto impossible in nothing but a cotton slip.

Gabrielle sat on a log beside the fire, breathing in the tempting aroma of the stew that Ella stirred in the cook pot. Gabrielle intended to set a snare for a rabbit, but a small peccary crossed her path and she brought him down quickly with her bow. It was an unusual thing for the young Queen to be camping under the stars and actually having someone else cook. A wave of lonesome nostalgia washed across her and she sat, pensively staring into the orange flames.

Ella noticed that Gabrielle was quieter than she had been all day, the young woman simply watching as Ella fed Tai and Emery, then as the dark-haired woman gently put each child to sleep. Finally, it was only the two women, alone at the fire. Ella could see the pain in the small blonde's face and she couldn't help but wonder what would make a woman who had everything, run away from her life? She knew if she came right out and asked, she would get that sad, mysterious smile of Gabrielle's. Ella, being the kind of person she was, felt the need to help her new friend. She drew in a deep breath and began.

"I'm not exactly who people think I am, Gabrielle."

"Few of us are, my friend," Gabrielle answered distractedly.

Ella took in another breath and held it for a moment. She almost couldn't understand it, risking so much for someone she hardly knew, but for some reason, she felt it was important to help this sad, young woman; that somewhere, in the total scheme of things, it would become essential that Gabrielle return to the way of life she was running away from.

"I killed a man," Ella said softly.

Gabrielle's head snapped around at that, her eyes searching the dark-haired woman's face. "You?"

Ella nodded her head, nervously licking dry lips.

"It was an accident, right?" Gabrielle questioned. "Or self defense…you probably had to. You had no other choice?"

"No…no, Gabrielle…I meant it," Ella responded, suddenly feeling the need to whisper. "I wanted him dead."

"I…I don't know what to say? What…I mean, can I do anything…to help you?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes, you can, actually. I need someone, Gabrielle…someone I can trust. If I could just tell someone about it, maybe…well, maybe I wouldn't have all these horrible feelings of guilt.

"Oh, Ella," Gabrielle placed a hand on the woman's arm. "Of course…if you think it will help, I'm here for you."

"I want someone to know what really happened, Gabrielle, in case…well, in case anything should happen to me, I want someone to be able to tell Tai and Emery the truth about what happened."

Once again, the dark-haired woman was taken back at the compassion and friendship offered by the small blonde. Not only had Ella never experienced this kind of unconditional friendship before, but she never would have expected this amount of sympathy from a stranger; an Amazon warrior.

Gabrielle watched as the woman seated next to her turned to stare into the fire, as if taking her eyes off Gabrielle could make it easier to tell her story.

"He was my husband," Ella began. "I first met him when my uncle brought him to dinner one evening. My father had just passed over and my mother and I were left alone to run our farm. It wasn't a big farm, but it was enough for us. My mother and my uncle decided that I should marry someone who could stay and run the farm."

Ella paused long enough to take a sip of her tea. "He was nice enough at first, but it was hard for me. I grew up on fairy tales…stories that said if you waited long enough, you would find the love of your life. Damar was a short man. I only mention that, because I truly think it's what made him such a mean person. It was like he had an obsession about it. He was always comparing another man to himself, not by his character, but by how much physically taller he was than Damar."

"For some reason, Damar took it into his head that he was a small man on the inside, simply because he was small on the outside. As the years passed, he grew more and more angry. He eventually turned to drink, because when he was drunk, he felt like a big man. Damar did a lot of things…bad things, to make himself feel big in his own eyes. I wasn't too bad to look at back then," Ella self-consciously pushed a lock of hair behind her ear.

"You know, he used to take me to town with him, just to show me off to the other men, as if that too would make him a big man. Eventually, even that changed. It was humiliating for me. As long as Damar wasn't drinking, I was a bauble to make other men jealous. Once the liquor got to him, he would accuse me of flirting, say terrible, hurtful things to me. Then he would get angry with the other men, for watching me. He would lose control over the very reason he brought me there in the first place.

By the time we would get home, it would be my fault, of course. At first it would be the men, then it would be me."

"But, why you? Why not take his anger out at the men looking at you?" Gabrielle asked.

"I suppose because he knew I couldn't hit him back. It took me a long time to realize Damar was a frightened coward."

"Ella…he hit you?" Gabrielle felt the wet tears on her own cheeks.

"I was surprised the first time, and the second, and even the third time it happened. The next morning, Damar would always be sorry and he would promise that it would never happen it again. At first, I believed him. Then I continued to believe him because I wanted to believe. By then, it was too late. I was caught in a life I couldn't get free of. One day, Damar hit Tai. It wasn't enough to hurt here on the outside, but I know it affected her deeply. I swore then, that I would never allow him to hurt his daughters, the way he hurt me. I planned it all out. I began packing a little at a time, saving dinars when I could."

Tears ran down Ella's face and she brushed them away. Gabrielle jumped up and brought the waterskin back with her. The dark-haired woman took a few swallows and then continued.

"I was ready to leave. I wrote to my sister in Abdera and she and her husband said I could come stay with her. I knew her husband didn't really want me there, but I had no other options. I knew Damar wouldn't let me just leave, so we planned to sneak away when he was in town, but he came back early. He was drunk and very angry…I don't even remember how it happened exactly, but I do remember seeing him grab Tai by the back of the neck. I think…it happened so fast, Gabrielle, it was like I was watching myself take this big iron skillet and hit Damar in the back of the head. He didn't move…didn't breathe. Then we ran. I just scooped up my babies and ran…there was so much blood…" Ella mused, pausing in her narrative and staring into the flames.

"It was an accident, Ella. You couldn't allow that man to hurt your children," Gabrielle reasoned.

"I keep telling myself that, but I wonder if I'm just trying to justify what I did. Do you really think that, Gabrielle? You wouldn't say it just to make me feel better, would you?"

"I don't think I'm saying it for that reason at all, Ella. You went through a terribly abusive experience and it wasn't as if you planned on that happening. I know what it's like to do anything at all to protect the people you love. I know what it feels like to give up your whole life; everything you have, in the hope that you're making their life better."

Ella watched as Gabrielle turned back toward the fire, as if speaking aloud to herself. The dark-haired woman's heart felt lighter in the unburdening of her own secret. She never thought it would be possible for anyone to hear her tale, and still not judge her harshly. Amazingly enough, it was a stranger with her own tortured past who offered Ella absolution.

"Gabrielle, why does it sound like you're harboring some of your own demons?" Ella asked, laying a gentle hand on the small blonde's arm.

Tears filled Gabrielle's eyes and slowly spilled out, tracking their way down her tanned cheeks. Emerald eyes burned a deep green as the flames from the fire danced within the viridian orbs.

"What I'm running from, Ella, can't be compared to you or what you've done. The blood on my hands isn't there from anything noble at all. I--"

Gabrielle broke down, sobbing, drawing her knees up to her chest, unable to continue.

"Oh, Gabrielle," Ella put her arm around the young woman, listening to her cries. The dark-haired woman patiently waited for the blonde's tears to abate. "It's all right. I couldn't possibly think badly of you. I don't see that in you, the ability to hurt people."

"But I do," Gabrielle wiped the tears from her face. "Ella, I killed my baby."

The dark-haired woman knew how important the next few moments would be to the young Queen; how vital Ella's reaction would be to Gabrielle. Ella mustered all the compassion she could and let it shine from her eyes. Pulling back to look into Gabrielle's face, Ella offered the blonde a sympathetic smile.

"Gabrielle, you just told me that you know how it feels to be me, but I know some of what you're going through, too. I know what it's like to think the whole world is watching you, waiting to judge you. What it's like to feel guilt and pain pulling at you so hard that you don't think life is worth living anymore. Knowing these things, I have a very hard time thinking you could have possibly done anything to harm your own baby," Ella finished.

"I did. My baby…I was pregnant," Gabrielle replied calmly through her continued tears. "The Healer told me time and again, my wife told me…they said that I had to take it easy…that I couldn't do things, but I did them anyway."

"Gabrielle, that is not an unforgivable crime. We often don't heed the advice given to us, even when it's important, but that is an accident, not murder. Surely the people who care about you…your wife, surely she told you this?"

"I--I couldn't tell her what I did. She knows my nightmares, though," Gabrielle paused long enough to explain the dreamscape to her new friend.

In explaining the dreamscape to Ella, Gabrielle soon found herself describing more than she planned about herself, the village, and her friends. She looked up suddenly, realizing that she began to use the word Amazon. She wondered if she already revealed too much, falling silent.

"Gabrielle," Ella said softly. "I already know."


Ella reached out and gently grasped Gabrielle's wrist, turning it over. "It's hard to miss this."

"Oh," Gabrielle looked down at the tattoo. "Well, it's an Amazon tradition…all married couples have them"

"Yes, but only royalty have the feathers colored in red, don't they?"

Gabrielle was surprised at the woman's knowledge. How long had her new friend known? Gods, it must have been Tarazon!

"You're Gabrielle of Potidaea, aren't you?" Ella asked.

"How in the known world did you know that?" a stunned bard asked.

Ella smiled. "I once heard some wonderful stories from a traveling bard. He came into town and we listened to him at the local tavern. I don't remember his name, but I remember the stories he told. They were all about the Warrior Princess and how she mended her ways, all for the love of a small Amazon Queen, Gabrielle, the bard from Potidaea. That is you, isn't it?"

Smiling sadly through her tears, Gabrielle lowered her head and nodded.

"Tell me more, Gabrielle, of your life." Ella requested.

Gabrielle nodded and began again. It took a very long time, however, for the young Queen to bring up Xena. Eventually, Gabrielle found herself revealing her thoughts and fears to Ella. The small blonde did think it odd, though. While she was speaking to Ella, she realized how all of this sounded. It sounded…well, unbelievable.

"So, if all of this seems so unbelievable to my heart…to other people, why does it appear to make so much sense to my head?" Gabrielle asked.

Ella smiled at her friend. At least confusion was a start. Uncertainty looked much better on this young Amazon, rather than the firm conviction of her own guilt. Ella wasn't sure she had the answers that Gabrielle needed to hear, though.

"Gabrielle, I don't know if I can answer that. I do think you need to start questioning some of your feelings instead of just accepting them as the absolute truth."

"Like what kind of questions?" Gabrielle asked in a quiet voice.

Ella actually forgot her own sorrow for a time, seeing an uncharacteristic vulnerability in the small woman seated beside her, a frailty that hadn't been evident up to this point. The dark-haired woman thought it encouraging. She recognized how important it was for a warrior not to question their emotions, but she could only imagine the burden of guilt this young woman was struggling to carry. Ella couldn't even fathom the grief she would be experiencing if she'd lived in Gabrielle's place.

"Well, first of all, I can tell by the things you've told me about Xena that you and she share a very special kind of love. Now, does it make sense that a woman who would risk her life, time and again, would leave you at the first sign of trouble?"

"I guess not…" Gabrielle drawled, biting her lip. The Queen's brow furrowed as a look of intense concentration settled on her face.

"What is it, Gabrielle?"

"I…" Gabrielle shook her head back and forth, as if trying to shake the cobwebs loose. "I feel like something…answers are right there," Gabrielle reached out her hand, grasping air, "but the harder I try to reach them, the further they move away from me."

Gabrielle looked over at her knew friend, running a hand through newly shorn blonde locks. "Do I sound as crazy to you as I do to myself?" Nervous laughter erupted from her throat.

Ella laid a hand over Gabrielle's own. "Not crazy, only confused, my friend. Think about what you do, Gabrielle. Think very hard. I don't know why, but for some reason I feel as if a great deal depends on how you resolve all of this." Ella laughed aloud. "Now, I'm the one who sounds crazy, seeing shadows where there are none."

"You're a good friend, Ella. I'm glad I met you." Gabrielle entwined her fingers within Ella's delicate hand.

"My thoughts exactly," the dark-haired woman smiled.

Chapter 13

"Xena look out!" Gabrielle cried out, sitting up immediately and snatching her weapons.

"Mama, Bri's having bad dreams," Tai said loudly, which caused Emery to start crying.

Gabrielle's eyes quickly adjusted to the predawn darkness. She shivered, not from the cool of the morning, but from the last vestiges of the nightmare that still clung to her awareness. Moving swiftly, she knelt down beside Tai.

"Ssh, Tai, your mama needs her sleep."

"Too late," Ella grinned, stepping in the light that the burning coals in the campfire made. The slender woman held Emery in her arms and sat down to feed the fussing baby.

"Mama, I'm hungry, too," Tai chimed in.

"There's still time to sleep, Tai, don't you want to snuggle down in the blankets for a little while longer?" Gabrielle asked.

"Uh uh," the youngster shook her head back and forth.

Ella laughed at Gabrielle's attempt. "We might as well start our day," Ella chuckled.

Gabrielle rose and placed another log on the fire, watching as the dry wood caught spark and threw flames into the air, pushing back the darkness from around their small camp. They enjoyed a breakfast of fruit and cheese, Gabrielle helping Tai, while Ella fed the baby, Emery. By the time the sky had lightened to a pale gray, the small band was on their way.

"That same dream again?" Ella asked Gabrielle as the blonde road beside the wagon.

Gabrielle shook her head, turning to look at the dark-haired woman. "It was different this time. It was…I dreamed of Xena. This is the first time I haven't had that same nightmare I told you about."

"How was it different?" Ella asked.

Xe was in trouble," Gabrielle stated, flatly.

They rode along in relative silence, Tai's occasional chatter the only thing interrupting the quiet. Even the youngster eventually noticed the strained look on the blonde Amazon's face. Tai fell still, seated beside her mother on the slow moving wagon. Ella watched the young woman out of the corner of her eye, realizing it would be up to her to persuade the Amazon to open up her thoughts.

"It would help if you talked about it," Ella said at last.

"Hmph," Gabrielle snorted.

Seeing the slightly wounded look on Ella's face, the young Queen immediately regretted her callous action. She thought back to the time when a young blonde bard, hopelessly infatuated with the tall dark warrior she traveled with, experienced the same thing. Gabrielle remembered the hurt she suffered every time Xena, unwittingly, remained distant…keeping to herself, acting as if Gabrielle weren't even there. The young woman mustered up a small smile and offered it to Ella in apology.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to disregard you that way," Gabrielle added to the smile.

"I understand, Gabrielle. It's not in a warrior's nature to open up."

Gabrielle offered a bittersweet smile. "I'm not really a warrior, not a true one anyway."

"I suppose we always see ourselves differently than others view us," Ella responded. "Tell me what you're thinking so hard about today."

"What you said I should be thinking hard about," Gabrielle answered. "I've been trying to sort things out in my mind, you know, wondering why they make so much sense one minute and the same thoughts seem absolutely ludicrous the next. I dreamed of Xena," she added softly. "It looked like she was in trouble. I saw a large black panther stalking her…the rest was just bits here and there. It was different, though. Now, suddenly, part of me still thinks I'm doing the right thing, but then there's a very small part that wonders what in the known world I'm doing."

"Well, that's good, right?" Ella questioned.

"I'm not so sure. Ella, I've set myself on a path. I can't let a few doubts and insecurities steer me off course."

"Gabrielle, you talk about yourself as though you were a ship in the middle of a wild sea. You're a human being, filled with thought and emotions, many of them unpredictable and uncontrollable. You can't simply say, ‘I will be a certain way' and then expect it to miraculously be that way."

"That's exactly what I expect, Ella. My friend," Gabrielle softened her voice to explain. "A warrior can't afford to get caught up in feeling things. If I'm in the middle of a fight and I allow my emotions, my feelings, to get the better of me…I could get myself killed. What's worse, I could get someone around me killed."

"What are you smiling at?" Gabrielle asked.

"You," Ella kept her eyes straight ahead. "For a woman who keeps telling everyone that she's not a warrior, you sure do enjoy talking about what a warrior should be."

"I--" Gabrielle began, opening her mouth to speak. Knowing she was beat, the Queen simply closed her mouth again and turned her head, but not before she grinned affectionately at her friend.


"What is this?" Hera screamed at the dark-skinned man. "I was told you were a mystic who had abilities to rival a God. God of what? Stupidity?!

"Forgive me, my Queen, but--"

"Quiet!" Hera shouted as she paced one of the spacious rooms in the castle on Olympus. "You let Xena slip through your grasp and now you're losing her Amazon slut."

"I wouldn't exactly say, losing her," Ortolan said.

"Oh, no? Well, Mighty Mystic of Stupidity, what would you say? She's starting to think her own thoughts."

"Well, she is a Queen with considerable strengths and a strong will…argh--"

Immediately Ortolan dropped to his knees, fighting for breath. Hera sat down on a marble chair that appeared very throne-like. Ortolan gasped for air as an unseen force closed around his throat, crushing his windpipe. Hera smiled her most evil smile as the mystic finally realized it was the Goddess who was slowly squeezing the life from him.

"I am a Queen with considerable strength and it is my will alone that can either save you or crush you."

Ortolan nodded, groveling along the tile on his belly, clawing at the smooth floor. He nodded again.

Hera waved her hand distractedly and the only sounds in the chamber were the loud gasps of breath taken by the mystic, while the Goddess appeared lost in thought. She rose and quickly made her way from the room, pausing in front of the open doorway with her back to the dark-skinned man.

"Ortolan, are we clear on who is the Queen and who is the whore? Hmmm?"

"Quite, my Queen." The mystic rose, massaging his throat with a large hand. "I will not fail you."

Hera laughed then, the harsh and unforgiving sound echoing off the high columned walls. "If you do, Ortolan, I'll not simply put you back in the pits of Tartarus myself. I'll tie a rope around your neck and you'll spend eternity as an anchor for Charon's boat."

The Goddess' cold laughter filtered back to the mystic as he watched her walk briskly from the room. The fear the Olympic Queen could instill, even in a heartless soul such as Ortolan's, caused his nonexistent blood to chill.


They stopped in a quiet looking meadow for a short rest. The food Gabrielle purchased in Pella was running low and they would need to buy some more supplies in the next town. The small blonde began to feel guilty over the way she'd treated Ella and Tai during the morning. Baby Emery was oblivious, and as she held the child while Ella and Tai washed up, Gabrielle was taken back at what the unconditional love of a child felt like. Emery smiled and giggled as the blonde played peek-a-boo and kissed the baby's belly.

"She likes you, Bri. Doesn't she mama?"

Tai and Ella slipped up without Gabrielle noticing and the Queen blushed in embarrassment at being caught in the child-play.

Ella smiled and nodded to her daughter.

"We all like you, Bri." Tai smiled, but Gabrielle could see the tiny reservation in the girl's eyes.

Gods, I bet this is how Xena used to feel when she would snap at me. I'd still be nice to her and she would feel like a complete jerk.

Gabrielle remembered the small sack of treats she purchased in Pella and quickly rose, returning to sit beside the small girl again.

"I was kind of a grump this morning, huh?" Gabrielle said to the child who now smiled brightly.

"But not anymore. Right?" Tai asked, hopefully.

"No, not anymore. How could I be in a bad mood with a cutie like you around?" Gabrielle reached over and scooped the small child in her arms; tickling the youngster until the girl laughed so hard, she couldn't breathe.

Gabrielle released the child and reached into the small sack. She pulled out a handful of soft candies, a chewy sweet treat made from the dark molasses that grew in the Greek Islands.

"Are your hands clean?"

Tai nodded enthusiastically, straining her neck to see what the Queen was going to pull out of the small bag.

"Hold out your hands," Gabrielle instructed.

A heartbeat later, the youngster held out both hands. Gabrielle pushed the hands together and placed a number of the treats in the girl's cupped hands. The look of surprise on Tai's face was something that Gabrielle swore she would never forget.

"All for me?" she asked softly.

"Yes, sweetheart, all for you. I'm sorry I was such a bear this morning," Gabrielle answered.

"Thank you, Bri," Tai threw her arms around the Queen's neck, both tiny hands clutching the sticky candy. Running to her mother's side, Tai held out her treasures. "Here, mama, want one?"

"No, sweetie, those are just for you," Ella chuckled, looking at the soft candies being mashed in her daughter's hands.

Tai retrieved her wooden sword and fought with her imaginary foes in the high grass a short distance away. Gabrielle sat down next to Ella as the dark-haired woman fed Emery.

"She's such a good baby. I hardly ever hear her cry or fuss," Gabrielle commented.

"I've been lucky, Tai was the same way." Ella paused, formulating the words in her head. "Thank you, Gabrielle. It hurts so much not to be able to do little things like that for my daughter." Tears flowed down the dark-haired woman's face.

"Oh, Ella," Gabrielle put an arm around her new friend and let her cry for a long while. "It will get better, I know it will. Just don't give up hope, all right? Tai and Emery both need you to keep that. Besides, I feel your future is going to get better starting right now."

"You do, eh?"

"Yep." Gabrielle answered and held open the sack she still had in her possession.

Ella leaned over and peered into the bag. "Oh, honeyed dates!" She looked up into the smiling blonde's face. "I haven't had these in such a long time."

"Well hand over that little bundle asleep in your arms and I'll trade you," Gabrielle held out the sack.

"You are too much, my friend…simply too much!"


The old woman watched them from the side of the dirt road. Antira wasn't a big town, but the village was on one of the alternate roads into Abdera, therefore strangers were always plentiful. This small party caught her eye, even among the throng of people the festival attracted. She thought about the advantages to being old. People passed her on the side of the road without a second glance. She was as invisible as the air to them, yet she was thankful for that fact today. She was getting rather hungry, however, but the wooden bowl she held out to the men and women who passed her by was still empty.

She silently watched as the women uneasily wended their way through the crowds of people. Observation, that was the key. The people, who branded her as a witch, and more, never knew the half of it. She learned more about people from simply watching them, than she could ever learn from the bottom of a tea mug.

The dark-haired woman was slender, yet held the reins of the wagon as though she'd worked behind a farm team all her life. A bright young soul bounced on the seat next to her, one moment wide-eyed at the sights and sounds around her, the next moment, the youngster was sliding closer to the woman. Fear wasn't something children had by nature, and so the woman shook her head at the reasons why a child of this age would fear strangers.

The one on the horse was intriguing. Her eyes, bright and intelligent, never stopped moving, even when she turned her head and spoke to the child, saying something that made the youngster laugh. Even then, the small blonde's eyes searched the crowds, always aware of what was happening around her. She rode upon a massive warhorse, snow white, the animal watching the strangers around him with as much unease as his mistress. The young woman's leathers couldn't hide the way the muscles in her neck and shoulders bunched and tensed among the people.

The small warrior kept her mount positioned rather protectively alongside the wagon. It became clear as to why when the wagon stopped at the end of the row of open market tents. The warrior tied her horse off to the wagon and dismounted, opening her arms just in time to capture the laughing girl from the wagon. The dark-haired woman reached into a well cushioned spot directly behind her seat and scooped up a small baby.

The old woman continued to beg at the side of the road, waiting for her opportunity.


"What do you think?" Ella asked Gabrielle nervously.

"Well, I certainly didn't anticipate this many people. It must be some kind of local summer festival. How about I simply replenish our supplies while you wait here? It's just too many people for my liking," Gabrielle responded.

Ella nodded her head and Gabrielle strolled off. Both women were unaware of the eyes that followed them. The small blonde finished the task rather quickly, amazing herself. Gabrielle usually loved to shop, strolling through the vendor's tents, haggling over the price of tomatoes. Now, all she could think about was getting what she needed, so they could be on their way as quickly as possible. The sheer number of celebrating citizens put her nerves on edge.

Gabrielle made her way back to the wagon, running into two soldiers talking to Ella. The blonde noticed the insignia on their armor was from the Athenian garrison. They were a long way from their own territory and from the way one of them was listing to port, they'd been drinking for a while. She took in the nervous glances Ella threw at them, then the one of relief when the dark-haired woman saw Gabrielle approach.

