DISCLAIMERS:

Most of these characters belong to Studios USA and any other owners of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. This story was not written for profit and no copyright infringements are intended. The story itself is mine. Please don't reproduce it, in whole or in part, without asking first.

A few ideas came from Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, "When Irish Eyes Are Killing," episode written by Grant Rosenberg. No copyright infringements intended toward DC Comics, Warner Brothers, or December Third Productions. NO, this is NOT a Xena/Superman cross-over. This is classic alt Xena/Gabrielle

Kallerine is back. Once again, this is not a Buffy/Xena crossover. Kallerine is an Amazon bacchae slayer who just happens to look like Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Violence: Take one warrior princess, blend thoroughly with a bardic Amazon queen, toss in the king of thieves, add one feisty red-headed druid, sprinkle in a few greedy villains, mix liberally with a handful of Amazons, and yeah, some swords are likely to cross.

Maintext: Rated R. Two women in love who sleep together as often as possible.

Questions/Comments/Suggestions welcome: texbard@yahoo.com

Website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard

Updates Only List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbardupdates

Updates/Chat List: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texbad

Setting: This story falls sequentially after "Divinity." For those new to the Xena/Gabrielle series, it is in order, "March the 16th," "A Solstice Treaty," "The Sixth Sense," Cleopatra 4 A.D.," and "Divinity." To read them, go to my website: http://home.earthlink.net/~texbard and scroll to the bottom to find links to MaryD's and ForevaXena.

Additional Background Info: A refresher note regarding framework within the show -- my Xena/Gabrielle series parts ways with the show after the 4th season. What that means is no pregnant warrior, no Eve, no 25-year ice cave time warp, no twilight of the gods, no new chakram, no angel Callisto, no Akhemi, and no battlin' bard (although Gab does fight in this series both with staff and with sais, she just isn't the killing machine she became in the 5th season). Cyrene, Toris, Amarice, Eponin, Gab's family, Eli, Hercules, Iolaus, all the Greek gods, and especially Xena, are very much alive. Octavian is still a very young Roman leader. Joxer is dead because he died in my first story. Callisto is in Hell for breaking her deal with the devil to not physically harm Xena during "The Ides of March." Also in this timeline, they last saw Alti during "Between the Lines," when Xena chakkied Gab's hair off. I have made Xena's history in the Norse lands a part of her history in the series, but only up to the part where she locked up Grindle, so in this Xenaverse, Grindle is still locked up with the ring. My Xena never has, and never will, set foot on the island of Japan.

Note on Tamara Gorski: For Herc fans, she was Morrigan, and appeared in half the 5th season episodes.

THE EYES OF EIRE

(a.k.a Amazons, Druids & Thieves, Oh My)

By Texbard

Chapter 1

(posted July 7, 2001)

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The lamp is burnin' low upon my table top

The snow is softly fallin'

The air is still within the silence of my room

I hear your voice softly callin'

If I could only have you near

To breathe a sigh or two

I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

Upon this winter night with you.

- Gordon Lightfoot, "Song for a Winter's Night," The Way I Feel, © 1967, United Artists

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The remaining sun filtering through the window was pale gray in the early evening twilight, and the fire burned low in the fireplace, its coals shimmering as they produced a glowing warmth. Despite the welcome heat, the fair-haired woman shivered and got up from the table. She crossed the room, retrieving a couple of rough-hewn logs from a sturdy basket and tossing them on the red-hot bed. She used a forged iron poker to stir the coals back to life, watching as the first small flames licked hungrily at the winter-dry wood.

A tiny smile graced her lips, and she ran her fingertips lightly along the bumpy metal surface of the poker, noting the careful craftsmanship. Once they knew they were settled in the Amazon village for an indefinite period of time, her partner insisted on building several pieces of sturdy furniture, as well as making other implements that helped create a home of their hut.

The tall dark warrior had spent many candle-marks hovered over an outdoor smelter, hammering out the poker and the other fireplace tools that rested in a matching stand. It seemed to be a skill she was quite proficient at, but when questioned as to where she learned the craft, she became silent, withdrawing inside herself. At that point, Gabrielle carefully backed off, noting the faraway look in her lover's suddenly sad eyes, storing away her questions for another time.

Xena had spent many more candle marks chopping the huge pile of wood that was stacked just outside the back door. With her ever-present attention to detail, she had carefully covered the entire mass of logs with oiled canvas tarps, sheltering them from the late fall rains and the winter snow. There was enough wood in the stack to last them until early spring. The Amazon elders predicted a hard winter, and the warrior was not one to take chances when it came to keeping her partner warm.

Gabrielle stood up and peered absently out the window. She pressed her hand against the glass, feeling the biting cold just on the other side, along with faint tremors from a strong north wind that rattled the cozy hut. Snow was drifted in piles in the back courtyard, and tiny white granules sifted across the ground, propelled by small whirlwinds caught within the confining walls. Xena, where are you?

The warrior had been gone since shortly after noon. Two frantic Amazons came barreling into the communal dining hall, announcing that their children had wandered off while playing. The two young girls had gone outside to play immediately after breakfast. Their mothers had no idea how long they had been missing, as they hadn't checked on them until it was time to call them inside to go to lunch.

Xena stood off to the side and listened in stoic silence as the two women spoke rapidly, gesturing about nervously as they told their tale. A few Amazons began to organize a search party, when the warrior stepped in and offered to go find them herself, alone. The warrior was the best tracker in the village, and taught classes in the art to the younger Amazons. There was no reason to believe she wouldn't easily find them and bring them safely back to the village in a short period of time.

In the last light before sunset, Gabrielle noted thick rolling clouds overhead, which threatened to dump yet more snow on the already-blanketed village. She frowned, trying to remember what Xena had taken with her. Not much, she reflected. The outing should have been almost a lark, and the warrior merely strapped her sword to her back and threw on her long wool cloak. She carried only a water flask in the way of provisions, along with her healer's kit, just in case. She left Argo behind, since tracking was a task best accomplished on foot.

The cloak was new, thick and warm, a gift that Cyrene sent up to them shortly after they returned from Lesbos. It was knitted from black wool that came from a lamb the warrior helped deliver when they were in Amphipolis shortly after the crucifixion. The lamb had grown into a sheep, and carried the blood of a black ewe that Xena spoke fondly of from her childhood. As a young girl, her mother made her a black cape she had been immensely proud of. Gabrielle smiled, remembering the child-like joy that radiated from Xena's face when she opened the package that contained the brand new cloak. She was certain the warrior would have slept in it that first night if Gabrielle hadn't been there to tease her.

Underneath the black cloak had been a similar, smaller hooded cloak for the bard, dyed a rich forest green to compliment her eyes and fair skin. She wandered over to the wooden set of hooks on the wall and grabbed a handful of the nubby thick material, assuring herself that wherever Xena was, at least she was warm. The snow clouds were worrisome.

True to prediction, it was shaping up to be a very hard winter, and much of their part of Greece had been pelted with blizzard after blinding blizzard. Even the children were tired of the cold white stuff, and the abundance of snowmen and snow forts that characterized the early part of winter had tapered off. They were all weary, waiting for the spring equinox, which was two moons away.

She sighed and sat back down at the table, where a fresh piece of parchment and a pot of ink sat, along with the metal quill Xena had given her as a solstice gift. She nibbled on the end of the quill and then dipped the sharp tip into the ink well. Soon she was lost in her work, her even precise strokes filling up the page as she worked on a trade agreement with Egypt, one that she hoped to implement once carrier pigeons were able to travel again. Sending a runner would have been daunting in the harsh winter conditions, and the agreement certainly wasn't of an urgent nature.

A sharp rapping at the door brought the bard out of her thoughts, and she looked up, her heart sinking as she realized it was completely dark outside. "Come," she called out across the room.

The door creaked open and Eponin poked her head inside. The Amazon weapons master paused, noting the lost look on her queen's face. "Hi." She stepped inside and pulled a heavy brown hood from her head. "I . . . just finished my evening rounds, Gabrielle." She looked down at the floor.

"No sign of her, huh?" The bard stood up and moved to the window again.

"No." Eponin bit her lower lip. "Shall I go get Kallerine?"

Gabrielle smiled for a moment. It was an unwritten rule that whenever Xena was away overnight, Kallerine, the bard's personal assistant, was to stand guard over her. The young Amazon took her duties very seriously, and was in fact one of the most skilled fighters in the village, despite her tender age. She still officially lived in the older girls' dormitory, although it was no secret that most of her nights were actually spent in Amarice's hut. The two young women tentatively began a romance not too long after Gabrielle and Xena moved to the village. It was the first relationship either had been in, and the bard found them to be quite cute at times.

