Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters or locations herein, I just like to write about them. All feedback appreciated and responded to at jonut56@aol.com

Summary: After a particularly painful battle, where there are no winners and Xena has to watch a city consumed by fire, Gabrielle wishes there were some way she could erase all the mistakes in her friendís youth. When her wishes come true, Gabrielle has the chance to get to know a young Xena and to attempt to steer her away from her bloody destiny. Learning that fate will not be cheated, Xena finds herself with a familiar blonde child in her arms. Does she choose the future that most benefits her, or her soulmate?

 

No choice at all

Nut56


Back home on the farm, there used to be days for work and days for leisure. Admittedly, with cows to milk and eggs to gather and sheep to move, there were far more working days than resting days. As a travelling warrior, things are much the same. There are days when villages need protecting, or warlords have to be defeated, or long journeys are made, and there are days when thereís nothing particular to do, and you can please yourself how you wish.

This is one of those sorts of days. It seems like Xena and I have spent weeks travelling and fighting, planning and negotiating. Now, the industrial town to the North of here, and its agricultural neighbour to the West are at peace and reasonably safe from each other, so long as no one does anything rash and foolish. That canít be guaranteed, by any means, but at least Xena and I - well, mostly Xena - have done all we can. Today, thereís time for more pleasurable, mundane activities. Like shopping.

I wander along the mud street, letting my eyes trace over the colourful market stalls as I pass them. My belly is full, my staff has been mended, and I feel relaxed and rested. These moments are rare, and all the more precious for it. Xena has taken most of our money for supplies - and Argo needs a new shoe - but my empty hands donít dampen my spirits: you donít need to actually buy things to enjoy shopping. The market doesnít hold anything unusual or desirable, in any case. Itís small and functional, but itís nice to mingle amongst the townsfolk and watch them bartering for their shoes and cloth.

I pass an old woman, wrinkled but rotund, leaning her weight on the edge of a crumbling well and fanning herself with a tattered straw hat. She has the right idea: itís hot. Glancing upward, I see that the sun, bright in a clear blue sky, is almost directly overhead. Midday. I remember my promise to meet Xena, and increase my pace: she doesnít like waiting around. As arranged, I find her waiting by a horse trough, one boot up on the wooden frame as she re-laces the brass eyelets.

"Xena!" I approach her eagerly, using my staff as a convenient cane as I walk. I always try to tell her that a sword only has one use while a staff has many, but Iíve never managed to convert her. She continues her lacing, although I know she wouldíve been aware of my presence before I even spotted her. "Did you get all you needed?" I stop by her and peer into the linen bag propped by the trough. For someone who considers herself entirely practical, she manages to pick up little things that she thinks Iíll like with endearing frequency.

"Uh ha."

"And Argo is...?"

"At the Blacksmith, yes." She tests the snugness of her boot, pressing it experimentally into the ground.

"Did you get any nutbread?" I can only see one large, wrapped bundle in the bag, and it smells like beef jerky.

"Nutbread?" Xena straightens. She really is much taller than I am, and frowns down at me. I go to speak, but then she shakes her head and scowls. "Oh, nutbread; you asked." She remembers. "Iím sorry, Gabrielle, I didnít see any." Sheís distracted by something inconsequential happening over by the market stalls, and I have to stand and wait for her attention to come back. Itís something Iíve grown used to, of late. Ever since we got ourselves embroiled in this last conflict, sheís been distant and introspective. Wars never bring out the best in anyone.

"No problem," I say cheerfully about the nutbread, "Maybe at the next town, huh?"

At length, Xena looks back. "Whatís that?" The high sun reflects off the shiny metal of her armour, highlighting the swirls and patterns there.

"Nutbread," I repeat gently, "Weíll look at the next town."

She smiles warmly at me, and for a moment Iím reassured that all is well and Iím worrying over nothing. "Sure."

Something occurs to me, and I break our eye contact to reach my fingers into my leather purse. "Xena -" After a struggle I pull out three dark coins. "I told some stories to the women out in the square. Iím working on some new prose - I think they liked it." I know my smile is somewhat bashful, and when I bob my head blonde hair falls over my shoulders. I scowl. "Need to rework the middle part, though." And Iíd thought Iíd got that piece just right, too. "Anyway -" I shrug that off, knowing itís of no interest to Xena. "I earned a few dinars." I push them around in my palm to separate them, warped pieces of bronze with an off-centre stamping of a manís head, then hold them out to show her. "The inn here has a hot tub, and it serves good food. I thought you might like to take it easy for a bit? Iím not suggesting your personal hygiene is lacking, or anything, but..."

Xena laughs with me, but itís subdued, and she quickly sobers and pushes my hand back. "Thatís your money, Gabrielle. Why donít you buy yourself some new scrolls, or something."

"Our money," I correct her insistently. "Itís our money." I clench the coins into my palm so as to grasp Xenaís hand with a free finger. "And besides, I need a bath, even if you donít. I smell like Argo."

Xenaís smile returns. It isnít an easy expression to elicit, and I glow inside at my achievement. I only want to make her smile. "Well, if you insist."

Her eyes are lovely, for a moment, and I instinctively look down at my feet, bashful. Maybe itís just a little game we play, have always played. Itís hard to tell whatís authentic and whatís habitual, sometimes, but it doesnít really matter, so long as it cheers her up a little. I notice that my boots are in quite a state. Funny how theyíve gotten so familiar that I hadnít realised how much theyíve changed. Maybe a hot tub is somewhat frivolous after all: Iíll be worn through at the toes soon!

I go to lean down and give them a brush, wanting to know how much is worn leather and how much is just sand dust. Before I can begin my analysis, though, something bumps into me. I know almost immediately that it mustíve been someoneís accident, or Xena wouldíve had a dead body on the ground by now. I straighten.

"Sorry!" A blonde-haired village boy, of about half my age, turns back and holds up a hand in apology. I can see his leather ball bouncing off down the muddy path, and he quickly sets off after it, chased by his friends.

Xena and I both stare after him, frozen for the same reason. I go to speak, but donít. If she isnít thinking what Iím thinking then itís best not to remind her. If she is, thereís nothing I can say. I glance at her, then avert my gaze, back to the safety of my boots.

"Solan would be his age now, wouldnít he," Xena comments, falteringly but with a conversational tone. "I guess his hair wouldíve grown that long too: I always think of it as shorter."

I nod. The boy didnít look that much like Solan, really, but similar enough to make the comparison inevitable. We watch the children kicking and tossing the brown leather ball to each other, laughing and shouting, play-fighting and cheering. Full of life. I start on tidying our things, sure that Xena wonít want to linger on the subject. The sadness of not being near her child never leaves her.

"He was so good with his ball, too," Xena continues, surprising me. "Did you see him? He was good and strong, more accurate than those older boys he played with. He could throw that thing right across a field - and run to it quicker than anyone else." Sheís actually smiling, full of pride as she looks back through her memories, and I pause to watch her. "You know, I think heíd be a good archer. Heíd be strong enough now, wouldnít he? Heís got the same accuracy Borias had. Good eyesight, too." This is the most she has said in one go for a long time, and I continue to listen. "Iíd like to get him a little bow. One made of good, solid ash, so it gives with the string."

And I can actually see all that joy and pride melting away from her, see it replaced by the old resignation and melancholy. Itís been a long time since we saw Solan. Heís happy with Kaliepus. We travel across Greece, but we always give a wide berth to that memory-laden little village on the edge of the wood. She gazes across the market, lost within herself again.

Finally she returns to me, but her eyes are duller than before. "So, whereís the hot tub, then?"

We pack our newly acquired wares into bags for carrying and head for the two storey stone building of the inn. It looks to be one of the older properties in the settlement, and I imagine it must have seen times when there were no homes or market stalls, just the occasional passing cart.

The room containing a fair-sized tub is in a small out-building. The stone floor boasts nothing more than the tub itself and a handful of buckets for filling, but the steam keeps the place warm, and I pull the heavy iron bolt across the door so that weíll have time alone.

I allow myself a minute to watch my warrior companion. Without any kind of joy or anticipation, she begins to unbuckle her armour and shoulder out of her leathers. She puts her sword down on an upturned tin bucket, where she can reach out and grab the hilt in a hurry if she needs to. She never switches off, never lets her guard down. Not recently, anyway.

Xena lowers herself into the water, and steam rises from her roughened skin. She stands motionless for a moment, gazing at her own reflection in the water. I wonder what sheís thinking. Itís not until her bobbing image settles and stills that she seems to notice my eyes on her, and she glances back. "You coming?" Her voice has no colour, and I sigh, privately.

"Is it warm?" I say out loud, trying to begin a conversation.

"Mmm hmm." She lifts her hands out of the water and studies the droplets that stream in circular patterns down her arms then drip from her elbows. Itís unusual for her to take an interest in such things. Her attention is so focussed that she doesnít even notice me until I speak again.

My clothes discarded, I slide into the hot tub. The water is luxurious, closing around me and caressing me with warmth But Xena is more important right now. "Xena..." I try gently, looking into a frowning face that hides a soul caught up in something to the exclusion of all else. "Xena -" Iím more insistent this time, and move Xenaís arms aside so as to slip between them.

"Hey -" Xena smiles, as if surprised that Iíve appeared beside her. "Sorry. This is great." She puts her arms around me obligingly and holds me against her, tucking her chin onto my shoulder and giving me the loving cuddle that I wanted. At least we still have this.

"What are you thinking about?" I press my cheek to hers, which is flushed from the warmth, and gaze across the room, made hazy by water vapour. I can hear the faint sounds of village life outside.

"Thinking about?"

I draw back to look into her face. The only effective mask Xena has is that of anger: when she canít even muster that, like now, her pain is palpable. "You did the best you could, for Nephos and Casani. Both villages asked for your help. There wasnít an ideal solution."

"Mmm." She keeps her gaze anywhere but on me, which is rather difficult considering my proximity.

"If it werenít for you, theyíd be at war now. People would have died: you stopped that." I force her into making eye contact: I have to get through to her, enough is enough. Xena always berates herself too harshly, sometimes she needs a reminder of all the good she does.

No longer a warrior but just a woman, naked and in my arms, Xena smiles tightly. "I know." She touches my face. "Who made you so smart, huh?" Her forehead presses to mine. "Iím lucky Iíve got you with me, arenít I. Now turn around, let me scrub your back. You do smell a little like Argo."

"Hey!" I scowl in mock offence, and do as Iím asked. Xenaís strong fingers move the piece of yellow sponge over my shoulders, and I absently watch soapy lather run down my arms. Weíve spent two weeks trying to mediate between the two villages. There was blame to be found on both sides, everyone had made mistakes. Sometimes, it seems to me, there is no innocent party to choose. There are varying degrees of innocence and blame: you just have to do the best you can. There was fighting, and people got hurt. There was even a fire, one dawn in Nephos. Even as we were struggling with the villagers to extinguish the deadly flames, I saw the haunted fear in Xenaís eyes. Nothing frightens her like fire. It brings unwelcome memories from what we both euphemistically refer to as her Ďpastí, memories that she canít wield her sword against. Xena lost a part of herself in the fire that destroyed Cirra, and every blaze since, from Higuchi to Nephos just a few days ago, brings that loss back to mock her.

Xena squeezes the sponge into my ear in her customary fashion, making me laugh and twist away from the wet tickling. "I think Iím clean enough! My turn." I wade around Xena and stand behind her. Across the yard in the kitchen, plates are being clattered together in preparation for the evening meal. "Itís a shame we couldnít afford to stay the night." The idea of a warm, soft bed is very appealing, but our dinars wonít stretch to it, not if we want to eat tomorrow.

"Mmm." Xena is rubbing her arms with the sponge, so I massage her shoulders instead. Itís one of the many skills Xena has taught me, and now my hands are stronger and my technique more effective. "Iíd rather be outside, anyway."

I nod. When we do sleep inside, itís to please me, not Xena. Sheís at home under the stars, she feels safe out in the open. She can stalk off and walk or think if she feels restless, she can drill or check on Argo without disturbing me.

I trace my fingertips over the pattern of freckles on Xenaís back. "Would... would you change things, if you could?" It comes out before Iíve given it enough thought.

"Change?" Xena turns, her expression wary, and rinses the bubbles from her arms. "Change what?"

"Your life. Do things differently." I may as well finish what Iíve started. Xena is loyal to her Way, and wouldnít refuse to help those who are in need. Noble as this is, it inevitably reminds her of all her past mistakes. She can never escape from the suffering she once caused, no matter how repentant she is. It isnít fair.

"I wouldnít change you," Xena reassures, stroking soap from my cheek.

Iím not sure if her misunderstanding is actually deliberate evasion. "I donít mean that. I mean, do you wish your past had been different? That Cortese hadnít come to your village, that youíd never..." I trail off, embarrassed to put into words what Iíd been thinking.

Xenaís hand drops and the smile and eye contact dissolves. "Thatís a pointless question, Gabrielle, why are you asking that now?" Itís a reprimand rather than a query, and I watch her squeezing water savagely from her hair.

"I just... wanted to know. I just wondered." I shouldíve kept it to myself. Xena steps up onto the ledge beside me to climb out of the bath, and Iím angry that Iíve pushed too far and spoilt the moment. Iíve lost count of the number of times Iíve asked one too many questions and caused Xena to retreat into silence. By now I should have learnt to control my curiosity.

Water sliding off her body, Xena turns and looks at me, more hurt than angry. "What do you think?"

Her voice is quiet, honest, and I utterly regret speaking before giving my words proper thought. "Iím sorry, I shouldnít have pushed it with you. Iím sorry..." Iím angry at myself, and shake my head, dampening the ends of my hair in the cooling water. I hate to see Xena hurting, and sometimes my own stupid, naive actions make it worse.

"Itís all right."

"Itís none of my business."

"Itís all right, Gabrielle. Iím not angry. Forget it." Pausing at the edge of the tub to talk to me, Xenaís tone is sympathetic but weary.

"You donít have to go -" I reach out, wanting to bridge the sudden distance between us, to re-establish the contact that Iíve broken. My hands find Xenaís knees.

"Iím done. Besides, Argo needs collecting. Iím not really in the mood. Sorry." She puts her arms back around me briefly. Sheís trying to be reassuring, and I appreciate it, but she lets go and climbs out of the water before Iím comforted.

The rest of the day is spent almost in silence. It isnít a hostile one, but nor is it entirely comfortable. Xena eats a little of her evening meal of baked fish and flakes of vegetable, then hands the rest over to me with a meek smile. She half-heartedly cleans her armour and sword, then lies down to sleep.

I sit on a big stone by our fire and jab a stick randomly into the crackling cinders at its base. Itís an ideal vantage point: something else that Xena taught me. One can pretend to be engrossed in oneís own thoughts, or in minding the fire, while actually watching others without arousing their suspicion. Itís an indication of Xenaís distraction that she doesnít recognise when her own trick is being used on her.

Xena is so sad.

Upset and frustrated, I shake my head. Xenaís remorse over her past is something that doesnít ever go away, but itís usually manageable. This last fight, though, and being caught in the fire, has obviously reminded her of things that she canít push aside. Iím sure she will fight it, push it down, hide it, and things will go back to normal, but how long will it be before thereís another war, another reminder? The sadness wonít ever end.

I gaze at my companion, a dark lump under grey blankets. I took special care to arrange our furs, picking small rocks from the earth and tossing them aside, overlapping the skins so no damp can rise up. Thereís no point in sitting here and fretting. Dropping my stick into the fire, I go over to the bedroll. Wearily, I sit and cover myself. Xena doesnít open her eyes, but she isnít asleep: sheís lying too neatly.

I figured out a long time ago that ground is hard when you lie on it. You canít weed out all the rocks, you canít stop the ground freezing, and you canít make a blanket any thicker than it is. I learned to overcome this problem by fidgeting endlessly until I can manage to fit my body into the soft muddy bits between the rocks and the ice. Xena adapted herself to this in her turn with equal speed, and now pays no absolutely no attention to my squirming whatsoever.

Fire, I think to myself as I begin to settle, is in some ways like a person. It isnít something that can be taken for granted. The more attention and care you give it, the more heat and light youíre rewarded with. If you neglect it, as we did tonight, it makes its disapproval known: these embers hold very little heat, and I shiver. I heave onto my side and tuck my legs up to keep a little warmer.

My toes brush Xenaís calf. Sheís somehow always warm all over, but perhaps thatís because she has the good sense to sleep in her boots and leathers. Iím still too conditioned to life in a small farmhouse, I suppose, and it doesnít seem right to me to wear your boots to bed, even if bed is a rug on the ground. Xena does have a tendency to get up at night and prowl around the camp, or do drills, or think, and I absolutely do not, so I guess she needs her boots.

It could be worse: Iíve been far colder. I congratulate myself on my foresight in using my second blanket as a covering, but then scowl at the realisation that my brilliance has left me with no pillow. Thereís an easy solution to that. I lift myself up and settle back on Xenaís chest. Now I can rest. With my head on her shoulder, Iím safe. There is no more protected place than being beside Xena. Itís funny: I saw safety in Xena from the first day she came tearing into Poteidaia snarling and swinging her sword.

In the beginning, I felt more comfortable around Xena than she did with me, I know that. Whether it was down to foolishness or naivety Iím not so sure. Xena didnít know how to react to people, back then, let alone an enthusiastic, talkative teenager. Sometimes she just didnít know what to make of me. It took us both a long time to feel each other out, to get to where we are now.

Wordlessly, Xena reaches an arm around me and holds me. She always does, eventually. We snuggle into our regular sleeping position. Sometimes Xena will idly stroke my hair, or kiss my forehead. Tonight sheís still, but itís nonetheless an honour and a wonder to me to be close to her like this, to move as she breathes and to listen to her heart.

Too thoughtful to be tired, I gaze out into the darkness of the jungle, my cheek on Xenaís breast. How simple life had seemed when we first met. I never would have dared to lie with her like this back then. In fact, for a long time I assumed she didnít like to be touched. That was the impression she gave, and I went to some lengths to avoid contact, when possible, out of respect for her wishes. But some nights Iíd see her, rubbing her arms in the cold, or squeezing her hands, or brushing her hair when it was already smooth, and I figured that sometimes even Xena needed to be touched, just like everyone else. One day there was a bad fight, good people died, and I saw that she was upset. She didnít say a word - just sat sharpening her sword and gazing down at the blood-encrusted blade without really seeing it. I stood behind her for a long time, wanting to help but not daring to move. I didnít know what to say, but I couldnít conceive of just leaving Xena with her pain. So finally I reached out and touched her dark hair, stroked it back from the shadowed face. Xena shook her head, I remember, and half looked back - "Not now, Gabrielle, huh?" But Iíd caught sight of her eyes by then, really seen them for the first time: liquid pools of blue with flecks of brown and even green. All the pain there was suddenly so unguarded, and Xena was holding onto and stroking my arms even as I reached down to put those arms around her.

Itís a nice time to remember. Like I said - things were simple. I often let my mind wander back to those early, happy days, when the present gets too difficult. Xena sighs deeply underneath me. I pat her leather-covered side softly, hoping sheís falling asleep. She wouldnít let anyone else lay with her like this. Only Solan, of course.

My eyes were growing heavy, the red firelight blurring into a misty wash, but that last thought brings me painfully back to awareness. Solan should be here. He should be here, with his mother. But he isnít: Xena acted as she did because of her past, to protect Solan from it. I wonder what sort of mother Xena would have made, if sheíd had the chance. She would have liked to have her child with her. She would have played with him, and provided for him, and taught him to be a good person. Her sacrifice means that Solan will never know who his mother is.

Xena shifts under me, so I lazily adjust my weight, allowing her the freedom to change her position. Surprising me, she gently slides out from under me, tosses back the blanket, and goes over to the fire. I lay back and watch her silently. I donít want Xena to know Iím awake: that would mean we have to talk, and I donít know what to say to her. She isnít the easiest person to comfort, not when she canít bring her guard down.

Xena crouches and throws some more small twigs onto the fire, her body language tired and defeated. The she stands and observes the results for a while, absolutely silent and absolutely still. I wonder what sheís thinking. The air feels heavy: even the night creatures stay quiet, respecting Xenaís intensity of feeling.

At length, Xena returns, as if nothing has changed. In the darkness, I can only see her shape silhouetted against the fire. Without a word, she lies down with her head on me, tucked against my body, the top of her head warm by my cheek. Numbly, I lift an arm around her shoulders. Starring up at the starless sky, I try to remember if this has ever happened before. I canít recall Xena ever opting to sleep like this, itís too... vulnerable, too dependent. Iím proud and pained in equal measure. I feel Xenaís hands curled into my side, and stroke them softly, thinking that theyíre chilled. Her hair tickles my face, fragrant from our bath. I wish there was something more I could do to ease the hurting Xena always carries with her. "Iím here..." Whispering in the nightís stillness, I press a kiss into the cloud of mahogany hair. Xena doesnít react: maybe she has fallen asleep. I hope so.

Looking down at the crown of her head, I can see the vulnerable child that everyone else thinks is extinct, the innocent village girl who just did what she thought she had to to survive. I stroke her temple with the backs of my fingers, and think about the carefree girl that might have been. If I could get those times back for Xena to live again, I would.

My own life has been so simple, so uncomplicated: and I include my travels with Xena in that statement. Despite what weíve seen, the things weíve been through, there has never been any real dilemma for me: my place is by her side. Where Xena leads, I follow. Iím sure some would say Iím too dependent on her, that I live in her shadow. Perhaps those people are right. But itís where I choose to be. At each step in my life, I have had choice.

Xena hasnít had that privilege. She didnít ask Cortese and his men to invade her village, she just had to defend it. She has told me herself that it was fighting him that set her off down the slope of being twisted into what she became. She never speaks about how it caused her mother to disown her, her kinsfolk to cast her out. Xena wanted to join Caesar, but that path led to her being betrayed, and her legs destroyed with a violence that I canít even imagine. She lost her child, and lost the man who, in the end, loved her and wanted the best for her. Xena has always been alone. I have had luck in every respect, and she has had none.