Gabrielle put on the mask she reserved for occasions like this. She placed her sacks in the back of the wagon and called to Tai. The youngster ran from her mother's skirts into the blonde's arms, Gabrielle lifting the child into the back of the wagon.

"Ella, get in the wagon," Gabrielle said in a tight voice, paying no heed to the soldiers.

Both men turned drunken eyes to the small blonde. Ella took that opportunity to quickly climb into the wagon, turning to assure herself that Tai and Emery were both safe. Gabrielle knew the soldiers wouldn't start anything major with this many people around, but drunken men are unpredictable.

"Hey, who in Hades do you think you are?" The largest man slurred.

He made the monumental mistake of grabbing Gabrielle's arm, pulling her around to face him. The small woman's eyes burned emerald fire, even as her voice was devoid of emotion.

"If you don't get your hand off of me, I'll slice it off."

The vehemence in the young woman's glare was enough to cause the second man to back up a step. It was obvious he was a little more sober than his friend.

"You little--"

"Come on, mate, can't you see how it is?" the second man said.

Gabrielle knew he was thinking that she and Ella were lovers, but in this particular instance, she wasn't in a hurry to dispel the notion. The drunken man allowed himself to be led away by his friend, but Gabrielle watched as they met up with two other men in front of the tavern. They walked into the establishment, laughing and throwing some curious glances in Gabrielle's direction.

"Well, that wasn't very pleasant," Gabrielle gave a weak smile to her friend.

"Gods, you scared even me. Do you think they're gone for good?" Ella questioned.

"We can only hope so. I think we ought to move on, though, just in case they decide to come back. Sometimes, drink can make a man brave, or at the very least make him do something stupid."

The two women steered their way to the edge of town, allowing them to take an easy breath as the festival revelers thinned considerably. Gabrielle walked beside the slow moving wagon, leading Lightning along behind her. She felt more relaxed now that there weren't as many people to watch. Again, the thought of Xena popped into her head. This must be why Xena hates crowds. She's almost claustrophobic, but now I can relate. I always depended on her abilities to keep us out of harm's way. It's a completely different story when it all falls on your shoulders.

A slight commotion on the side of the small road instantly brought the Queen out of her thoughts and into the present. A man, obviously in a hurry to reach the center of town, rushed by an old woman begging at the edge of the dirt road. He knocked a small bowl from her hands and hurried on his way, never looking back to the frail looking woman, sprawled in the dirt. Gabrielle let loose of Lightning's reins and rushed over to the old woman, helping her get to stand.

"Why aren't you the kind soul," the old woman smiled at Gabrielle.

"Are you all right?"

"Oh, I may be old, but my bones aren't brittle yet. I just don't bounce as well as I did in my younger days." The old woman offered her most endearing smile to the small blonde. "I think I'm just a little weak…I haven't eaten anything today." The woman watched a pain flash across the young woman's green eyes. Yes…she's the one.

"Come with us, we were just going to stop for a meal and we have plenty," Gabrielle offered, leading the woman over to the wagon.


Ella offered the old woman a seat next to her in the wagon and Gabrielle provided some fruit and cheese, along with a slice of flat bread. They ate as they traveled, just enough to appease their growling stomachs. They wanted to put a bit of distance between themselves and the previous town. Neither Ella nor Gabrielle spoke of it, but each woman had experienced a curious feeling of foreboding while in the small village. They were more than happy to put off their midday meal until farther away.

After a few candlemarks of travel, the party stopped in a quiet area of the forest. They shared all they had with the old woman.

"What's your name, my friend?" Gabrielle asked as they sat under the shade provided by the large olive trees.

"Oh my, I've been called so many things and for so long…do you know it's been so long since someone asked, I'm not sure I remember what it is in my own language, but you would pronounce it, Bedilia."

"You're not from Greece?" Ella asked.

"Heavens no, but I've been here for so long now that I've come to think of it as home."

"How long is that?" Gabrielle asked the indelicate question before she realized it.

"Before time began my dear, before time began," Bedilia answered.

Gabrielle looked at Ella and the dark-haired woman hid a smile behind her hand. The young Queen rolled her eyes a bit, as they humored Bedilia and listened attentively to story after story the old woman told.

Bedilia finished a tale and leaned back, her eyes showing no signs of the age her body did. "So, my dear, I've been telling tales for quite a while now," Bedilia said to Gabrielle, "but we have yet to hear you grace us with a story."

Gabrielle looked up in surprise, the smile gone from her face. "I'm not much of a storyteller," she mumbled.

"Hmm, I find that odd. The air around you fairly screams of your talents in that direction."

"You're a seer, is that it?" Ella tried to make light of the old woman's questions, knowing Gabrielle wanted no one to know she was a bard.

"I admit, I charge a small price for what I see," Bedilia admitted.

"Ahh, a fortune teller, then," Gabrielle replied with a worried smile. The small blonde was hesitant now. The few times she had run into so called fortune tellers, they had an uncanny knack of predicting something catastrophic in her life.

"I see you are a doubter." The old woman smiled at Gabrielle. Bedilia knew that the blonde's manner came from belief in the powers of a seer, not disbelief.

"Nooo," Gabrielle drawled thoughtfully. "I just feel like we have to make our own future." Even as Gabrielle said the words, the Queen thought she sounded a lot like her wife.

"Perhaps you, little one," Bedilia pulled Tai into her lap and the normally shy girl smiled up at her. The old woman took the girl's hands in her own and then Bedilia smiled. "We have a great warrior in our midst. Tai will grow up to be a Champion to a Queen."

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow.

"And Ella?" Bedilia asked, holding out her hand.

It was obvious that the dark-haired woman had reservations about relinquishing her hands, but her curiosity appeared to override any other concern. Bedilia took the offered hands and paused, her brow creasing. She took in a deep breath, releasing it slowly.

"It's difficult to start anew, isn't it?" Bedilia asked.

Ella quickly looked up at Gabrielle, pulling her hand from the old woman's grasp. The slender woman laughed nervously, her hand going to her throat. "I'm sure I don't know what you mean," she responded.

Bedilia smiled, one of those charming smiles that elderly women us with young children. "Well, my dear, I suppose that's why you should listen to the young warrior here," Bedilia indicated Gabrielle. "Perhaps it's not a good idea to put too much belief in a fortune teller."

"I'm not a warrior," Gabrielle said automatically.

Bedilia turned to the small blonde. "Now for you, my cynical young friend," she said, extending her hands. "Don't tell me you're afraid?"

"The truth doesn't scare me," The Queen responded.

"Then you have nothing to be frightened of, do you?"

Gabrielle felt the old woman was challenging her, but she suddenly laughed to herself. Why in the known world should I be afraid of anything this sweet, crazy old woman could tell me?

"Very well," Gabrielle replied with a smug grin. She moved to kneel in front of the old woman, presenting both her hands, palm up. "Give me your best shot."

Bedilia smiled and wrapped her hands around those of the young woman before her. In an instant, the old woman's head was filled with visions of the probable and the impossible. A soul, whose existence spanned nearly as much time in this world as the old woman's, cried out. Many pasts and futures spun their web before her mind's eye, yet all along, she saw the other. There was never one without the other, through the good and the bad, the trying and the terrible.

Then there was the intervention.

Bedilia saw it finally, so well hidden that even the Gods themselves would not have spied it out. There, like a tiny kernel, it was planted. It started small and spread quickly, but its hold was growing tenuous for no apparent reason.

Gabrielle lost her smug smile as soon as the old woman took hold of her hands. The small blonde became nearly frantic as she felt Bedilia taking hold of her mind as well. The Queen tried to pull away, but found herself caught in a strong grip, much stronger than the old woman's frail appearance indicated the grasp should be. At last, her ears heard the old woman's voice, yet Gabrielle was uncertain whether the sound was real or in her head.

"You must rejoin her, Gabrielle. The very fabric of all that exists will be changed if you do not."

Finally, the woman released the Queen and Gabrielle fell backward from the force of trying to pull her hands free.

"Are you all right, dear?" the old woman asked.

"What…what did you say? What did she say?" Gabrielle looked at Ella.

"Nothing, Gabrielle, she said nothing," the dark-haired woman responded.

"It works that way sometime," Bedilia straightened herself and then laughed at the serious look on the faces of those around her. "I told you, you shouldn't put too much stock in these things," she commented offhandedly. After all, my ability to tell the future is simply a matter of observation…good guesses."

The old woman smiled and it was so genuine that Gabrielle and Ella both believed her. Gabrielle chuckled softly, realizing that it probably was simple observation. Calling Tai a future warrior, well, that wouldn't be difficult considering the wooden sword the girl carried with her. Then there was Ella. I do suppose seeing a woman traveling alone…with two children…it would be natural to think her a widow, someone starting out to being her life fresh. Yes, that it.

They made their way back to the wagon to travel a little longer before nightfall. Bedilia led the way, hand in hand with Tai. Suddenly, Ella pulled at Gabrielle's elbow, slowing the pair down.

"Gabrielle, do you believe her? What she said about it all being a trick?"

"Sure…don't you?"


Gabrielle looked ahead to watch Tai and Bedilia stroll along, and then faced Ella. "Why would you think that?" she asked with concern.

"Because," Ella glanced ahead to the old woman and her daughter once more, "we never told her our names, Gabrielle."

Chapter 14

The small blonde opened her mouth to speak, to refute the suspicion in some way. Her mind rapidly ran through the time they spent with Bedilia and it was true. The Queen couldn't remember having told the old woman who they were, yet she still seemed to know all about them.

"I don't know what to think," Gabrielle responded in a hesitant voice. "Why would an old woman, an oracle, try to set us up?"

Both women realized they had completely stopped moving and glanced ahead nervously. They were caught with the guilty expressions fixed on their faces just as Bedilia turned to look at them. The old woman smiled, but her face appeared so unnervingly honest that a shiver passed through Gabrielle's body. The woman looked only at Gabrielle and the young Queen felt something pass between them. Try as she might, Gabrielle couldn't pick up any evil or hidden intentions from the old woman.

Bedilia turned away, chuckling as she did so. "Coming ladies?"

Ella watched as her daughter held the old woman's hand. "Gabrielle, I--"

"Hey, it's okay," Gabrielle could see the concern etched across Ella's face. "I know this is going to sound a little strange, considering everything we just heard, but I don't get a bad feeling from this woman. I know there's more to her than she's letting on, but I think Tai's safe. I don't think that she means us any harm."

"I know what you mean, Gabrielle. She unnerves me something terrible, but I don't feel any wrongness about her," Ella agreed.

"Why don't we just get back on the road and continue on. If her finding us was no accident, I'm sure the reason will become apparent soon enough. Okay?"

"Right," Ella nodded.

"Oh this just keeps getting better," Gabrielle responded, looking past Ella toward the wagon.

Grouped around the wooden wagon were the soldiers from town. They looked slightly more sober, but not by much. Bedilia already sat in the front of the vehicle, Tai right behind her.

Ella, Emery in her arms, moved to rush to Tai's defense, but Gabriele's strong grip held her in place.

"Don't let them see you panic," the Queen said in a fierce tone. "Walk right by them and get up in the wagon."

"Well, well, the two lovebirds…" the first man said when Ella and Gabrielle came forward.

Gabrielle saw the look in the man's eye as she walked past him, giving Ella a hand into the wagon. She saw a lot more than a rebuffed suitor in his expression. She saw anger there, and the look frightened her.

"Come on, let's get on with it," one of the men said impatiently.

"All in good time," the first soldier responded with an evil grin.

"Look, you said they had sacks of dinars and we'd get half!"

"He lied to you," Gabrielle chimed in, still standing beside the wagon. "We don't have anything of value."

The fourth soldier looked up into the wagon, then over at Gabrielle. "Then maybe we'll just have to take it out of you in trade," he laughed.

"If I wanted a woman, I would've stayed in the village an' took one what was willing. I don't need this."

"They got money all right and if they don't got it, they'll fetch a good price on the block," the first man continued to grin.

"Let's be reasonable," Gabrielle said evenly, putting herself between the first soldier and the wagon, where Tai sat.

She looked the soldier up and down trying to gauge any weakness he might have. She did notice that only two of the men wore swords. The insignia on the soldiers shoulder armor caught the small blonde's eye. "You fight under the banner of Petracles," she commented. "Petracles is at war with Gaul, you're a long way from the front," Gabrielle continued.

The men cast nervous glances at one another. The fourth man, obviously the most reluctant of the bunch, was the first to cave.

"That's it…I'm getting out of here."

"Wait a minute, you gonna let a little bitch like this, scare you off?"

"I ain't scared, but this don't seem worth it. I told you someone would figure it out!"

"You're deserters," Gabrielle said aloud.

"You shut up!" the first soldier screamed at her, drawing his sword.

Gabrielle retrieved both sais from her boots so quickly, two of the soldiers backed up a step.

"Deserters…I should have known," Gabrielle provoked the man further. "Cowards disgust me."

"You ain't seen what I've seen, girl," the soldier growled, circling the Queen until he was beside the wagon.

"You have no idea…" Gabrielle returned.

"Well, if you're gonna put up such a fight, maybe we'll just take this one!"

For a drunken man, the soldier moved surprisingly fast. He balanced himself with his sword hand placed on the wagon and reached in, grabbing Tai by the collar. Gabrielle was faster and all her protective instincts kicked in when she saw the man reach for the child. The blonde raised the metal sai over her head and brought it down with the full force of her weight, directly into the man's hand, resting upon the wagon. The point of the dagger-like weapon pierced the back of the soldier's hand, biting deep into the wood underneath.

The soldier screamed in agony as the weapon pinned his sword hand to the side of the wagon. His screams simply grew louder when he tugged on his hand in an attempt to free himself. The other man carrying a sword stepped in to attack Gabrielle from behind. He lunged forward with his sword just as Gabrielle hit the ground, rolling and scooping up the first soldier's fallen sword. The second man realized the small woman had moved a heartbeat too late and he was unable to stop his forward momentum. His sword plunged easily into his friend's abdomen.

Gabrielle seemed more surprised than anyone else, when Bedilia took the bucket at her feet, picked it up and struck the second man over the head with it. Gabrielle then plunged his own blade into his heart. The small blonde reached over and pulled on the sai, feeling the bones crunch as it slid through the dead man's hand. She immediately spun around and prepared to meet the second two, more reluctant, attackers.

It was a fight that seemed to last much longer in Gabrielle's mind than in reality. Neither of the two men had a weapon, but they were soldiers and skilled in hand-to-hand combat. Gabrielle had turned into quite a warrior, no matter how often she would try to dispute the fact with others. She was good, but the blonde was tiring and there were two of them. Gabrielle wasn't quite sure how it happened afterward, but she did remember one thing. In her line of sight, as she looked over the largest man's left shoulder, she saw Bedilia. Whether it was a trick of the sun or her own mind, she couldn't be sure, but it appeared as if the old woman grinned at her. A heartbeat later, Gabrielle felt her legs go out from underneath her, her head striking the ground sharply. The last thing she saw before darkness enveloped her conscious mind was the shadow of the two men looming over her.


"Don't touch her!" The hard-edged voice was enough to cause both men to snap their heads around.

Ella stood up in the wagon, a medium size crossbow shaking ever so slightly in her tense grip. Don't let them see you panic, that's what Gabrielle said. The dark-haired woman fixed what she thought looked like a proper scowl on her face. The crossbow was small, but held three arrows in a fitting, one above the other. The arrows were nearly half the size of regular ones, looking more like twelve inch darts. The detachable fitting held the arrows one above the other. The moment one was shot, the next dropped down to be notched and ready to fire.

"Step away from her and be on your way and we'll call this over. Trust me, I know how to shoot this," her voice covered the nervousness she felt. She was frightened out of her wits, not knowing whether her friend on the ground was seriously injured or not.

"Aaah," the shortest man discounted the woman's threat and moved toward Gabrielle, suddenly spying the bag of dinars on the unconscious woman's belt.

Ella didn't lie to the man. She may have been nervous as all Tartarus, but her aim was true. She squeezed the trigger just as the man's hand was in mid reach toward the fallen blonde. The arrow caught the man just below his wrist, running halfway through. His screams were more pain than anger and the second man simply stood there with his eyes as wide as saucers.

"All right, all right!" the second man said raising both hands. He grabbed the screaming and crying man and pulled him to his feet. "We're goin', we're goin'…just keep your head about ya."

"On your horses…now!" Ella shouted and the men moved faster.

"You broads been without men way too long!" he shouted back.

Ella immediately turned and hugged her terrified daughter. "It's okay, it's all over, sweetie," then she jumped from the wagon, followed by Bedilia.

"Gabrielle?" Ella cried out, kneeling beside the blonde's prone form. She quickly examined the still figure. "She's still breathing," Ella told Bedilia.

The old woman slipped a hand underneath the small blonde's head, tenderly probing the young woman's skull.

"There's no blood, but she has a lump the size of Olympus back here," Bedilia commented.

"Why won't she wake up? Are you sure it's not serious?" Ella asked in a tearful voice.

"No need to fear, my dear. The young Queen is experiencing a restful peace that she hasn't experienced in a long while now. I knew she'd never be tricked into taking a sleeping draught, you see…" Bedilia responded with a genuine smile.

The old woman ran gentle fingers through the golden blonde hair and looked down upon the quiet figure with an expression that was equal parts sadness and admiration.

"This one is an inspiration to an old woman like me. So long have we floundered without just one. We have to put her on the path back to those who love her. She'll feel differently about life once she wakes up again. I suggest," Bedilia turned to a slightly stunned Ella, "that we should camp here for the evening."

The older woman rose slowly, walking back toward the wagon. She looked around, fully expecting to see the dark-haired woman beside her. Ella still sat beside Gabrielle in a sort of stunned silence.

"Who are you?" the slender young woman finally asked in exasperation.


"Oh, shit," Ortolan said to himself.

The mystic's words might as well have been shouted from the steps of the Acropolis. They echoed through the halls of Olympus and filtered into Hera's mind, settling there as easily as a feather wafting to the ground. The Goddess was in no position to split her concentration at the moment, but she stored the feeling of anger for later. Hera knew that if Ortolan was upset it meant that something had gone wrong with his controlling connection of her granddaughter's mind.

The Amazon bitch was always causing problems, Hera thought to herself. This time, the Goddess was determined to put an end to the small blonde. Ares helped her; he was just stupid enough to believe the lies he told her. The others…they would always believe that it was revenge against the Warrior Princess, but Hera knew the truth. There were none, especially within the mortal realm, who knew the old ways like Hera did. She'd found the signs quite by accident, but it was apparent to her, of whom the ancient scrolls spoke. There would be only one way to see that the prophecies never happened and that was to wipe Gabrielle and any who followed her from the mortal realm. Hera smiled to herself. What was that expression the humans used? Ahhh, yes. Like shooting fish in a barrel.


"Don't be offended, but I've never heard of you," Ella told the old woman after hearing her story.

Bedilia chuckled aloud. "I wouldn't expect you to, child. There are few mortals, with the exception of scholars and bards, who even know of or acknowledge my existence. I stopped being offended long ago by those who have forgotten that I was here before the Gods ever took possession of this mortal realm. Before they were even a thought, before Cronus ever was, my sisters and I had possession of the timeless space this world inhabited."

"And here I thought you were just a crazy old woman," Gabrielle's sleepy voice came from the other side of the fire.

"Gabrielle!" Ella exclaimed rushing to offer her friend a hug. "How are you?"

"Bri!" Tai ran past her mother and jumped into the small blonde's arms. "Was you hurt?"

"Yes I was," Gabrielle gave the youngster a hug. "But I feel much better now. Except for this bump on the back of my head," she added in Bedilia's direction. "You know I had the strangest feeling, old woman," Gabrielle smirked, "as I was falling, just before I got conked on the head, that you were the one who actually hit me."

Bedilia smiled affectionately at the small blonde, moving to the other side of the fire and handing the Queen a hot mug of tea. "I'm not sure I should take all the credit, after all, it wasn't me who started the fight, not did I encourage those men to follow us here. I will admit to a bit of mind bending to get you to lose your footing. You're too good, you know. I was beginning to think I'd never get an opportunity to send you to sleep."

The young Queen sat cross-legged on the ground, sipping her mug of tea. Tai sat in her lap, the youngster handling the events of the day rather well, considering all that she saw. The child leaned back against Gabrielle's chest, Tai's eyes already growing heavy with fatigue.

"Okay, let's take a giant step back here. Why again did you want to knock me out?" Gabrielle asked.

"I think, your highness," Bedilia began, watching Gabrielle's eyes widen at the mention of her title. "That perhaps my intentions would be best discussed in private."

Ella smiled at both women as she reached forward and scooped her sleeping daughter from Gabrielle's lap. "I have a feeling that's my cue. Don't worry," Ella raised a hand when Gabrielle opened her mouth to explain. "There seems to be a lot more to you than I know, my friend, and frankly, I'm not sure I need to know it all. Go on, you two go take a walk, me and the girls are going to get some sleep."

"Are you up for a late night walk?" Gabrielle asked the old woman.

"I think the question should be…are you?" Bedilia asked.

The old woman's voice held such an ominous tone that Gabrielle had to wonder if she was.


"You idiot!" Hera screamed.

"Your Highness…I swear to you, this was not my doing. The Amazon fell and struck her head. I told you this was always a possibility. There were two ways to sever the connection; a blow to the head that would bring about unconsciousness or a sleeping potion."

Ortolan spoke quickly, attempting to dissuade the powerful Goddess from following the course of action she had promised should he fail.

"Your Highness, there truly was no way for me to anticipate this would happen. I thought perhaps you were watching the Amazon…"

"Contrary to human belief, Ortolan," she spat out the mystic's name, "I occasionally have other places I have to be, other interests to pursue. What I'm saying is that I don't have time to watch that fucking brat every candlemark of every day! You had better have something better than this drivel to use in your defense!"

"My Queen…the Amazon and her friend stopped in a town. They picked up an old woman on their way out of town, and then they left. A group of soldiers, deserters, attacked them. I did nothing to stop it, it's true, but…I mean, I thought you wanted the Amazon dead?"

"Not in the middle of nowhere, you idiot! I wanted her dead where that butch warrior would find her! She was strong enough to resist the planted idea to kill herself, I let you get away with that, you imbecile, but this?! I want Xena to suffer trying to find this one, and then just when she catches up to her, I want Gabrielle to die…slowly and painfully. I want the warrior to see it all and know what it truly means to be helpless."

"There was no way to prevent what I didn't know was going to happen, my Queen. I swear; it was simply the will of the Fates."

"What did you say?" Hera's voice turned colder, if that was possible, her pale blue eyes turning into colorless chips of ice.

"What…when, I mean, what part?" the mystic stammered.

"What old woman?"

"Well…she was…I mean, she was a beggar on the side of the road, she--"

"Show me!" the Goddess ordered, indicating the scrying bowl before the dark-skinned man.

Ortolan breathed a sigh of relief; thankful the Goddess had found someone else to focus her ire on. He concentrated and swirled the waters of the hammered brass dish until the liquid bubbled and steamed. In moments the mist cleared and the mystic honed in on the scene around a campfire. The Amazon Queen, her friend, and the old woman sat around the fire, speaking in low tones.

"Are you out of your pathetic, dead mind, Ortolan? Don't you recognize an Odessian witch when you see one! Hera screamed.

"I--I didn't even know there was such a thing…"

"You absolute moron! You miserable weakling! How could you let that Odessian bitch near Gabrielle?! You have no idea what you've done."