"Yeah, go ahead and call her over." The bard pulled a well-used bedroll from the corner, spreading it out in front of the fireplace for the young Amazon. She and Xena hadn't used it since their return trip from Lesbos. "Tell her no arguments about staying outside tonight. It's too cold. She can come in here, and as far as I’m concerned she can sleep. There's no need for her to stay awake all night. I seriously doubt anyone is going to come after me, what with the storm on the way."

"It's already started." The weapons master dusted a few melting flakes from her shoulders. She saw her queen's face fall and moved closer, laying one hesitant hand on the bard's shoulder. "Look, Gabrielle. I'm sure she's holed up somewhere to wait out the storm. She's smart. She can read the weather signs. The way these blizzards have been, it wouldn't be wise for her to try to make it back. She wouldn't be able to see two paces in front of her face. Throw in a couple of kids, and she'd really have a hard time. I'll bet she'll be back just as soon as this one blows over."

"You're probably right." Gabrielle patted her hand. "How are their mothers holding up?"

"As good as can be expected. Cheridah gave each of them a mild sedative tea, to help them sleep." She studied the worried green eyes. Maybe she should give you a dose as well, she thought silently.

"Thanks, Pony. You'll let me know if you hear anything at all?"

"But of course, my queen." The weapons master winked at her, even as she used the more formal title. Eponin was Xena's best friend in the Amazon village, other than Gabrielle, of course. Formalities between her and her queen were reserved for public ceremonies and council meetings. The bard had formed a friendship with Eponin's partner, Raella, and the four of them ate dinner together in the dining hall on a regular basis. Less frequently, they shared private dinners in the queen's hut.

Gabrielle followed Eponin to the door, watching her walk across the courtyard toward Amarice's hut. Icy wind stung the bard's cheeks and nipped against her legs through the warm ribbed leggings she wore. She quickly closed the door, giving the handle a solid shake to make sure it held fast. I'm done with work for tonight, I think. She gathered up her writing tools and blew on the parchment to make sure the ink was dry, before rolling it up and securing it with a piece of leather twine.

She made her way back through her bedroom and into the bathing room, splashing her face at the washbasin before she pulled on a soft warm sleep shirt. She gathered the hem up and pressed it against her nose, inhaling Xena's familiar wild earthy scent. She wore the shirt the night before, and the warrior slept curled tightly around her. They had a fireplace in the bedroom, and several layers of nice thick blankets, but they used any excuse, or no excuse at all, to snuggle up together as often as possible.

Lesbos brought them so much closer together. They were close before, but they had reached a new level of intimacy on Lesbos, and an easy familiarity permeated their relationship. They had been lovers for almost a year, best friends for much longer. They were long acquainted with one another's quirky habits, tastes in food, and general likes and dislikes. Becoming lovers had only enhanced an already-deep friendship. But along with the joy and pleasure that their love brought, they also had their share of awkward moments, and times when they handled each other with kid gloves.

That changed on Lesbos. Gabrielle was completely comfortable with the sexual aspect of their relationship, and felt free to experiment. Conversely, Xena no longer felt like she had to hold back with her partner, and was much better able to express her needs and desires without fear of frightening the bard.

Lesbos had enhanced more than their physical interaction. Both women felt much more secure in general. They were slowly moving past the awkward newness of their relationship, and were entering a more interesting phase, in which they simply focused on building their life together. Funny, Gabrielle reflected. Like of course we were spending our life together before.

During their life on the road, and after Perdicus was killed, there were few times when the bard had considered a life apart from Xena. But life on the road was lived on a day-to-day basis. They didn't often talk about the future, or where they might be in one summer, or five, or ten. Just living to see another sunrise was often accomplishment enough on many days.

Their coming joining ceremony had forced them to look toward the future. They discussed issues that would have been unthinkable only one year before, including their future with the Amazons. For now, they were firmly planted in the queen's hut, and Xena was happy to take a few steps back and let her capable partner be the ruler the Amazons needed her to be. They had an understanding that anytime Xena was needed elsewhere, they would go. That agreement resulted in their trip to Egypt to save Rome and Greece from Marc Antony. Mission accomplished, they had settled back in the village awaiting the next crisis. So far, they had only been needed by the Amazons themselves, and had weathered the early part of winter in relative peace.

Another knock at the door drew the bard back to the main room, and she opened it to find a shivering Kallerine standing on the landing. "Get in here, you goof." Gabrielle smiled and pulled the girl inside. "You don't need to knock, Kallerine, just come on in and yell at me so I'll know it's you."

"Th - th - thanks." The slayer's teeth chattered, and she quickly sat down on the hearth, holding her hands out to the welcome heat. "It's nasty out there."

Gabrielle said nothing, as she moved to place two more logs on the fire. Her face was drawn up almost painfully, and the slayer immediately regretted her words. "Queen Gabrielle, it's not so terrible, really."

"You don't need to sugar-coat things for me, Kallerine, and you certainly don't need to be formal." The bard managed a smile. "Would you like some hot tea? I thought I might have a cup of kava tea before bed. It might help me sleep better."

"Yes, I'd like some, thank you." Kallerine eyed the thick sleeping furs on the floor.

It's tough to sleep alone when you're used to having a warm body to snuggle up to. Gabrielle's green eyes twinkled, reading the younger woman's thoughts. She suspected the loyal Amazon would much rather be with Amarice, and she didn't blame her.

They shared a cup of tea in companionable silence, Gabrielle lost in thoughts of her partner and the two little girls. The wind howled outside, as the blizzard kicked in with full force. The eerie shrieks chilled the bard to the bone. She wondered what it was like to be sleeping outside in the raging fury, and fervently hoped Xena and the children had found shelter somewhere. You come back to me in one piece, Xena, do you hear me? Alive and in one piece, she quickly amended.

Kallerine sipped at the steaming mug and surreptitiously studied her queen. Gabrielle's gentle green eyes belied the strong woman underneath the surface. True, the queen had muscles to spare, but she rarely used brute force to make a point, preferring to talk her way through any difficulties that arose in the village. Blonde brows were furrowed into a deep frown, and the queen's lips were drawn into a tight thin line. The slayer cleared her throat, breaking the silence. "You're worried about her, aren't you?"

"Yes." Gabrielle looked up, meeting her gaze with a friendly intensity that characterized most of her one-on-one conversations. "Worried about the two girls as well. Their mothers were frantic by dinner time tonight."

The bard released a heavy breath, remembering the tense encounter. The two Amazons, Renna and Mische, were sisters, and shared a large hut on the edge of the village. The two missing girls were their only children. Gabrielle had just sat down with Chilapa and Rebina to eat, when the two women approached her, desperate for news of Xena. It had taken a good measure of her own unique people skills to calm them down, and reassure them that Xena was more than capable of bringing their daughters back to them unharmed.

Hope you don't prove me wrong, love. Gabrielle closed her eyes for a moment, and idly pulled their tabby cat into her lap, stroking the soft fur. When they returned from Egypt, Xena aptly named the small but active feline 'Trouble,' as the cat seemed to have a knack for finding all manner of predicaments to get into. "I could just as easily have named her 'Gabrielle'," the warrior had teased her.

The bard smiled for a moment and then grew somber, thinking about the two worried Amazon mothers, empathizing with them from deep inside herself, a dark place she rarely visited anymore. "I hope they're all okay." The green eyes blinked several times. "Losing a child is one of the hardest things a person can ever go through. Even not knowing where your child is can be pure anguish."

If only. She remembered placing Hope in that basket, and setting her adrift on a river, watching as the churning water swiftly carried the seemingly helpless infant far away from her achingly empty arms. Daily lies were her cover-up, nightly torment her constant companion. Xena became almost silent in the days that followed. They routinely set-up camp each evening, weary as much from internal conflict as from the hard physical aspect of life on the road. They shared wordless meals, each lost in private thoughts that were too painful to share. Gabrielle lost weight, her body giving away the stress and guilt she harbored in her soul.

By the time they reached the Amazons, she was a walking mess. She was sick with worry over Hope, thinking surely her child was dead, and that it was her fault. She and Xena were still healing from the deep wounds that resulted from the warrior's abandonment of her in a shipyard, and Gabrielle's resulting betrayal in Chin. Neither knew that the other kept yet one more great horrible secret.

The things that took place in the weeks that followed made everything else pale in comparison. She had never felt as cold before in her life, standing in the light of twin funeral pyres. They had shared so much, but never in her worst nightmares had she ever envisioned that they would share the simultaneous loss of their children. She watched all her hopes and dreams go up with those flames, along with her desire to live. When Xena appeared in the village days later, the horrible atrocities the warrior committed against her barely touched the surface of the pain she already felt.