Sheís quiet and still now, on the fir beside me, and I hope sheís resting. I tell myself that sheíll feel better in the morning, when itís light, but I know really that Iím transferring my own feelings to her: the daylight cheers me up, but Xena is at her most comfortable in the dark. Nonetheless, I hope she feels better: I just donít know what I can do to help.

I go to roll over, to give Xena a cuddle and fall asleep with her. Before I can move, I hear a crunch in the dry leaves to my left, and I freeze. Bandits, I tell myself. Damn. Bound to be easy for Xena and I to see off, but I wanted her to have a peaceful night. I let my arm flop to my side, pretending Iíve noticed nothing. I always keep my staff within reach: Xena taught me that. The first time I successfully pulled it up from the leaves and used it in the dark, I bopped Xena on the nose. She wasnít best pleased. It made the most satisfying crack. I hope I can be as accurate now.

I inch my fingers across the grey blanket and curl them around the polished wood. Whoever has been foolish enough to creep into our camp will get a surprise. Iíll give them a wallop around the legs to stun them, then Iíll jump up, waking Xena, and weíll take them all out. Good plan.

Feeling adrenaline surge through me and make me strong, I tense my arm and make to heave up my staff.

It doesnít move.

Shocked, I let go, and turn my head to look. A big black boot is resting on the wood, pinning it to the forest floor. Not good. Fearful now, I move my eyes up the leather-clad leg, past silver studs that reflect the moonlight, to a very self-satisfied face.

"Best not to wake Xena," Ares grins down at me. "Why donít you and I have a little one on one chat." He rests big hands on the hilt of his sword, slung at his waist, and waits for my reply.

I pause for a moment, trapped between my options. He must be here for a reason. It canít do any harm to listen to him. Xena will only be a shout away. Resigned, I gently ease myself away from her, making sure her head is set down on the fur without a bump. I take my time straightening the blankets over her: Ares will have to wait for me.

By the time I rise and turn heís pacing impatiently, and he laughs at the staff I hold. Heíll have to put up with that, too: Iím not leaving it. We go a little way into the trees: I stop when I think weíre just out of Xenaís earshot, not willing to go any further.

"Iím listening."

He holds up his finger. "Actually, Iím the one whoís been listening. Iíve been paying a lot of attention to you."

"To me?" I doubt that.

"Well," He concedes, "To both of you. But especially to what youíve been thinking... and writing in your little drawing pads, and..."

"You read my scrolls?!" How dare he? Why am I standing here listening to this egocentric, arrogant creature? I tut and turn to go. Ares has nothing to say that I want to hear, he just plays with people for fun.

"I can make Xena happy again."

His tone has changed, but Iím too angry to really hear it. "What, by making her your Queen?" I call back mockingly as I stride. "By seducing her, bribing her, lying -" I tick off on my fingers, and almost walk into him when he sparkles into form in front of me.

"By letting her live her life again. By turning back the clock, erasing all those mistakes, all that pain. That is what you wished for her... isnít it?"

So now he has my attention. "Why... why would you do that? Now? Why should I listen to you?"

"Because we both know how much you want what Iím offering." He glances down to my chest before turning and beginning to pace.

Outraged all over again, I instinctively cover myself with my hand. How dare he? But... I realise Iíve misunderstood. Under my fingertips, my skin is wet. I touch my knuckles to my lips, and find them salty.

Xena was crying. She was lying against me crying, and I didnít even know, couldnít even hold her and comfort her. After all this time together, her misery is so deep and her guilt so great that she canít share it, canít begin to release it.

"Itís a simple deal," Ares goes on, taking out his sword and pretending to stab invisible enemies with it. "What would you say was the perfect moment? Your choice, Gabrielle." He spins around and lunges at the air. "Although perhaps I might suggest... Ooh, just before Cortese and his men fell on Amphipolis?"

"Iím not sure..." What right do I have to play around with Xenaís life?

"You love her, donít you? God knows, thatís what your colouring books are filled with -" He mimes flicking through sheets. "Xena this, Xena that, all hail Xena -"

"Theyíre scrolls!"

"Scrolls, Iím sorry." He gives a small bow and returns to me. "Imagine how much happier sheíd be, without all that in her past. She could live a normal life. Imagine how much happier youíd both be."

Of course, if time goes back, then I... "I might never meet her."

Ares laughs, looking skyward, his deep voice echoing through his chest. "Now Gabrielle, I know you donít hold me in the highest esteem, but you have to admit, even Iím not stupid enough to think youíd ever agree to that. No -" He strokes a hand thoughtfully through his beard. "Iím afraid itís not in my job description to change the whole known world - not without Daddy onside, anyway." He scowls, then brightens again. "Just Xena. Youíll be just as you are. And you two will be free to carry on being... best friends, or...whatever it is that you are." He waves his hand dismissively. "Hmm?"

"No, no, now you listen -" I carefully set my staff down against a rock. "I know you, Ares. And I know that you donít go around doing things out of the kindness of your heart. Not even for Xena. Now whatís the catch? Whatís in it for you." How foolish does he think I am?

But he looks at me with such sudden, quiet unguardedness that I forget my hostility and just listen. "Iíll give Xena a chance at the life she wants, if you give me a chance at the life I want." Itís an intriguing proposal. "No tricks. I wonít interfere with the two of you, when Cortese comes itís up to Xena what she does: everything will be just as it was before."

"But -?"

"But when I come to Xena, when I ask her to stand at my side - you donít interfere. Xena is free to choose."

Iím pulled toward his proposal, finding myself imagining all the possibilities, the chance to erase all the grief that Xena carries. "And if she chooses to have nothing to do with you?"

He shrugs. "Then Iím no worse off than I am now. Equal odds, Gabrielle. Do we have a deal?" He extends his hand.

Xena would never choose him. I can make a difference to her in the time I have. I can heal, just like I always wanted. Xena will thank me, I know she will. I will never have such an opportunity again. Itís no choice at all, really. "We have a deal." And I grasp his hand.

The flash of light has rendered my eyes dumb, and I have to stand and blink for a while before I can see. Ares hasnít been shoddy - I recognise Amphipolis instantly, and I know where Cyreneís tavern is. As I hurry towards it Iím almost excited: Iím in my twentieth year, and if Ares really has taken Xena back a decade sheíll be the age I was when we first met, just a few years younger than I am now. How intriguing itíll be to see her like that! Sheíll be as she was before all the bad things happened. Sheíll be carefree and happy and youthful. I wonít need to interfere when Cortese comes: Xena just made a mistake before, it wonít happen again. Iíll be able to give Xena what she always wanted: a life without all that guilt and sorrow. I love her, and I can give her this gift.

I run into the tavern, and beam to see Cyrene, who looks more youthful than I know her but still friendly and hardworking. "Excuse me!" I call. Of course she doesnít recognise me, but she smiles questioningly.

"Drink of ale, Child?"

"No, no thank you -" I hold up my hands to pause her. "Whereís Xena?"

"Xena? Why, sheís working. Do we know each other...?"

"Iím Gabrielle." I smile, and she returns it. "No, Iím... Iím an old friend. Iím excited to see her again. Can you tell me where she is?"

Cyrene laughs and goes on filling a row of goblets. "Xena usually keeps to herself, Iím glad sheís got such an enthusiastic friend! Sheís out working in the North Field with her brothers."

"Thanks!" I nod and run back out through the double doors. Surely Xenaís mother was wrong - Xena must have been outgoing and friendly as a youth, thatís how I always imagine her. Sheís always confident, sheíd have no problem making friends.

I see a figure up the hill in the distance, and run all the way. She wonít know me, of course, but Iím nothing if not good with words: Iíve won her affection once, I can do it again. When Iím near enough to see clearly, I slow down and lurk behind a scattering of trees. Xena is unmistakable. It makes me smile just to stand and look at her.

Facially, sheís the same as Iíve always known her: strong cheek bones, bright blue eyes, dark lips. Her hair is longer, curling up at the ends, and better looked after. She wears a simple linen skirt, a leather belt sitting at a slant, and a light cotton top. The boy who sheís chatting to is fair haired, and I take him to be her younger brother. I never met Lyceus - he died in Corteseís attack - but now he and Xena are back together. They clearly enjoy each otherís company; they laugh and push playfully at each other as they walk. This is just how I expected to see Xena: carefree and happy.

The two carry buckets, and stoop down as they walk to pick fruit from low growing shrubs. Lyceus throws the berry he has collected into his pail. "Donít smash it!" Xena chastises him. "You want a little money out of this, donít you?"

"Iíd also like not to have a broken back!" Lyceus exclaims. "I hate keep bending down like this."

"Oh, donít complain." Xenaís tone is light hearted, and I think sheís amused, as she spots a ripe berry hiding under a dark leaf. She uses the same easy tone with me sometimes.

"Youíd think Mother couldíve found us better work."

"Itís a favour to Phoebus, you know that."

"Hmm."

This seems like as good a time as any. I walk casually over to the pair, and they look up at me expectantly. I greet them and say that Iíve come to work too. Xena listens to me openly: she shows none of the suspicion or wariness that I know her older self would display. Her whole demeanour is so different, so... open, so light.

"So whereís your bucket?" Lyceus asks. He starts to nibble on a berry, and Xena rolls her eyes and goes on with her picking.

"Erm..." I look down at my empty hands. "Heíd run out. Maybe I can take over from you - you look like you could use a rest."

Lyceus grins and wipes an arm over his face. Heís an appealing boy. Xena speaks about him often, always fondly, and I feel like I know him. "Sure. Good plan, thanks." He sets down his wooden bucket. "Iíll go find Toris. Put your back into it, Zee, stop slacking!"

Xena straightens to swipe at him, but heís already off at a sprint, speeding across the field and laughing. His elder sister shakes her head a little and smiles quietly. She sits down heavily, the bucket between her feet, and begins to hull the berries, throwing away the stalks.

"Hi," I say to her. Itís an incredible opportunity, to be able to meet Xena all over again, and Iím nervous and excited.

"Hi." She looks up, gives a polite little smile, then returns to her work.

"Iím Gabrielle," I try. I love the way she says my name: I want to hear it.

She looks up again out of politeness, and nods a little awkwardly. "Xena."

Itís strange not to hear a clever comment from her. Itís strange to be meeting her as a stranger. Iíve grown so used to being greeted with a smile, a friendly hand, her enormous warmth. I sit down by her and peer into Lyceusí abandoned pail. The first time we met I had to earn her friendship - I tricked a cyclops, saved her from a stoning, chased her across Greece, and hid in the jungle until I was frozen down to my bones - I can handle some friendly chatter, Iím sure.

I take a red berry from the bucket. Watching Xena covertly, I pull on the stalk in a deliberately heavy handed fashion and squash half the fruit. "Oh. Howíd you do this?" I hold out my clumsy attempt to her, red juice winding over my wrist and dripping down my arm.

Xena looks at me with very familiar disbelief. "You donít know how to hull a berry?"

I shrug.

Xena inhales deeply. "You twist the stalk." She demonstrates on my crushed specimen, scowling when she gets juice all over her hands. "See?"

Many skills. "Uh ha. Thanks." I grin at her.

"Sure." Another half smile. She looks me up and down. "Not from around here, are you."

There, ice broken. Well done, Gabrielle. "No, Iím from Poteidaia."

"Oh. Donít you farm there?"

"We do," I allow, "But only animals."

"Oh. Right."

We hull our berries in companionable silence for a while.

"Iím looking for somewhere to stay," I say conversationally. "You donít know anywhere, do you?"

"My Mother owns an inn," Xena tells me, "We have rooms. We donít charge too much, especially if youíre looking for work in the bar. Youíd be welcome," She adds, rather more out of obligation than friendliness. For the first time in my life, I am her elder, and tradition demands that she shows me courtesy.

"Sounds great." Perfect: Iíll get to stay close to her, where I can keep my eye out for Cortese. I want to get to know her some more, too, to know this part of her. Sheís always kept it so carefully buried. I donít know how long itíll take before the army fall on the village, but going by Xenaís age - and knowing of Aresí impatience - I donít imagine it can be too many weeks. I need to be near Xena, to protect her from making the same mistake all over again.

I chatter to her as we finish the berries then make our way back down the hill. Unlike the first time we met, my incessant talking doesnít seem to annoy her at all. Most of the time she looks at me as if she wonders how itís possible to talk so much and not run out of topics or air. This isnít an unusual reaction. When she quits eyeing me with raised eyebrows she listens quietly, not responding much but grinning at what I say from time to time.

It feels strange to part for the day with a polite nod, to not lie down next to her and talk about the dayís events, or study the stars together, or feel her fingers in mine as we fall asleep. The next day I barely see her, as sheís off doing whatever she does, and I work in the bar alongside Cyrene, who is amiable and nurturing, good hearted and hard working. In our real lives, the first time I met Cyrene was when she and Xena were still at odds, and we said little to each other. Later, when Xena returned to her village, having earned her motherís forgiveness and with me still in tow, Cyrene seemed pleasantly surprised that Iíd stuck around, and welcomed me warmly. Now, knowing what Xena and are to each other, she treats me as her child, gifting me with her good humour and wise counsel.

At the moment, though, Iím just a bar girl from out of town. Itís something Iíve always wanted to try, actually, just as at some point or another in my life Iíve wanted to try everything and anything imaginable. As a child, in my mind I would write myself into stories of every kind. A barmaid, a bard, a dancer, a travelling warrior. Back then the social nature of work in a tavern was quite appealing, I think, after years of talking only to livestock and grumpy farmers in Poteidaia. The inhabitants of Amphipolis are a largely peaceful crowd: there are no fights to break up or drunkards to control. In fact, itís not nearly as dramatic as Iíd always imagined, but it is easy money.

Cyrene seems to like me - sheís chatty too - and the next day when Xena and Lyceus go fishing she suggests I tag along. I havenít seen Xena socialising with anyone except her brothers and a couple of her motherís friends. Thatís not how Iíd always imagined Xena to be, either.

My friendís zest for marine sport is not diminished by her youth. She and her younger brother go about their task with gusto, and itís not until theyíve got their rods set up and bait is bobbing in the still water that Xena really notices me. Iím nowhere near as proficient a fisherwoman as she is, but I can hold my own. It doesnít hurt to bumble a little, though, and look a bit lost; soon Xena comes over to help.

"You can catch any fish you want, Gabrielle," She tells me as she digs my rod into the sand, and glances at me with such a familiar little smile, "But if you see a blue one, Ďbout this big -" She holds her hands apart " - then heís ours. Weíve been after him for more than a year."

"Nearly got Ďim once!" Lyceus calls out. Heís sitting messily on the sand, bare feet in the water, floppy ash hair blowing into his face. He is instantly likable, easy going and friendly. Iím so glad to have had the chance to meet him, and so sad that Xena had to lose him. "We were wrestling with that rod for ages, but he got away." Lyceus grins throughout his narration. "Heís wily. It was my bite though, wasnít it, Xena?"

Xena returns his smile warmly, full of pride. "Yeah, it was your bite, Kid." She reaches out and touches his hair affectionately. "Better watch your rod so you donít miss your second chance today."

"Sure." Lyceus agrees enthusiastically and turns away to tinker with his fishing rod.

Xena sits by me: quietly, shyly. "Solaris is the biggest fish Iíve ever seen in this lake," She begins awkwardly, fiddling with the cotton tie of her dress and gazing out across the vast expanse of water. The wind from across the lake is slightly chill and ruffles her dark, dark hair as it hangs longer down her back than Iím used to. The morning sun catches her eyes and makes them cool and bright under dark eyebrows. "Heís clever, he seems to have an intelligence that the others donít. It makes him good prey." After a pause, she gives a little, self-depreciating laugh and her eyes flick to mine for a second. I donít think sheís used to having a friend sit and listen to her as Iím doing. "Well, it keeps my brother happy to think that, anyway."

Lyceus pushes up onto his knees, wiping his hands on battered trousers, and we watch him haul in a short but reasonably plump fish. Disappointed but not defeated, he tosses it into his satchel and concentrates on fixing fresh bait to his hook.

"You two get on well, donít you," I observe.

"Uh ha."

Sheís receptive to me, and it becomes easy to chat about Amphipolis and the Inn and the lake. Xena is wary at first, but she talks more when she realises that Iím listening to her and Iím interested in what she says. We do have things in common, but our differences are apparent too. She doesnít seem to be bored with mundane village life, as I always was, she says sheís content to take each day as it comes. She lacks the determination and focus of the Xena I know, the Xena who must have led armies and commanded nations, and I wonder when and how she found that in herself. She apparently finds me amusing even when Iím not trying to be funny, and laughs softly and bobs her head so that wild hair tumbles over her shoulders and needs pushing back from time to time.

"Are you staying in Amphipolis for a while?" She busies herself by winding the fine fishing line around her fingers.

Good question. "For a while. As long as I think I need to."

She nods. "Maybe if you do stay for a while I can introduce you to a friend of my Motherís who trades in parchments and quills." My writing had come up in our conversation the day before yesterday, and she has apparently remembered it. "He has a little stall. You might find something there you like."

I can see that it isnít easy for her to try to make friends. I always thought that trait had come from years of needing to mistrust others and keep your guard up to survive, but I see now that to an extent itís just part of her character. Maybe if she hadnít been driven into war and violence, if sheíd been able to have more people to place her trust in early on, she could have grown out of her teenage apprehension.

"Iíd love you to show me," I tell her, "Thanks."

She brings her head up, and we finally manage to maintain eye contact. "Sure."

"Woah!" Lyceus leaps up to his feet, clutching his fishing rod, which is bending dangerously in the middle. "I think I got him!" His feet slide in the fine sand. "Help me, Xena!"

We both rush forward and try to get a grip, me on the rod and Xena on her brother. Whatever it is thatís pulling on the line is strong, and we tug on it with our combined strength. My exertions make me hot under the Greek sun, but itís exhilarating to be working together, and Lyceus and I laugh as weíre dragged across the sand.

"Come on!" Xena encourages, "Get him!" She grits her teeth and heaves on the wood. "Donít let him get away! Heís ours! Get him!"

Her voice has changed, and it scares me. Sheís talking as if she were issuing orders to her men. I look around and can see a violence and lust for blood in her eyes that I never dreamt existed before Cortese. Maybe I donít understand Xena as well as I think I do. This is the most confident Iíve seen her in this world. I look into her face, and her aggression is so familiar that ironically I feel like I donít know her at all.

I flush cold at this realisation and lose my grip on the rod. Suddenly the pull from the fish relaxes. Lyceus and Xena continue with the momentum and bump into me. Stumbling backwards, I feel my heel catch on a stone buried in the sand and lose my balance. I forget my shock over Xena and instead Iím winded as I trip and splash down onto my rear.

"Gabrielle!"

My vision clears again. Xena is by me, her arms clutched around my waist. Her hair has fallen about my neck and I can feel her breath on my cheek. All I can see is her blue eyes, for just a second.

"Get up - you okay?" She tugs at me, as does Lyceus in a concerned but ineffectual way, and we scrabble back out of the water. Iím not hurt, just wet, and I manage to laugh off the surprise and dust wet sand from my arm. "Díyou hurt yourself, Gabrielle?" Xena holds me for a moment, sitting haphazardly by me, then comes over bashful and withdraws the hands that were resting about my waist.

"Iím fine," I assure her, tossing my damp hair out of my face. She doesnít look comforted, and sheís a bit out of breath. "Just me being clumsy." Thank the Gods that anger has disappeared from her as swiftly as it descended. "Saves me a bath tonight!" I jump up and reach down for her hands, and she accepts my reassurance and smiles as she gets up. Her hands are slender and strong, but smaller and softer than I remember. Innocent hands. I squeeze them before letting go. "You lost your bite, Lyceus?"

"Yeah," He shrugs, "But Iím not sure it was him. Last time I got Solaris he dragged me right off my feet and half way up to my neck before he let go. That was a lightweight." He cheerfully winds in the loose line.

"We should be getting back." Xena turns away and packs up her kit. Sheís confused by her feelings. We barely know each other - at least, she barely knows me - but her reaction when I fell shows she cares for me, and I think the feeling has come over her more swiftly than sheís used to. Does she really have so little experience of it? Sheís as unsettled by this new affection as she was the first time we really met, in Poteidaia. The two versions of herself really arenít so different.

Lyceus comes up beside me. "Youíre really not hurt, Gabrielle?"

I smile at him and shake my head.

"Youíre all wet, though. Let me carry your bag for you." He takes my satchel and slings it over his shoulder on top of his own. Xena has gone on ahead, but at the line of rocks which mark the edge of the beach Lyceus jumps up first then reaches a hand back for me.

I smile and grasp his hand. "Thank you, Lyceus. Thatís very gentlemanly of you."

"Itís a manís duty to look after women," He tells me, in no way flippant or boastful. "I try to help my mother, and I want to take care of my sister. Toris taught me that, he says itís what our father would have done, if he were here." He doesnít sound sad, and I donít think can be old enough to have met the father that even Xena barely remembers. She only has sketchy memories of a time when her family was complete, and itís not something she often speaks of. "Itís muddy here, Gabrielle - take care you donít slip."

No matter how long this Lyceus lives, I think to myself that heíll always be as playful as a child and as gentle as a man. He is completely deserving of the love Xena has always held in her heart for him, and my desire that he not die in a senseless battle doubles my determination to make this work. How long do I have before Cortese rides and history repeats itself?

Xena has stopped and is peering down at something in the path ahead. When we catch up to her I see that itís a tiny fawn. Itís lying quite still but itís breathing. One leg is lame and bloodied - I guess that it must have been attacked by a wolf or some other creature.

The three of us gaze down at it. Itís so small, its orange coat so fresh, that itís somehow a powerful reminder of the fragile nature of life. At last Lyceus looks uncertainly up to Xena. "Should we hunt it? Deer meat tastes good."