"I'm sorry, my Queen…I accept responsibility for my actions…I wasn't aware…I apologize--"

Hera sat down on the low marble chair, looking out the open-air balcony, into the mist surrounding Olympus. As Ortolan spoke, she raised her hand, apparently distracted by her own thoughts. The gesture brought forth a massive eunuch, a scimitar like blade within his strong grasp. He raised the blade up and brought it down in one even motion, slicing the mystic's head from his shoulders.

The dark-skinned man's words were cut off in mid sentence, even as the same was happening to his head. The skull rolled along the floor, coming to a stop before the Goddess' chair.

"Apology accepted," Hera said in almost a whisper.

The Goddess leaned back and tried not to panic. There were always two ways of doing everything. Right about now the old woman was telling Gabrielle everything, well, perhaps not everything. Even the witch wouldn't be that foolish. With her granddaughter's thoughts her own, she would surely journey back to the Amazon village and the Warrior Princess. What to do?

The smile that appeared on Hera's face was ever so slight, but her eyes gave away her pleasure. The orbs lost their prosaic tint and warmed to a pale blue color.

"Very well," she said aloud, looking directly at the lifeless head at her feet. "We shall adapt, won't we Ortolan? Let the Amazon return to her warrior. I will make it a reunion that Xena will never forget. Oh, yes…I forgot about that…the Teshian River is dry as a bone this summer, isn't it? It would be a tragedy if rain started falling in the mountains…hhmm, the young friend, her children, that stupid witch will live I'm sure, but I'm afraid I see a few people perishing in a slight mishap. I can see it now, my friend," Hera placed her elbow on one knee, leaning toward the lifeless gaze of Ortolan's severed head.

"You can just picture it can't you? Xena and the Amazons come upon the river just as Gabrielle is breathing her last. Oh yes, I like this."

Hera rose, laughing at her own ingenuity. She kicked the bloody head away from her and her laughter grew louder as she walked out of the room and back toward her own chambers.

Chapter 15

"It's beautiful when the moon is full like this. Xena and I always--" Gabrielle stopped abruptly and looked down at the old woman seated on a large log. "What have I been doing?"

"That was the question uppermost in all our minds, until I realized your mind wasn't your own of late."

"The things I've done," Gabrielle said, running her hand through her short blonde hair. She sat down heavily beside the old woman, hanging her head low. "The things I've said. How could I believe that Xe would just let me walk out of her life?"

"Gabrielle," Bedilia said softly. "It's time for you…"

"Time for what?" the Queen raised her head.

"To forgive yourself…to show yourself a little of the compassion that you give so willingly to others."

The Queen lowered her head again. "And what if I don't deserve forgiveness. I can't help thinking that even         though you say I've been under some kind of a spell…well, I can't help thinking that maybe part of the guilt is reasonable. I did…a couple of times I did things that I wasn't supposed to do. I could have hurt my baby…"

"Gabrielle," Bedilia said sharply to get the Queen's full attention. "You did nothing to harm your baby."

"I think my guilt…some of it anyway…I think it's real, not just from this spell. A small part of me really believes that I don't deserve any of the good things that have happened to me."

"If you thought anything else, felt any other way, you wouldn't be you, Gabrielle," Bedilia said softly. "I wish we had the time to convince you of your goodness and your place in this world, but time is a commodity that is running seriously thin for us, my child."

"So, are you going to start at the beginning or am I supposed to just jump into the middle of this story?" Gabrielle asked.

"Well, I suppose I can give you the overview now and answer your questions while we travel." The old woman answered. "I didn't lie to you when I told you that my name was Bedilia nor when I said that I was older than time. That charade of me as a beggar woman, well, I hope you'll forgive me that ruse. I knew you, Gabrielle, so much like your father. I knew that you wouldn't be able to refuse me assistance."

"You knew my father…my real father?" the Queen asked doubtfully.

Bedilia smiled and nudged the young woman's shoulder with her own. "When Apollo was as young and as much trouble as you."

Gabrielle smiled, but then suddenly blanched at the thought of her father, still somewhat doubtful that the handsome God forgave Gabrielle for the loss of her baby.

"Gabrielle, how many times do I have to tell you that you did nothing wrong? Perhaps I should simply hit the high points and put your mind to rest in certain areas."

"You really are a seer, aren't you?" Gabrielle was amazed that the old woman read her thoughts so easily. Her father taught her the technique of constructing a block around her mind so the Gods wouldn't be able to see what she was thinking or even tell where she was. Since Ares hadn't shown himself, she was sure it was working.

Bedilia laughed at that. "Gabrielle, I am one of the first, and there is little in this, or any other realm, which can hide from me. You already know of me, my young bard. When you were nine summers old, a traveling bard told you my story. He had many of the details wrong, but I try not to hold that against them, at least they try. On that fall evening, on the day you turned nine, you studied the stars, praying to the heavens, and asked me to relieve you of your gift. Do you remember that day, Gabrielle?"

"I went outside…I told my mother that I was thirsty and wanted a drink of spring water," Gabrielle said, relating the story in hushed tones. "I got on my knees and prayed that the first mother, this woman who came before even Gaia, would take away the gift she'd given me."

"And do you remember what that gift was?"

"I knew what was going to happen before it ever did," Gabrielle replied, tears filling her eyes. "It was too much. It frightened me and I was tired of being odd. I couldn't keep the visions to myself, sometimes I had to tell, just to help people."

"They didn't understand the gift I gave you. I'm sorry it caused you so much pain. I wanted to help. I intended it as a gift to the daughter of Apollo, the child whose own father was forbidden from bestowing any gifts on her. I knew I made a mistake when I heard your prayers that night. It was too much for a young girl, too great a power to possess without guidance. So, I did as you bid. I took back the gift and left in its place a mere speck of that power. The small bit that I left would only come to you in times of life threatening need, usually as dreams. Do you know who I am now, Gabrielle?"

"The Oracle of T”an…" Gabrielle whispered, almost as if to herself.

That is certainly another name that I am known by," Bedilia smiled.

"Xena met you…on Delos."

"Yes. I had hoped to warn the Warrior with my words. Forgive me, but my sisters tell me I am out of touch and my words are too cryptic for mortals to understand. On the other hand, even immortals and Gods have rules they must follow or they throw the universe into a chaotic jumble. It's when they break the rules that I must step in."

"I don't understand…you knew all this was going to happen to me…to us?" Gabrielle questioned.

Bedilia reached out and placed her withered looking hand upon the smooth skin of Gabrielle's hand. "My sisters contacted me as soon as your fate went awry. I knew what they did not, that a force would be discovered that would be stronger than the fates themselves. The power, for lack of a better word, could only be wielded by the chosen of the ancients. If the power were to be gained and used by another, it would give the user the ability to control mortals as well as other Gods, until the strength of it destroyed all creation. For some, the temptation has been great to possess it. Most died attempting to harness its power."

"I take it someone succeeded?"

Bedilia nodded her head.

"Obviously someone who doesn't care too much for me."

Gabrielle looked over at the silent old woman. It didn't take the blonde long to run through a list of sworn enemies. It would have to be a God, someone who hated both she and Xena, someone who had enough hate in their heart to thoughtlessly kill her unborn child.

"Hera…" she breathed out with a sigh.

"The Queen of the Olympian Gods," Bedilia confirmed.


"That bitch took my baby…did this to me?" Gabrielle stood up quickly, the muscles in her shoulders tightening as her hands clenched into fists. "Xena? Did she experience the same kind of emotional manipulation as I did?" she asked, worried about her wife's fate.

"Yes, it was Hera, but she didn't take your child's life force, she simply stopped the baby's life. It gets rather complicated I'm afraid, but a child created of the union between you and the Warrior Princess, is much too dangerous for Hera to keep alive. That's another tale, however." Bedilia added cryptically. "As for your Consort, she is finally coming to her senses as well. Even as we speak, Xena is sipping a tea with a sleeping draught in it. In both your cases, an involuntary sleep is enough to break the connection with whomever Hera recruited to do this job."

"She'll be all right, then? Will she still…when she left she…"

"Xena's actions were induce by Hera just as yours were. The doubt, guilt, pain…they all increased tenfold, causing you to believe them."

"That's why my head and my heart were telling me two different things," Gabrielle pondered.

"Correct. Your Consort's love and devotion for you still exists, and it burns just as brightly as it ever did."

Gabrielle nodded her head, a feeling like relief washing over her. Her jaw tightened when she thought about the Goddess. "So, Hera wanted my baby dead. She got her wish," Gabrielle's voice now had a hard edge to it. "She had Xena and I separated and miserable. What does she hope to gain, especially now that we know what she's doing?"

"She's not done yet, Gabrielle. Hera knows that as long as you and Xena both exist, and the fact that you are half Goddess yourself, there will always exist the chance of you carrying Xena's child. The only way for to ensure that is to kill one or the both of you. I expect, being that she has a penchant for revenge, she will want to kill you first, making it clear to Xena who was responsible for your demise."

"That makes sense," Gabrielle turned her face away from the old woman. "My father, why hasn't he come to me? Why couldn't Artemis heal my baby? I don't understand some of this."

"Gabrielle, there are many questions unanswered for us all. Even I am not all seeing and all knowing. I am powerful, I admit, but even my power has limits and restriction"

"I know…interference, the world, and the chaos thing, right?"

Bedilia chuckled at the young woman's offbeat sense of humor during a most difficult time. "Indeed. I can only do so much. Beside the restriction to the use of my powers, I find that I am not privy to certain forces that I would usually have command of. I fear that is due to Hera's grasp of the ancient scrolls. It seems apparent that, added to her already considerable power, she may have learned to harness a certain strength against her own kind."

"So, she's truly become the Queen of the Gods…she finally got her wish," Gabrielle responded bitterly.

"I fear for Apollo. We've been unable to reach him. I have learned that Hera is once again using Ares in her plans. He was seen piloting your father's chariot."

"So, father hasn't been responsible for the sun rising?"

"No. I think Hera knows that if she destroys you, she must destroy him as well. It's important, Gabrielle, that you continue to use your will to block the Gods from your mind," Bedilia said, already knowing of the young woman's attempts. "It's always possible it will work against us. We could use a little Godly power on our behalf, but if one of them knows where you are, all of them will know. So far, I can only assume that Hera doesn't know exactly where you're at."

"I don't understand. If Ares is helping Hera to kill me, why would he suddenly help me?" Gabrielle asked.

Bedilia looked up in surprise. "It just goes to show you that I don't see everything," she replied. "When did this happen?"

"Back in the Amazon village," Gabrielle turned away in shame. "I tried to kill myself…to cut my wrists open. Ares stopped me and placed some sort of spell over me so that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't harm myself."

"Well, that does put a new spin on things, doesn't it?" the old woman commented. "Gabrielle, we must start back to the Amazons at once. Whatever Hera has planned, you and Xena will both be stronger if you're together."

"I agree. I want Xe to know I'm all right. I'll need to talk to Ella about all of this first," the Queen replied.

Bedilia nodded and smiled sadly. "I think if you ask her the right questions, my dear, you'll find that she won't be all that adverse to living among your Amazons. Now, we have a number of plans to make before morning. Sit back down here and let me tell you a few things," the old woman patted the log where she sat.

The two talked for another three candlemarks, until the moon was dropping low into the horizon. Gabrielle began to wonder how she could have ever mistaken Bedilia for an uneducated beggar woman. They planned a route back to Amazonia, their heads held close, whispering as if the very woods around them could hear.


"Ella?" Gabrielle whispered, placing a gentle hand on the woman's shoulder.

Gabrielle had thrown another log on the fire when she returned to camp. Now she kneeled beside her sleeping friend, trying to rouse her without waking the children.

"Gabrielle? Wha--?"

"Sshh, it's okay. I just needed to talk with you before morning."

Ella blinked her eyes a few times, trying to adjust from sleep to the waking world. She noticed the predawn gray of the sky and gave a wry smile to the small blonde.

"Gabrielle, it is morning."

"Sorry," Gabrielle gave a little half smile.

Ella took note of the red-rimmed eyes on the young woman, instantly alarmed. "Gabrielle, are you okay? Have you been crying?"

"Yea, but it's all right. Yes, I'm okay…or at least I will be…I think. Sorry, to be so cryptic," Gabrielle sat down beside Ella and smiled. "I did have a good cry, but I think I needed it. There's a lot I haven't dealt with," she looked up in embarrassment. "You were right. Grieving isn't the same thing as surviving and surviving is nothing at all like living."

Ella breathed a sigh of relief. She finally saw something in the young Queen that she hadn't been able to before. Gabrielle looked relaxed. There was a tense line gone from around her mouth. The blonde still appeared apprehensive, but Ella was convinced that her friend had experienced some sort of hope from Bedilia's prophecies.

"I'm glad you're looking at things differently. What will you do now?" Ella asked.

Gabrielle heard the hesitant, almost frightened undertone in the question. Once Bedilia told the Queen that her loved ones would accept her with open arms, Gabrielle never even considered that Ella might not want to go with her. She has her own family to go to, Gabrielle thought to herself as she prepared to explain things to her friend.

"…if you ask her the right questions…"

Bedilia's words, from only a few candlemarks ago, came back to Gabrielle. Okay…let's just barrel in and see if I hit on the right question.

"Ella, I have to go back," Gabrielle answered honestly. "Not because I have to, but because I finally realized there are people who love me back there. Someone in particular whom I love a great deal."

"I had a feeling that would be your answer," Ella responded. "I don't know whether to be sad or elated. I'm really very glad you're going back to your people. I think they need someone like you and I bet they miss having you around."

"Well, that's debatable. They may say it depends on what phase of the moon it is," the blonde grinned. "Ella, I know you have a sister in Abdera, but I've grown rather fond of you…and the children. Being around you has been like having my sister Lila to pal around with…"

"Gabrielle," Ella placed her hand on Gabrielle's arm. "You don't have to feel obligated at all. We'll be okay on our own."

"You mean with your sister, right?"

"Um, yea…of course, that's what I mean," Ella answered nervously.

"…if you ask her the right questions…"

"Ella…you don't have a sister in Abdera, do you?"

"No," the dark-haired woman shook her head back and forth slowly. "You shouldn't worry, though, Gabrielle. Tai, Emery, and I…we're survivors."

"Ella…you were the one who told me that surviving isn't living, it's simply existing. Don't you want more for your girls?"

"I--" Ella opened her mouth to explain, to refute her own words in some way.

"My friend, the Amazon village could use someone like you. Besides, I kind of like having you around too," Gabrielle interrupted.

"But, Gabrielle…" Ella lowered her voice to an embarrassed whisper. "I don't like women that way…I mean, I like men."

Gabrielle laughed aloud, clapping a hand over her mouth to stop the noise. "Well, there's no accounting for taste," the Queen replied flippantly. "Ella, I'm teasing! You don't have to sleep with women to be an Amazon, although it does help because women are all who live there," she grinned again.

"I thought," Ella began sheepishly.

"No. In fact, we have a number of women and their families living within the protection of the Village. You don't even have to become an Amazon. Trust me, you should see the way half the women in the Village drool whenever Hercules and Iolus come around."

"Hercules? The son of Zeus…you know him?" Ella asked, astounded.

"He's a very good friend," Gabrielle smiled. "It's a long story, actually. Ella, I do have to warn you. Coming with me may be dangerous. You see, Hercules isn't the only God, technically Demigod, but still…I'm just trying to say that--"

"Gabrielle, I've heard some of the stories about you and Xena, remember? I think I'll take my chances with you and the Amazons, no matter what Gods we have to go through to get there."

Gabrielle reached over and hugged her friend, tears filling her eyes. "You know, Xena once told me that we have two kinds of families, the one we're born into and the one we create along the journey of life. I just want you to know that I couldn't care about you more if you were my own sister."

"Oh, Gabrielle." Ella returned the hug.

"Just don't tell my sister, Lila I said that," the Queen grinned.

Bedilia entered the campsite just as Emery made the fact that she was awake and hungry known.

"I take that sound to mean it's time for breakfast…for us all, eh?" the spry old woman began to lay out there breakfast as the two younger women realized who was now in charge of their little party.


"Hera…what's going on here?" Ares strode into the Goddess' private chambers. "I thought this whole thing was about getting Apollo to grovel and apologize…you know a little humiliation for what he did to you on Delos."

"Ares, don't you ever announce yourself first," Hera answered coldly.

The leather clad God stood there, shifting his weight uneasily. He'd been full of bravado when he thought about confronting his mother, but now that he was actually in front of her, the pale blue eyes staring at him with contempt, he had to wonder if this was such a bright idea. I don't believe it…just like when we were five. Every time I let Apollo talk me into something, I end up getting my ass kicked, and there's nothing worse than getting your ass kicked by a chick.

"How long am I supposed to do the chariot thing? I mean, isn't it about time you let Apollo go? This is getting to be a serious pain in the ass. Between you and me," he crossed his arms against his chest, "it's putting a serious crimp in my style."

Hera stood and crossed the room. She wasn't a tall woman, but her bearing certainly filled the room. She glared at Ares, her gaze hard. She never spoke, never blinked; she simply waited to see who would acquiesce first. The God of War was the first to flinch, even as he cursed himself for giving in. He knew what few of the other Olympians knew, however, that Hera, the Queen of the Gods had suddenly become more powerful than any two of them combined. The pecking order on Olympus just changed, as Hera truly became the strongest God, second only to Zeus.

Hera smiled, satisfied that she'd won this small battle of wills. "You're not in a position to demand anything, Ares. If you wish to continue on in your position as the God of War, then I suggest you change the tone in your voice from demanding to pleading," Hera's icy voice said.

This means only one thing, Ares thought to himself, out of the reach of Hera's probing mind. Looks like I'm going to be doing some major ass kissing!

"Hey, let's not lose our heads about this, huh? I just want you to know where I stand on--"

"Don't make me laugh, Ares!" Hera turned to pace the room. The need for her weakling son was soon ending and Hera no longer found it necessary to beat around the bush with him. The time for subtlety had come to a close. "You and I both know that your interest in helping me was merely to get you closer to the Warrior Princess. That abomination of a mortal woman stands between me and what I want. If you wish to stand with her, then you're both against me. Not a good place to be, Ares."

"You never said anything about Xena. All you ever said--"

"Don't be such an idiot! Do you really think that I have any intention of releasing Apollo?" Hera turned and walked through the marble columned room. "Do you think I'm going to let that half breed daughter of his live? Now, even you're not this stupid, Ares. Let me say this slowly so your tiny brain can grasp this. Apollo will die…Gabrielle will die…and Xena will most certainly die. Anyone who stands against me will fall and traitors will be dealt with swiftly and severely."

Ares stood there fighting every impulse to lash out at the Goddess. She was insane; he knew that now. The only problem was that she had the power to back it up.

"Now, tell me, Ares, what part of that don't you understand?"

"I just thought that what I could do is--"

Hera crossed the room and sat upon a cushioned recliner, three young women rushed over to serve the Goddess, seeing to her comfort.

"What you can do is what you're told."

"But, I--"

"Ares!" Hera turned her back on the dark-haired God. "Be a good boy and go polish your sword or something."

He debated this time. No, better leave it be, he didn't get to be the God of War by jumping into every battle. Sometimes you have to choose when and where you'll fight. There was never any shame in living to fight another day. Ares left in a flash of blue, listening to the sound of Hera's evil laughter.

The leather clad God appeared within the small cavern outside the makeshift prison that held Apollo and Morpheus.

"Ares," Apollo tried to sit up fully, pulling against his bonds. "Did you find Gabrielle?"

"Nope, she's still incommunicado. Why you had to teach her how to block a mind probe is beyond me…what were you thinking?"

"Ares, if you just came here to gloat or to be Hera's message boy, I'm sorry, but I just don't care anymore," the sandy-haired man replied in a dejected tone.

"Now, little bro…is that anyway to treat your favorite big brother?" Ares face grew serious and he moved closer to the bars, examining them as they shimmered and pulsed. "I've got a plan I think you're gonna like," Ares grinned as he examined the illusionary prison bars once more.

Chapter 16


Xena's cry spurred Argo faster, the horse's gait much steadier now that they were on the dirt road. The warrior hadn't pushed her horse this fast, this far, in a long while. Eponin's mare was having a hard time keeping up, but Xena didn't dare slow the pace. She could sense it now, an ominous feeling of foreboding. She seemed to feel a lot now…since whoever had control of her mind and her dreams had been temporarily defeated.

Well, maybe not defeated…slowed down , she thought.

Xena knew one thing for sure. She and Gabrielle amassed quite a few enemies over the seasons, both mortal and God. Whichever one of them was responsible for the death of her child, and any harm that might come to her wife, they weren't about to give up after failing with her.

Gods, Brie…what have they done to you? My heart…what have I done to you?

Xena had plenty of time to curse and berate herself. She cut the day long journey in half, but that still left plenty of time in which to go over the things that she would have done differently, the things she said to Gabrielle that she would like to take back. She scolded herself nonstop, not allowing her common sense to kick in and explain to her obstinate brain that she'd been under another's influence. That would never do for the Warrior Princess. She was an expert at accepting guilt, and when it came to Gabrielle, Xena already felt as if she failed her wife in some way. She should have done more, been stronger…smarter.

The sun was midway in the sky by the time they reached Amazon territory. Eponin and Xena fairly flew by the stunned sentries, who didn't know who they were at first. It was only Eponin cries of; "The Queen's in danger!" which saved them from a volley of arrows shot their way.

Ephiny was out of her hut by the time Xena and Eponin skidded to a halt in the middle of the Village.

"What's wrong?" Ephiny said to Xena's back. The warrior jumped off Argo and was already on her way to the home she and Gabrielle shared.

"Xena says that Gabrielle's in trouble," Eponin answered.

"What?" Ephiny responded, obviously confused.

Xena raced back to where Ephiny stood, fear apparent in the dark-haired warrior's facial features.

"Where's Gabrielle," Xena asked breathlessly.

"Where's Gabrielle?" Ephiny echoed. "Well, she's with…" Ephiny looked between Eponin and Xena. "…she's not with you?"

"With us?" Xena was trying hard to control her emotions. "I left Gabrielle here in the Village a week ago. What's going on, Eph?"

"Gabrielle left the day after you did," the Regent explained to a stunned Consort. "She went to be with you on the hunt."

"Well she never made it," Xena's jaw tightened. "What did she say, exactly?"

"Well, I never talked to her directly," the Regent's eyes began to take on a concerned look. "She left me a scroll, saying she changed her mind and that she needed to be with you. I didn't worry since Callas and Lara, two of the Royal Guard, went with her."

Eponin looked at Xena, the Consort turning her face away for a moment to rein in her anger.

"Eph, Callas and Lara weren't guarding the Queen this week. They were supposed to head up to our campsite the day after we left to bring the rest of the supplies," Eponin said softly.

"Oh no," Ephiny breathed out, finally realizing the possibilities. "Gabrielle was in such a fragile state of mind…I should have questioned her decision, I--"

"You let your Queen just stroll out of the protection of the Village!" Xena turned angry eyes toward the Amazon. "Hades balls! Do you mean to tell me that not one of her Guard, not one sentry even knew it?!" the warrior shouted.

"It's not like Gabrielle hasn't been trained as an Amazon and a warrior, she's certainly skilled enough to--," Ephiny began.

"And who taught her how to be a bad ass Amazon?" Xena interrupted.

"Who taught her how to be a warrior?!" the Regent shot back.

The two women took a step toward one another.

"Okay, okay," Eponin stepped directly in between both warriors. "Laying blame and arguing about who did what is not helping us here."

"That's right," Xena agreed, still glaring at Ephiny. "We need to question everyone, see if anyone knows anything, try to narrow down whether Gabrielle was abducted or left of her own will."

"Yes, your Highness," Ephiny answered.

Xena raised an eyebrow. There was no animosity in the Regent's voice, but Xena couldn't understand Ephiny agreeing with her. They were usually always at odds when it came to Gabrielle.