It was shocking for the Amazons to watch. Gabrielle herself barely remembered it. Xena's confession in Egypt that she was drugged at the time at least explained the severity of the warrior's actions. A part of the bard knew that Xena, in her right and sober mind, would never have dragged her cross-country behind a horse. Even in her shock and grief, as the warrior held her dead son in her arms, she hadn't so much as raised a hand against Gabrielle. Her silence and verbal dismissal were more effective than any slap or punch ever could have been.

No one made Gabrielle poison Hope, at least not technically. There were so many reasons she took it upon herself. She finally understood what Xena had seen all along, that Hope was evil. It was incredibly difficult to admit that a child you gave birth to was evil, but seeing what Hope had done to Solan opened her eyes in the most painful way possible. Part of her knew that if she didn't eliminate Hope, Xena would. So she did it. She did it to somehow begin to atone for what she saw as her own sins. And she also did it, she realized, to spare Xena the task.

They parted ways, each to deal with their grief and loss alone, in their own manner. Gabrielle took refuge in a silent extended self-imposed stay in an Amazon purification hut. Xena set off on a self-destructive path that took her to the top of a mountain where she wailed her heart out, followed by an extended stay in a flophouse where she smoked ground-up colitas to dull the ache. Finally, she returned to the village. Xena told her later that she didn't even remember traveling to the village, how she got there, or what she intended to do when she arrived.

Well, Gabrielle remembered sadly. At least she didn't plan to kill me in advance. Somehow, a crime of passion was more acceptable than cold calculated murder.

The bard reflected that if not for the miracle of Illusia, she would have died, one way or the other. The method was almost inconsequential, whether it be a brutal painful death at Xena's hands, or a slow wasting away in the Amazon village, a victim of her own unstoppable grief. She was just as certain that Xena would be dead by now as well, if not for the intervention of powers greater than themselves.

Time and miracles. And love. Those were the things that carried them through the storm and back to a place that was more solid than she had ever dreamed possible. She didn't dwell on it very often, and neither did Xena. So much had happened since, that it seemed like two different people, in another lifetime. True, she knew they would revisit that place from time to time, most likely for the rest of their lives. But that didn't happen very often anymore, and usually only when some specific incident triggered it, like two missing Amazon children.

"Queen Gabrielle?" Kallerine's tentative voice drew her back to the fireside. "Are you okay?" Dark clouds filled the green eyes, and a sad beauty came over the bard's fair features.

"Yeah." Gabrielle slowly shook her head, clearing her morose thoughts. "Sorry. Just thinking."

Hazel eyes met her in silent understanding. Kallerine and Gabrielle had never discussed Hope or Solan, or any of the things that happened right there in their village. Kallerine was not a part of the Amazons when Hope killed Solan, but almost everyone in the village had heard the stories, although no one ever spoke of them in the queen's or Xena's presence. Many marveled that Xena and Gabrielle were together at all, much less that after all they had been through, they could be so deeply in love with each other.

"You look tired. Perhaps you should try to get some sleep." The slayer stood, taking Gabrielle's empty cup and placing it next to hers on the table.

"I am tired." The bard slid from her seat on the hearth, and stretched. "Goodnight, Kallerine."

"Goodnight, Gabrielle." Kallerine watched thoughtfully, as the queen made her way to the bedroom, her shoulders slumped in a defeated posture.

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Damn. The warrior walked in a wide circle, trying to find the two pairs of small footprints she had been following for over two candle marks. How could two little girls get so far so fast? she groused, negligently flicking her wind-tossed cloak into place on her shoulders.

It had been slow going. Finding the pair of tracks was easy enough. Sticking with them proved to be much more difficult. The constantly blowing north wind occasionally erased the prints in the snow. Each time this happened, she had to begin making a slow methodical circle, expanding further and further out in all directions until she picked up the trail again.

The girls, blessedly enough, seemed to be sticking to an actual footpath through the woods. They did periodically stray off to one side or the other to investigate various items and animals. Their side trips actually made the warrior smile more than once. Among the objects of their curiosity were a large bush covered with beautiful wintergreen berries, a small nest of sleeping rabbits that were tucked into a niche in a rocky wall, and a tall tree they apparently tried to climb, two sizeable indentions in the snow evidence of a failed attempt. Along the way were snow-angels, as well as evidence of a few snowball fights.

She stopped, placing her hands on her hips and closing her eyes. Her nostrils flared, sniffing the air. The air was almost void of scent, save the sweet smell of some of the evergreens that were mixed in with the winter-bare deciduous trees. She cocked her head, listening for anything at all.

Ahhh. She was drawing near to the crystal cave where she had proposed to Gabrielle, and the faint sound of the waterfall reached her ears. Even the freezing temperatures didn't stop the powerful flow of water as it plunged from atop a high cliff. Wonder if they might have gone to look at the ice formations?

She and Gabrielle had trekked to the pond once since they returned from Lesbos. The pond was beautiful in winter. The smooth surface was frozen, but the water underneath still flowed, eventually exiting into a slow-moving creek. However, the ice and cold made for sluggish outflow, and the waterfall filled the pond faster than it could empty itself. This resulted in some fantastic and unusual ice formations that built up in slopes and twists near the waterfall, especially as the mist from the falls met the cold air radiating off the pond's surface.

She and Gabrielle had observed the winter wonderland until they were too cold to stay any longer. The bard wrote several poems about it when they returned to their hut that evening. If the mysterious beauty appealed to two adults, she could only imagine what magic it must hold for two little girls. I'll bet that's where they are.

She left the trail and began picking her way through knee-deep drifts, pushing aside low heavy branches that scraped at her face and neck. Her body itself was completely covered in her winter leathers, a pair of smooth black leather trousers with a matching black leather sleeveless vest. The vest was covered in a light armor of small brass discs that were sewn directly onto the leather. Under the vest she wore a white woolen long-sleeved shirt. Knee-high boots and her usual knee armor completed her clothing. Black leather gloves covered her hands, and over all she wore the warm thick cloak her mother had knitted. Her head was bare, unless she chose to draw up the hood on the cloak, which she rarely did.

As she drew closer to the pond, she heard the sounds of childish laughter, and smiled. Bingo. She cleared the trees that surrounded the edge of the pond, and her smile quickly disappeared. The two girls were "skating" along the ice on their suede-booted feet, dangerously close to the falls and the thinner ice that formed a deceptive cover for the far end of the pond. It was obvious they were trying to get as close to the frozen mist sculptures as they could.

"Hey!" She yelled sharply, and broke into a run, reaching the edge of the ice on the far side from the girls. "Get away from the falls. Drop to your knees and crawl back to me as slowly as you can." Her voice carried through the cold crisp air, more loudly than it would have in summer.

One young Amazon immediately obeyed her, her contrite countenance visible across the distance between them. The other girl, however, became frightened, and moved closer to the falls. Xena grimaced, as sure enough, the girl broke through the thin barrier and plunged into the icy water, her head disappearing below the surface as she screamed.

Damnitalltohades. Xena quickly shed her cloak and dropped her weapons. Without further thought, she sprinted across the pond, her footing sure and steady even on the slippery surface. She paused long enough to hoist the remaining Amazon from the ice, tossing her onto the safe snowy bank several feet away. "Don't move," the warrior growled, allowing her eyes to communicate that she wasn't kidding.

She tensed in anticipation, even as she leaped through the air, her body forming a perfect arc before it sliced through the water. It took her breath away. Her head broke the surface and she gasped for a moment, getting her bearings. Great gods. Nothing could ever prepare her for cold that intense. It cut through her like sharp knives, stilling her blood and robbing her of thought for a split second.

With one more breath she was gone again, plunging beneath the ice, her keen eyes searching in all directions for the missing girl. She looked down and spotted the small body, suspended in the murky depths near the pond's floor. Xena dove straight down, her strong arms pulling her quickly to her goal, as she grasped the girl around the waist. The warrior's feet touched bottom and she crouched down, pushing off and using her legs to propel her swiftly to the surface.

She looked around for the closest exit, and swam underneath the falls, hauling the still form onto the floor of the crystal cave behind the falls. She surged out of the water with a powerful blast, flipping up into the cave and dropping to the ground next to the young Amazon.

The girl's face was completely white and her lips were pale blue. Xena's own body protested greatly at the icy blast of air that pelted her wet clothing. She steeled herself, ignoring her own state and concentrating on the Amazon. She pressed two fingers against the girl's neck, and released a grateful breath when she felt a very faint pulse. That her frozen fingers felt anything at all was nothing short of a miracle.