Xena shakes her head. "We have plenty. Itíd just go to waste. Go on ahead now - go on." She nudges at his shoulder, and after a pause he accepts the instruction and jogs on down the path. Xena untangles her rod and raises up the heavy butt of it.

"Wait!" I catch her arm. "What are you doing?"

She looks at me, sombre but faintly surprised. "Killing it. A hard blow to the skull will be quick and -"

"But you said you had enough food, you said there was no need to hunt today." Almost frightened by her now, I pull the wooden rod from her hands.

"Gabrielle itís suffering," She tells me with conviction, turning toward me. "Itís only going to die - itís best to end it so it doesnít feel pain. Sometimes bad things happen." She takes back her rod, impatient. "Thought you said you were a farmer."

I spent my childhood farming, and my recent years hunting for food, sheís correct. I know animals die. But Xena is too quick to welcome that death, and I canít do it. "The wound isnít too bad," I tell her, and crouch down by the fawn. If she wants to strike it dumb, sheíll strike me first. "If itís looked after itíll heal." I take a cloth and my small bottle of water from my smaller bag and start to clean the bleeding limb. "Weíll put it back on the edge of the wood and its mother will find it."

"But..." Xena squats by me and watches what Iím doing as if seeing such actions for the first time in her life. "But its mother will waste milk on it, weaken herself, and it might still die?" Her eyes move up from the animal and fix on me, incredulous and captivated.

"But it might not. I have to give it that chance, Xena." I fix a pressure bandage on the fragile limb, smiling down at the fawn and cooing gently when it turns its watery brown eyes up to me.

"How..." Xenaís boots shift beside me. "Howíd you know how to do that?"

I tie a neat bow. "A good friend showed me. She taught me lots of things." I gingerly pick the creature up and set it down in the grass. It starts to call meekly for its parent.

When I brush off my hands and turn back to Xena, sheís standing alone in the middle of the path. The trees are big around her and she suddenly seems very small and lost, her dark hair curling around her shoulders. "I wouldnít... Iíve never... known anyone quite like you."

Not quite. I smile modestly and return to her. We go on walking.

"Do you learn that philosophy, that way, at home, in... Poteidaia?"

I lean on my rod as if it were a staff. "Not really. Itís just what I feel. I believe that..." I take a moment to order my thoughts, and she walks quietly beside me, listening. "I believe that life is precious. All life. Peace is precious. I believe in the Way of Love. People should do whatever they can to help each other. Violence and hatred isnít the way: it only leads to more violence and hatred."

Xena is silent for a while, unusually thoughtful, and I donít push her. "I like your Way," She says at last.

We are near the village, and Lyceus stands waiting for us. I donít have time to say any more, but at least itís a start. I go into Cyreneís tavern, part with Xena and her brother, and sit at one of the shiny old wooden tables. Itís cooler in here, away from the blazing Greek summer sun, and I could use a refreshing drink. My clothes and boots have just about dried out, thankfully. I trace my fingertip aimlessly over the honey-coloured swirls in the wood until Toris comes over to take my order. Heís tall like Xena, dark-haired and intent. He doesnít have Lyceusí easy-going charisma, but heís sensible and polite and friendly. As the oldest male of the family he must feel the responsibility that should rightly be placed on a fatherís shoulders. I place him at only a couple of years older than myself.

"What can I get you, Gabrielle?" He asks with a courteous smile.

I order a cold jug of water, and thank him. "Is there any work here tonight, Toris? Iím free if you need any extra staff."

"Iíll ask Mother for you."

"Thanks."

Iíd thought that Xena had gone, disappeared upstairs with Lyceus, but now I suddenly notice her. She comes over and slides onto the bench opposite me, elbows on the table, head down to avoid eye contact with myself or Toris.

Her brother regards her. "Xena, shouldnít you be next door helping old Tyressa? Mother asked you. Sheís an old woman, you shouldnít keep her waiting."

"Iím going, Toris," Xena tells him with slight irritation. "Her socks will still need darning whether I go now or after Iíve quenched my thirst."

"Well, donít be long." Toris clearly knows when heís beaten, and waits until heís out of Xenaís view to give her an exasperated but fond little glance.

Xenaís eyes come up to mine for just a moment. "If he thinks Iím spending my afternoon knitting, he can think again. The socks would be worse than when I started. Iím building Tyressa a fence and hut to keep her hens in. Sheís half blind, but if I do a good job Iíll get a fresh egg for my efforts, and she cooks them just right." Xena laughs softly at herself and itís impossible not to share her mirth.

Toris returns with a jug of water and two glasses. I drink thirstily, my throat dry, and Xena busies herself doing the same. I wonder why sheís come back, and wait patiently for her to speak. This is something Iím quite accustomed to. Sometimes it takes her all night, or all week, so Iím relieved when she begins after only a few awkward moments.

"Lyceus likes you."

I take a sip of my water and pour out some more for us both. "I like him too."

Xena nods agreement. "Heís a good judge of character."

I take the compliment gracefully but go on speaking, not wanting the conversation to dry up before itís even gotten started. "Your brothers are quite different, arenít they. You look more like Toris, but your character is closer to Lyceusí. Itís interesting. My sister and I are quite dissimilar too."

Xena nods but Iím not convinced that sheís really listening. "Toris was blonder, when he was young." She offers.

"Really? Were you?"

She shakes her head. "No." I watch her tracing a finger up the side of the jug, catching a drip of condensation and breaking its perfectly round structure. As I wait patiently I think about her family, who I never got to know in real life. With his floppy hair and his easy smile, Lyceus is so like Solan. Xenaís genes are strong, and her young brother lives on in her young son. Itís not something sheís ever mentioned, but she must have seen it. I try to imagine what it would have been like for her to give away her child. She lost Lyceus, only to deliver a baby and look down into his face and see her brother there. I can almost visualise her, letting her hair tumble over him as she kissed him and knowing she would have to lose him too. I have to get this right.

"I need to go fruit picking tomorrow," Xena says, and I startle out of my imagining. "The harvests are all coming in, itís a busy time. The apples and pairs are falling fast and theyíll spoil if theyíre not collected. Thereís lots of work." She inhales and straightens herself, meets my eyes. "You can come with me, if you like. Itís a nice piece of land, out across the fields." She allows herself a small smile. "We can take some food. And you could tell me more about this peaceful philosophy of yours." She looks at me expectantly, her fingers working nervously around her glass.

It sounds like a lovely day. "Thatíd be great, Xena. Thanks."

She grins. "Sure." She pushes up from her bench, all hurried and pleased. So there is a spark of the carefree girl that Iím searching for there. I watch her go then finish my drink slowly and contentedly. Everything here will be fine, I can pull this off. Ares and I will keep our deal - I wonít need to interfere when he decides to show up, Xena will do the right thing.

The next day is beautiful: warm and bright and fresh and sunny. Xena and I walk out across the hills behind the town, big apple baskets on our arms. Xena carries a rolled blanket and a small satchel for lunch. It really is idyllic. The ground levels off - for which my knees are grateful - and we come across rows and rows of small, stout trees bearing shiny, plump apples. We pick them as we go, eating one or two when we get thirsty, and talk. Itís just like itís always been.

"So you want to follow your parents into farming, Gabrielle?" She asks me.

I turn up my nose. "No." Thereís no way youíd get me into a dull life as a farmerís wife: it seemed unlikely enough when I was a child, and now, after all Iíve seen and done, itís unimaginable. "That wouldnít suit me." I pick another apple and drop it into my already heavy basket. "What Iíd like to do - what Iíve always wanted, really - is to set up a hospital. Somewhere that sick, poor people could be cared for. I want to help people who havenít been as lucky as I have."

She nods. "Thatís very noble." She takes a bite of her fruit. "But not everyone deserves to be helped. What if someone has done something bad? Something unforgivable? How would you know who was worthy of your care? How would you judge?"

"Everyone deserves to be treated with kindness, and forgiveness. Even people who have made mistakes or done something bad." I look up at her as we walk side by side, and see the Warrior who hasnít ever forgiven herself for the things sheís done. "Itís the only way, Xena. Love can make a difference, I believe that."

She laughs softly, gently. "You want to change the world, huh Gabrielle?"

I shrug. "I guess I want to try."

"Then I think you probably can." She steps closer to me and her arm goes around my shoulders. Itís as warm and familiar as ever, and her hair brushes across my shoulder as she turns her head to give me an uncertain little smile. Only a little younger than me, sheís closer to my height and my arm fits properly around her waist rather than her hips. I close my eyes for a moment and know everything about the way she walks, the way our sides touch as we step through the grass.

We walk in silence but the apple picking is forgotten. We wander through into a clearer, uncultivated field where the grass is longer. Amphipolis is small down on the horizon: thereís no one up here but us, and the summer birds are flitting from tree to tree. Wild flowers grow in the grass, small and delicate. Most are yellow, but some are pale pink, with perfectly symmetrical magenta lines at the heart of their three petals. I stoop down to pick one of the dainty pink blooms, rolling the hairy stem between my fingers.

When I straighten, Xena takes my hand, and we go on walking. Her skin feels softer and smoother than the hand of a warrior, and her grip is light. We walk along holding hands like two school children on an outing, fearful of letting go lest we should lose each other in this wonderful place. I hold the flower to my nose and inhale the mild scent. Pleased with it, I offer it to Xena. She shrugs and declines, and smiles when that makes me laugh. Not even Ares could change Xena enough to get her interested in flowers and perfume and fine clothes.

More at ease, I gaze out across the perfectly blue sky, the fluffy streaks of cloud sailing across it, and down to the horizon, where the ocean is a deep green far in the distance. This is how Xena and I should have been. We should have spent time learning about each other, becoming friends, walking across meadows shyly holding hands. I imagine our first kiss, our first gentle touches, our first words of love to each other. Thatís the sort of romance my parents would have wanted for me. They certainly hadnít planned for me to follow an untamed warrior woman out of Poteidaia and sleep the first night in her discarded furs on the ground. Although that does have a kind of romance to it too, in hindsight, and I smile inside. Probably wouldnít change a thing, but itís nice to experience it this way too.

In the middle of the field we stop and spread out the blanket, and sit and eat our food. We talk about little things. Xena talks a little more than Iím used to, and I find myself having to hold my tongue to allow her the time to speak, not fill the silences as Iíve grown accustomed to. The sun is warming me right through and I feel giddy with the beauty of the day and the perfume of the flowers. Xena leans over and touches my cheek.

"Do I have juice around my mouth?" Iíve never been a tidy eater.

"No. Just worrying that youíd get burnt, thatís all. Youíre so fair."

I shrug. "Hasnít happened yet. Iím quite dark compared to people from the colder lands in the North: like Britannia, or Gaul." I study the freckles on my arms, then offer them as proof. Xena takes to rubbing my forearms softly, and soon my hands fall into hers again.

"Have you been to those places? In the North?"

"No -" I correct myself quickly, not being careful enough about what I say. "Iíve just read about them. I like to read, and study maps."

"You know so much." She lets her fingers glide between mine. "Youíre very wise." She shrugs softly. "I want to be like you." Her eyes come up to mine. "I want you to teach me everything you know."

Hearing my own words echoed back to me is jarring, and my voice is gone. All I know is the heat of the sun on my back and Xenaís blue eyes in front of me. Sheís so close, and it only takes the smallest movement to kiss her. I hold her head gently in my hand, stroking the wild hair that tumbles down her neck, and nestle her face against mine. Iím dizzy with the heat and joy of it all, and let myself fall backward into the grass, pastel flowers brushing my arms and my face as I grin up at her.

I reach up to pull her gently down with me. Her weight on her arms and on me, Xena laughs and takes in the moment. Sheís gone weak, too, giddy with sensory overload, and our arms go around each other, stroking and hugging, and she lets her head rest comfortingly on my chest. I donít ever want to let go, and I curl my legs around hers, tangle us together.

The sun is so dazzling, directly above, that Iím blinded by its white rays. My body is burning up with the heat - from the sun and from Xena. She shifts on top of me and the weight of a leg goes between mine, putting exquisite pressure on me. "Oh Gods -!" I clutch at her to make her move, but when Iíve gotten hold of her I realise I just want more of it, and tug her mouth down onto mine.

"Gabrielle -?" She speaks breathlessly against my cheek. "Gabrielle? You want the two of us to...?"

"Donít talk about it right now, Xena: just do it." I couldnít give a damn about my usual endless analysis, I just need to be in her arms. Her mouth is hot and moist, and as demanding as mine. I scrape my fingers over her and find the edges of her shirt, pulling the ties apart. Underneath the material her flesh is warm from the midday sun, flushed with excitement, and I nuzzle my face against it. She smells so good: so much like my Xena. I know Iím arching m whole body up in my desperation to get close to her, to the extent that itís making my muscles ache, but the need for her consumes everything. "Iíve got to touch you -"

"Yeah -" Xena nods enthusiastically, tugging my dress up with only a little more self-restraint. The material bunches up around my ribs. "You all right -?"

"Uh ha -" I kick off my boots. Somehow, I need to be naked. "Lie down -?" I beckon frantically for her to lie back over me: I canít bear for her not to be touching me.

The damp grass is cool and tickly against the bare tops of my legs, arousing me all the more. Xenaís slender hands go under my top, tracing up over stomach muscles that tighten at her touch. When her fingers find my breasts I groan, helplessly, and arch up again to fill her hands. Iím barely aware of what Iím doing, Iím mindless with this hunger, and fumble until my hands finally find the warm, swollen flesh under her blouse. "Oh, Xena -"

"Here, Iím here." Sheís kissing my neck, holding me to her, loving me.

"Donít let go of me -" I try to hook my legs around her.

"No," She agrees breathlessly.

"Please, please Xena -" I grope for her hand, catch it, and pull it brazenly down between my legs. I sincerely hope she knows what to do, I donít have the presence of mind to explain right now.

Oh, Gods, she knows. She knows exactly. I lay my hand on hers, just to guide her, but itís her fingers that go inside me, and itís all I need. Thereís nothing except her presence, the blue familiarity of her eyes, the hot taste of her skin. "Donít... donít stop..."

Either she grows a little bolder, or she just alters her position, but suddenly sheís deeper, and itís too much. For a mindless moment I growl and claw at her uselessly, forcing breath out and giving myself over to the pulses that go all over me.

When the frenzy passes I flop back on the grass, panting, my hands running caressingly about her face and neck. "Xena -"

"Itís all right?" She swallows, captivated by my face, my pleasure. Uncertain but hopeful, she gently gathers my fingers into her palm.

"It is, it is -" Everything is all right when Iím with her: the world seems so simple, so easy. I push myself up on trembling arms and roll on top of her, letting her catch and guide me. Her eyes close. I know all about Xena, about what she likes, and I kiss her nose and just do what sheíll enjoy. Her pleasure is complete, and intense, and I love to watch it.

"Gods!" At the end she sits up abruptly, and I laugh and settle messily into her lap, my legs astride hers, my skirt bundled around my thighs. "Gods!!" Her eyes arenít focussed as she stares out across the hill, and she keeps swallowing.

Sheís dishevelled, so I stroke back a lock of hair as dark as coal. "Xena?" I press a kiss to her forehead, take my time over it.

"Iíve never... I havenít..." She puts an arms around me, her shirt undone and creased. "I mean... only some of my older brotherís friends." She shakes her head: she doesnít know what to say. Her eyes come up to mine, and we smile. We understand each other. I rest my forehead against hers, and feel her free hand stroking softly along my thigh, nudging up the thick cotton material resting there. "Never like that," She says finally, "Like it feels with you."

"I know." I smooth down her hair and love her in my arms. A soft breeze has gotten up and it cools me pleasantly as it brushes through my hair. It ripples across the lush green grass and makes it tickle my toes. Xena feels sweaty against me: she could use a dip in a lake, thatís what we often do afterwards. I donít see one around here, though, weíre too high up. Itíd be nice to bathe her; she sometimes lets me. I know she thinks it silly, but I enjoy it and she indulges me. I wish we could stay up here all night, just to look at the stars and tend a fire.

"Do it again -" She says to me.

"Hmm?" I pull my head up from her shoulder, finding it heavy, and cup her youthful face in my hands.

"Do it again, Gabrielle: once isnít enough with you. Do it again?" Sheís found my hands and has our fingers interlocked. When she closes her eyes, her eyelashes are dark and long, strikingly so, as if sheís yet to quite grow into them.

I kneel up, and she lets go of my fingers and slips her hands under me. "I care about you, Xena, you know that -?"

She lifts her chin and lets me untie her top properly and lean down to enjoy the flesh there. "I know."

"Itís important, that you know." Iím not just another brief, meaningless contact, like those older boys she mentioned, I want her to feel certain of that. Perhaps when Cortese rides itíll be all she needs to know.

"I know, Gabrielle. You too, huh? Now, follow your own advice -" She smiles into my face. "Donít talk about it: just do it. Like this: just like this..." She kisses my neck, and at the same time her hand goes back to me. Thatís the end of my rational thought. Even though Iím the elder, itís as though my old Xena were here: sheís the one in control. Itís what Iím used to, and itís how I like it best, if Iím truthful.

I want to be sure to join her. Itís strong, and at that moment weíre right together, and I love her more than she could possibly understand right now. We fall onto the grass and flop onto our sides, curled up and resting messily against each other. My arm falls amongst the cool blades and I fiddle idly with a milky white flower, rolling it on its purplish stem between my fingers. Iím exhausted. With Xenaís weight across my back I drift in and out of sleep.

I lose track of how long we lie on our sides in the wild grass, kissing and smiling, holding hands and cuddling. Iím oblivious to the pretty butterflies that flutter overhead, the busy winged creatures that buzz past: there is only Xena and I. Itís beautifully innocent, apart from the kissing, and Xena is uncharacteristically hesitant, happy to stroke my arms and face and lay her hands gently about my waist. Her eyes frequently flick up to mine, and she smiles. Briefly her fingers come to my chest and settle over my heart, pause to feel the minute throbbing there, then move back to my face or my hair.

After what could be hours of just being together, sleepy and satisfied, Xena sits up. "We should be going, Gabrielle...." A pause for a smile and a kiss on my hand. "The clouds are coming in, itíll get dark early tonight."

Of course... I hadnít even given thought to that, Iím so used to simply moving a bit closer to the fire when night comes. This is a different life, though, and we need to go back to the town. We head back down the craggy hill holding hands, unable to be away from each other for very long, until we get within sight of the buildings, and silently but consensually let go. There isnít a great deal of money to be made from our measly clutch of apples, but neither of us cares much. Itís been the perfect day. Iím warm and still tingling from Xena, pleasantly tired, completely relaxed.

"A drink?" Xena offers as we near the tavern. "Come have a drink? With me?" Her fingers touch at mine again, fleetingly, and I feel my cheeks flush up childishly, and nod and follow her.

Inside, we pause when we see that dozens of people - most of the village, I imagine - are gathered around one of the larger tables, arguing heatedly and talking over each other. Ice goes down my spine and all the relaxation is gone: I know this is the moment, this is the crux of why Iím here.

Toris speaks up. "We should just give them what they want! Anything else is suicide! Theyíll leave us alone then." Half the listeners nod agreement, others grumble dissent.

Xena finds her mother. "Whatís going on?"

As Cyrene talks, I feel myself chill. "Mael saw riders out to the East. A whole army. Theyíve been pillaging the other villages and now theyíre headed for us."

"Well we have to fight -" Xena responds instantly, as if she cannot understand what the disagreement is about.

"We canít," An older man dismisses, "Weíre too few. Toris is right."

"No!" Xena is in their midst now, before I can catch her and pull her back. Sheís always been at her most powerful like this. In my stupidity I had almost forgotten about Cortese, about Ares and his deal, had allowed myself to believe that this bliss would go on for as long as I chose. "We canít let them walk all over us! Theyíd take everything weíve worked all year for. If they take the harvest thereíll be nothing left for us to eat."

People begin to agree. Xena has a point. Others nod and abandon their conversations to listen to her. She is leaning on the heavy table now, the muscles in her shoulders knotted. A young man turns to her and asks, in a semi-rhetorical tone, what the alternative is. Xena answers him. Sheís angry and indignant and empowered. This is Xena at her strongest. She traces the outline of the village onto the table with her finger and points out where Amphipolis is weak and where itís defensible. Iím sure her words arenít pre-meditated, she never had this all planned out: it just comes easily to her. Itís part of her. I watch as the villagers fall into her way of thinking, see the energy return to their eyes as they hear her enthusing about makeshift weapons and enlisting help and sticking together. She makes them feel strong, and theyíre all on her side. Xena no longer appears to be seventeen, and her flowing village dress may as well be her toughened leathers. I think that Xena is a victim of circumstance. I think that her characteristics and her lifeís events led her blindly into the path she walked for so long. Sheís an innocent girl who has just been the victim of a cycle of abuse - from Ares to Caesar to Alti - in many ways not dissimilar to Callisto. I canít let this happen all over again.

"Iím not sure," Cyrene is saying, "People will get hurt, Xena, people will die!"

"Not if weíre careful, Mother!"

I push into the crowd. "No! Xena, Cyreneís right, thereís always bloodshed in war, no matter how careful you are."

Xena respects me here: she thinks Iím older and wiser. She sees my life as desirable and enviable and doesnít think I can do any wrong. Now I know how she felt when I was idolizing her from the boots upwards. First impressions can be misleading. Nonetheless, sheís listening to me. As is everyone else.

Well, itís never been said that I canít work an audience. "Even if you do just about manage to bloody their noses - and your own - itíll be a close thing and theyíll know it. Youíll hurt their pride and theyíll be back the next day with twice as many men." Aside from being common sense, Iíve seen it happen.

Xena gives a helpless little shake of her head. "But... we canít just give up, Gabrielle. What do we do?"