"Okay, what's going on? Are you patronizing me or working with me?" Xena asked suspiciously.

"Xena, I acknowledge that the fault lies with me over Gabrielle's disappearance, I accept the consequences that should befall me over this. With your permission, I'll begin by questioning the members of the Royal Guard?"

Xena was completely nonplussed by the Regent's demeanor. She could only nod and watch Ephiny turn and stiffly walk away.

"What the hell was that?" Xena looked at Eponin.

The Amazon shifted her weight from foot to foot. "Xena, Ephiny is the Queen's Regent…she serves only when the Queen assigns her that duty upon leaving the village. When something happens to the Queen, however, the throne becomes the responsibility of her heir."

"Gabrielle doesn't have an heir, you know that."

"Right…that means that you're the acting Queen, until Gabrielle is found, at least. Eph is having an attack of the guilts; you know she thinks of Gabrielle as a kid sister. Plus, she knows that you outrank her."

"Oh, swell!" Xena exclaimed. "All right, you don't have to look at me that way, I'll talk to her…later. Right now, I want to see what Adia has to say. She was supposed to spend some time with Gabrielle. Can you start questioning people, anyone who might have seen anything unusual after we left?"

"Sure thing, Xena," Eponin didn't have to ask twice. The next time Xena saw the Amazon; she was in front of the food hut, questioning the cooks. Xena wanted to smile, despite the circumstances. Knowing Gabrielle, Eponin was trying to start in the most likely place.

Xena didn't have to go far. By the time she was making her way to the edge of the Village, and the Healer's hut, she spied Adia coming toward her.

"Xena, I'm so sorry, I should have known," were the first words out of the Healer's mouth.

"It's okay, Adia…I've been saying that a lot lately."


"Anything you can tell me will help," Xena said to the Healer.

The two women moved off into the forest. All of Xena's instincts screamed inside her to just jump on Argo and take off after her wife. This time her sensibilities won. What direction would she go? Did Gabrielle leave of her own will or was she kidnapped?

The warrior forced herself to relax and think. She needed to ask these questions of Adia and the others before starting out impulsively. She took the time and she and Adia stopped along the stream to talk. Xena explained what she and Sartori already discovered regarding a mind manipulation and the sleeping draught that broke the psychic link.

"We only talked the day you left. She was so despondent. You were there; you saw the nightmares she was having. Gods, I can't believe I never though about Godly intervention…I knew this wasn't like Gabrielle, well not entirely anyway."

What's that supposed to mean?"

"When you and I were in Gabrielle's dreamscape, remember?" Adia prompted and Xena nodded her head. "After I talked to Gabrielle the last time, I finally figured out why she was unable to end her dream. Now, with what you're telling me about someone manipulating her thoughts and dreams, it makes sense. If Gabrielle felt the same way about losing her child as you did, if she was able to come to terms with it a little better, the herbs I gave her for the dream quest would have broken the mental link, just as the tea you drank did."

"That's right. Why didn't it?"

Adia looked uncomfortable at the warrior's inquiry. "Xena, you know I wouldn't tell you this unless I thought a lot rode on the outcome."

"Adia," Xena laid a gentle hand on the Healer's arm. "I would never ask you to discuss what you and Gabrielle spoke of, but this could be my wife's life we're talking about."

Adia nodded silently. "Gabrielle couldn't break free of the mind link for the same reason a person can't change anything about their dreamscape if any part of it appeals to them."

"Are you trying to tell me Gabrielle did hurt our baby?" Xena asked haltingly.

"No, absolutely not. As a Healer, I would say that Gabrielle did nothing to harm your child, Xena. No, what appealed to Gabrielle, on an unconscious level was the guilt. She truly thought she was guilty, aside from the thoughts that were being put into her head and her dreams."

"I don't understand."

"After you left, Gabrielle confided that she didn't follow all the directions on inactivity that Tori and you must have given her. She was absolutely certain that it was one of those incidents that did harm to the baby."

"That's ridiculous, Brie knows better than that," Xena furrowed her brow, attempting to remember the times she scolded her wife for any heavy lifting.

"You and I both know that doing a few things that are bad for you couldn't possibly be the cause of delivering a stillborn baby. Has Gabrielle ever been around babies or pregnant women? I know we treated her like she was glass, but that's simply because she's the Queen."

"No, she's never been around enough pregnant women to know that most of us have our babies, and then go back out into battle," Xena whispered to herself. "I took her away from her village before she had a chance for that."

"Look, there isn't time for you to take on anymore guilt, my friend," Adia replied sharply. "We're all responsible for putting our Queen on that pedestal, all right? I'm just trying to tell you that Gabrielle did nothing to harm your baby, but she believes she did. It's her belief in her guilt that won't let her out of the mind link completely, even with sedation. Even if we can manage to break the connection, a part of her still believes this as truth and I'm afraid of what it might eventually cause her to do."

Adia saw the fear light up in Xena's eyes.

"I'm not trying to frighten the wits out of you, Xena. I'm just trying to tell you that until Gabrielle resolves this in her own mind, it may affect her decisions, especially about protecting herself. She may get the very misplaced notion that giving her life to save someone else's would atone for what she perceives as her sin. Plus, I don't think Gabrielle was abducted. My gut feeling is that she left. In her mind, she was probably sparing everyone from having to live with someone so unworthy of life."

"I think I agree with you," Xena said, rising quickly from her seated position atop the rocks. "I'm going back to the Village. I need to see what Ep and Ephiny found out. If this is what we suspect," Xena said as she and the Healer began to jog back in the direction of the Village, "then I need to figure out where she would go first and take off in a hurry."

Xena went back to the house she and Gabrielle shared to find Ephiny already there.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to intrude…I thought maybe I could get an idea about--"

"Eph, I'm sorry too. You know how I get when it comes to Gabrielle. I was wrong back there, I shouldn't have jumped all over you."

"I'm sorry, too, Xena. I guess I felt more than a little guilty for letting Gabrielle down…for letting you down."

"I think we're all riding the guilt trip wagon right about now, Eph, no one more than me."

Xena explained what she and Adia spoke of and her suspicions about Gabrielle leaving on her own.

"I think that makes sense. She certainly didn't take anything with her, not even her staff," Ephiny commented.

Xena looked carefully through the small house. Gabrielle's clothes were neatly stacked in a chest at the foot of the bed. The only articles of clothing missing were her hunting clothes. Her scrolls were neatly stacked in a straw chest beside the Queen's desk, her staff leaning beside the door where it always stood. Xena opened the small wooden box that Gabrielle kept the small pieces of jewelry she owned. The warrior fingered the Queen's Amazon necklace, strung with a variety of beads and feathers. There were some hair combs and bracelets, most all of them gifts that Xena purchased for her bard over the seasons. Xena was glad about not seeing the ring from Apollo and the pendant the warrior fashioned for Gabrielle. Xena unconsciously toyed with her own necklace, thankful her wife still wanted to keep that item with her.

Ephiny watched as Xena stood in the middle of the room, attempting to gather just one additional bit of information to go on. The warrior noticed something unusual in the fireplace and crossed the room to get a better look. Stooping down, she retrieved what her eyes had spied out. Lying in the unused fireplace were long lengths of Gabrielle's golden hair. Tears spilled from Xena's eyes at the thought of her beloved wife, so downhearted and unhappy that she would run away, hide from those who loved and cared for her most.

Xena stood up and turned around to face Ephiny, not bothering to hide the tears on her face.

"She's run away," Xena said brokenly. "I think she's trying to change who she is so I won't be able to find her."

"Then that just shows how much she needs you…needs all of us, Xena," Ephiny reminded the warrior.

"Let's go," Xena suddenly said, moving to leave the hut, but not before she grabbed a piece of cloth and wrapped the golden hair in it, carefully storing it in a chest of her belongings.

"Me, Ep and half a dozen others, no more," Xena said as she re-saddled Argo. One of the stable girls had taken care of the beautiful mare as soon as the warrior let go of the animal's reins. "Any more than that and we'll just slow down," Xena explained to Ephiny.

"Perhaps we should send scouts to Amphipolis or Potidaea," Ephiny suggested.

"Not a bad idea, just in case," Xena continued to settle Argo's saddle in place, cinching it around the mare's belly. "I don't think we're likely to find her in either of those places, though. She's dressed different, has cut her hair, and the only weapons I see missing are the sais Adia gave her. She's trying to hide out, or at the very least, not be recognized for who she is. I think home is the first place she'd think that I'd look and the last place she'd go."

"I'd like to go with, Xena," Ephiny said in a pleading tone.

"Eph, this has nothing to do with what went on earlier, but with Gabrielle and I both away, I need you to stay here. Besides, if something should happen to Brie and I…the Village will need you."

Ephiny walked alongside the warrior as she led Argo outside, into the center of the Village. They found Eponin waiting, having already chosen six of the best warriors the Amazons had to offer. Xena raised an eyebrow at the women gathered there, then stared at Eponin.

"Hey, what can I say, I know how you think," the weapons master grinned.

"Take care, may Artemis be with all of you," Ephiny said as the warriors mounted their horses. "Xena," Ephiny took the dark-haired woman's hand within her own. "She's out there on her own and she doesn't believe in herself. She left her staff and everything that marks her as an Amazon behind. That's a bad combination."

"I'll find her," Xena answered, spurring Argo out of the Village.

Ephiny's smile was genuine. It encouraged her heart to hear the confidence in Xena's voice. She knew that if Xena were determined to get Gabrielle back, the Gods themselves would be hard pressed to stop her.


"Okay, let me get this straight," Gabrielle stood with her hands on her hips, glaring at the women who surrounded her. "I'm about to face down the Queen of the Gods and you're all just going to leave me on my own?"

The small blonde glared at the three women the mortal world knew as the Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. They came to claim their sister, Bedilia, assuring Gabrielle this was a matter that affected her as well. Ella sat silently atop the wagon, watching in awe.

"Well, I have to say I'm not too thrilled with your timing," Gabrielle shook her head.

"We anticipate that Hera won't attempt anything until she realizes you've returned to the Amazon Village," Lachesis responded.

"Bedilia," Gabrielle looked to the old woman. "Do you see anything that can help me?"

"I'm afraid, my dear, that my powers are rather limited in this instance. Hera seems to be blocking me from her intentions, just as you have the ability to wall off your own thoughts from the Gods. I tend to agree with my sisters, however. I don't see Hera making any moves until she can get you and Xena together. You should prepare your people once you return."

"I think we need to tell her," Bedilia turned to her sisters.

All three women looked rather perturbed.

Perhaps you should…

Communicate with us…

Without involving the mortals.

"That seems rude, doesn't it?" Bedilia answered her sisters.

Atropos shook her head from side to side. "You have been too long among them, Bedilia."

The old woman chuckled. "And you, my sisters, have been too long with only yourselves as company. I say this as a compliment my sisters. What you have initiated for the Queen and her Consort…it is the most human thing you have ever done."

The Fates were left speechless by their sister's words. It hadn't seemed exceptionally noble of them, only the repayment of a debt. They admitted there were underlying motives. The death of Xena and Gabrielle's baby was not a part of the child's fate. The sisters were determined to fight against a force that had the power to go against the will of the Fates. There was also the matter of the way the threads of life ran together. The young Amazon Queen's thread was a perfect example of the way one life force could affect so many others. The child known as Brianna was to have that affect on others. Her thread would touch many as it wove its way along a path meant only for her.

"I do hate to interrupt, especially since I think I'm only getting part of this conversation, but what is it I need to be told?" Gabrielle questioned Bedilia.

The three Fates nodded and Bedilia spoke. "It seems, Gabrielle, that my sisters have found your father."

"Father?" Gabrielle took a step forward, her demeanor instantly changing. Suddenly the young woman turned from hardened warrior, to her father's daughter.

"It appears as if Hera is responsible for Apollo's absence," Bedilia answered. "Something we suspected all along.

"He is alive, Gabrielle, but Hera's intention is to kill him," Lachesis spoke aloud to the Queen. "We need Bedilia's power to assist in acquiring Apollo's freedom."

"My ring," Gabrielle held out her hand to the women. "My father gave me this ring to call him when I needed him. Perhaps if I used it?"

"It would do no good, my dear," Bedilia answered. "Apollo is surrounded by a spell with considerable age and strength to it."

"Can you reverse it?" Gabrielle asked, concern evident in her gaze.

"It was I who created it for Apollo, long ago to protect the Elixir of Life. If I can find a way to slip past Hera's defenses, I'm confident that I can. Gods are curious beings Gabrielle and sometimes assistance can come from the unlikeliest of sources," Bedilia smiled mysteriously.

The young Queen knew better than to question the oracle further. Gabrielle moved forward to hug the old woman. "Thank you. Now what are you still doing here…go on, get out of here," she said with a smile.


Two days passed before Gabrielle and Ella were back near Pella. Tai was more excited than ever, constantly asking for stories about the Amazon Village where they would live. The two adults talked about everything under the sun. Gabrielle found that having someone who had no preconceived notions about her past made for an easy person to talk to. She shared a number of her fears over the situation at hand, even surprising herself by revealing her parentage to a very stunned Ella. The slender, dark-haired woman seemed to take it all in stride, however.

"Thank you, Gabrielle," Ella said, breaking the silence of the morning.

"You're welcome. For what?" Gabrielle grinned.

Ella chuckled slightly. Gabrielle seemed much less like a warrior now. The blonde's smile shone through brighter and the haunting look of pain in her eyes was greatly diminished. She seemed more content, even relaxed. Ella had to wonder at the strength and courage one would have to possess to do what this young Queen was doing. She was saddled with a woman and her two children, possibly riding right into the middle of a fight with the Queen of the Gods. The dark-haired woman could do no more than smile.

"Thank you for everything. I feel like my life has changed so much since I met you. I prayed at night that no matter what would happen to me, as long as my girls grew up safe and healthy, and happy, I would be thankful. I feel like you're a part of that somehow. Offering us a place in your Village and with your people…I think it may make all the difference in their lives," she indicated the two children in the back of the wagon.

"That's what friends do for each other, Ella," Gabrielle replied.

"Oh, lovely!" Ella stared straight ahead, pulling the wagon to a halt.

Gabrielle followed her friend's gaze to the bridge that crossed the Teshian River. The wooden structure was in a state that was beyond repair. It looked like a lightning bolt had literally come from the sky and destroyed half the bridge.

"Lovely is right! It'll take us at least another two days to follow the valley and go around. I've never been that way. I'm not even sure I can get us there from here."

"Gabrielle, the riverbed looks as dry as stone. Could we try crossing down there?" Ella pointed down the steep bank.

The Queen looked down into the riverbed. The hot, dry summer took its toll on many of the creeks and rivers, this one being no exception. "It looks a little steep, but I think we might be able to handle it if we empty out the wagon a bit. It doesn't look too bad on the other side. See that sandy bank over there?" Gabrielle raised her hand and Ella followed the direction the blonde pointed. "If we can steer for that area of the bank, I think we'll be okay."

The first step was to relieve the wagon of excess weight. By the time they sat Tai to watch her sister and unloaded the heaviest items from the wagon, Gabrielle actually began to believe they could succeed.

"You stay up here with the girls and I'll drive the wagon," Gabrielle said, preparing to climb into the farm cart.

"Gabrielle, that doesn't make much sense. I'm the one who's spent all my life driving these things. How long has it been since you drove a wagon? Besides, I can't ride Lightning, you'd have to walk back again to get her."

"Point taken," Gabrielle admitted grudgingly. "Okay, you get the wagon across, then once you're safe on the other side, I'll bring Tai and Emery with me on Lightning."

"Okay…let's do it," Ella said happily.

Ella was stronger than Gabrielle gave her credit for being. The dark-haired woman leaned backward; tendons in her arms standing out in an effort to guide the wagon safely down the steep slope. The wagon tilted precariously on its way down the steep embankment, but Ella kept a firm hand on the reins. Finally, she reached the bottom of the dry riverbed and began to cross the wide river.

"It's not as dry as we though…kind of muddy," Ella shouted back, "but I should be okay if the wagon keeps rolling."

Gabrielle watched as the wagon began to slow down, eventually the wagon became mired altogether. "Dry as stone, huh?" she shouted out to her friend."

The Queen saw the wagon was slowly sinking, not by much, but enough. It was settling into the mud of the riverbed and suddenly Gabrielle was concerned. She moved the basket Emery slept in so that it was protected by some bushes.

"Tai, you stay here and watch Emery, okay? I have to take Lightning out there and help your mom. Can you sit here and do that for me?"

"'Kay, Bri," the child stood beside her sleeping sister, pretending she was on guard duty.

Gabrielle coiled a piece of rope they unloaded from the wagon, jumped on Lightning, and let the horse feel his way across the mucky ground.

"The wagon's sinking!" she exclaimed, sliding from the stallion's back and immediately sinking up to her ankles in the soft dirt. "It's silt," she explained. "Like on the bottom of the Nile. It can be quite deep. We've got to get this thing moving or we'll lose it."

"Let me help," Ella moved to get off the wagon.

"No, you steer it out. I'm going to tie this rope to the front rig. Lightning should be strong enough to pull it if I help from down here."

The blonde had trouble getting her footing in the mud, but she tied off the rope, one end to the harness on the wagon, the other on Lightning's saddle.

"Okay, let's give it a try," Gabrielle positioned herself in front of the white stallion, holding his front halter. "Now!"

Ella snapped the reins against her mares back and felt the wagon ease from the mud a bit, but then it slowly slipped back down. They were trying to move slightly uphill so the grade wasn't helping them.

"Wait," Gabrielle shouted and eased back on her animals halter.

Gabrielle moved around to the back of the wagon. Only one of the wheels was buried further into the mud than the others. "Let's try it again. Lightning knows what to do and I'll see if my giving it a push from this end helps."

Gabrielle positioned herself at the back wheel. If she braced her foot against the outside of the wheel and pushed the wagon up as the horses where pulling, she thought it might work. Each time she set her foot, her muddy boots slipped through the spokes in the wagon. Eventually, she planted her foot, but raised her head when she heard a familiar sound.

"Do you hear that?" Gabrielle asked.

"Yes, faintly. It sounds like thunder, but from a long way off. Horses maybe?"

"Could be. We better do it this time…I don't get a good feeling about this," Gabrielle answered. "Okay, now!"

The wagon inched forward under the strain of both horses and Gabrielle pulled at the spokes of the wheel with her hands, pressing up with her back against the bottom of the wagon. Just as she felt the wooden vehicle begin to move forward, the sound of thunder filled her ears.

"Gabrielle!" Ella screamed as the small blonde looked up.

The thundering sound was accompanied by a wall of water rushing directly toward them. It happened so fast that by the time Gabrielle straightened her body up, the freezing cold water was rushing all around them.

Flash flood!

Gabrielle remembered Xena telling her once what could happen to a dry riverbed once it began raining in the mountains. By the time these thoughts filtered through her brain, the wagon was tipping over from the force of the water rushing around them.


Gabrielle watched as the wagon came down on its side toward her. Ella leaned forward, a knife in her hand. She was slicing through the leather harness and ropes, in order to free the animals from the weight of the wagon.

"Ella let go!" Gabrielle shouted, holding onto the side of the wagon as the surge of pounding water sought to drive her down river.

Gabrielle's foot slipped through the spokes of the wheel and as the wagon tilted over further and further, the wheel sank into the mud more, imprisoning the young woman's ankle. With an additional surge of water, the wagon slipped again with a violent jerk, throwing Ella into the water, the rigging carried by the rush of water, falling on top of her.

"Ella!" Gabrielle screamed again, using her hands to pull on her own leg, trying to free her ankle from the wagon as it continued to slowly sink. She tugged once more and felt the ring her father gave her, slip from her finger. " No!" she cried out. All the weight she'd lost caused the ring to literally fall from her hand.

The dark head bobbed to the surface, gasping for air, the knife still in her hand. Ella clutched at the side of the wagon, but that merely caused the cart to move onto its side more and Gabrielle screamed as it bent her ankle along the way.

"I'm caught!" Ella shouted over the sound of the water. The dark-haired woman was struggling to stay afloat. The rigging that threatened to carry her away, tangled about her below the surface of the water. Each new rush of water dragged her below the surface, but her only purchase was on the side of the wagon. Ella's weight on the side of the wooden vehicle pulled it over, further into the water, pressing Gabrielle's trapped foot down into the mud. The water was now up to Gabrielle's chest, but when Ella's weight toppled the wagon over, it pushed the blonde head beneath the surface.

"Hang on, Ella!"

Gabrielle tried to push the wagon back against the water that continued to charge down river. It was impossible to get any leverage with the water knocking her off balance, aside from the fact that each time Ella took hold of the wagon; her weight pulled the vehicle over so that it pushed Gabrielle under the water.

It took some quick communication between two women to arrange things so each of them could stay above the surface of the water. Gabrielle bore the brunt of this arrangement, however. By pressing her shoulders and back to the wagon's side, she could keep it from toppling over and at the same time, Ella could hold on to bring her head above water.

Ella could see that Gabrielle was tiring. Their teeth chattered as they spoke, the freezing water swirling around them. The dark-haired woman shouted to Tai, the young girl standing crying on the riverbank. Ella called out to her daughter, trying to offer reassurances to the youngster. She knew, however, that if she and Gabrielle continued on this way, chances were slim that either of them would survive. Tears ran down the woman's cheeks realizing it would leave her girls alone and leagues from anyone who could help.

"Ella, don't worry, we'll get out of this," Gabrielle said as she watched her friend cry.

The blonde's back muscles were screaming at the effort of holding the wagon against the strength of the water. At the same time, the rest of Gabrielle's body was going numb from the ice-cold water. The wagon slipped a bit and the weight of the vehicle pushed Gabrielle into the water before she could regain her footing in the soft mud.

"Gabrielle," Ella called out.

"I'm okay…it's okay."

Gabrielle looked across at her friend, watching as Ella raised the knife she still held in her hands. With shaking fingers, the slender woman began slicing through the leather straps wrapped around her.

"Ella, what are you doing?!" Gabrielle cried out.

"Gabrielle, I have to."

"No, please don't give up…we can do this. Xena and I were in plenty of spots worse than this--"

"Gabrielle, this isn't going to get better, you and I both know that," Ella shouted back, continuing to cut through the rope wrapped around her leg. "If I cut myself free, I can let go of the wagon."

"You can't swim in this, Ella. The current's too strong!"

"I have to try, Gabrielle…please understand, one of us has to live."

"We will both live…I can do this!"

"Gabrielle, this isn't something you can fight your way out of. Promise me…"

"What?" Gabrielle asked in confusion.

"My girls…promise me, Gabrielle. Promise me you'll take care of my girls," Ella pleaded.

"Don't do this, Ella, please, don't do this…"

"Promise me! With you…no one else. All I want is for my children to be raised by someone who loves them." Ella pushed the cut leather straps from her body. "Please, Gabrielle."

"I promise…" Gabrielle said, her voice barely heard over the rushing water.

Ella wasted no time. She knew if she didn't do it right away, she'd lose her nerve. The dark-haired woman looked to the other side of the bank where her daughter stood. She knew she was doing the right thing. Something inside her understood all along that the young Amazon Queen would play a large part in her daughter's lives.

"Thank you, my friend," Ella said, releasing her grip on the side of the wagon.

"Noooo!" Gabrielle screamed, reaching out as far as her body would allow, trying to capture the slender woman.

Ella disappeared immediately beneath the swirling water, Gabrielle's screams of pain and frustration lost in the sound of roaring whitewater. It was only a matter of heartbeats, but to Gabrielle it felt like an eternity. She struggled to free her trapped foot from the spokes of the wheel, but the wagon held fast in the soft mud.