The girl wasn't breathing. Probably inhaled water. Xena quickly began mouth-to-mouth on the Amazon, her own lips barely functioning as she needed them to in their semi-frozen state. "Come on." She puffed out her cheeks and blew small breaths into the girl's lungs. "Breathe, damn it!" Finally, she was rewarded with a cough and a splutter, as the girl choked up a sizeable amount of water.

Slowly, her deep brown eyes fluttered open. "Wh . . .?" The question died on her lips.

"Shhhh." Xena patted her on the cheek. "Don't try to talk. You almost drowned."

The girl peered at her in total confusion. "Cold." The small body was shivering uncontrollably, her teeth clicking loudly together.

"Hold on." The warrior stood up. "I need to go get my cloak to cover you up with."

She made her way tediously across the slippery ledge that led from the cave to the bank, pressing her back tightly against the wall. She ran to where she left her cloak and weapons, and picked them up. She could feel her wet eyebrows and eyelashes freezing, and she cursed silently. "Hey." She got the attention of the other girl, who stood up uncertainly. "Come around the pond and meet me over by that rock wall. Don't get back on the ice, okay?"

The Amazon nodded affirmatively, and Xena turned, sprinting toward the ledge. The trip back inside the cave was made more tedious with the addition of her weapons and the heavy cloak. She almost lost her footing once, and stopped, taking a breath. She resumed her short journey, and dragged the girl further back into the cave. She removed the girl's wet clothes and wrapped her snugly in the cloak. "I need to go get your friend. I'll be right back."

The girl yawned and blinked absently, before closing her eyes. Xena shook her violently. "Don't you dare go to sleep." She forced eye contact. "You'll freeze to death and not wake up, you hear me?" The girl's face reflected some coherence, and the warrior reluctantly left her again for yet another trip across the icy ledge.

The other Amazon stood at the end, waiting for her. "I’m sorry." The girl looked down, unable to meet her gaze. "We wanted to touch the pretty ice."

Amazons. Xena bit off several choice responses. She's just a little kid for gods' sake. Couldn't be more than about eight summers old. "'S'okay. I need to get you inside the cave until I can get your friend ready to travel back to the village. I can build a fire in there. Does that sound good?"

The girl managed a timid smile. "Yes." She took Xena's hand. "I'm very cold."

A chill racked the warrior's soaked body. "So am I kid. So am I."

They took painfully slow steps across the ledge, the young girl clinging to Xena so hard she was afraid the girl would pull them both into the water. The warrior finally picked her up and carried her the rest of the way across, sighing with relief as they reached the cave floor. She looked around and smiled for a minute. In the corner was a large pile of logs, leftover from the night she and Gabrielle slept in the cave. "Go gather some of those logs, kid, while I tend to your friend here."

After a while, a fire was blazing in the center of the cave. Teresta, the girl that had almost drowned, was resting close to the warmth, still wrapped in the warrior's cloak. Anika, the other girl, hovered close by her side, keeping watch over her cousin and making sure she stayed awake, per Xena's instructions. Teresta's clothing was hung up in various spots in the cave to dry. Anika was the only one who had come away from the ordeal completely dry.

Across the fire, a shivering warrior sat, her knees drawn up to her chest and her arms wrapped around them. She had taken off the sodden leather vest, but remained in her pants and the wool undershirt, deciding that wet clothes were more protection against the frigid air than her bare skin. Chill after painful chill coursed through her body, and her jaw ached with her effort to get warm. She barely felt the heat radiating from the crackling flames, although her feet were so close they were practically in the bed of coals.

Well, she mused. I've certainly seen better times in this particular location. She looked around the cave, her eyes growing soft at her memories. She proposed to Gabrielle in the cave, down on her knees, her heart trembling in anticipation. The bard's joyous tearful acceptance was still etched firmly in her mind's eye. Afterward, they made love, the roaring of the falls and the beauty of the crystals enhancing their time together. Gabrielle, I'd give almost anything right now for it to be summer and you to be here with me.

A rolling thunder shook the rocky foundation, and brought her back to the present. No. Her eyes grew wide. "I'll be right back." She stepped onto the ledge and crept out until she could see the sky. Damn, damn, damn! Can this day get any worse? Overhead was a thick blanket of snow clouds, the first small flakes already floating lazily to the ground. Even as she observed it, the snow grew thicker, and she watched in disbelief as the storm blew in with a force quicker than she could recall any other time that winter.

She was angry with herself on several levels. I can't believe I wasn't paying better attention to the weather. She moved back into the cave and sat down in a huff. Here I am . . . she eyed her surroundings. One frozen water flask, a completely wet healer's kit, a half-drowned kid, another half-frozen one, and absolutely no provisions. She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, which had throbbed dully since she first dove into the water. At least we have enough wood to last a while.

The two girls watched her in frightened silence. She looked up. Gods. Now I've gone and scared them. "Um . . . looks like a little blizzard has blown in, so we're probably stuck here for the night."

"Oh." Anika chewed her lip thoughtfully. "What will we eat for dinner?"

Xena forced herself to remain patient. She nodded her head toward the water. "Fish."

"Oh." The young Amazon digested the information and looked carefully around the cave. "What are you gonna catch them with?"

The warrior's whole body groaned in protest, as the obvious answer formed on her lips. "My hands."

Anika tilted her head to one side, taking in the warrior's long frame, studying the strong capable hands. "I am kind of hungry."

Xena continued to shiver, as she stood up. "Guess I could catch them now, huh?" She gulped in some air and forced herself to the edge of the cave floor, where it met the water. "Hey, if I take off my clothes, can you hang them real close to the fire while I fish?"

"Sure." Anika watched, as the warrior shucked her leathers and the top, tossing them across the cave toward her.

"Back in a bit." Xena peered at the falls for a long moment, and then dropped into the water with resignation. Her body once again rebelled at the icy onslaught, but this time she grew numb much quicker. Not a good sign, she shook her head, her partially frozen hair crackling against her scalp. Might as well do this while I'm already wet and freezing to death. She ducked under the water and disappeared from sight.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It wasn't, she reflected, the most miserable moment in her life. I've had worse. Much worse. I ran the gauntlet. Was crucified twice. Had both legs shattered. Been betrayed and hunted down more times than I care to recall. Hades, I've died twice. What's a little ice water?

She thought about that, as she watched the two sleeping Amazon girls on the other side of the fire. They were snuggled together under her cloak, oblivious to the storm that raged in full force on the other side of the waterfall. Their bellies were contentedly full of fish. She'd managed to construct a spit and cooked her catch quite simply, with no spices, plates or eating utensils. A flat rock had served as a makeshift platter, and they ate the flaky white morsels with their bare hands.

She was so cold. Her clothing had freeze-dried, but her body was chilled to her very core. The fishing trip was a necessary evil, and she was paying dearly for it. The fire didn't seem to help at all. She could feel an uneasy heaviness settling into her chest, and she prayed they would get back to the village before the full-blown consumption set in.

The fire crackled, and outside, the wind played a wild symphony of whistles and moans, along with some nerve-wracking shrieks. She moved closer to the flames, her arms wrapped tightly around her legs, which were pulled up against her body. Occasionally, an involuntary shiver wracked her long frame, and she cursed, hoping she didn't have a fever. Her hands were so cold that she couldn't judge her own skin temperature.

The first cough tickled the back of her throat, and she tried to ignore it, without much success. Gabrielle, she mentally addressed her soulmate. I'm going to get home to you, sweetheart, and I'm so glad you know how to take care of me, 'cause I'm going to need some serious attention when I get there. She knew she was a horrible patient. Cheridah, the Amazon healer, threw her hands up in surrender, and had long since given up on trying to give the warrior any advice on health matters, choosing instead to pass along to Gabrielle anything she deemed to be important.

She couldn't remember when her lover had become so proficient in the healing arts. When they first traveled together, she was responsible for caring for both of them if they needed stitching or became ill. Gradually, Gabrielle learned, watching carefully when Xena mixed herbs for fever, coughs, cycling cramps, headaches, or any number of other ailments. At some point, she allowed the bard to stitch her up for the first time.

When was it, anyway? She frowned, trying to remember, momentarily taken away from her current uncomfortable state, which was a good thing. Oh, yeah. It was early in their travels, after a fight with a group of highway marauders. There wasn't anything unique or special about the fight, just one more among many that characterized their life on the road.

She'd been busy fighting off one thug, and another got inside her defenses and managed to strike her on the back with his sword. Luckily, she'd sensed him at the last minute, and moved away, avoiding a fatal blow. Still, the blade sliced her cleanly across her back, just above her leathers, in a spot she could neither see nor reach.

She didn't even realize she'd been cut at first. It was the warm trickle of blood between her shoulder blades that clued her in. A queasy-looking Gabrielle confirmed the severity of the situation, and timidly offered to sew her up. She still didn't know what possessed her to agree. They could have ridden into the next town and gone to a healer.