Good question. What do I want her to do? I donít want her to fight and I canít ask her to lie down and let everything be taken from her. Shame I hadnít given this some thought before. What would Xena do, my Xena, with all her knowledge and wisdom and experience? "Well, you could try talking to their leader, reasoning with him..."

The disapproval of the villagers is apparent and loud. Only Xenaís eyes remain on mine. "Gabrielle, I admire your way, I do, but... thatís just not going to work."

Okay, so sheís right. Stupid suggestion, Gabrielle - you learnt that life wasnít that simplistic the day you walked out of Poteidaia. "Okay, okay!" I raise my voice and hold up my hands to reclaim their attention. "So you need them to think youíre too mighty an enemy for them to face. Scare them - thatís the way these people think, right?" It will involve lying profusely, but I know - again from experience - that it works.

"But weíre no threat!" Someone calls.

"There arenít enough of us!"

"And weíre not warriors -"

"So bluff!" I insist. "Trick them, find a way." The plan begins to form in my mind. Iíve always relied on Xena for this, but maybe I do have my own skills, too. "Youíve seen your animals, the wildlife around you - what do small creatures do when theyíre threatened by something bigger? They puff themselves up, turn a brighter colour, make a wing look like an eye - anything to appear more threatening. And it works!"

Itís proof they canít argue against. There are protests that we arenít fluffy forest creatures, but the analogy holds its own. People start to calm down and make plans. We sit down and work more purposefully. Iím reluctant to contribute too much, always conscious of Aresí warning not to meddle, not to make Xenaís choices for her. I need not be concerned: Xena is as good at planning passive resistance as she is at all out war.

By the end of the evening, everyone knows what to do. On parchment at least, it looks good. Some - notably Toris - are anxious and uncertain, but most are behind Xena and her plan to fool Cortese and his men. Weíll dress up the town hall to make it look like a fortress, post dummies along the roofs, wear savage armour and rig up a system for firing multiple arrows from each bow. By the time everyone starts to leave the tavern for their homes, I feel triumphant and self-assured.

Xena glances out the door, over the shoulders of her new faithful. "The rain is pouring!" Itís dark outside, and I can hear the wind. "Gabrielle, youíll soak!" She turns back to me. "Stay here. Donít go out in that, stay here." She takes my hand, squeezes it softly, then gestures to the small winding staircase at the back of the bar. "Weíve a spare room."

Away from the others, she holds my hand comfortably in hers as I follow her. Iím interested to see more of her house, and look around me. "How long do we have, do you think? Before the army comes?" The wooden steps creak under my feet.

"Two days? Two and a half? We need to get busy."

"Mmm." At the top of the stairs hangs a framed painting, and I stop and stare at it, laughing. "Is this you?!"

Xena stands beside me and regards the portrait with tired disapproval. "Supposedly." It was a silly question, really, because the young girl staring out through the dark frame is unmistakably Xena. Her features are etched in thick oil, slightly dulled by age, and the artist has captured a good likeness.

"How old were you?" I lean in to study more closely the brushstrokes that make up tanned skin and bushy hair.

Xena shrugs. "Five summers? A little more? Mother likes it. It used to hang in the tavern, but that was too humiliating." She shakes her head and I laugh at her. "At least here itís private."

"Itís lovely, what do you mean?!" Her embarrassment is funny, and I find that my hand curls around her arm as we stand together. "You look adorable!" Iíve never seen Xena as a child, and always wanted to. She has a fuller face, brighter eyes, longer hair. Her expression suggests that she didnít approve of the whole affair at the time any more than she does now.

"Well." Xena turns and leads us up the small, dark landing. The sounds of the last few people in the bar echo up the wooden stairs. She pauses at the first oak door. "Itís a little small," She says apologetically.

I smile appreciatively, as a well mannered guest should, and turn the brass handle. Thereís a bed and an old dresser, pale linen curtains pulled across a small window at the far end. "It looks fine."

"We donít use it much..." Xenaís eyes have wandered down the corridor and her thoughts arenít on the room.

"Iím sure itíll be lovely, thank you -"

"Gabrielle, do you think..." She focuses on me again, all her words muddled up in her mind, her intentions conflicting and uncertain. Xena hates feeling indecisive: itís foolish at the head of an army and lethal in battle, and is something my Xena can never allow herself, even now. This Xena seems equally frustrated by her hesitation, and begins again with more determination. "Do you think the plan can work? Will everyone be safe? Can we pull it off?"

Itís not often that Xena looks to me for advice like this, sheís so self-reliant, so independent by character and necessity. My biggest fear is letting her down when she does need me. "We can if we work together," I promise, "All of us. Itís our best option." Really, itís our only option. I canít let history repeat itself.

"I donít want to fight," Xena insists, her voice hushed, her hands reaching out for me. "I want to follow your Way."

"You will, Xena, youíll do whatís right." I put my hands around her waist, slender and less muscular than Iím used to. I pull her closer to me, the curve of her hips reminding me of our afternoon, when everything seemed simpler.

Her head tucks beside mine and she wraps arms that have always been longer than mine tightly around me. She squeezes me boldly and kisses my cheek. "Gabrielle..." Itís the first time here that sheís said my name just for the pleasure of hearing it, and I love how it sounds, love the purring intonation she uses. Even though sheís younger than me, sheís the stronger one, and almost squeezes the breath out of me before letting go. "Donít sleep in there. Donít sleep by yourself." She leads the way down the hall and into the third wooden door. Inside there are two narrow beds, and Lyceus sits on one, pulling off his boots. "Lyceus -" Xena gestures for him to get up. "Go sleep with your brother tonight."

The boy gets up obediently, boots in hand. "Xena is there going to be fighting? I heard everyone talking: will people get hurt?" He approaches his sister and looks up at her uncertainly.

Xena smiles at him. "No oneís gonna get hurt. Iíll look after you." She has huge affection in her eyes for him, and touches at his shoulder.

This simple statement seems to reassure Lyceus instantly, and I can imagine itís a promise Xena has made and kept many times before - when they were climbing trees, or scrabbling over rocks in a wide river, or being chased by some wild creature theyíd startled. "Is Gabrielle staying?"

"Yes. Itís raining out."

Lyceus turns to me, always with his irrepressible grin. "You can have my bed, Gabrielle, if you like."

I laugh and thank him.

"Gabrielle can have my bed," Xena corrects, "Yours is lumpy."

"It is not lumpy!" Lyceus retorts, spinning back so that his darned socks slide on the polished floor and his fair hair flops into his eyes.

"It is lumpy," Xena insists as she reaches down to playfully tackle him, "Because you bounce on it."

"Iím practising for the day I catch Solaris. I might have to wrestle him." The boy defends himself, grappling with Xenaís arms as she alternately tries to tickle and strangle him.

Xena laughs, hauls him up messily, and drops him on his feet by the door. "Well go practice on your brotherís bed, then."

Lyceus heads out into the hall. "Gínight Gabrielle!"

"Goodnight, Lyceus," I call after him. Heís a lovely boy. As Xena quietly closes the door behind him I look around the little room. This is the place where Xena grew up - Iíve always wanted to see it. "Itís not like I imagined..." I wander impulsively over to the window. The curtains are dark blue and heavy as I pull them closed, shutting out the rainy night and the rest of the world.

"Not like you imagined?" I hear Xenaís voice behind me. "I didnít know youíd imagined. Itís pretty plain."

It is plain, exactly as the adult Xena would arrange a bedroom, if she had one. Iíd kindíve expected this young, innocent girl to have pictures on the walls and dolls on the windowsill - like I always did. Here, there is just the beds, functional furniture, and floorboards in need of a fresh polish. A candle flickers in a dish on top of a dresser. "I mean, I just thought itíd be... bigger." Itís poor lie, but I didnít have time to think, and it would make me look foolish if I told her I thought it would be pink and frilly and feminine.

I realise that Iíve been deluding myself, all this time. Delusions at best, foolish lies at worst. Iíve blamed every bad thing Xena ever did on Cortese, on the day he entered her life and robbed her of her innocence. I imagined that in the days before he came, Xena was pure and timid and peace loving, that she had no bad traits, no negatives in her life. I saw her as an angel. But Xena is just a person. She tries to make what she can from life, but even here and now she isnít perfect, she can be abrupt and introverted and aggressive.

Behind me, she slips her arms under mine and holds me. The smell of her flesh and the tickle of her hair is so familiar. Even when her attitude to others - or herself - leaves something to be desired, sheís kind and attentive with me: itís always been so. I seem to bring out the best in her: she always says I do. I love her. I love her no matter what, and I want to give her this chance at her life, even if she doesnít grow up to be some angelic, contented housewife. Turning, I squeeze her tightly to me - and donít have to stand on tiptoe to do it!

"Iíll find you something to wear," She mumbles against me. "A shift, or something. You wonít be comfortable in your... in your..." She fingers the hem of my top. "Take this off?" When she looks up and sees my amusement she lets a smile touch her face too, and allows herself to be teased. "I wanted you to, in that apple field. I wanted to see how youíd look, with the sun on your skin and your hair." She takes a strand of blonde and curls it softly between her fingers.

Her innocent hesitation is endearing, and funny, because itís Xena. "Go on, then." I hold my arms out helpfully and let her undress me. Sheís enjoying herself, so I donít interrupt her. As I stand and watch, an unwelcome thought intrudes. Why am I doing this, pure pleasure aside? Am I here in this girlís bedroom for the right reasons? I love her already, all over again, but that comes as no surprise. Is sex just one last desperate attempt on the eve of battle to get her fully on my side? Am I using this most precious thing between us in such a way?

Xena leans in and cuddles me innocently. "Youíre lovely. Címon, there must be something good in here -" She holds my fingers and pulls me with her to a solid chest of drawers, which she searches in. I donít feel in the least bit bashful with her, I never have. I donít mind what she sees: Iíve always wanted her to know all of me. Being with her could never be wrong, in any lifetime. Xena pulls out a faded red garment. "I think this -"

"Donít worry about that right now." I turn her around and reach my hands up to weave into her hair as I pull her to me for a kiss. I adore the feel of her arms around me when Iím naked, and I nurture it. I want to tell her I love her, but itís not fair to put that pressure on her, not tonight. So I mumble it into her neck, holding and caressing her as I tell her, just like I always do.

"Hmm?" She softly eases me back. "Whatís that?"

"I said shouldnít you get undressed too?" I step back, aware that Iím inadvertently pinning her against the chest. "Donít worry, Iíll make room for you in your bed, as your brotherís is so lumpy." I take the shift from her and go to the little bed against the wall. The material is thick in my hands, roughened from age, but warm from its place amongst her other clothes. I lift it and hold it to my face - it smells of her. I cuddle the precious thing against me, but I wonít put it on just yet.

I sit on the bed, and smile to myself: Iíve never slept in Xenaís bed before. Actually, Xenaís never had a bed before, just furs and blankets on the ground. Sheís stunningly attractive without clothes, and completely unselfconscious. Sheís deeply tanned all over, having spent her childhood years out farming the land, and her skin is dark and bronzed. I donít see any of the scars and blemishes Iím used to: this Xena hasnít fought in battles, hasnít been injured in accidents, hasnít pushed her body too hard time after time or hung on a cross. I glance down: her long legs havenít been smashed at Caesarís order, and there are no scars there, just a fine gold chain around her ankle.

We donít really need words now. I slip into the bed, tugging the rough olive blankets over me, and pull her in against me, with her back pressed to my stomach. She organises herself and the covers, snuffles a bit, then is still, as if frozen with the newness of this. I can put my arms around her and hold her, looking over her shoulder, for the very first time, since sheís normally too tall and our positions are reversed.

"You have a great family," I tell her to make conversation, seeking out her hand and interweaving our fingers.

"Mmm hmm."

"Your Mother is so lovely."

"Must we talk about Mother? Right now?" She protests, making me laugh. Her longs fingers curl experimentally around mine, pressing our palms together. "Donít want to think about anything except you."

"All right." I let her pull our clasped hands against her chest, and use my free hand to caress the long, lean lines of her back, alternately massaging and rubbing, stroking and brushing. I just want to feel her flesh and her warmth against me, feel it with my fingers and know that sheís here. Sheís relaxed, but I canít see her face, and I wonder what sheís thinking. About the battle, probably, running it over and over in her mind as she usually does. "Itíll be all right: when the army comes, it will be all right."

"Hmm? Oh, the fight, yeah." She rubs an itchy nose on my wrist.

"You werenít thinking about that?"

"No." Noticing my hand by her face, she delicately kisses it, then squeezes it tighter and tucks it back under her chin. "I was thinking about this. I mean, with my brotherís friends, we just... well, we just... you know, and then it was done and they slept or they went." She shrugs. "Fine with me, Iíd had enough by then too. Itís nicer with you. Itís nice to do this."

I agree wholeheartedly. "It is nice."

"With them it wasnít in bed. In the hay barn, or an alley somewhere, or the back of a cart. Anywhere convenient and quick." Xena rolls herself over. "In the field today - I loved being there, but... that wonít be the only time, will it? That you and I...?"

"No Xena, it wonít be the only time," I promise her, and take the hands that are reaching for mine.

"Iíd like to be here. Lyceus is next door, but when heís not, when itís just us..."

Words catch up in my throat and I just nod vigorously. "Yes, Xena."

Then sheís against me for a kiss. I can feel her breasts and her hips, her belly and her thighs. Her body is soft and hard all at the same time, pressing against me and reminding me of all the things I love us to do together, all the ways she makes me happy and excited and relaxed and satiated. I clutch her to me and hold her, my face in her thick hair. I donít want to let go, not until itís morning and we have to face everything else in this world. Xena holds my head to her shoulder and knots her limbs around mine. I sleep barely able to breathe, Iíve pulled myself to her so tightly, but itís how I want to be tonight: itís enough that weíre together.

In there morning there is time only for work: the army is approaching, and Amphipolis has to be ready. The threat pulls everyone together and young and old work hard. Xena gives the orders, and her people obey - they can see as clearly as I that she has a gift for battle planning. Sheís clear and conscientious and focussed. She motivates the others and keeps them on track. The lookouts she sent return to tell us that the army is marching faster than expected: weíre only just ready in time: theyíre here.

Xena and I squat on the roof of the town hall, watching anxiously through the hastily built gunning wall. Corteseís men are on the horizon, dark and foreboding in their black armour, forming a snaking line that separates land from sky.

"There are so many!" Toris hisses behind us. Some of the others grumble quietly and agree. Most of the villagers have been with Xena throughout, but some remain understandably doubtful. Toris proved to be the most vocal of the group, and there have been times when Iíve feared for the morale of the rest. I canít be completely unsympathetic, though - there are a huge number of soldiers out there. How Xena ever managed to defeat them the first time around with just a motley crew of farmers I canít imagine, but itís a tribute to her bravery and determination that Amphipolis didnít fall that night.

"There are too many of them!" Toris repeats, panicked. "Weíve no chance!"

Xena turns sharply. "Will you hush up? Weíve no choice now - we face them!"

"Theyíll kill us all! I told you we should just give them the food they want - now they wonít spare anyone!"

"Toris -"

Crouched on my heels, I watch this awful scene play out in front of me. The approaching army, the rest of Amphipolis, all of it becomes insignificant as Xena orders then begs her brother to stay. I see her desperation, and her anger, the kind of pain and betrayal she has probably never before experienced in this world. Others hear the conversation, and a couple fall on Torisí side, their agreement spurring him on when he doubts himself. Our careful plan - my foolish hope - crumbles down around us and I know thereís no turning it back.

Toris hugs Xena and kisses her. "Iím sorry, Xena, I canít do this; Iím so sorry -" And heís up and gone, clambering down the ladder with three men following him, before Xena or I can reach out to pull him back.

On her hands and knees, silent, Xena watches as her brother flees out over the hills behind Amphipolis, and is gone. Iím laden down with guilt, and tuck myself back against the rough stone wall. I tried so hard to stop this, and itís happening all over again...

A horse neighs, then another, then there is the clatter of moving armour, not far away. We all shrink back to the roof and peer out of our spying holes.

Cortese is here.

He rides at the head of his army, his flag draped over his dark horse. There really is no going back: no choice. Everyone turns to Xena. Everyone expects her to know what to do. By her side, I see her swallow, and her blue eyes dart back to those hills behind us, and the small, fleeing dots they carry. I reach out and grasp her, aiming for a shoulder or a hand, or anything under her garishly painted armour, anything to show her that I have faith in her.

She doesnít look at me, but her hand squeezes mine for an instant. Then she turns back to her men and hisses "Go!"

Our plan comes into action, piece by piece, step by step. Bags of grain dropped out of sight to distract, shadows in doorways to alarm, riders picked off by arrow from behind, not enough to seriously reduce the numbers but enough to startle the men and get the horses skittish. Each of us bobs up in turn, displaying savagely painted helmets above the battlements, then we drop back down to safety and switch to a different hat. It would almost be pantomime if all our lives werenít at stake. Cortese rants and raves, but doesnít advance any further. Xena looks at me and grins. Her helmet, made bigger by a draping of old sack, is painted with furious eyes and a hungry mouth, and the addition of rope hair makes me think her quite creative. I return her grin: the plan is working.

Arrows and the odd knife come down on us, but theyíre sporadic and expected, and each one is dodged or deflected. No one is seriously hurt. Around us, on the adjacent roofs and inside small huts, others are copying us. Some let out wild, savage shouts, or roar like beasts. A small fire is started that is cleverly contained but appears not to be, and our archers light their arrows in it. Xena picks up one of the small daggers that lands close to her and throws it, sending the blade spinning toward Cortese. It lands - as planned, Iím sure - just in front of his horseís hooves, and he backs off a few paces, alarmed.

Itís time to finish the job. Snarling like an angry jungle cat, all confidence and power, Xena pulls on the heavy rope that should send a dozen arrows flying from each bow rigged up along the roof. The aim will be haphazard, but the blanket coverage of the arrows, and the fire they carry, will terrify the men and horses and send them running.

Xena pulls, but the rope doesnít shift, nothing happens. "Itís caught!" She cries, pulling harder. "Damn! It must have snagged -" The mood of the people on our roof plummets from contained jubilation to barely contained horror. No one dares move. Xena traces the line of the rope, sliding it through her hands, then points to a pulley at the far end of the low, segmented wall. "There! Itís not looped right, itís stuck there."

I can see what sheís pointing to. Have we made a mistake, in our haste to rig the design? Or was that Torisí post? It doesnít matter now. The rope just needs looping over the pulley. Simple enough. I glance around. All the men are too big and too slow to get across the narrow space without a dozen archers catching them.

But me... "Iíll go -"

"No! Wait!" A hand smaller than my own catches my arm and pulls me back down. "Iíll go."

I watch in horror as Lyceus darts out from between Xena and I, small and fast. Xena gasps and grabs for him, but heís already out of reach. "Lyceus, no!"

The boy sprints past an open section of wall and dives flat onto his belly. Two arrows zip into the space behind him. He looks back and grins at Xena and I. Everyone watches in utter silence. Night has fallen. The clouds overhead are smoky and oppressive, blocking out the moon and reflecting back the laughing flames of the fire. We all watch, frozen, as Lyceus scrambles up, dodges another open section and sprints past a third. He presses himself flat against the wall and catches his breath.

On the ground below, Cortese grows tired of waiting. He raises his hand, ready to signal a charge that we are privately defenceless against. Xena stiffens, calls out in an urgent whisper, "Lyceus!" Her brother follows her gaze. Thereís no time for such faltering progress. I watch him respond to another voice that I donít hear, over on the far corner opposite us. A villager pulls off a brightly painted hood: itís Cyrene, fighting alongside the group there. She beckons for Lyceus to come to her, then holds out her arms for him. She smiles to him, her face maternal love itself, brighter than the blazing fires around us in the inky night.

Lyceus comes away from the wall. Her runs at a sprint toward her, his arm going out for the defective pulley, his fingers tracing the rope. His image flashes between the walled sections. A dozen arrows fly up, some of them smoking, and obscure my view.

Beside me, Xena starts. "Itís free!" The rope has come loose in her hand, and she gathers it up and winds it around her wrists. "Heís done it! Good boy, Lyceus!" With a victorious cry, she yanks on the rope with all her strength.

What seems like a thousand arrows blaze out across the sky. The dark clouds are brightened by their fire, and they fall on our enemies like rain in a storm. The horses shriek and rear up. We soon drown out that sound with our own cheering and yelling and wildness: any sound that will scare them further and drive them off. We stand, brave and defiant, and wave our silly hats as if they were dancing in triumph.

Cortese and his men turn and flee. We all laugh and grasp each other, throwing up the hats. "We did it!" I grab Xena and hug her. Her arms are around me for an instant, her grip strong, her hand cradling my head against hers: then the others bundle her up onto their shoulders, cheering and exulting her as their saviour. Xena laughs in surprise and hold on until sheís steady, then raises her arms and shouts victorious insults out at the army, which is dashing away as fast as it can. Villagers are already out in the square, celebrating and swiftly dousing the flames that we were quite prepared for. I grin up at Xena and clap her as her people do. Weíre making such noise that itís all I can hear for a moment: shouts and whoops and cheers.

But then thereís another sound, an awful sound. It sounds to me like someoneís heart is ripping apart. Like a woman sobbing as if sheíll never stop. Itís coming from behind us. Above me, on the shoulders of her men, Xena has already seen, and all her colour is gone. She scrambles down and dashes past me. I hardly dare look.

Cyrene sits behind the battlement wall, hunched over her boy, who is still and cold in her lap, an arrow in his heart. Xena cries out in pain and falls by them. "Lyceus -" She calls his name desperately. "Lyceus, no!" She pats his face then slaps his chest as I kneel dumbly behind her. "Wake up, stop it!" A sob breaks through her, quieting her voice. "Please, Lyceus, donít go -"

Broken, Cyrene gathers the small body of her son up into her arms, out of Xenaís reach. "This is your fault," She tells Xena levelly. "This is all your fault."

"No!" Xena defends herself. "Mother, we had to fight!"