She watched as Tai ran back and forth, crying and calling out her mother's name. Suddenly the child ran off, Gabrielle shouting the youngster's name.

A horse's neigh caught her attention and she craned her neck to see Lightning on the other side of the river. The white stallion reared back on its hind legs, attempting to enter the fast moving water.

"No!" Gabrielle shouted, somehow sure that her mount understood her. "No, Stay back!"

The animal continued to paw at the ground, shaking his massive head back and forth. She searched the shore for signs of Tai, but the young girl was nowhere along the river's edge. The water continued to rise as the Queen realized that her friend's death would be for nothing unless Gabrielle could find a way to free herself.

Chapter 17

They'd been traveling nearly non-stop since they talked with the man at the stables in Pella. The story he told about the small blonde and the way she broke the wild stallion made Xena grin from ear to ear. Eponin wasn't sure if it was pride, she saw in her friend's face, or sheer happiness at the notion that Gabrielle had been seen, alive and well.

Xena felt driven, but she had a goal now. She felt Argo's muscles moving underneath her, the sound of the other horses hooves pounding in her ears. She'd been doing nothing but thinking about Gabrielle, not just her wife, but also their life together. Xena had always been the one in control, even after she met Gabrielle. Her bard trusted Xena to take care of them in every way. Now, their lives were changing, had changed. They lived in a place where Gabrielle took care of them. Xena wondered if she ever really thought about that until now. Her need for control was great and now she truly had to relinquish that need. Now, she had to do more than say, she could do this; she had to prove it.

"Son of a Bacchae!" Xena broke out of her introspection, just in time to avoid trampling a child who came running into the middle of the road.

The warrior brought up Argo hard, the mare skidding to a halt in front of the terrified youngster. The child cried hysterically and pointed toward the river. Xena and the Amazons heard the water break free, knowing a flash flood could be a devastating thing, should anyone be caught in the riverbed.

The child had short blonde hair and her eyes were the color of Gabrielle's. The youngster's cry brought Xena up short.

"Come now…please, help Bri!"

Xena lifted the child up by her shoulders and looked into the tear-stained face. The warrior knew. There could only be one person in the known world that sent that particular chill up her spine. One woman whose heart called out to Xena in such a way that the warrior just knew she was near.

Xena held the child to her and jumped into Argo's saddle, spurring the animal toward the river. The warrior's actions were swift and smooth. She came to the edge of the river, close to the spot of the large bridge that looked as though it had recently been destroyed. Reining in Argo, Xena slid from the saddle and deposited the child safely on the ground.

Xena took it all in at a single glance. As she rode to a halt before the river's edge, the warrior saw the wagon in the middle of the river, white water rushing all around the precariously tilting vehicle. A blonde head struggled to stay above the water's surface.

The warrior didn't have to think; her response to the situation was as natural as breathing.

"Gabrielle!" Xena screamed.

Xena ran for the river's edge, making it in half a dozen strides. When her feet hit the edge, she launched her body into the air, hitting the water below. The warrior sliced through the surface of the churning water fighting the rushing torrent to reach the wagon.

"Gabrielle," Xena called out breathlessly, pulling even with the wagon and grabbing the leaning cart.

"Xena?" Gabrielle looked around in confusion. The cold water was affecting her; it had to be. The small blonde could have swore she heard--


Gabrielle came face to face with brilliant sapphire orbs. It was quick, an instant and no more. Gabrielle realized that no matter how far she ran or for how long they were apart, looking into those loving eyes would always be like coming home.

"Oh Gods, Xena!" Gabrielle's tears began again.

"Gabrielle," Xena cradled her wife's head in one hand, kissing the lips that she had begun to fear would never be within her reach again. "Baby, we have to get you out of here. Hold on to me."

"Xena, I can't. My foot…it's caught. I can't get loose."

"Hang on, baby, let me take a look."

Xena took a deep breath and dove under the water. The water was thick with dirt and sand, preventing Xena from even opening her eyes. She felt Gabrielle's foot, wedged between the spokes of the wagon wheel. The Queen's foot was buried up to mid calf in the mud at the bottom of the river. Xena tried digging away the silt, but as soon as she scooped a handful away, the water settled more over that spot. The need for air brought her to the surface again.

Already Eponin had three Amazons in the water, ropes tethering them together and anchored at the river's edge. They quickly made their way to the wagon, attempting to use their combined strength to return the wagon to an upright position. Just when they thought they could fight the water and upend the wagon, Gabrielle screamed.

"My leg…" she cried out to Xena.

Another dive into the icy waters and Xena saw her wife's predicament. Gabrielle's leg had been buried when the wagon was on an angle. Her foot was so firmly entrenched in the mud of the river bottom that each time the Amazons tilted the wagon to its normal upright position, it bent the young Queen's leg to almost a breaking point.

Perhaps a quarter of a candlemark passed. Xena noted that the water, which had been up to Gabrielle's neck, now came to just below her chin. Xena stared at the water line, her wife's shivering voice breaking her from her reverie.

"I'm not going to make it, am I?" she couldn't keep the tears from taking over once more.

"Don't say that! Don't you dare say that. I'll think of a way, Brie…don't I always?" Xena brushed away the tears and cupped Gabrielle's face in her hand, holding the tear-streaked face upward to keep her from swallowing any more water. Xena wrapped her arm around the smaller woman in an attempt to keep her from freezing; the Queen's lips already a dusky hue.

"Gabrielle…baby, use your ring, the one Apollo gave you. Call him for help."

Gabrielle shook her head, even though Xena held it firmly in her grasp. "It won't work…it's a long story," she answered Xena's furrowed brow.

"It might…at least try," Xena pleaded.

"You'll have to use yours," Gabrielle sputtered as a rush of water tossed a wave in her direction. "Mine fell off when I tried to pull my leg free."

"Oh Gods, Brie," Xena exclaimed. The warrior looked into Gabrielle's eyes, the warrior's own filling with tears. "Brie…I left it at home when I went hunting. I…I didn't want to lose it."

Gabrielle chuckled under the disastrous circumstances. "It's all right, love. Maybe it was meant to be this way." The blonde hadn't meant to sound defeatist, but the water was so cold and she was getting very tired. Her brain wanted to fight, but her body just kept telling her to give up.

"No! Damn you Gabrielle, we lost our daughter, I will not lose you…not again!"

"Xena…Xe," Gabrielle said in a softer tone. "It's okay, really it is. I'm just so happy I got to look into your eyes one last time, kiss you, and tell you how very much I love you. I'm sorry, Xe…I never meant to hurt you…"

"I don't want to listen to you talk this way, Gabrielle," Xena's voice broke. "I won't let you give up."

"You might have to, Xe."

"No! I won't let you go, Gabrielle." Tears streamed down Xena's face, washed away by the waves that swirled and splashed into their faces. "I won't be without you…I'll follow you. I won't live this life without you. I can't, Brie…I just can't…not without you, my heart."

"No! Xena, I made a promise and it's up to you to keep it for me."

The river was past the small woman's chin and she spat out the water as she spoke. Xena tilted her wife's head up further, but soon the warrior knew; it would be too high for Gabrielle to breathe.

"Xe…" Gabrielle watched as the blue eyes before her darted around. Gabrielle could sense her warrior trying to devise a plan in her head.

"Xena, look at me!" Gabrielle called out sharply.

Xena focused all her attention on the small woman in her arms. "Brie…when the water gets too high, let me give you a breath of air. We can do that to buy some more time," Xena finished, watching the Amazons around her repeatedly diving beneath the surface to dig the mud away.

"Xe, I need to say this," Gabrielle struggled to keep her mouth above the water line. "The girl…on the shore. Her name is Tai…she has a baby sister in the bushes."

"It's okay, Gabrielle," Eponin said breathlessly. The Amazon had just resurfaced and was breathing heavily. "We found the baby…she and the little girl…they're okay…Maris is with them."

"Thanks, Ep…for everything," Gabrielle said quickly. "Ella…" a new flood of tears began and Gabrielle coughed as she swallowed more of the river water. "Xe, their mother has been such a good friend to me. We were both trapped here and she gave her life so I could live to raise her children. I promised her, and now I need you to promise me," Gabrielle looked up expectantly.

"No, don't ask me to promise you that," Xena returned.

"I am asking, Xe. I'm begging you. Take care of these children. I promised Ella that I would raise them and no one else. Don't you see, love? You are me. We are one, in life as well as death. I know in my heart that if I leave these children with you, it will be the same as raising them myself. You will be a wonderful mother, Xe."

The water had risen too far and Gabrielle could only look on as her wife cried tears of pain and frustration.

"I…I don't want to do any of it without you, Brie," Xena said in a soft, child-like voice.

Gabrielle could only look on, watching as Xena turned a head toward the riverbank and gazed at the small blonde-haired child that cried in an Amazon's arms. The warrior turned back to Gabrielle, blue eyes so intense, and simply nodded.

"On one condition…you have to hold on a little longer for me, Brie."

Gabrielle started to shake her head back and forth, but Xena shook her by her shoulders.

"Yes! You at least have to try…for me. Now, I'm going to breath for you."

It took only heartbeats to explain the procedure to the Queen and soon Xena and Gabrielle were trading off breaths. In between breaths, Xena took a large gulp of air and dove beneath the water's surface. Their actions and the water's movement disturbed the riverbed so much that she couldn't see a thing. The silt hung heavy in the water, obscuring her sight. She felt along the river bottom, sifting the top layer through her fingers. The warrior concentrated along the area closest to Gabrielle's foot.

Xena didn't have time to find out why Gabrielle thought her ring wouldn't work in summoning the small blonde's father. She searched for the band, hanging on its promise as her last hope. When Gabrielle was ready for a breath, she would tug on the warrior's shoulder and the whole process would repeat itself.

Please, Apollo, Artemis, Athena…Gods, please…Ares, I'd get down on my knees to you, just please don't let me lose her…not my heart…

Xena prayed as she repeatedly dove into the freezing water. She didn't care to whom she owed what. The warrior would gladly pay any price to keep this light alive.

Please just let her live…just let her live…


"Oh, my…that was some trip," Bedilia took a deep breath and let go of Hades' arm.

"It's about time you showed up …" Ares took one look at the ancient looking woman on his uncle's arm and weakly finished the sentence. "…with reinforcements? Who is she?" Ares raised his voice in pitch as well as strength. "I just knew it! The one and only time I try to do something good and you guys are gonna get me killed for it."

"Ares!" Apollo called out to his brother. "Take it easy…we know her."

Bedilia stood before the illusionary prison, feeling the raw power the simulated bars gave off. They shimmered and sparkled, but appeared to hold strong.

"Hello, Bedilia," Apollo offered a weak smile to the old woman.

"Hello yourself," she smiled back at the handsome God, ignoring Ares leaning over her shoulder. "In a bit of a jam, I believe your daughter would say."

"You saw her?" Apollo's expression turned to one of pain as he thought about his daughter and the unbearable sorrow she was going through alone.

"Oh, my yes…that girl," Bedilia chuckled. "She is her father's daughter, Apollo. Why do you know--"

"I do hate to interrupt, but we're kind of on a time table here," Ares broke in.

"You always were the most impatient one of the lot, Ares," Bedilia remarked without taking her eyes off the bars in front of her. "Even as a child."

Ares blanched at the sound of that, clearing his throat, and then blushing slightly.

Apollo smiled in relief at the old woman's words. "Where is she? Does she know what's going on? Hera's spell…did you remove it?"

"Calm down my friend," the old woman answered. "Gabrielle is on her way back to the Amazon Village. She is aware of some, but not all of what has been happening. She does know I was on my way to see you. I thought my sisters told me that Hera forced you to watch through her scrying bowl?"

"It seems it only worked when Hera wanted me to see something," Apollo indicated the hammered brass bowl with a nod of his head. "It's bad enough I can't free myself or Morpheus, but my powers have all but disappeared in here."

"We tried, but our powers don't seem to work from out here either," Ares and Hades both acknowledged. Ares spoke slowly and loudly, considering the old woman's age.

"Is he simple?" Bedilia whispered to Hades.

The dark-haired God laughed loudly and laughed even more and the indignant look on his nephew's face. I'll bet he never thought being on the good team would humiliate him so much, Hades thought to himself.

"Well, first things first," Bedilia responded. With a wave of her hand, the restraints suddenly dropped from the wrists of both confined Gods.

"Whoa," Ares tilted his head to one side. "How did she do that?"

"Then," Bedilia passed her hand before the opening of the cavern again.

A steamy mist rose from the scrying bowl, a hissing sound emitted from the metal. The liquid swirled about as Apollo strained to see past the bubbling brew.

"Whoa, how'd she…hey, how'd you do that?" Ares asked in awe.

"Nooo!" Apollo cried out, peering into the scrying bowl, the window to the mortal realm. "Gabrielle! Bedilia quick, get me out of here!"

"Removing this spell so Hera isn't aware it's been broken requires something other than speed," the old woman answered.

Bedilia opened her mind to the vision the God was staring at in the bowl. She could see Gabrielle, under water, but her Consort wouldn't concede the battle for the young Queen's life.

"Hera has found out that Gabrielle is free of the mind control. She can see where the young woman is. We can still have a modicum of surprise on our side, but we'll have to act quickly."

Bedilia spoke in rapid tones. A small inflection in her speech appeared when she spoke quickly like that. Her vowels rolled off the tongue, giving away the fact that she'd grown up speaking a dialect more ancient than even the Olympians themselves.

"One of you must go to Gabrielle. Even now, the Warrior Princess is about to call you to her Apollo. If you used the spell on that ring that I think you did, it will draw you to Gabrielle before you have a chance to object. Your essence will shatter into a thousand pieces as soon as it passes through these prison bars."

All eyes turned to Ares.

"Oh, nooo! No, no, no! She'll fry me…Hera will cut me up into tiny pieces and serve me with a cream sauce on the side!" Ares paced behind the old woman.

Bedilia cried out as the bars sparked, small flames of molten lava falling to the cavern floor. "Go now!"

"No! No! N--aw, shit!" The God disappeared in a blue flash.

"Please, Bedilia…I know you need time, but…it's not that I don't trust Ares, but he--"

"Apollo!" Bedilia uttered sharply, her eyes closed in concentration. "It took me a millennium to develop the spell to keep Gods out of this room. I would think that you could afford me a dozen heartbeats to see to it that we can get back in."

The sandy-haired God lowered his head, but the old woman saw his hands wringing together out of fear and frustration.

"Don't worry so much, Apollo…how like your daughter you are…how much you two manage to feel. She opened one eyelid and peered at him. "Besides, your brother will be a more than adequate surrogate. I suspect that after this, he may be unable to keep the true nature of his relationship a secret much longer."

The old woman's words took Apollo's mind off the impossible task of waiting patiently when his daughter so desperately needed his help.

"Gabrielle will be furious at me for not telling her," he said.

Bedilia chuckled. "If you think your daughter will be angry…just wait till the Warrior Princess finds out. Then we will truly learn the meaning of mortal displeasure."

Bedilia continued to smile with her eyes closed. The majority of her concentration focused on the ancient words, blending the threads together and mixing the incantation like a true witches brew. A small part of her mind, however, found these mortals, even the Gods who constantly dabbled in the humans' lives, wildly amusing. The happiness and the tragedy, it all completed the circle. She grinned from ear to ear, splitting her concentration among the tasks at hand.

"What are you smiling at, old woman?" Apollo asked suspiciously.

Bedilia chuckled again under her breath. "Things that keep me young."


Xena broke the surface of the water, even as she was slipping the ring on her finger.


A hand clamped across her mouth and strong fingers plucked the golden ring from her fingers. Xena felt herself pushed aside, losing her hold on Gabrielle. The warrior looked on in horror as Ares stood in the freezing water, eying the ring and pushing it into his shirt pocket.

"Aresss!" Xena screamed, throwing an uppercut into the God of War's chin.

Ares' head rocked back under the force of the blow, the God acknowledging the fact that there weren't many mortals with the power to do that to him.

"Xena! Get a grip, woman!"

Then Ares did something Xena never thought she would ever see. The God raised a hand and instantly the rushing water stopped and with another wave of his hand, the surging river pushed itself up river. Gabrielle took one long gasp as she brought much needed air into her lungs. The young Queen fell over into Xena's arms, the small blonde's body trembling with cold and fatigue.

Ares grabbed the wagon with both hands, gently lifting the wooden cart up from the mud, the suction carrying Gabrielle's trapped foot to the surface also. Xena reached down and extracted the bard's foot from the spokes of the wagon wheel, while a band of stunned Amazons looked on with their mouths hanging open. They all knew about Xena's past with Ares and the times the God of War put their Queen's life in jeopardy, simply to further his own quest to regain the Warrior Princess as his own. Even Xena seemed a little bewildered at Ares' actions.

"Well, are you all gonna stand there and stare at me all day or get her out of the river?" Ares shouted impatiently. "Geez, you'd think I never do anything good," he muttered under his breath.

The Amazons scrambled to the shore, but Xena had eyes only for the woman she now held closely to her body, cradling Gabrielle's shivering form in her strong embrace. Eponin helped Xena us the steep embankment with the Queen. Gabrielle was nearly blue, unable to control her trembling body.

"Get a fire started…now!" Eponin shouted as the warriors around her rushed to gather wood.

Xena grabbed two nearby blankets and wrapped them around her wife's body, rubbing her skin to circulate some warmth into the slight frame.

"S-S-So c-cold…" Gabrielle's thoughts trailed off as she closed her eyes tightly, trying to fend off the sleep that threatened.

Ares walked up to the camp just as the Amazons tossed the gathered wood into a pile.

"Xe…I-I'm really c-c-cold," Gabrielle's teeth chattered together loudly.

"I know, baby, we're--"

Suddenly the pile of logs and dried wood burst into flames, nearly knocking Eponin backwards. She glared at the God of War, but Ares gave up his best innocent look.

"Hey, it wasn't me," he pointed out, raising both eyebrows in the Queen's direction.

All eyes turned toward Gabrielle.

"Brie?" Xena questioned, only half believing. The warrior knew her wife was half Goddess, but she never saw Gabrielle demonstrate any abilities like this.

"I-I'm sorry, Xe…I d-didn't mean it, but Gods, I w-w-was so cold," Gabrielle answered.

Xena laughed aloud and pulled her wife closer. "Don't worry, baby. Hey, look at it this way, camping out is going to be way easy now," the warrior grinned.

Gabrielle flashed a weak smile at Xena, holding onto the warrior as though someone threatened to tear the two apart. The small blonde thought of Ella and her promise to her friend. The Queen put her feelings in a safe place until she could deal with them later, knowing she would have to make time to reflect and mourn later.

Ares watched the pair, especially the small blonde in whom everyone seemed to hold so high a regard. Grudgingly, the God had to admit, that the kid grew on him. When his brother came to him, right before Gabrielle was born, and asked him for a favor, Ares never knew it would be this one. Once he found out that Gabrielle was fated to capture the Warrior Princess from him, acquiring not only the warrior's heart, but also her very soul, Ares was livid. He accused Apollo of trickery and refused to carry out the sacred tradition. The God of War tried a number of ways to rid himself of Gabrielle's presence, but he could never really hurt her. He got pretty close on a few occasions, but his bond to the girl was a sacred one and like a hundred before him, man and woman, both mortal and God, he found himself a willing prisoner to her compassionate ways, easy charm, and unassuming grace.

Ares casually raised a hand and with a warm rush of air, the party found themselves in dry clothing. Gabrielle looked down to find that she was not only warm, but her hair was dry as well.

"Ares!" Gabrielle said sharply to the God.

Ares was trying to blend into the background without actually leaving, but Gabrielle's voice brought him back to center stage. He fixed a bored look onto his face and stood in front of the seated woman.

Gabrielle reached out her hand and took Ares hand within her own. "Thank you, Ares…for everything," she said in a soft voice.

Xena couldn't hide her smile any longer when she noticed what her wife was wearing. Ares caught one look at the smiling blue eyes and had to smile himself.

Hey, she may be family, but the girl is still damn hot!

"What are you grinning at?" Gabrielle asked suspiciously.

"Um…" Xena motioned with her hand toward Gabrielle.

The Queen looked down at her own body and blushed. So, he does have a sense of humor…and I thought he was all libido. The small blonde was dressed in the green top and skirt she wore for seasons as she and Xena traveled across the countryside. Gabrielle found out, many seasons later, Xena always had a thing for the top, even though the warrior took every opportunity available to comment about its hideous appearance. Now, the top and skirt were about half the size they should have been and Gabrielle looked suspiciously like the women who danced in those taverns she passed when she and Xena last visited Athens.

Gabrielle couldn't help her own ironic smile. "You're pathetic," she chuckled as she dropped Ares' hand. "You'll never change."

With another wave of his hand, he returned Gabrielle to a more modest version of her old outfit. "Hey, can't blame a God for trying," Ares quipped.

"I can," Xena responded flatly, arching an eyebrow at her former mentor. The warrior's voice softened, as did her expression as she pulled Gabrielle to her once more. "Thank you, Ares. Hey," she looked down at Gabrielle, "what do you mean, thanking him for everything?" Xena teased.

Gabrielle looked up at Ares, remembering when the God refused to let Gabrielle harm herself. To the young Queen, it seemed as if it were a season ago, not just a week. She looked back at her wife and pressed herself into the warrior's warm body.

"I guess we have a lot of talking to do, huh? Xe, I--"

"Bri! Bri!" The youngster's body followed Tai's voice as the small child sped toward the Queen, leaping into the familiar embrace.

"I'm sorry, My Queen," Maris walked up behind Tai. "She fell asleep, but when she woke up and didn't see you…" Maris' voice trailed off.

Gabrielle shook off the apology from the Amazon and noted Emery, sound asleep as usual in Maris' arms.

"I found some baka fruit for her," Maris explained to the Queen. The sweet, milky juice of the baka made an excellent short-term substitute for mother's milk. "I found enough to hold her till we can get to the Village."

"I think this must be one of those things we have to talk about, eh?" Xena indicated the children, watching the blonde-haired child in her wife's lap, even as the girl eyed the warrior with a slight air of distrust.

"Yes," Gabrielle answered. "Tai, honey…this is Xena, my wife. Remember, I told you about her?"

Tai had her arms tightly wound around Gabrielle's neck as she turned her head to look over at the dark-haired woman. Xena gave her a little half smile. The youngster openly stared at the strong woman, spying the hilt of the sword strapped to Xena's back.

"Ooh…a warrior," Tai said reverently.

Xena grinned. "Yeah."

"Me too," Tai responded, pointing out the wooden sword strapped to her waist."

"I would have been able to tell right off," Xena answered in a gentle voice. "I bet you were a big help to Brie." Xena had no idea how the child came to call Gabrielle by the warrior's own pet name for her wife, but Xena's heart went out to the child for whom Gabrielle had somehow become protector.

"I didn't help too much," Tai answered shyly. Turning back to Gabrielle, matching green eyes stared at one another. "Mama's gone." Tai said in her childlike voice.

"Uh, huh," Gabrielle nodded, her own eyes filling with tears. "I'm so sorry, Tai, but yes, she's gone."

The girl tightened her hold on the Queen, burying her face against Gabrielle's neck. "Will you go too?" she asked tearfully.

Gabrielle wanted to crush the girl in her strong arms, offering up a promise right then and there. She thought of her wife and knew she wasn't alone anymore. What if Xena didn't want a ready-made family…someone else's children? What would Gabrielle do then?

The small blonde raised her eyes and met the powerful emotions directed at her from the blue gaze next to her. Xena's own eyes sparkled with unshed tears and the warrior, like she did so many times in the past, offered Gabrielle an answer without words. The expression was a familiar one to the Amazons who couldn't help but watch the interaction between their Queen and her Consort. They saw the look bestowed upon the small blonde many times and for many reasons. The warrior's expression said that she would do anything for Gabrielle. No request would be too small, no danger too great…in life or death, near or far. Anything…anything at all is what Xena would give to keep this light in her life.