Maybe she was just tired. Maybe she had lost just enough blood to not be thinking clearly. Or maybe, just maybe, it was the eagerness to please in those green eyes that had caused her to consent. The gentle touch of the bard's hands on her skin had surprised her. It was, she remembered, almost pleasant, with Gabrielle talking quietly to her, trying to distract her from the tiny annoying pokes of the needle and the sting of the cleansing herbs that she liberally applied to the wound. It had ended with a light trailing of the bard's fingertips across her upper back. She knew then she was in trouble. She had enjoyed the experience way too much.

She remembered turning around and looking into a very anxious and very girlish face. Gabrielle's long brown skirt was splattered with her blood, and her blue top clung to her sweaty body. It was her eyes, though, that drew the warrior in. Those eyes conveyed that every fiber in the girl's body was on edge, waiting to hear that she had done a good job. And she had.

Xena recalled carefully rolling her shoulders and nodding with approval. She couldn't remember exactly what she said, probably only a few words, "nice work," or something equally short and to the point. That was all it took. The smile started with a slight quivering of full lips, and slowly spread until the green eyes sparkled, and the bridge of the bard's nose crinkled, something Xena had always found ridiculously endearing.

We've changed so much, haven't we love? Gabrielle was one of the most capable women she knew, fully able to take care of herself, the warrior, and a village full of Amazons. Her lovely soulmate rarely stopped to ask permission anymore. If Xena was sick or hurt, the bard automatically stepped in, administering care without question, no longer seeking approval afterward. Damn. Do I even express my gratitude anymore? Probably not, she chastised herself. She made a mental note to change her habits in that regard.

Another chill brought her back to the present, and a hacking cough tore at her lungs. She groaned and spit into the fire. Her throat was getting sore, and her eyes felt scratchy. The herbs in her healer's kit were useless. They had been soaked during her rescue of Teresta. Mercifully, the girl seemed to be fine.

She lay down on her side, curled up in a fetal position, her head resting on a rock. Thoughts of home, and the fireplace, and their warm feather bed were both soothing and torturous at the same time. She realized that she had come to think of the hut as their home. The inside was a comfortable mix of their combined talents. Xena's carpentry was evident in the well-made furniture, and Gabrielle's eye for decoration added touches of color and beauty, with a bright cushion here and a pastel watercolor there. The painting of the seascape they bought on Lesbos hung over the mantel, a memento of one of the best weeks of their life.

Home.

Such a simple and such a complex word. She had left Amphipolis, thinking she would never belong anywhere again. She met Gabrielle and they began their travels together, spending every night in a different place, never knowing where the next day might find them. One day she looked up, and discovered that home was sitting across the fire from her, writing intently in a scroll. Being with Gabrielle, anywhere with Gabrielle, had become her home.

She remembered her last visit to the cave, so warm and loving, and full of promise for the future. So different from this visit. With Gabrielle, it was a place of wonder and magic, the bard opening her eyes to the colors in the crystal, and her ears to the music of the water. Gabrielle had written a beautiful poem for her, on the spot, inspired by the falls and the moonlight. Gabrielle made the cave special. Without her, it was cold and dark and lonely.

I wanna go home.

If she'd said it aloud, it would have been a pathetic whine, and she was ashamed of herself. I sound like a little kid. I must have a fever, she reasoned. The little kid inside whined again, wishing for her soulmate's comforting touch against her forehead, and longing for the soft words she knew Gabrielle would whisper to her as she took care of her. Yeah, her eyes fluttered closed. Gabrielle will make everything okay.

She awoke with a start, confused by her surroundings. After careful observation, she realized that lack of noise, rather than noise had woken her up. The storm had abated, and only the rush of the waterfall remained. The fire was burned almost completely down; only a bed of white-hot coals remained. She forced herself to get up and walk out onto the ledge. A clear star-filled sky greeted her eyes, along with a good two feet of new snow. Great. That's gonna be fun to break a trail through.

She made her way back inside, and gently nudged Teresta and Anika awake. "Get up. We need to go."

Anika blinked sleepily and peered around the still-dark cavern. "It's not daylight yet," she whimpered.

"I know." Xena knelt down. "But the storm stopped. We need to leave now and see if we can make it back to the village before another one starts up."

There wasn't much packing up to do. Soon, they began the long trek through the woods and back to the village. The warrior led the way, cutting a path for her two young charges to follow. The girls were wrapped in their own clothing and cloaks, and additionally were huddled together inside Xena's cloak, which dragged the ground behind them.

The warrior wore her leather pants and vest, and the wool shirt. Gods. She shivered, despite the effort of breaking the tail. She looked up at a blanket of stars that were rather blurry. There was now no doubt that fever had settled in. Hope I make it home without passing out.

Halfway home, Teresta collapsed, too weak to carry on. Xena sighed with resignation, and picked her up, toting her along on her back. Only the thought of resting in her own bed, with Gabrielle snuggled up beside her, kept her going.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kallerine tiptoed into the queen's room and sat down on the edge of the bed, resting a hand on the queen's shoulder. "Gabrielle."

"Huh?" The bard opened her eyes and was instantly awake. She was too worried to sleep very soundly. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing." The slayer smiled. "Xena and the two little girls just got back. She's over in the healer's hut with them right now. Pony came over and told me."

"Is anyone hurt? Do I need to go over there?" Gabrielle sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, leaning over and reaching for her boots.

"I don't think so. Pony said they all seemed fine, just a little cold. I think the healer is just a precaution." Kallerine moved aside, giving the queen room to tie her bootlaces. "Pony said Xena was going to make sure the girls were settled in and then she'd be right over here."

"I’m going over there anyway." The bard stood and slipped into the sitting room, retrieving her cloak from its peg and donning it. She opened the door to find her partner standing there, about to reach for the doorknob. "Xena." She immediately found herself engulfed in a warm hug. Too warm.

She pulled back rested the back of her hand against the warrior's cheek. "Honey, you're burning up." She pulled her willing soulmate into the room, and quickly lit a few candles, the bright flames illuminating a drawn and pale face. "Where's your cloak?" She frowned, moving closer, studying somewhat glazed and vacant eyes. "Xena, you're sick, aren't you?"

"I'll be okay." The warrior shivered. "Just need a warm bed." She smiled tiredly. "And you."

"You need more than that." The bard turned, spotting the slayer hovering in the corner. "Kallerine, go to the dining hall had heat up some of that chicken soup they had at dinner tonight. And make a pot of herbal tea."

"I'll be back as quick as I can." The slayer made a speedy exit, leaving the two lovers alone.

"Xena," Gabrielle drew her partner into the bedroom, gently pushing her down until she was sitting on the mattress. She knelt to remove the warrior's boots. "Honey, these are freezing." She tugged them off, hearing a telltale squishing noise. She felt inside and grimaced. "And they're soaked inside."

"I went swimming?" Blue eyes regarded her carefully, waiting for the deluge of questions that was sure to follow.

"Are you insane?!" Gabrielle stood, and began unhooking the leather vest.

"No." The deep voice rasped, as the warrior managed to keep from coughing. "Well, not any more insane than usual. One of them fell through the ice at the pond by our cave. I had to dive in and pull her out"

"Oh." The bard slid the vest down her partner's shoulders, and began unlacing her wool shirt. "Gods, that's pretty far away."

"Tell me about it." Xena closed her eyes, enjoying the simple attention, and smelling her partner's familiar scent, so close to her face. "You should try breaking a path in three feet of snow from there to here. We had to hole up in the cave when the storm hit. Luckily there was some firewood left from when we were there last."

The bard's eyes grew soft, remembering their time together. She unconsciously twisted the tri-color gold band on her ring finger, and felt long fingers grasp her hand, pulling it upward.

The warrior pressed the smaller hand against her own cheek. "Wished so badly you were there with me. And that it was warm."

"I would have kept you warm." Gabrielle smiled, and gently extracted her hand from her lover's grasp so she could get the damp shirt off.

When the cool air hit her bare skin, a violent shiver shook the warrior's body, and she coughed, doubling over for a few moments until the spell passed. "Can't get warm."

"Xena, you didn't answer me earlier. Where's your cloak?" She helped her partner remove the leather pants, and quickly pulled a warm long-sleeved sleep shirt over her head, carefully plucking the long dark locks out of the collar.

"In the healer's hut. When Teresta fell through the ice, I had to take her clothes off and let them dry, so my cloak was the only thing I could wrap her up in. Then later, they were both so cold, I let them sleep under it." The warrior allowed herself to be pushed back, until she was laying down. She felt warm blankets being tucked around her, and sighed with relief.