"Shouldíve just given them the food," Cyrene mumbles, rocking Lyceus and gazing into his waxy face. "Shouldíve done as your older brother wanted."

"Iím sorry..."

"Go away, Xena." She kisses the boyís forehead.

"No, Mother, please, I didnít -"

"Donít call me that." Cyreneís voice is flat and devoid of any feeling. "Iím not your mother. This isnít your home. I donít know you. Go away."

Xena staggers up and I automatically cling to her, sure sheíll collapse. She shakes under my fingers. "Xena," I try to whisper, "Xena, come on -"

She looks at whatís left of her family for a moment longer, then strides away in silence. No one dares stop her, no one dares speak. My feet dumbly follow Xena out across the courtyard. Lyceus is dead. Toris is gone. Cyrene is filled with grief and fury, and Xena is a woman on her own. I have changed nothing. Despite all my love and good intentions, I have changed nothing. Curse this world, and curse my own stupid place in it. Why couldnít I have just left well alone?

"Xena -" I call out gently, "Iím with you, Iím -" But what comfort does that bring? What can I possibly say to mend this? I canít assure her that everything will be all right - Iím painfully aware that it wonít be. Itís quite possible - probable, really - that Xena wonít want me following her, but after all this time, my feet donít know what else to do but follow her. And neither does my heart.

A flash of light forms in front of Xena, causing her to stop abruptly and making me blink and look away.

Ares.

He grins at Xena, then glances back to me with an altogether more loaded smile. "Hello Xena. Hello, Gabrielle."

I jog up to them, see Xena wipe her arms over her streaming eyes then regard him intently. She frowns softly, and looks him up and down. "Youíre the God of War."

Ares addresses me. "Sheís smart, huh?"

Xena sniffs. "What do you want?" Iím sure this is the first time sheís seen a God, but in any life sheís hard to faze and even harder to impress with titles and fancy gimmicks.

"Want? Nothing. This is about what you want, Xena. It isnít about anyone else." These last words are directed at me, and I understand the meaning. Iíve had my turn, had my chance with Xena, and failed utterly. Now Ares has the right to make his offer: that was our deal. I canít interfere. Iím such a fool. Frightened for us both, I hug my arms in the suddenly cold night air and watch Xena in silence.

"Why have you come here?" Xena asks, lifting her chin defiantly.

"Iíve an offer for you." Ares gets to business. "Iíve been watching you, Xena, watching you lead your people. Youíre good."

Affected, her gaze drops. "For all the good it did."

"Hey - none of that was your fault -" He touches her face, lifts her eyes back to his. His voice is gentle when he speaks to her, this young village girl in front of him. I know that he has feelings for Xena, in his own way, and I know how charismatic he can be - how can this grieving child not fall under his spell? "You won, you saved your village," He goes on. "What you did with those few people was incredible. That took guts, and brains, and I admire that. Youíve got potential, Xena."

Sheís listening to him. Listening too intently. Itíd be hard not to listen to praise when youíre feeling as Xena must do now. "I donít understand what youíre getting at. My brother died. My mother -" She shakes her head. "Iíve done nothing."

"Arenít you angry about what those men did to your brother, Xena? Donít you feel how unfair it was?" Ares is smooth, I have to admit.

"Of course."

"So do something about it!"

"Like what?" She matches his energy now, and looks him in the eye.

"Like join me! Have your revenge! Xena, I can help you. Youíll have all the men you want, all the weapons. Youíre not someone whoíll be walked all over, I can see that in you."

Xenaís confused, her hands working uselessly and her eyes darting. "Avenge Lyceus - make his death worth something -"

"Exactly! Cards on the table, Xena - I want you on my side. I can make you great. Youíll never have to feel this feeling again." He places his hand on her chest, at the base of her throat, and I can see that she feels something.

"Then..." She finds herself out of breath at his touch. Xena, donít let him win, donít let him do this, again! "Then Mother will forgive me..."

"Thatís right." Ares pulls up her hands and clasps them between his own. "The whole world will take notice of you! You can take out your hatred on every one of those men, you can have revenge on the world for doing this to you!"

Xena is almost touching him, is so close sheís almost up against him. But something small changes, I see it cross her face, and the distance widens. "Hatred and revenge..."

"Power, Xena! Security, control!"

"No, youíre wrong -" She takes her hands from his. "Thereís no control in violence, itís just the opposite -"

Excitement sparks inside me, and pride, and I silently will Xena on.

"Hate creates more hate," She goes on. "Itíd be enough to swallow me up -" Growing more confident, she beats her fingertips over her heart.

Ares is worried, I can see it about him. It gives me a perverse pleasure: heís wrong footed and he knows it. "Iíll make you strong. Iíll make you strong," He insists.

Xena is shaking her head. "No, I donít see it like that, not now, not since Gabrielle." Her eyes flick to mine, and I nod, encouraging her. My heart is warm, and adrenaline makes my hands tremble as I clutch them to me.

"What?!" Ares looks at me, incredulous and disgusted. I am not afraid.

"Gabrielle," Xena reiterates. "Sheís shown me that negativity creates negativity. If I fight like those men I become like them. Lyceus would never want that. I am angry, youíre right, but you only end war with love."

Ares throws up his hands, rolls his eyes, and stalks up and down in little lines. "Here she goes with the love thing! Iím getting a bad case of deja vu here, Iím telling you." He taps the side of his head. "Barely out of her crib and sheís preaching love to the God of War! A little twisted, donít you think?"

Now heís in front of me, tall and intimidating, hand working at his sword. I shrug. "Xena can make her own decisions."

He actually laughs out loud at that, irritating me. "Her own decisions? It may as well be you talking, listen to her! ĎWay of Loveí, ĎNegativity breeds negativityí, blah blah blah! Sheís worse than she was before all this started!"

"That depends on your point of view." I feign disinterest, and secretly wish that heíd just end this farce.

"We had an agreement," He hisses at me. "You said that when it came to this you wouldnít interfere. You cheated."

"I didnít say a word!"

He dismisses that. "You broke our deal, Little Girl. I want a proper chance without your meddling."

Xena is understandably baffled, and reaches out for me. "Gabrielle...?"

I take her hand. "Youíre just a bad looser, Ares. Xenaís made her choice. Now send us back."

"Oh, Iíll send you back all right. You want to play fair? Fine, weíll play fair. If Xena has to go back, itís only right that you go back too, donít you think? Then letís see how much influence you can have."

Light flashes all around us, and I lose the feel of Xenaís hand in mine. My eyes are dazzled and my ears deafened, and there is only the whiteness of the light.

Sand is digging into my face. What has Lyceus done this time? When I catch him Iíll... Why am I lying down? I startle and sit up sharply.

A long, empty beach.

Wind whips hair into my face and I angrily brush it away and dust sand from my cheek, spitting it out of my mouth. Urgh.

Mustíve fallen asleep. Itís not like me to take a nap on a beach, but like Toris is always telling me, you gotta enjoy yourself sometimes, relax a little. I must have slept too deeply, my head feels foggy. It looks like being late afternoon - my Motherís gonna be mad that Iím not back at the tavern to help with the evening crowds. Iíd better be getting home.

Not that Iím completely sure which way home is. Címon, Xena! I always wander just that bit too far. I stand up and look around, see a path through the trees. Probably this way.

Thereís a sound behind me. Shouts. Men fighting. No... I hear something more: the cries of children. Young ones, too, by the high pitch of their voices. I figure Iíd better go see whatís going on. I donít like the idea of a kid being bullied by someone bigger than them, I never have. I stride through the undergrowth, feeling vines snagging at my boots and brushing branches away from my face. Keeping in the forest, I can follow the sound along the shore without being seen.

I almost miss the little child standing up to its knees in the water, which laps gently on the sand thanks to a strong Northerly wind. I look around me to see if itís safe, but whoever was causing the disturbance has apparently gone. The kid looks far too young to be out by itself. It also looks pretty lost. I step out of the woodland and wave to the child, calling and beckoning it over.

When she turns and comes running toward me I can see that itís a girl, about five summers old. Long yellow hair, bleached by the sun, bounces behind her, and she splashes messily through the water until sheís standing in front of me, out of breath.

"Hello."

"Hello," She replies. Sheís stark naked, sand dusted up legs and arms.

"Where are your mother and father?"

"At home," She answers promptly. She doesnít look particularly upset, and certainly isnít frightened by me.

"Oh. Are you by yourself?"

She looks around her, raising an arm to shield her eyes from the sun. Her belly still heaves a little from her exertion, and she digs her toe playfully into the fine sand. "I was playing with my friend. Sheís bigger than me. But when the two men came and shouted she ran home."

"Why were they shouting at you?" Iíd heard their voices, but hadnít been able to make out what they were saying. The sun is low in the sky, and the wind is getting up, whipping her wavy hair about her face.

"They said, we shouldnít fish here, because itís their place." She frowns, putting a crease in her little nose. "We werenít fishing: we were playing."

"Well, your friend shouldnít have left you by yourself." Mother always tells me to look out for my younger brother, to watch what he does. Heís a boy, though, and heís smart, he doesnít need babysitting. The girl stands and looks up at me expectantly. "Iíll take you home." It wonít take long, and finding the nearest village might remind me which direction Amphipolis is in. "Where are your clothes?"

She hesitates, then raises her arm in a point that looks like a guess.

"Go get them, then." Lyceus also had more savvy than this, at her age. If she wanders off... "No, wait, Iíll get them." I take a few steps for the canopy of trees, then realise that I donít know where I am, either. "No, weíll go together. Letís go." I stride off, hearing her panting as she runs after me.

"Whatís your name?" She asks, breathlessly but cheerfully.

"Xena." I look around, trying to see where she might have piled her clothes - it couldnít be far. The silence reminds me that Iíve forgotten to follow the first childhood rule for making friends. "Whatís yours?"

"Gabrielle."

"Uh ha."

"But my uncle, he calls me Gabby."

Iím only half listening. "You want me to call you that?" Where has she hidden her damn things?

"No."

"Oh."

"I like to be called Gabrielle."

"Okay. Gabrielle." Whatever, it makes no difference to me. I think I see a flash of colour too vivid to be natural, along the shore and a little way into the trees. I hurry along. I want to get home before itís too dark: I donít want to miss the hot food.

"Xena?"

I stop and turn to see that she paused when I picked up the pace. Travelling with children is not a good idea. "Yes?" I try to keep my patience and smile: sheís only a little kid, itís not her fault her legs are short.

"The stones are hurting my feet."

She doesnít look like shifting. Iím annoyed, but in equal measure I can see that the rocks and twigs would be rather unkind to bare feet. I go back to her. "Your shirt is red?" She nods. "Guess weíve found it, then." I pick her up and carry her, figuring itís the only way weíre going to get anywhere. At least she sits still and holds on, doesnít wriggle like children normally do. She does feel cold to me: not a cold that would bother someone my age, but for all my lack of maternal instinct I do think it canít be right for her.

"Do you live in Poteidaia?" She asks, her little hands about my neck.

"Where?"

"I live in Poteidaia."

"Oh. No, I donít." I step over a log and set her down in front of a stone on which a tiny red dress, brown shawl and pair of sandals have been laid out to dry. When she gazes at me hopefully, I roll my eyes and answer her unspoken question. "I live in Amphipolis."

"Is it far?"

"No. Get dressed."

"Iíd like to go to other villages. Mine is quite small. We see the same people every day, except when the man comes with a cart to bring the cloth and linen."

She talks excitedly to me, so I take to handing her the clothes and shoving limbs into the appropriate holes so that we can at least get done by midnight. I put her down on the rock and brush dirt and sand off each foot - about half the size of my palm - before clumsily trying to get the floppy things into the sandals, which makes her laugh at me. People back home generally donít laugh at me, I donít take kindly to being ridiculed. But she doesnít mean it, and I accept it and find myself smiling too, just like I do when Lyceus finds humour in something Iím studiously attempting. She does babble, this child, barely pausing to breathe, but somehow I like listening to her: sheís funny.

I take her hand to make her walk, sure that without me tugging her sheíd be concentrating so hard on her chatter that her feet would forget to work. Sometimes she runs and skips to keep up, but she doesnít seem bothered by it. Her hand is so small and soft in mine that every so often I have to look down and check that itís still there.

Heading away from the shore I soon see the lights from a village, the townsfolk lighting their lanterns as the sun fades. Itís not one Iíve seen before, and I know the villages immediately outlying Amphipolis. Gabrielle points toward her house.

Not that dissimilar to mine, itís a single storey dwelling made of wood and thatch, with a rickety garden gate that Gabrielle has to expertly pitch all her strength against to open. Itís about the same size as Motherís house, except that ours is joined to the stone building of the tavern, so we can use the upstairs rooms there too. Chickens roam in the dusty street, and the small town is flanked on three of its sides by farmed fields sporting grain, cattle, and short, hardy bushes respectively.

At the door, Gabrielle is greeted by a slightly plump woman whose reddened cheeks and lined face make her look older than she probably is. She wears a blue smock and apron, and most of her hair is tucked into a scarf about her head. I think she takes less care of her appearance than my mother, who says she has to Ďlook presentable for the customersí, but who really values looking decent for herself too. The woman greets Gabrielle with half insipid relief at her return and half insipid annoyance at her extended absence. She bundles the girl behind her skirts, then looks to me.

I speak politely, as Iím supposed to to an elder, and explain that I found the child and helped her find her way back. Gabrielle enthusiastically corroborates my story. A man soon comes to the door behind his wife and shooís Gabrielle inside to her supper. He too looks as if he has worked hard all his life, and is scrawny and somewhat suspicious looking. They thank me for helping their daughter, and ask me where Iím headed, my face not being familiar to them.

"Amphipolis," I say. "Only Iíve lost my bearings, can you tell me which path to take?"

Both adults start, and the man laughs. "Take you nine or ten days on foot, Amphipolis will. And thatís going hard all day. Youíre a long way from home."

That I am. How did I get here? Iím frightened to find that I canít even recall the last few days. Something must have happened - a fight or a fall - I mustíve bumped my head and gotten myself mixed up.

Gabrielleís parents invite me inside to join them for their meal. They say that I can stay here for a few days until the cart comes by that will pass Amphipolis - their thanks for my helping their daughter. Passage wonít be cheap, though: spaces on carts crossing Greece are in high demand.

"You can work for a wage," The man tells me, having introduced himself as Herotodus. "The women who have no daughters will use you for mending clothes, cleaning, that sort of thing." He wipes his hand on his overalls as he leads me into the living space, much of which is filled by an old wooden table. "Weíve no spare money and no spare work, but you can earn your food by minding the children."

Children? Thereís more than one? The Godís help me. I wander to the table and look around me while Herotodus washes his hands in the deep tin sink. Food bubbles on the stove, and the fragrant steam rising from the pans reminds me that Iím hungry. The house is simply decorated, but neat. Farming tools are propped on a rag in one corner, waiting to be cleaned. I hear the gurgling of a baby that certainly isnít newborn, and watch Gabrielleís mother, Hecuba, crossing from one side room to another, holding a swaddled child.

Gabrielle strides beside her mother, looking up hopefully. "Can I hold her, Mother?"

"Iíve told you, Gabrielle, youíre too small. When youíre bigger." She speaks matter-of-factly, showing neither great affection nor reprimand. Gabrielle stands in the doorway and watches, presumably as the baby is put down. Then she runs over to me.

"Come and see my baby sister!" She grabs my hand and tugs me over to a bedroom which sports a double bed frame and a cot. "Her nameís Lila. She sleeps lots." We lean in to look, Gabrielle gripping the wooden beams of the crib and peering between. The baby is dark haired but otherwise rather similar to her older sister. "When sheís older, weíre going to be best friends. She makes me laugh." Gabrielle reaches in and strokes the baby with a slightly chubby hand. "Donít you?" She grins and changes to an even more musical voice than her usual one. "You make faces and make me laugh! Here." She takes a little rag doll from between the blankets and places it closer to the baby. "This used to be mine," She tells me confidentially, "But Iím too big for it now."

Hecubaís voice calls from the kitchen. "Gabrielle! If you want your food you need to be sitting at the table."

"Coming!"

And so we go to eat. The rest of the evening is spent with Herotodus cleaning his tools and Hecuba mending a pile of clothes. I am told I can share a room with Gabrielle: she slumbers in one bed against the wall, and I use an identical one under the window which is clearly intended for the baby when sheís older. I lie in the darkness for a while, thinking about my situation. Mother wonít likely worry about me, sheís used to her children being free-spirited. I donít much like the prospect of darning socks and minding market stalls, but Iíve been working for coins since I was old enough to fetch and carry - as do all children in these lands - and I can turn my hand to anything. I hope Iíll remember how I managed to get here, but the future is more important than the past. I sleep well.

The next day, Gabrielle is equally as talkative and gregarious as she was the night before. Sheís the most animated member of her family. I spend the day sewing for dinars, and am reminded how much I loathe needlework. Nor am I very good at it. Or very fast. I donít earn a great deal, and a cart ride will be expensive. I need to find something more profitable.

We sit down to an evening meal. The two adults donít say a great deal, although to be fair itís hard to fit words in around Gabrielleís. Herotodus is clearly tired from a day harvesting, and Hecuba sits with the baby. As I look around, to the three tucking into their meals, I think that sometimes in this house there isnít enough money and barely enough food. Gabrielle reels off a list of all the things sheís done and thought about today. I admire her energy, and the happiness she finds in every little thing, but she analyses things endlessly and ties herself up in knots.

"Gabrielle," Her mother cuts in finally, "Enough talking now, Child, eat your food."

Gabrielle nods, takes and munches a big spoonful, then carries on with her conversation. I have to laugh at her. When sheís done eating sheís allowed to get up, and she chooses to spend a few minutes playing with her sister. I feel awkward, watching a moment that I have no right to share, and busy myself with washing the dishes. I see Hecuba putting an arm around her daughter and giving her a quick squeeze - itís the first real affection that Iíve seen, but I can see that this is a regular, loving, hardworking family that Iíve walked into. Very much like mine. I still donít understand why Iím here. I find myself wishing that my brothers were here, to sit with me like Gabrielle is sitting with Lila.

So I go to the bedroom, not feeling particularly companionable. I forget how early little children go to bed, though, and soon Gabrielle comes in in her night things.

She stands and looks at me for a moment. "Xena, are you sad?"

I scowl and deny it. "No."

"Do you miss your mother?"

I shrug. Not my mother, so much, but home... "A little, I guess."

She looks sympathetic, but for once doesnít say anything. She pads over to a small book case and runs her fingertips thoughtfully over the spines of half a dozen old books. Thatís more books than we have in our entire household: we donít do much reading - something else I never got very good at. "Whereís your home?" She asks. "Your village? Am.... Am...?"

"Amphipolis. Iím not sure, exactly, I think... to the North?" I canít be certain even of that.

"Show me?"

IĎm losing my patience. "I told you, I donít know, Gabrielle, I..." But she has pulled out a large, starchy sheet of paper and is unfolding it and trying to hold it up. I recognise the telltale green and blue behind the sepia stains. "You have a map? Let me see -" I know I sound abrupt, but she hands it over willingly. I turn it quickly, trying to get myself orientated.

Gabrielle climbs up on the bed and sits beside me. "Father gave it to me. Poteidaia is here." She leans close and points to the prettily written word, then sits patiently, swinging her legs, while I concentrate.

"Uh ha..." I scan the paper surrounding the word. "Here! Amphipolis is here, look!" I find myself excited to see just this image of home. Sharing my happiness, Gabrielle leans on my arm and gazes at the spot I point to.

"Am..." She reads the word. "...phi... po... lis. Is it a long way?"

I stretch the map to arms length and scan it for a scale. Iím not good with books, but I can read maps. And Amphipolis is a long way. I sit back, disheartened. "Thatíll take weeks to walk. And even by cart..." Which will be lumbering and make stops along the way, and will have to follow the wider paths.

It takes me a moment to realise that my sadness has rubbed off on her. She swallows a bit. "Please donít be unhappy," She tells me, "I donít want you to be."

"Iím not." Itís not fair to make a little kid feel bad. "Iíll just have to work hard and get lots of dinars, huh?" I fold up the parchment and give it back to her. "Thank you for letting me use your map." Perhaps my brothers will come looking for me. It mightnít be so bad. Iíll ask around tomorrow, try to find work that pays better.

"Can we play a game? It makes me feel better when I feel bad."

I shrug. "If you want."

We end up sitting on the floor with four big dice that have been roughly carved from pale wood and hand painted. Iím not into games like this: my brothers and I pass the time outside, fishing or exploring, and some of the men in the tavern taught me to bet on cards, but I donít think that either activity would be wholly appropriate for Gabrielle. Add to my inexperience the fact that Iím not too hot at mathematics, and I feel entirely out of my depth with the dice.

I watch Gabrielle, who in some ways is more intelligent than her years warrant. She shares easily and she seems responsive to my moods. She can add the figures, slowly but - I think - accurately. She scampers across the shiny wooden floor, collecting the dice and returning them to me. I notice that the little wooden cubes have been roughly made, and not every side is even or equal. This means that each die has a tendency to fall on the same number time and time again. I wonder if I should give Gabrielle a dinar for them and take them home to the inn - I could win myself a fortune.

"Throw those two -" I point to the two palest dice clutched in Gabrielleís hand. "Youíll get eight." She looks at me quizzically, squeezing the pieces in her palm. "Go on."

She throws them, sending them skittering across the floor, and as I expected they fall on a six and a two. Gabrielle leans forward on hands and knees to check, then turns back to me in amazement that makes me laugh. "Howíd you know?"

"Magic," I shrug. "Now do the other two. I think youíll get..." Whatís four and five? Címon Xena, donít embarrass yourself in front of a baby. "...nine." The pause just gives my prediction added impact when it comes out right.