Xena raised a hand, first to gently touch the backs of her fingers to Gabrielle's cheek, then to place the same hand on Tai's small head.

"Bri isn't going anywhere, Tai," Xena said to the youngster who turned her tear-stained face to the warrior. "She won't go…not without us," Xena smiled at the girl, and then reached over to place a gentle kiss against her wife's forehead.

"Okay, I think I'm going to be ill now," Ares said with a heavy sound of sarcasm. "Is the love fest over yet?"

"Tai," Xena said drawing the girl to sit in her own lap. "That's what happens to bad warriors," Xena pointed to the God of War.

"Ooh," Tai used her favorite expression, settling comfortably in the warrior's embrace.

"So, that's the thanks I get. I turn up and play hero and all I get is to be the butt of Warrior Princess jokes. After everything I did today…do you know how long it takes leather to dry?" he indicated his pants.

"Awww," Xena drawled for Ares' benefit.

Tai's head went back and forth from the warrior holding her, to the giant man standing in front of them. She watched as the two traded insults back and forth.

"Excuse me!" Gabrielle spoke up. She leaned closer to Tai. "They really do like each other," she said to the youngster. Then, looking up at Xena and Ares, "see how they can shake hands and be friends…even when they disagree about things?"

Xena opened her mouth to refute that idea completely, but watched as Gabrielle gave her the look. The warrior sighed in resignation and handed Tai back to Gabrielle, rising to her feet, a slight look of disgust on her face.

Ares looked down at Gabrielle just as the Queen silently mouthed the word, please. Suddenly the God's expression matched the one on Xena's face. He reluctantly extended his hand, refusing to look at the warrior. Xena turned back to Gabrielle once more and saw a raised eyebrow. Then she looked at the earnest expression on Tai's face and realized immediately, she would be making a great many concessions in her life from here on in.

The God of War and the Warrior Princess clasped hands in a, none to gentle, handshake. Their eyes turned feral, but the pleasant smiles remained fixed upon their faces. Each of them stood their ground, while trying to assert their strength in the form of an iron grip, neither one of them willing to concede and pull away.

"Whipped," Ares muttered under his breath.

"Asshole," Xena hissed through her teeth.

Gabrielle jumped up and with a smile on her own face, pushed the two physically apart. "See?" she said to Tai, throwing a look of caution at both Ares and Xena.

"Bri…I'm hungry," Tai piped up.

Gabrielle looked over at the youngster and smiled at the girl. Tai had already gone through so much in her young life, but she appeared to have an unusual ability to accept life as it came. The Queen only hoped that what lay ahead for all of them would be easier to bear than what they'd experienced recently.

Chapter 18

Suddenly they heard shouting, a few well-chosen curses were tossed about, and the loud neigh, almost bray, of a horse.

Rushing past the line of trees, closer to the river's edge, the party came upon two of their number trying desperately to control one very out of control horse. The white stallion reared back on its hind legs, threatening to lash out at the Amazons who ran closer in an attempt to grab the animal's reins.

"Lightning! Stop!" Gabrielle shouted,

Instantly, like water dousing a flame, the beast dropped to all four legs and calmed. He moved slowly in Gabrielle's direction, lowering his massive head when he reached the small blonde. The Queen threw her arms around the animal's neck.

"I'm so glad you're okay. You have to behave, these are my friends," the Amazons smiled as their Queen spoke to the horse as if he understood. They were most impressed, since most of them knew that Gabrielle's least favorite place in the known world was on top of a horse's back.

"That is the biggest fucking horse I've ever seen!" Eponin exclaimed.

"Ep!" Xena said sharply. "Little pitchers," the warrior hinted.

"Oh," the Amazon responded. "Sorry, big guy," Eponin apologized to the horse.

Xena simply looked at Gabrielle, the Queen using a strategically placed hand to cover her smile. Xena rolled her eyes, shaking her head back and forth, as she turned to the Amazon once more.

"Some days I'm amazed that you've lived this long."

"What?" Eponin asked innocently.

"I wasn't talking about the horse lame brain." Xena nodded her head to indicate the child standing between them.

"Ohhh," the Amazon grinned in embarrassment.

"I tend to agree with her though, Brie…where on earth did he come from?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle related the story of how she came to purchase Lightning. The small group exchanged some skeptical looks once the Queen finished the tale.

"Gabrielle," Xena began. "Please, don't tell me you actually tried out the fairy tale that one-eyed centaur told you."

"He wasn't missing an eye, he was missing a leg. Besides, it worked." Gabrielle replied.

"Right," Xena grinned at her wife. He still looks a little rank to me, hon."

"He's gentle as a lamb."

"Uh huh. Mind if I give him a spin?"

"Well, um…no, but you probably should--"

Xena sprang into the saddle before Gabrielle could finish her sentence. Lightning watched as his mistress spoke to another human, but suddenly the other human was sitting on his back, his mistress' customary spot. The stallion had learned not to balk at the feel of a rider, but this human was much heavier in the saddle than his mistress was. The animal's natural instincts kicked in and he reacted in much the same manner as the first time Gabrielle mounted him.

Gabrielle made a move to scoop up Tai before Lightning could trample them all, but it didn't take that long. The stallion bucked and kicked twice. On the second spin in the air, the Warrior Princess went sailing over the group's heads. Xena came down with a crash into the dirt.

"Xe!" Gabrielle called out. She and Tai rushed over to the fallen warrior.

"What was it you were trying to say?" Xena asked Gabrielle.

"I was going to say that you probably should let me introduce the two of you first," Gabrielle replied.

"You could have tried a little harder to tell me," Xena grimaced, rising to a sitting position.

"What…and spoil all the fun?"

"That was payback for all the seasons I let Argo make fun of you, wasn't it?"

Tai started laughing and pointed to Xena. "You funny!"

Xena looked up, rising to her feet with a groan. "Thanks, kid," she responded, rubbing her backside. "I did that just for you, ya know."

"Do it again, Xena!" Tai pleaded, slipping her hand inside the warrior's.

Xena looked panicked and Gabrielle merely looked amused.

"Maybe later," Xena muttered.

"All right, the show is over. Gabrielle said to everyone gathered around. "We're losing the light, so we'd better camp here for the night. We can start for home at first light. Um, we're a little short of camping supplies…Ares?"

"Oh yeah…suck up to the God when you need something."

Gabrielle realized that for some reason she had a small little bit of power over the God who usually was trying to kill her, merely tolerating her at best. She mustered up a rather beguiling look and tossed it in Ares' direction.

"Okay," Ares replied immediately, "guess I'm getting soft."

The God snapped his fingers and three large tents circled the fire. Gabrielle knew that when she looked inside, not an amenity would be missing. The Queen proceeded to tell the warriors around her what she wanted and soon the camp was teeming with activity.

Xena paused to watch her wife as she gave commands and answered questions. I guess this is the beginning, she thought to herself. In the past, even though Gabrielle was Queen, she deferred to Xena's judgment when outside the Village or in battle. In the warrior's eyes, this whole experience changed Gabrielle. It wasn't a bad thing; actually, it was a very good thing. It was, however, one step closer to anonymity for Xena. She felt it inside, the fact that she was quickly becoming, not Xena, the Warrior Princess, but merely Queen Gabrielle's Consort, Xena.

She knew in her heart that Gabrielle would never relegate Xena to either a subservient position or a spot within the Queen's shadow. The warrior remembered the words Gabrielle once spoke to her…

"A long time ago, I accepted the consequences of our life together…that it might one day come to this. It has. I'm not afraid."

Xena smiled to herself. Her wife had meant those words to mean something entirely different from the situation Xena now faced, but to the warrior, the sentiment was the same. Xena fell in love with, and married, an Amazon Queen. She knew that someday Gabrielle would assume her throne on a full time basis. Now, it was the warrior's turn to accept. It was time for Xena to accept the consequences of a life with Gabrielle, completely aware of all that life might bring. The warrior's smile reached her face as she silently undertook her destiny.

Gabrielle turned her head and locked eyes with Xena from across the camp. The warrior's smile said more than her words ever could. Xena knew in her heart that she could finally be content in this role. She would never play the helpless female to anyone, but for Gabrielle, she would gladly step to the rear. This need she possessed for so long, to control, situations as well as people, she felt it loosening its hold on her. Life was too short and most of the time, it came at such a cost. Xena wasn't about to spend one more heartbeat in this mortal realm either away or at odds with her soulmate, not if she had anything to say about it. She watched as Gabrielle crossed the camp to stand before her.

"I'll take Ep with me and we'll hunt up some dinner. I don't want to owe him too much," Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear. "Will you be okay…especially with him here?"

The warrior placed her arms around the small blonde, oblivious to those watching. Her action surprised some of the onlookers, Xena never having been known for public displays of affection in front of the Amazons. Gabrielle nodded and reached up to kiss her wife.

"It feels good to be able to do that again," the Queen smiled.

"Feels pretty nice on this end, too," the warrior grinned.

Xena felt a tug on her battle skirt and looked down.

"Can I go wit you? Tai asked.

Xena couldn't stop herself, and that surprised her more than anyone else. "Hunting, eh? Sure you can." She scooped the child into her arms and noticed Gabrielle's worried frown. "We're just going after a few rabbits, not to worry."

"All right. Take care of her, though, Xe."

Xena chuckled as she walked away with Tai in her arms, rolling her eyes slightly.


Gabrielle sat alone, enjoying the sounds of the camp a short distance away. She had fed and held Emery, seeing to it the child fell comfortably asleep, and then entrusted the sleeping infant to Maris' arms once again. She smiled at the memory of the child in her embrace. She never expected it to feel that way, the act of holding a baby.

The young Queen shook her head to dispel the thoughts she knew might eventually turn maudlin. Suddenly she felt a sensation against her skin that reminded her of the way the flesh on her arms would rise up with goose bumps at a cold breeze. She grinned. So, that's how Xena always knows.

"Hello, Ares," Gabrielle said aloud.

"You're getting good at that." He said, sitting down next to the young woman. "Just thought I'd pop back and let you know about your dad."

"Is he safe, what's going on…did you see him," Gabrielle quickly rattled off her questions.

"Whoa, take a deep breath. Yea, I saw him. He's not doing too badly considering what he's been through lately. We're working on getting him free right now. I guess you know by now that Hera was the one who caused all of this."

Gabrielle nodded. "Bedilia told me."

"Yea, the old broad."

Gabrielle chuckled and shook her head back and forth. "Ares, you can be so shallow."

All of a sudden, Gabrielle tilted her head as if listening to something. She knew the feeling well, but decided to let it be, for the moment.

"Did…did my father ask about me?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

"Gabrielle," Ares voice took on a genuine tone. "You're just about the only thing he's been thinking about. Apollo was the one who sent me to you…you know, that night," he referred to Gabrielle's failed suicide attempt.

"Thanks again," she responded. "I know you say father sent you, but knowing how you feel about me, Ares…well, you didn't have to do what you did."

"Yeah, I did," he answered softly.

Ares looked over at Gabrielle's questioning face and rubbed a hand over his face, nervously playing with his mustache. He didn't have to tell the girl the truth, but he knew he would anyway.

"You know I remember the day that your mom told Apollo she was pregnant with you. He came to me, so excited I thought he just challenged Zeus and won. I didn't see what all the fuss was, over a kid I mean, but Apollo just laughed at me and told me I'd get it someday. He asked me a favor, one that I said yes to before I knew the full extent of what I was signing on for."

"Father tricked you into something?" Gabrielle interrupted.

"He says no, but I guess the jury's still out on that one," Ares smirked.

"So, what was the big favor? He didn't talk you into being my guardian angel, did he? Because I gotta tell you, if that's the case, you're not doing it right," Gabrielle laughed at her own joke.

She looked up, concerned at the God's continued silence. Ares looked up and Gabrielle saw something she'd never before seen in his face. It was guilt.

"Oh no…no, I don't believe it!"

"What can I say? He came to me and asked me. Gabrielle, do you know what an honor it is for a God to ask another God to be Guardian to his child?"

"Don't! Don't say one more word!" Gabrielle placed her hands over her face, pulling them away to stare at the dark-haired God. "What…Gods, I don't even believe I'm asking this. What does a Guardian do?"

"Well, I guess I can't blame you too much for your thoroughly under-whelming response to the news. Guardian to a God's child is like being there for the kid when their old man can't be. When they get older, the Guardian becomes a sort of…" Ares looked at Gabrielle, suddenly unsure he should be telling the girl with such a volatile temper all of this.

"A sort of what?" Gabrielle enunciated each word carefully.

"A sort of mentor. Somebody who helps the kid out with learning about their powers and stuff."


"Yeah, well I guess I wasn't always there for you…"

"Ares, you were never there for me!" Gabrielle raised her voice.

"Well, I wasn't that bad…"

"Weren't that bad? Ares, can you even count the number of times I've been kidnapped because you talked some warlord into thinking it would be a great way to get back at Xena? How about Xena and the Furies, remember that one?"

"Well, I--" the God shrugged his shoulders as Gabrielle continued.

"Oh, and what about Hope…Callisto…have you forgotten that you all but forced me into knocking Hope into that lava pit?"

"Hey, I never thought you'd jump in there with her, what was that all about? Besides Apollo brought you back."

"My father? Is that how I…" Gabrielle's words trailed off.

Somewhere in the back of her memory, she did remember a kiss on the forehead by a man who cradled her in strong arms. She thought at the time she was dreaming of a father figure she wished for instead of the mortal man she grew up thinking of as her real father.

Abruptly, Gabrielle turned and slapped the God across the arm. "I can't believe-you-never-told me!"   The small blonde punctuated nearly every word with an additional slap.

"Okay, okay! I'm a selfish bastard. You knew that already."

The Queen finally quieted herself. "Why, Ares?" she asked. "What was so wrong with me?"

The God of War should have known this would be his niece's reaction. If someone had given him the same news about himself, Ares would have discounted them as having something seriously wrong with them. Gabrielle would always be Gabrielle. She internalized everything, thinking an incident such as this could only mean some serious flaw in her own character.

"Nothing, Gabrielle, there was nothing wrong with you," Ares said softly, even surprising himself by believing the words. "It was just…I had plans and--"

"That involved Xena," Gabrielle stated simply.

Ares didn't have to answer. He nodded his head and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. "I guess I always figured Apollo saw that you and Xena were destined to meet and fall in love before I did. I thought he did it as a way to keep you safe from me."

Gabrielle's ire eased somewhat as she truly looked at Ares for the first time. She knew what it felt like to be the child that was different from everyone else, even worse, to be the black sheep of the siblings. She remembered never being able to please her father, never being able to do quite enough to become favored. She understood how those feelings could lead to mistrust of a brother.

"Maybe he did it because you were his brother and he loved you," Gabriele responded. "What now, Ares?" Gabrielle asked about their future.

"I don't know," he answered wearily. "Seems pretty clear, even to me, that Xena has what she wants, even if it's not what I wanted for her. Besides, if you don't learn how to use some of those powers you have, you'll become a rogue."


"Yeah, someone who has enough Godly blood in them to give them a few powers. Mostly just enough to make them dangerous, and at the rate you're going," he pointed a finger in her direction, "you could wake up in the morning and find out that you set the house on fire in your sleep."

"Could that really happen?" Gabrielle asked in alarm.

"Sure, but don't worry, we won't let that happen. I know how you feel about Gods and power, yadda-yadda-yadda, but you've got to learn how to use them before you can control them."

"Learn to use my powers…great," Gabrielle answered less than enthusiastically.

"Hey, there are worse things that could happen to a girl."

"Oh yeah? You're not married to Xena."

"Right…rub it in," Ares replied dryly.

"You'll never give up, not completely, will you?" Gabrielle asked with a smile.

"Yeah, well if she ends up getting as old as that broad, Bedilia, I may. Can't go there."

"Ares, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Bedilia is a beautiful woman."

"Are we talking about the same person? She's about a billion seasons old. Between you and me, she passed her prime a looong time ago."

"That's where we're different, Ares. I can't wait to grow old with Xena, seeing her at fifty, and then, sixty, seventy, surrounded by her own grandchildren and great grandchildren. I have a feeling she's going to be very sexy looking with gray hair," Gabrielle grinned at the God's apparent discomfort at that vision.

"And they tell me I have some sick fantasies," Ares responded. "So, let me ask you. The fire you started back there, was that the first time you felt that kind of power?"

Gabrielle looked up guiltily. "No, not really. I've felt it a few times before, usually when I'm fighting. It's like if I want something badly enough, with no doubt in my mind that I want it, well, it happens."

"I've got a theory about that, I mean, if you want to hear it?"

"You've got a theory?" Gabrielle asked.

"Hey, I'm full of 'em," Ares responded smugly.

"I always knew you were full of something, Ares," Gabrielle teased.

"Yeah, actually--" the God paused, his brows knit together. "Ahh…I get it…full of it…yeah! Like I was saying, I've got a theory about what went on today."

"Which is?"

Ares expression turned serious. "That maybe you started the fire when you didn't know you could, because you really wanted it. If you can manipulate your power that way, Gabrielle, you should have been able to push the wagon right off of you, down there, in the river. That is unless…unless you didn't really want to live."

Gabrielle sat perfectly still, not daring to raise her eyes to the dark-haired God. His guess wasn't far off the mark and the young Queen knew it.

"I think…sometimes," Gabrielle began, "I don't think I'm worthy…of anything. Maybe a part of me thought it would be better if I wasn't around anymore."

"Well it wouldn't," Ares said sharply. "Be better, I mean."

"I know it's hard for a God to understand, but some days, I still feel like a farm girl from Potidaea."

"That's because you don't believe in yourself," Ares answered. "Gabrielle, why do those women in the camp obey you?"

"They have to," she muttered in reply. "I'm the Queen."

"If Xena told them what to do, before she was even your Consort, would they obey her?"

"Probably. They know she can be trusted and that she knows what she's doing…"

"Wrong! They follow her because they believe in her, and they believe in her because she believes in herself. Gabrielle, you have to believe in yourself before you can expect others to. Hey," he reached out and gently touched Gabrielle's chin. "That's something we'll work on. Okay?"

"Okay," the Queen smiled, wiping away an errant tear.

An uncomfortable silence descended upon them both. They each turned toward the other with bewildered expressions.

"You're actually being nice to me," Gabrielle said first.

"I was just thinking the same thing about you. You know you're not such an irritating blonde when you're mouth isn't getting in the way," Ares teased.

"Yeah? I was just thinking that you're not quite so self centered when your ego isn't getting in the way," Gabrielle shot back.

The two chuckled and Gabrielle rose to go.

"Let me tell Xena about all this. All right?" she asked.

"I never get to have any fun anymore."


"Okay, okay, don't beg. It's not very becoming."

"One other thing, Ares," Gabrielle paused, placing a hand on the God's shoulder. She lowered her voice so Ares had to strain to hear her. "I know that Xena has been up in the trees the entire time we've been sitting here. I know she's been listening to us talk. Do me a favor and don't tell her I know about that either. Okay?"

Ares shook his head. "You two have some strange ideas about communication. I'll let you know when I find out more about Apollo. Keep your head down. Hera's not going to be happy once she finds out what went down."

The God of War rose to stand before the small blonde. "Hey, what's that?" he pointed to Gabrielle's chest.

Gabrielle looked down at the spot on her chest that Ares indicated, only to have the God's finger snap up and tweak her nose. Ares laughed at the gullible reaction.

"I can't believe you still fall for that," he laughed, and then was gone in a blue flash, his laughter lingering.

Gabrielle rolled her eyes, suddenly standing alone in the woods. "He can be such a jerk," she laughed.


Xena leaned her head back against the tree, watching until Gabrielle was gone from sight. The warrior's first instinct had been to rush from her hiding place to confront Ares. His news that he was Gabrielle's Guardian completely stunned Xena. She wanted the God to take it back, to admit that he was lying for some selfish purpose of his own, but she knew that wasn't true. Deep down, she had a feeling that Ares behavior was genuine and the God of War spoke the truth. She watched his interaction with Gabrielle and realized she'd never seen the God that way…acting rather…human.

What worried Xena the most was Gabrielle's admission about the events in the river. The warrior always knew that Gabrielle suffered from a certain lack of self-esteem. Of course, traveling with the great Warrior Princess never helped the young woman's sense of worth. During their time together, Gabrielle spoke to Xena of a number of things during the younger woman's childhood that helped to shape the bard's life. Xena didn't doubt the verity of Gabrielle's love for the warrior, nor her devotion to the bard, but Xena wondered if she'd been showing Gabrielle the support she needed. Was Xena's love holding her wife up, helping her to grow, or was it smothering? Had she spent most of their time together simply telling her wife what was best or had the warrior offered an opinion and then let Gabrielle choose her own way? Had Xena let Gabrielle select her own path, following her own way, or had the dark-haired woman simply allowed Gabrielle to trail along behind, pursuing Xena's path?

Xena jumped from the trees and made her way back to their camp. The sun was nearly set and she felt a powerful need to be near her wife. They'd been apart for too long now and the warrior was determined to begin her part, to see that the small blonde truly came to believe in herself.


"Were you able to get her back to sleep?" Xena asked the small blonde.

"Finally. I think she's just used to having someone there when she wakes up." Gabrielle settled herself against Xena's chest as they sat before the campfire. The young Queen explained what she knew about Tai's life so far from what Ella had confided in her. Gabrielle told Xena the story as Ella told her that night.

"Maybe we should be in there with her." Xena suggested.

"She's sound asleep, Xe, I think she'll be okay for a bit. Besides, I think we need to talk…just the two of us."

"Yeah," Xena answered, once again fearful of what those words implied. Would Gabrielle ever leave her for the life of a Demi-Goddess?

"What are you thinking?" Gabrielle asked.

"What?" Xena looked up quickly to find her wife's head turned, green eyes gazing into deep blue.

"What are you thinking; right this minute?"

"I…uh…can you read my thoughts?" the warrior asked in concern.

"Yes, but not the way you're thinking, silly," Gabrielle chuckled, which calmed the warrior considerably.

"I--" Xena began, but Gabrielle interrupted.

"The truth, Xe. What are you really wondering?"

"With all your new abilities I was wondering when you'll get tired of being with me," Xena answered, unable to meet her wife's eyes.

"Want to know the answer?"

Xena nodded, certain this was 'the talk' that Gabrielle wanted to have, yet unconvinced that she wanted to hear the answer.

"Never." Gabrielle lifted a hand to guide the warrior's face toward her, placing a light kiss upon smooth lips. "Never, Xe, but I'll tell you something. I was sort of wondering the same thing myself. Wondering how long you would be willing to stay with a woman who just happens to be half of the very thing you detest."

"You don't ever have to think that way, Gabrielle. I love you…all of you. No matter who your parents are or what kinds of abilities you have, I will always want to be with only you."

Xena wrapped strong arms around the smaller woman, pulling her tightly against her. "Besides, It's not the Gods I detest, it's the way they meddle in my life that I hate. I'm already used to you meddling in my life, so I think we're safe."

Gabrielle laughed aloud; not only at the words, but also at the deadpan manner in which they were delivered. Xena smiled, enjoying the sound of her bard's genuine laughter.

"That's good to hear, Brie, your laughter."

"It feels good, too," Gabrielle responded. "All of this feels good."

"Which part, exactly? The part where the Gods are after us again or the part where we actually had to depend on Ares for help?" Xena quipped, kissing the small blonde's ear lightly.

Gabrielle giggled this time. "I was thinking about the part where you were holding me in your arms, telling me you loved me and you would never leave me."