Gabrielle sat down on the edge of the bed, reaching out and stroking the dark head. "So if I'm understanding you correctly, you've been in a cave, in cold wet clothes, with no cloak, for most of the night?"

"Not the whole time." Xena murmured, letting the comforting touches soak into places that drove the chill away. "I took my clothes off when I went fishing."

"But." The bard stopped. She didn't take any food with her. "So you went back into the water to catch fish? Gods, Xena. No wonder you're sick"

"We had to eat." The warrior tilted her head, giving her partner her most charming look. "It wasn't that bad, really."

"Uh-huh." Gabrielle shook her head knowingly. "I'm going to go mix up some herbs for fever and consumption, and I'll be right back."

"Okay." The blue eyes fluttered closed.

After a round of herbs, and a quick meal of soup and tea, Xena finally felt her partner crawl under the covers with her. "Come here." A lazy grin graced her lips. "Warm me up." Long arms engulfed the bard, pulling her tightly against the warrior's body.

Gabrielle turned in her arms, facing her. She felt her forehead and smiled, just a little. The fever had gone down some. "How do you feel?" She pushed a lock of hair behind Xena's ear.

"Getting warmer." Xena smiled. "There was a while in the cave when I thought I'd never be warm again." She studied the green eyes, so full of love and concern. No one ever looked at me the way she does. She pecked her lover's forehead. "Thank you."

"For what?" Gabrielle basked in the attention.

"For taking such good care of me. And for helping me get home."

"Honey, I didn't help you get home." She must still be confused from the fever. "I wasn't even there."

"You . . ." The warrior touched the tip of her nose. " . . . are always with me. Thinking of you and our home was what kept me going."

"Oh." Gabrielle's eyes shone, and her cheeks blushed prettily. She called it our 'home.' The bard curled into the long body, resting her head on a broad shoulder, feeling long arms settle possessively around her. "Glad I could help out."

A soft brushing of lips against fine blonde hair was her response. This. The warrior relished the familiar sensation of the body in her arms. Nothing is ever going to separate me from this. M'Lila's words came back to her. 'Gabrielle is your way.' I dragged her around the world on my half-crazed quest for redemption, she mused. I didn't have to go anywhere. It was right her next to me all that time.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The body behind her thrashed fitfully, and unintelligible words were mumbled just inches from her ear. Gabrielle carefully pried a long arm from around her waist and pulled away, rolling over and sitting up. Xena was trembling and her lips twitched, fighting demons in her sleep. "Xena, honey . . ." She gently nudged the curve of a hip.

"Huh?" The warrior sat up. "What?" Confused blue eyes darted around, finally coming to rest on the bard, who was immediately recognizable, even in the darkness. Xena's teeth chattered. "So cold."

"Shhhh. You were having a bad dream." Gabrielle drew her into her arms, stroking a head full of damp hair, which rested against her shoulder. "Honey, I think your fever broke. You're soaking wet. Let me get you a fresh sleep shirt."

The bard quickly retrieved a clean shirt from the bureau and returned to the bed. She pulled the crumpled one over Xena's head, reaching out to stroke the clammy skin in a comforting gesture, as she settled the fresh one into place. "There. How's that?"

"Thirsty." Xena pouted, swallowing audibly.

Oh. Someone's actually feeling a whole lot better. "Here." She grabbed a leather flask from the bedside table. "I put this here just in case." She tilted the spout down to Xena's lips, listening to her partner's thirsty gulps. "I should give you another dose of herbs while you're awake."

"Don't need more herbs." The warrior flopped back down on the bed, crossing her arms defiantly.

"Xena, honey." Gabrielle twitched the shirt collar into place and tugged the covers up, tucking them around the long body. "Please, just one more dose for me?"

Blue eyes blinked in the darkness, catching a glint of moonlight from the window. "For you?"

"Yeah." The bard traced a surprisingly cool cheekbone. "Just for me."

"Okay." The warrior reluctantly reconsidered. "But I don't really need them."

"I know you don't, but it'll make me feel better if you take them anyway." Gabrielle was already mixing the finely ground leaves into a cup, pouring some water from the flask over the mixture. She stirred the concoction and helped her partner sit up. "Hold your breath and swallow it down."

Xena complied, her nostrils flaring at the sharp unpleasant scent that assaulted her nose. "Uggh." She swiped her hand across her mouth. "I hate that stuff."

The bard bit off a chuckle. She probably created it in the first place. She put on her most sympathetic face. "Yeah, it's pretty bad, huh?"

"You got that right." The warrior slowly sunk down into the mattress. She watched her partner set the empty cup back on the table. Gabrielle slipped back under the covers, snuggling up against her once more, allowing Xena to rest in her embrace for a change.

"Sorry," the deep voice rasped.

"For what?" The bard ran her fingers lightly up and down Xena's arm, feeling the fine hairs against her fingertips.

"For being such a rotten patient." Xena was silent for a long moment, and Gabrielle thought she had fallen asleep. She jumped a bit when the warrior spoke again, this time much more softly. "Don't know why you put up with me sometimes. Can't be much fun for you."

"Xena." Warm lips brushed across the warrior's head. "I'm not in this to have fun, and I'm not in it only for the good times. I decided, a long time ago, that I was in this for the long haul. So when you're sick, or hurt, or you're just having a really miserable day, I'm still going to love you just as much, if not more."

"Why more?" The voice grew quiet, almost hesitant.

"Because when you're feeling yucky and unlovable is when you need love the most." Gabrielle's sensible voice settled over her.

The warrior felt it, taking hold of her heart and somehow pushing the tightness in her lungs, and the scratchiness in her throat away from her conscious thought, if only for a little while. She concentrated on the love that radiated from her partner, and felt her body slowly relax. She wanted to stay awake and continue to absorb it, but her body had other ideas, and she was soon fast asleep, cradled in the arms of the only one she would ever allow to see her in such a vulnerable state.

Morning found her feeling much better, and she awoke to find the other side of the bed empty. She frowned, and grasped a piece of parchment that rested on Gabrielle's pillow. The frown turned to a smile, as she read it:

Xena - I've gone to check on the two girls and to get breakfast. Don't you dare get out of bed, no matter how good you feel. You need to take it easy this morning. Okay? Please? I'll be back soon. Love you - G

"Hmmppph. Think I'll get in trouble if I take a nice hot bath?" Trouble heard her name and thought she was being spoken to. She jumped from the rug up to the bed, crawling gracefully across the blankets and ducking under the covers to curl up in the crook of Xena's knees.

"Meow?" She nudged the olive skin, tickling the warrior with her long whiskers.

"Hey." She tried to sound annoyed, but truth be told, she secretly enjoyed the feline's attention. Gabrielle tried to explain to her that the surest way to get an animal to pay attention to you is to ignore it. So far she had been right.

Trouble came and went from the hut to the community stables, where her brood of half-grown kittens lived. It seemed to Xena that every time she was in the stable anymore, she found her feet surrounded by small furry creatures, all anxious to play with her bootlaces while she tried to work. Even Argo and Star seemed to mock her. The more she pretended not to notice the kittens, the more they wanted to play, until she usually gave in and flopped down in the hay to give each of them a scratch or to tantalize them with some odd piece of leather string. It was at these times that she could swear she saw Argo roll her eyes at her. Her biggest fear was that Eponin would catch her someday, and she'd never hear the end of it.

"So what do you think, huh?" She snatched the cat, hauling it around in front of her and tucking it against her stomach. "Think a bath is safe enough?"

"Not the way you like to take them." Gabrielle rounded the corner with a tray of breakfast. She set it down on the bedside table and moved right next to the bed, placing her hands on her hips.

"What do you mean by that?" The warrior's eyes grew wide in feigned innocence and she looked up, as one hand snaked out and she traced the curve of her partner's calf through her tights. "Hmmm?" The fingers danced higher, circling a kneecap and brushing against an inner thigh.

"Xena!" Gabrielle shrieked with laughter, as the warrior suddenly changed tactics and snagged both legs, pulling her onto the bed in a tumbled heap. "Aaaagghh . . ." The bard tried to wriggle away, as Xena launched an all-out tickle assault.

After a brief struggle, Gabrielle found herself laying on her back, straddled by a decidedly healthy looking warrior. Blue eyes smiled at her, and Xena reached out, drawing one finger in a line from the bard's ear all the way down to the first button of her tunic. "Wanna take a bath with me?" One black eyebrow arched in question.

"I . . . um . . ." Gabrielle felt her own skin heating up, and she shook her head to clear it. "Tell you what." She rose up, sitting back on her elbows. "I'll make a deal with you." She rested the back of her fingers against the warrior's forehead, checking for fever. She pursed her lips. Still a little warm.