In this way, combining the dice to give different results, I keep Gabrielle enthralled. She enthusiastically tries to catch me out, but the dice are so uneven that they rarely let me down. She stands beside me as I kneel, clutching clumsily onto my shoulder, and watches with captivation as I shake the dice in my bigger hands, blow on them for luck, call out some gambling exclamation like "Lucky fives!", and throw. She bounces up and down on her toes, waiting for the pieces to land, then shrieks with joy when they come up right yet again. I laugh at her and put an arm around her middle to steady her when she stumbles on a stray die.

The door clicks and Gabrielleís mother comes in. I gather up the dice rather guiltily. Gabrielle shows no such emotion, and runs to the older woman. "Mother! You have to see what Xena can do, she can..."

"Isnít it long past your bedtime, Gabrielle?" Hecuba chastises with a degree of surprise, silencing Gabrielle.

"Yes, Mother."

"Well then." Her voice softens, and she bends down to pick Gabrielle up and hold her against her hip. "To bed with you."

"But Mother, Xena can -"

"Then sheíll still be able to in the morning, wonít she!" I watch Hecuba smile and tickle Gabrielleís chest. "Sleep now, youíll wake your sister." She pats Gabrielleís thigh, kisses her, then lays her in her bed. "Goodnight, Xena."

Iím learning that Gabrielle is an exhausting individual to be around.

Despite all my good intentions, I spend the next day darning socks until Iím sick of it. I go around asking people if I can mend their fences, polish their swords - anything but housework - but no one believes a girl will be any good at manís work. Itíll take me forever to earn enough to pay for a fast ride, at this rate.

To add to the factors making this a bad day, when I get back to the cottage Hecuba says to me "Xena dear, Iím glad youíre back: be good and mind Gabrielle until dinner. Sheís fractious - take her out for a walk, will you? Iíve my hands full." Itís the last thing I feel like doing, having to entertain an energetic child, but Iím being given free bed and board, I canít refuse.

So we wander along the streets, with me barely taking any notice of Gabrielle. I notice a dusty wooden building with no windows, and interrupt her. "Whatís in there?"

"Oh, horses." Gabrielle turns up her nose. "Smelly."

Horses? Now, horses are something I can do. "Letís see if thereís someone there." I beckon for her to follow, and stride inside the barn. I pass the usual tin pails and bundles of hay, and find myself smiling at the sight of a couple of big steeds. They look well cared for. I call out until an old man appears, with a grey beard and a grimy cap covering whatís left of his white hair. "Do you have any work? Iím good with horses. I can help out, do whatever you need."

He straightens and sizes me up for a moment: fair enough, let him. "Well," He says at last, in a gruff voice, "I have boys for the raking out, the washing down... Sorry, Lassie, all I need is those horses shoeing."

I jump at that. "I can do that!" Iím being too enthusiastic. I remember that Iím not sure where Gabrielle is - if Iíve lost the kid, no amount of wages is gonna help me. I look around to see that sheís actually hiding behind my legs. Sheís looking about the barn, uneasy, and one of her hands is unconsciously playing in the leather cords at the back of my skirt. Children have no respect for personal space! Does she realise sheís got her hand on my butt? I reach an arm around her shoulders and tug her round against my hip. "I can shoe horses," I repeat, more calmly. "No problem. I learned from my older brother." Now Gabrielle has her arms around my leg: this is not dignified, and Iím trying to land a job. I look down at her. "Whatís wrong with you?"

"I donít like horses."

This from a farmerís daughter! "The horses arenít gonna hurt you."

The stable owner doubts my abilities, and I donít blame him, really. We talk technicalities for a while, I show off my knowledge and press the fact that Iím cheap labour, and the old man agrees. It wonít earn me much more than darning the stupid socks, but Iíll enjoy it more, and my expertise will mean that I can do twice as much work in half the time.

"How many need doing?" I ask.

"Oh, let me see..." He looks around fondly at his animals, adjusting the cap on his balding head. "The two mares, the big old boy in the corner there, and two ponies."

I follow his eyes around the dimly lit space. "What about that one?" I point to an average sized stallion that heís missed out of his count, brown all over but with a splodge of white on its chest.

"Oh, him." The man laughs and shakes his head. "Not worth my while. Impossible to ride, that one - never taken to it. Canít afford to shoe a horse like that." He gazes sadly at the horse, who gazes back. "Donít know what to do with him."

"How much is he?" Itís a stupid question, but itís out of my mouth before I can stop it. It would only take me a couple of days to ride a horse home - much quicker than a lumbering cart - and I can ride any horse, Iím sure. How hard can it be? But my work has only earned me a couple of dinars, I can feel them in my pocket, and a horse will cost more than a cart ride.

The man scoffs. "You can have him, Girlie, heís only eating up my hay, bless him. Shouldíve sent him for glue long ago, but..." I pull Gabrielleís head tighter against my hip and clamp my hand over her other ear. Sheís imaginative and sensitive as it is, Iím sure - if I take her home fretting and sobbing over the fate of a pony, Iíll be without a meal and a bed tonight. "Well, guess Iím too soft on Ďim." The man continues, smiling round at his animals. "Only youíll have to pay for the shoes yourself - like I said, I donít have the money to waste."

"So..." I try to ignore Gabrielle pawing at my arm in an attempt to dislodge it. "The money I earn for the work - will that be enough for a pair of shoes?"

He shrugs. "Suppose so. If youíve got money to burn." Perfect. I can ride that horse with no bother. He grins down at Gabrielle, who has plucked my hand from her head. "Hey, Little Girl, you want to sit on a horsey?"

Gabrielle shakes her head hard. "No. Thank you."

"Oh, well." He straightens up. "You start tomorrow, first light."

So the day has ended better than it started. Itíll only take me a few days to fix up all those horses, then a couple of travelling, and Iíll be home, back to normal. Gabrielle is only too happy to leave the stables. "So you donít like horses, huh?" I stride along, in a better mood.

"No." She skips along the dirt road toward home. "Theyíre too big, and..." She shivers. "Are you going home?"

"Hope so."

"I wish you could stay."

"Well, I donít belong here, Kid."

"Hmm." She walks along beside me. "I love you, Xena."

Itís a bizarre thing for her to say, but I suppose children are always foolishly affectionate. I donít know what to say, but sheís only a kid. "Yeah," I reply awkwardly, looking around to avoid eye contact, "You too."

Nothing can spoil my mood, and I eat and sleep well. I enjoy my work the next day, being with the horses, and I finish early. When I return from a long walk out in the forest, feeling out part of my way home, Gabrielle isnít around. Her mother stands in the kitchen, feeding the baby from a cup, and tells me brusquely that Gabrielle gets sick sometimes and is to be left alone to rest. I shrug and accept this - all kids get ill from time to time. The mood in the little house is strange, though, with Herotodus and Hecuba giving each other tight looks and saying little, the baby hushed when it makes much noise, Hecuba going about her housework with unnatural determination and always with a corner of her lip tugged between her teeth. It doesnít seem polite to ask questions of your host - thatís what Mother would say - so I try to keep out of the way.

Supper is eaten in silence, and when it gets dark I get tired and bored of the uncomfortable atmosphere and slip into the bedroom. Expecting to see Gabrielle in bed, Iím surprised to find her sitting up at a little makeshift desk, working intently on something. She looks around and smiles, as if sheís glad of the company. Hardly surprising, if sheís been locked up in here all day.

"You all right?" I sit on my bed and pull off my boots.

"Yes."

She looks fine to me, and I donít understand. "Your mother said you were sick, or something. Her and your father have been funny all day."

She looks back to her desk, her head to one side. "They worry when I get sick, it makes them sad."

I canít imagine my mother ever being so over-protective about us. "Everyone gets ill. Youíre okay now, right?"

"No, I mean when I have the dreams."

She goes back to working industriously on her project, and, curious, I go over to see. On the wooden desk is spread out a roughly square scrap of parchment, on which sheís drawing with a small selection of brittle sticks of pigment in basic colours. Her arm covers her picture and I canít see what it is.

"Dreams? But everyone dreams." I donít remember Lyceus ever being as naive at her age. Part of me starts to lose patience with her. I was never clucky like the other girls my age, Iíd rather be out climbing trees with my brothers than minding stupid children.

"No, the dreams that come true." She sounds equally frustrated with my lack of understanding as I was with hers. Intrigued, I kneel down.

"Dreams that come true?"

"Do you want to draw?" She asks suddenly. "Iím drawing a horse. You can do the sun." She uncovers her parchment and points to an empty space at the top. She has coloured a patch of green grass, and on top of it sheís drawing a long body, four sticks for legs, and a head with a large smiling face. I have never been particularly artistic, and I donít know where to start. I almost refuse, thinking it a silly, childish activity, but I want to hear more, and it seems too unkind to rebuke her. So I select an oily, blunted piece of darkish yellow and studiously set about drawing a circle.

"Thought you didnít like horses," I observe.

"I like this one. It was in my dream," She continues at length, pulling back to look at her work. Her face shows pride for a moment, then changes to something altogether sadder, and I pause. "I wish I didnít have them. I never remember what happens: only the dream. I sleep when Iím not tired, and they say I shake a lot and they canít stop me. It makes Mother and Father worry and they make me rest in here." She picks up a dark, thin stick of charcoal and continues to draw. "Iím not like the others. Iím different. And I donít want to be." She leans over the page and draws carefully, lovingly, as if recreating a familiar, treasured image that brings comfort. "Mother says I have a gift." She inhales deeply and her eyes flick across the page. "Finish the sun?"

"Huh? Oh -" I shade in my misshapen circle. She has me intrigued, now, and Iím impatient to hear more. "Well, what are these dreams about? The ones that come true?"

"I dreamt about Lila, before she came. They said itíd be a boy, because Mother got very big, but I knew it would be a sister. And I knew when the fire was going to come and burn down the barn. And when Soris died. But I didnít say anything because they mightíve said it was my fault."

So, Gabrielle has the Gift of Prophecy. Itís something Iíve heard about, but Iíve never known anyone with the Gift, and I wondered if it hadnít just been made up by seers and shamanesses to give their arts more credibility. It canít be easy growing up with a burden like that. When she looks up at me, I smile at her.

She selects a white piece of chalk and continues to draw. I see that sheís put a black figure on the horse, and is now drawing a pale one behind it. "So this was your dream today, huh?"

She nods. "Two women were riding on a big, friendly horse. One was all in black, and one was all in white."

"Oh, right."

"Then the two of them mixed together so there was only one person riding. I thought the black person and the white person would make a grey person, like when I draw." She takes the two appropriate coloured sticks in each hand and holds them as if weighing them. "But it didnít, it made so many pretty colours, like you see in a rainbow. I wanted to look at it and look at it." She sets down her chalks. "I donít have those colours."

This is interesting but makes absolutely no sense to me. "Youíve made the dark one look like me," I joke, wanting to lighten things up a little.

Gabrielle traces her small finger around the outline of long, wavy hair. "Think it was you." She moves to stroke her fingertips over the white figure sitting at the back of the horse. "Xena..."

I get up without even thinking about it. I donít like this stuff: I donít understand what this kid is talking about, and I donít want to be involved. I donít even know who this girl is, and now sheís dreaming about me and drawing me and telling me more than I can handle. Iíve stayed here too long, and Iím not sure why: even without a horse I couldíve walked, why have I been hanging on here?

So I wish Gabrielle goodnight and get into bed. In the darkness I watch her climb up into her bed, then I gaze out of the big window across the grey, empty path. I canít sleep. That blasted dream swims through my head, and when I close my eyes I see the damned drawing, actually see two women merging together to make one complete, whole soul. Itís just the imaginings of a fanciful child, I tell myself.

I almost fall asleep when I hear Gabrielle move. In the semi-dark I watch her slip off her mattress and pad across the narrow room to me. "I canít sleep by myself," She tells me, and climbs into bed beside me. I lie stock still as she curls up at my side, a little arm clutching my shift. She feels hot and I can feel her breathing. I donít even know this child: this is too much. Iím not a cuddly person, this isnít me.

The poor kid has gotten too attached. Not her fault, really, although only the Gods know what she sees in me. Probably just likes the attention. I donít move, just keep still while she fidgets. Itís surprising how soft she is. Lyceus was always all elbows and knees. Guess sheíll be easy enough to ignore. I think tomorrow Iíd better be getting home.

I almost doze off again when she shifts and rolls over. She presses her back against my side, keeping me warm, and snuffles a bit. Poor kid canít sleep. Sheís had a rough day. So I turn over and give her a pat, hoping sheíll be able to get some rest. Half asleep, she pushes herself back against me, her little feet on my legs, and shiny blonde hair falls against my nose.

And the smell is so startlingly familiar. My eyes open wide and I inhale deeply. Somehow, I know that smell, Iím convinced of it. I see her horse again, a sandy horse with a white patch on its nose, galloping through the grass. I see the women riding the horse. I see myself at the reigns, and I see the beautiful blonde woman sitting behind me, laughing and telling her stories and holding me up when I falter. And I absolutely understand everything thatís happened.

"Oh, Gabrielle -?" I grasp hold of her and haul her up onto my chest, turning her over. Sheís floppy with sleep, so I cradle her head in the crook of my arm, letting her little body lay against me and holding her ankles in my hand. I push myself up against the pillows and gaze down at her in the moonlight. "Iíve got you -" I recognise every feature, her fair eyebrows, her fine fringe, her pretty nose and pinkish lips that are always smiling. Sheís so small and delicate. I gingerly pull her in to my breast and kiss her forehead. "Shh, Iím here." I pull up the blanket and tuck it around her. "Whatís happened to you, huh? Whatís happened to us?" I go to stroke her cheek, and notice my fingers for the first time - theyíre suddenly longer and roughened, and in my ears my voice has deepened and smoothed out. I glance over at the window, seeing my reflection - that of a grown woman - thrown back from the darkened glass.

"Well well, took you long enough to figure, Xena."

I start at the sudden deep voice and instinctively pull the sleeping child protectively toward me.

"Yet again," Ares complains as he starts to pace in the tiny space at the foot of the bed, "Your little companion manages to foil... such a darn good plan." He pauses to congratulate himself.

It doesnít come as any surprise to me that heís behind all this. "Will you keep your voice down," I hiss at him, "Youíll wake her."

"I send her back to a time when she can barely toddle, and still she comes between us!" The God of War gives a running commentary on his thoughts.

"Shut up!" Angry and disbelieving at what heís done this time, I gingerly slide out of bed and lie Gabrielle back down, covering her with my blanket. Sheís sleeping through it all, as usual. Typical Gabrielle. With that done I go up to Ares and whisper angrily into his face, "What have you done?!"

"Well..."

"Wait!" I grab hold of his leather collar and yank him against me. I remember exactly what happened! "This is your way of punishing Gabrielle! Iíd have to be insane to hook up with you now!"

"Xena," He smiles charmingly, "Letís not argue in front of the children."

To Hades with this man! I pull him out of the room, through the darkened house, and out into the night. I stalk until I think weíre safely out of earshot, then turn to tell him just what I think of his absurd antics. "Whatever you tricked Gabrielle into agreeing to -"

"Hey, I didnít trick anyone!" He defends himself. "Gabrielle chose this."

"Then she would have done it because she was thinking of me. Unlike you."

"You have no idea."

"Donít mutter! Ares you listen to me: put this mess right, now!"

"Sorry, no can do. Canít fiddle around with time, Xena: accidents might happen."

I turn away and fume. The only way to get him to reverse all this is to do what he wants - what heís always wanted - and the time for that has long passed. There has to be another way. A way to put things right, for myself and for Gabrielle.

I think of her, lying in her room. Sheís so perfectly innocent. Because she hasnít yet met me, I realise. She hasnít had to fight or to kill. She hasnít seen wars or felt terror. In this life sheís safe, and sheíll stay safe. Maybe, for Gabrielleís sake, getting Ďback to normalí isnít so desirable after all. Am I being selfish?

"All right, look, letís talk about -" But when I turn back, heís gone. "Damn."

Thereís nothing to do but go inside and go to bed. For the first time, my destiny is not in my hands.

I get up, eat, work and sleep the next day just as I did the day before. What else is there to do? I need time to think. And, if Iím honest to myself, I like being here. I like being† with Gabrielle, and I like living without the burden of a past that until now Iíve had no way to change.

"Were you working hard, all morning?" Gabrielle asks me.

"Uh ha. All morning." I smile down at her. Her hair is strawberry blonde and sits on her shoulders, and those eyes are just as bright as always.

"Do you like working? My father doesnít like working."

"Well, I like being with the horses. And I need the money for my horseís shoes."

Gabrielle nods, and gazes down at the faded red rug on which she stands. The old wooded dining chair that she is next to is almost taller than she is. "You miss being at home."

I shrug - thereís no honest answer to that, right now.

"If you had some shoes for your horse you could go home, and youíd be happy. Here -" She reaches into a tiny pocket in her pink and white dress and pulls out two coins. "For your shoes." She has to reach up to her full height to press the coins into my hand.

"Oh -" I crouch. "No, Sweetheart - thatís your money." I remember the last time she made the same gesture, paying for some time in an inn that I never properly thanked her for.

"We can share -"

"Ut-uh." She melts my heart, this girl. "You save your money for you and your family. Me and my horse will wait a few more days." I pick her up and sit her on the wooden chair, then tuck the two essentially worthless coins back into her pocket. I straighten her pretty little skirt over her legs, and rest my hands on her knees. "But thank you. Now, thereís a long time til dinner - want to go for a walk?"

"Okay!" She grins and swings her legs, kicking her feet gently into my stomach. I capture them in my hands, and we both laugh.

"Get your shoes on, then."

We walk through the village, with Gabrielle nattering and pointing things out. Itís so good to see her like this: Iíd always wondered what she was like. She holds my hand so easily. If Solan had been... with me... I imagine we would have walked like this. Gabrielle wouldíve been proud of that.

As we pass the stables I notice that my chocolate steed is grazing in the grassed pen outside. Maybe the stable boy is mucking out his hay. "Gabrielle - you want to come stroke my horse?"

"No." She shakes her head and clutches my hand tighter.

"No? Why not?"

"I donít like horses." She repeats the safe phrase, and gazes back to the small market, the shouts of the sellers carrying on the wind.

Gabrielle never has liked horses. ĎBig, smelly thingsí, she calls them. It always struck me as strange that a farm girl had a mild fear of horses. I pull gently on her hand, bring it up to my belly to stroke it, forcing her to turn back to me. "Why? Why donít you like horses?"

"One bit me," She says distractedly, her eyes still on the bustle of the market.

"One... bit you?" Gabrielle, you never told me that. I wouldnít have teased you...

"Father said it was a sick horse. That he didnít mean to do it."

"Well, he was probably right. Horses donít like to bite people, theyíre friendly." Maybe this is one small way I can help her, as she has me. "Why donít you come and see my horse? He wonít bite. Címon -" I walk slowly, so as not to startle her. Gabrielle is brave: sheíll face her fear.

The stable owner was right: the horse doesnít like to be ridden, and threw me the first couple of times I tried. Iím an experienced rider, though, and Iím sure Iíll crack it. He seems docile enough so long as he isnít made to carry weight.

"Itís all right." When we get to the fence I scoop Gabrielle up and stand her on the bottom beam. "Come say hello." She looks reluctant, so I wrap my arms around her and rest my chin on her shoulder. I point out things about the horse, take a piece of fruit from the trough and feed him. Gabrielleís love of stories and information surpasses her wariness, and she is soon giggling and contributing. She draws back into my arms when the horse passes, then laughs and points after him. How easy it is to be with her! And I always thought I had no gift for childcare. I give her a piece of carrot and encourage her to hold out her arm. After a couple of timid attempts, she feeds the horse, who pauses to munch long enough for her to stroke his lean side.

"I did it, Xena! Did you see?!"

"Yeah, I saw." I laugh and squeeze her shoulders. "Good girl!" I steady her as she jumps down.

From then on sheís all excitement, describing every detail back to me and running around as if she were alternately horse and rider. We cut back through the edge of the forest, and in her joyful hurry Gabrielle doesnít see an unearthed tree root, and trips. I see her skid down onto her knees, and she cries out softly, taken by surprise. She leans down gingerly over her legs, and I hurry to catch up to her.

"Gabrielle? Hey, letís see." I bend down and try to untangle the little girl, who is suddenly stiffened and crying and small. "Whatíd you do? You hurt yourself?"

"My... leg..." She sniffs and displays the cut, looking repeatedly between it and me. My Gabrielle would look at me like that sometimes, wanting me to have all the answers, frightening me with all the trust she is giving me. Luckily, a scraped knee is a problem I feel confident to solve.

"Itís all right. Itís not bad."

But she keeps looking up at me, with tears dripping over her round cheeks. Her chest gasps with shocked little sobs, and I realise that matter-of-fact reassurance isnít going to be enough. Iíve started to see her as I did my travelling companion, who was brave and wouldnít cry or complain over any injury. But this is just a child, hurt and taken by surprise.

"Címon - letís get that leg cleaned. Shh now. Iím here." I reach out and get a hold under her arms, then lift her up and settle her against me. "Donít cry." As I stand I take a moment to stroke away the tears and push back fine hair and kiss her face. Sheís gotten herself all hot and dishevelled, and I find myself instinctively rocking her against my hip as I stride over to the waters edge. "Itís all right, Gabrielle." Sheís tucked herself under my chin and her arms have knotted around my neck.

"I was running -" She tells me hurriedly, her breath catching every now and then, "And I didnít see the root, and I fell, and I hurt my leg." Why is she telling me something I clearly saw? Typical Gabrielle to make a drama into a story.

"I know. Here, sit down." I gingerly lower her onto the bank and take her foot to guide her leg into the shallow water. As soon as I do, though, she squirms and pulls away, grasping at my clothes to pull herself back against me. "All right, all right -" Giving in, I kick off my shoes, sit down, and let her into my lap.

Gabrielle wonít be hurried. So I just sit with her for a bit, my arms around her middle where she can clutch them, her head on my chest where I can kiss her and talk to her. She fits so tidily into my embrace, her injured leg tucked up protectively, and sheís warm and soft. Her hair - as always - smells like summer and home.