Xena tightened her hold and placed a gentle kiss on her wife's neck. "I'll always be yours, Brie…always."

"Even when I makes promises to strangers to raise their children?" Gabrielle asked hesitantly.

Xena took a deep breath before answering. "You must have come to care for Ella quite deeply to do a thing like that."

"I did, Xe. She was very special. I felt as if we had known each other for ages."

"I see," Xena's arms unconsciously loosened from around Gabrielle and she heard the rather hurt tone in the warrior's voice.

"Oh, Xe, no…" Gabrielle turned in the warrior's arms to face her. "It wasn't anything like that." Gabrielle could see it in the warrior's eyes, a hurt expression that told the Queen the warrior thought more than friendship went on between Gabrielle and Ella.

"I thought maybe…I mean, you were alone and under Hera's spell--"

"I could never be controlled that much, Xena, not to know that you're the one that lives in my heart."

"I shouldn't have doubted you that way," the warrior replied.

"You're not alone, I'd be doing the same thing if our positions were reversed," Gabrielle replied. "The time I spent with Ella reminded me a lot of being with Lila. I never thought once about her in any other way."

"Sorry," Xena responded sincerely.

"What about Tai and Emery, Xe?" Gabrielle changed the subject.

"You'll keep your promise," Xena answered.

"But, will you be able to love them?"

Xena leaned back again, once again holding the smaller woman against the warrior's chest. She rested her chin atop the golden head. "Children are easy to love," Xena answered noncommittally.

"Like your own, Xe? Could you love them like your own?" Gabrielle asked.

"I'll try, Brie. I'll try very hard. Okay?"

Gabrielle silently nodded her head.

"Is that what you want, my heart? For me to love these girls like I would have loved Brianna?" Xena asked after a moment's pause.

"I guess what I want is for you to wake me up in the middle of the night sometime, just to tell me yes, that you could love these children just like your own. It sounds silly, doesn't it?"

"No love, not silly at all. I will try, I promise. Hey, you ready to get some sleep?"

"As a second choice, it sounds pretty good." Gabrielle answered.

"Second choice? And just what would your first choice be?" Xena questioned with a sly grin, already knowing the answer.

Gabrielle pulled away and rose, turning back to the warrior; she bent down and whispered into Xena's ear. The warrior's eyebrows disappeared under ebony bangs, a slow blush creeping into her cheeks at the Queen's words.

Gabrielle laughed and pulled Xena to her feet. "Ready to get some rest?"

"You expect me to sleep, after that?" Xena exclaimed.

"Just consider it a debt that that still needs to be repaid," Gabrielle chuckled.


"Mama…" Tai's small voice cried.

Xena hadn't slept yet, lying on her back staring at the roof of the tent. One arm around Gabrielle who had her head nestled comfortable on the warrior's chest, the other bent at the elbow, hand tucked under her head. She waited to see if the youngster was dreaming or awake. Continued sniffles convinced her it was the latter.

"Tai?" Xena whispered.

As soon as the warrior whispered the child's name, Tai was at her side in a shot. Pressed up against the tall woman's side, Xena felt like a sandwich between Gabrielle and the girl.

"Hey there, kiddo. You okay?" Xena asked.

Tai nodded slowly. "Scary dreams of the bad man," the child-like voice said.

Too damn young for nightmares, especially ones where her own father is the villain . "Yeah, I know what those are like."

"You have scary dreams too?"

"Yeah. I used to get them a lot, but not so much anymore."


Xena smiled. "Because Brie makes them go away."

"But, why?"

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Xena knew this line of questioning would end in a vicious circle, but she decided to take a run at it. "Just because she can." Xena knew she chickened out on that one. She had memories of her own mother's voice saying, 'because I said so, dear, that's why!'

"The bad dreams will go away soon, Tai, just you wait and see."

Xena ran a hand through the fine blond hair, now resting on her stomach. Looking between Tai and Gabrielle, the warrior smirked into the dark. "Bookends. Meet Xena, Warrior Pillow," she whispered to herself.

"Wha?" Tai asked.

Nothing," Xena replied with a low chuckle.

Tai scooted her body up until she was lying beside the warrior, the child's face inches away from Xena's own.

"Hi there," the warrior said, trying not to laugh.

"Hi," Tai grinned.

"I like her," Tai said, watching Gabrielle's beautiful face as the Queen slept.

"Me too," Xena responded.

"Xena, I'm cold," Tai snuggled against the warrior.

Xena lifted the blanket a small way. "Come here you."

Tai wiggled her small body under the blanket, resting her head on Xena's shoulder. The warrior soon found her arm locked around the youngster.

"Can I really stay with you…for always?" Tai whispered, tickling Xena's ear.

The warrior turned to look into the earnest face, blonde hair framing large green eyes, ironically enough the color of Gabrielle's. "Is that what you'd like?"

Tai nodded enthusiastically.

"Why?" Xena asked, curious as to what was running through the child's brain.

"Cuz you and Brie are strong," Tai whispered. "So, when somebody comes and wants ta hurt me, you wouldn't let 'em. You could beat 'em up. I would be real good too. I would do what I wuz told an' I would be very, very good an' I would try not to eat too much, just small itsy bitsy pieces. Then you would be happy, cuz I would be your little girl."

Xena thought it was fortunate they were lying in a darkened tent. She felt hot tears run down the side of her face. The warrior's heart broke for the small girl who would try so hard, to simply be wanted and loved. Leaning down, Xena placed a gentle kiss on the child's forehead.

"You already are our little girl, Tai, and I won't let anybody say any different. I know you'll try your best to be good and that will be always good enough for us, but I don't want to ever hear that you're not eating as much as you should. Okay?"

Tai snuggled herself against Xena's neck. The warrior could feel the tiny smile against her skin. Within moments, she noted the telltale breathing, steady and deep, indicating the child was asleep. Xena cried a few more tears, thinking of the girl who could very well be her own daughter. The warrior brushed the tears away and turned to her wife.

"Brie? Honey, wake up."

"Hmmm?" Gabrielle finally tried to open sleepy green eyes.

"I need to tell you something," Xena whispered.

"I'm awake…"

Xena chuckled. "Then how come your eyes are still closed?"

"Are they?" Gabrielle answered. "I just thought it was really dark in here."

"Are you really awake?"

Finally, the eyes opened and Xena waited a moment until she could tell that the green orbs actually focused in on her. Then, the warrior leaned over and kissed Gabrielle soundly, placing a second kiss on the tip of her nose.

"Mmm, what was that for? Not that I'm complaining mind you."

"That, my heart, means the answer is yes."

"Okay. What was the question?"

Xena chuckled. "Yes, I can love these children just like our own."

Gabrielle's eyes opened further and she half sat up before she spied the tiny figure tucked against the warrior's frame. The Queen smiled broadly, then tears filled her eyes.

"I love you. You do know that, don't you?" Gabrielle whispered softly.

Xena looked into her wife's face, serious green eyes staring back at her with so much love and adoration, it was hard to miss. "Yes, my heart, and I'll try every day of my life to be worthy of such a wonderful woman's love."

The two women knew they should get some sleep, looking ahead to a day of wondering what the Gods had planned for them. Neither of them could will their bodies to rest and they whispered long into the night, making plans and discussing what the future might bring them.

Chapter 19

"Still?" Ares' voice boomed out when he saw the old woman muttering under her breath, standing in front of the illusionary cell that still held Apollo. "How long does it take anyway?"

Bedilia arched an eyebrow and glared out of one raised eyelid at the dark-haired God. Apollo stood beside Morpheus, fixing a perturbed stare in his brother's direction.

"It takes time, Ares." Apollo said in answer.

"I know, I know. Hey, Apollo…come 'ere," Ares indicated the far end of the cell.

"I saw what you did, thank you, Ares." Apollo thanked his brother with tears in his eyes.

"It wasn't much," the dark-haired God mumbled.

"It was to me," Apollo answered sincerely.

"Yeah, well…she's a pretty good kid, I guess. Look, Bro, let me ask you something…"

Bedilia rose and wrapped her fingers around the imaginary bars in front of the cell. She moved them along the entire length until she was standing next to Ares. The God paused and looked down at the old woman.

"Do you mind? This is kinda private." Ares said out of the side of his mouth.

Bedilia simply ignored the God and moved away of her own accord.

"Geez, that old broad has got some attitude," Ares whispered. "Look, Bro, I wanted to ask you…I mean, I was talking with Gabrielle and she said something that kind of triggered something, you know? Anyway, I just thought I'd ask. Why did you really ask me to be Gabrielle's Epitropos ?"


Apollo smiled at his brother's sincere question. The sandy-haired God wished many times that his brother would someday be able to honor his commitment as Epitropos , or Guardian, to his daughter. Apollo had made the offer in good faith, but once Ares learned of the Warrior Princess' involvement with Apollo's daughter, a rift developed.


"Ares," Apollo smiled gently. "I asked you because you are my brother and I knew I could count on you."


Ares nodded his head. "Just had to be sure."


Both Gods turned their heads at the stranger that materialized beside them. Outside the cell, Ares drew his sword, since no one but Hera was supposed to know where they were.


Bedilia and Apollo both exchanged perplexed looks. "Ella?" they both asked in unison.


"What? Oh!" the stranger's voice was one the Gods recognized.


"Boy oh boy! This gal's wardrobe is a fashion nightmare," Ella said as her face and body began to change shape. A heartbeat later Aphrodite stood before the stunned trio.


"Aphrodite?" they all asked.


"I thought there was something strange about your mind," Bedilia commented.


"Yeah, you almost ruined it for me grandma. I had to hide out inside this gal's mind just to hide from you. Man, what a lot of guilt there is there!"


"Dite, what's going on?" Ares asked in confusion.


"Well, it's sort of complicated, but I couldn't let little Gabrielle go through this alone," Aphrodite explained.


"Okay, Aphrodite, you better start at the beginning," Apollo chided.

"Oh, all right! See, Artie told me what happened to the bard and that you guys were putting out the feelers for her, but no go. She told me to keep my eyes open. Well, I have this little temple outside Pella, you know what some of these mortals leave as an offering, why just the other day--"

"Aphrodite!" Apollo called out. "Gabrielle?"

"Oh, yea. Well, in wanders this poor, skinny looking thing with two little kids. She looked like she hadn't eaten in a week. She gave me the only thing she had, this old looking necklace. She put it on the altar, tucked her kids around her, and fell asleep. Poor thing, she just never woke up, and next thing I know Celesta shows up. Her little girl was crying and I didn't know what to do, I mean I couldn't leave the little rugrats on their own…so I…uhm…"

"You became Ella," Bedilia finished in amazement.

"Uh huh," Aphrodite nodded her head. "I mean, I was only going to do it until I could figure out something to do with the little squirts, but…they kinda grow on you, ya know?"

"Then you ran into Gabrielle," Apollo added.

"I didn't even know her at first, zowie, she had that mind of hers locked up tighter than Tartarus! I told Artie right away, what I was doing and how I ran into her Queen. She told me not to tell her anymore and to stick with the bard. She spilled the beans about what Hera was up to and told me to keep my thoughts to myself and not let anyone find out where we were. I haven't seen sis since."

"So, that's why Artemis hasn't been seen," Ares noted.

"She probably didn't want to take a chance on Hera catching her thoughts. If my guess is right, our sister went in search of Zeus. He's the only one who can control Hera."

"Perhaps not the only one," Bedilia responded, clapping her hands with a flourish. The shimmering bars faded from sight and Apollo and Morpheus were, at last, able to walk out of the cell.

"All right!" Ares exclaimed. "Hey wait a minute," the dark-haired God turned back to Aphrodite. "Why didn't you pull Gabrielle out of the water?"

"Oh, uhm…about that," Aphrodite let out a nervous laugh. "I think I must have hit my head or something when I hit that water, 'cause all of a sudden, I was this Ella, ya know? It wasn't till I woke up, leagues down stream, that I knew what in the world even happened to me. Sorry, Bro," she looked in Apollo's direction. "By the time I popped back, the little Queen ran into her warrior and everything seemed hunky dory."

"Aphrodite," Apollo hugged his sister. "Thank you so much."

"I learned an awful lot about that little girl of yours. She's pretty special," Aphrodite replied.

"May I suggest we all move this party to a spot less accessible to Hera?" Bedilia suggested.

They all agreed and left for the one place Bedilia knew they could protect against Hera…the Hall of the Fates.


It was the next evening before they arrived in the Amazon Village. They were tired and had much to tell the Amazons and the Queen Regent. Gabrielle sat with Ephiny, explaining the highlights of what occurred during her absence, while Xena and Eponin met with the Village warriors, preparing them for the eventuality of Hera's visit. The Queen and her Consort both expected Hera to show up in person this time. She would be angry and unreasonable at having lost and Xena and Gabrielle didn't want to lose Amazonia or its inhabitants over the out of control Goddess.

The warrior and her bard made love that first night back. They were exhausted and it was by no means earth shattering, rather tender and gentle, enough to confirm the love and commitment they held for one another.

They thought it would be harder than it was to get Tai to sleep in the other room with her baby sister. Xena and Gabrielle wondered if they should allow the girls to stay in their room, but Tai seemed genuinely thrilled at the prospect of a room of her own. The youngster only asked if she could keep a lantern lit for the night. The warrior figured it was a small price to pay and both women were surprised that the girl slept through the entire night without waking.

The next morning Xena and Gabrielle talked, not just of one thing, but of a hundred. They realized that although Hera's spell caused both women undue guilt, it was the tiny seed of their own true culpability that helped the Goddess' spell to flourish.

Promises of love and forever punctuated their discussion, which stopped abruptly because of one fully rested five-year-old. Gabrielle and Xena took both children around the Village. Showing the girls their new home, introducing them to the people of the Village, and cautioning Tai about where she could and could not go.

Later, after their shared midday meal, Xena sat outside on the veranda, Tai remaining by the warrior's side, much to Gabrielle's amusement and Xena's consternation. The Queen kept Emery inside, feeding the baby with the ingenious skins one of the other Amazons presented to her. They were small waterskins that could be filled with milk, having a nipple fashioned at one end. Emery seemed fussy about eating; stopping far short of what Gabrielle thought a baby should be eating. The Queen questioned Sartori and the Healer confirmed that babies would eat as much as they needed, and since the child seemed healthy and content, it obviously wasn't hurting her. Gabrielle sat at her desk, near the window, listening to the questions Tai threw in quick succession in Xena's direction.

"Was dis, Xena? Ooh, look at dat! Can you do dis?"

Xena surprised the young Queen. The warrior seemed neither harried nor put out by the young girl's questions, answering them all and teaching at the same time. Finally, the young girl tired and came to stand beside the seated warrior.

Xena felt the small body as Tai sat beside her on the steps leading up to the veranda. The youngster hadn't said anything else in a long while, but the warrior could feel the weight of the girl's stare.

"What was your baby's name?" Tai finally asked.

Xena raised an eyebrow, wondering if Gabrielle had mentioned their daughter. "Brianna," the warrior answered, unable to remember if she'd said the name aloud before this.

"You miss her?"

"Xena looked at the youngster, unsure if Tai was asking a question or stating fact. "Yes, very much. I…I never really had the time to get to know her."

"I miss my mama."

"I know you do, Tai," Xena answered reaching out to touch the child's face. I know how that can hurt, losing someone that you love very much."

"Mama says good people go to Fields," Tai stated.

Xena smiled. "That's right. It's called Elysium and It's full of grassy hills and pretty woods, and they laugh and play music all day long. The sun always shines and it's never dark," Xena explained.

"Is little Bri dere, too?"

Xena chuckled at Tai's discernment between Gabrielle and Brianna. "No, Brianna is an Amazon, so she goes where all the Amazons go. Someone will take care of her there, just like Gabrielle and I would here. You know, Tai, the dead can hear our thoughts. If you want to talk to your mother, all you ever have to do is think about her, and she'll be able to hear you."

"Okay," Tai smiled up at the warrior.

Gabrielle sat inside, listening to the conversation that was taking place near her window. She smiled once more at the child's resilience and her warrior's loving patience with the girl.

"Are you a good warrior, Xena?" Tai asked.

Once again, the youngster was able to make Xena smile. "Some people think I'm pretty good."

The youngster inched her way closer to the dark-haired woman. "Would you teach me?"

"I suppose," Xena answered quietly.

"Mama said I should be strong when we left home. I don' feel like it, Xena."

The young girl sniffed and moved closer until Xena pulled the child into her lap. The warrior reached down and brushed the unruly blonde hair back that fell into the youngster's eyes.

"I know how you feel, Tai. Sometimes it's so hard when everyone expects you to be strong, but you don't feel very strong at all."

"Oh," the girl answered.

Xena realized she hadn't really given the child an answer she could use. "Sometimes, Tai, you just have to realize that it's okay for a warrior to cry."

No sooner were the words out of the warrior's mouth, before the young girl turned her head into Xena's chest, tears falling from sad green eyes. The dark-haired woman held the girl and stroked her hair, allowing her own eyes to mist over.

Gabrielle shed her own silent tears, listening to the exchange outside.


Hades form materialized within the large Hall of the Fates.

"We feared…"

"You would be unable…"

"To keep your end of the bargain." The three Fates said as one.

"This is a debt I owe as well, however there were reasons to give as to why the Princess' soul did not arrive in the Amazon land of the dead."

"I think I may be able to convince the sisters of those lands of the importance of our request," Bedilia responded.

Hades and Apollo met one another and the older God put his arms around his nephew in a heartfelt display of affection.

"A gift for you to give to your daughter," Hades said. The God held out a small silver box with a hinged lid. The ornately decorated box felt as if it were alive, an age-old power pulsing from within.

"Thank you, I don't know how to repay you for this," Apollo replied in a broken voice.

A breathless Ares materialized before them all. "It's show time, folks. Hera's making her move."


Xena and Gabrielle sat in front of the fire, the evenings finally having grown cold enough to need one. They relaxed and enjoyed a cup of wine before going to sleep for the night. They sat side-by-side, leaning in to one another as though the touch alone gave each of them strength.

Gabrielle turned her head to look at her wife. The flames from the fireplace dancing within sparkling blue eyes.

"What?" Xena asked without turning her head.

Gabrielle smiled at her wife's senses. "We've changed so much, haven't we?"

Xena turned then, wanting to read the expression in her wife's face. The warrior returned the smile, realizing the small blonde meant it in an introspective, rather than bad, way. "I guess we have. It's funny; I've so often thought that you began following my path, simply because I was the one doing the leading, that because I was a warrior, you became a warrior. I used to think that I left you no choice, but to change who you were; to become me. Pretty arrogant thinking, huh?"

Gabrielle smiled; understanding the direction the conversation headed.   "Not arrogant, love, merely an assumption, laced with a little guilt, I suspect. Xena, our paths were so different at first. It's a testament to our love…our friendship really. That two people, so opposite, could come together and grow. It tells me we truly are soulmates."

Gabrielle reached over and brushed a strand of raven hair from her Consort's cheek, letting her fingertips graze the skin there. "If a stranger were to look at us now, they'd think that I gave up my way for yours. They would only see a peace-loving bard who took up the path of a warrior. It looks so different standing from where I do. I see two women whose paths crisscross and intersect so often that it's hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. I see two women who have grown so much, a bard who's a warrior-Queen…a gentle woman who learned to be hard. I see a Warrior Princess turned Consort…a hard woman who learned to be gentle. Some days I look at the two of us, Xe, and I think that you're walking my path, just as much as you think I'm walking yours."

"When did you get to be so smart?" Xena asked.

Gabrielle chuckled, then her expression turned serious. "I never thanked you, Xe…for being so strong for me after we lost Brianna."

The pain flooded into Xena's features and she furrowed her brow to contain the wave of emotion that threatened to break loose. The warrior felt Gabrielle's arms go around her, suddenly finding her own head resting on the soft shoulder of her wife.

"Let me be strong for you now," Gabrielle said. The Queen remembered the words the warrior spoke to Tai underneath her window. She also remembered the strain in the warrior's voice at holding back her own tears.  

"Sometimes, Xe, you just have to realize that it's okay for a warrior to cry."

The bard's words hit Xena at exactly the right moment. The very ones she used to allow Tai the freedom to express her grief were the words that broke down the walls holding the warrior's pain inside. The dark-haired woman cried, safe and protected, in the arms of the young woman who shed tears of a similar sadness.

Some time later, long after the flames of the fire burned down into glowing embers, the two women wrapped a fur robe around their bodies and drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 20

Gabrielle woke up the next morning in bed, vaguely aware that her wife carried her there before the sun rose. Finding the space next to her unoccupied, she saw a scroll wrapped up, laying on the pillow, along with a beautiful orchid. She smiled to herself, already knowing who had left the gift. Opening the scroll, she saw a smaller piece of parchment rolled up inside. The large scroll had a quick note scrawled on it.

Tai and I went off fishing, we'll bring back some fresh lunch.

I left Emery with Maris and Kiana so you could do your Queenly stuff today.

See you at lunch,


The second parchment was sealed with a small bit of wax and the pendant that Xena wore around her neck, a gift from Gabrielle on the day they were engaged. The Queen opened the parchment and had to keep the paper held away from her so her tears wouldn't destroy the beautiful words her wife had written there. Xena wrote down her thoughts on few occasions, but they were always profound and heartfelt.

 Looking Back at You   
 As I stand alone   
 on the line between   
 this world and the next,   
 I look back among   
 the days of my life.   
 There , in every joyous moment,   
 you were at the center,   
 holding me up higher,   
 guiding me towards the sun.   
 You, the only reason I ever   
 was anything respectable;   
 my strength, my light   
 my soul and my heart.   
 If there is but one thing   
 on this earth I will miss,   
 it's the undying passion   
 and love I felt in every kiss,   
 and every touch,   
 and every time   
 we made love.   
 I can't believe that   
 one person could   
 change me so,   
 but you truly did.   
 All that I am   
 is because of you   
 and for as long as I   
 have any sort of existence ,   
 I will love you.   
Gabrielle could do little else but cry for a long time. Her wife rarely expressed her emotions and even then, only to Gabrielle. When the warrior did reveal her heart, it always moved the small blonde to tears. Gabrielle took the time to prepare herself to face her council. She promised herself that she wouldn't turn into a coward, but that she would meet her sisters and apologize for leaving them in the manner she had. The young Queen needn't have worried at all. The members of the council, along with her Regent, greeted her with open arms and loving embraces. Once again, Gabrielle thanked Artemis for all the young woman had been given in her life.