"I’m listening." The alto voice drew out the phrase, Xena having already decided to go along with whatever her partner had in mind.

"You and I eat this nice breakfast I brought over while it's hot, and then you take another dose of herbs." She watched the tanned face scowl, and she smiled. "Then I'll take a bath with you. Okay?"

"Oh, okay." Xena smiled at her and rolled away, grabbing the pillows and arranging them so that they could stay in bed and recline against them while they ate.

"That was too easy." Gabrielle eyed her suspiciously. "What gives?"

"Well, I am hungry, which is a good sign." Xena watched as her partner lifted the tray and sat it down between them. "But I can tell I've still got a touch of fever, so I was planning on taking some herbs anyway."

"Fine." The bard huffed playfully, her smile belying her attitude.

Half a candle mark later they were both soaking in the tub, when Kallerine entered the hut and stood hesitantly outside the bathing room door. "Queen Gabrielle, when you're done with your bath, I have a message for you."

"It's okay, Kallerine, you can come in." The bard was reclined back against her partner, enjoying a rare moment of complete solitude. They had said few words during the bath, soft touches and gentle kisses speaking volumes. Xena wasn't up for anything beyond the innocent snuggling, but seemed to desperately need some kind of contact. Gabrielle had chosen not to question her just yet, assuming it had something to do with her time in the cave, and that the warrior would share it if, and when, she was ready to.

The slayer stepped inside the doorway. She was always cautious when interrupting the queen and her consort, ever mindful of their need for privacy. "The outer watch stopped a traveler on the southern path, about half a day's journey out. It's a woman, traveling alone. She said she's from Eire, and she's on her way here to see Xena."

Warrior and bard exchanged a look. Eire? The only person they knew from Eire was Ronan, the captain of the boat they took to Alexandria and back. "Did she say what she wanted?" Gabrielle scooted forward, resting her chin on her forearms on the side of the tub.

"No. All she would say is that she wanted to speak with Xena." Kallerine studied one of the wooden stakes she carried on her belt, tucking it more securely into its leather loop. "They said she's a little thing. They didn't take her weapons. Said she seemed harmless enough, and didn't appear to have any ill intent."

"Black powder can come in small packages." The warrior moved in behind her partner, tucking her chin against the bard's shoulder. "Wonder what she wants? It would take some motivation to be traveling through these parts right now, always having to dodge blizzards."

"Who's escorting her in?" Gabrielle reached for a towel and stepped up and out of the water, wrapping the long piece of linen around herself.

"Pony, of course." The slayer smiled. "She was on her horse and out of here as soon as the first message was relayed in. She was cursing a blue streak, something about how sparse our watch is right now, with it being so cold and all."

"Wonder if I should ride out and meet them?" Xena followed the bard, accepting a towel from Kallerine.

"Xena." Gabrielle turned and looked at her earnestly. "Not a good idea, honey. Your hair is wet and you're just starting to feel better. I'm afraid a trip out in this cold might put you back under again."

"I'll wear my new cloak and keep the hood up." The warrior moved toward the bedroom, picking up her leather pants and vest and shaking them out.

"Xena . . ."

"I'll be fine." Xena tossed the leathers onto the bed and placed both hands on her partner's shoulders. "It's just . . ." She trailed off. Her guts were having a mixed reaction, and she wasn't sure where the emotions were coming from. Part of it, she knew, was curiosity as to what dire situation would compel someone to travel all the way to Greece from Eire to see her during the dead of winter. Part of it was . . . "Nothing good ever comes out of the northlands."

The bard flinched. She remembered a temple, and an alter, and a moment that changed her life forever, costing her a good piece of her soul and almost rending her from everything she held dear. "Maybe this will be something good." Green eyes searched blue, trying to read the warrior's thoughts.

"Maybe." So many things I haven't told her. Still, Eire's a long way from Valhalla. Hopefully this is something different. "It's just that Eire's a little too close . . ."

"To Britannia." Gabrielle finished the sentence for her. "Xena, Hercules killed Dahak. He's dead, isn't he?"

"Dead?" Xena snorted sarcastically. "Since when has that ever stopped any of our enemies?"

"Good point." Gabrielle realized they still had an audience and she turned, managing a smile. "Guess it sounds like we're speaking in code, huh?"

Kallerine had been following the exchange with rapt fascination, and she blushed furiously. "Um . . . no. Well, maybe just a little. Shall I leave now?"

"If you don't mind, send word back that Xena and I are riding out to meet our guest."

"As you wish." The slayer quickly exited the room.

"Xena and 'I' are riding out?" The warrior teased her.

"I can't stay here and wait for you to get back, Xena." Gabrielle dug through the wardrobe, searching for her warmest leathers. "I'd be on pins and needles with anxiety."

"She said half a day out, huh?" The warrior quickly donned her leather pants, a fresh woolen shirt, and her vest. She strapped on some extra armor and reached for her boots.

"Yep." Gabrielle found her own leather pants and vest, dyed a rich chocolate brown. "Shall I go make a lunch to take with us while you saddle the horses?"

"Quarter candle mark?" Xena stood, placing her sword in its scabbard and the chakram on her belt loop.

"It's a date, partner." She snagged the warrior as she was walking out the door, wrapping one arm around her neck and drawing her forward for a brief kiss. She pulled back, reading the uncertainty in the pale eyes. "Xena, whatever it is, we face it together."

"Always." The warrior smiled and kissed her back, then disappeared out the door and across the snow-covered courtyard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Star and Argo picked their way through the deep snow that covered the trail, their breath clouding the air in front of them. They occasionally touched noses conspiratorially, and would attempt to pick up the pace, their hooves prancing daintily in the cold white drifts. Xena and Gabrielle tolerated each round of playfulness for a few moments, before gently reining the mares back in to a more comfortable gait.

"They've been cooped up in the stables for too long," the warrior nodded toward the two heads, just as the horses snorted and broke into yet another dancing trot. "Whoa." She gave a steady tug to the leather reins, feeling Argo's tongue fight the bit before giving in. As the palomino slowed down, Star followed suit.

"We haven't taken them out much this winter, have we?" Gabrielle gave the appaloosa a scratch just under the bridle that crossed behind her elegant ears. Star stretched her neck out, obviously enjoying the attention, as she nickered softly in contentment.

"It's snowed too much." Xena peered up at the clear sky, grateful for the reprieve from blizzards for the short journey. "Guess I need to get them out in the practice ring more often. They're gonna get fat and lazy if I don't."

"Just like me." The bard ruefully patted her belly through the thick wool cloak. "I've done nothing this winter but sit in counsel meetings, sit at my desk to write, and sit at the table to eat. At this rate I'm not going to fit into my ceremonial leathers for our joining."

"We can always make you some new ones." The warrior guided Argo closer to Star, studying her partner's downcast head. "Gabrielle?"

"Just don't want you to lose interest in me." Two shy green eyes blinked uncertainly. "Trade me in for a thinner model."

"Never." Xena reached out, grazing her fingers along her partner's cold red cheek, one of the few patches of skin exposed to the elements. "You are, and always will be, the most beautiful woman on earth to me. I want you to be healthy, Gabrielle. I don't care if you put on a few extra pounds. I . . . sometimes felt bad when we were on the road. You always seemed so hungry. In the winter, especially, when it was so cold we had to share a bedroll to stay warm . . . I'd snuggle up to you, and I swear I could count your ribs, even under your thickest wool shirts. I remember . . ." She trailed off, shaking her head slowly at her memories.

"Remember what?" The bard encouraged her to continue.

"I . . . would go hunting, and pickings were so scarce, especially up in the mountains in the winter. Sometimes, if no rabbits or deer could be found, if I could only find nuts for us to eat, I'd stay away a long time. Then I'd come back and tell you I'd already eaten my fill on the way back to camp." A sad smile played at her lips. "Made me feel better to see you get your belly full of whatever I had found."

"Xena?" Gabrielle waited until the blue eyes met her gaze. "Are you telling me that you went without anything and gave me all the nuts you found?"

"Sometimes, yes." Xena reached down, idly playing with the fringe on a saddlebag.

"Xena, that's just . . ." The bard moved closer, grasping the fidgeting hand. ". . . my heart hurts, thinking about how hungry you must have been."

"Hunger pangs were a lot less worse than thinking you might go to sleep with an empty stomach." She squeezed the smaller hand. "Anyway, this winter, it's been so good to see you get as much as you want to eat. So don't you worry about the way you look. It's no secret that settling with the Amazons has taken some getting used to, but if it means you're healthier and more comfortable, and I don't have to worry about you as much, it's worth every bit of the adjustment period I've had to go through."