"You know," I tell her as we cuddle, "Iíve got a little boy, just a little bit older than you." If I close my eyes I can imagine itís my own child that Iím holding, comforting, my own flesh and blood. Solanís hair would be just as soft and yellow, his cheek just as warm against my own. "Youíd like playing with him. He could show you how to do lots of things. I know youíd have a great deal of fun together. Youíd like him... My son..." And I get to thinking, that if this life goes on, I can have Solan all over again, and keep him. I could keep him away from anyone who would hurt him, I could raise him and have him with me.

"Whatís his name?" Gabrielle asks me, reaching down to take my hands and examine them.

"His name is Solan." It feels bitter in my throat. Solan isnít here. My little boy...

"Is he good at drawing?" She absently wipes her face with her arms as she continues to play with my hands.

"I... donít know..."

"Are you a good drawer?" She singles out my forefinger, curling the others back, and studiously draws a line in the sand with it.

"I donít know about that, either." I breathe in deeply. This isnít the time to be lost in the past, or the future. "How about you? You want to draw a horse?" I carefully ease her down onto the sand and turn my attention to her leg while she makes symbolic markings in the soft white grains.

The graze isnít bad. I gently scoop water over it to clean it, pretending to be more interested in what sheís working on. When weíre done, I carry her home. Her mother has to work through the evening collecting eggs from the hens, so Iím in charge of getting Gabrielle and her sister ready for bed. Iím not used to being so domesticated.

"Youíll have to sort yourself out," I tell Gabrielle as she climbs into the tin bath, "Iíve got my hands full." Luckily for me, Lila doesnít cry much. Sheís a chubby baby with lots of dark hair. I see Gabrielle in her: the two girls look very much alike. Iíve never had to bath a baby. I let the other women deal with Solan; I fed him grudgingly, and that was all. I wouldíve loved to hold him and watch him wriggle his toes in the water.

Now is not the time to think about Solan, I tell myself sternly. Not now! Gabrielle is here and now. She kneels up and shows me how to bath Lila without dropping her or making her cry. Gabrielle is good with the baby and talks to her constantly, always watching out for her reactions, always ready to pass me something that I need.

I manage to get Lila into her crib and ask her nicely not to cry or wet her nappy or do anything else that Iím ill-equipped to handle. Gabrielle has been left to get on with dressing herself, and when I return to the bedroom she isnít there. Cursing, I find her in the lounge room, crouched in a corner.

"Gabrielle, what are you doing? Time for bed." How odd it feels to chastise her like this!

She signals for me to be quiet and beckons me over. In the corner is a shallow wooden box containing one large ginger cat and four much smaller ones, also ginger but with splodges of white. Gabrielle lets the kittens clamber over her legs and tells me confidentially that this is the neighbourís farm cat, usually set upon the mice but allowed inside for the duration of her pregnancy. Gabrielle clearly loves the mewing kittens, and talks to them too, stroking and petting them. She tells me that she doesnít allow herself to grow too fond of the other young animals, like the new piglets, and leans over to whisper into my ear "because we eat them, sometimes". I say that this philosophy sounds quite reasonable and wise.

The kittens are sweet, and I find myself playing too, tickling their ears, laughing when they stumble on their tiny legs, and scooping them up when they scamper too far away. When the cats start to get dozy we leave them alone, and Gabrielle races into the bedroom, pretending to be feline.

Enjoying myself, but tired from what for me has been an emotional day, I get into my bed. "Címon Kitty, jump into bed -" I pat my legs, and Gabrielle gleefully clambers up on all fours, pretending to scratch and claw as she makes her way over to me. Itís cool tonight, and I donít feel like being alone. Iíve grown so used to having someone to talk to, that I feel strangely alone here. I lift up the blanket and wait for her to get into my lap before wrapping it back around her. She meowís at me, and I laugh and reply in kind. I never knew it was this easy.

"Is my little cat going to go to sleep and have some nice dreams?" I ask, scratching her head like I would a pet.

"Meow." It sounds affirmative.

"And have a dish of milk in the morning?" And I used to command armies? I put my arms around her and let her settle in a curiously crunched up position in my lap. Wanting to calm her down, I stroke hair from her face and watch her silently.

Gabrielleís fingers curl absently in a lock of my hair. Her flushed cheek against my breast, she lifts up the hair and notices a scratch on my arm. "Youíve got a cut."

I glance at it. Probably from when the horse threw me, or from riding in the forest. "Itís all right, my darling." She shouldnít have to worry about anything. I take her hand, uncurl the fingers, and kiss her palm. What can this child ever be to me? Iím not her mother, or her friend, or her partner. Gabrielle is my Soulmate, and Solan is my child - this reality changes that, and Iím not so sure I want it changed.

In the darkness she stretches out and yawns - inadvertently still rather catlike, I think with amusement - then settles back with her head on my shoulder. "I love you Xena."

I tuck the blanket close to her. "Yeah, I love you too, Gabrielle." I kiss her face and wait until sleep takes her.

This situation canít go on. Iíve stayed here too long: the horse was ready for travel days ago. To let this life continue is so tempting - Gabrielle is innocent and wonít ever have to kill. My conscience is clear and my brothers are alive and well. But what right do I have to make that choice? Gabrielle has always insisted that she chooses to be by my side, no matter what: in this life Iíve taken that pleasure away from both of us. All I can ever be to this Gabrielle is a friendly aunt figure, a surrogate parent - and we used to have so much more.

I gingerly settle Gabrielle down beside me and face the wall to try to sleep myself. This life isnít normal and it isnít something I wholly understand. It is also entirely out of my control. Ares could materialise and snap his fingers at any moment and throw everything into turmoil all over again.

No, tomorrow I will find a way to sort this. Despite sleeping next to her, I miss my Gabrielle. She does have the Gift of Prophecy, although she ill understands it right now. She knows that weíre destined to be together, more fully together than this. She knows it is herself that she has drawn on the back of that fair horse. Even as adults, there are aspects of Gabrielleís gift that are private to her, that she either doesnít wish or doesnít know how to share with me. It frightens me, sometimes, but I trust her with it implicitly. Sheís never wrong. I better understand the convulsions that take her, I know what to do. The first time, it was just like when an arrow went into her, in some Gods-forgotten part of Thessaly. Remembering that day when Iíd almost lost her, I clutched at her, panic-stricken. "Please, donít stop breathing!" Iíd begged, "Donít you dare stop breathing!"

But she hadnít stopped breathing. Sheíd come out of it, and fallen asleep, and when she woke she told me about the future. It doesnít happen often, for which Iím glad. When it does, I know now to make her lie on her side, having discovered by sheer trial and error that sheíll be less likely to wake heaving for her breath, less likely to cough and lose all her colour.

Could she ever have predicted this? That weíd come to meet each other as children, to find each other even when it seemed most unlikely? I know, in the most honest, truthful part of myself, that Gabrielle wouldnít want this to go on. Our relationship played out just as it was supposed to: thereís no need to re-live it. I wouldnít change a thing.

At the start, Gabrielleís hero worship, if you will, became almost more than I could bear. Everything was "Xena did this, Xena said that". She seemed to think that I could wander through the known world effortlessly solving Manís problems as I went. I was only too aware of how many of those problems I had single-handedly caused. In her scrolls in her stories, in her sleep, Gabrielle would sing my praises and exalt me as some kind of angelic being, brushing aside my mistakes and misjudgements as no more significant than overcooking our supper - which I also did, quite frequently.

I cared for Gabrielle and liked her, but her adoration of me was a constant and acute reminder of just how far I fell short of deserving that acclaim. One day she gave some innocent, off hand comment about how I was bound to save the day, and something inside of me gave out. I turned to yell at her, to beg or bully her into never saying such a stupid and untrue thing again. But before I could speak I found an expression on her face that was so open and unguarded that all the anger sank away. No one had looked at me with such love since... Lao Ma, probably, although her love for her student was not a naive, simple love like Gabrielleís. Perhaps in her fair face in that moment I saw Lyceus looking up at me; love that was trusting and unconditional.

And so I reached out and held her, needing to have that love close to me. I understood why she was innocently in awe of me - although I didnít agree with it - and I realised how important she was becoming to me. I realised it, and I couldnít let go. I become too easily addicted - to power, to revenge, to Gabrielleís devotion. On reflection, it was probably the first time Gabrielle had been held since she left home - I certainly didnít make a habit of it - and after a moment of startled hesitation she nestled herself against me and curled her fingers around my arms.

After that, Gabrielleís confidence knew no bounds. I would pretend to be irritated by her endless, chattering analysis of the world and of us both, but it was usually just a cover for my pride in watching her develop and my fear that she would one day discover something in me that she disliked. Gabrielle knew what she wanted, though, and could always rival me for stubborn perseverance. I think she wanted a relationship with me almost from the very beginning. She never pushed me - she realised long before I did that emotionally she was at least my equal - but in her own way she quietly let it be known that she was going to be a constant in my life, no matter what.

Her birthday came, and it was an important date that I felt symbolised her passage from childhood to maturity. It had been many years since Iíd given anyone a gift for a birthday, and I thought hard about what I could give to someone so unique and so special. As a child in Amphipolis I had learned to carve wood from my elder brother, who felled trees for dinars from time to time and would bring home chips of wood for me to practice on. I got pretty good. But times changed and I had less time for such pursuits. I made two small toys to put in with Solanís blankets - a horse and a dragon. I hadnít crafted anything since.

So I made a fish for Gabrielle. She was always saying that I was obsessed with fish and I wanted to prove her right. It took me many nights to carve, when sheíd gone to bed and she thought I was polishing my sword. I cut out each individual scale, made a long tail fin, and gave it a sort of smile, thinking sheíd like that. She loved the gift, and sat with it in her lap, playing her fingers over the polished grain.

We talked for a bit, after our evening meal, and watched the darkness fall in on the horizon. "Iíve had a lovely birthday," She told me.

I leaned close to her, stroking the wood over the fishís gill, which I couldnít help thinking Iíd made too big. "So, youíre grown up now, huh?" She laughed a bit and nodded. "Iím proud of you." She looked beautiful, sitting there in the flickering firelight.

"What, for surviving this long?" She laughed. "Yeah, Iím proud of me too."

I shook my head, reaching out to take her hand and squeeze it. "For being the person you are. I love you."

She clutched my hand in hers and cocked her head against my shoulder. "I love you too, Xena." She got up, then, completely missing my intentions, and wished me goodnight. I had to be amused. I tidied our camp for the night then went to her bedroll. She looked up questioningly at me, her form softened by moonlight, and it was a perfect moment I would have liked to keep alive forever.

"Happy birthday, Gabrielle -" I leaned down to her and held my lips against hers. She was every bit as soft and warm as I imagined. I kept my eyes open, wanting to see, and she immediately closed hers, her eyebrows rising a little.

"Xena?"

I made myself comfortable on the fur and let my hands go to her. "Come here -" I made our second kiss a little deeper.

She mustíve known from the movement of my hands that I didnít just intend to sit and kiss. She slid her legs on either side of mine and sat in my lap, our bodies together. She held my face in her small hands to look at me, and I smiled for her. She felt so innocent, in my arms, so pure. It was like having a precious, untainted gift that no body has ever touched. I felt that I had waited my whole life for this moment.

"You donít have to," She told me uncertainly, "I know Iíve been pushing you. You donít have to do anything that... that..."

I laughed softly at her, and took time to stroke back a lock of blonde hair. "No, Gabrielle -" I held her tightly in my arms. "I was just waiting for you."

That moved something inside her, and she knelt up and pressed her lips onto mine, open mouthed, her small body hard against me. She tasted like all of nature and beauty combined. I realised how long Iíd really been waiting, and returned her kiss with equal fire. When she finally sat back down on her heels she seemed to notice for the first time my hands stroking her: I hadnít ever touched her in such a way before.

But Gabrielle was long past being an uncertain little girl - I knew she wasnít afraid. "Take this off." I deftly untied the brown cord at her side and parted the mosaic material of her top. I had noticed that her body always felt hot, from when she would accidentally brush against me when we were bathing or sleeping, and I wanted to feel that warmth. With fingers that are always slightly cool, I reached under the material and caressed her breast. She gave a tiny moan, more feminine than I had ever heard from her, and my passion was redoubled. "Youíre beautiful -" I reached under the other side, parting the chestnut material and supporting warm, heavy breasts in my hands as I leaned down to kiss them. Her arms went around my neck and I held her close to me and talked to her while we removed the rest of her clothes.

Gabrielle wasnít shy. We were completely together that first night, and afterward we lay on our sides, holding hands and simply looking at each other. I never thought Iíd find anyone like her. For a long time after that Gabrielle and I were intimate practically every day. When she develops an interest she pursues it wholeheartedly, and I was a most willing accomplice. She mustíve felt like all her solstices had come at once. I just felt like I was in love.

And I still do. Iím in love with that wise, kind woman, who understands me and understands herself better than she realises. I canít stay with this little girl, who is breathing restfully curled against my back: this isnít the natural order of things. I decide that in the morning Iíll get away from the busyness of the market square and Iíll summon Ares, do whatever it takes to sort this situation out.

As it turns out, my plans prove to be unnecessary. As I wake up I hear voices outside the window. One of the men talking is Gabrielleís father, and I rise and lean out to listen.

"You heard what I have, Herotodus?" An old man asks, full of joy at the prospect of sharing his daily gossip. "Cortese and his thugs are riding again, off to pillage another town. I thought weíd heard the last of them in these parts."

Cortese!

"So long as he isnít headed here, Friend." Herotodus sounds grave.

"No, no - riding East, so I hear. Headed across the wetlands for the town of Amphipolis - may the Gods help Ďem!"

I have to get back. This is the day: today is the keystone. What I do today will determine the future, and the past. Itís good to have some momentum back. I dress quickly, then wake Gabrielle.

Sheís sleepy-eyed, and I hold her in a cuddle, amused. "Gabrielle - Iím going home today."

"You are?" She rubs at her eyes.

"Uh ha. I have to go see my mother and my brothers."

"Oh." She tests her vision, and apparently finds it clearer. "But Iíll miss you."

"I know. Iíll miss you too." I pull her in to me, and she kisses me on the lips, like a child who has not yet been told that theyíre too old for that. "But you -" I bundle her up and scoop her into my arms in a wrestle hold, making her laugh infectiously and wriggle to be free, " - are beautiful. And weíre gonna see each other again real soon, I promise. No matter what, weíll see each other again soon."

"When you come back, can we ride that horse?" Back on her feet, she points to the drawing still lying on the desk. "Your sandy one, can we ride her together like in the picture?"

"We can ride her every day if you want." I give her one last kiss and lift her up. "Now go back to bed for a bit, get some more sleep before your mother wakes you." I tuck her under the blankets and settle her.

Itís time to go.

My chocolate horse isnít too shoddy. He has a stroppy manner about him, but I can be stubborn too, and I know how not to fall off a wild horse. At least we make good speed. The countryside between Gabrielleís village and mine is mostly rough scrubland, a few farming fields and a tiny industrial town where I stop off for water - there are no forests to slow us down, or big rivers to cross.

Still, I canít afford to take it easy. I have to get home before Cortese. Iíll do my best in the fight - Iíll beg Toris to stay and Iíll die in place of Lyceus, if I have to, but my priority is Gabrielle. Ares wonít win: no one controls my life but me, not anymore. Lao Ma taught me all about control, and power, and focus. I ride through the night and barely take time to eat: thereíll be enough time for luxuries later.

As I near my home village I pass a small outlying farm. My steed spies a tan filly behind a fence, and thereís no budging him. I tap at his sides with my heels and click at him and ultimately take to pointing him on like a hopeful child, but to no avail: his eye has been taken. So I jump down and leave him be: I can run from here. Who am I to stand in the way of true love? Old boy looks like heís had a tough time in life, he deserves a break.

As I haul my few possessions in their satchel onto my back I see that the mare isnít too interested in my chocolate steedís equine affections. Wondering why, I peer over the sturdy fence.

A little foal face peers back. I blink, surprised. She blinks, nonplussed. Sheís got beige colouring, like her momma, but thereís a white diamond on her nose. Sheís cute. "Hey Kid, how you doing there?" I scratch at her miniature jaw, and she stumbles forward on gangly little legs, pressing into my hand. "Woah, careful now -" I laugh at her infant awkwardness.

Funny; she looks just like Argo. Just like... "Argo?" She bores of the scratching and looks down to snuffle the ground. "Hey, look at me -" I try to turn her nose up to me, but sheís moved just out of reach. "Damn it..." I rummage in my bag and find the apple Iím looking for. Excited by this small triumph, I drop down and reach it through the fence to her. "Here, Girl..." There, thatís got her interest. "You want this?" She sniffs at the green fruit experimentally. Oversized brown eyes level with mine, long eyelashes blinking. "Go on, itís all right -" I laugh as she takes a bite. Sheís not even big enough to eat a whole apple in one go! I stroke her head and her ears as she munches, and know this little pony is my Argo. "Hey there..." Feeling silly tears in my eyes, I pet my horse as she turns her side to me. "I missed you."

Over by the bigger mare, the brown horse startles at something I donít feel, and looks over to the East, toward Amphipolis. He shifts on his hooves, as if he feels the ground tremble. Cortese is coming. He can feel the stampeding horses, the roar of the soldiers. I gotta go.

"Hey, listen -" I stroke Argoís neck. "You behave yourself for your mother, okay? Donít give her any trouble." She licks at my wrist, and I tickle her ear and stand. "And keep eating your apples - theyíll make you big and strong." I fix my makeshift weapons around me. "And Iíll be back for you. Promise." She blinks serenely, gives a soft, falsetto neigh, and goes back to sniffing the apple core.

Itís time to fight. I set off at a sprint, dashing across the fields and into Amphipolis. Gabrielle has given me this chance, and I donít want to waste it. My mind races through all the actions I took last time, all the things I couldíve done wrong that led me into that downward spiral. What is the key mistake I need to avoid?

Inside the village square, the battle is already underway. No time for negotiations or diversion tactics now. My people are fighting for their homes and their lives, and theyíre losing. We barely defended ourselves the first time: without my bloodlust and savage determination itís hopeless. I pull out the small dagger I brought with me from Poteidaia. No choice at all: I have to help.

But... hasnít it been violence thatís led to this, both times before? I tried to fight, and I tried to frighten - both episodes yielded the same outcomes for Toris, Lyceus, Mother, and myself. Without Gabrielle here thereís no one to save me from myself. I pause in the shelter of an archway between two shops, and watch the fighting. The more fury a villager displays, the more they hunger for power and control, the more likely they are to die.

Perhaps fighting isnít the best way out of this. Gabrielleís words come back to me, and I feel her spirit here inside my heart: the only way to end the cycle of violence is with love, she said. The only way to defeat war is with peace. I canít fight.

A cluster of men blunder past me. Dodging out of the way, I see three young villagers whom I recognise from my youth, hardworking farmers sons who took up swords to help me defend our town. In the centre of them is Toris, tall and handsome as I remember. The boys are tugging at him, and heís trying to break free.

"Let me go," My brother insists, "You can all die like fools, but I wonít! Let go!"

"Donít be a coward!" My neighbourís son urges, "You canít run away from all this, we need you!"

"Iím sorry -"

"Toris stand and fight, damn you!"

I remember exactly how I felt when I learned that Toris had run away from our battle. We never got on as well as Lyceus and I did, but I looked up to him like a father, and felt so alone when he fled. I see the fear in him now, though, and know what this is costing him. One person wonít make any difference to the fight now.

I break into the struggle, pulling the boys off. "Let him go -" I tug their arms away. Taken by surprise, they release their grip on my brother and watch me. Men from Amphipolis donít attack women, or children - itís a value I never forgot, no matter how savage I became. "Toris -" I take hold of his strong arms and give him a little shake to get his attention above the noise of the fighting behind us.

"Xena, Iím sorry, I just canít..."

"I know. Youíve nothing to apologise for." I quickly straighten up his clothes, fastening the ties of his shirt as Mother would when he was younger. "Itís all right, Toris, it is. Go out into the hills, youíll be safe there." His makeshift armour will slow him down and make him a target, so I tug it off of him.

"I donít understand... All your plans..."

"Shh..." I hold his face. None of that matters now. "This isnít your Way, Toris, I understand that now. Do what you have to do. Just take care." I smile to see his beautiful blue eyes again, so much like my own, and stroke my hands through thick, shiny brown hair that flops into his eyes. Lyceus copied the same style and always looked equally silly.

I know heís surprised by my reaction. He cups my hands gently to his lips and kisses them. "My beautiful sister..."

"I forgive you..." I say into his ear. I can only spare one last moment to hold him close to me and breathe in his existence, our blood bond. "Now go, to the North where itís safe. Go!"

I watch him flee at full pelt. And my heart twists and sinks just as it did the first time. I know I wonít ever see him again. Maybe this time heíll be safe, heíll return to Amphipolis and not let his soul be soured by the lust for revenge.

I run out into the market square. All around me people are fighting. Simple village people in shoddy armour fight clumsily with farming implements as leather clad soldiers kill them with shining swords. I tug a rounded length of wood from a wrecked stall and use it as a staff, defending my kin where I can but killing no one. That isnít my way anymore. I donít know what I hope to achieve. The soldiers lose patience and sneer with me, back off only to circle around and pick on easier prey.

As my eyes dart about, trying to find a peaceful solution, I catch sight of Lyceus. Heís younger and even more handsome than I remember, and I stand and smile at the sight of him, brave and unafraid. I can almost see him racing through the fields, turning to tease me for my teenage clumsiness. I see him climbing a tree to pick the best apples for Motherís pie, or splashing after Solaris, or bringing me a flower when I was poorly with some chill or another. I remember him when he was a baby, and I was barely big enough to hold him, when he was learning to walk, stumbling after a wooden toy Iíd given him. When he was four or five, and came to see me in the night after a bad dream, just wanting to be picked up and spoken to softly about the good things weíd do the next day...