"Show me again, Xena! Please?" Tai jumped up and down along side the tall woman. Xena and Tai caught nearly a whole basket of fish. They were just returning from their early morning expedition. Crossing the center of the Village, they made their way to the food hut to give the majority of them to the cook. The youngster was completely taken with Xena's chakram and begged the warrior for another demonstration. "Okay," Xena chuckled and put the basket on the ground. With a practiced hand, she tossed the round weapon away from her. Tai watched, completely mesmerized, as the object struck two trees and a tent pole before returning to Xena's waiting hand. The warrior clutched the chakram, pulling it from the air and watched as Tai jumped up and down, clapping her hands. That's when the warrior felt it. It was a tingling feeling, the same warning sensation she felt when Ares was near, but this one was slightly different. This sensation seemed tinged with something like malice, some sort of sensation that caused a moment of fear to run through the warrior. She bent down and pulled Tai close, whispering in the child's ear. The youngster looked up into serious blue eyes, turned, and ran. Xena watched until Tai ran up the stairs and disappeared into the hut where the Queen's council met. Even as the shape materialized behind her, Xena knew who it was. "Hera!" the warrior sneered, turning to face the Goddess. "Doing all your dirty work yourself now?" "Xena…you and that Amazon slut have more lives than a pair of cats." Hera watched the warrior's jaw tighten, but Hera could see that Xena wasn't about to give in unless the Goddess played her trump card. "You'll never know how truly satisfying it was, Xena, to feel my hands around your baby's life force…as I ripped it from Gabrielle's body!" Xena drew her sword even as her body was in mid air. The warrior gave in to her anger, going against everything her instincts told her. She launched her body at Hera, only to be thrown backward by a bolt of power hurled into her midsection. The blow not only knocked her from her feet, but flung her halfway across the Village, to land in a freshly stacked pile of firewood. Xena shook her head to clear away the cobwebs, cursing herself for her own stupidity. She should have known that Hera would fight dirty. Xena tried to get to her feet, but was immediately hit with another surge of power that left her flat on her back. "I can do this all day, Xena, and believe me I will. I'm going to crush every bone in your body and then have you watch while I do the same thing to that abomination of Apollo's," Hera promised. The Goddess drew her arm back for another blow intended to pulverize internal organs, but instead she met with a woman's scream and a burning sensation in her arm. "Nooo!" Gabrielle shouted out, her own arm pitching forward. The young Queen rushed from the hut, stepping in between the Goddess and the fallen warrior. Gabrielle had no idea what was happening or what she was doing, but reacted on instinct alone. A white-hot orb of power shot from the young Queen's hand, hitting Hera's arm and knocking the bolt of power aside to skitter harmlessly in the dirt. The Goddess screamed in frustration, turning toward her attacker. Hera's entire face calmed when she realized who had thrown the energy bolt. Pale eyes gleamed and she offered up one of her infamously evil smiles. "Oh, my little Amazon, do you really think you're strong enough to play with me?" Hera didn't hesitate. The Goddess hurled two energy-laden spheres at the small blonde. Gabrielle bent to retrieve her sais, pulling them effortlessly free of her boots, and successfully deflected each bolt of power with the handles. Hera watched with almost an air of admiration, right before she launched a half a dozen more of the objects at the young woman. Gabrielle was able to deflect the first five, but the last one hit her shoulder, causing her weapon to sail from her grasp. The force of the blow slammed her to the ground. "Gabrielle!" Xena shouted out, rising to her feet. Hera laughed at the warrior's attempt. "Watch, Xena, see how this feels," Hera laughed aloud as she tossed an even stronger bolt of pure energy at the young Queen who was trying to stand. Xena remembered hearing her own scream just before the blue orb slammed into Gabrielle's chest. Suddenly the flat part of a large blade appeared before Gabrielle, deflecting the bolt. Ares and Apollo both stood between Gabrielle and Hera causing another scream of anger from the Goddess. "You have really got to start picking on folks your own size," Ares smirked. "You will regret this, Ares," Hera screamed. The Goddess turned to Xena, the warrior on her feet, but unprotected from the angry Goddess' weapons of destruction. Before Hera could attack, the center of the Amazon Village filled with Gods. Athena stood before Xena, while Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and finally Hades flanked Hera. As if on cue, the Gods used their own combined energy to form a restraint of sorts around Hera. The Amazon Village was silent as its residents looked upon more Gods than many did in an entire lifetime. They knew of their Queen being the daughter of Apollo, but seeing Gabrielle's newfound powers displayed before them like this, it stunned them into silence. "Father?" Gabrielle asked, to see Apollo turn to her with a smile on his face. The God swept the young woman into his embrace, his golden armor gleaming brightly. With the bow that he was an expert with slung across his back and his traditional gold helmet atop his head, he looked every bit the hero. "Gabrielle," he whispered. "I've missed you so much, my child." The Queen quickly turned her head at the sound of her warrior's battle cry. Xena, sword in hand, charged toward Hera, obviously ready to attempt to destroy the Goddess if she could. "Xena!" Gabrielle shouted. Hades and Ares both moved forward to intercept the warrior. One God on each side of the struggling warrior, they held her back from the Goddess. Gabrielle rushed to Xena's side, attempting to calm the distraught woman. "Xena, please wait," Apollo moved to stand before Xena. "You don't understand, Apollo. She killed my child!" Xena hissed through her tears. "Because that's what she's good at." The deep voice came from behind them and when they turned to see whom the voice belonged to, no one was more surprised than Xena. "Hercules?" Xena and Gabrielle said almost in unison. Hercules drew closer, followed by Artemis, and an older man that Gabrielle didn't recognize. The handsome God wrapped strong arms first around Xena, then Gabrielle. "I know exactly what you're going through," Hercules whispered to Xena. Xena knew that Hera destroyed her friend's family just as the Goddess had taken Brianna's life. "I know," she whispered back. Artemis gently offered a kiss on the forehead to Gabrielle, then moving to her twin brother's side, sharing an embrace and a smile. "Hey, when those two say they're going to get away from it all for a while," she nodded her head in Hercules' direction, "they really mean it. You don't know how many places I had to look before I found them," Artemis answered. "Ahh," the old man stepped in front of Gabrielle. "So, this is my granddaughter. You've done well, Apollo." "You're Zeus?" Gabrielle asked. "Yes, I am. Disappointed?" "A little," Gabrielle arched an eyebrow at the God. "I think you need to keep a tighter leash on your wife." Those in attendance took a collective breath and held it. Xena couldn't hide the smile that played across her face. Her wife would never be one to be impressed with someone if it wasn't deserved. Zeus laughed aloud at the young woman's forward remark. "Cheeky, my dear Gabrielle, but sadly true. It wasn't always like this," Zeus shook his head and turned his face toward his own wife. "Hera has always been headstrong, but it has been my own wayward actions that have made her into the jealous and bitter woman she now is. Do you know that our wedding was such a happy occasion that it lasted for three hundred seasons?" "You are a bard, Gabrielle. Have you ever heard tell of the time that Hera stole my thunderbolt?" Zeus asked. Gabrielle gave a small smile, wondering if the God had a repeat plan in mind. "Yes, Hera dared to steal the thunderbolt that belonged to the King of the Gods. It's said that you punished her by hanging her in the sky with anvils tied to her feet, and didn't free her until she repented." "Quite true, too," Zeus added. "For a hundred seasons the stubborn woman hung there, too. For this, attempting to destroy my children and my children's children…I fear it may be a great deal longer this time, don't you, my dear?" he asked of his wife. Having said those words, Zeus and Hera both disappeared. Gabrielle moved into her wife's embrace, while the Gods around them looked on in approval. Tai had finally freed herself from Ephiny's grasp, running on tiny legs and jumping into Xena's arms. "See, I told you so," Tai whispered into the warrior's ear. "What?" "I knew you and Bri wuz strong. I knew you could beat up anybody." Both women laughed, mostly at the youngster who seemed to have an innate ability to let life roll so easily off her back. They introduced Apollo to Tai, the young woman taking to the kind hearted God immediately. Tai still looked at Ares with an air of distrust and Xena wasn't in a hurry to dispel any of the youngster's notions of the God of War. The Fates appeared, along with Bedilia. Gabrielle and the old woman embraced, while Xena and the oracle met for the second time. Bedilia handed over a silver box to Apollo and the old woman spoke for the group. There were things Bedilia didn't reveal to the young Queen, her future, and what the oracle knew Gabrielle and Xena's destinies to be. Bedilia convinced Aphrodite to tell Gabrielle the story of Ella once the confusion was at an end. The old woman thought it important for Gabrielle to know that the events in Ella's life were all true, but the friend the young Queen met and learned to love, was none other than Aphrodite herself. Besides, Bedilia knew that Gabrielle held a bit of guilt over Ella's death. The oracle wanted the young Queen to know what really happened, and what would have happened to Tai and Emery had the Queen and Aphrodite not crossed paths. "Gabrielle and Xena, you have both been a friend to the Olympians, and on many occasions your faithfulness has been repaid in less than a satisfying manner. We would like to repay our debts to the both of you with this gift." Bedilia motioned to Apollo, who stepped forward with a smile on his face. The sandy-haired God opened the hinged lid and scooped his hand into the velvet-lined box. Withdrawing his hand, he held it out before Xena and Gabrielle, displaying a bright swirling orb of multicolored sparkles. The sphere pulsed and emanated something that felt like emotions. Xena drew her own hand closer and felt, rather than saw, what the God held in his hand. Tears filled the warrior's eyes as she looked down at Gabrielle. The Queen's face was one of confusion and uncertainty as Xena took the smaller woman's hand and drew it toward Apollo's hand. Gabrielle smiled and cried at the same time. "This is Brianna's life force. The Princess wasn't fated to make the journey to the Amazon lands just yet. This," Apollo held up the sphere that began to burn brighter, "belongs to the two of you. It's your decision, however. You've been through a great deal up to this point and I have no wish to make this harder on you than it's already been." Xena looked at Gabrielle, excitement, and happiness evident in the warrior's face. The tall woman watched as Gabrielle's brow furrowed together and the young woman pulled back slightly. "Brie…what is it? Don't you want this?" "I--" Gabrielle swallowed nervously. "What if something happens again, Xe? I don't…I don't know if I could handle it a second time." Xena's heart ached for her wife, wishing she could take the pain of that day from the small blonde's memory. The warrior looked first at Gabrielle, then at Apollo. "I only want what you want, Brie. I know this is scary and it hurts to think about what already happened." "Gabrielle," Apollo said softly. "It's never a good thing for mortals to know too much about their future, but in this case, I think I can show you something that will ease your fears. I want the both of you to place your hands on top of mine," he commanded. Gabrielle first looked up at Xena. "It's all right, my heart. Give me your hand, Brie," Xena directed. Gabrielle offered her hand up to her wife without hesitation. Xena took the small hand within her own and placed both of them atop Apollo's hand. The two women felt the heat as the shimmering light spilled through their fingers, filling their minds with disjointed pictures, racing from one scene to the next. The young Queen smiled at last, watching the images in her mind's eye change from a laughing baby to a grown woman, dark hair and eyes a brilliant emerald green. The young woman was first a student, a warrior, peacemaker, and then Queen. Neither Gabrielle nor Xena could linger long enough on any one image to see the story that went alone with it, but the feelings were there. The emotions swept through each woman just as if they were experiencing the actions. The smile was enough for Xena as she gave her wife one of her own and pulled their hands back from the light. Gabrielle nodded to Apollo. "Yes, father. Please," Gabrielle asked. A gentle smile creased Apollo's face. The God moved his hand and pressed his palm against Gabrielle's abdomen, the light spilling from his hand, and melding its way into the Queen's body. Apollo took a step away and watched as Gabrielle gasped, reaching for Xena's hand. The small blonde took the warrior's hand and placed it where Apollo's had just been. Xena felt the life in her wife's body jump beneath her hand, bringing the warrior to tears. Then Xena did something very out of character. Gabrielle watched as her wife took a step forward and wrapped her arms around Apollo, placing a kiss on his cheek. "Thank you…thank you so much," she whispered, her voice breaking with emotion. It was a tearful, yet happy time for all. The pain of the past few weeks melted away as a new happiness took hold in their hearts. Not only would they have two daughters who would always be the children of their hearts, but also Xena and Gabrielle were once again expecting their first baby. Once the Village cleared of most of the Gods, the Amazons were able to gather their wits about them, offering the Queen and her Consort their congratulations. Gabrielle embraced Bedilia once again. "I'll miss you, Bedilia." "I'll miss you too, Gabrielle," the old woman answered as she and the Queen walked a short distance away from the others. "You've come a long way, young Queen. Have you made your choice yet?" "Choice?" Gabrielle echoed. "Which path you will walk," Bedilia clarified. Gabrielle smiled. "I think I'll choose the path of a Queen." Bedilia raised an eyebrow in question and Gabrielle explained further. "One of my own making," the Queen enlightened. "I find that I have to be many things for many people; bard, warrior, wife, and mother, but Queen…" Gabrielle smiled again. "I walk the path of a Queen for myself and no one else." Epilogue Gabrielle signed the last few declarations before her and pushed aside the mug of tea that had long since grown cold. She was making an early day of it after having received a message from Xena earlier. The scroll her warrior sent was equal parts mystery and seduction. The warrior's message said that the children were spending the night with Ephiny and the Queen should hurry home from her duties. The note went on to conclude with a most intriguing line. "I've planned an evening I hope you'll enjoy…I'm putting all my trust in you." Gabrielle reread the parchment, her mind conjuring up some rather inventive fantasies as to how her Consort would prove that last statement. They talked quite a bit over the past two weeks, discussing not only what happened that involved the two of them, but the issues that plagued each of them individually. Gabrielle decided to come to terms with the fact that she had the skills of a warrior, along with the powers of a half Goddess. Denying either one no longer seemed an option. For her part, Xena had been working on those issues she had with herself and her need for control. It wasn't an easy change to make and she and Gabrielle both knew it would take more than a matter of days for the warrior to affect a real change. Xena was changing, however, and Gabrielle noted the transformation on more than one occasion. "Now, to see what my lovely wife has planned." Gabrielle grinned to herself.


Gabrielle entered their home and could tell Xena was preparing a bath in the other room. What the Queen saw walk through the door to the bathing chamber was enough to freeze her into silence. Xena stepped through the doorframe wearing little at all to cover her tall, muscular frame. In fact, the only two items the warrior had on were a decorative chain that circled her waist, actually hanging low on her hips, and a leather slave's collar, buckled around her neck.

"Oh my," were the only two words Gabrielle could manage.

Xena crossed the room; seemingly oblivious to the nakedness that she knew was certainly affecting Gabrielle. The tall woman moved behind the small blonde, removing her cloak. Xena's arms wrapped around her wife and the warrior whispered in Gabrielle's ear.

"Would you like to play…My Queen?"

Gabrielle could imagine the look of seduction in Xena's twinkling blue eyes. The small blonde watched as steam came through the bathing room door, curling as it rose to the ceiling. She glanced around the main room they used at a bedroom. Silken red sheets from Chin covered the bed, but the biggest surprise were the leather restraints tied to each of the four corners of the large bed.

Gabrielle cleared her throat, willing some strength back into her knees and attempting to keep some blood flowing to her brain, the blood that was now rushing to points much further south.

"I take it I'm in charge here?" she asked, hoping her wife didn't notice the catch in her voice.

"As always, Mistress," Xena whispered into the smaller woman's ear before moving away and dropping to her knees in front of the bathing chambers.

Gabrielle's nervousness melted away as her libido got the better of her. She made her way to the bath, attempting to remove her top at the same time.

"Allow me, my Mistress," Xena said, quickly moving to stand beside the small blonde, making short work of the leathers Gabrielle wore.

The Queen smiled at the control the warrior displayed. Xena removed Gabrielle's clothes without a hint of seduction, rather as a slave would serve a master. Once Gabrielle's back was turned, however, Xena couldn't help but sneak a glance at the shapely figure as it descended into the steamy water.

Xena waited patiently, her gaze steady; head lowered just a touch. The warrior owned enough of her own slaves to know the proper behavior and the ways in which to show the proper respect. She especially knew the actions a body slave would perform to convince her Mistress that the possessor was in charge. Xena picked up the bathing cloth and moved toward the young Queen, who was obviously enjoying the feel of the hot water on her tired body.

Working the soap into a lather with the cloth, Xena prepared to bathe the Queen when Gabrielle opened her eyes.

"No cloth. Just use your hands," the blonde commanded.

Gabrielle was feeling every bit the Mistress and she was determined to enjoy this scenario for all it was worth. Xena hesitated for a heartbeat and Gabrielle decided that she would simply pretend that she was Xena, from her Warlord days. The bard heard all the tales, even the ones told as bawdy stories in the taverns. Her wife's proclivities were well known in those days and Gabrielle decided to use what she knew in this fantasy.

Xena dropped the bath cloth, lathered her hands with the soap, and began to slide them down the length of Gabrielle's body. Down and up, Xena covered Gabrielle's body in soap, but drew to a halt when her downward moving fingers rested against the edge of golden curls.

Gabrielle leaned against the back of the tub, parting her thighs. "Keep moving in that direction," she said, a carnal smile spreading across her lips.

Xena closed her eyes, willing her body not to respond. Remember, you don't have to be in control here…this is for her. Xena's hand continued its downward motion, her fingers mingling with the smooth wetness that had little to do with the bath water.

Gabrielle tilted her head back and moaned, spreading her legs open further.

The sound nearly undid the warrior. She let her fingers linger, teasing as they circled the hardened nub that screamed for attention. She allowed her fingers to explore, dragging the wetness from its source upward. Gabrielle's body jerked, her mound thrusting against the fingers, coming closer and closer to screaming her release. On the downward stroke of Xena's hand, the Queen thrust herself at the invading fingers, groaning loudly as the digits penetrated her, pressing deeply into her.

It didn't take long. Xena began thrusting two fingers into Gabrielle's swollen core, the warrior's speed, and power increasing as Gabrielle's hips dictated. Gabrielle's shout as her climax hit thankfully covered the loud, frustrated groan that Xena verbally expressed.

Xena slowly moved her hand away from its intimate refuge, enjoying the way the bard's inner muscles clutched possessively at the receding fingers. Gods, she'll be the death of me! Xena's mind screamed.

Gabrielle was still for a few moments longer, and then shook her head to take possession of herself once more. Gods, she'll be the death of me!

Gabrielle turned her head and grinned up at her wife. Xena couldn't help herself as she grinned in return. Snaking a hand around the warrior's neck, Gabrielle pulled Xena into a kiss that left both of them struggling for air. Pulling away first, Gabrielle rewarded Xena with a very smug smile.

"I think I'm clean enough for one day."

Xena offered a hand and led the small blonde from the bath, drying the Queen with an oversized towel. Gabrielle turned around and stood face to face with the warrior, watching the drops of water that had splashed onto Xena's dark skin, roll down her torso. The Queen grabbed a towel, but came up with a better idea at the last moment.

Leaning in close to the warrior's chest, hands on Xena's hips, Gabrielle allowed her tongue to capture the rolling drops of moisture. Xena's head rolled back and she moaned at the exquisite feel of the warm tongue as it blazed a path of fire across her breasts. Gabrielle stopped in the appropriate places to suck or nibble, but then she continued her tongue's journey. Gabrielle abruptly stopped, turning and heading for their bed, leaving Xena trying to catch her breath.

"You're not going to make a habit of keeping me waiting, are you?" Gabrielle's voice shocked Xena from her pleasurable daydream.

"No, Mistress," Xena answered breathlessly, rushing to the Queen's side.

Xena watched as Gabrielle fingered the thick leather cuffs tied to the four corners of the bed. The Queen ran her fingers against the silky rabbit fur lining the inside of the restraints. The look in the Queen's eye as she looked up at Xena, caused the warrior to swallow hard.

Gabrielle reached up and examined the leather collar wrapped around her Consort's neck. On one side, it bore the Queen's Royal crest and in the front, a hard loop was sewn into the collar. Gabrielle chuckled aloud at the thought of how red Xena must have turned asking some vendor to burn an Amazon crest into a slave's collar. The Queen's soft laughter did nothing to ease Xena's peace of mind, nor did the Queen's next action.

Gabrielle breathed in the aroused scent of her wife, now her slave. "Gods, you smell good when you're excited." The words elicited a nearly silent whimper from Xena.

Gabrielle hooked her index finger within the loop on the warrior's collar and pulled down slightly. "Sit," the Queen commanded.

Gabrielle dropped to her knees and parted her wife's long legs. She bent her head and Xena shivered, simply knowing what the contact of that lovely pink tongue would feel like. Gabrielle touched the outer edge of Xena's folds with her tongue and tasted the moisture that daubed the tips of the woman's dark curls. Exploring further, Gabrielle dipped her tongue in carefully, sliding it along the entire length of Xena's sex.

Xena closed her eyes and moaned, shamelessly spreading her legs wider. "Please…" she begged the kneeling woman.

That sound was all Gabrielle needed. She lapped greedily at the warrior's center, Xena's hips arching up to meet the tongue that penetrated deeper with each thrust. Suddenly without warning Gabrielle pulled away leaving the warrior moments away from her orgasm.

"Oh, Gods…please…" seemed to be the only words Xena was capable of.

"Lie down in the middle of the bed," Gabrielle demanded.

Xena scrambled quickly, realizing somewhere in the back of her mind that the old Xena would have smirked, moved slower, done something to prove she was unaffected by the young Queen. The warrior knew better. She was completely and utterly under the will and whim of the Amazon Queen.

Gabrielle positioned the warrior's arms above her head, one on each side of her head. Gabrielle moved to fasten the cuffs to Xena's wrists, but stopped at the frightened expression in Xena's eyes. The Queen knew she would have to do this carefully to keep her wife from experiencing a full-blown panic attack.

Gabrielle touched her fingers to Xena's cheek, stroking the flesh there, gentling the warrior. Xena's blue eyes locked onto emerald green and the Queen allowed all the love and adoration she felt to come to the surface. Gabrielle slipped both restraints on the warrior's wrists, but once she buckled them tight, Xena began to breath deeply, nervously wondering if she would be able to get enough air into her lungs.

The small blonde leaned closer to the woman beneath her, feeling the warmth of their bodies pressed together, taut nipples teasing those below her, smelling the sweet scent of the dark hair.

"I've got you, there's nothing to fear," Gabrielle murmured against Xena's throat.

Gabrielle finally leaned in, claiming Xena's lips in a soul-searing kiss. The warrior felt her whole being respond to that kiss. The anxiety she was feeling heartbeats before, disappeared entirely when Gabrielle's knee tenderly slipped between drenched thighs.

Xena's nipples tightened and an intense heat filled her body to the brim. She could feel the folds of her swollen sex rubbing along the bard's thigh, and then heard her own voice groan loudly, the sound muffled by the sultry kiss that seemed to go on forever.

Gabrielle swallowed Xena's sounds of passion. The Queen replaced her knee with her fingers, relishing in the drenched feel of Xena's sex, and Gabrielle's hand moved in time to the erotic rhythm of the warrior's hips. Kneeling over her wife, Gabrielle slipped two, then three fingers inside, grinding her own center along the warrior's thigh.

Xena watched, mesmerized, as Gabrielle's breasts swayed temptingly above the warrior. Xena lifted one leg, maximizing the pressure Gabrielle felt and the Queen moaned loudly, tightening her grip around her wife's muscled thigh. Xena could suddenly think of nothing else beyond her restrained arms, which prevented her from reaching out and taking what she wanted from her bard. A groan of frustration escaped her throat, but Gabrielle was determined that the warrior should be rewarded for her submission, not punished.

The Queen slipped her hand from Xena's body, but before the warrior could voice her disappointment, the bard penetrated the warrior's slick passage with four fingers.

"Oh Gods, yes!" Xena cried out. "Deeper…" Xena pleaded. "Yes, there…"

Gabrielle drew back and offered a breast to the warrior, who wrapped her lips around a rosy colored nipple, sucking hungrily. It was Gabrielle's turn to cry out and she began to drive her sex against the warrior's thigh, moving to the tempo her hand set inside the warrior.

Xena wanted nothing more than to propel herself headlong from the edge of the cliff Gabrielle led her up to. The warrior used the last of her reserves, however, to drag the young Queen down with her. Xena tugged on the erect nipple in her mouth, gently pulling with her teeth, sucking the nub of flesh hard. Just as she felt Gabrielle's trembling body arch against her, she let herself go, leaping from the precipice into the arms of a heart stopping climax.

Pleasure coursed through the warrior's body as she stiffened, crying out Gabrielle's name. Xena's body convulsed with intense spasms of delight that lasted long after the warrior gave up her last bit of control, and blacked out. Gabrielle finally withdrew her fingers, laying the palm of her hand across Xena's sex. Gabrielle felt the intermittent pulsing of her inner muscles, the sensation continuing to send shivers of pleasure sweeping through her body until she too, fell sound asleep.

The End

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