"Has it been that hard?" Gabrielle knew her partner didn't always like being around the Amazons, and she had seen the warrior's jaw clench on more than one occasion, as Xena fought to control her reactions to the often childish antics of the women they shared the village with, especially some of the younger ones.

"At first it was." Xena peered off into the distance, choosing her words carefully. "You're not the only one who's afraid of getting soft. I was always proud of the fact that most of my adult life I lived off the land,, slept under the stars on the hard ground, and relied on no one but myself to make my way in this world. Once I met you and we had traveled for a while, I honestly never thought I'd live under the cover of a roof again, other than the occasional inn."

"I miss being out there, sometimes." Gabrielle smiled fondly.

"I do and I don't," Xena declared, much to her partner's surprise. "I liked the solitude at night, and in the mornings, more than anything. I think I liked my time alone with you most of all." Blue eyes twinkled fondly at the bard. "I think the biggest adjustment has been sharing you with the Amazons. And being part of a bigger community than two people. It's . . . been good for me, I think."

"How so?" Gabrielle cocked her head in question. She's just full of new revelations today.

"For the longest time, all I saw in my future was fighting. I thought I'd always be a warrior." Long fingers trailed absently along the rim of her chakram. "But being with the Amazons, I've been able to see myself in other roles. Teaching the tracking classes, training horses, helping out with odd jobs around the village, I think for the first time since Cortese attacked Amphipolis, I've actually been able to imagine a future when I might not be a warrior anymore. Granted, fighting and Amazons seem to go hand-in-hand, to a certain extent, but maybe someday I can lay down my sword after all, have a normal life . . . I wish . . ."

The wistful look on her partner's face made Gabrielle's heart clench in her chest, and she felt a tight band that was always a prelude to tears. She swallowed and ran her thumb across the back of the sturdy hand. "What do you wish, love?"

Xena kept her eyes straight ahead, her jaw working as she struggled to articulate her feelings. "I wish that when we have children . . . wish they might be able to think of me as someone honorable. I'd . . . like to be someone they could be proud of," the deep voice whispered.

Oh, Xena. Someday, I hope she sees even half of what I see when I look at her. The bard blinked back a few tears that surfaced after all. "They will be. Xena, the people that matter, we're all proud of you. Your mother, Toris, and especially me. The people that know you . . . know who you are now . . . we don't see you as you were. We see you as you are now . . . one of the most giving, unselfish, bravest people on earth. There's no one I could ever be more proud of. And no one I'd rather raise children with."

She watched, as the warrior's throat muscles moved. Xena looked down for a moment, and closed her eyes. Wish I could believe that. She slowly turned her head to face her partner. "Thanks. Hope I can live up to all of that." She managed to smile, but it was short-lived, as a hacking cough racked her body. She bent over, catching her breath. Damn. Her ribs hurt from coughing during the night. She'd been hopeful that she was recovering, as most of the morning her chest had felt clear. Now . . . she could feel the tale-tell tightness as she drew air into her lungs, and detected just the faintest wheeze. Not good.

Gabrielle frowned. "Pull up right next to me." Xena sighed and complied, watching as her partner removed one glove, and then she felt the light pressure of Gabrielle's hand against her forehead. "Xena, you're warm again. How do you feel?"

"I'm fine," she groused. "Just a little tickle in my throat, that's all."

"That was no tickle." The bard reached around behind her and retrieved a flask. "Here, drink."

"I've got water." Xena found the flask pressed into her hand anyway.

"Not this kind of water." Gabrielle's tone was no-nonsense. "I mixed it up when I made our lunch. It's got the herbs for fever and coughing in it."

"My head gets all fuzzy," the warrior argued. "Not a good idea on the road. My reflexes aren't as sharp."

"Xena, it's the dead of winter. There's a good two feet of snow, even on the trail. It's piled even higher in the trees. No one is going to attack us out here. Pony's between us and whoever's traveling to meet you, so anyone that tries to get to us has to get through her first. Now, unless you're afraid you're going to fall off Argo, please, drink the herbs. It's bad enough that you're out in this cold damp air. It can't be good for your lungs," the bard pleaded.

"But . . ."

"No arguments. Just drink." Gabrielle drummed her fingers on her saddle, her temper rising. I swear she acts like a toddler when she's sick.

The warrior sighed in resignation, and tilted the flask up, taking several healthy swallows. She recapped the flask and slung it over her saddle horn. "There." She raised one eyebrow. "Satisfied?"

"Thank you." The bard patted her leg solicitously. "Just want you to get well."

"Yeah." Xena kept up her grouchy faŃade. "Well don't blame me if I do fall off Argo, and you have to figure out how to get me back up here."

"No worries," Gabrielle gently teased. "I'd just go get Pony and she'd help me get you back up there."

The warrior grimaced, picturing the scenario, and the endless harassment she would get from the weapons master. She scowled, and unconsciously gripped Argo's sides more firmly with her thighs. Her lips twitched, as Gabrielle began to laugh, and finally, she was forced to join in. "Thanks for looking out for me." Xena bestowed her partner with a genuine smile.

"Somebody has to." The bard winked at her, and then turned, the crunching noise of footsteps in the snow catching her attention.

Xena's eyes were already gazing down the road, her attention firmly focused on the next bend. She detected the distinct sound of two sets of horse's hooves. As they rounded the curve, she spotted Pony on her own black stallion, along with a stranger next to her, a small person astride a large bay. "Must be our visitor." She squinted, trying to make out the woman, but she was too bundled up for the warrior to see the details of her face.

Finally, they drew within fifteen paces. The stranger tossed her dagger into the snow and jumped down from her horse, clasping her hands above her head in the Amazon peace sign. She looked up, pale blue eyes falling first on Gabrielle, and then on Xena. "Ma name's Morrigan. I mean ya no harm."

The bard smiled, charmed by the high lilting voice. She dismounted and strode forward, reaching down and retrieving the dagger. She flipped it in her hand, studying the intricate hilt. A funny bronze gargoyle-like face decorated the end of a leather-wrapped handle, which was topped with a bronze scroll that had a horse's head curling up on each side toward a double-edged blade. "Nice." Green eyes smiled. "At ease. I'm Gabrielle, queen of the Greek Amazons. Welcome to our lands." She handed the dagger back.

Morrigan tucked the dagger into a woven leather sheathe, and pushed her hood off her head, revealing short bright red tresses that framed a fair fine-boned face. She was about the same height as the bard, although her much slighter build made her appear to be shorter. She held out her hand, clasping forearms with Gabrielle. "Pleased to make yer acquaintance, Queen Gabrielle."

The bard looked back over her shoulder, where the warrior still sat atop Argo, her cool impassive gaze masking whatever thoughts were hiding behind the blue eyes. "Morrigan, this is my consort, Xena of Amphipolis."

"My, my." Morrigan smiled. She stepped forward. "Hercules spoke fondly of ya, Xena. But 'e failed to mention what a strappin' fine lass ya were."

The warrior blinked, momentarily breaking her concentration. Hercules? "You know Hercules?"

"Aye. I more than know 'im. I'll be forever in 'is debt." The redhead's face grew serious. "He saved ma life. Or more accurately, ma soul."

That makes two of us. Xena managed to keep her surprise under the surface. Then she remembered. Ronan, the captain of their boat to Alexandria, had mentioned Hercules, and a woman from Eire. A woman Ronan seemed to think Hercules was in love with. She smiled broadly and swung her leg over the saddle, landing lightly in the snow in front of the redhead. "Any friend of Hercules is a friend of mine." She extended her hand, receiving a hearty handclasp, a much stronger grip than she had expected from the petite woman.

"The sentiment's mutual." Morrigan's gaze turned up, way up, until two pairs of blue eyes met. Something passed between the two women, a silent understanding that defied words. Each instinctively knew that they were looking into the eyes of a kindred spirit.

"So," Xena broke the spell. "What brings you all the way to Greece during the worst winter we've had in many years?"

"I've come to ask ya fer yer help, Xena." Morrigan pursed her lips in thought. "The fate of Eire hangs in the balance." She hesitated, and continued, "Maybe the fate of the whole world."

Warrior and bard locked eyes, sharing mutual apprehension. Gabrielle moved closer, until she stood next to her partner. She peered over Morrigan's shoulder, where a silent Eponin stood next to her horse. The weapons master shrugged, indicating she had no idea what their guest was speaking of.

"Well." Xena felt a chill she was certain had nothing to do with the frigid air. "Why don't we head back to our village, and you can share your story with us over a hot meal."

"Now there's a plan that's music to ma ears." Morrigan stepped back and re-mounted her horse, falling in behind warrior and bard as they turned and headed back toward the village.

Why do I get the feeling our peaceful winter just came to a screeching halt? Gabrielle groaned internally.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

To be continued in chapter 2 . . .

 


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