"Zee, watch out!"

I feel the movement behind me but Iím disorientated and donít know which side to dodge to. Lyceus stoops down to grab a rock, and sends it flying over my shoulder, right into the head of a soldier. My attacker slumps to the ground, his blade falling uselessly over him. Lyceus hasnít seriously hurt him - heíll just wake up in a bit with a sore head - but he has protected me and saved my life.

I turn back to return his triumphant grin. Heís a clever boy! Heís full of pride at his achievement, and starts toward me.

He doesnít see the soldier to his left, one that I spared just a few moments ago. He doesnít see the sword that raises at him, the snarling face of the armoured man. All he sees is me, and Iím too far to reach him. I gaze into his face, knowing whatís bound to happen. I hold his eyes with mine. "I love you, Lyceus -" I only mouth the words, but I see in his face that heís understood.

The blade goes in, and I close my eyes. The wind sweeps across the square and seems to go right through me, taking my breath with it, and its howling silences all the other sounds in the lonely, defeated village. When I open my eyes again, Lyceus is collapsing, lifeless. I catch him and crumple underneath him, bringing his head and shoulders into my lap. For the third time in my life, my heart splits at the pain of his death, and I hold his tender face against my own, kissing his hair as if he were sleeping.

I respond to nothing until thereís a taunting voice at my shoulder. "Angry now, Xena?"

I find Corteseís ugly face in my own, his stinking breath and evil grin. "You bastard!" Setting Lyceus down I twist and grab the black leather at his throat, pulling myself up. "Youíre gonna be sorry your mother didnít drown you at birth!" I grab the dagger from my belt and hold it at his neck. This is something I want to enjoy. A long, slow death, the heat of blood on my hands, the power to control life. "This is for my brothers, you worthless piece of centaur dung -" I sneer the words into his face, and flex my fingers around the steel dagger handle. Adrenaline flushes through me. Iím strong and alive. I like this feeling.

He laughs at me, a self-satisfied, selfish laugh, which maddens me even more. "You really canít change fate, Xena, can you see that now? No matter what you do, you canít escape from yourself!" Laughing triumphantly, his voice deepens and he begins to change shape in front of me, his form melting under my hands. Shocked, I stumble back.

As I watch, the laughter grows more familiar, and the short man lengthens out into Ares. I gasp. "You!"

"Sorry to keep secrets from you, Xena -" He shakes his head regretfully, thumbs tucked into his belt. "I figured that you would never have gone up against me if you knew who I was - impressive as you undoubtedly were."

He reaches out to stroke my face, but Iím having none of that, and slash angrily with my knife. Lucky for him heís wearing a gauntlet, or heíd be minus an arm. "You were Cortese all along," I seethe. "I became what I did, because of you? Lyceus died, because of you..." Furious, I aim my little dagger at his heart. Letís test out the theory that Gods canít be killed. If his fellow Olympians come down to help him, Iíll kill all of them, too. Iíll kill everyone alive until -

"Well, admittedly you werenít my first choice," Ares goes on. "I wanted your mother. She had potential, Xena. Before you knew her she lived on her instincts. When she killed your father to save you I knew I wanted her. But she turned me down. So having you on my side and doing away with your siblings seemed like a suitable parting gift."

A dagger in the heart would be too quick and too noble a way to die, I decide. I trace the tip of the blade upward, in a beautifully slow dance, until it rests on his throat. "Iíll bleed you like a pig -"

"And it seems like my plan worked," He continues, threatening and dangerous. "Like I said, all of this is predestined." He gestures to take in the battlefield, Lyceus, and finally us. "Youíve become exactly what your little friend set out to avoid."

This is so true that it startles me out of my fixation. All I wanted was to kill, to get revenge. I had no control, and I would have killed anyone who dared speak to me. Scared, I drop the dagger. Ares got exactly what he wanted. "No, thatís not who I am..." I back off, shocked.

"Thatís exactly who you are!" He closes the distance again and grabs my arms. "Itís inside you - itís inside both of us! Use it, Xena, feed it!"

I make the mistake of meeting his eyes. Heís so confident, so stable in a world thatís spinning around me. If he werenít holding me up Iíd fall. Heís right: no matter what I did the outcome was always the same. I couldnít avoid Lyceus dying, I couldnít hold down the hatred inside of me. At least with him I wouldnít have to feel like this, Iíd have a place in the world. "I donít know..."

"You and I together." He kisses me, and I feel his solid arms around me. He understands me.

"You and I..." I echo dumbly.

Iím spent, and he presses me against him, supporting me. "You canít evade yourself any more than you can evade me," He whispers into my ear. "No one can alter who you are." I feel the power emanating from him, bright and fierce, the power to rule worlds and alter time. Godly power. I blink at its intensity, my chin resting on his arm, and Amphipolis flutters away. In its place forms a plain forest grove. All the dead and dying bodies of the villagers disappear, and all that remains are the men of the dark army.

And a girl.

Gabrielle stands with them.

Sheís just as she should be, adult and wise, wearing her deliberately non-threatening cloth skirt and top. Occasionally Iíve tried to convince her to wear leather, or some other material that offers protection, but she always refused, saying that if you expect attack you invite it. Now her linen clothes are shabby, and sheís dirty and bloodied, an arm supported against her. She must have come to help in the fight. Ares must have put time right, or let it slip in his arrogance, and she figured out where Iíd be and came to find me. She knew that this was the one fight that engulfed all that was good and innocent in me, that bred the monster she abhors, but still she came to be at my side.

"Youíre wrong," I breathe to Ares, my eyes on Gabrielle.

"What?" He straightens and lets go.

"I said youíre wrong." Iím exhausted, and itís an effort to keep on my feet. "You donít understand, Ares, you never did. We do have choices, even me." This is over now, truly, and I remove and throw away what small amount of armour and weaponry I had. "And I choose Gabrielle."

I go to her and hold her up. I look down and touch my forehead to hers, wanting to give her this moment, not caring about another creature on Earth. "Gabrielle -?" Our faces are so close that I feel my own warm breath reflected back on my cheek. Her face tilts up and shows me that irrepressible smile. Sheís all right. I press a kiss to her forehead - a promise of more to come - and turn back to Ares and his men, keeping one arm locked around Gabrielleís waist. "Itís over." I tell him. "Leave the past as the past." I turn my attention back to the only person that matters now. "Letís go."

I whistle. A momentís pause, then the hoofbeats are there, coming out of the trees, as reliable as the seasons changing or the sun coming up. Itís good to see Argo again. Good that sheís been put right, too - I donít think the two of us would fit on a pony.

Ares calls out behind us, angry and defeated. "Youíll regret this, Xena!" But I wonít, and I ignore him.

"Youíre going up front," I tell Gabrielle. She isnít fond of riding - although at least now I know why - but I donít imagine Iíll get any arguments this time.

"Thanks -"

Sheís tired. Itís not surprising. She still manages a small smile to reassure me, and in that moment Iím reminded of my mother, covering her weariness or worry with a smile to put my mind at rest. It occurs to me that sometimes Gabrielle is by far the older and wiser of the two of us. When I put her boot into the stirrup and she puts weight on it, she winces. Better check on that when we get back to camp.

I free the stirrup and use it† to pull myself up. "Hand me the reigns, will you?" She does, turning somewhat stiffly, and shows me that smile again, fond but bashful now. Sheís feeling badly. Feeling guilty. Knowing Gabrielle, that means weíll be up half the night talking it out. "Thanks." Itís not until I take the strips of worn leather, tucking my little fingers underneath and feeling for the bronze buckle, that I notice her bloody knuckles. "Got yourself into a fistfight, huh?" I tap my heels against Argoís belly, and she starts off at a gentle walk. I donít look back.

Gabrielle pushes her body snugly back against mine so she wonít fall. "I think I did all right," She proudly studies her small hands. Thinking she really would be wise to hold on, I put an arm securely around her waist. "Itís far too physical, though. I even got my hair pulled - whereís the honour in that?! Iíll be happy to get my staff back."

Argo knows where sheís going, so I donít pay much attention. I keep her gentle, and keep hold of Gabrielle, who keeps lapsing into something between sleep and unconsciousness. Sheís been hurt - although sheíll strenuously deny it - and weíre both going to need a few days to rest and recover. At least itís over. Itís over now. I press my face against her hair and whisper "Donít go to sleep. Not yet."

"Sorry -" Brave as always, she pulls her head up.

Gabrielle is the talker, but I need to find some way of keeping her awake. Payback time for all the nights sheís kept me up with her excited chattering, her story ideas, her observations. "I wish we could afford a room in that inn of yours, after all." I think about the hot tub we shared, before all of this began. "Could do with it tonight." She nods her head against my shoulder. She has the brightest imagination of anyone I know. It only takes the smallest mention of something and sheíll create it vividly in her mind. When sheís upset, or in pain, I know she likes to retreat into those worlds she makes. "Thereíd be little candles around the walls," I continue in a fumbling manner, "And... a big wooden table in the middle of the room, like those solid oak ones you get in taverns. Youíd sit down on one of those long benches, take your boots off so they could air by the fire, and thereíd be a bowl of those red berries you like." Gabrielle chuckles, appreciative of my school-girl efforts at storytelling. "The fire..." Searching for inspiration, I gaze at the milky white reflections of the moon in her hair. "The fire would make your hair as red as a sunset." Flames make her hair glow. Itís always a pretty sight, affecting me more than I let on to her, and I smile at the image thatís in my mind now, too. "Itíd just be you and I."

"You and me," She echoes.

She doesnít know how much I love her. She couldnít. I squeeze her against me, and hold the hand that she slips into mine. Iím taking most of her weight: I canít let her sleep, not yet. "Hang on, Gabrielle -" I whisper against her temple, getting the other arm around her as well. "Just hang on, a little longer."

"Iím here -" Her voice is soft, and her legs hang against mine, but her hands stroke over my fingers, warming them against her body. "What else is there? In the room?"

Now sheís taxing my skills. "Chicken legs, cooked just how you like Ďem. Warm rugs on the floor. A big old wooden bed, lots of blankets, as many cushions as you could want." Now Iím starting to enjoy my tale. "And when weíd eaten, you and I..." Iím not good at talking about such things, but she knows. I cuddle her close to me, and she reaches back to rub her fingertips into my hair, pressing our heads together.

Argo finds our old campsite, and we see that itís all set up, just as we left it. It really is as if nothing has changed, as if we were never away. Gabrielleís staff is propped against a rock, and there are glowing embers in the fire. I jump down and reach up a hand for her. "Go on, Argo, find some food -" I pat Argo to send her off. Itís night, now, but Iíll find time to take off her saddle and give her some water, although sheíll have to wait until the morning for a brush down. Gabrielle is first priority. I take her hand. "Címon."

"Xena -" She pauses me as she kneels on the bedrolls. Thereís something she wants to say.

First things first. "Shh now, save your energy. Donít talk. I know itís asking a lot, huh?" I tease her gently, and she chuckles and lies down, doing as sheís asked for once. I always feel easier in myself when I have something physical to do. When thereís something on my mind I keep busy. I pour water from a skin into a pan and set it over the fire to sterilize it, and take a moment to shrug out of my armour, find cloths and a bottle of salve in our bags. When thereís something on Gabrielleís mind, she talks, which is why itís so disarmingly incongruous to find her so silent tonight. My eyes flick up to her, sitting patiently on the fur, and she quickly masks her plaintive expression with a smile. She has something to say, all right: sheís just too tired to push it.

She doesnít normally have such self restraint. When she wants to talk, thereís usually no escaping it. It used to drive me crazy. When we first met, Iíd be blissfully engrossed in some task that kept my thoughts from the darkness that pressed in on them - just some insignificant activity, like sleeping - and Iíd hear her voice: "Xena, howíd you catch that chicken so fast?", or "Xena, whatís your village like, is it bigger than Poteidaia?", or "Have you ever been to Britannia, Xena, is it cold there?". First I tried ignoring her, but sheíd just paw at me and try another question. It was a miracle she never wound up with my hand around her throat. For a while I got pretty good at evading difficult or dull questions, putting her off the scent. Didnít take her long to see past my ploy.

In truth, whatever ends up being said, I usually feel better for it. She somehow has a knack of digging down to the most painful spot and releasing it, along with all the tension bundled up with it. Shame I canít say the same for her massage technique, which by contrast is about as effective at finding its target as a blind man with a cane.

Once, I was blinded, with Sumac oil. It splashed up into my eyes and I felt my vision burning away from me, until everything was completely dark. Somehow I managed to get Gabrielle out of marrying a corpse and out of her own cremation all in one day, and then we had to sit waiting for a new friend to harvest his prize crop of Egyptian Senna. Needing to indulge my penchant for action in the face of adversity, I had sat by our fire chopping vegetables for our supper: I told myself that life had to go on, cure or no cure. There were no guarantees. Gabrielle had worried over my proximity to the flames, making me feel angry and inadequate, blunting my focus. I could almost feel her cringing at the thought of my using the knife, but you canít strip a warrior of her blades, I wouldnít lose that too.

I chopped the green tuber neatly enough, but when I turned to set down the knife I didnít realise that she was so close. I felt the blade nick her skin and heard the tiny, stifled little sound that she made. Iím sure I mustíve jumped as if it was I that had been wounded. "Iím sorry -" Iíd told her, not even sure which direction to look in.

"Xena, itís all right -"

"I cut you -" It wasnít all right at all, I knew, and I had gotten up unsteadily.

"Itís nothing, itís tiny -"

I can remember hearing her call my name, but the sound grew more and more distant as my legs carried me away. Iíve no idea how I managed not to trip, or stride into a tree trunk. In that moment, Iíd just wanted to get away from her, to avoid having to talk about the possibility that it might be too late for the oil, to avoid hearing the pity in her voice, to escape my own uselessness.

I walked until I could feel the dampness of the forest all around me, and sat down on the floor because it was easier than searching for a log or boulder. Gabrielle found me. I was tempted to get up and run away again, but she had me at a distinct disadvantage. So I just snapped at her not to fuss.

I heard the crunch of leaves as she got down on the ground in front of me, and I felt her take my face in her hands. When I blinked I knew that it would send more tears running over her fingers, but I was beyond preventing it, "You listen to me -" She told me in the firmest voice Iíd ever heard her use, "You can cry, Xena, but you do it here, with me, do you hear?" I nodded dumbly. "Not out in the woods by yourself. You donít have to be alone now. Neither of us does. Itís all right." She kissed me then - one of the first times. Her face was warm and soft against mine, and I let myself respond to her, just briefly, tasting the salt of my own tears. In more ways than one, when Gabrielle wants something, she gets it.

Like my attention. "Xena?"

"Huh?" I look over to her. She shows me a bleeding nose. "Oh." I go back to her, crouching and setting out what I need. I can see from the dried streaks of blood up her arms that itís been bleeding for a while, off and on, and now itís started up again. "Itís not too bad." I examine her face, studying the scrapes and mud. Bless Gabrielle, sheís been so brave. Sometimes I feel so intensely for her that I canít bear it. "Youíll live. Have a pretty bruise, though." Best to get on. I dip a cloth in water that has cooled, then wring it out. "Show me your face." I start to wipe grime from her pink cheeks.

"Xena -"

"Close your eyes." Her hair will need washing too, I tell myself. Maybe weíll find a fresh stream tomorrow, and...

"Xena -" Her fingers are cool as they squeeze around my arm, pausing me. She rubs herself against my hand, then begins to talk. "Iím sorry, about what I did. All of this was my fault. I didnít have any right to meddle with your past. It was stupid of me to listen to Ares."

"Yeah, well, Ares can be very persuasive." I of all people know that. I carry on with my work, trying to avoid looking her in the eyes.

"But I shouldíve known better. You would have."

Itís idolisation that I donít deserve. She could go on beating herself up over this for an age. "I donít blame you, Gabrielle. I donít." Itís important that she knows. "Listen, I know you were only doing what you thought best. You always do." I stroke her face softly, eliciting a little smile. "You always do what you do to try and help me. I know that."

Sheís shaking her head. "I shouldíve thought it through better, Xena."

I move a bit closer to her. Her fingers are playing in the leather strips of my skirt - just like when she was a child, I remember fondly - and I want those arms to be around me. "You know, I kindíve enjoyed what happened. Part of it, anyway." I lean in and kiss her cheek, then continue to bathe her face, dabbing balm to her cuts. "I got to see you as a child. I always wondered what you were like as a child."

"I wish I could remember. What was I like?"

Got her interest now, got her a little less introspective. "Let me see. You were precocious, talkative, stubborn, cheeky..." She chuckles self-depreciatingly. "And happy. Helpful, brave, articulate, wise - just like you are now." I watch her smile and she plays her fingers in my hair. With her head bobbed down, her eyes averted, she looks so similar to that innocent little child. Everything that happens to us is equally my fault - Iíve learned to accept that.

"I suppose that bit wasnít so bad." She yawns. "But reminding you of when you were young, of all that happened - that mustíve been so hard."

"No, youíre wrong," I insist. She sways a bit, tired, leaning on her arms. "Come on, take this off." I want to help her bathe so she can rest, her wounds need cleaning. "I donít regret seeing those days again." She watches me unlacing the green cord at her chest. I pull the laces between my fingers, separate the patterned material, then ease it off her shoulders. "There were lots of good memories Iíd forgotten," I confess, "They were pushed aside by all the bad ones. I think so much about losing my brothers that I forgot how much fun we had together. And my mother... After all the fighting, I sometimes wondered if she really loved me as much as she said. Seeing it as an adult, I know that she did." A smile warms me, and I share it before moving to unfasten her brown skirt and pull away the dusty cloth.

"Your family always loved you, Xena, that was clear to me." Sheís so beautiful, sitting there. The moon and the fire mix their colours on her skin, highlighting all the smooth contours of her body. I can see that although sheĎs got cuts and bruises all over, the wounds arenít serious, and I relax a bit. "I enjoyed getting to know you, as you were then."

I laugh as I take her boots off. "I remember."

She smiles too, and extracts a very bruised foot from her boot. Stamping on my enemiesí feet is a favourite trick of mine - I shouldíve known to warn her about it. "I donít just mean that. I mean, I feel like I understand you better."
††††††††††† Sheís looking down at me with her head to one side as I bandage her bruised foot, holding it in my lap. "I understand myself better." A thought occurs, and I shake my head. "If I could go back, as I am now, and protect that girl, I would, you know? Iíd..." Itís hard to put into words. "Iíd hold her and make her listen, tell her that itíd be all right. Tell her about you." I feel her hold my hand. If only I had known about Gabrielle back then, about the hope and the light that she brings, I might not have fallen into such hopeless, dark times. "Thank you for being her friend."

Gabrielle reaches up for me, and Iím only too willing to oblige, leaning down so that she can put her arms around me. She tells me she loves me, and I tell her the same. She tucks my head down to kiss it, and I let my cheek rest against her breast. I know weíll be all right, the two of us together.

My arm is starting to cramp like this so I push myself up, but that means passing her lips, and I kiss her softly, just barely tasting her mouth. "Get you washed, huh?"

"Mmm." She licks her lips then sits quietly while I bathe her. Itís not something entirely new to us, and as my eyes move over my partner my mind wanders. The darkness, fire and moonlight, and the privacy of the jungle reminds me of our first times together. Very quickly she showed herself to be bold and unselfconscious, keen to learn and full of affection for an unworthy, battle-tired warrior princess. And she was so beautiful, sitting there in my lap, so unabashed and so happy. She would chatter, and stroke my hair and kiss me, and I would sit and watch her, mostly, incredulous at the attention. I didnít think that I deserved the soul that I was so clearly and so freely being given. Sometimes it frustrated me, made me angry, and I wanted to push her away, berate her for her foolishness. But I never could, because I knew Iíd fallen in love with this woman.

"What are you thinking?" She asks me.

"That you need to get some sleep." I rub her dry with a woollen cloth. "Whereís your shift?"

"Did you make the right decision?" She presses, "To be here?"

I tut. "Gabrielle." I root around in a bag and find something old and soft to dress her in. "You know the answer to that." I gather up the material and pull it over her head and down her body. When did I become so maternal that Iím able to dress someone other than myself? My hands linger around her and I find my eyes drawn up inevitably to her face. Sheís smiling. She knew the answer to her question, really, she just wanted to hear me say it. I give in and put my arms around her. "If I had to live my life a thousand times over, Iíd choose to be here, with you, every single time. I love you, Gabrielle." I kiss her head.

She nestles closer to me. "Even when it rains?"

"Even when it monsoons." Itís dark, and Iím exhausted. I glance over to Argo, whoís munching serenely on a leaf even as her eyes are closing heavily. Poor girl will have to wait until morning for my attention. Sorry, Lass. "Címon, lie down -"

"Or in the summer when you get bitten by knats? Or find spiders in your blankets?"

I let her curl her back against my stomach, and we settle for the night. "Even then." I stroke curls of hair from her shoulders and wish I could brush away the scratches on her pale arms.

Gabrielle signs indulgently. She attends to her usual habit of pressing the icy soles of her feet against my shins: shins that were just beginning to warm up. Then she idly strokes the arms that Iíve locked around her. "I feel the same way."

A momentís silence, and my head lolls on her back. "I know."

"Or how about when -"

"Gabrielle!" I shake her softly to hush her up, and she laughs. "Even if..." What can I say thatís fanciful enough to satisfy her? "Even if Mount Olympus got hit by lightening and crumbled into sand, and that sand covered Greece, and we had to live on the grubs that we found in the sand, and sleep on windy sand dunes every night -" Will that do? I push up on an elbow to see her amused face. " - Iíd still be -" I kiss her smooth cheek. Her hand comes up to my lips, so I kiss that too. " - at your side."

I flop back and fall asleep, at her side.

It was no choice at all.

 

The end

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